Day 9: Las Torres at sunrise and the story of a crazy horse train
If you ever visit this national park and the weather permits, seeing Las Torres at sunrise is glorious. It’s a moderately steep 45-minute climb up from the campsite, but worth the effort, even through the darkness before dawn. For about 5-minutes, the granite towers glow a rich orange-red that warms your spirit, even when the weather and your bones are cold. It was a moving experience and a wonderful way to end our adventure through the park. However, the day had only just begun.
After spending the morning at the towers, we came back down to camp and packed up our gear quickly, because we wanted to catch the only afternoon bus to Puerto Natales, which was at 2:30pm. The Patagonia winds were strong and fierce that day. To get out of the park, we had to retrace our steps up the pass outside Refugio Chileno and fight against the winds pushing us around this way and that, backpacks and all. The trail was narrow, so we hung on to the walls of the mountain as we crept along slow and sure. We passed by a young fellow, named David, who was sitting it out on the side of the path, apparently hoping the winds would stop long enough for him to safely make it around the upcoming bend. The wind would soon be the least of his concerns.
Matt and I were creeping along at a snail’s pace, when all of a sudden a horse train appeared around another bend a little further in the distance. They were approaching at a galloping speed. The only places we had to escape the train were off the side of the mountain or into a pile of scree. We jumped unsteadily into the scree and did our best to balance ourselves against the wind and the unstable ground below our feet. We peered to our right to watch the horses pass, when, all of a sudden, we noticed David was under the second horse in the 3-steed train. He curled himself up in a fetal position, and rolled from side to side, trying to protect himself from the massive creatures that were now trying to jump over him. The second horse cleared David’s body without a scratch, but the third horse began to panic and slide down the side of the mountain. The horse frantically attempted to save itself from falling as well as jump over the human in its path. In doing so, however, he stomped down on David’s leg, crushing his ankle. The horse jumped to safety, the dust settled, and then David began to yell, “Oh….my ankle!”
While were making our way around the bend, apparently another couple had made their way in line between David and us. This couple appeared to know David from previously so, once the horses had passed, they encouraged him to stand up. He complained that he couldn’t, the pain was too severe. The gauchos (Patagonian cowboys) in charge of the train dismounted their horses and came to survey the damage, though with most apathetic attitudes. All in all, the train was 6-horses strong. However, the gauchos didn’t offer even one to transport David along the rest of the trail. They informed us they would go down to the Refugio Chileno and call down to the hotel in the valley for help and, get this, have another horse come up to carry David down the mountain. They said it would only be 30-minutes. They then proceeded to request that Matt and the gentleman from the other couple, Mark, pick David up and carry him down the path to where it broadens a bit. They didn’t want David to be in the way of other trekkers. They requested for us ladies to carry his backpack. Having concern for David, Matt and Mark picked him up, as they continued to wear their own large packs, and carried him down the path. They shuffled along the narrow gravel path, against the continued assault of the winds. From behind, it looked like another accident waiting to happen.
And then we waited. 30-minutes passed. 45-minutes. 1-hour. During this time, other kind trekkers offered aspirin, first aid advice, scarves/hard materials to make a brace, and many sympathies for our wounded friend. Despite having a crooked ankle, an extreme alteration of his upcoming travel plans, and a wait for help with no end in sight, David remained positive and did not complain. At times, he even joked how he had wanted to learn to ride a horse, but never in this way. The rest of us, however, could not believe how slowly the company (Fantastico Sur) responded to this situation. Thank God the horse didn’t stomp on one of David’s internal organs or his head!
Then, the situation got more ridiculous. After over an hour and half wait, the help arrived. However, as he galloped up, the gaucho informed us we would need us to wait another 25-30 minutes while he went down to the refugio to deliver a package! Matt and I argued with the gaucho, explaining David was in pain and needed medical attention. He said, however, the package was important (I guess more important than poor David!), and if he didn’t deliver it soon, he might get fired. Absurd! Matt and I couldn’t convince him to help David immediately, so he left and we waited.
Thirty more minutes passed. Our unhelpful gaucho returned, only to begin his new conversation with advice that possibly we should wait for a paramedic to come up and handle the situation. He informed us he didn’t know how to stabilize the ankle to make it safe enough to put in a stirrup. By the time this remark was made, all of us were FED UP! Matt rigged up a makeshift brace with the gaucho’s belt and with one of the scarves that had been offered by a stranger, and then had Mark help him lift David up on the horse. After 2-hours, David was finally on his way to help.
So, we missed our afternoon bus and had to wait down at the hotel in the valley until the evening bus came, which doesn’t make its departure until after 7pm. While we waited, we received word that David had, in fact, broken his ankle and was going to the emergency room in town for help. Despite it all, David continued to have a positive attitude.
The story ends somewhat well. David was eventually transferred to Punta Arenas, the closest large-city with higher quality healthcare services. He had to undergo surgery for the placement of 9 titanium nails and was informed he would need 3-months to recover. Fantastico Sur, after having David sign a release of fault document, paid for it all. David decided to make the most of his situation, eventually returning to Santiago to take Spanish lessons while he recuperated.
Day 8: Italiano - Campamento Las Torres
Longest - day - ever. That being said, it was an extremely scenic hike filled with waterfalls, wooded forests, ridges, grassland valleys, and the ever-lurking mini mountain passes. Luckily, there is a well-marked shortcut that makes what could have been 11-hour hike a 7-hour one. As we were running low on our food supply and didn’t much feel like pulling out the stove for lunch, we decided to splurge at Los Cuernos before making the long trek out to Las Torres. It became evident quite quickly that this campsite was no good. Note to all future Torres travelers: This site is, in fact, LAME. Per other trekkers, there were rats on site (in the refugio) and they made people pay a high rate to camp at spaces that were inadequate to say the least. We were also thoroughly disappointed when we found out that the lunch we were so eager to buy was none other than PASTA! After a week of eating pasta we couldn’t help but wonder why a fancy refugio would serve a meal that is so common among campers. Thus, it was another strike in our books against the Los Cuernos site. We were glad we were only passing through.
After about 6 hours, we arrived at Refugio Chileno - another posh refugio with amenities similar to that of Refugio Grey. After a very long hike, we decided to buy some confidence juice (aka box-wine) to help dull our pain and mask our exhaustion. We rested about an hour before completing the last 45-minute uphill trek to Campamento Las Torres. After a little over a week of trekking, we had almost finally arrived at the park’s main attraction.
One week in the wilderness. By this time we were a bit worn out and hungry (our supplies were started to run thin), so we decided to make a day of hiking up and down Valle Frances without our backpacks. After about a 3-hour climb uphill through the valley, you reach Mirador Britanico, which is surrounded by dazzling views of granite towers. The hike uphill also affords you remarkable vistas of the various lakes and mountaintops of the south-central portion of the park. As it was low season, the guardaparques allowed us to stay at Camp Italiano another night. In high season, you would only be allowed a 1-night stay at this locale. We were happy not to have to walk another 2½-hours more to Campamento Los Cuernos, although it would be mean for a very long day 8.
Grey à Campamento Italiano
This hike began as an uphill trek along switchbacks and was a constant push against the robust Patagonia winds. It was also our first exposure to the destruction caused by the forest fire that was started by an Israeli tourist on December 29, 2011. We were fortunate to even be on this hike at all. The park had been closed up until January 4th. It was the second fire caused by tourists within only a 1-year time period, and the third fire in the park within the past 6-years. The blaze, which resulted in a dismal landscape of charred, half-burnt down trees, devastated around 40,000 acres. If only tourists would be more careful. As Smokey the Bear has taught, only YOU can prevent forest fires. Why did this tourist think burning his toilet paper was necessary? Beauty destroyed over such stupidity.
After walking about an hour, we reached a powerfully gusty mirador with a further photo-op of the impressive Glacier Grey below. From there, the sun came out and provided a bright walk to Refugio Pehoé, a place where some trekkers catch a ferry back to civilization. We continued on, however, walking along the pristine turquoise blue Lake Pehoé and enjoyed views of Grande Torres. After passing along the lake, we headed along the relatively easy path towards the free campsite of Camp Italiano, access point to Valle Frances.
Day 4: Perros a Campamento El Paso
The weather couldn’t have been any uglier for the day we had to cross the pass. Or, maybe it could have been. It was a bad sign when we awoke to rain. The dark clouds hovered limitless over the peaks around us and their presence seemed as though it would be permanent. It wasn’t a hard rain, just persistent. My two hiking partners and the rest of our band of Torres Trekker all decided to push through the rain and climb over the pass. This would have been a less challenging experience if we had been equipped with some waterproof pants and also if we had not left our warmer jackets and clothes packed deep into our bags. Matt goofily crossed the mountaintop in only a t-shirt and hard shell outer layer jacket! It was a steep rocky climb to the top of the pass where sleet would assault us even further, frosting our already wet gear. It was exciting to reach the top but simultaneously miserable – it was soooooooooo cold. Luckily, Matt was able to manage to get his fingers to work long enough to snap a picture proving we had survived. Had the weather been decent, we could have seen the very impressive Glacier Grey below. We couldn’t enjoy its splendor, though, because we had to keep moving before hypothermia set in.
The trek down the side of the mountain was a muddy mess. For some reason, the trailblazers didn’t think of switch-backing the path down the hill. I guess they wanted it to be a greater challenge so they just ran the path sharply down the face of the mountain. Although I’d like to think of myself as a graceful person, the path would shame me into believing I was too clumsy to walk upright like a human. I slipped and slid down the side of that mountain so many times I lost count and can now, from experience, say I know what it’s like to be a turtle trying to get up after falling back on its shell.
We finally made it down to a level path, the weather cleared, and the sun came out to warm our bones. Then, before we reached the simple (and free) El Paso campsite, we found a mirador that finally allowed us an up-close and personal view of the striking ice fields and face of Glacier Grey. The glacier, 28km long 6km wide and 30m high, is the southern tip of the Patagonian ice fields that stretches into the valley for over 350km. Due to their incredible size, the ice fields can seen from space, although, the view from the mirador was much better.
Day 3: Dickson a Campamento Los Perros
This was a cool grey day with drizzle here and there, but the forest trails were pretty flat and we had our first glimpses of striking glaciers. After about 4½-hours, we arrived at the more rustic Los Perros campsite. It had some freezing cold showers and Matt traded some of our dried food snacks for hot out-of-the-oven dinner rolls that the cap guard had baked. Then, Matt left with our trekking friend Catilyn to explore the surrounding glacier and lake. He returned with a water bottle full of calafate and other edible berries. These made our morning oatmeal just a little more delicious! Because of the rainy weather in this area, the campsite overseer had built a nice fire inside the refugio area. A pretty relaxing spot in the thick wooded and damp forest.
Day 2: Seron a Campamento Dickson
This was another relatively easy trek, with great weather, mainly crossing through brush and grasslands, but it was a very long 6 hours to the final destination. The last haul was a somewhat steep uphill climb, but the view at the top of the gorgeous campsite below, on Lago Dickson, was a most welcoming sight to see. This campsite was a trekker’s paradise, with a great dinner menu offered by the refugio (we were well stocked on our own food so we didn’t eat indoors, but it looked delicious), a well-supplied store, happy hour prices on beer, and, again, hot showers! Although Camp Dickson was pretty and well equipped, the mosquito situation at this site left me eaten alive. I didn’t know mosquitos would eat one’s face off, but these big ugly buggers were merciless!
Day 1: Laguna Amarga a Campamento Seron
In the early morning of the first day, trekkers take about a 1½ -hour bus ride from Puerto Natales to the park. All companies cost about the same (CP$12000) and offer the same level of comfort, so go with whatever is recommended by your hotel/hostel/host family. Upon entry, you arrive at the guardaparques (park rangers) headquarters located at Laguna Amarga, where you have to pay a nominal park entry fee. From there, you have your first official view of the towers. Also, from there, you can take a paid shuttle to the head of the official “O” trail or, do like we did, and decide to walk the 7km. Luckily, halfway through the walk, some carabineros (police) gave us a lift. Once you arrive at the trailhead, it’s about a 4½ -hour hike to the first campsite, Seron. This first section of the “O” trail was through relatively easy terrain that changed from flat grasslands to forested mountains. Seron is a paid camping site, but did offer hot showers!
This is a tiny, seaside town with a notable amount of businesses and shops dedicated to tourists going to Torres del Paine National Park. One reputable and well known business, Erratic Rock, offers daily briefings that cover current conditions and hiking in Las Torres. Besides being the gateway to the national park and several caves, the city itself offers few other tourist attractions. However, we did meet a family via www.couchsurfing.org, who made our stay warm and welcoming. Generally rough exterior of the structures holds a warm and intimate family setting inside. Every night, all the visiting travelers (up to 15 at once!) ate a home-cooked meal with the family and exchanged stories of culture and adventure. We arrived in the evening and made a fast dash to the only large grocery market, where we stocked up on essentials for the 8-10 day hike. We packed mostly pasta, several hard salamis, garlic, onion, red pomodoro sauce in a bag, a couple kilos of dried fruit and nuts. Food at an inflated price is available at some of the refuges, but as we later confirmed, it was often sweet snacks if anything at all. After our long hike through the park, we returned to stay with the same family a couple of days before heading down to Tierra del Fuego.
Cruisin’ to Patagonia
Navimag Ferries is a great way to travel between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales, the town just outside Torres del Paine National Park. This trip allows you to bypass a long bus ride and two border crossings via an adventure at sea. It’s a cargo ship that also transports passengers, so it’s not really a cruise, but almost. The accommodations were comfortable, the food was pretty tasty, the staff was friendly, and the boat’s MC provided hours of entertainment with his spunky attitude and educational lectures regarding glaciers, Patagonia, and the fauna of Antarctica. Also, unlike a cruise, the captain allowed passengers a free walkthrough of the bridge.
Matt did his thang on the internet, researching diligently, until he found us a great deal through www.mercandolibre.cl and www.groupon.cl. This gave us access to a room with a view. Otherwise, the prices for the bunk beds are reasonably affordable (considering the time/board/food) and the ride is definitely worth the money, especially if you are fortunate enough to have decent weather. Overall, it was a fantastic voyage. The captain sailed us through various canals, gulfs, channels, and straights, which exposed us to spectacular views of Chile’s fjords. We came up close to the face of South America’s largest glacier, Pío XI at snset and ejoyed great views and clear skies. The following day we sailed by the Capitán Leonidas shipwreck located in Canal Messier. We were also fortunate to catch sightings of a great variety of flora and fauna (e.g. lengua and cypress trees, humpback whales, dolphins, penguins, sea lions, etc.).
Finally, one of the best parts of the Navimag trip was meeting interesting travelers from all over the world, like Holland, England, Germany, Chile, the Basque, and Turkey, to name a few. Your days are spent lounging on the upper decks, conversing with fellow travelers and soaking in the sights. We were fortunate to enjoy the journey with two great roommates, a couple from Ireland. Everyone was so friendly, that it made the final night playing BINGO and dancing to Reggaeton music a night to remember. Overall, Navimag is highly recommended!