The Good, the Bad, and the Muddy
Trip Start Sep 26, 2010
44Trip End Jun 10, 2011
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We flew into into Punta Arenas, "sandy point" in Spanish, named for its beach by an early explorer. We huddled in a small hotel lobby out of the bitterly cold Patagonian wind until we could catch a bus to Puerto Natales, our staging town for Torres del Paine. This was to be our first of many memorable experiences with the Patagonian wind.
We arrived in Puerto Natales after a several hour bus ride across the expansive and flat Patagonian steppe. Puerto Natales is a charming porttown with two town squares and two main streets lined with restaurants, tiny shops, adventure agencies, and bus companies
We prepared to hike "The Circuit," a 75-mile loop around a magnificent rock formation which was formed by a volcanic intrusion. In this type of volcanic activity, the magma flows in between layers of the earth's crust and raises the ground above it. The other type of volcano you may be familiar with is the surface cone in which magma spurts upward from the earth's thin crust (Mt. Saint Helens, Vesuvius, Mt. Kilimanjaro). This volcanic intrusion caused a mountain formation of granite with darker sedimentary rock above it, most of which has been worn away but some of which remains leaving an uncommon and eye-catching formation. We would be hiking around this bulge across valleys, through forests, over a snow-covered pass, past glaciers, and up large valleys. Along the way would be a series of Refugios, Spanish for "shelter," with camping, running water, flush toilets, food for purchase and some with places to sleep. Our plan was to walk from one Refugio to another as we completed our hike around the circuit. With rented gear and rations of peanut butter, chocolate, starches, and oatmeal, we embarked.
Day 1: Las Torres to Seron.
On the bus ride from PN to the park, we still cannot decide whether to start with the front side, the "W" as they call it because of the shape the trails make when viewed from above, or to go around the back side first
Day 2: Seron to Dickson.
We did not realize how good we had it on the first day until we wake up to sprinkling rain and grey skies. We were told two things here: 1) the weather is unpredictable and 2) it's pointless to ask about it. Thinking it might change, we started hiking hoping for blue skies and sunshine. If yesterday was pleasant and windy, today was cold. Bitterly cold. Imagine being cold, as in entire body cold. Now imagine being wet, to the bone. Socks, underwear, everything wet. Now imagine it is raining and very windy
Day 3: Dickson to Los Perros
In the morning our boots, socks, and rain pants were dry and after a good night's sleep we were ready for a new day. If yesterday was wet, today was windy, really windy. Climbing up to a ridge we saw Dickson Glacier, the source of the blue ice yesterday and what we would later learn to be the headwaters of the many blue-green lakes on the front side. We dropped into lush forests out of the wind and crossed many streams, sometimes by rock sometimes by wooden bridge. It was slightly muddy from the rain of the day before but it was comfortable hiking. With dry socks and boots it was easy compared to the day before. Every so often we would glimpse the jagged snowy peaks above, all the while following the orange and yellow trial markers. Near the end, we spied a large glacier and began to climb from the trees onto the rocky moraine and into the katabatic wind. This is not your ordinary wind, this is the Patagonian wind we were warned about. Imagine walking and being unable to look forward because the wind is blowing so hard. It's not uncommon to be walking in the sunshine while being rained upon because the wind is blowing rain from who knows where sideways
Day 4: Los Perros to Refugio Grey.
Some days of hiking are beautifully scenic and easy some days are beautifully scenic and really hard. This one was the latter. Immediately from camp we began to climb. It was not that steep but it was muddy and we were climbing through a thick forest. The trail, where there was one, was either 4" inches of sloppy mud or a tangle of tree roots buried in the same sloppy mud. This trail made the West Coast Trail in Canada look dry. Hiking required concentration with foot placement and despite care, Adar and I both slipped at least once and buried our foot ankle-deep in the cold mud. We cleared the trees after about two hours of uphill muddy torture and spied our next task, a snowy pass. Up, up and up we climbed through the snow until we reached what would turn out to be the first of three false summits. The snow was deep and occasionally you would sink in up to your knees no matter how carefully you placed your steps. Up top it was beautiful with ragged pointy peaks towering above the valley and a view of the bowl that we just climbed out of
We crested the pass and were met with the largest glacier we have ever seen. We were approaching it from the side and in front of us was a huge valley completely filled with ice. Across and up the valley we could see smaller glaciers, large in their own right, flowing in slow motion into the glacier in front of us. A spectacle to see and well worth the hike over the pass. Glacier Grey is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest source of fresh water on this planet next to Antarctica and Greenland. We did not stay long as the wind was strong and bone chilling. From here began the never ending descent. If we thought the hike up was bad, this was three times worse and what seemed like ten times as long. Seriously, this was hard. Partly because it was steep, partly because we were exhausted, we both slipped several times usually with uncomfortable results. The view however was exceptional. To our right was a huge glacier that would glow blue when hit with the occasional sunshine. We intended to camp at Las Guardas, but were cajoled forward by tantalizing tales that it was only another 30 minutes and all downhill to the next camp. This was to become a running joke: no matter who you asked, wherever you were going was always 30 minutes downhill from your current location.
Of course, this was never the case, and after an hour of hiking that included plenty of uphill, we stumbled into the camp at Refugio Grey practically whimpering
Day 5: Refugio Grey to Campimemiento Italiano.
Completely spent, we trekked onward on a clear, windy, and beautiful day. Our circuit crew did not make it into Grey the night before and we felt slightly lonely amongst the more popular and much more crowded front side. We were envious of the W hikers fresh food and felt less camaraderie with these people who chose the easy way. Maybe that is a bit strong, but Circuit hikers are a special bunch and we were proud to be a part of that tough crowd. Upon arrival at the refugio at Paine Grande, we immediately purchased more food and sat down to a tasty meat and cheese sandwich
Day 6: Italiano to Refugio Los Cuernos.
Italiano is situated at the base of the French Valley and is a great starting point for a day hike up the valley. A half day hiking without heavy packs was wonderful! We hiked up the French Valley until the rain, wind, and clouds forced us to turn around. Without the weight of the packs to hold us down, we turned into sails and the Patagonian wind again took us both off our feet. This wind is crazy. Hiking up we had Paine Grande to our left, the tallest mountain in Torres del Paine, which is covered in glaciers. These glaciers tumble down its steep walls and we witnessed many avalanches. On our right were los cuernos or "the horns," steep bicolored towers with dark sedimentary rock above and lighter granite below. If you have seen pictures of Torres del Paine, you have likely seen these giants. We returned to Italiano, broke camp and headed to the next refugio. The refugios sell hot meals and we were hoping to have dinner indoors at this one as a special Christmas Eve treat. The hike there was beautiful and windy, over two ridges and along the lake. I am captivated by wind and water and have not seen wind and water behave as I did this day. A gust would come down the lake and actually pick up water off the tops of waves and create a sideways torrent of mist that would blast the shore with incredible force
Day 7: Los Cuernos to Las Torres
With our bellies refilled, we moved onward to Las Torres, a camp below the park's famous towers. We have hiked a couple of places were you look out and think "Wow, I can see for miles. This is really open country." This was one of those places. With a huge clear sky and
bright sun, it felt like summer, and without the wind it was actually hot
The night before we had noticed a funny symbol on our trail map, a head blowing puffs from its mouth, an icon for strong winds. The places we had experienced wind did not have these icons and we were a bit concerned about what might lay ahead. We started up and for the next two hours did not stop climbing. Uphill, uphill, uphill,... it seemed not to ever end. We rounded a corner and were literally blown backwards by the wind. This was a bit dangerous as there was a steep slope to our right that dropped about 500' to a river below. You could not hear above the cacophony of the wind against your ears and looked up only when needed to stay on the trail. After the throat of the valley, the wind died down and the remaining walk to Refugio Chileno was pleasant. After a rest inside the refugio away from the wind with a snickers bar
dipped in peanut butter for refueling, we continued uphill for another hour or more until we came to a sign that made us so happy. We missed taking a picture, but it essentially read, "Time to camp: 1 minute". Normally these signs read 20 minutes or 2 hours, 1 minute was awesome
Day 8: Mirador to Las Torres to Puerto Natales.
It was recommended that we wake up at 4am and climb up a steep hill for an hour in the dark to see the sunrise on the towers. We peaked our heads out of the tent around 3:50am to find chilly air and a light rain. I am sure it was nice but after our hard but rewarding week, uphill in the rain at four in the morning was just not happening. Back to sleep. Up at six to find partly cloudy skies and the beginnings of the morning light. We climbed the steep hill to the lake at the base of the towers and were rewarded with dabbled warm sidelight on the three gigantic monoliths of granite. Lovely. Back down to breakfast and to break camp and then back down to the refugio at Chileno. The climb down was uneventful except for Adar being blown off the trail and having to hold on for dear life and scramble back onto the trail lest she slide down into the void. We also met an injured hiker who I let borrow a trekking pole as he had hurt himself speed hiking the circuit in 5 days, something that left us exhausted in 8 days. After a long wait and then mad rush to get onto the shuttle and later the bus back to Puerto Natales, we find ourselves back at the Singing Lamb
Day 9: Puerto Natales
Today was a much needed rest day. We washed our near toxic laundry, viewed and backed up our pictures, wrote postcards, booked bus tickets and our next hostel, and talked with Sam and Bunny who had switched hostels to the singing lamb. They had a good trek and were a day behind us but skipped the towers. The comforts of civilization were nice, but we were already craving the outdoors again.
Day 10: Back to the Park
We had spent 8 days in the park, but one thing Adar and I missed was the view from the front of the park
For those of you who may be interested in hiking Torres del Paine, here are our thoughts on how to do the trip:
- Stay at The Singing Lamb; you'll appreciate the good breakfast before the trip and the clean showers afterwards
- Go to the 3 o'clock "rock talk" at Erratic Rock
- Make sure you have rain gear and trekking poles (chances are you'll need both badly at some point - if not, count yourself lucky!). Also good to have are an eye mask (summer nights in Patagonia are short), a thermos for hot tea, a 4-season tent, and lots of waterproof bags or trash bags to keep your belongings dry. We couldn't find beef jerky or prepackaged camping meals in Puerto Natales and dried fruit and nuts were ridiculously expensive, so it might be best to bring these things with you.
- Now for the hike....there are a hundred ways to do the hike and they are all spectacular. However, if we were going to do the trek again, here's what we'd do:
1). Hike in from Administration (the start of the "Q" hike). The reason we would do this is to get a faraway view of the mountains. Once you are in the W or the Circuit, you will not see this classic view of the park. This adds 2 days to the hike, but most of that is supposedly easy
hiking (we heard it was only 30 minutes and all downhill).
2). From Refugio Grey, allow one day for a day hike up towards the pass. The hike between Grey and the pass has spectacular views of the glacier, but this is hard, muddy, steep hiking and would be more enjoyable without a full pack
3). Do the W (days 5-8 as described above). This includes 2 nights at Refugios where you have to pay for camping (Grey and Los Cuernos) and 2 nights at free campgrounds that have flush toilets but no other facilities (Italiano and Las Torres).
4). Plan on a rest day. We didn't allow for a rest day, but it would have been good to have an extra day to spend wherever we wanted. The weather is unpredictable and you might find yourself in the French Valley or Las Torres on a rainy day, or you may find your body or feet need an extra a day to recover, so an extra day is good.
5). Consider staying in the Refugios. You can make reservations, but even during the high season we found a couple refugios with a few bunks available when we arrived. While the Circuit hikers tended to feel superior to the W hikers (the Circuit is a lot tougher than the W) and the backpackers tended to look down on the hikers who slept in the Refugios only (and thus didn't have to carry a tent, sleeping pad, cookware, stove or food), I think that a night or two sleeping indoors would have enhanced our enjoyment of the hike. Had we spent a night in a refugio, we could have taken a shower and dried all of our stuff out. However, since two of the best situated campsites (Italiano and Las Torres) don't have refugios, I would still plan on camping most nights. We promise we won't even call you "soft" for allowing yourself a night