...images from planet Earth
Tuesday 24 December - Madrid
My journey got off to a bad start. My flight to Madrid was delayed and I missed my connecting flight to Santiago. So I had an impromptu day in Madrid, which worked out well because I have a friend who lives there and she was able to spend a few hours showing me around. My reschedulled flight to Santiago left Barahas at 23:55.
Wednesday 25 December - to Puerto Natales via Santiago and Punta Arenas
The flight landed around 9am, but as I feared my bag didn't arrive from Madrid. This happened to me this time last year, but this time I wasn't staying around to wait for it to arrive and I had to hike in Patagonia with just the clothes I had on! At least I had my camera and toothbrush.
My connecting flight to Punta Arenas wasn't till after one, so I went to a Dunkin Donuts to get some WiFi so I could inform my fixer, Carla, in Puerto Natales and ask her to make the necessary arrangements. I arrived in Punta Arenas around 6pm then caught the pre-arranged bus to Puerto Natales. There was still light in the sky when I arrived at 10pm. I met Carla in the hotel and she gave me some advice about how I might be able to get to the base of Las Torres, despite my lost day.
It had been a long and exhausting day.
Thursday 26 December - Lago Grey
The bus to Torres del Paine departed at 7am and we arrived and the registration office at Lagnuna Amarga around nine. We were shown a safety video (mostly about not lighting fires in the park) before boarding a connecting bus to Pudeto, on the shore of Lake Pehoe.
I waited in the cafeteria for an hour for the catamaran which took us across to the other side of the lake to Lodge Paine Grande, which is the start point of two of the main hikes in the park. It was already 12:45 and, with time short, I set off immediately on the Grey Glacier hike.
It was raining when I set off. The landscape here was mostly shrubby with scattered pink flowers and burnt up silvery trees. This part of the park was one of the most badly affected by the recent fires. It was very wild and rugged, and before long I felt the full force of the winds for which this park is notorious in summer. Combined with the rain it made the conditions very difficult. My face was being stung, my jeans were soaked, my hands frozen but inside I was warm and my shoes were keeping out the rain.
Fortunately the rain stopped before too long, and I quickly dried out once I emerged from the small forest. The winds persisted though, and along the shore of Lago Grey, as I stood on a rocky overlook, it was difficult to even sit and I could barely operate my camera. The scenery was stunning here and I could see the glacier in the distance, with small chunks of ice floating away on the lake. Along the trail was a mixture of black rock, thick trees and bright red flowering trees. It was an otherworldly landscape in places and it reminded me of parts of Iceland.
I didn't have time to go all the way to the lookout point near the glacier. I turned back and made it back to the catamaran dock for 6:30. On the other end I waited almost an hour for my pickup from Hosteria Pehoe. This was a ridiculously priced hotel, but it was in a great location on the shore of the lake, overlooking the mountains on the other side. I had a decent three course meal and then asked one of the staff whether it would be possible to get to the base of Las Torres tomorrow. Fortunately, there was a group leaving at 8am who I could join. But I had to be back at Hotel Las Torres by 4pm, which meant I had to walk really quickly if I was going to make the transfer back to Laguna Amarga, and the subsequent connections. Tomorrow was also supposed to have the best weather in a week which had been cold, wet and windy.
Friday 27 December- Mirador Las Torres
We arrived at the trailhead at Hotel Las Torres at 9am and I again set off quickly alone. It was a 19km return journey to the Torres and I only had seven hours before I had to be back for the bus. Perhaps I'd walked a bit too quickly, as I reached Refugio Chileno in half the suggested time. It was a gorgeous day, sunny, but cool, especially higher up. It was perfect hiking weather. After another 45 minutes I reached Camping Torres. This is the place I originally planned to set off from early on Day 2 so I could see the Torres at dawn. Given the weather we'd been having the delay had saved me wasted effort!
I stopped briefly for a snack on the trail near the refugio, enjoying the views of the valley and the snowy peaks in the distance. At 11am I set off for the last part of the hike, said to be one of the most difficult climbs in the park. It was only 0.8km, but it was a hour of scrambling over steep rocks. Deep snow made the upper parts a bit more treacherous. It must have snowed overnight as the snow was fresh.
When I reached the 'mirador', the three peaks of the Torres were mostly shrouded in mist, but it was like they had parted for me. For an hour I was able to enjoy a mostly uninterrupted view, as I took photos and ate my lunch on the shore of the lake. I had one of the world's most impressive natural wonders in front of me. Lunch spots don't get much better!
I started my walk back down at one, giving myself three hours to get back. It was easier and more relaxed on the way back, giving me more time to enjoy the views of the lowlands.
I got the hotel transfer bus back to Laguna Amarga and then the park bus to Pudeto, and from here the catamaran took me back to Lodge Grande Paine. This time I was staying the night here. This place is huge and almost deafeningly loud. There are so many people here you're given a time slot for your dinner. It was reminiscent of a school canteen.
Thursday 28 December - Valle Frances
I woke to the sound of what I had hoped was water pumping through the radiators, but when I looked out the window I saw that the sound was coming from the rain falling on the metal roof outside the room. I knew it was the type of rain that would last all day, but still I was hopeful it would stop by the time I finished breakfast. With jeans and no waterproof clothing, this wasn't the sort of weather you want to be walking out into for a nine hour hike.
While wondering around, I discovered a small shop, and I was finally able to buy some clothing. I was only able to get socks and a t-shirt but they did have a dry sack which proved to be a very useful find. I delayed my departure as long as I could but the rain was relentless, so at 9am I stuffed all my things in the dry sack, put that into my rucksack and headed off into the rain.
It continued to rain for the first part and there was virtually no visibility. My waterproof shoes had already breached and I was soaked right through all over. Bubbles of rain and sweat were forming at my knees, it must have looked quite odd to oncoming hikers. I walked through grassland and low forest and until I reached the wobbly bridge over a wide river that marks the entrance to the Camping Italiano campsite. It was now 11am. It was grim here, muddy and smelly in the wet, and nowhere to rest. So I pressed on.
From here the trail became steep and rocky. Wide, gushing rivers flowed across the path down the mountainside and parts were so tricky I thought I would be knocked off my feet. The rain eased slightly as I continued up through the forest. I didn't know how much further I would walk, given the awful visibility, but as long as I had time I would try to hike as much of the trail as I could.
As I neared the edge of the forest, I could hear the crescendo of the fast flowing river below. On the other side I began to make out parts of the glacier, Glacier del Frances. Then suddenly, beyond the thinning cloud I caught a feint and partial view of a huge towering peak, part of the impressive chain that was Cuernos del Paine. I could only imagine how impressive this area must look in clear weather.
At midday, I finally emerged from the forest and reached a large rocky clearing. There was low cloud all around me. My clothes were soaked so I changed my into my spare t-shirt so I could warm up a bit. It was bitterly cold here. I was shivering as I ate my lunch. No one else was here. Two hikers emerged from the mist in the distance. They were on their way down and told me it was half an hour further up to the mirador. But I didn't see the point in continuing and decided that I would use the hour to take my time on the way down.
As I sat I constantly glanced around me, waiting in hope for some of the impressive vistas to reveal themselves. I was briefly rewarded for a minute or two as several peaks appeared behind me. I could almost see them in their entirety and the sense of awe I'd been expecting finally descended on me. I struggled to operate my camera; the cold had drained all the strength from my fingers. It was frustrating because I knew there was a panorama of incredible views here, as I would occasionally catch the edge of a peak in front of me, but I was grateful for what I saw, with the drizzle continuing all around me.
On the way back down the rain had all but stopped and the clouds began to thin. I was able to see a large part of the glacier on the bottom of the mountainside on the other side of the valley. In the distance, in the direction I was heading, I could see lakes dotted with small islands, the mist hovering above. It was an impressive view, more so because of the weather conditions.
I reached the catamaran dock at 6pm. I had hiked 26km in the last nine hours, the longest hike of the three days. Despite the wetness, it was a great end to my short stay here.
From Pudeto I got the park bus back to Puerto Natales. At the hostel, I met an American couple who told me how their plans had been ruined because of unexpected and heavy show which had caused the closure of the backcountry passes. It demonstrated the unpredictability of the Patagonian weather in summer.
The Erratic Rock II hotel is an excellent place and just what I needed after the hike I'd done today. The staff were helpful and friendly, and the rooms were warm, cosy and comfortable.
The next day I caught the bus back to Punta Arenas and flew to Santiago where I met my friends for the second part of the trip.