Torres del Paine: the longest trek in the world

(written in Tierra del Fuego National Park and Ushuaia, Argentina. April 2010)

80km, 4 days, two girls.

Intro:
Our adventure began with a 7h bus ride from El Calafate, Argentina to Puerto Natales, Chile, the gateway to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. After the border control officers confiscated the pear I didn’t declare we were back on our way and no sooner than 15mins later we had reached our final destination. We rushed to a nearby hostel where a daily chat about the ‘W’ hike was held at 3pm. We arrived early so we had time to have a cup of tea and take a breath. The talk lasted 1.5h and covered everything from logistics to protection against mice invasions. We knew how to get there, how many days it would take, each day’s itinerary, how to pack, what to get, what to expect from the weather.

We then settled at a cosy hostel recommended by a friend and spent the rest of the afternoon running around, taking care of errands, sorting out bus tickets to our next destination and shopping for food. The trip to the supermarket was exhausting. I don’t remember ever being so tired after shopping. We put a lot of effort into planning our menu as to avoid any unnecessary weight. We bought ready-made pasta, rice and soup for dinner, oatmeal for breakfast, cheese, salami, and bread for lunch. We also added some fresh tomatoes, pears, apples, and boiled eggs which held most of the weight. They did however made all the difference to our meals to the point where fellow hikers were saying that we ate best during the hike.
Back at the hostel we rented our camping gear including a -30º gore-tex glacier sleeping bag for me that considerably added to the weight. I didn’t however want to risk it with the -10º one. Better heavy than cold. It was a good decision at the end, it kept me warm.
Packing all our stuff into our backpacks presented another challenge. I sat in front of the pile of stuff, exhausted and not knowing where to start. By 1am we had wrapped and double wrapped everything in plastic rubbish bags and managed to stuff it into the packs. Sandra took my sleeping bag (and I hers) as it wouldn’t fit in my backpack. It was too big and took 2/3 of the space. I in exchange took more of the heavy fruit balancing the weight that way.
While packing, showering and generally just running around I also had to go to a nearby hostel in a desperate attempt to get waterproof trousers. Our hostel didn’t have any and this other place didn’t have them either. ‘Ooops!’ I thought. The guy there assured me I would be just fine with my quick dry trousers and a pair of pajamas for the evening.
-You will get wet anyway – he said. Is that supposed to be reassuring?! For his information we didn’t get wet but more about that later.
I went to bed that night mainly exhausted but also excited and a bit anxious.
Day 1: Glacier Gray (hiking time-8h)
We got up at 6am, had a quick breakfast and last minute preparations and the bus picked us up at 7.30am. We slept through the 2h drive to the entrance of the park. When we got there we dropped off our bags at the ferry dock and went for a short hike to a nearby waterfall as advised by the guys at the presentation. Better walk, see something and stay warm than freeze while waiting for the ferry to leave.
As we hiked up the path the wind was whiplashing us in the face and we thought this is what it will be like for the next four days. We reached the waterfall that had that beautiful glacier water color (a mix between green, blue, and grey) and a pretty rainbow to complete the picture. We also got our first glimpse of the mountains. By that time we’ve already met Tice – a Danish guy Sandra had previously met in Colombia.
We boarded the catamaran for our 30min ride to the first camping spot. We thought we’d need 5 days/4 nights to complete the ‘W’ circuit but then Tice shared his idea with us and we realized we could do it in 3 nights. It only took a change of camping spot for the first night. Instead of camping up the trail near the glacier, we would stay at that first camp, making the hiking distance to the second camp (night 2) much shorter. When a worker at the camp offered to set up our tent for us while we were hiking we couldn’t pass it up. So that first day we went up to the glacier and then walked back to camp for the night.
We spent the day chatting and laughing which was the most memorable part of the day besides the views of a couple of snow peaks that looked unreal.
We went back when it was already dark (we got so carried away that we forgot about the time. Hiking in the dark was a first time experience and an interesting on. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t too difficult either as we had already walked the path. If I were alone I would probably be a bit nervous surrounded by all that wilderness but since we were in a group it was just a lot of fun), prepared dinner in the kitchen area (I also cooked our lunch for the following day – a lovely vegetable risotto mixed with some cheap sausages. It was originally planned as an evening meal but we soon realized we had too many dinner meals and not enough lunch ones) , secured our food in plastic boxes against mice (one walked unbothered in my feet while I was washing the dishes) and went to bed. We arranged to meet up at 7.30am for a long day of hiking.

That night I didn’t sleep very well. We left some plastic bottles of water just outside the tent and as soon as we went quiet I could hear the mice running around and chewing up the bottles. I was worried that they’d chew through the tent (it has happened before) and bite us. I didn’t want to imagine these mice crawling in our sleeping bags. I tried to shoo them away but couldn’t make too much noise because Sandra was sleeping (seemingly unaware of the mice). After a while nothing happened and I relaxed. They seemed to the quite satisfied with the plastic bottles and didn’t seem to have any other intentions. Go figure!

Sandra didn’t believe me about the nightly mice invasion when I told her in the morning. But I soon got my revenge. Her trousers got all soaked from the dripping bottle as we walked to the kitchen area. Do you believe me now!?
Day 2: Valle del France (hiking time-10.5h)
We got up while it was still dark, quickly put the tent down and met up with Tice. We were looking forward to hiking with him again but he surprised us by saying he was thinking about taking the boat back. Apparently, he’d had a terrible night. He’d been cold all night and barely got one hour of sleep. He was on the verge of becoming ill. He thought hard about his decision during breakfast and finally decided to go back. He didn’t look well. We were disappointed as we’d had so much fun together the day before. We wished him well and went our separate ways.
We walked 2.5h to Campamento Italiano (a dark, dirty and generally unattractive camping area) where we dropped off our bags, packed a day pack and headed to Valle del Frances. For me this was the highlight of the trip together with the Torres. We climbed up on rocks along the river at first and then carried on through the woods. We knew we could see avalanches from a certain point and we were so excited when we heard the first thunder. WE ran up the hill in order to get a better view of the mountain and then we saw it! A small, puffy cloud of snow making its way down. Just like the glacier it made such noise but looked so small and fluffy.
We walked further up and saw more, bigger avalanches. Absolutely amazing! Both me and Sandra stood there, mesmerized, all exclamations and smiles. I have never seen one before and was very excited. ‘Did you see it?! Oh, my God! This is amazing! Wow! Oh!’ I would exclaim. I love those ‘interactive’ hikes where something is happening or you spot wildlife. Makes the trip so much more exciting and memorable.
We reached the first mirador where we saw the peak in all its icy glory. It looked so close as if we could almost touch it. Again it was unreal. It you see the photos you’d think we’d Photoshopped ourselves onto a poster. This was my favourite spot of the whole hike, not even the Torres could top up its beauty. It looked like someone has sprayed the still fluff, unsettled snow onto its peaks; it looked like something taken out of a mystical fairytale. So mysterious and enchanting.
We then walked further up to the second lookout point where we had a 360º view of the mountains as well as one of the lakes. Nothing we could not have seen from further down. It was nice but not as impressive as Avalanche Mountain (I made that up). We had a quick lunch No.2 for the day and headed back. Speaking of food, let me just say how much we ate during those 4 days. We would start with a big, nutritious breakfast, then have a mid-morning snack, then lunch, then an afternoon snack, and dinner. We would also munch on fruit and snacks on the way. We were hungry every two hours.
We didn’t have any time to waste as we still had to pick up our bags and walk to the second night camp. Another brief stop at the stunning peak, a few more photos and we were back at the campamento (5h in total). We hoped to make it to the next camp during day light hours. We weren’t sure we would but we would try. Another 2.5h with packs.
We made it to camp a little before dark. Sandra says nothing memorable happened on the way there. We were just happy to arrive. I agree. We walked through the woods most of the time and it only got a bit more exciting when we reached the lake and walked on the black and white pebbles along the shore.
We picked up a soft spot under some thick trees and set up the tent for the first time ourselves. While doing this we also boiled water for our meal trying to make the most of the day light we had left. The night soon caught up and we set up most of the tent in the dark with flashlights in hand. My headlamp was almost dead and wasn’t of much help. Good thing the tent was one of those super-duper advanced engineering miracles and easy to set up. We didn’t have any trouble at all.
Before it got completely dark and before all of the above mentioned action took place, Sandra sent me to the ‘nearby’ river to get water. We could hear it and assumed it was close. Soon after I got tangled in some vegetation and lost my way through the small paths I realized it was not close at all. I saw the waterfall making all the misleading noise but there was still some way to go to the river. Anyhow, I finally made it and got my water. I saw a path leading to the back of the refugio and took it. A few steps later I came to a fallen branch blocking the way and as I was trying to walk over it I lost my balance and landed on my ass. I sat there trying to get up while balancing the bottles of water and eventually made it after a few pathetic attempts. Guess what I found on the way back – a sink with running water! Yes, it didn’t offer the adventure of getting all messed up on the way but who cares! I figured my way around the camp and as I was walking around the refugio I could see other campers having dinner in what looked like a very warm and cozy dining area. We walked there a few times that night but decided not to go inside in case they made us pay for the camp spot. Yes, I know. Very cheap of us! 🙂
We had the tent up, the cheese pasta was ready and we finally sat down and relaxed (if you call eating in the dark, cold night relaxing). The pasta wasn’t great, a bit tasteless but all the rest of our meals were great. We warmed up with some hot cinnamon tea once again secured our food in a plastic rubbish bag and hung it from a tree branch. This time we left the plastic bottles far away from the tent but it didn’t help much. Again, we went quiet and the animals started rummaging. This time it sounded like a bigger animal but it might have just been a really big rat. In the morning we found the cap of one of the bottles all chewed up. We washed it and kept using it. Our resources were tightly calculated and we couldn’t throw away our precious water bottles.
Day 3: the long walk to Campamento Torres
This was going to be somewhat of a relaxed day. We had to walk along the lake with our backpacks but only for about 7h. For the first time since we started we would actually arrive at the camp during daylight hours. We were happy to be able to relax properly and set up camp while it was still light.
The night before I’d slept like a baby. I was very warm and comfortable. We also had somewhat of a lie in and got up at about 8am. We had a delicious, relaxed breakfast of oatmeal with apples and canela, tea and fresh fruit. We then packed up, happy to find all our food intact and hit the road. We were so lucky with the weather that day. The sun was shining since the early morning hours and it stayed that way for most of the day. We were so hot, we hiked in shorts and T-shirts. This reminds me of a traditional Austrian saying Sandra shared with me – ‘When angels are traveling, the sun is shining’.
We walked until we found the sign to the shortcut, estimated the time we had left, chose a nice lookout point overlooking the lake with the mountains behind our backs and settled for lunch. Another delicious lunch of bread, cheese, salami, boiled eggs, fresh tomatoes and fruit. We even had some motivational chocolate-chip cookies.
We soon found out that the shortcut might have saved us 2h but it surely didn’t save us any effort. Almost all of it was uphill. We walked through Patagonian steppe under the scorching sun. We hardly spoke focusing all our energy on the hike. Our surroundings were so quiet and for the first time we felt like we were the only people there. We stopped for short water breaks here and there but we were too tired to talk. We mostly just started in front of us, trying to enjoy the view. We were so happy to see the sign indicating the end of the two-hour shortcut and the beginning of the downhill. A few steps further down the path revealed and amazing view of a deep valley. Imagine this – a ‘V’ – shaped valley stretching for a few kilometers in front of you, losing itself at the foot of the mountains, edged snow peaks towering over in the far distance, glacial colored river running at the bottom of it, red, yellow, and green vegetation covering both sides. It was the second most memorable view of the trip.
We walked through the valley to our final camp destination. First thing we did as soon as we arrived is make ourselves a hot cup of tea, sit down and do nothing. We then set up the tent and cooked dinner. We were in bed before 9.30pm. I am glad we walked long hours he days before as we realized there is nothing to do in the evening. As soon as you stop walking you start feeling the cold and it is just not pleasant to sit around. That night I felt a bit cold and kept twisting and turning.
Day 4: the Torres!
On the last day of the hike we got up as early as 5.30am. It was the great finale of our adventure – we were hiking up to Torres del Paine to see the sunrise. It was supposed to be spectacular as the towers turn red with the rising sun. So it is 5.30 am, it is dark and cold. We crawled out of the tent and could see the light from headlamps pierce the dark throughout the camp. Everyone was getting ready. We quickly packed up our sleeping bags and mats (as previously advised), packed up the breakfast we had put aside the night before, got our water and cooking gear and set off for the 45min, 45º hike up to the towers. 15min later we were sweating and panting, slowly making our way in the dark. We rushed as much as we could trying not to miss the big event. We couldn’t see anybody walking behind us and knew we were the last ones to go up.
We eventually made it, I wrapped myself up in my warm sleeping bag and settled for breakfast – the last of the oatmeal, fresh fruit and tea. Unfortunately, the towers did not turn red as it was a bit cloudy that morning but it was nevertheless spectacular. We sat there enjoying our hot breakfast with nothing less but the Torres del Paine in front of us. Where was the last place you had breakfast at…?
After breakfast we walked a bit, took some amazing photos and it was soon time to pack up and head back to camp We still had a bus to catch and a rather long hike was ahead of us.
For the last time we packed everything up and left. Surprisingly we got down amazingly quickly, much faster than we thought.
On the way down we picked up a Chilean climber who was too tired to keep up with his friends. It turned out that he’d started a very interesting project some 3 years ago. He was travelling from Canada to the very south of Chile in an eco-car fuelled by used cooking oil (50% less CO2 emission). The idea was to promote environmental protection and awareness at schools, universities and various organizations throughout Latin America using the funky car as a practical example. Anybody could join him on his quest as long as they helped out with the presentations and gathered resources. I am attaching his website as I thought his cause was worth it and because he was one of the most interesting people I have met on this trip: www.rioslibres.org
As the three of us walked up yet another hill we bumped into a fox. At first we thought it was a dog as it just stood on the path very comfortably, munching on something. On closer inspection we realized it was a fox, rather fat one with a beautiful, shiny furry coat. It didn’t move as we approached it. It seemed to be very comfortable with our presence. It probably knew we couldn’t do anything under the weight of our bags and our sore knees. It only decided to move away (but didn’t run away) from the path as we got about a meter away from it. What a wonderful encounter! Now is the time to mention all the other animals we saw on the way – Patagonian geese and birds, guanacos (lama like animal), red-headed woodpeckers, pink flamingos, and…condors of course! In all their glory.
We made it to the hotel where the bus was leaving from and had about 2h to kill. We crashed on the soft couches in the lobby and didn’t move from there until the bus came. I was surprised the hotel let us use them without any consumption. It was a rather nice hotel and we were all stinky backpackers who haven’t showered in 4 days.
The End:
We napped in the bus and before we knew it we were back in town. We were glad to be back, looking forward to a hot shower and a decent meal. But the more time went by the more I liked the hike, it grew on me. I am glad we did it, it was a great experience.

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