The Towers of Pain – or How Not to Trek Torres del Paine


Heather

After leaving El Calafate we crossed once again into Chile and stayed in Puerto Natales to await the arrival of our friend Mitch. I’m not entirely sure why but Mitch had expressed interest in doing some hiking with us whilst we were in South America and we sold him on Torres del Paine (pronounced pine-eh).  Little did he know that literally translates to the “towers of pain”, little did we know Mitch had never done a backpacking trip before.  Many emails ensued about gear to bring, gear to forget about, and the importance of keeping things light.  Typically the “circuit” which is a full loop of the park, is done in 10days/9nights, but Dan was convinced that we could do it much faster in 7days/6nights.  I kept reminding Dan that Mitch wasn’t used to doing this and that if we went out too fast we could be doing more damage than good, but no Mitch is an ultra runner he’ll be fine is the response I received.
We stayed at the Erratic Rock while waiting for Mitch which was handy as they offer a free information talk everyday about hiking Torres, they have knowledgable guides and they rent gear, I went to the talk on my own one afternoon (seeing as Dan knows everything he didn’t bother coming).  The talk was great, but now I was a little concerned with our plan.  I brought these concerns to Dan but was once again reassured that we would be fine.  Once Mitch arrived, I made them both go to the talk and see if that would change things, I even presented a suggestion that I thought was fair and only added one night and half a day, but again I was shot down.  After the talk we had to run around town gathering our food supplies and decided to book ourselves into camping on our first night as we wanted to eat dinner at the Refugio there.  You see the park has 4 free campsites, the rest are run by two different companies, some sites have grand hotels, others just dorms, and sometimes the offer food at the Refugio’s. Of course the companies want you to pre book all of this, but we were also told that as long as you arrive before 16:30 for dinner we’d be fine. In theory you could hike the circuit with only a small pack, renting tents and sleeping bags at each site and just bringing along food for nights when there is no restaurant.  We met a couple who did this and they seemed very happy with the arrangement.  If you’re on a budget, you can forget about it.
Anyway we set off bright and early in the morning to attempt to beat the buses that transport hikers to the park, we did not account for the buses that bring tours into the park though and was stuck at the park entrance waiting for a bus load of tourists to pay so that we could all watch the 3 minute mandatory safety video, that basically said “take out your trash and don’t set the park on fire”.  With that finished we found parking for the Hulk and pulled on our packs, we were already an hour behind schedule, we needed to get 30km to Refugio Dickson by no later than 8pm as to not miss the dinner we’d already paid for.
We set off, at least it was a beautiful day and were already treated to a view of the famous towers, and thankfully the first part was flat and easy terrain—hahaha—of course it wasn’t, we were met immediately with steep climbs, stream crossings, thick sticky mud and a bunch of horse back riders that had clearly never ridden horses. We finally lost the horses and were going downhill when Ben caught up with us.  Ben is an adorable 23 year old from England, with an amazingly positive outlook on life, we met him at the hostel and he is currently riding his bike to Peru.  He also started hiking approximately 90 minutes after us.  I think he was happy for the company though and slowed his roll. We arrived at Campamento Seron around 1:30 pm, we’d traveled anywhere from 9-12km depending on which map you looked at and who you’d asked.  Only 19km to go and we could call it a day.
Ben had originally decided he was doing the circuit in 10 days and was planning on stopping for the day, but had a change of heart when he realized it was so early in the day, so after a quick lunch we headed off. It would end up taking us 6 hours to get to Refugio Dickson, in those 6 hours we would see all four seasons, climb fences, be knocked down by the extreme Patagonian wind and realize that none of us brought enough snacks, but we made it.  It was sunny and bright and they even had our dinner reservations!  Let me just say that after walking for 10 hours with your pack at the heaviest weight it will be for the entire hike, it was really nice to have someone else cook, the only downside was that we did not lighten our loads!  Usually when backpacking it is not recommended to do your longest hike on of the entire trip on the first day, but that’s exactly what we did, my feet were paying for it, Mitch’s shoulders were paying for it, Ben had some blisters and Dan, the jerk, was fine. We all had a great nights sleep (exhaustion is the best sleep aid).
The next day, was easy in comparison, we only had 11km to get to Camping Los Perros, where we would be forced to stop by the Rangers, as the following section includes the John Gardner Pass and the weather had been a bit wonky, so unless you start this section prior to 10am, you have to wait until the following day.  I was ecstatic.  My feet were still very unhappy from the previous day, and I was tired.  We left Dickson around 9:30 and arrived at Perros around 13:30. Since we knew this was an easy day we planed for hot lunches and brought a deck of cards, this is also when we learnt that Ben was carrying a kilogram of lentils with him, a freaking kilo!
Me: How are you planning to soak them? Why didn’t you split the bag?
Ben: I have to soak them? Do you think I brought too much?
Me: Yes and Yes
Ben, for some reason, was carrying a thermos with him, so we boiled up some water and put some lentils in there so he could see why he probably would not go through a kilo.
Then we got down to business planning cards, Perros has a nice hut that you can sit and cook in, which was nice as it was now snowing out, as we played a fierce hand of shithead these Argentinian guys come stomping into the hut carrying the largest back packs I’d seen, easily 100 litres with stuff strapped to the outside, and there were 10 guys.  We had seen theses guys the night before at Dickson, they weren’t too friendly and kept themselves separate from the other hikers, we soon realized why.  They were porters.  We had also noticed a loud groups of North Americans the night before, a dozen of them, and we just thought they were a big group travelling together, we also noticed they had really nice tents, and now it turns out they had people who carried their stuff!  The porters set to unloading and setting up tents, and sleeping mattresses, setting out individual dry bags with a person’s name on them – “wait they don’t even carry their own clothes” I thought, so lucky. I would end up chatting with one of their group while waiting for the bathroom later on.
Guy: Ah ha, another Canadian (while pointing at the MEC logo on my jacket)
Me: Yup
Guy: Where?
Me: Toronto
Guy: I’m from there too, so where do you actually live?
Me: (with a slight snarl) Toronto, I live at Bay and College.
Guy: Oh an actual Torontonian, I’m from Markham.  We are just on a two week trip to hike Torres. You?
Me: I’ve spent the last 17 months driving here.
Awkward silence
Luckily it was his turn for the bathroom and we did not have to continue talking to one another because I most likely would’ve ended up asking how much he is paying to have someone carry his stuff around and then maybe point out that his group should really keep the “we are so exhausted comments down”, as everyone else in that hut is carrying everything they need on their backs.  Once back from the bathroom, we all gawked at the group as they were given 3 bottles of a pre mixed cocktail drink and noticed 6 bottles of wine to have with their dinner.  I was so jealous that I could not afford someone to carry my stuff.
Day 3 we left camp early as we had another 10 hour trek ahead of us. First job was to tackle to John Gardner Pass, at 1200m, it’s not that high, however one must ascend 600m to the top in only 3km.  Also thanks to the snow the day before some of the markers were buried. And it was windy, I had to wear my sunglasses to keep the snow out of my eyes.  Unsurprisingly we got off track, Ben the youngest, fittest and now powered up on lentils, bounded up the steep slope with relative ease looking for another marker, we stupidly followed.  As Mitch and Dan started sinking into to snow up to their waists, I diverted and found some rocks to shimmy across, I missed stepped in on and ended up cutting my ankle but I was too cold and miserable to care.  We finally found the path again, everyone exhausted from the extra exertion in the snow, but that was immediately forgotten as we crested the pass and had a stunning view of Glacier Grey below, and we were surprised to find it sunny. We snapped a few pics, then started bounding down the other side of the pass out of the wind.  It was so fun and we were making such great time, then we got to the tree line and discovered that the path was frozen solid, the only reasonable thing to do then was to sit on our butts and slide down.  So much fun, until a tree jumps out at you.  Then the path turned in to mud, I took a nasty fall, I thought I’d busted my collarbone (there was a very unpleasant crunching noise) but it turns out I mostly injured my butt.  Like instant swelling that could be seen through my pants, with a spectacular bruise.  The rest of the day’s hike was spent traversing along the enormous glacier and finally arriving at Refugio Grey, oh and Ben managing to twist his ankle and give us all a scare.
The next day we set off for Campamento Italiano, although a long distance day of 18.5km, the terrain was pretty nice and mostly downhill or flat.  We had now entered the part of the circuit know as the “W” and it showed.  We had to stop a lot more so day trippers could shove by (I wish I was kidding but this day taught me how little people really know about trail etiquette and just generally how rude people can be), but the trails were better maintained.  We arrived at a very busy Italiano, found a couple of sites together then headed to the river to listen to the Glacier France’s crashing, it sounds just like thunder.
In the morning we hiked up the Valles del Frances, to the glacier mirador, there we sat for nearly an hour, listening to the glacier groan and once in a while a little piece would slide off, but just as we were heading back we were treated to a real show, a full avalanche, it was incredible.  Back at Italiano we had lunch then packed up and headed to Refugio Los Cuernos, it was a beautiful walk and again not too challenging, once at camp we paid for our sites and inquired about buying dinner, we were a little shocked to discover they were already sold out.  Our food rations depended on us eating dinner here, but we realized we’d have to make do, plus Ben had hardly put a dent in his lentils.  We were also disappointed to find that they had sold out of beer, and the only food they had for sale was cookies.  We then proceeded to get drunk on expensive wine, while playing cards in the sun.  The campsite was full to capacity, out of food and drink and this is not the high season. My recommendation is never go to Torres in high season.
From Los Cuernos we hiked to Campamento Torres, this was our last full day of hiking (8 hours) and our hottest.  So hot one guy passed us wearing his underwear, yes it was a scrocher.  Of course nobody had packed for this weather as we’d been told we would get everything but sunny days, and here we were.  Poor Mitch who doesn’t do well in the heat anyway, didn’t even have a short sleeved t-shirt.  After our lunch break we all seemed to have trouble moving again, and our group got a little strung out, each of us willing Refugio Chileno to be around the next corner, but it never was.  Finally, dripping in sweat, I nearly cried when at last I could see the Refugio, I was also almost blown off a cliff with the sudden wind tunnel I’d entered, by the time I reached Chileno I was dry as a bone.  There we bought cold pops, and I managed to find a dehydrated meal in the free box-suddenly we had dinner for the night (although we were never going to starve as Ben had plenty of pasta and lentils left). We had an hour and a half more of climbing and then we’d be at our last campsite, thankfully the climb was mostly in shade so everyone made good time.
The classic thing to do if you hiked up to Torres is to go and watch the sunrise against the towers, so there we were all cuddly and warm, getting up at 4am to climb another hour to watch the sunrise. We packed some granola bars, warm layers and our sleeping bags and headed off into the dark. It was a slog, and yes most of the campsite was with us, but once we were at the mirador it was worth it, with lots of room to spread out everyone found their own wind sheltered cubbies in the boulders and we climbed into our sleeping bags to watch and wait.  They sky was very overcast but you never know what will happen, so we stared at the beautiful lake and towers in front of us.  After about an hour Ben finally spoke “Well, that was a bit shit, it just got light.”  He was right, the sunrise had been obscured, so no glowing red towers for us, but as we made our way back down to camp the clouds moved in and completely obscured the rocks, so we were still lucky.
I’d like to tell you the rest of the hike was uneventful and for the most part it was.  We noticed a luggage scale at Chileno on our way past and did a weigh-in, so for the end of the trip my bag was a measly 7kg/15lbs(still felt heavy), Dan’s weighed in at 14kg/31lbs (and he gave me the stink eye for the rest of the day) and both Mitch and Ben were still carrying a whopping 18kg/40lbs!  The other funny but not funny thing was once we arrived at the truck Ben discovered his wallet was missing, yeah his wallet. We thought back to when he’d had it last, it was at Chileno when we’d bought pop the day before.  The lovely concierge at Hotel Los Torres phoned up to the Refugio and discovered that it was there, however we’d have to wait a few hours until one of the staff finished their shift and came down.  Ben didn’t want to hang around, so it was arranged that the hotel would send it back on a bus, which they did, but then the bus company seems to have lost it, ever the optimist, it didn’t stop Ben and last we heard he was heading north up the Carretera Austral.
Mitch seemed to survive and enjoy this first multi day back packing trip, we also took him to see some Magallanes penguins and a really crappy replica fort.  Oh Chile, how I love thee.
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Categories: Chile, HikingTags: , , , , , , ,

5 comments

  1. Delightful narrative! Sorry to learn about the injury and hope you are healing quickly. The scenery is again breathtaking! I understand why you find your departure a little emotional. Such a journey is life-changing! Sorry to learn you won’t be able to include Uruguay this visit, but I suspect the terrain there has nothing to compare with the grandeur you have just experienced. Enjoy the remaining few days of this adventure!

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  2. Looks and sounds like an amazing adventure! Sounds like Dan’s plan worked out in the end. Hope your poor butt is doing better, it looks painful. So glad it was not your head. The cooking pot in the pic looks suspiciously like the very heavy one we hauled back from Mexico last year, the one sitting in our basement. Please tell me the one in the pic belongs to someone else and you were borrowing it? Keep having fun. xo

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  3. Shackleton springs to mind except for the broken butt and cartwheel .Thank you for postcard it was great love you take care Nanna x x x x

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  4. Oh ! That bruise looks a real shiner ! So glad it was not worse , I loved your description of the hike, it sounded gruelling but the scenery was spectacular . Enjoy the last days of your trip , ps that sounded very typical Dan ! xxxxx

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  5. Absolutely brilliant blog , felt as though I was there with you , but so glad that I wasn’t ! That bruise is a real shiner you were really in the wars ! so glad it was not worse. Enjoy the last days of your great adventure before its time to plan your next ! xxxx

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