Almost 10 years ago now we walked the Torres Del Paine circuit in Chilean Patagonia during a year travelling. We had seen the iconic images and wanted to experience it for ourselves. it would be the largest trek we had been on at 7 days and around 100 km.
We travelled from northern Chile to Santiago just after new year, on an epic 36-hour bus journey, and quickly set about buying new walking boots – our first pairs had been worn out in the Peruvian Andes shortly before. Fortunately gear shops are much the same world over, if a little harder to find in Chile than the UK.
We arrived in Puerto Natales about a week later, and organised our transport to the Torres national park. this is really easy to do, and the entrance fee is payable on arrival too. We went through our stuff to try to lighten our backpacks as much as we could, but still had pretty heavy packs when we set off. Arranging gear storage in one of the many hostels in Purto Natales is straightforward.
The bus trundled through Steppe and slowly drew closer to the mountains. Our excitement built with every passing mile, as they slowly formed from being bumps, to clear towers, to huge features, dominating the view. the bus passed a lake near the entrance of the park with flamingos, and shortly afterwards was our stop, where we set off.
Inside the park there were only limited allowed campsites. Most of these are pay sites with toilets etc. but there were a few free sites with only shelters. Refugio accommodation was available too, with food if we wanted, at a cost and with the need to pre-book, especially during the summer season of January and February.
Pretty much everyone else in the park was setting off on the shorter W trek, or just visiting the towers for a day, so we headed off pretty much alone on a path leading through pretty meadows of wildflowers. slowly this path revealed different views of the towers, which dominated the view to our left, and more open views of the hills and meadows to our right. After a first day of 20 km we were glad to arrive at our first campsite, set up our small tent and take our boots off.
Our tent was actually a one-man single skin tent to keep cost and weight down and it certainly was cosy… it also led to one of the more memorable comedy moments when in one of the campsites a group of American hikers, all with the latest ultralight 1 man tents arrived and set up nearby. In the morning we unzipped our tent and I got out to see the other group looking my way. Their looks were priceless when first we got out our rucksacks and gear, followed by Stacey getting out last.. I don’t think they could quite understand where she had been! Hobbit proportion can have their advantages too!
Over the next couple of days, we made our way round towards the back of the Torres range, heading for Paso John Garner, the highest point of the trek, which would mark the transition from the open landscapes before, to the landscape dominated by glacier Grey on the other side.
Before we got to glacier grey we had two more memorable moments. one came when Stacey, focussing deeply on crossing a deep muddy stream, didn’t see the tree waiting on the other side, and so head-butted it straight on. Fortunately, a few stars and a headache later we were back underway not too much worse for the experience.
The second moment had much more potential to get serious, but we were lucky and got away with it. We were approaching the last few kilometres of the day and the weather tuned, starting to sleet. We put on our waterproof jackets, but not our trousers, thinking it would only be a shower and not wanting to get sweaty in the over trousers. It turned out not to be just a shower, so putting our waterproof trousers on belatedly, we were both thoroughly soaked and cold by the time we got into camp. Being a bit tired, and it being the end of the day led us to make a bad decision. Anyway, we got into camp, and set up the tent as fast as we could. I then handed Stacey her dry cloths so she could get changed in the loos and start warming up whilst I finished setting everything up. I then zipped the tent back up and got on with it. A couple of minutes later I realised that Stacey hadn’t moved, and was just stood outside in the cold. I (a bit bossily) told her to move it and get changed. It was clear mild hypothermia was upon us.
We spent the rest of the evening with me keeping a very cold and sleepy Stacey awake as we tried to warm each other up and I fed as many of our sugary sweet supply as I dared to spare to her. Eventually she warmed, and we got a restless night sleep, knowing we had only just got away with that one.
Reaching the top of the main pass is stunning, you get your first sight of the Hielo de Patagonica Sur (the largest ice cap outside the Antarctic or Arctic), see the size of Glacier Grey and see just how far down, then along it is to get back towards the end of the trek. Truly breath-taking.
We headed down the steep descent, which is infamous for being slippery and direct, without and real issues and then started the traverse high above the glacier. This is a narrow path, with quite a drop in places and there were several narrow ravines to cross where streams had cut deeply into the hillside. The descents into these were via wobbly wooden ladders, secured to dubious looking anchor points and really added to the sense of adventure. Apparently these have now been changed to permanently fixed secure metal ladders.
Further on you reach the shores of Lago Pehoe and it is not too far until you reach one end of the w route. We were shocked as we walked into the campsite at Lago Pehoe by the sheer numbers of people and the bustle after 4 or 5 days seeing only a handful of people. It is quite amazing how fast you get used to the quiet and space of empty places, and surprising how strongly you feel the sudden increase in noise and lack of space once you are back in more ‘normal’ places. We disliked the numbers of people so much that rather than carrying on to finish a perfect loop, we diverted off the main trek route to follow quieter paths through empty valleys to a different finish point. We had the sense of space again almost immediately and saw no one else until we arrived at the bus stop at the end.
Overall the Torres del Paine trek was a fantastic experience, where we saw amazing sights and learnt a lot about what we are capable of. It is as iconic as the pictures make it look, and if you ever get a chance to visit you really should. We can’t wait to take our son… maybe just maybe as part of an epic backpacking route through South America that seems to be an ember smouldering inside us, occasionally flaring up, but never quite taking hold….yet……