Torres del Paine is the most famous Chilean National park and probably the most well known park in Patagonia. If you google Patagonia, you will probably find a bunch of pics from Torres del Paine. I´ve been looking foward to it for the whole trip.
We left Calafate directly for Torres del Paine on a tour bus on 4.12. Its set up for one day tours, but we got off at the park and spent 5 days hiking parts of the ¨W¨trail. We were really happy we weren´t on the one day tour because the weather was very cold and all the peaks were covered in dark clouds. The whole bus trip was a little strange. First off, a couple forgot their passports, so they weren´t allowed to go past the border post. Its also the start of low season, so a lot of services in the park are being shut down, but nobody really knows any details. Our bus showed up at a restaurant only to find that the kitchen was shut down for the season and there was no heat. Despite this we still sat around the dark cold room for the scheduled 40 minutes. It was a little like prison. We had been told twice that we could take a ferry across a lake to the start of the ¨W¨trek at 6pm, but found out that the ferry no longer made this late crossing, so we had to change our plans on the fly and start the trek in a different location.
We were all too happy to get off the depressing tour bus and set up camp near Torres Hotel, despite the rain that had started to fall. A pair of Swiss girls from our bus also planned to start the trek and wanted to stay at the Refugio near the Hotel, only to find it was closed. Luckily they had a tent, but no sleeping pads, so it couldn´t have been a good night for them. The following day we got a late start due to still cloudy skies and started hiking towards Cuernos Hut. We heard from people in the other direction that the weater had been overcast or rainy for 5 days. This made it particularly sweet when the sun came out late in the afternoon. It was almost complete blue skies when we made it to Itailiano Camp. The clear skies led to a much colder night with temps below freezing. Our rental tent was sturdy and heavy- which is why I rented it instead of using my extremely lightweight tarptent. The downside was I couldn´t lay down completely straight- Mirja and I called it the ¨Rowan tent¨because it was the perfect size for my 7 year old nephew. But we were very happy to have this little tent becaue a) it was warmer than my tarptent and b) a big rat came out in the night and clawed at the tent and chewed up our waterbottles outside the tent. I´m pretty sure it could have ripped straight into the tarptent. YIKES!!
The next day was worth all the strife. The skies were cloud free and we were headed up the Valle Frances- a pristine valley that went past glacieal melt waters and glaciers to a viewpoint at the head of the valley with 360 degree views. It was a very amazing day that I think we were lucky to have. The peak fall colors especially added to the beauty. The trail up Valle Frances is a one way trail, so we returned to Campo Italiano and despite the already long day of hiking, we pushed on to get away from rat camp. We hiked for about an hour back towards Cuernos hut and found a sweet stealth campsite just above the amazingly turquoise waters of Lake Nordenskjoeld. Mirja said the lake and landscape reminded her of Finland. The weather was very cold again and my fuel canister didn´t have much pressure due to the near freezing temps, so it was difficult to boil water.
The next day was a short day of hiking back towards Torres Hotel. The weather was mostly sunny and we were even getting a little burnt from so much sun. Usually people talk about fierce winds at Paine, but we had nice calm breezes our entire visit. We made it back to the campground we had stayed at the first night, set up, took hot showers, then went to the hotel bar to eat warm food and beer. Originally we even considered staying in the hotel, but the US$ 244 price per night made us reconsider. Camping was US$ 16 per night.
The 16th was our last day in the park and the weather turned threatening again. I was determined to make the 4 hour climb up to the viewpoint to see the Towers that the park is named after, so I woke up before dawn and started hiking with a headlamp. Mirja opted for extra rest since her knee was sore from all the hiking. I walked for nearly 2 hours before the trail was visible without the headlamp. Many people had climbed to the viewpoint to see the towers at first light, but apparently they didn´t see anything due to a thick fog and cloud cover. Several even made negative comments to me on their way down. ¨You might as well turn back now¨. It was snowing and windy, but I still hate comments like this. I made it to the viewpoint, which is 700 meters above my campsite at 10am, just as the sun was coming over the ridge to the east. Only 2 people were left at the view point. At first the towers were completly hidden in the clouds so I put on all my clothes and found a rock to shelter me from the snow. Slowly the clouds thinned and the snow stopped completely. The sky to the east cleared and most of the towers became visible. The sun hit the turquise lake at the base of the towers and produced a nice vivid color. I was glad I didn´t turn back. Just before I left 3 giant Andean condors soared just a few meters over my head. I could clearly see their white collar of feathers and bald heads. Really glad I made the trek up!
I had to practically run down to camp in order to get back in time to catch the tour bus back to Calafate. I actually got delayed because I saw a pair of grey foxes just as I arrived at the hotel grounds. Apparently they aren´t afraid of people (probably because they´ve been fed) because they approached me. I got some really good pics and video, before they got too close for comfort. I have a healthy fear of wild animals, so I yelled and threw some rocks to chase them off.
I met Mirja at camp and we made it to the pick up point for the bus. We had run out of food, so we were very hungry. The expensive sandwiches at the Chilean border post seemed like an excellent value. We made it back to Calafate by 10:30 and returned the rental tent (luckliy free of rat holes) and prepared for our trip early the next day to Chalten.