With my preparation complete it was time to head to the national park. Torres del Paine is about 2 hours drive from Puerto Natales. It normally costs 18,000 Chilean Pesos to enter (about £15-20), however that day was free for everyone! After signing all of the forms to enter the park, everyone boarded shuttle buses going to the three starting points; Las Torres, Paine Grande or Administración. I decided to go West to East, so I could finish at the famous towers, which also involved a ferry (and an extra 15,000 Pesos). The long wait for the ferry made me think twice about camping. It was about 11am and I was already freezing! Eventually we travelled across Lake Pehoé and I got my first taste of the spectacular scenery I would be treated to over the next five days.
Once the ferry docked at Paine Grande I started hiking towards the camp at Refugio Grey, about 11km and 3 and a half hours away. One thing I was concerned about was doing the trek alone. However I was reassured that other people would be doing it too and so it proved as I quickly teamed up with an Irish couple; Alan and his girlfriend Rebecca. It was good to have someone to chat to in such an isolated place but the further we hiked the scenery became so incredible that it didn’t matter so much. From mountains to forest and lakes. Everywhere I looked was amazing.
Eventually we made it to Refugio Grey and set up camp for the night. There was a lodge (which partly explained why some people had so much less stuff than me) but camping was cheaper and I hadn’t carried the tent all that way for nothing. With my tent successfully (and pleasingly easily) erected I headed inside to eat. Seeing as it was the first day everyone got an early night. It wasn’t the best nights sleep I’ve ever had, but not the worst either. It was the first time I’d camped in about a year and a half, and that was the Australian Outback in October. Not Patagonia in April!
After breakfast we walked to the nearby Glacier Grey before packing everything up (the least enjoyable daily task over the next 5 days) and starting the hike back towards Paine Grande. The 11km trek was just as amazing as it had been the afternoon before. Walking alongside the lake we saw a perfect mirror image of the mountains and clouds in the unbroken water. We stopped at Paine Grande for lunch and a refreshing beer with some of the other hikers. It was surprisingly warm given the time of year, although hiking with about 15kg probably helped heat things up. If you want to be bettered prepared for the Patagonian elements then this excellent guide is the best place to look: Best times to visit Patagonia.
After an hour or so rest it was time for the next leg of our hike and another 6km to the second camp at Italiano. The scenery was slightly different along this section but no less spectacular. A wintery forest of bare, silver trees being the highlight. We reached Italiano just as the sun was starting to set, crossing the creaking bridge into camp.
I think this was the worst nights sleep I had the whole time I was in the national park. I was kept awake most of the night listening to the sound of avalanches crashing down the nearby mountain, unable to remember exactly how close it was to camp and if we were in any danger. It was also bitterly cold. Earlier in the night I’d ventured out onto the bridge and looked up at the sky. The scene before me with the mountain and a sky full of stars was more magnificent than any I’d seen. Of course that also meant a lack of clouds and a colder night ahead. And as I was the only person camping alone I didn’t have the benefit of extra body heat.
We all survived the night and woke up to… snow! The plan was to hike up the French Valley towards a lookout at an old camp called Britanico. It was only supposed to take an hour or so, however I gave up after one and a half hours as I couldn’t even see the enormous mountain in front of me. Not that the snow covered scenery wasn’t still amazing.
That was the only bad weather we saw in 5 days. In fact, by the afternoon it was sunny again and I was treated to a glorious rainbow. We were really lucky with the weather. I’d heard from others who’d completed the hike a few weeks earlier that the weather hadn’t been so good. And with it being so late in the season I was worried what I’d encounter. However, other than this it was glorious sunshine the whole time.
After the aborted hike it was time to pack up again and head on to the next camp. Rebecca wasn’t feeling so good so her and Alan hung back which meant I was on my own again. However it was just a short two hour hike to Los Cuernos. This was quite a relaxing walk with the scenery changing yet again. I passed through green fields and even had time to sit back on a pebbled covered beach on Lake Nordernskjöld in the shadow of another impressive mountain.
I met up with everyone in the bar at Los Cuernos. By now we had a large group all going the same way. As well as Alan and Rebecca I met a Kiwi couple, two young Americans, a French couple, a South African couple and three older Americans. We had a few drinks and a fun night, until it was time to go to bed and we stepped outside the warmth of the bar into the chilly night air. It was so cold that my tent was frozen white! Surprisingly it wasn’t as cold as the night before. Maybe the insulation layer of frost helped.
I woke up early ready for another day of hiking and opened my tent. The door was frozen stiff! With the longest day ahead of us I didn’t have time to wait for it to defrost so I just had to make do and strap it to the outside of my backpack. I had 8 hours of hiking to do and needed to get moving.
I hiked up the hill and, after a last look back over the campsite and the lake beyond, I set off. Seeing the sun coming up over the hill was a nice start, but the longer this initial undulating section continued the harder it became. This was by far the most difficult day. Not least because I was alone for the majority of it.
The scenery changed so much. From fields to lakes to rocky rivers to mountains and everything in-between. There was also a lot of frustration. I think I got a little lost at one point and with no indication I was going the right way I was starting to get a little worried. I then had to pass a muddy swamp like field. I could see no way around it and struggled to wade through, my shoes and trousers covered. However, the great thing about Torres Del Paine is whenever your fed up of hiking there’s another amazing scene just around the corner and you’re in love with the place all over again.
I caught up with the Irish couple for lunch and left while they were still resting. I was eager to get to the end of this long trek. The last section to my final stop at Torres was all uphill. Snow started to cover the ground for the last couple of hours and I was asking hikers coming from the opposite direction how close I was, desperate to get there. Eventually I made it and could relax knowing the most difficult part was behind me. I had to wait about an hour for the next couple to arrive, some of my new friends only arriving just before sunset. If that day was difficult, the next morning made it all worthwhile.
We had to wake early in order to be at the towers for sunrise, which was around 7am. I then hiked about 1km. Up hill. In the dark. What happened next was possibly the most amazing sight of all. Watching the sun light up the towers, with the reflection in the pool below, was simply stunning. Four days of hiking, packing away my tent and setting it up again, carrying all of my camping equipment and food, wearing everything I owned in a failed attempt to keep warm at night. It had all been for this. And totally worth it. So much so that I didn’t actually want to leave now it was time to go.
Somewhat reluctantly I headed back to camp to have breakfast and pack up for the final time. We needed to be at the end by 2pm in order to catch the shuttle bus back to town. The downhill walk to where the bus would be waiting was relatively easy after everything that had gone before. I even stopped for a rest just before the finish in order to drag it out a little longer.
Everyone was ecstatic for having finished the route successfully but also because it had been such a great experience. That evening back in Puerto Natales, showered and in clean clothes, we all met up one final time for a few drinks and a pizza. An experience we’ll remember forever.