Written by: Hamlin Wade
Three hour flight to Miami. Eight hour flight to Santiago. Three hour flight to Punta Arenas. Three hour bus to Puerto Natales. Two hour bus to Lagunas Amarga.
Get out. Pay entrance fee. Get back on the bus.
One hour bus to Pudeto. 35 minute ferry across Lago Pehoe. Unload your backpack. Breathe.
There are only a handful of places that exist around the world that take this long to reach. And maybe even fewer that are truly worth it. Torres del Paine National Park fits both.
Situated at the bottom of the world, Patagonia has always been one of those places on the map that seemed too daunting to get to, but too magical to avoid.
Patagonia is known for its remoteness. And its weather. I was going down there in the shoulder season, where weather can vary from sunshine and warmth to snow, sleet, rain, hail and frozen temperatures.
There are two main options when visiting Torres del Paine, the W or the O. The O circumnavigates the entire national park, passing behind the Paine Massif, the Torres, the French Valley and past Grey Glacier. The W avoids the backside of the park, but still covers an impressive 55 miles of trails from the edge of the Grey Glacier to the end of the route up to the Torres. It’s one of the most majestic and absolutely stunning routes in the world, and worth every cramped airplane seat, overheated bus and sleepless hour to get there.
Day 1: Grey Glacier
With only 9 days in Chile, we decided to opt for the W Circuit to maximize our views without sprinting through the park. Our trek began by taking the ferry across Lago Pehoe to the Paine Grande basecamp. From there, we trekked up the shore of Grey Lake towards the Grey Glacier. Immediately, Patagonia lived up to the hype. Your first view is of the massive mountains that create their own weather patterns. Clouds hover over them, refusing to budge. The wind howls, whipping constantly, threatening to blow you over or pull out a guy line at a moment’s notice. The hike up the coast zigs and zags across barren wind swept landscapes and continues to rise until you get your first view of the lake, icebergs, and glacier. It smacks you right in the face. The wind, jealous that you’ve forgotten about it, whips back up, knocking you over as you brace against it to snap photos and try to smile against the sand, dirt and debris thrown against you. Paine Grande Refugio welcomes you back in after a wind beaten hike, offering a warm meal for an exorbitant price before you crawl into your tent, and pray that your tied down properly as the wind jolts you awake every five minutes. Get your sleep, because tomorrow is a big day.
Day 2: French Valley
We awoke to the beating of torrential rain against our tent. Drift back off to sleep. Wake up. The wind has picked up, but the rain seems to have halted to a steady drizzle. Time to load up and start moving. Donning rain gear, we trek through a grey and muddy steppe. The wind howled against us as we lowered our heads and pushed forth. It was hard to see the mountains, hard to see much of anything, as rain pelted us in the eyes and the wind braced us into the dirt. After about six miles, we arrived at the Italian Camp. The rain had finally let up, and the sun was struggling against dark clouds to peak through. We dumped one of our packs and started the climb up to the French Valley, a mythical arena of staggering peaks and jagged edges.
Climbing through the trees, we get our first view of the French Glacier. It precariously balances on the edge of the mountain and constantly dances against the rock, moving and crashing down to the valley below. Climbing a few thousand feet, you finally arrive at the British Camp, an overlook perched in the middle of the French amphitheater. By now, the clouds have parted, and we’re left with one of the most amazing views of my life. For 360 degrees, your surrounded by peaks, sheer rock walls, granite monoliths begging to be explored, but kept safe by the storms and the wind. It’s one of those places that takes your breath away.
We reluctantly begin our descent and continue our long 16 mile day towards the Los Cuernos Refugio. It sits on the edge of the Nordenskjold Lake, a glacial fed icy blue body of water that changes colors as the sun hops behind and out from clouds. Our dinner of nuts and peanut butter leaves a bit to be desired, but we crawl into our tent and enjoy a long heavy sleep, protected by the Cuernos mountains from the winds above.
Day 3: Los Torres
Because we were blessed with a small weather window, we decided to get aggressive and attempt to reach the Towers lookout in one push instead of splitting it up over two more moderate hikes. 18 miles across Patagonia, with wind fighting you the entire way, may have been a fool’s errand, but we decided the opportunity to see the Towers in the sunlight was too appealing to pass up. So, we woke early, loaded up, and started our trek up, up, up.
After 7 miles of meandering across the open plateaus of the lower region of the park, we started the vertical slog up towards to Towers. Gaining three thousand feet over 5 miles of rocky, windy trails, the hike to the Towers is not for the faint of heart. After climbing for an eternity you finally emerge at the top of a rocky moraine. For once, you’re knocked over not by the wind, but by the stunning, imaginative view before you. It’s the iconic shot of the park. The three silent sentinels guarding the blue lake. The rocks crashing down from the snowfields above. Waterfalls sliding down the rock faces. It’s the stuff of fairy tales, as if Disney created this landscape as the final test for a knight in search of the damsel in distress.
Every time you look up, you discover something new. A different angle. A different intricacy. It’s enchanting. You can’t look away.
Sadly, we decided it was time to head back towards camp. We still had a long hike out to reach the Torres Refugio camp before dark. 18 miles later, we collapsed into our tent and we almost instantly greeted by a deluge of rain and wind unlike anything we had heard the entire trip. The park had granted us 2.5 days of weather window, and no more. It was fighting back.
Day 4: Homeward
We awoke with little to do on our newly found free day in the park. We crawled out of the ten to a dark cloud and mist covering the towers. They were hidden from view. No grand exposure. No sunlight dancing off of the walls. We’d made the right call. We’d outsmarted the mountains, at least for once.
Finally, it was time to go. We boarded a bus. Then another. Then another. Hopped on a flight to Santiago. Then another to Miami. And 25 hours later, arrived back in DC.
6 flights. 7 buses. One boat. And our two feet got us to the park. But, the memories and the photos will keep a part of us there forever.
This is why I Choose Mountains.