After 15 hours of bus that actually went much better than it sounds, and a border control we made it into Chile and arrived to the little remote town of Puerto Natales. It is the basecamp to visit the Torres del Paine National Park, reason for our visit in that part of Southern Patagonia. We spent one day organising what seems to us as an expedition. The plan is simple and popular : Hike the “W” trek, which is about 75 km in 5 days/4nights.
We decided to camp as there are some camp sites along the way instead of staying in lodges and eating in their restaurants every meal. That meant we would have to carry A LOT ( tent, sleeping bags, mattresses, and food for 5 days!) But we would also save A LOT of money that we intend to use later during the trip. So once we opted for camping, we booked our camp sites in the three different companies that administrates them, prepared our backpack with the minimum things we could take and cooked a lot of food that we then split in small bags for each day. Every day the same menu : scrambled eggs and Nutella for breakfast, quinoa and tuna for lunch and polenta for dinner. And we also packed up on nuts, dry fruits and energy bars. All is ready and under control, what can possibly go wrong ?
First day of the hike, the sun is shining. We wake up early to jump on the shuttle bus that takes us from town to the entrance of the national park (two hours away!). As we get closer we can see why we are here : the landscape became awesome, and we can admire the huge Torres del Paine, main attraction of the park. Fred refuses to take a picture of them through the window of the bus (“like a terrible tourist, not a calm photographer”), as we will have plenty of time to see them later. And then we reach entrance of the park. There we pay our entrance fee, receive a map and watch a video about basic rules to observe as well as information on what to do if you meet a puma. Apparently it is good not to run away, but better to face it and apear bigger than what you are. Duly noted, we will try to inflate ourselves if we meet one! Back in the bus for some time as it will drop us further into the park to a nearby lake. We then jump on a boat to cross the lake and around 12h we land on the other side. After all these transportation we are finally there and so it’s time for lunch ! 😋
And after all that, we finally start to walk towards the Grey refugio and camping, on the side of the Lake and Glacier of the same name. The first part of the hike is going up, and with the sun and our heavy backpacks, it soon feels warm but we manage it. We arrive to the highest point of the day which is an awesome lookout point on the Grey lake, and at its extremity, the huge Glaciar Grey. It looks very impressive even though it is still far away.
The rest of the afternoon is spent walking mostly downhill to get closer to it. As soon as we arrive at the campsite, we pitch the tent for the first time ever. It was surprising that we did not have some price tags left to remove. All went surprisingly smooth, and the conditions were perfect as well. Sun, no wind. Feeling good and strong we decided to walk a bit more to get a closer look at the glacier. It was worth it as the closer you get, the better impression you have of its sensational size. 30 meters high, 6 kilometers wide. Quite a sight ! We stayed a bit until it started to get chilly and headed back to the campsite for dinner. There the sun has disappeared behind the surrounding mountains and instantly it starts to get dark, very cold and extremely humid everywhere. We quickly eat our polenta and bananas and go for the tent. The temperature is now close to freezing point and Merima that had never done camping before realise what it is to try to survive in a cold / humid tent. We pile up our wool underwear and get into the sleeping bags the fastest we can. As it turned out, Fred was freezing all night, and Merima managed her first night in the tent quite alright. And both of us met an unidentifiable cat animal, which we agreed on was too small for a puma but too big for a cat, on our way to the bathroom at different moments of the night (which was locked, so we had to seek shelter behind a tree)! Two shiny eyes in the night and a big tail… oh well, we needed to pee. The morning was harsh, cold, humid and windy. And we felt a bit sad not to have some warm tea or coffee to go with the eggs.
Nonetheless we have to get cracking for our second day of the hike. Today we walk backwards the whole bit we did yesterday, plus another extra bit until a camp site called Los Frances (probably Fred picked up the camp site, guess why). The sun is now well hidden behind thick clouds and the wind is ramping up, even though it is pushing us in our back and that is a nice feeling. The first part of the hike is a bit boring, as we did it the previous day, and this time with the glacier in our back we don’t even have the motivation that it created yesterday when each step we took was bringing us towards it. As we arrived, a bit tired, at the beginning point of the previous day, the wheather started to worsen with more wind and rain . We took shelter into the lodge and enjoyed our cold quinoa, and outside we saw passing by our friend, the non-puma cat from the night before. We agreed on that it looks much like a fox, when seen in daylight. After a warm espresso we’re back on the path and cover the second part of the day facing strong sideways winds and light rain. The sight of the mountains around us is a bit blocked by the clouds but when they momentarily clear off the vistas are stunning. The path follows some lakes named after Swedish adventurers that were here long time ago and it is funny to read Lago Sköttsberg or Lago Nordenskjöld on the map. The lakes are awesome, and the vegetation in its seasonal colours is nice too. One thing that is shocking though is that since two days, we have seen very little amount of live trees. We have walked along forests with dead trees most of the time, it was a bit spooky. The reason behind that is the great fire that occurred in the park in 2011/2012, which lasted several months and burnt one third of the park. One third of it! Because someone started a fire where they were not supposed too. To pass there more than five years later and witness the devastating effect still very present, is a strong reminder of how fragile our environment is.
At the end of the day we finally arrive into a forest area with living trees, and reach our camp site where we will pitch the tent for two nights. Actually pitch is inaccurate as the campsite is on a very steep hill, and they have adapted wooden platforms on which you can actually nail your tent. Yes, with nails and a hammer. Chilean camping style! It is nice and has some advantages, the first one being away from the soil, it will be less humid and cold during the night. Our problem is that our tent is a bit oversized for the platform and we can not fully deploy it. We do the best we can, and go for a well deserved hot shower, and then polenta dinner in the small camping hut. Back into the tent, a bit of reading and it’s time to sleep. Until 3 am when Fred wakes up after hearing a not so natural noise. Felt like somebody was rubbing plastic paper around. He turns to light on to investigate and discover it comes from the side of the tent where a pocket is against the wall, with a chocolate bar in it. Getting closer, it is obvious that somebody from outside the tent has made its way through and took some bites at the bar ! Once the bar is removed and the lights turned off again it is not long before new suspicious noise are heard. This time Fred is joined by Merima for investigating and when she looks deeper out by the door, where our backpacks are standing she realises that on Fred’s there are holes, and next to them a mess. The mess is a mix of small tiny plastic bag pieces, unidentified elements as well as mice poop ! This time they made it through the backpack and went for some dry plums and peanuts, unopened plastic bags that were there! Battle mode is on and in the middle of the night, with our headlights on we inspect the bags, realise the dammage, go throw every bit of food that we had left in the packs (the polenta and quinoa are safe, that is a relief!), and try to take as much as we can into the tent with us. This took quite some time, a lot of energy and needless to say that it was hard to fall asleep again afterwards, specially because we could still hear the relentless attackers around us outside. When finally daylight appears and we go out of the tent we can realise the extent of the damages : one coin size hole in the tent where the chocolate was, another smaller one close by; lots of tiny holes in Fred’s backpack not very disturbing. A much bigger hole between an outside pocket and the inside of the bag, more disturbing, some tiny holes in Merima’s bag as well, and – wait for it : the handles of our walking sticks ! Un-fu**ing-beliveable ! It also seems that our camping neighbours were visited and there the hungry chilean mice had gone for backpacks (with no food), sleeping bags, and air matresses!! Once we have finished our investigations and double check three times that no mice is left in any pocket of the bags, nor in the tent, we empty the whole tent and pack all our things into Merima’s backpack, tie it high up to a tree trunk, eat our cold eggs in the cold morning and decide to go for a walk.
So it is fairly tired and a tiny bit annoyed that we start our third day of the hike. Today the aim is to go uphill into the Valle del Frances, where at the end of the path there is a lookout point offering 360 degrees views of the surrounding mountains.
The first bit of the hike is very steep, we are stepping on rocks that used to form the bed of a mighty river so it is pretty unstable and very tiring. After an hour of that, we reach a view point were we can have our first glimpse at the Valle del Frances itself : On every side we are circled by very high mountains and huge stone walls. On several of them some glaciers are present and numerous waterfall reunite in one mighty river at our feet. At regular intervals we can hear rumbling sounds similar to the thunderstorm ones, but that are actually bits of ice and rocks from the glaciers falling down for more than 2000 meters. Terrific ! What is less terrific is the rain that is starting to pour upon us, as well as the clouds above us that are getting darker, bigger and are masking more and more the views of the peaks. Nonetheless, after a cereal bar and a couple of pictures we continue to walk higher up in order to reach the following lookout point, closer to the center of the cirque, in the middle of this amphitheater of stones. The path is still going up, but the big rocks have been replaced by some trees and roots so we are going up a bit faster. The path goes close to the river we saw previously and the views of the crystal blue water, the orange, red and green trees and the dark summits that we can still distinguish behind the mist are really splendid. Even though we are now drenched to the bones due to the sweat and the rain we are really enjoying the hike. Once we are out of the forest, we realise that the clouds have won, and there is simply no way we will have the promised nice view of the lookout point called Britanico. Too much clouds and rain at the Britanico lookout point… funny no ?!
So we decide to preserve a bit of our energy and save us the last half and hour of climb by starting our way back down the valley. The rain doesn’t stop, so after nearly two hours of descending we take shelter in a tiny dark and overcrowded hut to quickly eat a bit of quinoa with our bodies shivering and then continue for the last leg of the day. We rush into the campsite and open the tent, fearing to see a mice party going on, but no, all seems quiet. Expect for a wee bit of water inside the tent that can only get bigger in the coming hours as the rain continues to pour down stronger and stronger. Remember when we said we could not fully deploy our tent? well it was fine the previous night with no rain (it did not do anything for or against the mice either), but with the rain it changes everything, and because we can’t stretch the tent, nor the platform, we are getting worried for the night to come. Also, remember when we left this morning with our backpack tied to a tree ? Well even though we put all our stuff into dry bags, and also had a rain cover on the bag, water made its way though there too so things in the bag are very cold and humid, if not wet. Tired and a bit unmotivated for the long upcoming night of fighting mice and the cold that awaits us, we go to see the camping staff and talk to them: because of their stupid platform (yes, now they became stupid!), we will be wet all night. They propose to let us use one of their own tents that is already pitched on another platform which we accept after checking that the promised tent is dry, seems strong, and has no evidence of mice visits! We also decide to get dinner from the lodge tonight. A first hot meal in three days after all this humidity and rain will do us good ! We then use the last minutes of daylight to transfer our stuff from our backpacks to the new tent, and fold our now very wet tent into it’s bag. After that it’s shower time and dinner time! The dinner did not disappoint, and even if the price is relatively high for Chile, as we are in a very remote location, we are okay with that specially because it was very tasty and really felt good to eat warm salmon, potatoes and lemon pie :). Back in the tent, like two paranoids we check every wall of the tent for water and mice holes before taking our sleeping bags and mattresses out and get ready for sleeping. This time, ALL the food is hanging in trees outside, our walking sticks too! We let one bag safe at the camping reception (we hope) and the other one with us in the tent. As we try to fall asleep, we realise it is hard to hear anything else than the wind or the rain, and every little noise a bit different sounds terribly suspect to us and we jump on the headlights and look around.
The next morning, it is still pouring down as the alarm goes off early. We are expecting a long day of hiking. We wake up with difficulties, the night was better than the previous ones, but it was not still really restful and with very small eyes we start to pack our stuff, and put on our absolutely damp clothes from yesterday. We get ready early and save some time because we don’t have to fold the tent, we start to walk for the fourth day with the sunrise. Or what seems to be a sunrise, as even though the rain has calmed down a bit, it is still very cloudy everywhere. As we go along the path, the wind blows off more and more and even if it dries us, it does not warms us. Yet the walk is the most beautiful since we started. We have great views of the beautiful Nordenskjöld lake on the right of the path, of the high mountains on our left, and on some other distant mountains that are blessed with sun. The lights and colours are fantastic as well. Dark mountain, deep blue lake, and vivid autumn colours on the trees. We really liked it!
Yet, as we keep walking we realise two things : we are really tired, physically and mentally, and Merima even got a cold during the previous day. As the day went by, the clouds kept hanging dark above us and the rain was still continuing, although less. We knew that the views of the famous Torres del Paine were hidden behind the clouds, and there were no signs of improvement for the following day. In the afternoon our options are : 1- keep walking no matter what, even if the path we are supposed to go is really getting high and steep for the last leg of the day, arrive at a campsite where we know there is no hut, no electricity, nothing to stay warm, and deploy or super wet tent and try not to die from hypothermia in our wet sleeping bags while it is -3 outside, and hope for the sky to clear in the morning. Take a selfie in front of the mountains and go home; 2- try to accelerate a bit and go down into the valley to catch a bus that will take us back to civilisation, where we hope to find a dry bed, a pillow, a hot shower, a beer and a pizza.
Weighting everything in, we go for option two, and have now to hurry to make sure we don’t miss the bus. Even though the path is going mostly downhill the pain in the sore muscles and in the shoulders is there. And if the bags are lighter after all the quinoa we ate, it is compensated by the fact that everything is wet. The views are also very different so we try to enjoy them, and take some pictures too. The last emotion of the day is offered to you by Merima, that missed a stone while trying to cross a small river and decided to go for a little dip. Now that we were dry thanks to the wind, she probably felt better after that dip in this icy glacier river! We reach the valley, and the bus stop two minutes before it arrived, and it is a relief. A last look behind and the Torres are nowhere to be seen. Maybe Fred should have taken this picture from behind the window of the bus when we arrived four days ago to have a proof that they exist.
The bus ride back to the civilisation is much faster as we both fell asleep quite fast, and after reaching an hostel, and getting a hot shower, we sit down for a very early dinner made out of quinoa, polenta and Nutella. True story, we never made it to the pizza place, energy was gone. Both of us were in bed at 20 pm.
So after a bit of rest here are our final thoughts of it :
We hiked for :
- Day one : 14 – 15km – 5 hours 30 min
- Day two : 19,5 – 20 km – 7 hours
- Day three : 14 km – 5 hours
- Day four : 17 km – 5 hours
We found out that despite the tiredness and the weather we enjoyed each day more than the previous one as the landscapes really were better and better. With very little experience of camping, or hiking such distances with heavy loads, we are pleased to see that we were kind of okay at the end of each day, tired but not dead (maybe spinning and bodypump are useful after all). We are very disappointed that we did not get our picture of the Torres at sunrise, but we are also very happy about the trek we did and about the whole experience. And even if it sounds overwhelming due to conditions we faced during these four days, so are the mountains and the nature, and you cannot get to always see them the one day you pick to visit them. All in all we had a good time out there !
And we are now looking forward for our next step, somewhere in Argentina again.