Dec, 2015: Torres del Paine is one of Patagonia’s, if not South America’s most iconic national parks. It’s made famous by it’s sheer rocky towers which glow bright red in the sunny dawn or a cold blue in the evening. You can walk around the park a number of ways but due to a lack of gear we chose to walk ~80-90km west to east along the ‘W’ section named such for the way the trail goes back and forth through the mountain in the shape of a ‘W’.
Day 1 and 2: Lake Pekoe to Glacier Grey
Our trek started off well with 2 days of relatively good weather that would see us hike 27 – 28km km from the beautiful blue Lake Pekoe up to Glacier Grey and back again. I say ‘relatively’ good weather as our first afternoon’s trek down into Camp Grey saw us go from semi clear skies to gale force winds, rain, hale, sleet and a touch of snow in the space of 45 mins. A well earned Snickers gave us sufficient energy to trudge down off the pass we had climbed but came at the expense of ridiculously cold hands which only thawed out once the sun had come back out. The hike to Camp and Glacier Grey were well worth it though with our first camp site nestled in a wooded valley surrounded by snow capped peaks and a nearby lookout providing epic views back onto the glacier.
Day 3: Lake Pekoe to Los Cuernos
Day 3 saw the weather worsen. We saw little of the epic views except for the early morning where breaks in the stormy clouds provided dramatic shots of sun drenched mountains backed by black clouds. As we hiked past glittering lakes gusts of wind blew so hard they literally blew the top off the water to create mini water spouts. The rest of the day saw us hike ~22km up the French Valley and then back down and onwards to the Las Cuenos campsite. The French valley is supposed to be one of the most beautiful parts of the trek but we hiked in almost constant snow and wind. At Las Cuernos we were very happy to enjoy a hearty if not slightly random Christmas Eve feast.
Day 4: Christmas Day at El Chileno
Day 4 we had a lazy start but then set out for the 17km hike to El Chileno campsite from where we would try for a dawn summit to Las Torres. Alas, the first half of the day was in rain and wind with the second half being in solid, driving snow. Given the awesome weather we set a cracking pace and despite being completely exhausted, covered in snow and freezing cold we were very happy to arrive at Chileno around 2pm on Christmas Day. We spent the rest of the day hanging out in the camp refuge (cabin) trying to dry our soaked gear and warm our frozen toes with 50 other exhausted campers. Despite the damp, we still enjoyed our Christmas afternoon in the company of our fellow campers and feasting on boiled eggs and tuna, pasta and packet soup sauce. With everyone’s wet gear hanging from the rafters, people huddled around the one wood stove in the corner of the room and the driving snow outside we felt a bit like refugees.
After polishing off our Christmas day feast we set about enjoying a few casks of wine warmed over our camp stove when a couple stumbled in from the cold around 7pm. No one really paid any attention until the woman collapsed on the floor. Someone immediately had her head in his lap, talking to her and everything seemed semi under control until her eyes fluttered and rolled in the back of her head. Before we knew it her lips were blue and it was apparent that she wasn’t breathing nor did she have a pulse. You always hope in that situation you will be the one who leaps into action and takes control but for a sickening few seconds (which felt like a lifetime) the whole room stood stunned. No one, including her partner really knew what to do. Most of us just stood there in shock. Gradually people came to and started calling for a doctor or someone who knew CPR. More seconds passed before a scrawny young Israeli dude jumped in and started CPR while others went to try and find a doctor.
Thankfully after a few minutes she coughed and came to. The whole room shuffled around in palpable relief as a Chinese doctor who had been found among the campers arrived along with a stretcher. After she was taken away the room slowly returned to normal however Fi and I both felt more than a little shaken and definitely sobered by the realisation of just how dangerous the conditions had become. We had planned to get up at 3am in the morning to hike to the towers but after what we had just witnessed I wasn’t feeling so sure and decided that if it were still snowing at 3am there was no way we would go. Around 9pm we retired to bed and despite the night’s drama we couldn’t help but soak up the beauty of the snow laden trees as we walked back to our camp.
Sleep wasn’t great on Christmas night due to our wet and cold tent and the constant hammering of snow on our roof. Gradually the snow would build up on the already laden trees until without warning, it would come crashing into our fly. At 3am I got up to even heavier snow and felt slightly relieved by not needing to go out and attempt the summit. When we awoke again at 7am Fi was still keen to try but after some investigation we heard that the path above had actually been closed due to the snow and weather. We waited a couple more hours before descending and by early afternoon we were back down Le Torre Central hotel where a shuttle took us back to Puerto Natales.
While our trek to Torres del Paine didn’t quite work out the way we had planned we still saw some epic scenery. We also experienced the raw power of nature not to mention having one of our more memorable Christmas days. Needless to say we were very glad to get back to Puerto Natales for a hot shower and a few beers.