Epic adventures in the deep South
22.11.2010 - 28.01.2011 5 °C
I arrived in Puerto Natales, fortunate enough to have found a great group of people on the Navimag who were all keen to do the W trek in Torres del Paine. A 24 hour stop over in town gave us enough time to make plans, hire kit, buy food and generally psyche ourselves up for 5 days of pretty hard walking. We went to a fantastic briefing session at Erratic Rock (a fantastic hostel), which gave us loads of useful information on the hike, together with the occasional slightly worrying nugget ("the first time I did the hike I got blown over loads of times" and "don't bother wearing waterproofs as you'll get soaked but then dry out in minutes as it's so windy").
By the next evening, we were just about ready - the ten of us off the boat had split into 2 groups, five crazy people choosing to try and do most of the route in 3 days, whilst the rest of us decided on the more normal five days. Our five had also grown with the addition of several new faces; Brian- an American we had met in Puerto Natales, Ben and Murray- friends of Boaz and Jeroen (the Dutch pilots) from earlier on their trip and, last but by no means least, Fredericka- a French girl who'd met Ben and Murray on the bus. Fortunately I was the only one with a space in my tent, so had to accommodate Freddy, which was obviously a great disappointment! Dinner that evening was the first opportunity to actually sit down together and get to know everyone - fortunately it soon became clear that everyone was going to get on and it looked like being a great trip.
We were up early the next morning to catch the bus for the 3 hour trip into the park, a journey that most of spent grabbing a last few winks of sleep. We arrived in the park to some stunning views of the mountains rising vertically out of the plains, with cotton wool clouds floating in the blue sky.
It all looked incredibly peaceful, until we got off the bus and were hit by ferocious gusts of wind which knocked us sideways. It was so windy the water was being blown into a mist which covered the lake surface and sprayed us with water, something I've never seen before. Our first task was to cross the lake by catamaran, a journey which was an experience in itself, with the boat being buffeted by the waves. We made it safely to the other side and, pulling on our large and heavy (about 17kg) packs, set off. The first couple of hours were spent walking up a pretty valley, mostly sheltered from the worst of the wind, enabling us to enjoy the stunning views of the azure blue lake we'd just crossed and the mountains beyond.
Soon we reached exposed ground beyond and were hit by the strongest wind I've ever experienced - we were all being blown over, and I was very thankful for the walking pole I'd picked up in town. Our route led us along the edge of Lago Grey towards the glacier, and as we gradually approached the end of the lake amazing coloured icebergs began to appear in the lake below. After 3 hours of walking we reached the highest point of the day and got our first views of the stunning Glacier Grey in the distance. The glacier was an amazing blue and white expanse, spanning between the mountains and disappearing into the distance until it merged with the sky. The next couple of hours were spent descending towards the glacier, until we reached our campsite on the shore of the lake.
After pitching camp, we settled down to cook our dinners before enjoying a cheeky beer with some games of cards in the adjoining refugio - amazing what you can find in the middle of nowhere! Everyone was feeling good after a pretty easy day and we all headed to bed feeling pretty good. We awoke the next morning to more good weather, with a lot less wind and a glimpse of sun in the sky. After a quick breakfast we set off again, retracing our route from the day before. There seemed to mysteriously be a lot more uphill sections than there were downhill the previous day, but we still made good progress and covered the 12km in time to stop for lunch at our start point the day before.
Then it was time to move on, and continue to our next campsite. The scenery gradually changed as we walked, with one set of mountains retreating behind us as another, even more imposing, appeared in front. I enjoyed a relaxed afternoon, ambling along with plenty of breaks for photos as we passed lakes and plenty of other photo opportunities.
We arrived at our next campsite in time to enjoy some spectacular views up the mouth of the Vallee Francaise, our objective for the following day, before setting up camp and cooking up more pasta-based delicacies. We hooked up with the group doing the route in 3 days, who were coming in the opposite direction and spent the evening catching up, in between listening to the huge rumbles echoing down the glacier as small avalaches cascaded down the valley sides above.
Day three dawned with slightly confusing weather comprising bright sun, blue skies and snowstorms as we set off up the valley, enjoying the feeling of carrying day sacks instead of the heavy packs we'd lugged around for the previous two days. We ascended for a couple of hours, working our way through beautiful woodland, with the mountains unfolding in front of us. The scenery was even better than the previous few days and we were all thoroughly enjoying ourselves.
The only slight hitch came when a few of us somehow managed to lose the main path and disappear in the woods. The rest of us waited for almost an hour, sending out search parties retracing our steps until eventually they turned up and we could carry on. Pretty soon we reached a large clearing, where the mountains properly surround us on all sides. We posed for group photos then said goodbye to the crazy group, who had to rush off in order to get to the end in time for the last boat. The rest of us carried on, as the weather closed in until by the time we reached the "viewpoint" we were in white-out with snow being blown horizontally in our faces. We didn't hang about long, and descended out of the cloud back into sunshine.
A quick race back down the valley saw us back at the campsite by 2.30pm, ready for a quick pack and go. We were planning to eat at the next refugio that night, but had to reserve our meals by 5.00pm and the next leg was supposed to take 3 hours! Without any time to lose we moved on, working our way along overgrown paths next to one of the stunning azure-blue lakes. Fortunately the route didn't take as long as we'd expected and we arrived in plenty of time to pitch camp and order our food. The campsite was in a beautiful location next to the lake, and we had a great sunset over the lake, even if it was freezing cold.
Our dinner in the refugio was probably the in the 5 most expensive meals I've had in South America at $20, but the opportunity to have something fresh not involving pasta was too tempting, so we enjoyed a tasty three course, with a nice bottle of red wine to wash it down with. I spent the meal rushing in and out in order to keep track of the sunset and make sure I got some nice photos.
Day 4 dawned to the best weather of all - absolutely no wind and a scorching sun. Our route took us along the side of the mountains, gradually rising above the lakes, which were like mirrors. All along the path, the flowers were in bloom, with bright red flowers making the views even better. It was absolutely stunning, and has to go down as one of the best day's walking I've ever had.
The distance passed without really noticing, and we soon turned up the final valley and gained our first glimpse of the very tips of the towers themselves as we arrived at our campsite. We were there in plenty of time, so decided to climb the steep slope up to the towers themselves. The route takes you up a steep sandy slope, then traverses a boulder field, with the towers concealed by the slope above. This makes it even more impressive when you finally cross the ridge and see the huge towers beyond, with a small lake at their base.
We stayed up there for an hour or so, enjoying the view, before tiredness and a freezing cold wind sent us back down to camp. We had a quick dinner, then went straight to bed, knowing we had a ridiculously early start the next day... That involved a 3.45am alarm call, and somehow dragging ourselves out of our warm sleeping bags into the cold and dark. The climb up was dotted with head torches as everyone made their way back up to the Torres, and gradually the dawn grew lighter, and the silhouettes of the mountains grew visible. We were up the top and settled in to a vaguely sheltered location by 5.00am ready for dawn.
Gradually the sky grew lighter, until eventually the sun rose above the mountains behind us and illuminated the Torres with a soft, pink light. It was a fitting culmination to five days of trekking, and we celebrated with mini bottles of Jack Daniels, that Brian had secretly been carrying for the past few days. The only slight hitch came when I tried to relocate from my perch, carrying rucksack, camera and sleeping mat whilst balancing on the rocks. Unfortunately a gust of wind grabbed hold of may mat and sent it whirling away across the mountains before I could react! Fortunately it didn't land in the lake, thereby ruining everyone's photos of the Torres and the last we saw of it was a black dot disappearing over the distant peaks.
Eventually the sun rose fully and we returned to camp for breakfast before striking camp for the fourth and final time. By the time we set off back down the valley, the weather had changed completely and heavy rain had set in, blown horizontally by the strong wind. This continued for the rest of the morning and gave us a taste of what the trek could have been like - not very pleasant. The final few hours passed pretty quickly and we were soon celebrating reaching the end with a few beers and some decent food back in Puerto Natales, where I'll end this entry