Note from Mark: This post was drafted back in February but I needed time to absorb the experience. There's a lot in this one, might pay to get a drink before you start. My thanks to Ben Anscombe for the assistance.
Currently rolling along Ruta 40, a day after I completed the W track at Parques Nacionales de Torres del Paine, Chile. No injuries, just a bit of sun burn and the normal aches associated with hauling a pack.
Torres del Paine was an awesome adventure. It has so much going on – huge glaciers, imposing peaks, raging rivers, rickety bridges, stunning valleys and turquoise lakes. It gave me my first sightings of avalanches, condors and even pink flamingoes (of all things).
I started with dos amigos from the Navimag trip. Saskia decided to stay back in Puerto Natales (PN) due to a lingering illness, but hoped to meet us on the last night of the trip. We had all agreed to start at the Western end of the track and make our way across the Torres massif over five days. This plan was further fleshed out with help from the guides at Basecamp in PN (recommend the briefing, held every day in the afternoon).
For those familiar with the park or interested in the trek, we camped at Campamento's Grey, Italiano (free), Cuenos and Chileno respectively. We had the option of staying at Campamento Torres (free) instead of Chileno but for various reasons opted for Chileno.
20 Febrero, Glacier Grey
It took about half a day to get to our starting point, which included a bus trip from PN to the park and a short ferry ride to the Western end. This trip gave us a good view of the massif, which is easily viewed from the road. The rain that pursued us through the fjords had dumped plenty of snow on the peaks and the forecast was for clear skies. A good start.
We set off from the wharf at 1:00 pm. Here we could see the damage done by the fires of 2005 and 2011. The damage was extensive and, with jagged peaks and high cloud above us, made for a melodramatic setting. I was relieved when we reached the highest point in the track and gazed down onto Grey Lake. It's a great view from there, right up to the glacier.
We made our way down towards the lake, stopping frequently to take photos of the lake, mountains and ice bergs that had broken off from the glacier. It was easy going and we had a good time taking detours and marvelling at the views. The cloud slowly cleared and eventually it was sunny with no wind. Perfect!
We pulled into Campamento Grey at 6:00 pm. Its a good camp site with reasonable facilities and a great view of the mountains. Two condors circled the peaks above us as we debriefed on the day. Couldn't believe how good we had it.
21 Febrero, Grey to Italiano
It may be helpful to note that Campamento Grey is located near the glacier but it is not beside it. Further, you cannot access the glacier directly but it is possible to hire kayaks near C. Grey or you can walk up to a viewing platform about 1.5 hours north from the campsite. We decided we wanted to try the latter, so left at around 9:00 am to the viewing point.
There's no fire damage here and the forest is fantastic. After about 1.5 hours of uphill leg work we were rewarded with a stunning view of not just the glacier but the Southern Patagonia Ice Field and snow covered mountains. The view was crystal clear, just beautiful. I've never seen anything quite like it, it was an overwhelming experience.
We hung around waiting for the sun to throw a bit more light before taking photos. A bunch of people in kayaks paddled up to the glacier and gave us a real sense of scale e.g. huge. Eventually the sun cleared the Torres' western shoulder. We took photos and then to our surprise stumbled into a glade filled with Andean wood peckers. Some how we didn't scare them off with our excited yelps and snapped a few picks. Chuffed!
Returned back to Campamento Grey to decamp. Someone had The Rolling Stones blasting. We took our time as we still had the whole afternoon ahead of us. The hike back out of the valley was slow, hard work with the packs, hadn't realised how steep it was. Still, we had great weather.
It took the whole afternoon to get back out and down to the original landing point. By this time one of the amigos, Ben, had hurt his ankle and was limping. We got him to stick his leg into the nearby lake then strapped it. From there it was a 2.5 hour trek to Campamento Italiano. Doesn't sound like much but our legs were tired so it was slow going. Fortunately we were distracted by views of the southern lakes and the setting sunlight on the peaks.
Eventually stumbled into Campamento Italiano around 9:00 pm. All buggered. We estimate we hiked for about 10 hours in total, my longest day hiking to date. Cooked up pasta with tuna and finished off with a hot chocolate. Big day. Went to sleep with the sound of distant avalanches providing a hint of what was to come in the morning.
22 Febrero, Valley de Frances
Despite the long trek the previous day, staying the night at Campamento Italiano provided a key advantage – it sits at the base of the Valley de Frances, the mid point of the W trek. This is probably my favourite part of the trip, but by a margin.
We got up early to get the most out of the day. Cloud had come in overnight but it was quite high and we could still see most of the peaks.
The trek up the valley to the viewing point takes around 3 hours. The trip began with an up close and personal view of Cerro Paine Grande and Glaciar del Frances. Within minutes of our approach there was a thunder crack and a plume of snow billowed from under the cloud on our left. We thought that would be it but for around eight minutes snowed poured down the face of the mountain like a waterfall. Amazing.
The path up the valley follows a river towards a wide bowl at the top of the valley. The valley itself is fairly evenly divided by the river and features near pristine forest and stunning views of the Torres' craggy peaks and towers. Facing south, one is presented by an almost perfectly composed view of the valley and the southern lakes and rolling hills beyond. I will never forget it.
Getting up early was the best decision we made that day. As we walked back down the valley low cloud quickly rolled in, spoiling the view for those still making their way up.
A quick lunch back at camp and we were off east to Campamento Cuernos. This was a fairly easy leg which we completed under time. Great views of the local lakes. Rain began around 4:00pm which was good as were able to set up our tents in time. I had booked dinner at the hut, or refugio, which with the rain turned out to be a brilliant idea. Sat down with the boys and smashed the largest pork chop I've ever seen. Finished off the night with a couple of beers and fell asleep pretty quickly.
23 Febrero, Cuernos to Chileno
Woke up to rain. Got up for breakfast at 7:30 am. Found Floris, amigo número tres, who had expected his EU7 tent to buckle under the rain. The tree cover saved him but the tent was soaked. Decamped in the rain and began trudging up and over the next hill.
Ben was not in good condition. He had remained stoic despite the injury but it wasn't getting any better. The night before he had stumbled through the door into the hut, wobbled over to us, then wiped out half the table when is ankle gave way. Hilarious but not good!
Fairly early in the walk we came across our first river. The water was maybe knee high but moving fast over the rocks. People on the other side directed us to a tree that overhung the river. So next thing we are climbing into the tree and dropping down the other side! Good fun.
After three hours of walking in the rain we reached a junction that lead to Chileno (north east) or out of the park (due east). Ben's ankle was a real problem and the rain meant Floris was in for a bad night. The lads decided to end their trip that day and walk out. I was tempted to join them as I wasn't going to see much at Chileno with the rain and cloud, however there was the possibility that Sas would be making her way in to meet me there. So we all shook hands and agreed to meet for dinner in PN when I got out.
Turned out to be the right decision for all of us. Within minutes of arriving at Chileno Saskia walked through the door! We spent the rest of the day in the hut with the other soggy campers. Booked dinner again, big piece of slow cooked beef. Went to bed in the soggy tent, warm but not exactly dry. Saskia bore it well.
25 Febrero, Back to Puerto Natales
We woke up to rain again so decided to head off early. Decamped fairly quickly and after 2.5 hours we were out of the park and waiting for transport.
While we waited we saw several native birds (tíques, caranchos and condors) and some wild llamas.
Arrived back at PN at 5pm, went out for dinner with Sas, Ben, Floris and another couple from the Navimag trip, Rik and Elena. We found a restaurant that specialised in BBQ meat, Asador Patagónico, which delivered the goods in spades. We demolished a delicious meal of Patagonian lamb, beef and salmon with local beer and wine to wash it down. A perfect end to our adventure.