Puerto Natales Chile
The route to Torres del Paine was a 5 hours, including a border crossing and leavening Argentina again and to go back to Chile and it's side of Patagonia. The countries fought a brief war to determine the boundary. No problems on the Argentina side, but Chile had all passengers exit the bus and pull all the luggage to pass through metal detectors. We arrived late and stayed in a temporary hostel near the bus terminal, then moved to a different hostel near the waterfront, called Hostel Morocho. It was nice but also had a shared bath, a winding creaking stairs. . In these small towns the demands for rooms is very high, especially in launching cities. We discussed our Torres del Paine trip with the host, Alejandro, who told us our 2 day plan was not enough time. We needed another day at least. Thankfully, this hostel had good WiFi, with the pass word “Alejandro 1”, which our host sang to us as would Lady GaGa. Janet got on line to the National Park site, to see if there were openings at the park Refugio. We had purchased these very hard to get tickets before we left the USA. Miraculously, 2 spots had opened and we booked the extra day. In fact two young French girls were at the hostel waiting and hoping to get an opening. Understand that inside park accommodations are dormitories with gender grouped bathrooms. Our 2 spots meant 2 beds were available for an extra day--one more day at the park, one less day at the hostel. Importantly, the host waived his rental day lost since the cancellation policy was “Strict”.
it was also thanksgiving so with the arrangements made we hit the local supermarket and found roasted chicken and sides for our dinner and spend the rest of the day on the phone with friends and family with a little Lions football online.
We left the hostel at 7 am and walked to the bus station paced by a German Shepard all the way, along with some of his canine friends as we went to begin the next adventure.
National Park at Torres del Paine Chile
This national park is designated a UNESCO Biosphere site. The entire park is 181,000 hectares.
The big hit of the park are the 4 granite spires that soar almost vertically 2000 meters above the Patagonian Steppe. These are the Towers, that we do confess cause you pain when trekking the last 1 KM to the base, and most others agreed with us. This was the challenge we wanted. As well, the park displays azure lakes, emerald green forests and roaring rivers. You can view soaring condors and feeding flamingos. You can also experience knock down wing gusts and sudden rain fall. We, Janet and I, both experienced all these things.
For world class trekkers the park is also known for the “W”. This describes the rough outline of the 4 legs of the trails that take you from the Towers to France’s Valley to Grey Glacier. This trek takes about 5 days one way, with 2 camping nights and 3 nights in a refugio. Some world class crazies actually complete the loop, called the “O” circuit which extends from Grey Glacier around the backside of the peaks which takes 7 to 9 days.
We did a very modified “W” which we coined the 3 day “highlight” tour, but it was hard.
We arrive at the entrance of the National Park of Torres del Paine, which means Towers of Pain that I will explain later. We disembark from the bus and go through a four step process to enter the park, literally there are 4 numbered stations that we all must pass through, but there are really no written instructions--it's a game of follow the Q—fill out ID form, pay park fee, show receipt and get park ticket, and then step 4-- watch park safety video. When released you find another Q for a shuttle from the entrance to your lodging destination. They say “ take the red or white shuttle to Centro Refugio or Norte Refugio”. No shuttle is there at the time and no place to buy tickets is designated. For us, finally the red shuttle arrives, the driver says $3,000 each, which we hand to him and he puts in his pocket. Don't care, we are on the bus, but it's weird. We drive for a distance further then I expected and arrive at the entrance building to the Refugio, i.e. rustic shelter. It entrance building is unusual, with earthy architecture and shape, made of grey wood beams that are curved and sides composed of long widows to allow the view. It is modern, but fits into the environment. The lodge aka Refugio, checking-in is a little down the road in another nice modern building that fits well, not really that rustic. . This is Lodge Centro, which has reception, dinning hall, bar, and store. We are assigned to Lodge Norte, beds 53 and 54 in the room called Laguana Paine.
The room has a total of 3 bunks and 6 beds. It also has a modern but earthy style. We decide to take a warm up trek and leave before our bunk mates arrive. FYI, eventually, we meet 4 other women. Frank's the lone guy, who reads in the lounge until the gals are in bed, before he comes in. These gals are very nice. Surprisingly they are all english speakers, two from California, one from South Africa, and one from Vancouver, Canada, who happen to all have been assigned to the same planned tour together with guide.
Warm up trek
We arrived at camp and have only the afternoon to take a warm up trek. We decide to go out 3 hours and then return for a total 6 hour warm up trek. This trek is along the bottom of the “W” from Las Torres lodge toward Los Cuenos. The warm up is for the Torres del Paines trek the next day. At that time of day the paths are lonely, no fellow hikers, and after climbing our first hills we locate a small lake which is surrounded by a marsh. This marsh is full of different birds that are squawking vigorously. We are at a natural rookery. As we walk closer, their agitation grows stronger. We enjoyed the scene but decide to alter course and divert up the hill. We keep trekking and reach a beautiful, extremely long lake that has the azure color we mentioned. It is Lake Nordernskjold and we stopped for snacks at the Mirador. That’s a tongue twister. Both shores of the lake are overlooked by dark stone plateaus which I thought created perfect natural fortresses. I envisioned indigenous peoples defending their camps along the waters edge From the high ground. We kept along the shore for about 3.5 hours and then turned back.
The Big Trek
To my chagrin, I developed a blister on my little toe which was caused by continual downhill pressure as we returned. My fault, I should rearranged my socks sooner and then tightened my boots. I have to fix that issue before the big trek.
That evening we ate dinner across from a very charming young Bostonian couple that are of, you guessed it—Irish descent. Well, all my college roommates were Irish, as are some of my best Livonia friends, so we had some good natured blarney vibes and did we have great fun joking around. The conversation was so easy. More importantly, they had just climbed the Towers and were more than willing to give us some great tips which we used. Climbing to the Towers was the challenge that we sought, but I can tell you we were apprehensive and tried to plan carefully. We were not fearful. With clothing layers laid out, we got up early and dressed, had morning coffee and breakfast snacks at the cabin, packed our trail snacks and lunch, and started out.
We wanted to start early to avoid trail congestion and give ourselves plenty of time to get back and forth. It took about one half hour to reach the trailhead, crossing 2 bridges along the way. From here we divided the trek into 3 parts. The first part was on the up hill climb to gain elevation that was about 5 KM long. This is where we reach the Chileno camping zone which overlooks the Torres River. We had walked alongside the river and crossed over on rickety bridges limited to 2 persons at a time. Many trekkers spend the night in platform tents and start the towers trek from here. One unusual thing was the appearance of a helicopter hovering over the camp and hooking a large net of rubbish to take away. We trekked this part in 1.5 hours, right on the timetable.
Next, we trekked another 3 KM through the forest running beside the river, but turning inward into Ascencio Valley. Here, there was another unusual appearance of a red fox that walked along the trail with us for a bit before prancing off into the brush. This part of the trek took us another 2 hours, a little slower we were. At this point,we reached the Torres camping zone. Before starting the final 1 KM upward, we sat for lunch and water, as our young friends had suggested. Rest a little, eat for energy, and digest, and take a deep breath.
Here comes the pain. This last 1 KM is almost vertical. The is a rock trail. A granite rock trail where some rocks are just a little smaller than the surrounding rocks. The trail is marked by metal steel spikes twisting through the rocks every 20 to 30 feet with a little red paint on the cap. We really needed our hiking poles for balance as we moved one step at a time along a narrow path at a 45 to 60 degree vertical. You almost want to quit you get so tired and sore.
You certainly need to rest, catch a breath and rest the legs. It hard to find a place to stand on this narrow path as others are going up or coming down. We made it up to the Base De Las Torres Lookout in 1.5 hours. That is 1.5 hours to go 1KM, when we had earlier gone 3KM in 2 hours. The course plays a trick on you, by prohibiting you to go over the top of the first ridge surrounding the lake. No, you must trek further around to the side to a another narrow path that allows access to the lake shore and the open view of the 4 spires of granite and the Glacier Torres. The view is spectacular. The crater lake of azure color is surrounded by these granite rocks that run to the shore and upon which you must sit, and want to sit, as you take in the scene and ponder your success. Enjoy the photos. I hope some photos give an idea of the harshness of the last 1 KM.
The next harshness we faced was reversing course and getting down the rock trail. It was really tough. Janet slipped and fell 3 times. She lost her hiking pole once and sports a really nasty bluish black bruise on her hip From that fall. She was hurting the rest of the trek back, but kept on fighting through. We had a lone trip back. Janet’s pedometer indicated we had trekked about 19 miles total that day.
The Final Trek
For our final day we opted for an easier half day trek that started with a boat ride. We had no tickets, just cash. We needed to catch the red shuttle to the Park Entrance. Then we caught another bus to the Salto Grande boat launch. We purchased Catamaran tickets to motor boat across Pehoe Lake to the Paine Grande Ranger Station with 100 other backpackers. We went into the Grande Paine Lodge to get the lay of the land. We had to limit our climb to 3 hours out in order to make the it back for the boat return. We decided to travel the other side of the “W” up to the Grey Glacier Lookout. The trek starts by turning in front of the ranger station and into an ascending valley. It also turns us directly into a steady wind tunnel with gusts, we find out later, of about 40 MPH.
Every step is a struggle, the air is getting colder, and the sky darker. We keep pressing, remarking that we were lucky we are not doing Torres today, and also lamenting that some others we have met are facing that extra obstacle. We reach the first overlook plateau of Grey Lake. It is a bright clear blue, not a milky blue, and the surrounding mountains are dark rock. We decide to push on the the glacier lookout, knowing we cannot make the Grey Glacier base site near the camp ground. We are moving along the shoreline, but the trek is tougher then we thought it would be as the vertical through the forest is demanding. We watch our time. At 3.5 hours out we are still 0.5 to 1.0 hours from the Lookout. We are also tired from yesterday's challenge and the wind here. We agree to find our own plateau and sit for lunch. We find a great spot on the top of a gigantic reddish pink slab of rock forming a cliff at waters edge in a slight dip to shelter us from the wind. We can look back down the lake and see multiple Icebergs floating near the shores on both sides.
We must have picked the ideal spot because other Trekkers came off the pathway and sat up by us. The view, as usual, was very nice. We returned to the lodge experiencing some rain. The wind had died down so we had no tailwind, but luckily no wind pushed rain at our backs either. We got back in about 3 hours, had some hot coffee con Leche and a Snickers Bar. Did I ever tell you that Snickers are usually sold out as it is the backpack kid’s favorite snack. We also saw our French girls from the Pt. Natales Hostel. Good for them, they made it into the park.
We stood in the pouring rain to get on the catamaran. Luckily we had rain gear. In fact, all are warm clothes and storm gear was purchased for the Patagonia area. We didn't need it much, but it's good to have when needed. Heck of a boat ride back. We got the right buses and we were back to our lodge for dinner at 8 PM. What a great 3 days. We will always love the challenge and our accomplishments at Torres Del Paine.
Time to say goodbye to Patigonia and on to Buenos Aires