Hiking amongst condors


Wet and windy on Chile’s famous W Trek

Puerto Natales is a pretty little town, nestled between the Argentinian border and the cold dark waters of the Patagonian Fjords. It has a population of around 20,000 and you can count on one hand the number of towns that are closer to the South Pole. Winters in Patagonia are long and harsh.

But it is the closest town to Torres del Paine National Park. A park that in 2019 attracted over 300,000 visitors, mostly foreigners who, like me, probably thought that travelling to the ends of the earth to explore mountain scenery straight from the pages of Lord of Rings, was worth the effort.

The Park offers two world-class multi-day hikes: the longer ‘O’ circuit that circumnavigates the Paine massif, a spur of the southern Andes; the ‘W’ trek which follows three parallel valleys into the heart of the massif, each valley offering something different. I’d discussed hiking the ‘W’ with friends from London, where I’ve been living for 15 years. Jane and Pete (along with several other close friends) had gone to Chile to complete an iron distance triathlon in northern Patagonia which they’d all completed 2 weeks earlier. I’d come out with a few more friends to support. It made total sense to me to extend my travels, take a road trip, explore the region, and hike. But now, mid-December, there was just Jane, Pete and me left.

Day 1

At the park HQ, we paid the entry fee, collected our permits, and climbed back on our coach for a short drive to Lake Pehoé. We slid through a dramatic landscape of jagged peaks, glaciers and condors. Guanacos dotted the hillsides like grazing sheep. It was stunning. We hopped off at Pudeto, a small jetty under leaden skies, and waited for the catamaran that would motor us across the lake to Paine Grande Refugio. We pulled on rain jackets as a soft rain began to fall but it couldn’t dampen our excitement.

We watched the other well-kitted hikers and I felt envious and inadequate. I’d rushed my packing with only hours to spare before the flight to Santiago de Chile in November to begin 6 month’s backpacking through South America. My well-used camping kit, Macpac tent and backpack were boxed up with all my belongings in my loft in London. Fortunately, we had decided to ‘glamp’: travelling with minimal kit, renting tents/beds and paying half-board for meals. We were doing this lightweight, quick, and efficient. So I bought a cheap 50L backpack and some basic hiking gear in Puerto Natales, and convinced myself that would be enough.

After a picturesque 30 min ride across the lake, we checked into Paine Grande. I booked a pre-erected tent, a bright yellow North Face job, while Pete and Jane took a dorm room in the Refugio. We grabbed a quick snack, organised day packs and rain jackets, then headed out for our first leg of the ‘W’; 12km along Lago Grey to the Grey Glacier.

There was a cut-off time on this stretch, so we hiked fast, overtook many slower walkers, with our goal Mirador Grey (the glacier lookout) not the intermediate lake lookout. Around halfway, we crested a short climb and were rewarded with spectacular views of Lago Grey, where huge icebergs hung suspended in milky blue waters. Beyond we could see the broad face of the glacier, numerous pinnacles, and the odd condor.

We passed Refugio Grey, and a sign highlighting the 4pm cut-off for the trail back to Paine Grande. It was 3:50pm. We hurried along the trail to Mirador Grey. It was rushed but it was worth it. Large blocks of broken ice filled a dirty pool in front of the huge wall of Glacier Grey. We took photos, tried to absorb the amazing view in short order, then turned on our heels and headed back, past the ‘cut-off’ sign at 4:05.

Oooops. The rain chased us back to the Refugio but eased by the time we’d arrived. We’d clocked up 25 km and 960m ascent in under 6 hours, back in time for a few well-earned beers and a very filling buffet dinner. We enjoyed views of Patagonian peaks and dirty-white glaciers hanging in the early evening light, while around us, the excited chatter of hikers filled the air. I could’ve been in worse places.

Day 2

Breakfast was another buffet so I wouldn’t need lunch. While I grabbed my second coffee a fellow hiker spent 5 intense minutes re-arranging the tea bags into neat piles on the table. I so wanted to mix them up 🙂

Fierce overnight winds had dropped away but the skies were thick, grim and dull. As we left the Refugio rocky spires began to reveal themselves slowly and dramatically. The wind picked up again over the two hours we hiked to Italiano – a midway camping area – where we stopped to add our backpacks to a huge colourful wall of nylon bundles dropped outside the ranger’s hut.

This was the bottom of the ‘W’. Our next leg, up the centre, took us through Valle del Francés to Mirador Británico, into a high-walled cirque. We grabbed day packs and water and begun our two hour roller coaster climb to the Británico lookout, which offered stunning views of sheer cliffs that dripped glaciers, and pinnacles that carelessly snagged passing clouds.

There was a brief respite in the weather as we enjoyed the vista, of crags and lakes, before descending back down the valley. Back at Italiano, we snacked then hoisted on our backpacks and continued east to our camp at Francés an hour away. The sun disappeared behind thickening clouds just as the wind picked up, again. Our home for the night was a prefabricated Dome Tent, geodesic in design, all metal scaffolding and canvas – with bunks for 8, amenities and a wood stove.

Dinner was stodgy and filling. Washed down with a few beers and wine as we chatted to other hikers. But with limited space, we were ousted from our seats after our dinner hour was up. We grabbed drinks and headed back to our bunks, attempted to dry out clothes and get a good night sleep. Another 23km and 1075m ascent in the bag.

Day 3

Sleep, however, didn’t come easy. We were serenaded all night as our dome howled, snapped and hammered in the fierce Patagonian winds. And then there was the rain. Heavy rain.

Breakfast was cramped. We checked the forecast. We drank more coffee. We chatted. Jane fashioned a rain cover for her pack. We stayed for lunch. We procrastinated. We waited for a weather window.

But Torres Central was only a few hours away, so we finished coffees, paid up and departed. Along the way we negotiated a pebbled beach beside a lake that shimmered an impossible blue despite the grey skies and rain.

Numerous creek crossings required some careful footwork on slippery rocks, while occasionally we caught glimpses of impossibly tall waterfalls and circling condors amongst the clouds.

After sixteen wet kilometres we arrive at Torres Central camping area where our pre-erected tents awaited. Roomy, but damp. After hot showers, we headed across the rickety wooden bridge to the nearby hotel for pre-dinner drinks and views of Torres behind snowy peaks. We chatted to some Americans who were rising at 3am to see the Torres at sunrise. We felt that this was tempting the weather Gods too much. We agreed to leave much later.

Day 4

By 6:30am we’d packed and dropped our backpacks at the hotel. After another filling breakfast, we started our climb to the Torres, the Crown Jewels of the park. It was warm as we hiked up into sunshine through Valle Ascencio.

After an hour we passed through Refugio Chileno, where hikers and campers sat drinking coffee. We caught glimpses of sharp Torres’ spires before we entered arctic beech forests that offered shade beside noisy waterfalls. After a final scramble through a boulder field, we turned a corner atop a ridge to arrive at the viewpoint.

Mirador Torres, overlooks a small picturesque blue lake, beneath the jagged towers. The scene was breathtaking, as was the frigid wind that cut across the lake. We had to shelter behind large rocks in the sun, while we grabbed snacks and took photos. The wind was sucking warmth from our bones, so we spent as long as we dared before we quickly descended.

On the way down we paused only to let groups of day walkers pass us on the way up. Many had heads down, headphones on, dressed in sneakers and cotton t-shirts, disconnected from the beauty around them. I’m glad we left early.

We were up and back in 5 hours. As luck would have it we made an earlier bus out, with time to grab a few drinks for the trip back to Puerto Natales. In total, we had hiked 87km and climbed almost 4000 vertical meters, over the 4 days. I was tired but happy, and I stared out of my window at small groups of guanacos, a lone fox, and condors that wheeled on thermals in the distance. The mountains slowly vanished. Bye-bye Torres, it was magical.

Less than 3 months later – March 2020 – and Covid had hit the continent. I flew home to Brisbane. I’m still here in Australia, I’m still hiking, but I’ve swapped condors and guanacos for kookaburras and goannas.

Categories: Adventure, Chile, Hiking, Mountains, Patagonia, TravelTags: , , , , , , ,

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