March 2010: Hiking the Austral Trails … Torres Del Paine “W” Hike

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I woke to screaming headlines “Earthquake 8.8 in Chile ” – not what you want to see anytime & especially not when you have a 2 week hike/travel trip planned to Patagonia. We watched the aftermath of nature’s fury and the unimaginable pain & suffering she routinely bring upon her teeming millions. Images / News was not good – wide spread damage near Confucion area, the main international airport in Santiago damaged & closed . We did not know how this would all sort out — we had about a week to go before I was headed to Santiago & from there onto Patagonia. We watched the news, browsed online & chatted with the travel agency & airlines. Flights were cancelled, flights were moved and much hand wringing done – To go or Not to go, now or later …..and there was news that a make shift Santiago airport was operating. We watched AA flights for a few days & then decided to make it a go with no changes to our plans — all we needed was a small window to get through to Patagonia via Santiago.

AA touched down on time in breaking dawn over Santiago — a incredibly smooth landing and we tumbled out of 767 on to the tarmac and walked up to the long lines of luggage to pick our luggage & get in line for immigrations. This was the quickest I had been united with mu luggage & we waited our place in line to get processes into Chile — the airport was glowing in early light and things were moving & in place – a tent, with computer and security personnel was the immigration — we were efficiently processed and soon met our cab driver/guide . Total time was under 45 mins — not bad for operating out of tent in a closed airport. A quick stop at the gas station for a quick breakfast on the run — coffee & some pastries made good. Chile is a land of “tea”….and soon I realized “tea” was a better choice here.

We wandered around the city — visited the old palaces, the old city square, a private collection of tribal art ( Chile has managed to fully exterminate their indigenous population to make way for sheep and cattle – a tragic consequence of colonization that has been repeated in many places in South America). It was amazing to watch Chileans energized to help themselves — official fund raisers ( youth of Chile) were out on the streets collecting funds, major concerts planned for fundraising in the capital & a very successful telethon. Chile ayuda a Chile (Chile helps Chile) stickers/banners and posters were every where and the national colors were in great display of patriotism. Its was an ironic monument to the challenges that Chile faces as it celebrates Bicentennial year…

City tour, lunch at a very upscale boutique place & rush back to Airport & we got on another flight to Punta Arenas — way down South! We reached there just past midnight ( the town was partying! ) & headed to the hotel (I am sure magnificent in its heydays but rather aging) located on the main square to crash after a really long travel day …

Day 2: Seno Otway & Puerto Natales:
An early wake up & I check out the beautiful balcony on the room opening up to main square. Punta Arenas had a lot of old money in wool trade and the rich dealers of wool had magnificent homes around the main square most of which are now public buildings & museums. Quaint little place that I wish we had more time to explore….we were met by our guide & got travelling to the town of Puerto Natales – the gateway town to Torres Del Paine. Along the way we had a planned stop at Seno Otway – to visit a Magellenic Penguin Colony. The drive to the sound was along the Magellan passage ( which we would have love to take a boat trip on ) & then on dirt roads that lead past many an “estancia” – ranches in Chile / Argentina. These are remote homesteads on large pastures running sheep and some cattle. The trip to see the penguins was nice — but we did not see large numbers of them — most had headed out to sea to fatten up for the coming winter & the journey north to warmer climes. These are burrowing penguins, that pair for life and return to their grounds every year to brood & rear their chicks. We wandered the 2km track / board walk as we navigate between penguin burrows and the waterfront ( a few viewing platforms & a blind add to the experience). You get very close to the birds who don’t see to mind you or your camera! Mid march is at the tail end of the season, so we saw but a few hundred birds – all grown but nonetheless entertaining. Typically this area hosts about 10,000 birds and their chicks. You can see the burrows and the tracks they use to go back n forth to fish and bring food back for the hungry chicks. We did see a number of other South American Birds and critters — the Southern Skunk, Armadillo, Nandu ( Rea) & the young birds, a number of predator birds – caracals, falcons, hawks & eagles, guanacos ….

On way to Puerto Natales, we stopped for lunch at a roadside diner/lodge & that is when I had my 1st inkling that “spices” were limited to black pepper at best …. We did a quick stop at the guiding outfitters office to pick up stuff sacks and some food & we were dropped off at our hotel “Weskar” for the night. This was a delightful boutique lodge set up on the cliffs with great views of the charming port of Puerto Natales along beautiful Last Hope Sound. We wandered down to the waterfront to enjoy the day’s end and some beautiful light on the mountains. We also met the “Patagonian Breeze” — stiff, unrelenting winds that kick up with force and can literally move you about. Needless to say, photography that evening was a challenge. We watched the birds fish and play on the Sound. I was excited about the sighting of some black-necked swans bobbing in the sound. This beautiful bird is endemic to this area. Soon the winds had us scurrying back to the warmth of the hotel and to dinner. Dinner was outstanding served with a generous helping of Patagonian beauty. Dinner done we had to pack from our hike — as always deciding what camera gear to leave behind was tough!

Day 3: Laguna Verde Hike & Serrano River Camp
We were hiking today in Patagonia ….A pickup by private van, we head towards the famed peaks of Torres del Paine National Park.

The route travels around Lake Sarmiento with the towering Paine Horns in view. Gunacos show up and embellish my photos I am happy- it’s a mild day with beautiful views. The terrain we hiked through was uniquely Patagonian….low spiny cushion bushes interspersed with typically Patagonian Beech forests (Nothofagus )– 3 types are predominant in woodlands of this area. – The Coihue (Nothoagus dombeyi), The Lenga ( Nothofagus pumilio) and the Nire (Nothofagus antartica). Lenga is the most extensive of these beeches being the hardier one. The lake is green ..Laguna Verde! The distant spires of the Paine Grande Massif play hide and seek with everchanging magical views, silver strands of glacier fed streams deck the valleys where we will be hiking starting tomorrow.

 As we descend the slopes of Sierra del Toro we are greeted by a beautiful rainbow, we make it down to the road fairly early and are picked up by our driver. We stop at the Park headquarters and look at our route for the next few days and as always with park headquarters – take in some amazing views of the area.

We head out to the Serrano river valley & our camp for the night at an estancia (working ranch) with some mind-boggling views of the Torres Del Paine range. Camp set-up, I have some time to photograph the evening light on the massif… Dinner is ranch style with the farmhands – definitely an unique experience! Some classic Patagonian fare with a generous helping of stunning views.

Day4: Grey Glacier
Best laid plans change …the boat ride that was to take us to Grey Glacier is off ( thanks to the quake & the perceived loss of tourist trade) so it’s a boat trip across another lake (Pehoe) and now a 12.2 mile round trip hike to see the terminus of Grey Glacier … alrighty, we came here to hike, so hike we will. Minor disappointment for me since the boat to Grey Glacier would have taken us along the fjord and up close with the blue icebergs that calve off the glacier…we take the high trail and make our way up to Grey Glacier.

We hike through dense forests of lenga and eventually come out high & are greeted by incoming weather …by the time we make it to Grey Glacier — the winds threatening to blow us off the trail.

After a nominal stop at the view point we high tail it back to the relative safety of the forest and make our way back to camp at Paine Grande.

Only plus – Our driver Alberto had set up the camp for us….At each of our camps, there is a Refugio ( hikers chalet) so our meals are luxurious & warm and out of the wind. Not a bad deal

Day 5: Valle Frances & Refugio Los Cuernos
Up early with a quick breakfast at the Refugio, we set off towards Valle Frances… a truly spectacular Eden-like paradise, with almost 360 degrees of panoramic mountain scenery: Los Cuernos del Paine, the French Glacier and Lakes Nordenskjold, Pehoé, Scottsburg and Toro. We follow the tail along the shores of Lago Pehoe and are directly south of Paine Grande and heading northeast along the base of Paine Grande on a fairly mild trail. Heading around the mountain we see glimpses of the snow clad eastern face – tempting teasers for what was to come in the French valley! Below us to the south east are a bunch of smaller lakes that dot the terrain. A low roar of rushing water announces our arrival at the French River – we follow this raging river up to the suspension bridge & cross over to the eastside and we head into Campemento Italiano – rather sparse campsite with a ranger station. We leave some of our stuff behind here to lighten our loads & head up the valley. The skies are a brilliant cerulean blue & the trail winds through a rich patchwork of Southern Beech Forest with the glittering Rio Frances meandering down the Valley.

This area is one of the most beautiful valleys in the National Park Torres del Paine. The trail makes for a steep hike that includes the middle point in the “W” trek – we take our time enjoying this magical valley and taking in some spectacular views. After some brief walking through the lenga forest the trail opened up along the rocks above the French River to some amazing views of the east face of Paine Grande. Snowpack and drifts covered the upper slopes of the mountain.

As we make our way higher into the valley we are surrounded by glaciers hanging off the mountains, snow capped peaks with beautiful cornices where the cold air kisses the peaks – thundering waterfalls coming off these glaciers and merging to feed Rio Frances.
Lunch is high in the cirque – we take in the grandeur of the surrounding mountain landscapes- absolutely stunning,- the granite zeniths of CerrosPaine Grande (3,050m),Cerro Cathedral Aleta de Tiburón, (Shark’s Fin) on the west side . On the east was the Cerros Cabeza del Indio, magnificent Fortaleza (Fortress),La Espada (sword), La Hoja (Blade), La Mascara (Mask) and the peaks of Los Cuernos (2600m). Lower down south you see the dense deep green Southern Beech forests punctuated with just a hint of the approaching fall and sparkling azure lakes – each a different shade!
Not as imposing as Glacier Grey descending from the Patagonian Ice Fields, Glacier Frances was still impressive, nestled in the lower reaches of Paine Grande. We sat back and watched huge chunks spall of the glaciers with a thunderous boon and come crashing down the slopes in rivers of snow & ice. Then, it would all be quiet and you’d almost hear the wing beats if the condors and the tinkling of the waterfalls — till yet another thunderous boom punctuated the silence. We linger for a while & then have to make back down the valley and continue on back through the Italian camp ( Campemento Italiano) hiking through the foothills of Cuerno Principal & Cuerno Este along the glimmering waters of the Lago Nordenskjold. It gets really gusty and make for some tough walking! We make to Refugio Los Cuernos & are greeted with some stunning clouds that light up in the setting sun! Today was a memorable day: I was saturated with and fully immersed in feelings of wonder, amazement, peace, contentment and satisfaction with life. I felt genuinely, wonderfully happy… being in the midst of nature at its grandest brings such sharp emotion that it can be overwhelming. It begins to rain and we enjoy the cozy comfort of the refugio, have dinner there ( not impressed but definitely needed food!) and linger till its time to head to bed.

Day 6: To Los Torres
We were a bit weary from yesterday & had a leisurely wake up, breakfast & then hit the trail on our “easy” day! We hiked along the shores under the ever-present spires of Los Cuernos; Cuerno Este dominated the horizon as we headed eastward on the northern shores Lago Noredenskjold.

The land become more dry -fewer trees, scrub and open lands – we were approaching the Patagonian Steppe at the edge of the Paine Massif. We boulder hopped our way across several stream crossings ( no bridges here – one river did have a rather a poor guide wire that was falling out in places) We stopped for lunch under the shade of a rather healthy lenga tree and watched the world go by. The gurgling stream added to experience. Although a short day, we still had some distance to cover so we pressed on stopping at the very end of Lago Nordenskjold where it turns into a Rio Paine ( Its one long lake indeed – we walked past this lake for 2 whole days !)


We head past a tranquil little lake with ducks and geese and herds of horses. We soon make it to the turn off for the hike in towards the peaks of Los Torres. That will come tomorrow but for today we cross the river and head towards the upscale Hosteria Los Torres and then on towards the camp. This last bit seems to go on forever….or so it seems. We hit camp and stretch out on benches till its dinner time. It’s a nice evening. We rest up for tomorrow — this will be our hardest day of hiking. I fall asleep with positive thoughts of good weather for the next day ….

Day 7: Ascencio Valley & the peaks of Los Torres
Day dawns with a dull grey and the feeling of impeding bad weather — this is not what you want for you hike up to the Torres. If the cloud level drops – no Torres . Fingers crossed we head up the trail past some very gusty areas . The trail follows the Ascension river high above the valley floor as we head to Refugio Chileno about 1/2 way up the valley.

Its about a 1000ft up & down by the time you reach this point…we still have the ascent to Campemento Torres and onto the Torres themselves. A brief stop at the Refugio and we hiked on up – mostly level but climbing up through some forested sections past the high camp till we finally were in sight of the main ascent! It would be a nasty bouldering ascent – in spite of some re-grading/routing done by the park services. We ascend slowly watching our step and by now a slight breeze had picked up. The skies looked like they were going to pour any moment. I was hopping it would hold off just long enough ….As we climbed up negotiating the boulder fields , the Torres were hidden behind the steep slope and they gradually revealed their peaks as we made up higher and soon we were at the ridge and we could see the majestic peaks and the green base lake a the bottom. We continued down to the shores of the base lake and had our lunch there – in total solitude.

The mirador (viewpoint) is roughly at 3000 ft of elevation. The towers themselves are between 2600 and 2850m (just under 9000 ft). The South Tower (Torre Sur), on the left, is actually the tallest but is also the furthest from the viewpoint.
The winds had kicked up so we hid behind some large boulders and finished our lunch and gazed at these famed peaks! Some pictures and soon we were high tailing it to the relative protection of the Lenga forests lower on the slopes. We just about made it when it began to rain — we had made it, barely! I was happy that we got to see the peaks and were now back in the relative protected terrain. We donned our rain gear and continued to trudge back down to the Refugio in blustery weather. The Patagonian weather had caught up to us …. We hiked back down the Ascencio gorge in pouring rain & since we were leaving super early the next day to head into Argentina, we opted for the ultra cushy Hosteria Los Torres for the night – A hot shower and a warm bed was awesome as was the high from our accomplishment of the “W” hike!

Refugio Los Torres & Peaks of Torres

I think I will go back to Patagonia again …..

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