“Dr Livingstone I presume?” I quip, as two tired travellers with backpacks stroll down the hill towards me. It’s been a 28-hour journey from London, via the jungles of Toronto and Santiago, but Cathy and Adam have overcome strikes, tight connection-times and airline food to get here in one piece, with their luggage. We discover, later, that other passengers bound for the Torres del Paine were not so lucky, having to restock supplies of clothes and hiking equipment at the general store.
We have two days in Puerto Natales before heading north. Time enough to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary and visit the Milodon Cave 25km away. Patagonia is fresh out of pearls, so we settle for a “romantic” dinner, in a shipping container, a few blocks from our apartment. The next day, we bundle into a taxi taking us to the cavern in which they found the skin of a giant sloth in the late nineteenth century. A replica of the Milodon looms out of the darkness; a formidable looking beast although, presumably, not much good in a foot race. Outside there are more dons than at a Sicilian wedding, including a pygmy horse (Hippidon) and the wonderfully-named Smilodon, more commonly known as the sabre-toothed tiger. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t be putting much on the horse.
The buses for the Torres del Paine leave around 7am, and there’s a mighty scrum as the tourists jockey for places. 90 minutes later at Porteria Armaga, a lady with a clipboard is directing operations as we board the next bus, which takes us from the park entrance to the beginning of the walk at the appropriately named “Central” refuge. We stow our luggage and head up the nearest hill. In this neck of the woods, it’s sensible to assume the cloud will come in at any moment and obscure the view. From the top we can see the three towers after which the park is named. They are pinky-grey with cloud plumes on their summits. As “Torres del Paine” translates as “Blue Towers”, we assume the person naming them had recently returned from an ascent of the twin peaks of Kilimanjaro.
On the way, down both my legs seize up and I have to borrow Cathy’s poles. I’m a highly-tuned athlete but today my legs are marching to a different tune. Back at the refuge a guy dressed as Spider-Man is asleep on one of the picnic tables. Even a superhero can have an off day. Someone leaves a chocolate mousse on the table next to him in an attempt to unmask his true identity. He’s not fooled, and disappears around the corner to eat it.
The following day, the trek starts in earnest. It’s a 9-day anticlockwise circuit of the mountain range beginning and ending at Central. It’s also referred to as the “O”. Other letters are available for trekkers with less time, including the “W” and the “Q”. As there’s limited accommodation, the north side of the park is much quieter, guaranteeing us at least 4 days away from the ravening hordes. We’re alternating between camping and refuges in case of rain, but there are hot showers and meal options available, so the benefits of staying in a refuge are more limited than the prices. The refuges/campsites are divided between two companies: “Vertice” and the modestly-named “Fantastico Sur”. These organisations operate an equal-opportunities extortion racket, with beer retailing at around £6 a can. To reduce cost, we’ve opted for half board, hoping to gnaw guanaco bones at lunchtime if we find any.
The forecast for the next week is decent, by Patagonian standards, and, with luck, Santa will bring sunshine with him on Christmas Day. By that time, we should be at Glacier Grey which, if the naming convention holds true, will probably be purple with greens spots.
From Central to Seron it’s an easy 13km hike over a small rise and through Alpine meadows. The path passes through woods before descending to the Rio Paine and continuing upstream to the Seron campsite. We’re the first to arrive, as most of the hikers are bussing in from Puerto Natales, without stopping at Central. Before you can say “beach towels on a sun-lounger”, we’ve bagsied a prime camping-spot and a hot shower. As the hikers arrive, introductions are made and loose alliances formed among Brits, Americans, French and Canadians. In the meantime, the mosquitos make a bee-line for our table, so we head inside to drink some reassuringly expensive beer.
In the morning we strike camp early, as we expect rain and may need time to wring our shoes out at the other end. We reach the top of a short, sharp climb above Lago Paine as the rain starts to fall. The sun must be shining somewhere, as there’s a rainbow over the turquoise waters of the lake. We take photos for posterity. Adam has gone ahead by now and is lost from sight. But the rain eases and we descend down to the river for the final stretch. We pass two young women going the “wrong” way back to Seron. They do not have bookings for any of the campsites and are being “escorted” back to Central by one of the rangers, following a safe distance behind. They’re not best pleased, and have a variety of suggestions involving the ranger and his walking pole, most of which sound very uncomfortable.
It’s 18km to Camp Dickson and we arrive mid-afternoon. The wind is picking up but we’re soon inside, in a dormitory with 4 bunk beds. We spread our belongings to discourage intruders. The staff are busy downstairs, welcoming guests with a blues sound track they sing over with infectious zeal. Several campers have joined us for pre-prandial drinks and it’s standing room only. The place isn’t really designed for this many people, but it is blowing a hooley outside and even the horses want to come in.
The storm blows through overnight and the morning brings a mix of cloud and sunshine. We can see some of the mountains at the back of the massif now but, on the other side of the valley, the ice-cap is still covered in cloud. Today we’re quite literally going to the dogs, as the Los Perros campsite is a further 9km up the trail. This is the start of the climb up and over the John Gardner pass, at 1,100m the highest point on the circuit. Los Perros has no hot showers nor much in the way of food and is for camping only. We’ll have to make do with biscuits, trail snacks and anything else we can scavenge when we get there. Adam forges ahead as usual and is the first to arrive, I follow a little way behind. The path is through woods and over rickety bridges, with occasional glimpses of the Rio de los Perros a short distance away. There’s no sign of any dogs, nor indeed any other mammals, in the park. The pumas must be pretty fat by now.
The campsite’s deserted when I arrive, so I pitch the tent and wait. Cathy arrives 40 minutes later with a grazed forehead and sprained hand. She tripped over a root and is less than pleased that I left her behind. She retires to the tent. As it’s still early, Adam and I decide to walk up to the pass to look at the view over Glacier Grey, in case it’s cloudier in the morning. Without packs it’s a pleasant round-trip of a little over 3 hours. The views are ok but the wind is blowing and we head back in time for the camp shop to open. We buy pasta and tomato sauce and Cathy produces a pack of freeze-dried chicken tikka that has been sitting in a cupboard at home for the last 4 years. It tastes as good as the day it was produced (which is not saying much).
Campsite rules require us to be up and out by 6.30am, as it’s going to be a long day tomorrow, so it’s early to bed. When we rise, there are people setting off already. It’s Christmas Eve and the thought of a banquet at Refugio Grey must be driving them on. We leave a little later but are still in the “top 10” of hikers going over the pass. On the other side, the glacier fills our field of vision, as does the rain that is driving horizontally into our faces. The path goes down steeply and is soon in the trees where it gets even steeper. It’s a jumble of roots, gravel and mud. Generally not much fun to navigate. Cathy puts down her rucksack to get something out and watches as the bag rolls down the hill with gathering speed. There are trees everywhere, but the bag senses freedom and dodges them all. Cathy and Adam take off after it and I have visions of the glacier swallowing them whole, but the bag comes to a halt with a thump 50m lower down. No harm done.
The refuge is only 18km from the start, but the terrain is tough and the path goes up and down where other paths might go straight. Good for Super Mario perhaps. Less good for us. Adam has gone ahead and reaches the refuge in record time. We follow more sedately, taking photos and enjoying the views. The sun’s starting to break through as promised. There are a few precarious cable-bridges to negotiate before the path flattens out and we’re there at last, removing our boots to pour out the gravel we have been collecting all day.
Supper that evening is a Christmas special and they’ve pulled out all the stops. It’s actually magnificent, although the bar closes at 10pm and there’s little opportunity to drink the night away. The following morning Adam’s up early for a glacier tour. The skies are a brilliant blue and the glacier a bluey-white. Despite initial misgivings, Adam is soon crawling along canyons in the ice and hopping over streams of cobalt blue. Meanwhile, Cathy and I are having a leisurely breakfast before heading to the lookout point for the glacier. It’s a breath-taking sight. Armed with a packed lunch and a smile, we are soon heading south along the lake shore before climbing to a series of view points on the 11km hike to Paine Grande. We’re now walking along a section of the “W” trek and are passing a lot of people coming the other way, having caught the catamaran across Lago Pehoe. Incredibly enough, they sell this as a day-hike starting and finishing in Puerto Natales. Good grief!
At Paine Grande I put up the tent before heading out along Lago Pehoe looking for a mirador that’s marked 4km along the lakeshore. I have Dronio with me for company but have explained to him that he must stay in his bag or face expulsion from the park. He looks at me sullenly as if to say “If I can’t fly, why do I have propellers?”. I tell him I don’t know, but rule 14 of the park rules says I must comply with the park rules and that is the end of the matter. He points out the idiocy of a rule saying I must comply with the rules. I agree but he is still young and needs to respect authority. Later on he’s out of his bag and flying over head. Bloody teenagers!
The next day is a short 7km walk to Refugio Frances. The blue skies of yesterday are forgotten and the wind and rain are back with renewed vigour. An easy walk becomes a challenging one, as the wind tries to lift us off the ground and dash us against the rocks. We stagger like drunken sailors, bowing our heads against the elemental forces, and the straps on our bags that are whipping our faces. The tent, strapped to the back of my bag and already wet when I packed it away, is soaked through and any thoughts of hiking up to Campamento Britanico that afternoon are shelved for another day. We take a right turn at Campamento Italiano before entering the trees where we’re sheltered for the final kilometre. If we’re going to have heavy rain and zero visibility, today is the day for it, as we’re in the refuge tonight and have a log-burning stove to dry our gear.
It’s Tuesday now and the forecast is for another day of “mixed” weather. I interpret this to mean a mixture of bad and very bad, but we head up the valley towards Mirador Frances anyway. This valley is the central part of the “W” trek and the only part of the massif we’ve not seen properly. It’s windy and starting to snow by the time we get to Mirador Frances. We can see the bottom half of the glacier rolling off Cerro Paine Grande, but little else. As an act of faith, I push on as Cathy and Adam head back. Campamento Britanico is another 3km up the valley. Not far in the scheme of things, and a good opportunity to stretch the legs and enjoy the feeling of walking without a weight on my shoulders. There are people coming the other way warning me about the wind and wishing me luck in my quest. But I must have been good in a previous life, as the clouds clear above me and the surrounding mountains reveal themselves for the first and last time that day. There’s no-one else around for the next 30 minutes to share the view with and it soon clouds over again. Maybe this is compensation for the pumas I nearly saw last week but didn’t…
I run back to camp, pick up my gear and head over to Cuernos, another 4km along the lake with the funny name (Lago Nordenskjold). Cathy and Adam are inside and about to tuck into a pizza. I wag my tail and give them an imploring look until they hand over a slice. Later, I’m putting up the tent on one of those annoying platforms with slats. Give me grass any day of the week. It’s been spitting with rain all afternoon, but fortunately hasn’t developed into anything else. In the morning the tent is dry.
We’re down to the final two days of hiking and all is set fair for what would normally be the most important day of all (the Torres Mirador). This is the classic view of the lake with the three towers behind. Before then, we have to cover the 15km between Cuernos and Chileno. This takes 4 hours and is a bit of a plod, up to the valley representing the right hand side of the “W” trek. The highlight is the availability of a 3G signal at the top of the ridge, which we use greedily to download our newspaper and a load of email notifications from Facebook. It’s another 45 minutes to the refuge where we are, once more, enjoying hot showers and cold beer. A bunch of the people we were doing the “O” trek with come down from the mirador and we enjoy a parting chat. Later on the wind picks up, so we head indoors. There’s a terrific commotion outside; we’re expecting to see branches and small furry animals flying by the window, but it’s just dust.
People are getting up at 2.30am, in time to be at the mirador by first light. This is the time when the towers are at their most, er, blue. The Stones are quite keen to have breakfast first, and are out of the refuge at 7.30am. It’s only 1.5 hours to the mirador and, by the time we arrive, there’s only a handful of people there. It’s clear but quite windy, and Dronio is happy to remain in the comfort of his bag while I clamber over rocks and Adam performs gymnastic manoeuvres against the mountain backdrop. 45 minutes later, we’re heading back down again to the refuge, where we pick up our bags. It’s then another 2 hours back to Central. It would have been less, but I stubbed my toe against a tree root and hobbled most of the way. On the way down, we pass maybe 250 hikers going the other way! Eek.
After another night at Central we hike the 7km back to the park entrance in time for a 2.30pm bus back to Puerto Natales. It has all gone pretty smoothly (apart from a sprained hand, bruised toe and a couple of dodgy knees (Adam’s)). We’ve seen everything worth seeing, completed a pretty memorable hike, enjoyed the company of like-minded travellers and seen what a glacier looks like from the inside. If you’re thinking of doing it too, then why not? None of the hiking is particularly challenging (apart from the pass) and, if you’re really lucky, the wind might even drop for 5 minutes, just don’t count on it.
Back in Puerto Natales we celebrate the New Year in the time-old fashion (by going to bed before midnight and missing it altogether) 👍. Before we know it, Cathy and Adam are heading back to the bus station for their marathon return journey and I’m on my way south once more. It all seems to have gone in the blink of an eye, with memories, photos and a big dent in the wallet to remember it by. Most important of all is the extra tick in my Great-Walks-of-the-World “tick list”. Nick Hornby, please note! 🤩
Phew, that was a long post! If you made it this far well done. The next post will be shorter, I promise.