Puerto Natales, Chile – 17-21 January 2017
It had been a long time since I went tramping. I had plenty of experience from family trips as a youngster, though annoyingly my memories of these are a bit patchy as I was quite young. This was definitely my first solo multiday hiking trip. It would be interesting to have to organise everything myself and make sure I was well prepared. I had heard that Patagonia was not so forgiving. I had brought more warm clothes with me than I could really imaging needing, but better to be on the safe side. The food was an interesting selection. I went with muesli flavoured with nesquik powder for breakfast, rolls with cheese and salami for lunch, and pasta with soup sachets and frozen vege and tuna for dinner. For snacks I had a nice array of nuts and dried fruits from Fruta Seca, a bit of a classic for hikers departing from Puerto Natales, Snickers, some berry chocolate and a 10 pack of ‘Frac Cake’, which I had never tried. I was maybe the only person to not realise immediately that they might not travel well.
Bus: Puerto Natales – Las Torres (Camping Central)
Hike: Las Torres (Camping Central) – Base de las Torres lookout – Las Torres (Camping Central)
Distance: 18.8 km (Light bag)
It was an early start from the hostel to get one of the morning buses from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park. It is around 2 hours to reach the ‘Laguna Amarga entrance and Ranger station’ where everyone has to disembark the bus and join the queue to fill out your park entry form, pay a fee of around 45NZD and watch a short safety and etiquette video. To get to Las Torres, I collected my gear from the bus and caught a smaller shuttle bus down the road about 5km to one of the entry points for the walking trails. There’s a hotel here but I had opted for the basic campsite instead. Not so basic by NZ standards when you consider that there are flush toilets and showers with hot water available at certain times of day.
I set up the one man tent I had rented in Puerto Natales and packed a day bag for the hike up to the towers lookout. I was fortunate to have good weather for this hike and made great time (though I didn’t keep a track on this day), which would be a theme for my entire TdP experience. It really is a busy place and there were plenty of people to pass. I enjoyed the climb and I was really getting into the trekking poles to push myself along, inspired by seeing a guy going nuts with them in a vertical kilometre race video. My technique: plant the poles a decent way in front and move both sides at the same time, pushing quite hard to work your arms out (cause they’re not doing much otherwise). I was a fucking train. The last push up to the lookout is rather steep but I was really cranking into it now. I got a shout of ‘good tempo bro’ from a friendly passer-by on my way up. Upon reaching the lookout at the base of the towers, it really is beautiful. You know you are in a special place, even if you are not so isolated due to the high volume of visitors. Also, it was a real ‘selfie-zone’.
After getting back to camp I still had some daylight to burn so I wandered around the campsite a bit and also went to have a look at the ‘eco-camp’ that a friend had sent me a link about before my trip. It looked really cool but it’s expensive and coming all the way to Patagonia and then living in that kind of flash space really seems a bit off to me. “Yes, you did hear me correctly. I definitely want to travel to one of the most wild, untouched, beautiful landscapes on earth, but I need to stay in fancy accommodation while I’m there…” Not for me, I thought to myself, after enjoying a hot shower. (I swear, it’s there even with the cheapest camping option!)
Las Torres (Camping Central) – Italiano – Britanico lookout – Italiano – Las Torres (Camping Central)
Distance: 44 km (Light bag)
Time: Map – 10 hours one way, Actual – 11.5 hours return
A bit of drama overnight. I awoke to some flooding in one corner of the tent and couldn’t understand what had happened. I was dreaming up strange scenarios and becoming suspicious of a prank by some fellow hikers as I repositioned things and got back to sleep. The cold light of day helped me to finally realise that my hydration reservoir has slowly emptied into the tent. It wasn’t an issue with the ‘lifetime guarantee’ camelback, I had trapped the mouthpiece under a bag or something I was lying on and it had emptied out onto the tent floor, eventually creating a significant puddle. The first order of the day was then to empty the tent, quickly air it out a bit and set everything up again before starting out on an ambitious day trip.
I was a bit anxious to only be getting away at 9AM. Despite the ample daylight in summer this far south, what I had planned was apparently a 10 hour journey each way. Of course you can count on being a fair bit quicker than the suggested times if you are in good shape and just carrying a day bag, but was this asking a bit much on Day 2? Apparently not.
I made great time all the way around to Campimento Italiano and was feeling pretty good. It’s a nice route along beside Nordernskjold Lake. I asked the ranger if the route up to Britanico lookout was open, as I heard from a girl in Punta Arenas who had just been there that it was closed due to crazy winds some days, including when she was there. There was no issue but the weather was not looking great. The climb to Britanico is pretty steep and it was really mucky under foot in some places so the prospect of a tough, tricky climb up the valley to get a clouded view was not that appealing, but not unpleasant enough of course. I was definitely game. Again, I was a pro with the trekking poles and was probably the fastest SOB there. It was certainly a low point of the day struggling up the valley after a hot streak in the morning. I was still outbound at this stage so it was uncomfortable to be thinking negative. After popping out into the Britanico viewpoint area all was well. This was really a beautiful spot and in a more unexpected way, as it certainly doesn’t get the chorus of praise that the much hyped towers lookout does. The castle-esque peaks were a lovely surprise and made a tough day (only half done) worthwhile.
On the way back down I stopped at the best view point for the glacier. It is quite common if you hang around for a while to hear a thunderous crash and look over to see a chunk of the glacier fall into the valley. I waited patiently with my camera ready to record but it was not to be, and standing in an exposed opening with the reality that I was little over half way through the day I moved on sans the perfect shot.
I was inbound now and after navigating the tricky descent back down to Italiano it was a ‘pleasantly’ undulating route back to Las Torres and the cosy tent. I was making decent time but I was pretty tired and ‘you’re not there until you’re there’ apparently. I had eaten all of my food and by the time I passed back by Los Cuernos Lodge I was ready to make the most of the unique luxuries present in this popular Patagonia hiking park. I was put in a sour mood by a dull wait in the queue behind people registering for the cooked dinner at the lodge or getting shampoo or checking the food items for something dairy-free or vegan or whatever it was. All of these matters seemed trivial compared to my desire for a snickers bar. I (finally) got the snickers bar, and some peanut m&ms for good measure, and got back outside to put my trail runners back on and get going. The ‘sustinence’ went down well and I was back on a roll. I got my second wind and was back to making outrageous time. I was tired but just kept cranking and didn’t need to stop (much). I passed some people I had seen not far above Italiano who were heading to Las Torres, having met them in Puerto Natales initially before they set off on their own W circuit expedition starting from the other end. Anyway, I was not expecting to beat them back to Las Torres but I tore past them and kept going. They did have big bags, but whatever, I was clearly in charge. When I got back to Las Torres at 8:30PM after 11.5 hours out and about I realised that despite being so tired, I had made even better time coming back from Los Cuernos than I did with my fresh legs in the morning heading the other way. It seemed impossible. What a machine. The trekking poles really become a part of you. It was so satisfying to plan a really ambitious day you weren’t entirely sure about, get an unfortunate late start, and then crush it anyway. It probably went too well to be type 2 fun.
Las Torres (Camping Central) – Grey Lodge and camping zone (Camping Grey)
Distance: 35.1 km (Heavy bags)
Time: Map – 13 hours, Actual – 9 hours
This was the big day. Not quite the same kilometerage (definitely a word) as the epic day trip the day before, but I had to carry all of my gear from one end of ‘the W’ to the other! This situation arose due the strict booking system that has only been in effect for a couple of years in the national park. There are some free campsites but they also require a reservation. There weren’t any available for any of the nights I would be there so I had to look at the paid options. It wasn’t exactly expensive but ‘Camping Grey’ had very limited availability so I would need to start at the Torres end and I initially only got one night at ‘Camping Grey’. Fortunately another night opened up, thanks to much rechecking of the booking websites after my initial booking, so I could have two nights at each end of the W. ‘Camping Central’ is pretty big so I did have the pick of the nights there. For anyone looking at their own trip to Torres del Paine I would recommend booking your campsites as far in advance as possible because I think I was a bit of an exception to be able to sort something at such short notice, about 2 weeks out, and because I backed myself to have some big days I was able to make it work. Anyway, I packed up as best I could and set off for a long, heavy day. More on the packing: I had two bags with me, a 65L pack and a 34L day bag. I wasn’t able to get everything into the big pack so I wore the smaller bag on my front and used it to keep my reservoir, food and warm clothes handy. It wasn’t the setup that big days are made of but I was up for it.
After the epic day prior, I wasn’t breaking new ground until after Italiano. I made insane time up to here and felt great. The next stretch to Paine Grande is the only section of the circuit rated as easy and the weather was bringing the fun. It was nice out! Ironically this section was where I started to feel more impatient and a bit tired. I had made great time to date so there was no excuse to not relax a bit and enjoy the trip past Skottsberg lake before a break at Paine Grande. This is the point where I would be taking the Catamaran on my way out in 2 days. I had heard at the park entry point that there had been a problem with the regular boat and a much smaller one was in use at the moment, meaning that I could potentially not make it out as planned so I was keen to ask the ranger at Paine Grande about the situation. I asked about the chances of getting left behand and he said the boat took 90 passengers so relax. He was whittling wood as we spoke and seemed to embody the calm nature of the place rather well. I assumed this meant the normal boat was back in use so no worries.
Continuing on to Grey I was on the last leg for the day, heading up a valley into an exposed area next to Lake Grey, which sits below the extremely large Grey Glacier. The view of the glacier got better and better as I approached the campsite, it really is big. I made good time all day but as I got really close to the camp I started to really break down a bit and feel the result of much rubbing on one heel and some strain through both achilles. Luckily tomorrow I didn’t need to take any bags anywhere, but I did have an ice hike to look forward to in the afternoon! I was so grateful that the weather had held up all day and I was able to set up a dry tent again. Someone had switched Patagonia to easy mode.
I had made a reservation for dinner at the refugio as a treat after a tough day, and to lighten the load by whatever one meal weighs. I was sat awkwardly by myself waiting for the food (classic) but luckily there were two friendly couples at the table, one from Holland and one from Germany. There was a soup entre (I ate quite a lot of the basket of bread that was at the table too), a well-balanced looking main of rice, vege and beef, and some dessert that was very tasty but really wasn’t Patagonia sized. Later I enjoyed the ridiculous luxury of being able to buy a Twix and some Trition biscuits next to a huge glacier. Cheap Oreo-type biscuits are one of my real weaknesses while away, and I had already established the Tritons as a worthy choice earlier in my Chilean holiday.
Grey Lodge and camping zone (Camping Grey)
I enjoyed a late start since I wasn’t really going anywhere. The cooking room was fairly busy when I went to prepare my muesli and nesquik breakfast. Had a chat with a guy who works on Nuclear subs in San Diego. This teased my desire to make the most of cheap flights to LA some time. The morning wasn’t warm but I enjoyed a hot chocolate, some biscuits and a read of ‘In Patagonia’. How appropriate. He constantly meets the strangest / most interesting people in the book, which is all over the place. The book is entertaining but not always easy going. That’s a brief summary from someone who has only read 49 pages. I may return to Patagonia again before I finish reading it haha.
The ice hike was booked for the afternoon and I went to the ‘Bigfoot Patagonia’ HQ to check it out. Unfortunately the trip was cancelled that day due to an issue with the boat. I was offered the option to change to the morning group the next day. This was my departure day from the park and I wasn’t too keen to get the late bus out as I was catching a bus from Puerto Natales back down to Punta Arenas to catch a flight the next day. I hadn’t paid yet and I took the afternoon to decide. I went for it (seems like the obvious option now, but I’m not all that adaptable all the time so I wasn’t sure). The official advice on catching the catamaran out had been ‘relax’. I decided to relax and lock it in for the next morning. There wasn’t too far to hike to the catamaran afterwards and I would have heaps of time before the late bus so it seemed all gravy. As a bonus, freeing up the afternoon allowed me to wander part way up towards Paso (that section is usually one way) and check out a couple of swings bridges with great views over the glacier. My feet were doing OK and there were no heavy bags this time so it went well.
A real treat of staying at Grey was the awesome spot right in front of the glacier where you could sit and look at the mass of ice. It was conveniently sized to put life in perspective.
It was good to have a restful day after the two epic days before. I had plenty of time to relax and notice hours passing without thinking about anything in particular. I seem to have been developing this ability lately. Flight mode and minimum screen brightness allowed for some music while chilling, and left plenty of battery for the bus trip out.
Hike: Grey Lodge and camping zone (Camping Grey) – Paine Grande
Distance: 11 km (Heavy bags)
Time: Map – 3.5 hours, Actual – ??
Catamaran: Paine Grande – Pudeto
Bus: Pudeto – Puerto Natales
It was departure day from the park. A dry morning was great for the final packing and I was off for my ice hike excursion. First we took a boat out across Grey Lake to La Isla. From here we climbed over the rocky island for the better part of an hour to get to the edge of the glacier.
At this point we stopped and got out the crampons, which the guides fitted. I was wearing the TR7 trail runners that had been fantastic all hike but the lack of support around the ankle made for some very uncomfortable moments on the ice. You really need to be wearing boots for best use. We hadn’t had our footwear inspected before this point and I was told that these shoes are not ideal and that I would know for next time. I was glad to not be turned around. We made our way up onto the ice in a zigzag, keeping the ice axe on the uphill side for stability. It was a strange experience wearing crampons for the first time and I was sure to really try to dig them in with each step. Any steep descents were pretty awkward and uncomfortable and of course sidling was pretty lame with ankles exposed to the metal. In any case it was a really cool trip and we wandered around checking out a couple of features on the ice and taking a lot of photos.
It was a great experience and the small group with 3 guides was a pretty good ratio. After we made it back to the edge of the glacier I was much relieved to remove the crampons and enjoy the freedom of the trail runners once more. After a boat trip back to the Bigfoot HQ it was all over.
I had one of my two (increasingly stale) rolls for the day at Camping Grey and set off again with the two bags, which packed up a bit better this time due to the lack of food and a bit of experience. This was the shortest hiking day and I thought I had lots of time since I could now only make the later of the 2 daily bus departures from Pudeto anyway, and there would be several catamaran trips running during the day that would get me there in time (right?). I was feeling pretty good and knowing you’re nearly done it’s hard to slow down too much. I was cruising along taking a last few ‘panic photos’ and then had a new experience for my time on the trail. I couldn’t really recall noticing any faster hikers than me prior to this day, but it happened. I noticed that I was taking a long time to catch up to and overtake a fit looking female hiker. I eventually did pass but later when I stopped to enjoy a mirador it wasn’t long before she came by and I never caught back up despite leaving again shortly after. She was less encumbered, but I was still impressed.
It was a nice feeling coming down the last valley to Paine Grande, the departure point for the catamaran. I remember thinking that life really is good. I’ve got the opportunity to travel to attend a huge conference, and the flexibility to stay around and enjoy exploring a foreign land for a few weeks. I’m not in a hurry to give this lifestyle up and I really don’t need any more money to be happy. Life is pretty well devoid of adversity. I don’t feel like working too hard, so I won’t. Maybe I could stop worrying about anything, and just be happy.
When I got to Paine Grande I checked in with the ranger about the catamaran and he advised going directly to the jetty now, as there was one more departure for the day and the boat would only carry 16 people. This meant that not only was the usual, much larger, boat not running, but they were also not running the full normal schedule of departures. When I got to the jetty I was about the 8th person there so all good, but the boat was full when we left and I could see how this could have easily gone differently haha. Back at Pudeto I treated myself to a Cola and awaited the late bus. There are several bus companies that run the service and they leave at similar times, making two runs a day. I was booked with the ‘Buses Gomez’ company so I kept an eye out for that particular bus. As time passed, some buses came and went and there was just one bus left as we approached the scheduled departure time. It was not a ‘Buses Gomez’ bus. I had been there for an hour or so, so I knew it hadn’t just gone a few minutes early or anything, but I was still anxious. I met a couple of people who were booked with the same service and who were also anxious and contemplating paying again just to get on the only bus in sight. Eventually a couple more buses pulled up and one of them was a Gomez! Torres del Paine was really making me sweat until the last minute with it’s unreliable catamaran and pretty casual buses.
Arriving back at Puerto Natales around sunset, I still wasn’t done for the day. I needed to return my hired gear and sort myself out with a nice meal and get ready to leave early the next morning. After returning the gear to ‘Erattic Rock’ and ‘Chumango hostel’ I headed back to my hostel and enquired about the opening hours a great sandwich place I had experienced before entering the park. It was time for another ‘Completo’ at Masay. There was even a mini-market still open to provide me with a fanta. Pretty good ending. I collected the stuff I’d left with the staff during my hike and repacked everything ready for the bus to Punta Arenas and flight to Puerto Montt the next day.