Hiking the Torres del Paine “W”

7 01 2012

A Lenticular Cloud over the towers!

Awakening at O’Dark Hundred, it’s pitch black and the Southern Cross is sparkling. We’re up early because Saskia wants us hitting the trail at 7:00 a.m.! Little did we know, but this was a brilliant decision for hiking Torres Del Paine.

We force down some more dry bread, orange colored water and cheese at the refugio-cafeteria. Today we could pre-order a “trail box lunch,” and this time a tuna sandwich was a choice – I picked tuna over the standard dry ham and cheese!

All suited up and booted and ready to to, we were all set. Almost. You see, our Refugio had an outdoors “boot storage box.” Inside, we were to walk in our stocking feet. We were to leave boots outside in the box. Being that we are in the Andes, low nighttime temperatures could be at freezing. I knew from past experience to NEVER allow boots to be stored outside if it is that cold. That means putting on COLD boots in the morning, and who wants that? So I took off my boots and brought them into my bedroom for the night. I was just fine. But some of my peers didn’t take such precautions, in particular Angelique! Hmmm, we’ll be hearing from Angelique today…Angelique did not pack hiking boots. Rather, she had Dr. Martens-calf-high boot style. She’ll find out if those work on the trail!

Our luck holds as it’s not windy, and the sun is out. Locals say it can blow a constant 4o mph around here! It’s cold but the athletic effort will no doubt have us losing layers before long.

We embark, hiking at a brisk pace along the flat plain below the towers to the trailhead. We come across bridge over a river, and like yesterday, there is a limit on how many can cross at once. Rickety for sure, but it’s kind of like Disneyland! What would a hike down here be without a rickety walk over a skinny bridge? It’s not too long past this bridge where the real trail begins, which will end at the base of the world-famous pinnacles of Torres del Paine!

The hike should challenging. It’s about 12 miles round trip, and 3,000 ft elevation gain. The beginning has a steep climb. The middle is up and down. The end is a 40-minute scramble up a boulder field, to a spectacular view of the towers. The climax will be a view of 9,000 ft vertical towers, with a glacial lake underneath! In 2011 I have done so much kayaking for work, and been so busy with outdoor recreation / kayaking work that I have not done much hiking. But I know how to hike efficiently. And, I am so much looking forward to being outside and the workout!

My strategy is to start at my own pace, slowly, let my body warm up, and once the trail reaches the rolling section, take off like a madman, like a workout. Let the legs run on the downhills. Then, at the scramble at the end, have enough energy to make a push to get there in a respectable time! I’m the only American, so I can’t allow myself to look like a slug. I’ll make a respectable hike for myself and for America…how patriotic…silly.

I take my time on the initial part. I can see Eray and Elwin moving on up ahead, and out front there is a group trailing Saskia, pushing out at this first part of the hike. Partly I want to hang back so I do not perspire too much. I’m kind of hoping if I relax a bit, I will not sweat and won’t have to change layers. That thought doesn’t work out. As the trail climbs I’m inevitably swamped with my own sweat and must do away with layers! At about this time Behrend walks past me going down, and he says he is seeking his girlfriend who’s behind.

But this strategy works. As the temperature rises and the physical effort builds, the layers peel off. I started with gloves and a hat, which are gone. Then the gore tex jacket. I’m warming up, I’m perspiring, I’m totally immersed in the physical element! I LOVE the physical aspects of hiking. Especially since we have spent so much time on the road! Breathing. In, out, in, out, my legs and torso warming up.

The ascent leads beyond the dry steppe and into an alpine forest. It winds along the slope of a valley, with a river cutting through. Every so often I can see the towers.

Up and down, I chug up and then fly down. I’m one hundred percent in this moment, breathing in the air, taking in the scenery, feeling the blood flowing, marveling at the views unfolding. I catch up and pass my peers Flores, Ivo, Stephanie, Ed…and on a bend there is another bridge with a trailside rest stop/lunch spot, which I pass by. Filled with endorphins, I just concentrate on my pace and breath…and I catch a glimpse of Angelique up ahead! More and more, backpacker couples pass me by coming down. I hear Ola! Cheers! G’Day! Gutte Morgun! It’s clear Torres Del Paine is a global magnet for outdoors enthusiasts. Further, I am struck by how many young couples are backpacking. This is a romantic Mecca!

Some of the woods reminds me of the movie “The Lord of the Rings,” and I can’t help myself.

When I catch up to Angelique, I’m so excited I have trouble containing myself. I say, “WOW, isn’t this fantastic! I’m so in my element, FINALLY! Wow, hiking in Patagonia!” Angelique retorts, “I hate it! I cannot stand it! My feet are blistered because I put on cold boots this morning, and I never thought it would be so long!” With my elation it was hard to understand. But I’m an experienced outdoors enthusiast and Angelique was not in her element. Yet she continued on. I asked, “Who’s up ahead?” “Behrend, Saskia, and Elwin” was the response. So passed all the other people? Wow! They must have paused at the rest stop. So, somehow Behrend passed me going down, and passed me going up but I missed that. How? Either way, that’s impressive!

Angelique: OUCH!

We keep going, and Angelique keeps up a good pace! All along this hike I encounter backpackers going this way and that.

The report on this trail says the end steepens. This is borne out as we are still in the woods, yet the trail’s upward trajectory becomes ever higher. Then the trees disappear and we’re in broad daylight.

The trail winds through a boulder field, and the Torres Del Paine towers begin to come into full view.

Rather than fall victim to the ever steepening burden of the trail, Angelique and I double our efforts. The “trail” begins to fade, and the way to the top is only found by carefully watching red blazes on rocks up above.

Here, we’re truly scrambling. A sign says, “30 minutes” meaning we have to scramble for 30 minutes! Well, at least we know.

That sign means one thing to me! We are NEARING the summit! It stokes my adrenaline, powering me up. Right then, Eghbert suddenly shows up. He’s also on the attack! He’s half my age. I’ve got to give it everything I’ve got to keep my position!

Somewhere along this flight to the finish, I move way ahead and Angelique gets lost amongst the boulders. I d0 not know it, but Angelique has lost her way and has gotten panicked, not knowing which way to go.

When I’m near the summit, I grab my camera and film the end in video mode. So here it is, without any further description. Imagine you are there yourself!

What can I say! No wind! Blue sky! WOW HOLY COW! Nothing could surpass this, could it? The fact that we left at 7:00 a.m. was killer! Clouds rolled in as we descended. We SCORED! It was surely a challenge and worth every single step! We take lots of photos. My other compadres make it to the top. Yaap, Ed, Stephanie, Eray, Ed, Christof, and more.


Everyone savors the view and a bit of calm settles over. But after about half an hour, after we have had a chance to refresh ourselves, it’s time to head back.

Poor Angelique! On the way up she lost her way and practically had a panic attack finding us!

She wasn’t familiar with the markings showing the way. I felt bad that I got so excited I just kept going.

On the way down, I fell victim to the same issue. Before I knew it, I was in “no man’s land,” with no markers and everything unfamiliar. I had to scramble back up and find the trial markers.

Much of the descent, I was with Christof. We made good progress through the forests. At one particular bend in the trail, I glanced to my right, and WOW! I glimpsed a creature so rare, the park rangers want us to report it if we see it. It’s called a Hemuel – an Andes deer!

As Christof, before me, passed, I quietly signaled him to stop! He turned around, and me, without a peep, pointed to my right, and Christof saw the deer! WOW! I can’t believe it. What we are witnessing is one of the rarest creatures in Patagonia.

An endangered Hemuel

And, it has no problem with us. It’s a stout creature, with early season antlers, and losing its winter coat. It totally knew I was watching, but it didn’t mind that I was there.

Another romantic backpacker couple shows up, and I put my index finger to my mouth, signalling “quiet!” and pointed in its direction. Instantly they fell to their knees and watched, slowly bringing their point-and-shoots to capture the scene.

It was priceless!

The hike down was characterized be the day becoming more cloudy, and wind building. I was so thankful Saskia had planned to have us on the trail early. Otherwise, our pictures wouldn’t be as fantastic.

Also, the number of international outdoors addicts built during the day. All during the descent we saw more and more people coming up the trail, signaling how much of a magnet this place is!

I need to mention that about ten of our group gave up and never made the summit. Some actually planned to only hike part of the route. This whole day was a success. On our return, we walked again past the bottom of the plain, and this time we walked through one of the campgrounds at that lie at the base of the trails. These are car campgrounds. I was amazed at the sheer number of campsites. At this early part of the season, I counted less than ten sites occupied. But there are over 100 campsites! If this were December or January, this place would be packed! So we are SO fortunate to be here in early season. We had no idea. I would have to day that November is a great time to be in Patagonia.

At long last we arrive back in our Refugio, where we can get showers. We are to depart today, and tonight we’ll be in El Calafate, another few hours to the north in Patagonia. We are all desperate for the warmth and cleansing of a shower. We find it back in our Refugio. Oh man, it feels FANTASTIC! And we have some time to kill before our transportation shows up.

Eray and I know the best way to spend that time. Which is, to lounge on the grass, with an Austral beer and watching the sun pass over the nearby mountains, right?

At this moment, I don’t know how anything could be improved! We’ve hiked, accomplished, and we are relaxing following an incredible experience.

Well done!

Our drive will take us across the steppe, another lonely highway, and we’ll find ourselves in El Calafate, another magnet town for international outdoor addicts!

We take a minibus across another rickety bridge to a “transfer point,” where we’ll all board bigger buses to take us to El Calafate.

It’s a nice sunny afternoon.

And Angelique’s Dr. Martens, hanging from her bag, stand testimonial to her ordeal today! Check out the dust!

Well, tomorrow is another day. We’ll be face to face with a huge glacier!



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