10 Dec 2011

Just a walk in the (national) park

Puerto Natales  /  Torres del Paine

Advance warning - this is more of a diary record (a little more detail) for us than usual, so a little longer but hopefully still an interesting read, especially anyone considering doing the W.

We have met people during this trip who have been to Torres del Paine and described it as the highlight of their world tour, so our expectations were correspondingly enhanced.

T del P national park is in the south west of Chile on the coast. This makes for amazingly beautiful landscapes as the Andes rise out of the sea creating a series of fjords before climbing inland and north uninterrupted all the way to Colombia, approx 7,000 kilometres (as the condor flies) maintaining an average height of 4,000 metres (13,000 ft) above sea level with the highest peak (Mt. Aconcagua) of 6,962 m (22,841 ft) just north west of Mendoza (Argentina) - the second highest on the planet after Everest (8,848m).


In T del P there are two main trekking routes (red lines on map below) that people tend to follow, the full 'circuit' and the 'W'. The former takes 7 to 8 days, the latter 5 (or 4 if really pushed for time). Effectively there are 3 valleys, hence the shape of the W if you walk from one side to and through the other valleys. The circuit adds the ‘back section’ over the top of the W so that the 3 sets of peaks (over 3000 metres) can be seen from the north.

The peaks that everyone comes to see are the Torres (towers); south, central and north, which for us working from west to east (as you write the W) would be the highlight on the last day after walking approx 20 kms each day, mostly with fully loaded rucksacks containing tent, food for 5 days etc etc for we intended to be completely self sufficient even though there are refuges along the route where you can eat, sleep and shower.

As for weather conditions it is spring here, but we would still be trekking up to heights of 1400 metres and camping at around 1000 in the mountains with glaciers (that's snow and ice) as close neighbours. We are 54 degrees south of the equator (so equivalent of where the southern burbs of Moscow are north) and the coast is fed by the cold currents from Antarctica, so we were expecting things to be a tad chile (J).

Our basic training for this expedition was of course 6 weeks in the Caribbean followed by a pampered week in Buenos Aires. Ben's only camping experience in the last 20 years has been a couple of Glastonbury festival weekends, Pam's last outdoor excursion involved getting her school group lost in the hills of Italy after setting out 180 degrees in the wrong direction and although we like to walk, Oxford Street doesn't quite possess the terrain we would be encountering - you get the picture, a couple of overly enthusiastic amateurs, the bane of mountain rescue services lives, what could possibly go wrong?

Day 1 (in the big brother tent)
Bus from Puerto Natales arriving at Guarderia Pudeto to catch the catamaran across Lago Pehoé to Refugio Paine Grande at around 1pm for our final toilet stop before the wilderness began.

wildlife in Lago Pehoe

The rucksacks at this point weighed their heaviest and a little heavier than they should have done. All the trekking/camping advice suggests that food during multi-day trips should be of the dried variety i.e. you carry very light packets of dust which when the need arises can be whipped out, added to water and hey presto a nourishing meal (assuming you have an independent water supply) will be laid before you.

Of course Pam and Ben like to do things their way and dusty pasta/mash/pot noodle just wouldn’t have done the job, so we spent a happy few hours the day before departure cooking up a litre of wholesome tomato pasta sauce and 2 litres of lentil soup. Add to this the kilo and a half of pasta to accompany said sauce, 2 litres of red wine, 5 packets of biscuits, apples, bananas, nuts and stuff and our backpacks were approx 7 to 8 kilos heavier than they really needed to be.

Now 8 kilos doesn't sound like much, but on top of the tent (rented and so not the latest lightweight version) and everything else you need over 5 days and it starts to add up, particularly when you then walk 10+ kms a day up and down mountain paths with it on your back.

So off we set, all enthusiastic and jolly, enjoying the country side and wildlife, to cover the 11 kms to Refugio Grey where we would camp. It was about a kilometre up the track that Ben discovered that he been supplied with two left gloves.

Rental equipment - The other thing that the advice websites talk about is to ensure that your equipment is in full working order i.e. check it fully before departure.

I did check the one glove just to make sure it was a good fit, why would I bother to try the other one? An advantage I did discover of 2 x left hand gloves is that as long as you always start putting the left one on first, you never get the wrong glove.

And then there was the tent. Modern tents are quite clever in that they are very easy to construct. We had this one up and ready within 15 minutes of starting our first attempt and within 5 come night 4. But there the love affair ended. The trouble with it was that all of the zips had been used and abused on many previous expeditions so that openings appeared of their own accord on a regular basis. No amount of surgical tape (how prepared were we!) would cease the process whatever the time of night or temperature outside. So although we did check the tent before leaving, it wasn't until the first night had got well under way that we noticed these hidden additional features.

We arrived 3 hours later at Refugio Grey (7,000 Chilean pesos (US$13) for us to stay there) feeling like we had lost a few cms in height, to make camp for the first time. The campsite is basically a beach (sounds good) of volcanic ash a couple of kilometres from the leading edge of Glacier Grey which is a fully functioning glacier (28 kms long), ice bergs break off and float by the campsite – beautiful but not the colours or temperature of the Caribbean.

The tent construction process went surprisingly smoothly and within half an hour we were off again - having left the rucksacks in the tent – to get as close as possible to the glacier at Campamento Grey (level with the front edge of the glacier). We had considered spending the night there where it is reported that the gentle cracks and groans of the glacier moving and evolving will lullaby one to sleep. As it turned out it was a good decision not to carry all of our worldly possessions the final 4 kms as it was tough going and the campsite turned out to be a mosquito infested dank and dingy hell hole (as described by a German gentleman who had stayed there that we met later in the trip).

So we scrambled our way off the beaten track to get as close and personal as we could with the glacier, munched on an apple or two and enjoyed the early evening glacier show, not bad, not bad at all...

Then back to camp for our first nourishing pasta meal in the open, a few logistical issues to overcome in view of the lack of a fully functioning kitchen but nothing too serious and of course half a litre of tetra-packed cab sav to help us along - Gato Negro 2015 no less (the only date on the pack) - and then into sleeping bags.

We won’t say we were snug as bugs in rugs throughout the night, but despite the temperature dropping deep into single digits and the extra tent window we were provided with by morning we were surprisingly comfortable - volcanic ash (fat grains of sand) is on a par with a futon as far as beds go, i.e. madness in the home but fabulous in a tent (compared to what was to come).

Day 2 (in the bb tent of many openings)
After several gallons of tea we collapsed camp and set off for Campamento Italiano which meant retracing our steps down to Refugio Pehoé and then another 8kms, all with loaded rucksacks.

Anyone considering this trip should think about spending the first night at Refugio Pehoé, leaving most of their kit there when stepping off the catamaran and walking to and from Glacier Grey with as little as possible on their backs that same day.

That said it was cool to camp at Refugio Grey which was one of the best we stayed at, but carrying everything for 22 additional kms was, in hindsight, insane.

The day before leaving we had attended the free advisory talk given by Hostal Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales - highly recommended. It was mentioned that day 4 would be the killer in terms of physical exertion being the longest distance covered in a day, greatest height differential achieved and taking into consideration the fatigue from the previous 3 days trekking.

For us the killer was day 2, due mainly to the extra 8 kilos of provisions that we were carrying. The last 5 kms to Campamento Italiano (free) were not the most pleasant of our lives, but one foot in front of the other got us there and establishing camp was a most welcome activity!

All water requirements in the national park are provided by the many rivers and streams that you encounter every half hour or so. Campamento Italiano is one of the sites where the river running alongside is the only source of fabulously fresh and pure glacial water.

Despite this limitless supply of the best mineral water on earth, the desire to drink all of the wine in order to lose rucksack weight on evening two was strong but we gallantly resisted and stuck to the programme.

Day 3 (in the bb tent in the ditch)
Day 3 of the W is all about the Valle Frances, climbing steadily on the banks of the river to Campamento Británico with mountain ranges, high peaks, glaciers and amazing sights on both sides and then another hour to a mirador at the very top.

The weather for us that day was incredible (day 1 had been a bit grey) crystal clear blue skies, we couldn’t have asked for better.

And as you get to the mirador at the top the view expands still further to reveal more peaks behind the original set. This is one of those moments that words begin to fail.

Sitting there for an hour or so surrounded by the majesty of the landscape was a wonderfully humbling experience that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. Without wanting to cliche it up too much, everyone should make it up to the French valley mirador at least once in their lives.

We would also recommend making the effort and camping at Campamento Britanico, which does mean covering some steep terrain fully loaded, but as campsites go it doesn’t get much better in terms of secluded wilderness spots (in T del P).

For us it was 5 or so hours up and down to then pickup camp and walk to Refugio Los Cuernos along the lake shore.

After a day of wonderful heights, Los Cuernos unfortunately forced us back down to earth with a bump. Expensive at $25 for us just to pitch the tent and a concave plot at that (came to be known as the ditch) led to the most uncomfortable night of the 4. We did however have access to their showers which were used most abundantly!

Day 4 (in the wet bb tent)
So the big day, the one that they all say is the killer. Partly due to the discomfort of night 3, but mainly because we wanted to break the back of day 4 before it got late, we decamped early and were on our way by 0730. This did not mean setting an alarm however or anything bizarre like that, as the sun rises at 5ish and with our tent that barely blocked moisture let alone light or sound there was little need for such modern trinkets.

The advantage of setting off early was that we didn’t see another human being for 2 hours, the wildlife put on their best show, the views were magnificent and all in all it was a fabulous morning before reaching Campamento Chileno for lunch 5 hours or so later.

We then had another 2 hours to climb to Campamento Torres for our final night under the stars. This was a lovely campsite with a stream running through its middle so no more than 3 metres to travel for fresh water. The only bummer was that the weather had changed and within an hour or so of our arrival the heavens began a relentless pouring of the wet stuff.

Fortunately for us we were all setup and able to take refuge inside our trusty tent once the rain began, whereas about another 10 tents arrived post commencement of deluge and suffered the consequences.

So we settled in and slept after what had been another fabulous day, far from the toughy that we had been led to believe it would be. Quite clearly the fact that we had consumed everything other than the bare essentials needed for the final 20 hours meant that our power to weight ratio was back in the green.

So invigorated did Ben in fact feel, that as soon as camp had been established he decided to 'run'/scramble another 4 kms up the valley following the river to the end of the trail, where only the mountaineers go before entering the Valle de Silencio - an unused path where no one else was encountered, kinda spooky in the inclement conditions.

Day 5 (Sunrise - what sunrise?)
The reason that people camp at Campamento Torres is to make the following morning as painless as possible. We woke at 0445 and were on our way up the mountain by 5. It takes an hour to reach the top where we drank our pre-prepared tea and munched the few remaining biscuits waiting for the cloud to clear to reveal the spectacular show of sunrise on the Torres del Paine themselves...

Once we had finished the tea and biscuits, clambered down to the lake, jumped around to keep warm, laughed at the slightly mad way we had hoped that the clouds would clear we made our way back down the mountain to break camp and then descend the final 16kms or so down to the bus that would take us back to a warm dry hostel.

Apparently the sunrise spectacular is the stuff of dreams, nay fantasies no less. There are numerous photographs of the amazing view wherever you go in Puerto Natales, shops, restaurants, hostels, supermarkets, books etc so we have seen it, repeatedly, just not quite for real.

This is why we will go back one day to see it properly. The whole experience was spectacularly successful for us, we are very proud of ourselves for having covered the full distance completely self sufficiently and believe this trekking lark is just a walk in the national park.

When we do it again (with our own very lightweight well zippered tent + right gloves as well as left) we will not follow the same route - it’s all about the weather. These are the mountains and everything from snow to t-shirt hot can happen in a day, so if its fine we will get up to Campamento Torres, do the sunrise dance up the mountain the following morning and the next and the next until we get it right and then repeat the Valle Frances, as it was for us the highlight and worth returning to as many times as possible.

the finishing line

We might even consider researching dried foods, someone must sell gourmet dust...


  1. were those your own photos?! what a magnificent journey it looks. i particularly love the little foxy-looking animal.

    you both look very well. keep up the blogging.

  2. Hallo you two,

    This really seems the end of the world. Magnificant fotos! I like them. I am curious about your next destinations. Enjoy your great escape! Peter

  3. Wow - truly wild and wonderful! This really is a unique and extraordinary journey you have undertaken. And ditto...the photographs are spectacular - you should definitely consider publishing a book at some point in the future. Looking forward to the next instalment, all the best, F & G xx

  4. Hi guys, really loving your blog - escapism for us in addition to being able to stuff face with mince pies! Major recession and generally 'bad news' going on here so stay away as long as you can. Thanks for birthday message...i feel every bit of my 45 years!!! Where will you be at Chrimbo? Lou xx

  5. Happy New Year both. Love reading the blog and seeing photos. Keep well, Steve & Lesley xx