The snow line on the mountains

The trail into the valley for the viewpoint of the towers

Snow glistening on the trees

Deep snow covers the trees on the trail to the towers

The lake at the base of the towers with towers shrouded in an afternoon snow storm

A trail marker amidst the deep snow on the trail from the valley

A section of trail through the forest

The morning sun hits the mountains

The towers glowing orange at sunrise

A condor soaring near the mountains

Interesting veins in the rock

Looking across Lago Nordenskjold

Looking across Lago Nordenskjold

The glaciers in the French Valley

Looking back across the lake at towers

An amazing blue lake on the trail

The clouds blowing across the mountain face as the sun shines down

An iceberg and a rainbow on the way to Gray Glacier

The blue glaciers creeping to the water

Panorama from the other side of the lake

Torres del Paine, Chile

Hiking the W

April 14, 2008

I sing my heart to the wide open spaces

I sing my heart out to the infinite sea

I sing my vision to the sky high mountains

I sing my song to the free

- The Who

Fresh off four days on the ferry from Puerto Montt I was looking into planning a hiking trip in Torres del Paine. The cold and rainy weather on the boat had deterred me from camping as I would have had to rent all sorts of gear, carry it across the sixty some kilometers of the trail, and deal with freezing cold nights. I decided to spend some extra money and stay in the refugios but to bring my own food to save money, as the food there is very expensive, on top of the high prices to sleep there it was a bit too much. There was an informative information session on hiking in the park given at a nearby hostel where they discussed the different options and some of the finer details about the different campsites and facilities. So with a basic background I went out to load up on food at the grocery store. I think I bought a bit too much in retrospect as I was still eating some of the leftovers after the journey. Then I booked bus tickets to the park through the hostel I was staying at, and since the bus was leaving at 7:30am I had to repack my entire backpack and leave many things behind at the hostel to cut down on the weight I would be carrying on the journey.

The early bus came promptly as scheduled and picked me up at the hostel on the way to the park. The plan was to hike the “W” circuit from west to east, as this was recommended. When the bus arrived in the park the weather was good and clear so I decided to start on the east side and hike up to the towers, the massive granite peaks, that day since the weather was clear. The weather changes so rapidly in the park that forecasts are of little use, especially those more than a day or two in advance.

After checking into the Refugio Las Torres and packing a small bag for the day I headed off for the viewpoint of the towers, about 5.5 miles away, uphill. The trail wasn´t too difficult and as it climbed higher there began to be traces of snow on the ground which gave way to a thick blanket of snow as the trail snaked through the forests on the upper slopes. The scenery was great and the winds were rather calm. After almost 3 hours of hiking, the trail to the viewpoint forked off steeply uphill through a path of trampled snow. The clouds had been steadily moving into the area and at about this point it started snowing as I ascended the steep track. Towards the top the trail became progressively more slippery and by the time I reached the top there was no view of the towers, only a mass of white clouds and snow squalls blowing in from across the valley.

From the viewpoint I could hear the boom of the freshly fallen snow avalanching off the jagged peaks and tumbling down below. The return was a bit dodgy as the temperature had dropped and things were beginning to ice over and get very slippery. It was part walking and part sliding on my feet to make it down, but I was able to return before dark and enjoy the heat and comfort of the refugio, even though they wouldn´t allow you to use the kitchen and cook your own food. While it was disappointing not to see the granite towers from the lake, I awoke the next morning at 7:30am to crystal clear views of the towers jutting up above the mountains ablaze in shades of red and orange illuminated by the rising sun; definitely an amazing sight to behold.

The second day was an easy one, only 6.5 miles of rolling hills to Refugio Cuernos at the base of the massive rock escarpment. You could see condors circling up near the towers as they glided on the heavy winds. The refugio was located right on the shore of one of the lakes with great views to the mountains across the lake. There wasn´t really any choice but to stay at this refugio as the next one was more than five hours away. In the afternoon I sat around and rested while chatting with the various people that came in, a good half day off my feet since the next day was going to be a solid 8 hours of hiking to avoid staying in Refugio Pehoe for two consecutive nights. Leaving the next morning around 9am I reached the Valle Frances after about 2 hours and walked up into the valley for about 20 minutes for views of the glaciers on the mountain.

Due to heavy snows the last week, the trail to the campsite and viewpoint in the valley were blocked by snow and essentially unreachable unless you wanted to blaze your own trail through knee deep, or higher, snow. The winds had also picked up considerably, probably gusting to 85 kph or more, strong enough to blow you back or off-balance if you weren´t paying attention. From the Valle Frances the trail led towards Lago Nordenskjold for 6.5 miles to Refugio Pehoe. The blue colors of the lake were incredible and in stark contrast to the greens of the forests and the white snow on the mountains. The views back across the lake of the towers were also stunning. After having lunch at Refugio Pehoe I started off on the trail to Refugio Grey, supposedly 3.5 hours away.

The trail wasn´t terribly steep but after already walking 9 miles I was now forced to walk straight into a headwind of 60-90 kph, making things that much more tiring. Two hours into the trail and we reached the viewpoint for the Grey Glacier, a massive glacier that splits onto either side of an island and reaches down to the waters of the lake. In the lake there were also many little glaciers, like tiny icebergs, with amazing shades of blue, one so brilliantly blue that it didn´t even seem real. Another hour and half later at around 5:30pm after some 14.5 miles of hiking I reached the refugio and another closer viewpoint for the glacier. There were only two other people staying in the refugio but they still said that we couldn´t use the kitchen to cook our food. Later they had a change of heart and offered us the chance to use the facilities and it was very nice to have a hot meal after such a long day.

All that walking on the third day meant that on the fourth day I only had to hike back three and a half hours to get to Refugio Pehoe to catch the boat to the other side of the lake at 12:30pm to connect with bus service back to Puerto Natales. This time, the walk was much quicker with the stiff wind at my back and I made it back in about 3 hours, with plenty of time to spare for lunch before the 30-minute boat ride. The boat ride was quite beautiful with views of the whole stretch of mountains that I had hiked along for the previous three days, while the wind continued to whip up waves and water spray on the lake. Even the bus ride back towards the park entrance had great distance views of the rock massif and scenery looked markedly different from a further perspective. I was glad that the hiking was over, four days and some 40 miles later I was glad to be able rest up and sleep in, albeit for one night. The ferry to Puerto Williams and the end of the Americas awaits on Wednesday, but first I had to take a bus to Punta Arenas.