The towers glowing orange at sunrise
Fresh off the four days on the ferry from Puerto Montt
I was looking into planning my hiking trip in Torres del Paine. The cold and rainy weather on the boat had deterred me from camping as I would have had to rent all sorts of gear, carry it across the sixty some kilometers of the trail and deal with freezing cold nights. I decided to spend the extra money and stay in the refugios but to bring in my own food as the food there is very expensive, on top of the expensive prices to sleep there it was a bit too much. There was an informative information session on hiking in the park given at a nearby hostel where they talked about all the different options and some of the finer details about the different campsites and facilities.
A condor soaring near the mountains
So with a basic background I went out to load up on food at the grocery store, and bought a bit too much in retrospect as I´m still eating some of the leftovers. Then I booked bus tickets to the park through the hostel I was staying at, and since the bus was leaving at 7:30am I had to repack my entire backpack and leave many things behind at the hostel.
The early came bus came promptly as scheduled and picked us up at the hostel on the way to the park. The plan was to hike the W from west to east as this was recommended. But when the bus arrived in the park the weather was good and clear so we decided to start on the east side and hike up to the towers that day since the weather was clear. The weather changes so rapidly in the park that forecasts are of little use, especially those more than a day or two in advance.
After checking into the Refugio Las Torres and packing a small bag for the day we headed off for the viewpoint of the towers, about 5.5 miles away, uphill most of the way. The trail wasn´t too difficult and as it climbed higher there began to be traces of snow on the ground which gave way to a thick blanket of snow as the trail snaked through the forests on the upper slopes. The scenery was great and the winds were rather calm. After almost 3 hours of hiking the trail to the viewpoint forked off steeply uphill through a path of trampled snow. The clouds had been steadily moving into the area and at about this point it started snowing as we ascended this steep track. Towards the top the trail became progressively more slippery and by the time we reached the top there was no view of the towers, only a massive white clouds and snow squalls blowing in from across the valley.
An amazing blue lake on the trail
From the viewpoint we could hear the boom of the freshly fallen snow avalanching off the jagged peaks and tumbling down below. The way back down was a bit dodgy as the temperature had dropped and things were beginning to ice over and get really slippery. It was part walking and part skiing on your shoes to make it down, but we were able to return before dark and enjoy the heat and comfort of the refugio, even though they wouldn´t allow you to use the kitchen and cook your own food. While it was disappointing not seeing the towers from the lake, I awoke the next morning at 7:30am to crystal clear views of the towers jutting up above the mountains ablaze in shades of red and orange illuminated by the rising sun. Definitely an amazing sight to behold.
The second day was an easy one, only 6.
An iceberg and a rainbow on the way to Gray Glacier
5 miles of rolling hills to the next refugio, Refugio Cuernos, at the base of the massive rock escarpment. You could see condors circling up near the towers as they glided on the heavy winds. The refugio was located right on the shore of one of the lakes with great views to the mountains across the lake. There wasn´t really any choice but to stay at this refugio as the next one was about five and a half hours away. So it was a day of sitting around inside and chatting with the various people that came in, a good half day of rest since the next day was going to be a long 8 hours of solid hiking so that we wouldn´t have to stay in Refugio Pehoe for two consecutive nights. Leaving the next morning around 9am we reached the Valle Frances after about 2 hours and walked up into the valley for about 20 minutes for views of the glaciers on the mountian.
A close-up view of Gray Glacier
Due to heavy snows the last week, the trail up to the campsite and viewpoint in the valley were blocked by snow and essentially unreachable unless you wanted to blaze your own trail through knee deep, or higher, snow. The winds had also picked up considerable, probably gusting to 85 kph or more, strong enough to blow you back or off-balance if you weren´t paying attention. From the Valle Frances the trail moved down towards Lago Nordenskjold for 6.5 miles to Refugio Pehoe. The blue colors of the lake were incredible and in stark contrast to the greens of the forests and the white snow on the mountains. The views back across the lake of the towers were also stunning. After having lunch at Refugio Pehoe we started off on the trail to Refugio Grey, supposedly 3.5 hours away.
The mountain tops illuminated by the setting sun
The trail wasn´t terribly steep but after already walking 9 miles we were now faced with walking straight into a headwind of 60-90 kph, making things that much more tiring. Two hours into the trail and we reached the viewpoint for the Grey Glacier, a massive glacier that splits onto either side of an island and reaches down to the waters of the lake. In the lake there were also lots of little of glaciers, like tiny icebergs, with amazing shades of blue, one so brilliantly blue that it didn´t even seem real. Another hour and half later at around 5:30pm after some 14.5 miles of hiking we reached the refugio and another closer viewpoint for the glacier. There were only two other people staying in the refugio but they still said that we couldn´t use the kitchen to cook our food.
A blue iceberg and a snow covered mountain
Later they offered us the chance to cook which was very nice to have a hot meal after such a long day.
All that walking on the third day meant that on the fourth day we only had to hike back three and a half hours to get to Refugio Pehoe to catch the boat to the other side of the lake at 12:30pm to connect with bus service back to Puerto Natales. This time, the walk was much quicker with the stiff wind at our backs and we made it back in about 3 hours, with plenty of time to spare for lunch before the 30 minute boat ride. The boat ride was quite beautiful with views of the whole stretch of mountains that we had hiked along for the previous three days, while the wind continued to whip up waves and water spray on the lake. Even the bus ride back towards the park entrance had great distance views of the rock massif and things seemed a bit different from a further perspective.
The trail into the valley for the viewpoint of the towers
I was glad that the hiking was over, four days and some 40 miles later I was glad to be able rest up and sleep in, albeit for one night. The ferry to Puerto Williams
and the end of the Americas awaits on Wednesday...