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Torres del Paine - Day 1

Written on: Sunday February 17th, 2008

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Author: Julie


Our trek began with a 7 am departure aboard a bus shuttle service that ferried passengers to the park entrance thrice a day. The 2 hours ride drove along the flat Patagonia landscape, skirting lone fences of the large estancias in the area. Twenty minutes later, we were greeted with a grandiose view of what was to come: the Cordillera del Paine with its jagged mountains tops and pristine white snow caps. We arrived to a long line of bus at the park entrance and that?s when I realised that it wasn?t just through hikers coming to the park but day trippers intent on visiting a bit before returning on the late afternoon bus to their hostel, hotel or cruise ship. No matter what were their intentions, everyone had to pay the 15,000 pesos (30$) fee for permission to enter this majestic park.

We paid our fare and passed through the gates with our small bags. We only had daybags with us, weighing at most 10 KGs each but there a lot more people there with large backpacks filled to the brim with camping gear. The park affords two possible treks: the ?W? which snakes it way up Ascensio valley, back down and around the mountains, up French valley, back down again to finally complete at the end of another valley, effectively tracing out a pattern resembling the letter W. This trek was the most popular and allowed trekkers to see and experience the best highlights of the park before having to return to the real world. The other trek is called the Circuit and extended the W over a few more days completing a loop and allowing trekkers to go into the backcountry away from the crowds to experience a more quiet side of the park.

Due to the popularity of the ?W?, we had the choice to either camp along the trail at designated campsites or to stay at lodges, in dorm rooms with or without full-board. The previous year, Kevin had stayed at the lodges and had really liked his experience so we decided to the same this year with the room and board. Although this was a much more expensive alternative (approx. 70$ pp/night) than camping it allowed us to trek through with light daypacks and to enjoy our experience without being impeded by heavy loads on our back. Our plan was to start on the eastern side of the park, spend 2 nights at Hosteria Los Torres (see Hs Los Torres on the map) with a hike up the valley to see the Torres spires, then move on to Refugio Los Cuernos (they didn?t have any availability in their lodge for us but would provide a tent with sleeping pads) for 1 night, up Valle Frances to see the impressive cirque, then 2 more nights at Hosteria Pain Grande (see Refugio Pehoe on map), ending with a boat ride along the Glacier Gray. Most people do this trek in 4 nights but we decided to book an extra couple of nights to enjoy the park at its fullest. There are also many possible ways of walking the trail from the opposite direction (west to east) than what we had planned (east to west). We found out during the information session that this was the one preferred as it afforded the best views of the world famous Torres spires, and it began on a more gradual incline which is favoured by hikers just starting off with their bags full of food for the week, but it was too late to change our reservation.

Anyhow, back to the entrance gate and us just having paid our entrance fee. The next step was to catch one of the shuttles from the park entrance to Hosteria Los Torres. They were perfectly timed to meet the buses arriving from Puerto Natales and they shuttled people back and forth to their various drop off points within the park. We threw our bags into the trailer attached to the back and settled in for our ride. I couldn?t stop looking everywhere around me, it was so beautiful. We were lucky and were graced with a near perfect sky, the foothills were in full bloom, the water was crystal clear, the mountains were only slightly shrouded in clouds and everyone was in a great mood.

We arrived at Hosteria Los Torres to find out there was two buildings. They had built a new building but were still using the much smaller and older one for bookings. We were booked one night in the old one and one night in the new one. We dropped our bags on our assigned bunks and headed outside for a view of the Torres spires which were visible from our lodge. It was only noon and the weather was at its best for the park so we decided that although we had originally intended to hike up the valley to the Torres spires the next day that we would go up today instead. Who knew if we would get the same weather tomorrow? Off we went and I immediately felt the lack of physical exercise from the past months. From the beginning it was a steep incline and I was huffing and puffing. It could take anywhere between 4-7 hours to complete depending on weather conditions. Up we climbed along a narrow path. The closer we got to the towers the less we could see of them. We met a girl who was hiking with only wool socks and sport sandals. She had been hiking the trail for the past 4 days, fully loaded with all her camping gear without boots. She didn?t own any and figured the sole of her sandals, being very similar to hiking shoes, would do the trick and up to that point had done her well. I couldn?t imagine doing multi-day trek with that weight on my back without a pair of sturdy boots keeping my ankles intact. Crazy! We stopped midway at Refugio Chileno for a quick lunch and set off again. My legs were waking up and I was feeling stronger so we made good time the next hour and half and were soon at the large moraine field coming down from the towers. For quite a while we climbed alongside the field of large boulders but eventually were forced to wander into this maze of rocks. This remnant of an ancient glacier made our going a bit precarious. I couldn?t imagine how Kevin had managed to work his way up only in flip flops the year before. Over one last boulder and I was greeted with the world famous view of the three granite spires towering overhead with a small, aqua blue glacial lake at the bottom. It was gorgeous! Hikers with their camping gear spend the night at Campamento Torres (see map) to see the sunrise over the spires. They usually leave at 5:30 in the morning and catch the first ray as they come over, illuminating the Torres peaks in a warm glow, changing their color to a bright red, contrasting beautifully with the bright aquamarine of the glacial lake below. The smart hikers also bring their sleeping pads and sleeping bags along with a hot thermos of coffee to ward off the chill.

We spent about 30 minutes there, hiding from the wind and the now falling snow, sharing a quick snack of hot tea and chocolate. The clouds were rushing over the tip of the spires, obscuring the peaks. The way down over the boulders was slow going with the wind playing wicked games wit us, trying to hurl to make us loose our footing. We were glad to find the tree line again. Quite a few people have been injured or died in this area. For an hour we ran down the trail, enjoying the feel of freedom in the narrow trail and the towering trees above. We passed refugio Chileno and the speed of our descent slowed. I had developed a few hot spots on my feet that were tender so I was reduced to walking. I didn?t want them to turn into blisters at the start of the trail and I certainly didn?t want a repeat of Kevin?s troubles from the year before. We returned to the lodge a full 6-hours after having started our climb. We were tired but glad to be back, especially since the supper was just being served. Skipping a shower, we were seated at a table with 10 other people and ate with gusto our 3-course meal as a rainstorm raged outside.