Snow, Mud, Ice and Wind: the Towers of Paine

This is a summary of our trek to Torres del Paine adapted from a mass email sent out by Paul.

Thursday morning in Tierra del Fuego we got up early and caught a bus for Puerto Natales, another twelve hour bus ride. Puerto Natales is further north back in mainland Chile, so we got to cross the Magellan Strait again and gaze at some desolate windswept plains for a few more hours. Puerto Natales is another main gringo center in South America, due to its close proximity to the Chilean national park, *Torres del Paine *(Towers of Paine). The park is quite famous and frequently visited (usually in the summer months). Excluding Machu Pichu (up in Peru), it’s THE mecca for gringo backpackers in South America. We got into town Thursday evening and made our preperations. The choice route that everyone normally wants to do is the 8-day circuit around the entire park, but some of the passes were blocked due to snow, so we were limited to the 5-day W trip referred to as “The W” (but what I like to think of now as the “double-EEEW”). This relatively new route is kind of the meat and potatos part of the park. It’s called the W because you go up a valley, come back down it, walk over a ways, then go up and back down another valley two more times. It’s somewhat difficult to describe treks, so I’ll just break it down into days, with a bit of help from Paul’s pen. Its a bit lengthy but a funny worthwhile account of our mishaps in shifty weather camping if I do say so myself… so pull up a chair and a coffee and turn on your screen reader… sorry if you dont have one of those yet :)

Day 1 Friday

We got up around seven and caught the bus out to the park and began our journey at about 1100. In order to save about $12 each, we decided to hike in to the starting point instead of taking a boat across a lake. So that added an extra 10 miles to the day. Those first 10 surplus miles were rather easy; mostly flat with a few small hills to climb. The scenery was somewhat dull at first, mostly just some grassy fields, partially shrouded by fog. Eventually the sun emergered, and we were rewarded with some spectacular views of the “Cuernos del Paine” (Horns of Paine) and a large intimidating snowcapped mountain looming over the lake which we were walking around. The Cuernos del Paine are a group of 6 or 7 mountains and towers that ascend abrubtly upwards in a horny manner, however as far as I can tell, the simple act of viewing the spectacle of earthen lust is not quite an aphrodesiac.

The next 5 miles we did were quite icy. The path leads up a valley (the left leg of the W) to get to a big, fat, icy Grey Glacier which that feeds into a tranquil partially frozen lake, which has a few tiny iceburgs floating around in it. This particular valley seems to be about 10 degrees colder than the rest of the park. The trail was completely frozen, the mud was ice, and the rocks were covered with about half an inch of frost, as were most all of the trees and shrubs within the valley, creating a winter wonderland of sorts. The trail wasn’t too steep, but it was mostly uphills, so we had to scramble our way up the trail with a good deal of slipping, sliding, and swearing.

We didn’t make it all the way to the Grey Glacier, since it got completly dark at about 6 PM so we pitched camp in a hollow which was just below a fantastic mirador (look-out spot) for the glacier. Paul claims that night to be one of the coldest nights of his life. Even with my reasonably good down sleeping bag, I was cold and I’m sure paul was miserable. By the morning he was wearing both thermal tops (one lightweight and one heavy), thermal bottoms, pants, a shirt, a wool sweater, and a fleece pullover. He also had on wool socks, a *balaclava *(similar to a ski mask but with one big hole for eyes and nose instead of three little holes), and some big, thick, ski gloves that i always give him hell for hauling along on the trip (esp, when we were on the beach in Ecuador). With all this on, and curled up in the fetal position you’ll be happy to know he was able to stop shivering long enough to get a few hours of sleep.

Day 2 Saturday

In the morning we woke up and discovered that our tent was covered with a nice thick layer of frost, and on the inside our breath had frozen to the walls of the tent. The sweat in the liners of our boots never dried overnight, it just froze solid, providing a delightful foot-numbing chill for the first hour or two of the day. We eventually warmed up as we got moving, while walking I was comfortable wearing just pants and my light thermal top. We made our way back down the valley, and proceded eastward towards the middle leg of the W. As soon as we got out of the valley, everything seemed to thaw, so we got to plod along on slippery muddy trails all day. We passed undernearth the Cuernos del Paine for most of the day, and there were a few small green lagoons to see as well. The second day we only went about 9 or 10 miles, and we stopped for the night at the bottom of the middle valley, which we planned on doing the following day. From our campsite we had a wonderful view of a towering snow covered mountain at the head of the valley. We were close enough to hear the small avalanches, which sounded like jetplanes passing by, and sometimes we could look up and see waves of snow come crashing down the mountain side. It was still quite cold, but not nearly as bad as up in the glacial valley, so sleep came much more comfortably.

Day 3 Sunday

We got up and were delighted to find our tent dry and free of ice. We had hardly packed up camp though before it started raining on us. The whole valley was filled with fog and clouds, and it was drizziling steadily, so we decided to skip the middle leg of the W and head over to the next leg. The middle leg is only about 3 miles each way, so most people generally go up and down it with just small daypacks, and then go another 3 or 4 miles to another campsite. Since we were skipping that whole process, it added about 4 miles to the day, so we ended up going about 15 miles again. This day we mostly walked up and down ridges and hills all day, with a rather extensive up-hill climb up the valley at the end of the day. The rain made things nice and slippery, but that wasn’t really anything new. It stopped raining about midday, so we had some nice views of the lakes and mountains in the area. Paul provided the comic relief for the day when he fell down walking across the top of a small frozen waterfall and proceded to slide down the slope of the ridge about 10 feet or so. I was amused greatly, and Paul was provided with a wet icy bum. Tired and footsore we finally arrived to camp at twilight, up the ridge we caught a glimpse of the top of one of the famed Torres del Paine.

Day 4 Monday

We woke up in the morning to the sound of the wind shrieking like a nursery full of scared infants. There was also mixture of sleet and rain blowing in, getting out of the sleeping bags took no small measure of willpower. We left our packs and climbed up the ridge to the mirador which provides views of the actual Torres del Paine, three massive rock towers for which the park is named. Most people do this hike in the morning as we did, in hope of seeing a magnificent sunrise coloring the towers. The sunrise wasn’t too spectacular, mostly behind clouds, but the towers were still quite impressive. There is a small turqoise lake directly in front of the towers providing a picturesque view from the mirador. The towers were probably the most impressive thing we saw in the park, it was the highlight of the trek. The wind was the dominant condition of the day though. While up at the mirador we crouched down behind boulders seeking shelter from the wind, which was battering us from pretty much every direction. The wind actually made a small hurricane in the water, similar to a little dust-devil tornado, but with water. We scrambled back down the ridge, packed up camp, and made our way out of the park. The trail up (and back down) the valley was mostly along the side of a large scree covered ridge, about 400 feet above a rocky river. Coming up the trail the previous day was rather pleasant, the views were excellent. Coming down was not so much fun. Prior to this trip, I thought that a 45 pound backpack would help stabalize you in high winds. I have since learned that it is much more of a hindrance- I almost got blown off the ridge a few times due to the wind getting a hold on my pack and jerking me sideways. The wind just increased in strength as the day progressed. Throughout the morning it continued to spit rain on us as well. We only walked about 10 miles, but the last 3 were along a dirt/gravel road out of the park to the entrance to the park and where the bus would pick us up to take us back to civilization. The wind was so strong at this point, I think it got up to 40-50 mph at times, that it was actually picking up small rocks (about pea sized) and pelting us with them. Fortunantly the wind was predominantly on our left hand side, occasionally even at our backs, so we didn’t have to walk against the wind. These winds were definantly comparable to the winds that blow in from tropical storms on the Atlantic. Needless to say, we were exuberant to get to the ranger station and huddle down on the leeward side of the building out of the howling wind. We then returned back to Puerto Natales, cleaned up, had a nice dinner of “Lomo a la Pobre”, a preferred Chilean dish consisting of a steak with a fried egg or two on top, sauteed onions, and mashed potatos or frenchfries. After dinner we split a bottle of whiskey and talked about our renewed appreciation for shelter and heating.

Tuesday we got on a bus and came back to Argentina to the town of El Calafate, which is located in close proximity to the Perito Moreno Glacier. El Calafate is a small quaint little town located on the shores of Lago Argentino in the foothills of the Andes. Tourism is the one and only attraction here, most people just come to see the glacier and then leave, we will do this tomorrow.

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