Flight of the Condors: Trekking Torres del Paine

¨¡Que linda!  ¡Que país!¨  The exclamations reverberated amongst the granite rocks lining the side of the ravine.  They were shouted by myself, David (an Englishman I met in El Calafate), Fabio (an Italian), and Javi and Mokel (the dynamic Spanish duo).  The reason for the shouting: trekking through Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.

Torres del Paine is the most famous park in Patagonia, with the three granite towers gracing the majority of pictures advertising the dramatic Patagonian landscape.  We arrived into the park armed with all of our camping gear, prepared for the unpredictable weather that Patagonia throws at you.  From the first few hours of the trek I knew that the next five days along the W Circuit were going to be something special.

The dream team walking from the bus stop to the beginning of the trek.

The dream team walking from the bus stop to the beginning of the trek.

After analyzing the weather forecast we decided to complete the trek from east to west, taking advantage of clearer days in the immediate future to get the best views of the legendary torres themselves.  A long climb initiated our journey.  With close to 18kg strapped to my back I had worked up a sweat in no time, despite the occasional patches of snow revealing the chill temperatures.  After a few hours the trail leveled out, leading to the first of a series of epic views.  Water danced over rocks at the base of the valley, leaves dressed in their finest autumn colors ascended up mountain slopes, clouds peered over snow capped mountains reverently standing guard, and the rocky trail cut into the left hand side of the mountain ran through it all.  A group of eight condors extended their massive wings, gliding overhead with dignity and curiosity.

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Can´t help but get excited to discover where this trail leads.

Mid afternoon we arrived at the Campamento Torres and set up base for the night.  Leaving our heavy packs in our tents, we embarked on the hour long scamper over rocks and patches of ice to the torres mirador.  The view is very reminiscent to the laguna de los tres in that a small lagoon filled with glacial water rests at the base of the mountains.  The famous towers extend up past the cloud clover.  Staring at the granite monoliths you can’t help but enter a state of deep thought.  That sense of the surreal in front of you stops you dead in your tracks and causes you to just admire and appreciate the moment.

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A surreal moment.

Just before sunset we returned to the campground.  (We stayed primarily at the free campgrounds which consist of a bathroom and a small enclosure with three walls in which to set up your stove for cooking.  Many people stay at paid campgrounds with better facilities such as showers for around $10 a night per person.  Being the very end of the season, literally the last week before bus services to the park shut down for winter, many of the campgrounds were closing.  Many people choose to stay at the refugios located within a day’s walk throughout the circuit.  The prices in the refugios are highly inflated.  They average around $46 a night for a simple bed to sleep on.  You need to rent your sheets or a sleeping bag for an extra $10 and there is no access to a kitchen so you will likely have to buy $14 breakfast, $14 lunch, and $24 dinner.  All told a night in the refugio you can expect to spend $100.  If you’re going to one of the nicest parks in South America you might as well experience it all natural and save a significant amount of cash in the process.)  David and I were sharing a ‘two person’ tent, certainly not designed for two grown men of our height.  ¨¡Muy romántico!¨ is how Mokel affectionately described our sleeping situation.  Dinner consisted of a huge portion of soup and pasta, fuel for the next day’s long journey.

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There´s no such thing as thread count on the W Circuit if you want to save money.

The next morning we woke an hour before sunrise and headed back up the mirador to catch the first rays of the sun dancing off of the towers.  The sky was clear as the moon and stars faded with the coming daylight.  It takes a while for the sun to extend up over the mountains and we hunkered down in rock outcroppings to avoid the attacking wind.  After 45 minutes, the sun finally hit the towers, igniting the dark granite into a glowing orange radiance.  They were illuminated in contrast to the dark stones below, like an artist taking the stage for a performance.

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El amanacer en los torres.

The sunrise was a nice way to start off the longest day of trekking on the circuit.  28 kilometers lead us over hills and around lakes until we reached Campamento Italiano inside the French Valley a half hour before sunset.  As we first entered the French Valley an explosion pierced the air, sending a small avalanche of snow rolling down the mountain.  It would be a sign of the snow to come the next day.

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There’s no such thing as a bad view in the park when the ‘simple’ vegetation looks like this.

The French Valley, the middle portion of the W Circuit, is home to some of the best views on the trek.  Unfortunately you need good weather to be able to take it all in.  The further up the valley we ascended, the more dense the snowfall and misty cloud cover became, obscuring our visibility.  The highest mirador was blocked off due to snowfall and we doubled back after 2 hours of ascension in the dry snow.

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Before the snowfall picked up too much, turning everything into a haze of white.

Here the ever shifting weather conditons of the park are in full effect.  Looking north up the valley was nothing but a wall of snow.  To the south, blue skies and sunlight reflecting off of lakes.  One direction Mordor.  The other direction the Shire.  And they could switch roles at any point in the span of a few minutes.

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Mordor to the left, the Shire to the right.

After the French Valley it was a leisurely walk to the Campamento Paine Grande.  This was the only paid campsite we stayed at and it was nice to have a fully enclosed cooking area to seal in the warmth.  And a mini market trying to get rid of the last of their supplies: Snickers and Peanut M&M’s, the perfect break from a meusli and pasta diet.  Inside the nearby hotel are hot showers.  Unfortunately for me, I chose the one hour the warm water wasn’t working, shivering my way through a cold shower just long enough to get the soap off my skin.

Inside of the hotel are also lots of mice.  A small armada of mice waited for us at each campsite except Campamento Torres, and raided our goods at night.  At Campamento Italiano some really persistent bastards gnawed through David´s new gortex jacket to get at a crack at gnawing through his backpack, to gourge themselves on spices, powdered soup, and parmesan cheese.  Each morning we heard sounds of ¨¡Pinche ratones!¨ from those who failed to hang their food found the after effects of nightly rodent raids.

David telling the rats where they can lick.

David telling the rats where they can lick.

The fourth day in the park the weather turned cloudy, misty, cold and rainy.  Thus we scrapped the westernmost trek up to Glaciar Grey (we had all been to Perito Moreno in Argentina so a full day´s hike to see a misty glaciar wasn´t worth the trouble).  Instead we hit the 20km long carretas trail, breaking it up in two days to take it muy tranquilo and reach the bus stop by noon the next day.  The last night of camping we busted out some music and a bottle of rum, enjoying the company of a sweet crew.  From the start I really got along with all the guys, fellow lovers of the outdoors with a great sense of humor.  In fact Mokel’s story mimics my own.  He travelled through Southeast Asia for a year and a half before coming to South America and is a scuba diver and a drummer.  Javi sports a sweet beard and does the best impressions of a former Spanish tennis player turned pornstar.  Fabio has 10 years worth of dreadlocks and many great stories.  And David maintains the same 12 year old humor I do, cracking me up along the trail with his stories and him ceaselessy tirando pedos (throwing farts).

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Los dos guanacos en el sendero las carretas.

The final day consisted of an easy two hour walk through flat grassland to the administration building.  Along the way horses and guanacos grazed.  I was pretty excited at the prospect of mimicking them and having a full hearty meal that night to celebrate another incredible experience in Patagonia.

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