Torres del Paine

An account of our 7-day camping expedition exploring the national park of Torres del Paine in southern Chile.  We had arrived by boat into the sleepy town of Puerto Natales and after the three days of sailing down through the fjords from Puerto Montt, we were keen to stretch our legs.  Whilst on the boat, we had also become friendly with two fellow travellers who we also invited to join us: Matt, who was travelling on his own; and his friend Isobel who was taking a break from studying in Buenos Aires.  We spent the day before we planned to leave storing some of our un-needed gear with a hotel. gathering food supplies until we were ready to go.

3rd March 2000 – Day 1 Torres del Paine (Day 226 overall)

The bus picked us up from the hotel ($14 return) and it was about 2 hours to reach the park.  On the way, the scenery was pretty flat with only the hills in the distance to break the view across the barren landscape. I was surprised when we arrived at the park gate because we couldn’t even see any mountains!  We took another bus to avoid a 2 hour walk as we wanted to reach the first view point before sunset.

With our packs on, we were finally on our way.  After about an hour of walking, the mountains suddenly began to appear from a great white wall of cloud as if they had suddenly been teleported in front of us.  The huge, black mountains were still mostly in the cloud but the steep rocky sides came straight down before breaking towards a blue and a green lake below.  The swirling clouds and dark rock gave the mountains an ominous sense of foreboding as if they contained strange dark forces.  Our rucksacks hung heavy on our backs and a thousand tales of those who had lost their lives amongst these giant, rugged, mountains massaged our fears.  Our journey into the unknown had begun.

Following the river valley steeply upwards, I couldn’t but notice how the water of the river almost seemed to fight with itself as if to escape from whence it came, throwing itself against the ice scarred, boulders.  I filled my water bottle from its icy flow which left my hands numb from its extreme coldness from straight down from the snow line above.  Reaching the first ridge allowed us to see the next valley unfold beyond us.  The peaks were still shrouded in cloud but far ahead, we could see a huge tongues of ice, surrounded by nakedness of the mountains they had helped by stripping out the earth and vegetation.  The narrow valley towards us, its steep sides led down to a narrow belt of trees not yet victims of the ice tongues.  In one small patch, a small wooden cabin was perched which was a refugio where travellers could rest and even sleep.  It reminded me of the picture of the house of Elrond from the Lord of the Rings [edit: my diary was written before the film version turned Elrond’s humble house into a small Elven city!].

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Isobel, Jono, Mark, Mat and Irinia

Our rocky path eventually wound its way to the refugio where we sheltered under the eaves to make some soup.  Mark had forgotten to buy more gas so in an attempt to conserve what we had, we tried cooking on a small stove we found around the back.  It was already burning but its fuel was a toxic collection of tins, plastic, empty gas cans amongst the scraps of wood.  We put some water on to boil but then a man who seemed to own the hostel came out, saw what we were doing and perhaps to save us from toxic poisoning said we could use his own gas burner.  A short time later and souped up, we set off for another 2 hours before reaching our intended camp for the night.  In Torres del Paine national park, you are not supposed to camp wild and campfires are forbidden everywhere.  Never the less, we needed to eat so started a small fire to cook with.

Before the sunset, we left our bags in our tents and raced up the side of the nearby mound of terminal moraine taking about 45 minutes until the sight of the infamous triple peaks of Las Torres appeared in full before us.  The clouds had cleared and the towers rose like craggy fingers from a small lake, about 1,500 meters straight up.  The surfaces had been carved away so the bottom sections were all rounded.  The remains of what must have been a huge glacier was slowly melting further up the middle valley.  We sat on the rocks and tried to take it all in and record the sight on camera but we knew that photos could not do it justice.  The sun set, and the towers darkened into silhouettes before we returned back to camp.  We re-lit our fire and cooked a pasta meal over whilst keeping warm in the bubble of heat the fire gave off.  It felt great to be in the mountains, out in the wilderness carrying everything we need on our backs.  To these thoughts, we returned to the warmth of our tents and sleeping bags.

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Mirador base de Las Torres

4th March 2000 – Day 2 Torres del Paine (Day 227 overall)

It was going to be a long walk today so we were up early and got the fire restarted for the porridge and essential coffee.  We took an unmarked route we thought from our map might cut the corner and save us an hour or two.  The sun came and went along with a series of rain showers but the views were often incredible of the distant snow covered mountains ahead and the nearer, steep black slopes which led up to massif of Los Cuernos (The Horns).  The walk wound slowly over undulating hills and beside the huge emerald green Lago Nordenskjöld.  The waters had a milky texture and there was a deep contrast in colour to the nearby lakes which were a rich blue.

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The peak of Los Cuernos

After six or seven hours of walking, we finally arrived at a refugio whose facilities we were allowed to use and cooked a meal of potato mash with vegetables in a tomato sauce. While we ate, the rain poured and the temperature plunged.  When we finished out meal and prepared to head on, we had several comments from the walkers who were staying in the refugio to the tune of ‘you must be mad?’ but we had to keep going.

Mark, Matt and I headed off at pace to get to the camp to set up while Jono and the girls took it slower.  Even with our fast pace and few breaks, we made the 2 hour walk only 15 minutes ahead of the others so had barely set up camp when they arrived.  It was a very cold night and we strapped up the ponchos to help shield our seating area from the rain.  I wore all more clothes in bed that night just to stay warm.

5th March 2000 – Day 3 Torres del Paine (Day 228 overall)

After the cold night, it took a lot of will power to emerge from the tents.  By the time we’d started a fire, cooked breakfast, finished our porridge and packed the tents, it was already 11am.  But not long after we set off, the sun came out and it finally began to warm up. The walk today was not as long as yesterday but we were heading to the Glacier Grey and we wanted some time to explore.

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Mat, me, Jono and Mark somewhere en route from Los Cuernos

The first part of the walk was a 2 hour hike down to another refugio on the edge of a lake where we bought a sandwich to eat with our soup to help keep us going.  From here we turned the corner to climb the valley leading up to the glacier – the centrepiece of the trek.  It was very windy which made the walking extra hard going.  The girls were feeling tired and mentioned their sore feet many times!  Meanwhile, we were excited to see the glacier so keep running from peak to peak in order to be first!  Eventually, the view opened up and the awesome glacier appeared before us.  It was huge – so much bigger than what it looked like in few postcards we saw back in Puerto Natales.  It spread across the valley which was about 8km wide splitting apart at the front around a large island before terminating in the lake.  From the refugio, it took about 3.5 hours to reach the next refugio based just in front of the glacier.

We set up camp and then wander off to observe the glacier up close from a nearby vantage point.  However, we soon lost the path and it became rough going before suddenly emerging at the shore of a lagoon with a full view of the glacier.  The lagoon was connected on the left to the main lake and was about 200 meters wide and long separated us from the walls of jagged ice at the front of the glacier.  The water was perfectly still with a multitude of icebergs of varying shapes and sizes floating serenely in the lagoon.

All of a sudden, we noticed a small patch of water in front of us that seemed to be sucked downwards and then a great wall of blue ice thundered straight up out of the water raising far above us with a massive roar of falling water accompanying it.  The blue wall was partly caked in thick black mud and only when it reached about 50 meters high did it stop and then begin to sink back into the lagoon.  I stood transfixed, my mind not comprehending the size, noise or sudden appearance of this icy beast.  As it crashed back into the lagoon, a huge wave flung the other icebergs up towards the shore we were standing on.  We ran backwards to escape the onrushing mix of water and ice and returned after a couple of minutes when the wave retreated to find stranded icebergs 5 meters above the water line!

The monster blue iceberg was still thrashing about in the lagoon and must have been about 80 meters long and 40 meters wide.  Finally, it began to settle into a stable position as the king of the icebergs in the lagoon.

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The lagoon with the large ice block still thrashing about

We deduced that what must have happened is that a huge piece of ice had broken off the bottom of the glacier deep at the bottom of the lake.  This then rose to the surface gathering speed before rising as it did before us.  The whole sight was truly spectacular and as we found out later – a very rare event to see first-hand.

After the lagoon had settled, we went back to the shore line to explore the icebergs.  Matt managed to jump onto one of them but it started floating away so didn’t last long before jumping back to shore!  Instead, everyone decided to strip down to their underwear for a group photo which somehow seemed sensible at the time?!

Back at camp, most people had had the noise but didn’t know what it was but were intrigued with our account.  We retired to our tents which were away from the main camping area where we built a fire, cooked a supper and endlessly chatted about the day’s events.

6th March 2000 – Day 4 Torres del Paine (Day 229 overall)

Today’s walk took us up and down the hills along the side of the glacier.  Up and down for six hours.  It was tough going.

Before we left, we had had to say goodbye to Isobel who was leaving to visit Ushuaia with her parents who were meeting her there, so now we were down to five.  We could reach the camp but even with plenty of light left in the day, we could not travel further since the next section was a steep climb to a high pass and four hours in total to the next campsite.  Instead, Mark, Matt and I used the free time to wander down the rocky slopes to the glacier itself whilst Irinia decided to stay at the camp.  Yesterday, Matt had managed to jump onto one of the icebergs where we took his picture.  The rest of us had decided not to risk this particular maneuver but we still had a yearning to get onto the ice.

Even at the thinning sides of the glacier, it towered above us and where the ice came close to the soil, it melted forming an almost impassable overhang.  We eventually found a spot where we were able to jump across and climb up the edge and on to the top but we didn’t dare venture too far from fear of the glacial crevasses which are often disguised under a thin layer of ice and snow.  Instead climbing (mostly sliding) off of the glacier, we instead explored under the overhang where the internal melting had produced beautiful deep blue caves running deep into the ice.  A thick and deep alluvial sludge made walking tricky and we didn’t venture too far into these.  We drank the cold water that spurted out of the occasional melt hole and it tasted beautifully pure.

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Mark and Matt in a glacial ice cave
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The glacial overhang and the steep edge up to the top

The climb back up to the camp was a lot tougher than coming down but it was all worth it.  By now, the campsite had become crowded but mostly with people trekking the opposite way to us as this apparently was the classic route.  We cooked an open fire since there were no rangers to give us any hassle.

7th March 2000 – Day 5 Torres del Paine (Day 230 overall)

We were up early and set off at 9am since we had a long trek ahead across the pass.  I stayed back with Irinia who was finding the climb difficult and not surprisingly.  The path led straight up the mountain rising 800 meters in total, with rain and wind making conditions unpleasant.  Finally after 2.5 hours, we broke the crest of the pass at 1,200 meters.  Behind us, a rainbow arched over the glacier and we could see the whole thing stretching back to the massive ice field in the far distance.  Compared to the ice field, the glacier was no bigger than my finger is to me.  Apparently it is the third biggest continuous frozen area in the world.

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Mark enjoying the view from near the pass with Glacier Grey behind

Descending on the far side was almost as tricky as going up since our legs were tired and the ground was a jumble of loose rocks.  After 2 hours, we reached a fast-flowing stream coming down from the mountains which we had to wade across with only the help of a rope tied from two opposing trees on either bank.  I ended up wading across three times with my backpack and then Irinia’s backpack but we were all pretty chilly by the end!

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Irinia traversing the cold glacial stream with Los Cuernos behind

After a re-energising lunch, the path continued beside a small lake.  Across the lake, the end of another glacier (Los Perros) seemed to be perched on top of a rocky cliff.  As we were passing, a huge section of ice broke away from the glacier, causing an avalanche as it tumbled down the cliff with a load rumbling roar and into the lake below.  We felt so lucky to be in the right place at the right time once again!

The next few hours were in a beautiful forest with the path slowly descending towards Lago Dickson.  The scenery was picturesque surrounded by the mountains, glaciers and forests on all sides.  At the refugio near Lago Dickson, we were able to buy some wine and sandwiches to help us celebrate completing the hardest parts of the walk.  Cooking took a long time though since the stove in the camper’s hut didn’t work properly and just filled the place with a foul, acrid smoke!  But finally after much choking, we were able to reward ourselves with a bolognese and mash!

8th March 2000 – Day 6 Torres del Paine (Day 231 overall)

We had 40 km to walk before getting back to base, but we knew the scenery would not be as spectacular as the previous few days.  Perhaps that’s why the classic route is the other way around so you can build up to the finale!  We enjoyed a lazy morning and partly expected someone to ask us for the $4 camping fee but since no one turned up, we packed and headed off after lunch and a cost free night.  The walk was very flat, following a river along a grassy valley but there was nothing much to see.

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Somewhere around Lago Dickson

There were a few hills which broke the monotonous flatness and finally, after about 7 hours, we made it to the campsite.  Here we found someone selling delicious empanadas filled with meat and cheese which we gorged ourselves on before dinner.  Since we knew this campsite also charged a nightly fee, we tried to find a secluded spot and hope no one would find us but unfortunately, a woman turned up asking for payment almost immediately.  Perhaps she had heard about some people who had absconded from another campsite without paying the night before….

We lit a fire away a little way from our tents to cook with since we had been warned that the rangers were about.  We had just about finished the cooking when Mark saw some flashlights.  I immediately jumped on the fire stomping it out and pouring water on the embers whilst the others carried the stuff back to the tents.  Luckily the flashlights continued onwards without coming any closer but we ended up finishing the cooking on our almost empty stove.  It tasted good and perhaps even better still knowing it was our last camp cooked meal before we would be back in town tomorrow.

9th March 2000 – Day 7 Torres del Paine (Day 232 overall)

The final day!  Wahey!  We left at 11am to start the four-hour trek back to base.  Luckily, we only get there to find we immediately had to jump on a bus that was leaving for Puerto Natales or wait for the next one.  I had imagined getting back to base, relaxing, eating a sandwich and having a beer but we ended up in a big rush in order to make the bus.  Oh well, five stinking bodies piled on and slowly steamed throughout the 2 hour journey.

Back in Puerto Natales, we checked back into the hotel and immediately jumped in the shower.  Unfortunately, the hot water lasted no time at all but was good to finally get clean again.  Following our showers, we headed out to a restaurant and had a three-course meal and several beers.  We were all still hungry at its conclusion so headed to another restaurant and started again!  At the end of this, hungry or not we were all completely pissed so crawled back to the hotel for a full night’s sleep.

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Route map around Torres del Paine National Park
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Our campsite (Camp 4) over looking Glacier Grey (Matt, me, Mark, Jono)

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