Wild and Surreal
Hiking at the end of the world, here in Patagonia, has been one of the main “pillars” of our trip since the very beginning. It’s one of the main reasons we’ve been moving so quickly up to this point with a small window of not “freezing cold and dark.” So far we are so glad we got here when we did, even in the height of summer down here it can be cold, wet and extremely windy, hot and sunny, hail and sleet followed by snow; and that’s all in the same day… before noon. To say the weather changes quickly is an understatement, it was pretty surreal to be rained on in extreme wind and look up and see nothing but sun and have to search the sky for the cloud that is providing the present shower. And then there are times when there aren’t any clouds and you realize that what you thought was “rain” was just water blowing off the lake. Add to the extreme weather gorgeous towering peaks, condors and llamas, and it gets even better.
We arrived at the Erratic Rock hostel after a few hours on a couple of buses. Erratic Rock partners with the Bar/Pizza/Rental place next door (Base Camp) to make the unofficial base camp of Puerto Natales, Chile’s backpacker/climber/trekker scene. Every day through out the summer at 3:00pm they put on a free, hour and half long, info session on hiking in the park. I must say, it was one of the best “info sessions” we’ve ever heard on hiking, the info provide is extremely helpful, if you’re planning to spend time in the park it’s extremely valuable.
At the info talk we found out about 3 most common routes through the park named after the rough shape the trail makes through the park:
- The W – Torres del Paine National Parks bread and butter. It’s it’s a 3-4 night hike to the most popular views with the option to stay in refuigos (little, expensive, bunkbed-style lodges) or camp and enjoy a boat ride from the bus stop to the start of the trail at the beginning and end.
- The O – Follows, more or less, the same route as the W with the addition going over John Gardner Pass and around the backside of the towers and a more extensive look at Glacier Grey with few more nights of camping and a few less people.
- The Q – Takes The O and adds a 16km hike through the pampas (grass lands), another night or two of camping and cuts out the boat ride (and the cost associated with said boat) and covers pretty much the entire park.
You can probably guess what we did; The Q! And it was totally worth it, all 138 kilometers of it!
We took a bus out to the park and after registering at the entrance, watching the mandatory fire prevention video (There’s no lightening or anything like that here in Patagonia so fires don’t occur naturally and the landscape isn’t really adapted to recover from forest fires and after they huge fire a few years back they are hyper vigilante and understandably so) we went from a dozen buses at the entrance to 5 buses at the boat dock where the W starts to 8 of us on one bus to the last stop “Administration” and the start of the Q. Due to the park being about 2.5 hours from town and after registration and everything we don’t really start hiking until almost 1pm but it’s not a huge deal as our first planned camp is only a couple of hours from administration. We start our hike through the pampas with our new friend Brad who we meet at Erratic Rock during the Base Camp info talk.
Wow. We were not ready for the wind. I knew it would be windy but it was crazy windy, like makes you want to crouch down so you don’t get blown over. The three of us stumbled our way to the first campsite, Campamento Las Carretas occasionally catching glimpses of the Paine Massif. Just before arriving, as we made our way over the first hill a few guanacos (like llamas) curiously made their way over to see us. Once we arrived at Las Carretas, we took a look around and found the perfect campsite. Brad decided he would go on to Refugio Paine Grande, but it would certainly not be the last we would see of him.
Our first night was great. There were only a handful of other campers at Las Carretas. We meet a couple from New Hampshire that was on their way out who gave us some great advice on the hike as well as a Swiss couple that were also just starting the Q.
We woke-up early, had a big bowl of oatmeal and made our way through the wind to our next destination, Paine Grande. The morning was really rough, with constant 40 mph wind, with 55 mph gusts, blowing sleet into our faces the entire time. Liz learned that her beloved Merrell hiking boots had finally met the end of the road, as she saw bubbles of air and water gurgling out from about six different places on them. Liz was not a fan of this part of the hike.
We stopped for lunch by the lake and watch the mad-house that is Refugio Paine Grande; most peoples first and/or last stop on the W. It’s where the boat arrives/departs and has a huge facility for paid camping, a small store, and a large refugio. After a quick lunch of reheated lentils it was on to our destination for night Campamento Italiano, another free site. The weather had improved, still windy but not getting pelted by sleet, just a steady rain.
Most of this day was through the area that was devastated by the fire in 2011, you can imagine how beautiful it was with all the trees, but the views were still pretty awesome even on an overcast day.
We crossed a couple of bridges, set-up camp in the most protected spot we could find, built a rock wall to help with the wind and made a big a meal!