Backpacking Torres Del Paine
The first day of hiking was spectacular. I exited the bus, with only a few other people. Nearly everyone else was going to be hiking the “W” circuit, most passengers didn’t have the time for a complete hike of the full circuit. I was happy to have nearly an entire day of hiking without anyone around in Torres Del Paine.
The skies were blue and I was able to see the three spires of rock that make the park so famous. Little did I know the nice weather would only last that day, making it the last clear view I would see of the peaks. I was walking the trail counterclockwise, heading East. On the first day, the trail took me through rolling hills and avoided steep terrain. I enjoyed the sun and walked through wildflowers, the air was warm.
The Popularity of Torres Del Paine
Lines of horses, loaded with gear passed me a few times, this was how provisions were carried throughout the park. There is an extremely classy system of huts located on every camping site along the trek. National Geographic has done marketing wonders for Torres Del Paine and now, individuals from around the world flock to Chile in order to experience “The Most Beautiful Place in the World”. As a wilderness backpacker, I try to avoid places that make such claims but this claim is not hyperbole, the park really is something special.
I enjoyed the accessibility of the trek, the amount of infrastructure built along the trail makes it accessible to people who have never been hiking in their lives. That being said, even with huts and manicured paths, this is still Patagonia. This is not easy hiking nor is the weather forgiving. The amount of arguments I overheard between couples fighting became almost hilarious. Every single one boiled down to one person complaining that they should have went somewhere tropical and the other person being enraptured by Patagonia – Torres Del Paine makes for some interesting couples therapy.
Becoming Part of the Hiking Community
As the sun was setting, I started hiking along side a group of people, a few years younger than myself. They were Chilenos, just having graduated High School, they were traveling for the summer, seeing their own country. They spoke English relatively well, allowing me to converse with them. This was their first hiking trip and their backpacks were about double the size of my own. As they struggled to make it to camp, I began cheering them up by practicing my Spanish.
My thick American accent made them laugh easily. I remember coming to a stream crossing and watching them hesitate, trying to find a way across it. After waiting a couple minutes, I waded through the water and accepted wet feet. They were quick to follow and they started asking me navigation questions as if I was an expert in the park. I told them the camping spot was close by and that we were almost there. My positivity lifted their spirits and we all made it into camp before the sunset.
The Hiking Intensifies in Torres Del Paine
After hiking in Dientes Navarino, the hiking in Torres Del Paine was easy in comparison. I woke up early and enjoyed the soft light illuminating the hills and wild flowers. The valley I had camped in was drained with a large gray river. The color, courtesy of glacial silt from the huge ice fields in the park’s interior. The trail continued onward leaving the plains behind while curving into the mountains.
The hiking was spectacular and the foothills offered glimpses of the huge peaks behind them. Large waterfalls cascaded down from snow capped mountains, adding depth to the scenery. This was also the part of the trail where it began to snow. It might have been summer but snow storms were still a common occurrence. The temperatures would be in the high 60’s, sunny, coupled with snow flurries. I had never experienced such an eclectic mix of weather patterns before, it was slightly fun and extremely annoying. Whenever the snow got heavy, I would stop and put on my rain gear, only to stop and take it off a few minutes later when the sun came back out.
Camping for the night was Refugio Dickson. This turned out to be my favorite camping spot of the hike. It’s located on a glacier lake, Lago Dickson, the glacier is easily spotted from camp and the waters are freezing. I went for a swim with a few other campers, relishing the frigid experience. The mountains crowning the horizon kept both the wind and the snow at bay, providing excellent views of the land around me.
Glacier Grey, Torres Del Paine
The following day, the hike took me up the highest pass of the park. The day was overcast and cloudy, I hiked through Lenga forest enjoying a sylvan setting complete with waterfalls. As the trail began to increase in elevation, the wind also increased. The higher I went, the fewer trees blocked the weather. The wind became so fierce that I was forced to tie my backpack cover on with paracord. Halfway to the highest point, a ranger flagged me down and demanded to see my paperwork. He was under the assumption that I did not have it and waited impatiently while I unpacked my entire bag in the midst of the windstorm.
I finally found the paperwork after struggling for a few minutes under his indignant stare. After proving my own authenticity, he told me a storm was coming and he was closing the pass to hikers. I told him I wasn’t afraid of the weather and that I would be down the other side before I froze to death. He laughed and let me pass.
The weather changed quickly. At the top of the pass, clouds moved in and aggressive snow pelted my face. I began to hike faster on the way down, trying to get lower in elevation and out of the worst of the storm. Snow began falling quickly and the wind was absolutely freezing. Loose rocks made up the trail, forcing me to leap from boulder to boulder.
I finally dropped low enough in elevation to be able to breathe. At this point, the clouds parted and the huge glacier, Glacier Grey, stretched out before me. Over 100 square miles in size, the ice field is massive, it stretches from one side of the horizon to the other. Staring over the icefield, I was captivated, along with every other hiker. Collectively, we simply sat and stared at the massive amount of ice. Small peaks formed inside it and sky blue waters made puddles the size of olympic swimming pools. Staring out over a glacier is akin to looking into a fire or getting lost staring at the ocean. It is an overwhelming experience that absorbs all the senses.
The lake below the glacier is full of icebergs, some white, others an impossible shade of blue. My hiking slowed considerably as I absorbed the sights below me. The trail follows the edge of a cliff, made steep by the flow of ice. I slowly meandered into camp, to be greeted by over a hundred campers from around the world.
I had walked into the “W” portion of the hike and the popularity of the park made it seem like Disneyland. The one toilet in camp was a hole dug into the ground, above it was a rope hanging from a tree. The rope was to hold onto while you squatted over the pit. A group of Frenchmen thought this was the funniest thing they had ever seen and took turns getting their pictures taken with it.
On the “W” Circuit
Being around crowds is my least favorite aspect of hiking and I left camp around sunrise that day. It’s hard for me to sleep knowing so many people are around plus the lack of privacy always annoys me.
Upon leaving camp, the weather took a decidedly more Patagonia turn. With Lago Grey to my west, I enjoyed watching the icebergs get blown around like boats in the ocean. There are plenty of tours available throughout the park some include tours of the lake while others provide glacier trekking. Watching helicopters go by and crowded vessels in the water was more enjoyable than I thought. My animosity to crowds gave way as I began to enjoy how many other people shared my opinion of what a good vacation should be.
I was on the “W” circuit now. Day hikers were everywhere. Those folks who camped at huts instead of in their tents were having some trouble with the ferocity of the snow, wind, rain, and even sun that the weather was giving us. Unfortunately, for my own self-identity, most Americans I heard on the trail were loud, abrasive, and complaining about leaving the lodge. So much for abstract views on my fellow hikers.
The “W” is so called because the trek takes on the shape of the letter. Two impressive canyons weave between the granite peaks. My goal was to make it to Camp Britanico, high up in the westernmost canyon along the hike. The trail provides an excellent view of a glacier fed lake and I was mesmerized by the receding ice. The glacier was hanging above the water, every once in a while chunks of ice would fall in. I didn’t have the patience to wait for the action but plenty of other people did.
Feeding into the lake was a rapidly moving stream, although it looked more like a river during the summer. As I continued farther up the trail, the noise of the water was overwhelming. The sound was as deafening as a freight train blowing its horn in a tunnel. The icy cold glacier cascade was so strong that it threatened to erode the entire trail.
I couldn’t look away as I stepped through mud and fallen rocks to look over the edge. The raw power I was witnessing gave me an adrenaline rush. The mountains over my head, covered in snow, the water rushing past me, the dangerous footing, the tree branch I was holding onto in order to lean over- this is what Patagonia is all about.
I set up camp in the mud, on a slight incline. The area was pretty much full and I did not have the choicest spot. At the shared picnic table where I was cooking, a couple was telling me about their nightmare of a night. The small stream that runs through camp flooded the previous evening. A freak storm up in the mountains created a flash flood that washed through the camp. They had spent all day drying out their equipment.
I took their story to heart. For the rest of my time in Patagonia, I never set up camp near a stream. The weather is too unpredictable and I never want to be flooded out in the middle of the night.
Waking up early, I set back down the trail, this time declining in elevation. The roar of the river was behind me and the sun miraculously came out. The trail was taking me east, along relatively flat ground. Lago Nordenskjold stretched out before me, impossible blue waters reflected the sky, making the water almost neon in color. The glacial silt that makes the rivers gray offered just enough reflective power to make the lake look like a tropical paradise. The vibrant hues of blue clashed spectacularly with the green vegetation growing along her banks. I stared at the waters for hours as I hiked the shore line. The granite peaks soared from behind me, their black topped spires looking close enough to touch. The harsh rocks, paired against the blue lake made this one of the most beautiful parks in the world.
The final canyon awaited, I was saving the best for last. The trail was quickly gaining in elevation to one of the most popular campsites in the park. It was from this location that you could see three spires rising up over a small lake. At sunrise, the light painted them a deep red, and the reflection is one of the most sought after pictures in all of South America.
In camp, there was a bubbling excitement. Most people were on their last night inside the park and we were all excited to see the sunrise. An extremely nice Canadian made hot cocoa for everyone at the table I was seated at and we made friends instantly. Collectively, we all set our phone alarms to go off 45 minutes before sunrise, there was a small trek to get to the lake. I was able to get about 3 hours of sleep in before I woke up and started hiking.
It was pitch black outside and snow was falling. Not too much but enough to begin sticking to the ground. I left camp with about 50 other people, all of us groggy and not saying much. The trail went up in elevation, a string of headlamps outlined the path up the mountain. Having been in a snowstorm previously, I was prepared, wearing plenty of layers with plastic bags over my feet, no snowstorm was going to get the best of me.
Light was beginning to illuminate the ground when I made it to the shores of the lake. The hike was reminiscent of a pilgrimage, all of us in a foreign country, hoping to see a magical natural phenomenon. The snow was thick, those who were unprepared began to do calisthenics, trying to stay warm.
Some people brought chairs, others had tents, I picked a nice boulder to lean against. The snow stayed thick as the sunlight grew in intensity. All of us there began to realize no red light reflection was coming, the weather was too intense. Still, most of us persevered. I stayed there until the sun was finally high enough that even if the snow did stop, there would be no view.
An unfortunate situation but one I was happy to have participated in. The comradery of being with adventure seekers from around the world made a lasting impression on me.
Making Camp Away From the Crowds
Tracing my footsteps back along the shores of Lago Nordenskjold, I was not upset. The trail I was after was a southward day hike that connected the “W” with the southernmost CONAF Administration building. Leaving the crowds behind me, the trail stayed along the edge of the lake. The hiking was flat and duck species I had never seen before paddled lazily in the placid waters near my feet.
Lago Pehoe supposedly had the best fishing in the park, right where the river empties into the lake. Seeing it about half a mile from the trail, I made a beeline, through tall marshy grasses until I made it to the river bank. Locals had driven their vehicles to the shoreline as well, all of us fishing, hoping to catch a large trout.
After only a few casts, I was able to hook a fat brown trout, it was an incredible experience. The jagged peaks rose out of the background as I was enjoying some of the best trout fishing in the world. Right there and then, I fell in love with Patagonia.
I let the fish go and turned south, toward camp. Passing zero hikers along the way, the flat grasslands resembled ocean waves as the brutal winds blew across their tops. The muted yellows and reds of summer growth framed the scenery around me with a kind of sleepy beauty.
The campsite was empty when I arrived. It was such a stark contrast from the rest of the park, and less than a day hike away! I setup my tent in the shelter of a few low growing trees and enjoyed my first night in awhile in which I didn’t have to battle the wind.
I was lucky enough to meet a Colorado couple that night and we all had dinner together. Stoic yet friendly, it was a good way to pass the time.
The next morning I grabbed a bus at the Administration building. Interestingly enough, the view from the bus stop is the same one featured so prominently on social media posts. Shit, I thought, this is the best view of the park and you don’t even have to leave the road.