Torres del Paine National Park. The crown jewel of the park system in Chile and a World Biosphere Reserve visited by people from all over the world. National Geographic listed it as #5 of The World's Most Beautiful Places. It has been on the bucket list for a long time to come down to southern Patagonia and trek there. It is a long way from anywhere but once in the area it is not that far from El Chalten and Tierra del Fuego so there are other excellent outdoor places within a days bus ride. January and February are the busiest times at the park with December and March being the shoulder season. Summer is short this far south.
There are a number of hiking options at the park. By far the most popular option is hiking the “W”. A W shaped walk that basically consists of 3 out-and-backs that visit the most scenic spots on the front side of the park. This takes typically 4 to 5 days which fits most tourist’s schedule. This is not a wilderness experience as you will pass hundreds of people on the trail during peak season. For those with more time there is the “O” which does the “W” and then circles around the entire park. This takes 8 to 9 days and is therefore much less traveled. The other nice thing is that the park service restricts the backside of the park to 80 people a day. We did the “Q” which is basically the “O” with a day and a half approach hike across the windblown steppes south of the park. The “Q” covers almost every trail you are allowed to hike in the park without a guide. We also met people who were doing “Y”'s and “U”'s. For accommodations there is the option of staying and eating in the Refugio huts which means you do not have to carry very much on your back. This will run you between $115 and $150 a day depending on the Refugio. The cheap way to do it is to carry your own tent and food. Camping fees are around $9 a person at the pay sites and there are 4 free campsites run by the park. This is where it gets confusing. There are two private companies and the park service CONAF that run the various campsites. Reservations are possible but are not needed at any of the campsites except for the 2 most popular free campsites. These reservations are a scramble to get. You can try to reserve at the CONAF building in Puerto Natales (the closest big town), at the park entrance, or within the park at specific locations that day. We ended up getting our reservations for those 2 sites (Campamento Italiano and Campamento Torres) at the park entrance. The days we wanted were full so we had to push everything back a day making the first 3 days of our trek very short mileage.
The Q: We started on the tail of the Q which meant that we started about 11 miles away from the mountain range we were going to circumnavigate. We took the bus from town to the last stop and got off at the park headquarters.
At the park entrance everyone had to stop, pay their 18,000 peso (~$25) entrance fee, and watch a video of the park rules. They are VERY serious about fire. If you get caught making a fire in the park or even cooking outside the designated zones you can be arrested and fined. People that have been caught making fires having even been thrown out of the country for life. In 2011-2012 an Israeli burning toilet paper started a fire that burned 40% of the park. At this latitude the trees take 200 years to mature. We passed through a burned area from 1985 that has made no recovery in the 30 years since. The tail of the Q passed through a combination of open grassy steppes and burnt forest. The wind was ferocious across the plains and knocked us around as we tried to walk against it. Trekking poles were a big help.
The park is located right next to the Southern Patagonian Icecap which is the 2nd largest piece of ice outside of Antarctica (Greenland is #1) so this has a huge effect on the weather and wind in the area. The burnt forest was sad but starkly beautiful in a way. We walked a few hours to the first free campsite that was in a small hollow tucked out of the wind along the Rio Grey where ducks splashed in the water. This was the only water in the park we filtered because of all the geese in it. Otherwise the water is completely pure and able to be drunk straight from the stream. There are not many places in the world where this can happen. The next day was another short day to get to the Refugio and campsite at Paine Grande where we joined up with the “W” route.
This rabbit ate a small hole in the bottom of our tent trying to get at our food bag. They are European hares (an introduced species) and are a big problem in the park.
Do not plan on coming to Torres del Paine to have a wilderness experience and this is even truer on the “W”. It is more like a human zoo with a lot of younger tourists that like to party and not respect the other people around them. There were a lot of nights where there would be loud voices, yelling, singing, and general obnoxiousness at wee hours of the morning. We did quickly discover that these same people did not like to get up in the morning. If we got up and were on the trail by 0730 (not an unreasonable time) then we typically would be the first people on the trail. That meant we didn't have to see anyone for at least a couple hours before people would start coming down the trail the other direction. We did not have to do the first out-and-back to Refugio Grey since that was where we would be closing out the “O” route. The first out and back we did was up the French Valley to a lookout called Mirador Britanica. This is a viewpoint that is surrounded by stunning mountains and cliff faces.
With our (not so) early start we were the first people up there and had 20 minutes to ourselves before the first other people started to arrive. Then in the hour it took us to get back to our camp we passed around 150 people and those were the early risers. It would get even busier later in the day. In fact we thought that the “W” should be renamed the “O-la” since everyone says Hola (Hello) to each other as they pass.
The other out-and-back was up the Rio Ascencio valley to Mirador Torres. It is popular to get to this lookout while it is still dark in the morning and then watch the sun rise on the famous Torres del Paine – the namesakes of the park. These are three monolithic towers of rock and the morning sun shines directly on to them. There was a long line of headlamps heading up to the viewpoint that morning. We took a Nalgene full of coffee and our sleeping bags so we were very comfortable as we laid on large rocks and watched the show. There were no clouds and just a small amount of wind so it was a great morning. It would have made a great time lapse movie.
This valley was even more crowded then the French valley and by the end of it we were hating people and ready to head to the backside of the park. The final straw was watching an American trail runner elbowing people out of the way on the trail because for whatever reason he couldn't stop running for a minute to get around people politely. It has been one of the few instances on World Tour where we have seen embarrassing American behavior. Plus he was giving trail runners a bad name so it was a double whammy.
The “O” was the part we had really been waiting for. The trail is limited to 80 people a day and everyone has to go counter-clockwise so we would be seeing far fewer people on the trail. In fact when we went through the checkpoint where we had to show our backside permit only 39 people went through that day. The hiking is more scenic though the mountains are not as dramatic as they had been on the “W”.
Our first night on the “O” there was a very hard frost that night so most everyone was cold that night. By this time we had met a group of friends that we would hang out with every night. It was quite the international group – 2 Americans, a dual Irish-American, a dual Iranian-Canadian, an Aussie, a Scot, and 2 Brits. One of the British girls (Abi) had been on the boat to Antarctica with us.
We were all excited about the campsite at Refugio Dickson. It had been built up as the best campsite of the trip but we found it to be very mosquito infested and the guy walking around in a Tyvek suit with a respirator spraying the buildings with pesticide did not inspire confidence. It was prettier down near the lake and the wind there kept the bugs away.
John drank a fair amount of wine that night so did not feel that chipper the next day. John Gardner Pass was the next obstacle in front of us. The wind forecast was worse for the next day so we elected to do a double hike past the Los Perros camp to get to a free campsite on the other side of the pass called Capamento Paso. John was feeling low energy but wanted to get to the free campsite. It rained off and on all day and was even snowing on the top of the pass. It was a damp, cold day and not that much fun. The woods, mountains, grey, and rain actually reminded us a lot of being back in Washington. From the Los Perros camp it was about a 3 hour hike to the top of the pass. About an hour into this was when John's mountain luck ran out. We have been pushing our luck in the mountains for the last several years so it seemed like a matter of time before someone got hurt. It would be nice if there was more adventure and excitement in the story but there isn't. We were traveling through an area that had deep areas of mud. So deep that our trekking poles would not reach the bottom of it. John was trying to cross one of these areas using tree roots to keep from sinking into it when he slipped on the wet muddy wood. In the process of stumbling forward several steps his left ankle rolled and he felt a pop. From then on every time the ankle had any lateral motion there would be a painful pop as the peroneal tendon would flip over the bony protuberance of his ankle (fibular malleolus). There is no search and rescue in the park and horses are not able to get to this part of the trail. Luckily as long as the foot was placed flat and the motion was only forward/backwards then he was able to walk. The closest way out of the park was to continue over the pass so we did. We were slower as John had to be very careful, especially when the terrain was uneven.
On the top of John Gardner Pass the wind was so strong that it was almost impossible to take steps forward without getting knocked down. We would have to wait for brief periods of the wind speed dropping to move forward a few steps. The scenery on the west side of the pass is the best of the entire park. From the pass until Refugio Grey is reached is stunning as you look down on the Glaciar Grey and Southern tip of the Patagonian Icecap. We have only seen ice like that in Alaska and Antarctica before. Row after row of crevasses for as far as the eye could see.
The last two days to hike out were about 10km each day with much smoother trail so John was able to continue hiking out though once we reached Refugio Grey we were back on the “W” highway.
The end of the trail took us to Lago Pehoe where we were able to catch a boat across the lake to where the busses would pick us up and take us back to town. Despite getting hurt we were glad to have been able to do this trail. We have discussed coming back some day and running the “O” loop over 2 days. Now John has his ankle immobilized in a splint and we will see if this lets it heal or not. In the meantime we are going to go to Santiago to recuperate. Depending on how the ankle is we will either continue on to northern Chile or worst case have to come home for further treatment.