Journal 20 - February 21, 2003

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine » Go Back

Journal 20
Puerto Natales, Chile is the starting point for treks to Chile's famous Torres del Paine National Park. Featuring three humungous granite pillars that heave out of the ground towards the sky, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine is one of Chile's most popular national parks, and one of the most beautiful in all of South America. My friends and I arrived late in the afternoon on the fourth of February, got settled, then used the next day to make arrangements for the trek.

I've been looking forward to the Torres trek for over a year, ever since my friend Henry came back from Chile last year with a huge stack of photos and many stories about the majesty of the park. I couldn't wait to get started, I ran around all day on the fifth preparing and making arrangements to leave the next day. My friends, who were pressed for time, decided not to do the trek, which meant we had to say some sad goodbyes before going our separate ways. After three weeks of traveling with the girls, I had spent more time with them than anyone since leaving my Chilean family back in early November. We shared many laughs during our time together, some fantastic meals, great times, and saw some incredible sites. On the morning of the sixth we said our sad goodbyes and parted ways.

Day 1: I arrived at the park and headed straight for the Torres del Paine. Because I was alone, I decided not to camp during the trek, but instead opted for the available refugios that offer hot showers, a bed, a kitchen, and other amenities. Half of the twenty kilos in my pack consisted of food, which meant my pack got lighter as I hiked, a good thing considering the state of my knees by the end of the five days. After hiking an hour I arrived at the refugio, dropped my pack, had lunch and headed for the Torres (Spanish for towers). From the refugio it takes two hard hours of hiking to get to the Torres. The path leads along a river, then up a boulder strewn hillside that differentiates from the surrounding area thanks only to the orange dots painted on the rocks to mark the way. A hard hour of climbing gets you to the top and an incredible view, the three Torres launching themselves skyward out of a green lagoon. I was very fortunate to arrive to blue skies, a rare site during this El Niño winter I was told. I clicked away with the camera for an hour, then settled down to admire the beauty of the Torres. Two shirts, two jackets, a beanie and gloves kept me toasty warm as I dozed on the rocks and enjoyed nature's awesome beauty. I sat for a while and then decided to take a walk around the lagoon. I quickly turned around after witnessing a small rock-slide ahead, then looking above to see dozens of rocks sitting, waiting to hurl themselves at me in Yossarian-like fashion. Rather than become a target for the eager rocks, I headed for safety and more snoozing on the boulders along the shore. As I sat and watched from a distance, rocks and boulders periodically crashed down the mountainsides that soar steeply from the lagoon. Wind gusts sent them tumbling down into the water, making me glad I had turned around when I did. After three hours of sitting, snoozing, and observing the towers under the changing light of the skies, I decided to make my way back to the refugio as a light snowfall began. It may be summer in Patagonia, but it was colder than the coldest winter day in Santa Barbara.

Day 2: I had breakfast and began the four hour hike to Los Cuernos Refugio. Along the way I met up with an Irish couple and spent the rest of the day walking with them. The first part of the hike was very easy, traversing along a mountainside, a toothpaste colored lake on my left and enormous mountains on my right with waterfalls and a glacier spilling off the top. As we hiked towards the refugio and lamented those dam Florida ballots, we began to see wisps of water rising up off the lake into mini-tornados. The longer we hiked the bigger they got. Like a ballet the water danced on the lake. Powerful gusts of wind picked up water and whisked it along the surface for hundreds of yards. The closer we go to the refugio and the shore of the lake, the stronger the wind got. What began as a tranquil hike enjoying the natural beauty of Patagonia, ended as a struggle to stay upright. Once in the refugio we were treated to a phenomenal view of the wind storm. There we met an English girl who had been knocked off her feet four times during her hike, and she had the scratches and bruises to show it. We all sat and watched the water dance on the lake. So powerful, the wind obliterated several waterfalls coming off the mountain, reducing them to spurts of water that reversed direction and flew up towards the sky. After saving a tent that had begun a kite-like journey towards the lake, Mick and I decided to head to the shore to watch the squalls. Standing there we could watch the wind approach as it picked up water from the lake and flew towards us like sheets of rain. We tried to time the gusts and snap pictures before being pelted by the flying water pellets. After a dozen shots we were sufficiently soaked and satisfied with our photos. We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon chatting with the others in the refugio and watching the gusty violence.

Day 3: A fantastic hike into the French Valley of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. From the refugio it was two hours to Campo Italiano, where we set down our packs and hiked into the valley. Along the way we were treated to an encore of the water ballet on the lake, a rainbow over the turquoise waters, and spectacular mountain scenery. The valley itself is like a version of Mother Nature's Greatest Hits. During a thirty minute span we saw a number of fantastic sites, each of which would be worthy of its own national park if placed in most other places in the world. In the valley we saw a huge waterfall, a raging river, a mountain glacier cascading down the rocky mountains, numerous high waterfalls being tossed about by the winds, a fantastic old forest, and were treated to incredible views of the surrounding mountains and valley below. Each of the dozen rivers we crossed offered an opportunity to refill our water bottles with tasty glacier water. We hiked to the top of the valley where the light drizzle turned to sleet and snow. There we enjoyed the view while chatting with some nice lads from Alaska, then headed down and made our way to the third refugio.

Day 4: The three of us hiked towards the phenomenal Glacier Grey, a huge glacier that spills into Lago Grey. Mick, Aisling and I hiked for four hours to Refugio Grey, all the while admiring the breath taking views of the lake, the glacier, and the surrounding peaks. During the walk we passed by half a dozen more sites of incredible natural beauty, several small lakes, rushing rivers, waterfalls, snow-capped peaks of the Patagonian Andes, and Lago Grey with its huge icebergs floating by. With aching knees the three of us hobbled towards the refugio. After a nice lunch, some hot tea, and some rest, we hiked out to a peninsula for a late sunset and a terrific view of the glacier. As we walked along the shore it took all I had to resist the temptation to jump onto one of the icebergs huddled there. I did manage to heave a big block of ice out of the water long enough to pose for a photo and freeze my hands off. And much to my surprise the Irishman didn't come prepared for Chilean Patagonia's famous whiskey on the rocks, traditionally served on the thousand year old rocks of Glacier Grey. After an hour Mick and Aisling went back to the refugio and I stayed to enjoy the sunset.

Day 5: While Aisling hiked her aching knees to the boat, Mick and I made a quick trip towards the glacier for a closer look. After an hour we arrived at a great viewing point where we sat and marveled at the mass of the powder blue ice field. We relaxed, took some pictures, then began the painful four hour hike to the boat that would take us out of the park. Both of us hobbled by aching knees, we struggled to stay upright against the wind that mocked us and our attempts to stay vertical. We made agonizing but steady progress towards the refugio, stopping often to rest our knees and dream about the warm food that awaited us in the Refugio.

Five days was barely enough to see what we saw, and Parque Nacional Torres del Paine has way more to offer than the popular 'W' route that we took. I look forward to coming back someday to spend eight or ten days trekking and admiring the beauty of the park.

Tierra del Fuego and back to BA next.