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Torres del PAINe

I now write to you with sore legs, back, and shoulders after a week of backpacking the extreme Patagonian mountain range in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.

Absolutely the coolest thing I have ever done, our 5 day journey left us wanting to come back one day and do it all again. We rented gear from the nearby town called Puerto Natales (tent, down sleeping bag, sleeping mat, trekking poles, camp stove set-up). The entire rental extravaganza cost about $70 USD, which was cheaper than one night in the Refugios stationed at each campsite along the trek.

We also brought in all of our food, which included lots of canned tuna, protein bars, and rice. Other travelers who came straight to the trek brought Backpacker Pantry meals from home, which would have lightened our packs significantly. We also carried an extra set of warm clothes in a dry bag in case our day outfits got soaked through from rain or snow. Overall, this made for a pretty heavy pack. I would guess between 25 and 30 pounds.

The W-trek that we completed is a common backpacking route visited by thousands of tourists every year from all over the world. We befriended Germans, Canadians, and some British hikers on the trial. It is common to see the same people on the paths and at night in the campsite areas and I am not one to shy away from an introduction!

Here is a map image of the trek, the shape of which gives it the W name.

We chose to do the trek in early October for scheduling reasons (most of us are headed home in a month and want to get going north). To give some context, here is a map that situates us at the very bottom of the South American continent:

Anywho, October is the very start of the season for the W-trek. The main tourist season is later into the summer months (December-February), when weather is warmer. Because of the time of year and the notoriously finicky weather of the region, our greatest obstacle on our trek was the shifting and unpredictable weather.

Every day brought a bit of drizzling rain, but nothing that soaks you to your core that many blogs warned about. For this, we were very thankful.

We were not very thankful for the wind, though. 100-115 km/h winds flung us around like rag dolls on the trails. On our first day hiking up the valley Grey (#1->#2 on the W-trek map), we were completely going up wind. A hike that was supposed to take 4 hours took us 5, and we were all absolutely pooped. You would pick a foot up to take a step and the wind would blow it two feet to the right without your permission.

If nothing else, the violent winds reminded me that in the face of mother nature, I am nothing but a fumbling sack of skin. The first day realigned my status in this extreme part of the world, which set the tone for the rest of the trek. Thankfully, when we travelled back toward Paine Grande for our second night of camping, the wind was at our backs. This meant our trek back took about 3.5 hours, a much more manageable hike with our heavy bags.

Each of the four of us fell at least twice due to the wind. Chicago's got nothing on this place, man.

Here's some pictures from our first two days on the trek, starting with a very bumpy catamaran ride into Paine Grande.

The next morning we had to decide whether to get up at 4 am to pack up the tents and head to the famous Britanico viewpoint before the weather turned ugly around 10 am, or sleep longer because the weather would block the view from there anyway. We ended up doing a bit of a compromise, getting up at 5 and setting out at 6:30 am after packing up and eating breakfast. At this point we didn't have much hope to see the famous Cuernos del Paine up close (the mountains on the right in the first picture of the slideshow above).

Our laziness paid off, and we got to hike during the most breathtaking sunrise of my life. The pink clouds enshrined the Cuernos del Paine and the Paine Grande mountain, reflected off beautiful glaciar-blue lakes.

This hike ended with a boardwalk through a valley of dead trees, remnants of a devastating 3 month fire started by tourists in the park in 2011. Definitely an eery morning stroll.

This sunrise hike was taken along the Lago Skottsberg trail, a less travelled trail between Paine Grande and Italiano (#1 and #3 on the map). A few local guides suggested we take this route, and it was definitely my favorite part of the trek.

We were not able to hike up to the Britanico viewpoint because it was closed. A few of our friends on the trek hiked up earlier and were not able to see the mountain tops from the viewpoint, so we didn't miss out on much.

We were able to see the Glaciar Frances from the Frances viewpoint, which was super cool.

(It's that icy-blue part of the mountain just up and to the right of us)

We camped at Frances, and left from there around 7:45 the next morning to start the longest day of hiking with our packs on, expecting just over 6 hours of hiking (from #5 to #7, we skipped #6).

This hike was another top contender for my favorite. We hiked along glacier-blue lakes with snow-capped mountains behind us. The sun shown consistently for the first time on our trek, and the birds sang to us. It was magical.

We ended hiking through the final valley, a 2 hour uphill slog. We made it to the Chile o campground, though. Right in time for the rain/snow to start.

Little did we know, we would wake up in a winter wonderland. We awoke at 4 am to attempt a hike up to the Torres del Paine, the parks namesake attraction. They are 3 granite towers that stand against wind and water erosion, a popular sunrise spot. We awoke to at least a foot of snow. We attempted to hike to the top anyway, but ended up turning around at the peak for fear of blizzard conditions in the dark morning.

Once again, we had friends who went all the way to the end of the trail and they were not able to see the towers.

The hike itself was incredible in the snow. I have never hiked through snow like that. It was bright white reflections everywhere, and lots of sloppy snow to slide down.

After the morning hike, we warmed up in the Refugio and headed down the mountain. It was cool to hike out of the snowy mountain top into the green valley at the bottom.

We caught an early bus to El Chaltén, Argentina the next day. We are resting today, and plan to do the Tres Lagos hike to see the Fitz Roy granite-topped mountain in this part of Patagonia. Weather looks good for our hike later this weekend, but we will be ready for anything!

All my love,

Lauren Kinsey Kuhlman


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