Origins of the Trek
Having little experience at backpacking – most of it unhappy – I was surprised when my 33 year old son suggested a trip to Torres del Paine. It would be the full circuit – 9 days – with packs. I am 66. Two of our previous 3 backpacking experiences were notable for my multiple blisters, a lost toenail, and back problems. And they were just 3 day treks! I said I would think about it. During his third phone call, with me still ‘thinking’, he observed,?”Dad, you’re not getting any younger. If you don’t go now, you’ll never go.” Such wisdom from the young! I signed up on the spot.
Turns out it was my idea all along. Well, sort of. My daughter had hiked Torres del Paine 20 years ago, and the images she left stayed with me all that time. Then three years ago, my son had invited me to go trekking in the Himalayas. I declined, but suggested maybe we could do Patagonia some day. I had forgotten!
Why Torres del Paine? Why the Full Circuit?
It was only after I got home that I found out how lucky I was. I shared with an avid trekker how much we loved our trip to Patagonia. “Where did you go?”, he asked. Hearing my answer, he sighed. “I have trekked the Himalayas, New Zealand, and Torres del Paine. It is Torres that I can’t get out of my head.”
Ignore the fact that 90% of visitors to Torres del Paine do the “W”. They do it because it’s shorter, and easier. If you travel 6500 miles to see Torres, why cut out half of it ? What’s the rush? Do the full circuit. And though the average hiker’s age?is under 30, you can do it!
Now that we were going……..I was absolutely terrified. Having had a bum leg (bursitis) for the past 6 months, I was totally out of shape. All my whining on the earlier trips (those blisters HURT!) was haunting me also. So I signed up for physical therapy, resumed some biking, and two months before departure started serious training. That consisted of ?daily walks up (and down) a two mile road at 12% grade. After two weeks, I added a backpack with 15#, and reduced the hikes to every other day. Each week I added 5#. At 25# I changed to a ski resort, with a grade of 20%. Though I had to quit that when my bursitis acted up, I did get to 35# on the 12% hill before we left. I was pretty confident. My goal was to come in last in the whining contest! Oh…did I mention my son’s girlfriend was coming also?
The Trek: Day 1, A day trip to the Towers
We elected to camp – there are lots of blogs that discuss why -beginning at Camping Las Torres. (An excellent planning resource blog is here)
In planning, I tried to estimate the difficulty of this adventure. Despite my best efforts, our first hike, a day trip to the towers, disabused me of all my research! Described in a well known book as “4.5 – 6 hour, moderate difficulty”, the trek was 9.5 hours round trip. From this day on, though we had planned in miles, we now hiked in hours. The park map time estimates were spot on. Not to worry – every minute was repaid in spades.
We had issues. Though none of us had problems in training, nine hours of hiking led to an early use of moleskin. Adjusting the backpacks was a learning process. With a little knowledge (see this excellent REI video), trial and error, and – most importantly – the acquired ability to “feel” the perfect positioning of the pack – we did great despite 35 – 40# packs. Two of us had to completely change where the straps attached to the packs; we were not even aware of that adjustment possibility!
Day 2 and 3: Seron and Dickson
I awake early to horses neighing nearby, followed quickly by some shouting. Bolting out of the tent, a thrilling sight emerges: just beyond the campground, there is a herd of perhaps 30 horses galloping by, urged on by 3 gauchos. They are out of sight in seconds!
We were told the trip to Seron was boring. In comparison to what was to come, yes. But it is a great intro to Torres, though the last few miles are interminable. (A word here about the wind: you will want to bring extra guy lines, and stakes, for your tent. Some campsites are pretty exposed.) The day to Dickson has everything you could want: a 600′ climb to great views of Rio Paine, classic Patagonian headwinds, and, after a short ascent up a moraine, a sight I will never forget.
There are three horses at our Dickson campgrounds. Very comfortable around the many tents and trekkers, they graze and wander where they wish. I awake early and traverse a small treed hillock that separates the campsite from Lago Dickson and a view of the great glacier that dominates the northern landscape. I want to see it in the morning sun. Scampering down a gravel bank onto the narrow strand, I see our horses already there, a short distance along to the east.
Sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree, shaking the gravel out of my sandals, I hear something just behind me. The three are now 5 feet away, patiently waiting for me to move out of the way so they can continue.
As I do, they step one by one over the trunk, walking west. After the last horse passes, he stops and slowly turns his head to look at me. He pauses and gazes back inquisitively again after a few more steps, before going to join the others.
Days 4 and 5: Los Perros and El Paso
The trip gets really exciting now! You’re in shape. The climbing, the views, and the surprises assault you; you are SO happy you are doing the circuit.
On the day to Los Perros, climbing begins as soon as we leave camp. We will gain 1200′ today. The day warms as we traverse a Lenga forest, with close views of the raging Rio Perros. Los Perros is at the base of a large morraine created by Glacier Perros. The following day, we are above the tree line in no time. Somewhere up above us is John Gardner Pass.
The 2000′ climb to Paso John Gardner is exhilarating. As we gain elevation, the valley we have been ascending for two days comes into view behind us. The pass ahead stays out of sight, ever distant, until suddenly you are there. Having little of the highly anticipated extreme wind, we leisurely relish our success.
It is Hielo Sur (South Patagonian Ice Field) and Glaciar Grey, beyond the pass, that now take our breath away.
Though we are far above them, their incredible immensity pulls them close. For the next several days, these two are our companions; we can’t stop looking at them. And, as light and angles change, each view is different. At day’s end, the sunset over Glacier Grey is magical.
The Hiking Community: VERY egalitarian!
I love the hiking community! I come from a biking background, where what, how, and with whom you’re pedaling often determines your social status on the road. Hikers? Not so much! No one cares when you leave, what you wear, or how fast you complete the day. And there was always a hand extended when you needed one. Evenings were a steady flow of information, experiences and other chatter between all.
Days 6: Grey
Our descent from Paso John Gardner began on Day 5. It seemed straight down, and awful; hiking poles are indispensable. Yet at El Paso we are still high above the glacier. We begin our day with coffee at the glacier overlook.
We’re coasting now, the pass behind us, a day of descent ahead. By day’s end we are past the glacier , at the level of Lago Grey. On the way, spectacular ladders and bridges!
At the bottom, some well deserved celebration.
Refugio Grey is full service! We enjoy a beer as we gaze up at the mountains. And we get our first cooked meal of the trip. (Sadly the food was so so.) When I do this trip again, I will stay here two nights, allowing time for a kayak trip up to the glacier and hiking on it!
Days 7, 8 and 9: Paine Grande, Italiano, and Valle del Frances
The day to Paine Grande was unremarkable, the campsite mobbed. Everything is crowded now as we are on the “W”. From Grande, we set off for Italiano, in Valle del Frances, a visual bonanza no matter where you look. It is a LONG day – 2.5 hours to Campamento Italiano, then a 7 hour day hike up the valley to the lookout. At every opportunity, we look back on the intense azure of Lagos Nordernskjold and Pehoe. Ahead, the ice
covering the granite of the valley walls is constantly crashing to the floor – a sensual extravaganza for sure! Here, with the glacier ‘talking’ to us, we spend our last night at Torres del Paine.
We elect to shorten our trip out – and catch the early bus back to Puerto Natales – by catching the ferry from Paine Grande. I’ll end with a short vignette.
The Ferry Ride
Our ninth and final day at Torres del Paine – a 7 hour trek – will result in a very late bus back to Puerto Natales. We need to be up quite early the following day to catch the El Calafate bus. We decide on an alternative. A 2.5 hour hike will put us on a ferry, allowing an early bus ride back. I love ferries!
We arrive quite early at the ferry dock. Already, there are trekkers ahead of us. We take our place, enjoy the austral sun, and eat an early lunch as the queue grows. Not all of us are trekkers. Some have light shoes and small backpacks; they have been staying at a “Refugio” for a few days. One of them, a middle aged woman, arrives and walks past all of us. She releases the chain to the ferry dock, and lies down there for a rest. Some French trekkers offer sarcastic applause at her stunt.
Once on the ferry, our heavy backpacks stowed, we head to the upper exterior deck to appreciate the magnificent views. Alas, my son and girlfriend have the last seats. My son notes that, but for our lady friend’s stunt, I too would be sitting.
I have an idea. In a crowd with an average age of less than 30, my 11 day growth of snow white whiskers make me stand out. Young people readily make a path as I work my way through those standing until I am standing in front of the lady. She is chatting with a gentleman as I bend over and ask, “Would you mind standing so that I can sit down? I am old and my back hurts.” Quite startled, in a heavy accent I do not recognize, she asks, “What did you say?”
I quietly repeat my request, and enjoy a seat for the pleasant ride. Needless to say, I enjoyed more than the view.