Tuesday 01st March 2016 –
It’s been a while. A few things have happened since I wrote last, but let’s face it – only one is the big one – Torres del Paine. Here, for prosperity, I shall recount the day to day accounts and adventures of one stong, brave, thoughtful, chiselled, generous, hardy, kind, handsomely bearded and modest individual, and his old dad. It began in the early morning of the sunday before last, a beautiful day where the shone brightly – behind the black clouds which were delivering rain by the bucket loads, that is.
This, unfortunately, combined with everyone’s steamy breath meant that not a whole lot could be seen out of the windows. Certainly not the Torres. We stopped at Laguna Amarga to buy our tickets and reserve one of the free (CONAF) campsites, and set off again, this time for Pudeto, and the boat to Paine Grande. By this time, we were too close to see the whole mountain range at once.
Hang on a minute though. I feel this is a good place (ie. the middle) to mention our planned route for the trek.
Carefully overseen by Yari’s guiding hand (and slightly forceful will) we were embarking on a route of most unusuality. Once our boat had arrived in Paine Grande, we would set off clockwise around the circuit, apparently an oddity according to previous accounts I had read. Our half day would end at Grey Camp, before embarking on an epic day over the pass to Los Perros, and subsequent nights at Dickson, Seron, Las Torres and finally Campamento Torres camp grounds, where we would see the Torres themselves. This would be the end. With weather concerns still plaguing the ‘French Valley’ area, we would forego this section, skipping the majority of the well trodden ‘W’ route and creating an upside down ‘U’ route, or horseshoe. Maybe an Anti-W, if you will.
Anyway, back to the story. After a wait at the shore, and the seemingly distinct possibility we wouldn’t all fit on the boat, we finally set off and were treated to some spectacular views of the range. Shrouded in cloud, of course, but one of those cool, mysterious clouds. We also got some diesel fumes. Tasty.
On land again at Paine Grande, we set off for Grey Camp, apparently three and a half hours away. We figured we’d test how accurate this timing was, on the suspicion that it’d be massively out, but didn’t want to burn ourselves out either. For this reason, I was deemed pace setter – a role I would retain for the majority of the trip. My dad might be closing in on pensioner age, but he still walks too quickly for anyone’s good.
Meanwhile, we stopped at interesting locations – like the first map marker we found, suggesting we were a third of the way after 45 minutes. This was at the Laguna los Patos and had a great view over the lagoon and Lago Grey, the far bigger body of water next door. Climbing up some rocks I even spotted and Iceberg! The first I had ever seen. There would be more to come.
We also stopped pretty much all along, getting clearer and clearer glimpses of Glacier Grey, which we were heading toward. Apparently the third biggest glacier on the planet, it looked pretty close. It wasn’t.
It was around this time that I decided to make things a bit more interesting. On an otherwise nondescript section of downhill scree, I managed to fling myself forward, down the slope, face and knees first. The bag, and my downhill facing position didn’t make it any easier to get up. Fortunately, I was ok – some grazes, a few bruises and a painfully swollen knee besides – and I was good to carry on.
By the time we reached the camp, it had indeed taken us three and a half hours, if not slightly more, and we cursed that first sign that had lied to us. It would be the start of a bitter war. Nevertheless, we were there, managed to get the tent up in the dry, and survived despite my dad mistaking a friendly Dutch guy for a girl. The next day would be a slog to Los Perros – we would need the rest.
Only, that didn’t happen quite right. The night was bitterly cold – the result of a keen, glacial wind, and my sleeping bag only reached up to my chest. Not my favourite sleeping conditions. This wasn’t news – my dad had brought the gear with him fron the UK, and the phrase he used when he unpacked everything in the hostel was “Oh, I’ve brought you a medium”. In a sort of semi surprise. At 6″1 (185cm for those not using imperial), I don’t fit into a medium. In fact, I don’t really fit in the tent – not without it resting on my forehead, anyway.
As a result of this, and even more sleeping from my dad, we were slightly late up. If was half 10 by the time we left, so we decided immediately to sack off the John Gardner Pass for the day and just go to Paso Camp, which was five hours in itself. A good decision, a few French guys would later tell us, saying Los Perros was not recommendable.
Nevertheless, the day started as I’d left off previously. A short side trip to a viewpoint of the glacier resulted in my foot in a puddle. Right at the start of the day. I was not impressed. Thankfully, somehow my entirely non-waterproof shoes and my insane reflexes meant my foot was only damp, and not sodden. Always a silver lining.
As we continued to Paso Camp, we passed the front edge of Grey Glacier. With the path winding in and out of the trees, the views just got better and better, and the glacier got more and more impressive. It’s impossible at any stage to see how far back it goes, but 50 miles or more wouldn’t surprise me. A couple of suspension bridges offer some amazing vantage points too, just so long as you don’t drop your camera.
With arrival at Paso not far away, we stumbled into our biggest challenge yet. At the bottom of a ladder and dangerous scree slope lay a river. Now, most around here were either easy to cross or had some sort of bridge. This was, and had neither. The official crossing was marked with orange flags, and a steel cable was in place to prevent being washed down the mountain. Unfortunately, it was placed in the most unhelpful place possible – one that required you wade through the at least knee deep water – and as mentioned, my shoes were most certainly not waterproof.
Neither of us keen on the idea of sodden shoes for six days, we spent considerable time searching for the least dangerous crossing point – a decision we couldn’t agree on. A Chilean couple soon appeared though, and with a bit of bridge building (throwing rocks in the water) and use of poles (which I didn’t have) managed to cross relatively unscathed. We helped them up our side of the scree slope before attempting their crossing ourselves. With some creative swapping of my dad’s set of trekking poles, we did eventually manage to cross, while the Chileans watched on. It might have taken a while, but it was totally worth it for dry shoes!
Paso wasn’t the greatest camp. One of the free CONAF ones, the facilities were rather lacking, while the toilet was a disgusting tin box with no light and a hole in the ground. Several people had missed their target, and I couldn’t even blame them. It was also a ****ing cold night. I slept with every jacket I owned on, and even then the brittle air intruded on my unrestful attempts.
Still, we were up the next day for another crack at the long trek. This time from Paso to Dickson, bypassing Los Perros. We actually woke at a suitable time, this time, and began our steep 800m ascent, with downhill.
It did change, and it was fairly steep. Enough to keep my dad requesting rest breaks at least. The big steps created throughout the forest trail were awkwardly placed so a to necessitate use of just one leg, unless you broke stride. It was at one of these that my dad decided to lose his Buff®, being a notorious pocket not dooer upper, not that he’d realised until we’d climbed another 50 metres. I trekked back down again to find it, to no avail. He found it in another pocket 20 minutes later.
Eventually, we broke out of the trees, and onto the scree. The pass was within reach, and soon we arrived. The 1200m high John Gardner Pass is the highest point on the trail (though the mountains themselves go to 3000m+). Relief flooded, as the most difficult section was over. While not as bad as Mirador Dorotea back in Puerto Natales, the wind was whistling, so we descended a bit before taking a rest.
Unbeknownst to us, apparently everyone we passed was thinking the same thing. That we were going the wrong way. As people started to inform us of this (helpfully), we began to get more information. A recently placed rule stated you were only allowed Anti-clockwise. You also needed a pass to go round the full circuit. We did not have this either. In fact, it seemed we were doing everything wrong. How terrible of us.
Passing a ranger on the way down, we weren’t given any grief. By the time we’d descended, and traversed the paths through dwarf forest, regular forest and boggy slaloms (which incidentally, requiring swinging off trees, I thought was awesome – others did not), reaching Los Perros, we’d met another ranger. As before, no grief – if anything more of a genuine interest in us.
Lunch was required at Los Perros, after six hours of walking. Soon though, we were off once more. The path to Dickson was much more gentle, and actually really pretty – the majority through a lovely Lenga forest with rivers running by. One thing puzzled us. A Chilean couple asked if we had passed the waterfall at one point. ” I don’t think so” we replied, thinking we couldn’t have missed it. A couple of hours later, we found it, so loud and obvious we couldn’t believe they hadn’t.
Arrival at Dickson campsite eleven and a half hours later, set next to the lovely Dickson Lake, was tempered by fatigue. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful setting, the mountains rising in the background as if they had been specifically arranged for us. Even the evil mosquitoes couldn’t ruin it for us, and I’m pretty sure it was both my and my dad’s favourite campsite on the trail. Gnocchi was our present for dinner.
We woke, and set off, late the next morning, knowing we had a nice six hour hike ahead. Despite our initial reservations, we’d found the times stated on the map to be surprisingly accurate (including daily delays) so it was easy to predict how long we’d take. The landscape of the first stage of the walk to Seron was unexpected though.
Vast swathes of grassland spread out before us, the path occasionally boarded over more marshy areas. The yellow landscape, sparse trees and sudden close heat all made me think that we’d stepped into the Serengeti, or somewhere like that. Not that I’ve ever been there, of course.
Soon, we arrived at Coiron ranger station, where everyone had said we would be checked for passes. Yet again though, nothing happened. What were they going to do – make us go back the long way? Gradually, as we passed Coiron and Paine Lake, the landscape turned to moorland – much more reminiscent of northern England. We got closer to the hill sides, started climbing again, and decided this is where we would see a puma.
That’s right. We figured they’d be using some sort of vantage point, some rock on the hillside or similar – knowing nothing about pumas of course. We continued looking even as the wind picked up and forced us into the mountain rocks, and again as we descended into the next valley. No such luck though. They were far too crafty for such as us.
After a night at Seron Camp, where for the second in a row I didn’t have to wear EVERY piece of clothing, we headed for Las Torres. This leg was again shorter, about four hours, and for me was slightly less interesting, if only because it stayed as moorland. Despite this, the rivers meandering along with us created great views, and we arrived at Las Torres nice and early. Here, we hunted for biscuits and cardboard box wine for the last leg of our journey.
I woke in the middle of the night to a beautifully clear, starry sky framing the mountains. It would be a good morning to visit the Torres, but we wouldn’t arrive till the next morning. The sun beat down when we set off – the first really sunny day we’d had – as we climbed to Campamento Torres, our last stop near the mirador. Crowds were all around now, as we’d joined the ‘W’ circuit, but despite this the amazing views of the valley weren’t spoiled, and we got to our camp in a timely fashion despite our many day fatigue.
As the evening set in, it was time for dinner once more. After rice and dodgy flat pack meals the last couple of nights, we’d saved pasta and sauce with chorizo and parmesan for a celebratory final meal. I was really looking forward to it. In fact, I had been for days. Only, the worst happened. As I poured the pasta from my makeshift saucepan plate into the saucepan lid which served as my dad’s plate, my dad dropped it all over the floor. Half the pasta and chorizo. In the mud. Then he stole mine. And the majority of the chorizo. A hungry Doug is not a friendly Doug, and I don’t like sharing food at the best of times.
Like cultists, we woke the next morning before the dawn for our pilgrimage to the Torres. The Torres are three giant, pointy spires, and are probably the main attraction of the park. We, like the others in the procession, we aiming to arrive for sunrise, and the first striking of light on the great peaks. Lights dominated the mountainside as others found their way, ready to prostrate themselves before the might of our beloved gods. Maybe we would be sent a sign? Some confirmation we’d been noticed? Maybe that was what the light was for.
The only problem was, it was cloudy. The previous day’s clear skies had been replaced by a shroud of darkness, and seemed unlikely to be revealed. We waited nonetheless.
For hours it seemed, as the chill set in after our sweaty climb up. We’d arrived at a sleepy 6.50 after 45 minutes walk, and noone knew quite when the sun would strike. It turned out never. The cloud prevented the light from ever quite hitting the Torres, and it didn’t lift for a clear view. At about 8.30 we retreated back down again – disappointed and disavowed by our gods.
It was a ****ing good job we’d gone up the previous day then. Maybe not the sunrise, but crystal clear views nonetheless. Our pilgrimage had not been in vain.
There was only one leg of the trip left. Back down to Las Torres Camp to get the bus. Unfortunately, it didn’t go smoothly. Almost immediately, my dad injured his knee, leaving the whole descent to go, and me to babysit possibly the world’s slowest walk. Nothing would stop us now though – food and the first showers in a week were ample motivation – and my immensely supportive nature came to the fore. What do you mean insults aren’t supportive?