Sunday, March 03, 2013

Patagonia: Trekking the W - Torres Del Paine



Torres Del Paine... I knew squat about this place. In fact I didn't even know it existed. Before I go on to describe Torres Del Paine in all its glory let me explain how to I got my ass there.
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Punta Arenas, Chile. That's where you want to go to start your journey to Torres Del Paine. Land wise that's the last major city on the American Continent. From afar you can see a huge island: Tierra Del Fuego. There ain't squat to do there but be amazed at the coordinates you're at. Given that my flight from SFO to Punta Arenas was insanely long I ended up spending only one night at Santiago, Chile. I'd eventually come back to explore Santiago again, but I didn't know that then.



The flight from Santiago is about 4 hours, I highly recommend getting a window seat. Fortunately I had one. The very moment we started cruising over Patagonia I became dumbstruck. I'm confident I must've been one of the only passengers feeling the way I was. My heart starting beating faster at just the views we were getting by flying over huge mountains, glaciers and respective glacier rivers. I simply could not contain my excitement. The excitement came over me as in knew soon enough I'd see some of these magnificent natural marvels up close. I'd touch glaciers if I wanted... and I did. I was getting a preview of the size and magnificence of Patagonia, and despite all I read about its treacherous weather, while on the plane the skies were clear!


When we landed I was out of breath and my eyes completely wide open. I looked around to see if I saw anyone as ecstatic as I was. Fuck no. "Bunch of nature-unappreciative-fuckers" I thought. "How could they not be as excited!?" WTF!?!?! I immediately bombarded my Instagram with the best of the pictures I took to share my enthusiasm. If you look at the captions you'd see exactly how excited I was.


It felt I just had good sex. After the wild sex I took a shuttle from the airport straight to Puerto Natales, a few hours ride. I finally met my friend as planned and we crashed at the Hostel Erratic Rock at Puerto Natales one night and in the morning hit the road on a bus to begin the trekking of The W trek at Torres Del Paine. Erratic Rock Hostel is the Hostel to crash at if you're a rock climber or if you're doing any sort of crazy expedition out to Torres Del Paine. Puerto Natales is a small town, and there aren't any signs of rock climbing life except at the Erratic Rock hostel. I went on a hunt looking for topos and books on rock climbing but I hit only dead ends. Trekking info, sure! Climbing... That's a bit trickier, in fact its worse than that. Erratic Rock holds the only sort of topo guides and beta about Torres Del Paine. They are also home to a few regular professional rock climbers who have dedicated their lives on establishing the history and advancing the sport there. It's no fucking joke, but for a few reasons I'll dare explain below Torres Del Paine is not as huge a climbing meca as Fitz Roy is.


After finally giving in and asking at Erratic Rock about topos and books, they brought out the holy grail of rock climbing beta / topos / history. A pile of about 4 large collection of hand written guides, topos, and a lot of articles cut from news papers and magazines about the climbing scene at Torres Del Paine. I was allowed to take stuff and go get photocopies provided I left some collateral, and I think it helped I crashed there one night. I intended then on making photocopies... but of what!?! There was so much material I needed at least a full day to review the content. It seems that the approach most folks take, I was told, is visit the Hostel, bake out a plan, photocopy the required data and venture out. The Hostel obviously benefits from the lack of information online by leaving interested climbers to rely on the series of established local rock climbers that can guide you through that Erratic Rock has a relationship with... so yeah. That's one reason this place is not as attractive for rock climbers to begin with. Another reason is the weather. Although the weather sucks around Fitz Roy area, given that Torres Del Paine is farther south the opportunities for climbing likely are a bit more demanding there. From what I experienced, the winds at Torres Del Paine were by far the worst in all of Patagonia. Then, how do you warm up and stay in shape? Living below the Torres and through Refugio food or at the camp sites isn't exactly ideal conditions. As soon as I was about to pick up and go photocopy some random Torres Del Paine topos to share with you all Steve Schnieder stopped by, introduced himself, and I got the privilege to pick his brain about a bunch of rock local climbing inquiries. Turns out there are local crags you can go practice on but everything is on private property. Steve mentioned that back in the day he'd just ask to see if he could get keys to the gates to explore some crags and the owners would allow for it. Seems that this tradition continues and you simply gotta know someone to do local crags. That or of course through Erratic Rock guides. I was told by Mauricio, an employee at Erratic Rock, that there is an effort, which to me didn't sound very serious, to get a book out with all the material collected. I don't doubt the intent, however I wouldn't hold my breathe for it. For all these reasons rock climbing at Torres Del Paine does not seem like an ideal candidate place to rock climb unless you are extremely seasoned and know exactly what you want.


Trekking. The W Trek at Torres Del Paine is known as the W given the shape of the trek on the ground. Check out Stephanie Garlow's blog post on how to hike the W for a good set of details, the map above comes from her blog. For trekking the W you cross through three different valleys for a total of about 75 km and the amount of time it takes for you traverse will vary, 3-6 days. There is a longer trek, the circuit that apart from the W, it circles back around. All paths on the W are rated moderate. There's only one crossing on the Circuit rated difficult and its through Glacier Grey, up above. I didn't know what to expect, I didn't know what I'd see and when. The trek seems long specially considering you're carrying a big bag for quite a bit of it. You don't have to carry your bag everywhere though, you can leave it behind at campsites and then you venture out to the local valley attraction with only what you need for that small stretch. I didn't have a day back pack myself so I ended up emptying my big bag and stuffing it with my needs for each day exploration and taking that lighter load. What makes the W easy is the bundle of Refugios on it, the very well defined paths for the trek and the amount of people doing it. Its safe. Contrary to Yosemite there are also no many large animals you have to worry about, no bears at all! In fact I can count on my both hands the number of animals and even insects I saw on my entire Torres Del Paine journey. I kid you fucking not. This includes birds. Refugios consist of both campsites and cabins you can rent. The demand for both is high but cabins are in really high demand. Even if the campsites are full once you make it to a campsite they can't turn you away. You'll just need to accept that at times you'll sleep at big slants and with a rocky bottom. Book at least your first campsite online, hopefully a week or two in advance. Even if you reserved a campsite if you show up late, which can happen, you'll end up with a crappy campsite. Try to show up early to your campsites so your back won't hate you in the morning. Refugios also sell food and really bad powered coffee. The food isn't great but you'll get by. They also have booze. Beer and wine. They also sell "Boxed Lunch", these are to-go bags with a big ass sandwich, a fruit, a trail mix bar, and a bottle of water (why, not sure, and if you figure out why the water comes from outside of Chile you get brownie points). Its a lot of food and at times me and my friend shared one bag. You'll want to eat the kitchen food upon arrival at a new Refugio, the trek between one Refugio and the next seemed to me the most challenging given you have to carry all your belongings. You save yourself a lot of weight by using the Refugios to buy food upon arrival and some lunch for your day exploration. The bars you bring should help you get by the rest.



At the east of The W you end up at Torres Del Paine. At the top in front of a lake I think you end at around 2500 meters high and the recommended journey to Las Torres is before sunrise. We got our asses on the path from the campsite to the towers by 4:30am. This will be the biggest climb you'll do in the park. You'll need your lamp light, a good amount of water, and your warmest clothing. Some folks recommended to bring even your sleeping bag while you wait for the sunrise up above, but for us that day it was unnecessary. It was cold and very windy but manageable. It was the only place I found my bubble jacket useful for. They say it seems as if the towers get on fire when the sun hits them. Its a nice analogy. At the top I was a kid again, running around from one spot to another, scrambling from one rock to another, trading between getting views of the sunrise coming out through the mountains or watching the sun pour itself down the towers. I could not stop smiling for a very long time. Even as we started our eventual descent I had a grin on my face that didn't wipe off for a very long time. I was not dead, but I was in heaven...


Setting up a camping tent at Patagonia requires thinking about aerodynamics. I shit you not. The wind is so strong that even the way that the camp site is set will affect the survival of the tent on the ground. You need to ensure you put the lower part of the tent facing the wind. This typically should mean the door faces the direction out where the wind is blowing. Not doing so, not using rocks to further put weight down, or making silly mistakes while setting up the cables can mean your tent and belongings will fly away. We learned our lesson at the second Refugio, Los Cuernos. Fortunately we got the hang of it at the third and last camp site.
One Refugio was closed while we trekked, Refugio Italiano. That made trekking more difficult for the paths crossing that area for both the day exploration of the French valley and the eventual traversal to the next Refugio the next day, Refugio Paine Grande.




The last trek towards Glacier Grey takes you by surprise. This would be the first time I see large glaciers. The trek was also pretty long and only on that last stretch did I start paying very close attention to every tree in my way and the color of vegetation. I realized then how difficult it was for anything to grow here but also started appreciating when I did see any form of life taking form. As I noted before there wasn't much of animals or even insects that I saw but every now and then I did see nature having at it, at what seemed to be nature's way of having an orgy.



At the end we took a boat back and while I thought the trip was done I was surprised by more astonishing views. It seems the boat ride alone is used by folks who due to time constraints cannot do the W. One day Torres Del Paine excursions seems popular among Argentineans. What a way to end that trek. We'd rest one day and then journey out to Califate where we'd each part ways towards our own ventures.
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