Last Wednesday Stefje and I arrived in Puerto Natales after five consecutive days of travel, utterly worn out and deeply hankering for a warm meal and a dry bed. We were accustomed to not seeing many people and among those rarely any tourists, so there was a definitive culture shock upon returning to the world of high-tech trekking gear, oversize backpacks, and a town full of people speaking English. At Backpacker Nataly we were treated to some warm Chilean hospitality, as that night the owner (also the town’s high school principal) serenaded us with folklore music on the guitar.
There seems to be one reason why travelers from all around the world make their way to Puerto Natales: Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. The park’s renowned “W” circuit is a rite of passage for outdoors lovers, with some of the most brilliant scenery in the world. We spent the following day evaluating our options for hiking, compulsively analyzing the weather, and stocking up on enough food to last through five grueling days and 80 kilometers of rocky terrain.
We ended up opting for the classic circuit from West to East, putting us on a bus bound for the park at 7:30 Friday morning. Immediately upon passing the ranger station, our collective jaws were blown away by the wealth of nature’s bounty. To our right stood a conglomeration of enormous peaks, their barren vertical sides protruding directly out of rolling green hills.
Below the mountains the land was scattered with lakes of the purest blue water, fueled by the perpetual run-off of compacted snow. In the distance straight ahead the land turned a brilliant white, the endless snow pack broken up only by jagged mountaintops rising far above the surface. This was our introduction to the Patagonian ice field, the third largest collection of fresh water in the world.
When the bus stopped we boarded a catamaran bound for the trail’s starting point, the sleek boat disturbing an otherwise perfectly smooth lake. In the reflection of the azure water we could see reflections of the clouds and some of the circuit’s most imposing mountains, a spectacular visual introduction to the journey.
Stefje and I bolted off the boat and away from the hordes of other passengers, hoping to put some distance between us and the rest of a large group heading on the same route. The hike started by ascending through a valley, with steeply rock walls cut by age-old glaciers framing rich foliage of bushes and trees.
Climbing a hillside for over an hour rewarded us with the first epic view: Lago Grey came into view, with chunks of iceberg floating away from the main glacier across milky blue waters. Above the tree line, we could now watch as waves of clouds billowed over the main peak of Paine Grande, leaving us speechless at the sight of the leviathan that projects almost straight up over 3000 meters high. We walked along the lake adjacent to the mountain the rest of the afternoon, stopping to shake our head in disbelief at the jaw-dropping views, munch on some homemade trail mix to keep the legs churning, or fill up on water from one of the crystal clear streams.
Once we reached the trail’s highest point I kept my eyes fixed firmly on the horizon, knowing what was in store ahead. Soon enough, I got my first glimpse of the monstrosity known as Glacier Grey. One of the park’s centerpieces, the massive chunk of ice spans across the entire width of the lake and farther back than the eye can see, steadily rising in height. At the front precipice is a sheer vertical wall of ice, at risk of calving off and sending great chunks into the abyss at any time.
As if as proof, the nearby section of the lake was littered with SUV-sized chunks floating away, with a nearby cove stockpiling some of the smaller ones.
I held my breath in wonder at the sight, so inspired by the profound force of nature’s power that I literally forgot to breathe. From the mirador at the tip of the trail, the wind was so strong that it threatened to knock us down, sending icy gusts straight off the icy field and into our faces. Nevertheless we hung out there as long as we could, staring in awe at our first taste of glaciers.
To look into the eyes of a glacier is to contemplate our own tenuous grip on life, for to imagine these walls of ice thundering as far away from the poles as New York - as they did in the last ice age - is equally frightening and humbling. Yet glacier grey is also just the tip of the Patagonian ice sheet, the group of glaciers disappearing the most rapidly off the face of our earth. It’s at perilous risk of disappearing and upheaving the world’s fragile ecosystem.
The campsite was just 10 minutes away from this enrapturing view, offering us the chance to hear the tremendous cracking of the glacier slowly disintegrating during the night. We got a first hand glimpse of the destruction the following morning, as a long trail of ice chunks marked the slow flow of water across the lake.
On Day 2 we doubled back to the starting point, enjoying a brief bout of sunshine before a high altitude cloud cover settled in over the entire park, obscuring the sun but thankfully leaving plenty of views of the mountaintops. We began to walk East across a series of lakes and rolling hills, but sadly most of the forest that once stood in this part of the park had been burnt down. In 2011 a visitor attempting to burn off some toilet paper started a fire that ultimately destroyed a huge swath of the park’s forests, creating a state of heightened alert around fires and leading towards tight restrictions on camp stoves. Despite the destruction wildlife still abounded, as birds serenaded us all along the way and a pack of jackrabbits came into view. Using their powerful hind legs to cover great distances with tremendous agility, they chased each other like schoolchildren in a never ending game of hide and seek.
As we turned the corner away from the shadow of Paine Grande’s East face, we got our first view of Los Cuernos, a row of mountains resplendent in their beauty due to an imposing height and odd discoloration pattern. The lower part is a light red and most of the upper section transforms into a standard granite, but the very top of the mountains is a deep tint of maroon, separated by a straight line that holds in its memory the violent uprising of this particular range.
In the early afternoon we were welcoming into the Italiano campsite with a full frontal view of the West face of Paine Grande, accompanied by a deep rumbling. Just as we crossed the bridge into camp, a sound that would normally cause one to think of thunder made me look skyward instead towards the snowpack accumulated on top of the mountain, where an avalanche was picking up speed! Chunks of snow rolled down the Southern side of the mountain, sending up tremendous amounts of powder and leaving a dozen fellow hikers giddy like children.
Like vanilla icing on top of a chocolate cake, Paine Grande’s South face contains smooth faces of snow contrasted against the sharp vertical mountain slopes, meaning one avalanche can trigger half a dozen more. Sure enough, camp that night was regularly interrupted by deep rumblings that signaled even more shifts in the mountain’s appearance. Before cooking dinner, I spent the evening chilling on the rocks at the riverside campsite, keeping my eyes firmly fixed on the mountainside and watching a series of avalanches, the best evening viewing experience since Planet Earth.
What do you envision in your mind’s eye when you think of Patagonia? Step and scraggly mountains soaring straight into the sky? Snow and glaciers adorning hillsides, glistening in bright sunlight? Deep blue lakes and roaring rivers, with water so clear your could cup your hands and slurp deep, icy gulps? Ferocious gale force winds and violently fluctuating weather? On Day 3 our hike yielded all of that and then some, as we tackled the steep ascent into Valle Frances, one of the park’s most beautiful sights.
A sideways rain kept the hiking slow in the morning, as we stumbled over slippery boulders on a tough uphill slog. Clouds in the distance obscured most of the peaks the valley is known for, but the sight was no less impressive with clouds quickly floating across them. The sun finally rose over Los Cuernos to our right, shining down intermittently between the morning mist and slowly dissipating wisps of clouds for a divinely inspiring view.
Through an increasingly rambunctious wind that threatened to knock us straight off the path, we trekked through a densely vegetated forest, feeling the full brunt of the weather whenever we happened upon a clearing.
To our left the entire time was a raging river originating from glacier run-off deep in the valley ahead, ensuring that we were never at risk of going thirsty. Just as we approached the final mirador after almost three strenuous hours of hiking, the rain finally fell to the wayside and some of the low clouds pushed off, giving us the spectacular amphitheater panorama of mountains that makes Valle Frances so renowned. In every direction a ring of steep untouched hillsides proclaimed that we had arrived at one of the most beautiful spots in the world, leaving us rejuvenated for the return trip.
In the afternoon we retreated back to the starting point and hauled on our packs, hoping to cover the next few hours to the next campsite without too much exertion. The trail led alongside an enormous uniquely colored lake, leaving us exposed to forceful winds. On the water’s surface white caps and actual waves whipped across the surface, as the wind was so strong that it actually lifted water up and sprayed it like rain into the surrounding hillsides.
We trekked fast enough to grab a coveted well-protected campsite at Los Cuernos, and settled in for a long night of battling with the wind to keep our tent from blowing away. Thankfully by the time we got on the trail the following morning the wind had abated to a more reasonable level, leaving the lake’s surface instead with smooth ripples waving across the surface. It’s hard to undersell the size of the lake; it took us almost 2 entire days of walking to cross along just one side of its surface. The morning’s hike was an idyllic scene: to our left trees scattered down off the steep mountain slopes, rolling hills were dotted with bushes next to the lake, and a pasture of grass next to the trail even had me thinking of stopping to take a quick nap in the sun.
But just five minutes after I snapped that photo another fierce wind started gusting down from the peaks, accompanied by dangerous looking clouds. An intermittent mist gave way to a full fledged rain over the course of the next hour, hitting just as we approached the steepest and most difficult part of the climb. Sharp switchbacks made us dig our heels into the gravel and strain the backs of our legs, shoulders heaving under the hugging packs swinging behind us in the wind.
Just as we turned the corner to behold our first glimpse of the Valle Ascensio (so named because of the steep ascent ahead of us), Stefje was almost blown off the precipice into the river hundreds of meters below by a ferocious wind. The howling was incessant for the next hour as we trudged to the last bastion of warmth and comfort on the way to our last campsite. Refugio Chileno is built directly into the rocks of the deep rivulet, and from the the wide Northern-facing windows we could grab our first glimpse of the Torres, the trio of mountains the park is named for. Inside there was snickers and beer, so we rewarded ourself with some treats after the tough trip while waiting for the rough weather to abate.
On our last day in the park we awoke in the dead of night to stark hiking. For me it was no trouble, as I couldn’t sleep due to the incessant howling of the wind all night, penetrating through multiple layers and seemingly blowing straight through my sleeping bag. Our goal was to reach the viewpoint of the towers by 5:15AM, the time at which the first rays of light would grace their facade. The walk was the steepest yet, leaving us simultaneously vigorously sweating and shivering in the bitter cold. Any time we came out from the protection of the trees the wind would threaten to throw us straight off the cliff face, chilling me to the bone.
By 5AM we came into view of the towers and although there was some glimpses of blue sky in the valley below, we realized we had no chance of that perfectly poetic sunrise. Once at the top we were instead greeted by blizzard conditions; to go along with the winds furious little pellets of snow sprayed us across the cheeks. Prepared for the cold and a long wait, we unfurled our sleeping bags and kept a close watch on the weather behind us.
Nature’s version of skyscrapers, the three spires of Torres del Paine stand proudly in defiance of anything you know about physics or the geological process of mountain formation. Unbelievably steep, the gargantuan faces shoot directly out of a turquoise lake fed by glaciers that hug their lower levels. A clear view is overly romanticized by travel books; we ended up equally awed by the sight still slightly shrouded by the misty, violent weather. It’s as if mother nature was guarding her most powerful secrets, keeping them close to the best despite the hours of climbing necessary just to grab a glimpse.
When the first rays of sunlight did barely touch the adjacent rock wall, cheers and whistles arose from the group that had made the pre-dawn trek. Yet the sight was shrouded in darkness again soon after, so we retreated back to a deeply appreciated warm breakfast and hot cup of tea. While backtracking the last leg of the trail, the weather in front of us cleared slightly, yielding tremendous vistas of the valley we had traversed in the rain the day prior.
Trees sprang us on hillsides any place a rock slide hadn’t recently occurred, and towering waterfalls dropped all the way from mountaintops into the river across a series of ledges. Glacier water had carved out deep valleys and the endless flow of the river deposited boulders the size of cars smack into the middle of the creek. An hour later we turned back to grab one last look at the towers and the entire valley behind us was absorbed by a cloud of mist and snow, ensuring no one today would be rewarded for their steep climb into paradise.
Past the refugio the mountains began their slow descent into the fertile grasslands of the steppe, yielding one last incredible view to contemplate what we had accomplished. 5 days and 85 kilometers! Glaciers, lakes, mountains, and waterfalls. Camping, cooking, and living in the midst of pristine beauty. Truly, we had experienced nature’s beauty on a grand scale.
PATAGONIA ON A BUDGET
Looking for more information on how to make your own dream vacation in Patagonia a reality for just $30/day? Check out my e-book, Patagonia On A Budget. Inside, you'll find:
The best value on the craziest adventures
Prices and details for accommodation, transportation, and activities in every destination
Detailed maps and itineraries of the most popular backpacking routes
Recommended campgrounds with the best rates and facilities
Instructions and safety advice for hitchhiking
The only packing list you'll ever need for camping
The electronics, websites, and applications to depend on during your expedition
A special bonus guide on packing and cooking during long hikes through national parks