Hiking in Torres de Paine (on fire)

Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
Trip End Jan 19, 2012

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Flag of Chile  , Patagonia,
Friday, December 30, 2011

We spent 4 days and 3 nights in the National Park TORRES DEL PAINE. Little did we know that a devastating forest fire would start on our first night in the park. The incident forced us to change our hiking itinery which at first we were not too happy about, and later caused the park to be evacuated.     

Day 284 (12/27/11):

We catch the 2:30pm bus from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine national park (12k pesos, RT, per person), where we plan to spend 3 nights backpacking. At first, we both feel a little motion sickness from the ride, recalling that the last time we took a bus ride was when we were on our way back to Lima, Peru, after our "climbing vacation." Tired, hot, and nauseous, we end up sleeping the whole way to the park.  We pay our 15k pesos each for the park entry fee, then decide that's enough money spent for the day and forego the microbus ride to the trailhead for another 2k pesos each – if we’re here to do some hiking, what’s another 7-1/2 km anyway?

At Hosteria Las Torres, we pass by a rodeo and check out the fancy accommodations available for the non-hobo type, then start up the trail to do the popular “W” hike. The “W” consists of hiking into and back out of three valleys, each having a scenic main attraction; these are Torres del Paine (the park’s namesake towers), Paine Grande (a monolithic mass of rock with several jagged peaks), and Glaciar Grey (a glacier that calves into a huge turquoise lake).

It’s 5:30pm when we start up the trail and at this hour, just about everyone is leaving the valley while we make our way to our first camp. We find that Campamento Chileno is a private, for-profit refugio, so we opt to keep going for another hour to Campamento Torres, one of the park’s free campgrounds. The place is really crowded and we are a bit turned off by the trash on the ground and people washing their pots and feet in the stream right in front of the sign whose sole purpose is to dissuade people from doing just that, as it is the camp’s water source. Usually, we avoid tourist attractions and “must-see” places because big crowds always ruins the experience for us, but we’re determined to enjoy the park and it’s scenery, so we try our best to block out these distractions. Besides, we expected all of this, so there shouldn’t be anything to be grumpy about.

Day 285 (12/28/11):

We lazy bums wake up at almost 8am, when most people have already returned from their hike to the Base de las Torres viewpoint. We pack up and make the 45-minute hike up steep slopes to the mirador to see the impressive towers. WE find ourselves alone for the moment and scramble up a boulder field…just because. We sit there reminiscent of climbing days in the Eastern Sierra – it’s amazing how similar this place is to “home” and how much the towers remind us of the sheer East Face of Mount Whitney.

With smiles on our faces, we descend back to camp and detour further up Valle Ascencio along the “climbers only” trail to check out the climber’s hut and to see the backside of the towers. Boulder hopping along these granite stones brings back a familiar feeling and a piece of ourselves that we have been missing over the past couple years. It feels good!

We make it partway through Valle del Silencio, enough to see glaciers at the base of Cerro Fortaleza and Escudo, but not enough to get a view of all the towers. The biting cold wind is ripping down the valley so hard, Shirley can barely stand long enough to pose for photos. We’re happy enough with our private little outing devoid of other hikers, so we head back to join the masses.

On our way out of our first valley, we run into the Australian Family (we first met on the boat from O’Higgins and again while hiking around Fitz Roy) and they tell us about a forest fire that started last night. An illegal campfire got out of control and has spread enough that the park officials temporarily closed the Glaciar Grey portion of the “W” and forced hikers to turn around from there, but the rest of the park is still open.

As we make our way, late in the day, towards Valle del Frances (the middle part of the “W”), we are again going against the flow of hikers. This time, it feels like an unusually large herd of people, so we ask some of them about the fire conditions. They inform us that everything from Campamento Italiano (where we were planning to stay tonight) is closed because of smoke. The refugio at Los Cuernos is open though (an hour’s walk closer than Italiano), but most people feel it’s useless to stay there for one night if they expect to be evacuated anyway; might as well start the hike back out of the park.

Hmmph, this is barely our second day in the park and we don’t want to go back now! We figure it’s already 7:45pm and we might as well just set camp nearby in hopes that the fire situation improves by morning.

Day 286 (12/29/11):

We return to the main trail and find an endless flow of hikers making gheir way back to the park’s entrance. The fire has spread South and Valle del Frances is apparently closed today as well. We sit on a rock overlooking Lago Nordenskjold, checking the map and trying to figure out what alternatives we have other than leaving early. Yannick mentions seeing a sidetrail heading up a ridge and we decide to go up there in hopes of getting a nice view of the park from higher up. As we ascend a series of steep hills, we find ourselves heading deeperinto a canyon and end up at another refugio constructed of broken tree branches and plastic tarps – a climber’s hut! Excitedly, we take the climber’s trail over talus slopes and follow cairns through boulder fields, up Valle Bader to get incredible views of Cerros Espada, Hoja, Mascara, and other massive rock faces forming a cirque around us. We don’t know why, but stumbling upon a treasure like this and having it all to ourselves always makes us feel more appreciative of our surroundings than visiting a place that is supposed to be more impressive, but filled with crowds. We’re such recluses!

We re enjoying ourselves so much we decide to pitch our tent in the climber’s camp and spend the evening inside the hut reading. A few times, we walk over to our viewpoint to watch the fire’s progress. Again, the winds pick up and we can see the flames lick the sky as it rapidly consumes the vegetation along the hillsides. The smoke is so dark and dense we are sure we won’t be able to move further down the “W” and will have to backtrack tomorrow.

Day 287 (12/30/11):

The winds got CRAZY strong last night and we didn’t sleep very well from the noise of rustling trees and our tent walls furiously flapping and slapping against us. As we lay there groggy, Yannick gets up with a bit of urgency and tells Shirley that we better pack up the tent – we’re playing Russian roulette here under these trees with such strong gusts of wind blasting through. When Yannick’s sixth sense warns him of something, Shirley doesn’t question it and we start packing up quickly. In the middle of things, we hear another strong wave of wind coming through and suddenly a tree branch hits the roof of the tent and the back of Yannick’s head. He isn’t hurt, just stunned. We look at each other with eyes wide and are glad the tent poles (and Yannick!) survived the impact.

Once we are back on the trail, we are amazed by the force of the wind now. One series of gusts sends Yannick crashing to the ground and Shirley flying – she stays on her feet, but is unable to stop as she dodges rocks and bushes. When the wind eases, she realizes she was blown over 10 meters across the field…good thing there wasn’t a cliff there! To prevent another take-off, we have to huddle behind trees and hold onto rocks whenever we hear distant trees warning us of another strong wind approaching. (Back in Puerto Natales, we later find out that the gusts of wind reached up to 120kph!) With the frequent stops, we watch the fires spread over the land and jump great distances, setting small islets in the lake on fire. With the smoke, wind, fire, dark skies, and drizzle, it feels like Armageddon!

Through the entire hike back to the trailhead, we don’t encounter a single person – there aren’t even footprints of hikers on the trail, just a few tracks from horses that passed through this morning. It isn’t until we reach the last few hundred meters to Hosteria Las Torres, do we begin seeing people again. We thought we would run into park officials blocking our trailhead, but no one is there. We hike all the way out to where we were first dropped off by the bus without ever seeing a sign or talking to someone about an evacuation or fire closure.

At the entrance to the national park, there are more people waiting for rides than there are seats available on the three buses that arrive to take us back to Puerto Natales. We are glad we bought roundtrip tickets! Again, we sleep during the entire ride back to town. When we arrive back at the house, we find that the family was a bit worried about us. For the rest of the evening, we talk about our hike, the fire, and the latest news about it from the TV and internet.
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