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Monday, 05 May 2008

Hiking the "W": Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile

Written by Alison Aitken
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Hiking the W: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile, Chilean Patagonia, hiking Chile, travel south america, travel Chile

 

As the rain hammered against our window and freezing wisps of wintry air seeped through the tin-lined walls of our Puerto Natales hostel, we lay huddled under the thick down duvet quietly questioning our decision to spend three nights camping out in the Southern reaches of Chilean Patagonia. Of course, given that our bags had been packed and repacked, equipment hired and bus tickets bought, there really was no going back. Come 6am, we were scurrying around the dimly lit room looking for odd socks and anything else that might have fallen under the bed, before dashing outside to board the waiting bus.

 

Hiking the W: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile, Chilean Patagonia, hiking Chile, travel south america, travel ChileThree hours later, we were deposited at the Western edge of Torres Del Paine national park, an enormous expanse of UNESCO acknowledged biosphere reserve encompassing glaciers, grassland, forest and mountains. In peak season, this hikers’ paradise sees thousands of visitors ferried across the sapphire expanse of Pehoe Lake and into the heart of the park. It is from here at the Paine Grande Hosteria that many commence their journey along the “W” trail, a 70km odyssey through a kaleidoscopic range of spectacular vistas. Whilst the onset of low season meant we would avoid the hiking hordes, it also meant that many of the usual campsite facilities were closed. Additionally, the ferry does not operate, so we would have to carry our tents and all of our food an additional 17km to the Paine Grande starting point.

 

As luck would have it, Zeus and Aether crowned our first day with dazzling sunshine. After some frantic rummaging through overstuffed backpacks, pessimistically buried sunglasses were retrieved and donned. After an initial pause to take in the humbling panorama of the snow-capped Paine massif etched against crystal blue skies, we quickly struck out towards it. Scarves and sweaters were soon being peeled off as we joyfully strode across the rippling yellow grasslands, past grazing herds of thick-pelted Patagonian horses and into the wilderness.

Hiking the W: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile, Chilean Patagonia, hiking Chile, travel south america, travel Chile

The scenery was truly breathtaking and the walking was thoroughly enjoyable. We felt a little like Tolkien’s Hobbits at the start of their quest – fresh, well fed and excited, but also a little wary of the challenge ahead. The unpredictability of the local microclimate is legendary, and in spite of our best efforts, we were not quite certain of our preparedness.

 

Hiking the W: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile, Chilean Patagonia, hiking Chile, travel south america, travel ChileAfter a brisk 3.5-hour walk, we arrived at Paine Grande. Our intention was to take a brief rest, then continue a further 11km up the track to Gray – a campsite nestled in the shadow of the eponymous glacier. As we approached the lodge, a number of tents nestled nearby came into view. The place was clearly not as deserted as we had been led to believe it would be. Only when we entered the communal cooking lodge, did we learn that most of the tents belonged to a transiting troop of young British soldiers, on exercise from the Falklands. Expecting to be told they’d just come from some off-road adventure in the wilds of the park, I asked them where they’d been.

 

“Camping, next to the glacier”, came the cheerily gruff response. “The rats ate our rations. And it was (expletively) cold”. Resolutely filling our flask with a litre of hot soup, I could only hope that the rats had eaten their fill.

 


 

Hiking the W: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile, Chilean Patagonia, hiking Chile, travel south america, travel ChileCalculating that we had around 3 hours before darkness fell, we set off up the steep rocky track towards the glacier. My legs were definitely beginning to feel a little tired, but what was another 11km? I cheered myself with the thought that we would soon be able to consume some of the weight we were carrying. The half litre carton of cheap Chilean plonk clearly fell into this category. The twists and turns of the path seemed never-ending, and twilight was fast approaching. We made it to the Gray Lake just in time to see the glorious searing pinks and oranges of the sun setting behind distant snowy peaks. As my frigid numb fingers fumbled fruitlessly with camera settings, a curious owl swooped low over our heads, disappearing into the now silhouetted trees. Darkness fell soon afterwards. We continued our trek towards the campsite, now reliant on the cycloptic illumination of our bobbing headlights.

 

Our arrival at the deserted, dark and chilly campsite came as a great relief. We quickly set about erecting our tent and cooking up some delightfully stodgy food to help refuel our weary bodies. In an effort to defeat the notorious rats, we suspended our remaining rations high in the branches of a nearby tree. As this frantic burst of activity petered out into the weary stillness of a long day concluded, our senses pricked in recognition of our unquestionable isolation and the thrilling hugeness of our surroundings.

 

Hiking the W: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile, Chilean Patagonia, hiking Chile, travel south america, travel ChileAfter a restless night that saw rain seeping through the floor of our battered little tent, we woke to the slightly surreal sight of miniature icebergs floating across the surface of the lake, only metres from our pitch. These were mere popsicles in comparison to the formidable expanse of the Gray Glacier, whose pitted surface reached as far as the eye could see.

 

The trail back to Paine Grande seemed longer and more arduous than it had been the day previously. As the weather closed in and our wanderlust faltered, our planned lunch stop back at Paine Grande stretched well into the afternoon. As night fell, we (and a few faltering others) gleefully resigned ourselves to a night of relative comfort. Red wine, cards and ping-pong were the order of the evening.

 

Hiking the W: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile, Chilean Patagonia, hiking Chile, travel south america, travel ChileThe next morning, it was back to business. Soggy socks, cloudy skies and a lot of ground to cover. Fortunately the going was a little easier. After only a couple of hours, we crossed a rather rickety bridge to arrive at Campsite Italiano, a damp and uninviting hollow. The campsite is also the gateway to the central section of the “W” trail – the Valle Francais. To our relief, we had decided to give this now snow covered part of the trail a miss before setting out, and so felt no compunction to explore it any further. Instead, we pushed on through the valley towards Campsite Los Cuernos, where we would spend our final night in the park. The narrow, twisting trail led us onwards beneath the towering mass of the mountain from which condors launched lazy recces into the despondent sky. Other than the rattle of our boots against the gravel pathway, the enveloping silence was only punctured by the eerie sound of snow and ice avalanching down not-too-distant mountainsides.

 


 

As the meagre light began to fade, we were delivered to a beautiful shingle beach, littered with the haunting skeletal forms of silky grey deadwood. The equally picturesque Los Cuernos were not far away. We used what remained of our energy to explore the site - pressing our noses hopelessly against the windows of the definitively shut but nonetheless cosy-looking refugio, before retreating to our austere little encampment among piles of horse dung and boulders. As a result of the wildfire accidentally set by a now infamous Czech hiker in 2005, Los Cuernos is one of the only sites in the park where fires are permitted. After much stoking and blowing we managed to get a carefully supervised bonfire crackling nicely. Steaming socks and gloves soon adorned the fire pit, whilst we and our fellow campers huddled round, stamping our feet in search of warmth. The seemingly relentless drizzle eventually prevailed and as the fire fizzled out we retreated to our tents for another restless night.

 

Hiking the W: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile, Chilean Patagonia, hiking Chile, travel south america, travel ChileWe rose early the following day. The sky had cleared and we stood in shivering awe admiring the lingering stars of the Southern Cross, as the icy ground crunched beneath our boots. A thin layer of snow had settled across the tent, and the landscape had changed once more. The granite stack looming above us was now swathed in snow. We had experienced four seasons in as many days. As we trekked up and out of the camp, picking our way across surging streams and into open land, we found much of the path obscured. Now reliant on a dwindling supply of dried fruit and the listing green markers to guide us, we zig-zagged our way through puddles and around bogs towards our endpoint – the Hosteria Las Torres. From here we hoped to catch a shuttle bus the remaining 7km back to the administration point and the bus back to civilization. Our slightly more determined companions pushed upwards to the Torres campsite, in the hope that the jagged Torres peaks would at some point emerge from the swaths of thick cloud now encircling them.Hiking the W: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile, Chilean Patagonia, hiking Chile, travel south america, travel Chile

 

Using the last of our energy and willpower, we loped across the fields surrounding the plush new resort. Grubby and dishevelled, we stumbled through the empty car park and into the comfortable reception area. We were politely informed by the kind old receptionist that the shuttle too was now finished for the season. Looking at the clock behind him we realized that we had less than an hour to cover the remaining 7km to catch the once-daily bus back to Puerto Natales. Given our depleted food supply, there was no question of wanting to camp out for another night. Horrified but galvanized, we re-shouldered our packs and broke into a trot before even reaching the door. As the minutes sped past and the kilometres did not, our legs slowly turned to lead.

 

Just as it was starting to seem that the maliciously hilly little road was taking us absolutely nowhere, the glorious green tin roof of the administration hut came into view. With a final burst of energy, we bounded downhill, splashing through bogs and streams as we went. Hot showers, soft beds and a cold beer were within reach. As we collapsed onto the steps of the hut, trying to catch our breath, a sturdy little minibus pulled up outside. As we threw our bags into the back of the steamy little vehicle, we were grinning from ear to ear – and already planning a return visit the following summer.

Hiking the W: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile, Chilean Patagonia, hiking Chile, travel south america, travel Chile

©Alison Aitken

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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