Torres del Raine.
It's Autumn by every measure. The trees are red, orange, yellow, green or simply bare. The ground is wet, frozen, muddy or a combination of all three. Blustery winds gut heat from any warm space and if they sky isn't looking threatening, it's already raining. That's almost exactly what greeted us on arrival to Torres del Paine and little did we know, it wasn't about to change.
After hours of bussing, a $36 entrance fee and a thoroughly unenjoyable wait to watch our driver eat breakfast, we finally stepped off our coach into the drizzling rain to embark on six days of pure Patagonia. TDP has several options for multiday treks, the two major ones are the 'W' and the 'O' (which essentially links the two ends of the 'W'). There is also a 'Q' which is the 'O' or 'W' with a longer entry or exit. Of course, all these letters refer roughly to the plan course of the tracks. At this time of year the 'O' is closed so we geared up for the 'W' with the extra part of the 'Q' tacked on for good measure.
Cat and I were the only two hikers to embark from Administration - everybody else skipped that day's walk by catching a ferry across Lake Pehoe. As a result, we had the track to ourselves which was brilliant and oh so peaceful! It was a miserable start but we gave thanks for the absence of the troublesome Patagonian winds, lack of human contact (seriously, we saw two hikers the whole day) and stunning scenery. It was so nice to have such a vast park all to ourselves and for once, to be on our own clock. The rain eased and the winds held off and as we got deeper into the park, the scenery continued to amaze. Glacial blue lakes settled into shallow rocky depressions, grey rivers cut through vibrant autumn valleys and snowy mountains backdropped every vista. On occasion giant hares and even wild llamas crossed our path! It was quiet. Deathly quiet. So quiet that when we stopped walking I could hear my ears ringing in silence. The only thing missing from a near perfect day was the sun. The wretched, elusive, stubborn, meddling, flaming ball of much desired heat and light.
It took us a smidge over five hours to reach our first stop: Camp Paine Grande. It was not at all what we expected. The camping facilities had indoor flush toilets and, wait for it...hot showers! A cooking and dining facility had also been constructed with sinks, running water and rubbish bins. That was just the camping facilities. If we had US $100 pn each to splurge on the adjacent refugio we could have had a cosy made-up bunk bed and for around $20-30 more we could have partaken in a hot three course meal from the kitchen before retiring upstairs to the bar. There was even a bloody convenience store! I honestly don't know why I bothered carrying any food in at all! Actually that's a lie, you and I both know I'm way too stingy to pay $4 for a snickers.
That (the savings) was about the only joy I took in eating my rice and beans that night. I did however take great relief knowing that we were not one of the miserable campers from the night before, who were trying to dry their entire kit (sleeping bag and all) in a damp and cold dining hall. Our tiny two man rental tent popped up like a jack in the box and hosted two tired trekkers for a very reasonable night's sleep - all things considered. I was buzzing from what we'd already seen and excited for what else was to come.
We were a bit slow off the mark the next day. There was plenty of reluctance and very little will to leave the warmth of the sleeping bag, and our unfamiliarity with morning camping routines made for a fair amount of faff. We still managed to set off just after sunrise (sunrise is at 8.40am - this was hardly an achievement) and begin our three and a half hour climb to Camp Grey. There was a lot of up, followed by a lot of up-down and with five days worth of food still weighing us down it was slow progress. Frequent rain showers were cause for much frustration and I'll take this as an opportunity for an aside to whine about how difficult temperature control is in TDP...
It's always cold. At least at this time of year. Around camp you're wearing everything you could carry and still cupping your tiny gas burner for a whiff of warmth. During the day it's possible to get down to two layers but if you stop for more than about two minutes you'll be frozen again. If you try to go without a jacket it will rain - it's a park rule with no exceptions. If you wear your jacket, the track will turn uphill until you sweat your guts out so much that you may as well have just taken the rain. If you stop to take it off you'll be cold before you can put your pack back on and if you stop to put it on the rain will be gone before you can. It's a battle you can only lose and one that we would fight every single day on track. We adopted a 'no sweat' policy in the end, stopping to let nature cool us off before we wet ourselves with sweat. Slow but tactical and still quicker than playing the layers game. Also, saying you're 'hot' as an excuse to stop is much less embarrassing than saying you're 'tired', especially when you can't hack the pace of that march your girlfriend calls a 'walk'.
Temperature aside, it was a spectacular day. We weaved through autumn trees, barren landscapes, around mirroring lakes and glacial runoff. We passed Lake Grey - floating icebergs and all - and witnessed an ever closer Glacier Grey - our destination. We took a brief pitstop at Camp Grey to pitch our tent and drop our packs before setting off on the out-and-back, feeling light as a feather. It was a fittingly grey day (no pun intended) and the wind was building creating the wild weather for which the park is famous for. It was weather that always kept you guessing 'what next?' Whilst hiking, deafening thunder-like cracks could be heard as large chunks of ice broke off the toe of the glacier. We made the second swing bridge in good time (a little over an hour) and summited the knoll for a spectacular view of the seemingly endless Glacier Grey and Lake Grey extending as far as sight permitted in the opposite direction. It was incredible! We were unlucky not to see any ice break off, but we hung around as long as we could before early signs of frostbite set in and we were forced to leave. On the way back a slither of sky opened up and let the afternoon sun peep through. We found a view point out of the wind and basked for some time in what would end up being our only sunshine for the entire trip. It was splendid!
Refugio Grey, for those campers who are a little sneaky is equally as delightful as Refugio Paine Grande. Cat and I took advantage of a hot shower, a couch in a (semi) heated room and even helped ourselves to their boiling water...well Cat did whilst ignoring some shooting glances. Dehydrated spuds with salami hunks made dinner for that night, which was wolfed down with Pisco (Chilean brandy - for warmth of course) and tales with a cheery pair from Washington state. Speaking of warmth, let me fill you in on our most treasured little secret: Nalgene bottles. They safely hold boiling water, which is exactly what we filled them with right before bed each night. Drop that toasty treat into your sleeping bag just before yourself and you'll be snug as a bug until it cools about two hours later. We're sworn to them now - I can't imagine the trip without it.
A good night's sleep was had amongst the trees at Grey, topped off with a lie in as we'd planned a short hike for the day back down to Paine Grande. By now the wind had returned to its usual bazillion knots, tearing guy ropes off tents and blowing over unsuspecting anti-aerodynamic hikers. It blew us all the way back down the valley, fortunately without incident or embarrassment - save for a few unintentional 180's as gusts caught our packs. Safe back at Paine Grande and finding no entertainment from our Chilean playing cards (not actually playing cards, oops) we mosied into the Refugio, scored a free dessert and then naughtily succumbed to pre-finish beer at the bar - perhaps cursing our days to come. The wind that night kept us up, rattling our tent like a cage full of monkeys and instilling a mild fear for the external state of our accommodation and how that would fare in days to come.Read more
Torres del Paine, Chile (Part 1)April 24
Torres del Raine.