Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Trekking the W at Torres del Paine - Part 2

Continued from Part 1...

Day 2 - Sun

We slept in a bit on our second day, knowing that we would wait for Nick & Frances to hike back down from Refugio Grey to meet us for our longest day of hiking, which would also become my favorite day on the trail.  Since we had some extra time (and since we had forgotten to bring any breakfast-specific food), we purchased the breakfast from the refugio and took our time breaking down the tent and getting our bags together.  Our companions arrived just as we were finishing up, and we set off.  The wind exiting the little valley was again incredibly strong, and compounded with the full pack, it was a struggle to avoid being pushed completely off trail for the first part of the hike!  As we continued, we passed through another large area of fire-damage, past Lago Skottsberg (full of white-capped waves from the wind), towards the Italiano campsite.  The clouds we had seen yesterday almost completely dissipated, leaving bright, sunny weather that allowed us to strip down to lighter layers to enjoy the incredible weather.  

After re-entering a wooded area and dodging some guided tours (Nothing against guided tours, but they really do clog up the trail!), we eventually crossed a suspension bridge over Rio del Francés into Campamento Italiano.  Italiano is one of the free campsites along the trail, with very basic amenities (a cooking shelter and some sheltered holes in the ground for bathrooms).  We hoped to make it a bit farther to camp at Refugio Los Cuenos that night, but we had a lot of ground to cover in not a lot of time, and we didn't want to count Italiano out entirely.  Like many other hikers, we left our full packs near the ranger station at the campsite (I was impressed that so many bags could be left out in the open completely untouched), and we proceeded to hike up the French valley that runs parallel to the river we had just crossed.  

We started up a relatively steep uphill path over large, loose stones,  We crossed dozens of small feeder streams, including a relatively large waterfall as we continued up the valley.  Frances's knee was bothering her, so she and Nick moved a bit more slowly, as Frederick and I charged ahead.  Finally the loose stones gave way to a dirt path, covered in trees and shaded from the wind.  Eventually we reached a false summit - where trees gave way to scrub bushes and the view completely opened up in front of us -  the French Glacier nestled into a looming snow-capped mountain to our left, and a panoramic view of rocky towers to our right and in front of us.  From here the path upward was much more gradual, as we re-entered a wooded area with a well-worn dirt path, winding in parallel to the river , dipping up and down occasionally into the feeder streams.  Stopping to take a few photos along the way, I completely lost Frederick, who was charging ahead at lightning speed.  Eventually Nick came running up from behind - Frances had decided to rest her knee and turn back after reaching the false summit, and he had started running to catch up, but it took him a solid 30 minutes of running to reach me!  We passed through one more opening in the trail - full of loose rock and a strong, frigid wind (as there weren't any trees at this point to block it), but also providing a nice open view of the mountains around us.  We re-entered the forest, passing Britanico Camp (a climbers-only basic campsite), and scrambled up large boulders to the final point on the path - a massive table rock, with a gorgeous 360 degree view of the mountains, rock spires, and the bright teal glacial lake in the distance from which we came.  And, we realized that we had managed to hike up the trail that should have taken 3.5 hours in just an hour and 45 minutes!  If we made a good pace on the way back, we would have plenty of time to make it to the next refugio before dark.

The French Glacier over the French River.

A view of some of the rock towers just before reaching the final viewpoint.

Nick, Frederick, and myself at the final mirador on the middle leg of the W trail.

A panorama of the mountains visible from the final viewpoint... this was just the "straight ahead" and "to the right" portion of the 360 degree view from the top - it was truly incredible!

We enjoyed the view for a little while, then knowing we needed to get back soon, we moved quickly back towards the camp site.  Quickly may be an understatement.  Frederick and Nick started literally running back.  I ran along most of the dirt path portions of the trail, but once I hit the rocky portion that made up the bottom third of the trail, I slowed down considerably.  They beat me to the bottom by probably thirty minutes.  Once I reached Italiano, Nick and Frances had already started heading towards the refugio, getting a head start to compensate for her knee, so Frederick and I quickly loaded up our packs and started down the trail.  The trail was quite steep in sections, but thankfully mostly downhill, though scrambling down steep, loose dirt and rock paths with our packs fully loaded was somewhat challenging.  At least we weren't walking the other direction!  Eventually we bumped into Nick and Frances, and the trail led us all the way down to the lakeshore of Lago Nordenskjöld, full of smooth grey pebbles.  From the lakeshore, we didn't have to walk far to reach Refugio Cuernos.  Even though we weren't quite into high season, the campsite was already fairly packed (so if you do go during high season, try to book a spot at the campsite in advance!), but we managed to find a relatively flat, relatively grassy spot to set up our tent.  We cooked up some asparagus soup and our noodles with the beef bouillon and some of the fresh peppers, and we sipped on hot chocolate in the chilly cooking area before turning in for the night.

The shore of Lake Nordenskjöld, just before Refugio Cuernos.

Day 3 - Rain

We awoke to the patter of raindrops on the tent, a theme that would stick with us for most of the day.  We stayed in the tent as long as possible before grabbing some breakfast in the refugio, finally packing up our things once the rain had subsided to a light drizzle and huddling in the cooking area until we were ready to go.  Fully dressed in our rain gear (with me wearing a terribly cheap uncomfortable, unbreathable jacket that Frances had kindly bestowed on me - she had purchased a cheap rain suit just to get some waterproof pants and had no need for the top), we set off along the path, which would be mostly long uphills (that thankfully weren't too steep) for the rest of the day.  I quickly realized I was getting more drenched sweating inside the rain jacket than I would from the light rain, so I gave up on it entirely.  Thankfully the rain never got too heavy, and my merino wool shirts kept me nice and warm and relatively dry.  I got pretty lucky with the weather given the loss of my good rain jacket!!

The path continued, with some rolling ups and downs, occasionally long ups, following parallel to the lake, and providing occasional viewpoints where we could stop and take in the scenery.  We finally left the lake behind, walking past tall bushes covered in red flowers and the occasional bit of muck from the rain, eventually arriving at a fork in the road, where the path splits off to go to a major hotel versus a shortcut to the next refugio / campsite, Chileno.  Frederick and I had gotten ahead, so we stopped for a rest at the fork, snacking on trail mix until Nick and Frances caught up.  Frances's knee problems were being compounded today with blisters, so she was forced to move much more slowly.  As a result, Nick and Frederick charged ahead to reach the campsite as quickly as possible, so Nick could return and help carry her pack if needed, at whatever point along the trail she was.  I walked along at my normal pace, planning to help set up the tents once I could catch up, so I spent the rest of the afternoon hiking along by myself.  Certainly not a problem - I had plenty of beautiful scenery to take in, and that day's hike was thankfully one of our shortest.  The bushes gave way to a more desert-like landscape, with shorter plants and brush, providing a wide-open view of the valley below and additional mountain ranges and lakes in the distance.  I made the long, slow climb towards the river valley of Rio Ascencio through the ongoing drizzle, eventually joining up with the path that leads to the famous towers from the hotel below.  At this point, the path takes a sharp left to run parallel to the river, with a series of long, steep up and downhills and an incredible view of the rushing river far below.  I hadn't been on this section of the path long when I spotted Nick, running back down the path to meet up with Frances, and I didn't have too far to go before crossing the river into the campsite.  

Frederick and I quickly set up our tent on the last remaining camping platform and found a nearby flat area for Nick and Frances, who arrived shortly after.  Once we were set up, we huddled inside the refugio, sipping beer by the heater until the delicious smells of the refugio dinner drove us out to the relative cold of the basic cooking shelter to cook our own dinner.  Frederick and I sipped the last of our soups and boiled the last of our pasta, savoring the remnants of the jar of pesto and the last of the peppers and parmesan.  We were also offered leftovers from a massive pot of spaghetti cooked up by a few trekking guides!  One last mug of hot chocolate, and we returned to the tents to sleep under the patter of rain. 

Some of the gorgeous red flowering bushes along the trail, with a view of Lake Nordenskjöld in the background. 

Frederick, Nick, Frances, and myself at a lookout point over Lake Nordenskjöld.

One last campstove meal.

Day 4 - Fog

We awoke on our final day to more light rain, and the mountains we planned to climb for a view of the famous towers were still completely obscured by fog.  We took our time, slowly eating breakfast, packing our bags, in hopes that the fog would eventually lift.  Around 10 we finally set out towards the viewpoint.  The first portion of the hike led to the upper campsite (Camp Torres), taking us through dense forests in deep shades of rich browns and bright greens, the colors that much more vibrant from the recent rainfall.  We wove our way up, down, and around the path, steadily climbing until we reached the turnoff for Camp Torres, providing a small overlook of the valley we had just arrived from and a tall waterfall opposite of us.  

At this point, the landscape completely changed, as we began a steep uphill climb up stones and loose rocks on a mostly exposed face, though we did wind our way through the occasional small clumps of trees.  The climb was much longer than I expected, and it was fairly difficult even without a pack.  We passed a few large tour groups on the trail, as they slowly made their way up from the hotel to view the towers.  Eventually all four of us made it up to the mirador, the famous viewpoint featuring a small glacial pond and massive rock towers in the background.  (Very similar, actually, to the viewpoint we visited in El Chaltén.) Despite the fog, we actually had a good view of the towers.  And apparently we timed our arrival really well - a few people who had been hanging around the viewpoint for a few hours told us that this was the clearest it had been during their entire visit!  We hung around for a while to enjoy the view, take some photos, and enjoy some snacks, before finally making our way back down the steep trail back to our campsite to relax for a bit and retrieve our bags.  Just as we were about to arrive into camp, I bumped into a pair of Aussies that I had met at my hostel back in Bariloche!  I still love how small the 'Gringo Trail' is in South America and how easy it is to find familiar faces.

The whole group after four days of trekking the W, at the famous towers.

We slowly packed up the last of our things and had one last snack, then slowly made our way down the final trail towards Hotel Las Torres.  As we got closer, the path became a very steep downhill of loose rock and dirt - I was happy not to have had to climb up it!  We also had a great view of the valley below and around us, and of course the mountains towering behind us.  We had a few hours to kill at the hotel while we waited for the next bus back to Puerto Natales, so we celebrated with ice cream from a small kiosk and (when a light rain started) beers and coffees from the hotel restaurant. 

Catching the late afternoon bus back to Puerto Natales unfortunately put us arriving back very late - after 10 PM - and we all had to immediately purchase tickets for buses out of town very early the next morning.  (I would have been happy to stay another night and recover, but since buses to Ushuaia - my next destination - only depart from Puerto Natales every other day, I needed to go ahead and catch the bus the following morning.)  Once bookings had been made, we dropped our bags at the hostel and Frederick and I immediately set out to return our rental gear.  Still unshowered from 4 days of trekking, exhausted, and by now, starving, we met back up with Nick & Frances to find food… but almost every restaurant we tried was closed!  Finally we found one that was open and had the most delicious greasy steak and beer ever :)  Honestly, anything would have been better than plain pasta cooked over a camp stove at that point.  We toasted to our trek and promised to meet again in Buenos Aires for a reunion dinner.

We were incredibly late returning to the hostel, and I still needed to shower (finally!) and re-pack my bag for my early morning wake-up to catch the 7 AM bus to Ushuaia.  Between everything I wound up with a whopping 3 hours of sleep, barely made it to the bus station, and had a fairly miserable all-day ride to the southernmost city in the world.  But that's another story for another time :)


All in all, I am so happy that I decided to brave the trails, the campsites, and the weather of Torres del Paine.  I had a truly wonderful experience, saw incredible, awe-inspiring works of nature, and got to do the entire thing with a fantastic group of people.  It remains one of my favorite experiences during my time in South America, and I highly recommend that you give it a try if you have the chance.  A huge thank you to Frances, Nick, and Frederick for being such amazing trekking companions and making the journey so much fun, and I hope to see you all again in some other corner of the globe :)

A reunion feast at La Cabrera Steakhouse in Buenos Aires.

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