Torres del Paine, Days 1 and 2 - Glacier Grey

Trip Start Mar 29, 2010
Trip End May 24, 2010

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Torres del Paine - Days 1 and 2

Flag of Chile  , Patagonia,
Friday, April 9, 2010

I'll admit it, I was nervous.   It has been well over a decade since someone accused me of being either "fit" or “in shape.”  In fact, if I was a bear, one might say that I’ve “wintered well” during the past winter, or make it the past ten + winters.  

Then there was the issue of weather.  

Patagonia is notorious for unpredictable and unstable weather, so much so, that one might see “all four seasons in one day” according to the guidebooks.   While we had plenty of foul weather gear, the possibility of being trapped on an isolated trail in heavy winds or rain – or worse; a hailstorm – always remained a looming possibility. 

Despite these challenges, I committed us to a multi-day trek on the “W” in the Torres del Paine National Park – and I’m glad I did.   The following presents a day-by-day breakdown of our time in the park.

Day 1 – Glacier Grey

We entered the Park a little before 11:00 AM.  The bus dropped us off near “Laguna Amarga,” close to the Park’s largest waterfall – “Salto Grande.”  After a 1 mile hike, we reached Salto Grande just in time to snap a couple of photos and turn back to catch the catamaran to Refugio Paine Grande.  I did the hike with my full pack – just to make sure I could hack it.

The weather was cold, but clear.  On the catamaran to Paine Grande, we took a few more pictures bundled up in our full-foul weather gear.

We landed at Refugio Paine Grande around 12:30, made our reservations the Refugio Grey, stripped down our packs for an overnight trip, and hit the trail a little before 1:30. 

The hike to Glacier Grey starts in a valley, which was hot at mid day.  Within 20 minutes, I was walking in t-shirt, even though I had my full foul-weather gear on just an hour or so earlier.  As we continued, the trail climbed up the valley until we had our first view of a glacier lake.   Shortly thereafter, we noticed icebergs in the lake.  After about an hour-and-a-half, we caught our first glimpse of the Glacier.

Simply put, Glacier Grey is massive.  Its enormous ice sheet spills over the sides of an island located in the middle of the glacier’s path.   I had seen smaller glaciers before, but nothing on the scale of Glacier Grey.   The glacier extended for miles as far as the eye could see, while face of the glacier looked hundreds of feet high.

At this point – about one third of the way into the hike – the trail became hilly as it hugged the eastern shore of Lago Grey and we talked toward Glacier Grey.   After each ascent and descent, the Glacier appeared closer; all the while our legs grew weary.

After about 3.5 hours, we arrived at the Glacier lookout point.  Monique snapped a few photos, and we made our way to the refugio.  We covered 11 KM on the Glacier Grey hike about 14 in total for the day, accounting for our little jaunt to Salto Grande.   We were exhausted.  On day two, we planned to cover nearly twice the ground and I was unsure if we would be up to the task.

Day 2 – Glacier Grey to Los Cuernos

Day 2 began by backtracking the way we came.  We left Refugio Glacier Grey around 8:30 in the morning.  To get a head start on the day, we decided to have breakfast on the trail.  After some granola bars and peanut and jelly sandwiches, I took the third photo in this post…not a bad view to enjoy breakfast.

We pulled into the Refugio Paine Grande before noon, slightly ahead of schedule, but tired.    We were not yet halfway through with our day, and now needed to carry full packs.  Fortunately for us, the next stretch of trail was forgiving.

The trail from Paine Grande to Campo Italiano was about 7.6 kilometers, but flat.  Our lunch break afforded us time to rest and refuel, so we didn’t notice the extra weight in our packs.   The trail starts along the shoreline of Lago Pehoe, then winds its way by the base of Paine Grande – the highest peak in the Park.  By hiking from west to east, we enjoyed some magnificent views of Paine Grande, and at each bend in the trail, Paine Grande seemed to get closer and closer, much like the hike towards Glacier Grey.   As the trail meandered through low-lying forests and small glacier-creaks, we seemed to pick up pick up momentum.   In retrospect, this was my favorite stretch of hiking.

After about two hours on the trail, we arrived at Campo Italiano.   Situated halfway between Refugio Paine Grande and Refugio Los Cuernos, Campo Italiano has no refugio and only a camp site.   It is a staging ground for the hike up to the French Valley, and a bit of an eerie place.   The clustering of trees makes the camp ground artificially dark at mid day, and all the campers must hang their food and belongings from trees because a widespread rodent infestation – which was oddly unsettling.    We pressed on to Los Cuernos.

Just outside of Campo Italiano, we stopped to rest and enjoy the views of Lago Nordenskjold.  While looking at the lake, we heard a low-pitched, dull, crashing sound that seemed to roll throughout the valley.  When we turned around to see the origin of the noise, we surprised by what we saw – an avalanche.

The backside of Paine Grande is covered by a small glacier (French Glacier) and series of snow-packed ridges.  Periodically, these ridges crumble, unleashing a torrent of snow that cascades down the side of the mountain.   From a safe distance – which was our vantage point – these mini-avalanches don’t look like much.  But judging by how far the sound emanates throughout the valley, I am guessing that tons of snow are displaced during each event.

Monique and I sat in awe, as we watched and heard a series of mini-avalanches depositing snow in the upper reaches of the French Valley.  While I was setting up to photograph the Lake, we heard a particularly loud avalanche and I turned in time to capture the image below.   If you look towards the middle of the photo, you can see three streams of snow falling down the side of the mountain. 

 After we had our fill of the avalanches, we decided to continue on to Refugio Los Cuernos.  The trail to the refugio at Los Cuernos is gorgeous.   Trekkers walk between stunning views of Lago Nordenskjold (rambling hundreds of feet above the lake, then down to the shoreline) and the French Valley.  As you near the refugio, Los Cuernos come into view.   It’s a magnificent setting.

It’s also a bit treacherous.

As you walk down to the lake shoreline, you come across steep declines and the trail becomes littered with small boulders ranging in size from a softball to a soccer ball.  Early in the day, the trail is not so bad but after 6 or 7 hours of hiking, it becomes painful as you desperately try to avoid turning an ankle, or worse.  With our feet sore, legs tired, and knees aching, it took us nearly three hours to cover terrain that should have taken us two hours.    The one point of redemption was that after speaking with some seasoned and fitter trekkers, virtually all reported a similar experience.

All in all, it was a productive day.  We covered approximately 23 kilometers, or a little over 14 miles.  But there we paid a price. Both Monique and I were hurting all over – Monique’s left foot was particularly beat up – and we planned an additional 8 to 10 hour hike the following day over steeper terrain.  We went to bed not sure if how much we would trek – if at all – the following day.
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Sarah Showalter on

Awesome travel blogging, Senor Butler. How I wish that I could hop a plane and join you guys for a part of your journey. The scenery is amazing.
Keep it coming!

Janet Razler on

Fantastic. Am thoroughly enjoying your journey. Stay safe.

Mom on

Keep enjoying your amazing adventure, and come back in one piece! Fabulous pics, your camera is doing a great job, not to mention the photographer.

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