Trip Report - Trekking in Patagonia

Torres del Paine (Matt Pritchard) More photos below.

By Jody Pritchard

The Critter Campground (Campamento Italiano) Night 4

During the trail lore of the night before, we had heard about a guy who, while camping at Italiano, had stored some food in his tent and woke up to a mouse on his chest in the middle of the night. Determined not to make the same mistake, we hung our food up in the infamous duffle bag and battled the clouds of airbourne bugs by constantly waving our hands in front of our faces. This campground was alive in every corner. Even the decomposing log we set our tent next to seemed to be crawling with spiders and ants. Our art of jumping into the tent without allowing the bugs in that we developed at Henry Coe State Park came in handy at this place.

Campamento Italiano was also the most abused campground I've ever seen. There were no pit toilets available and behind every tree and next to every rock were wads of toilet paper people had not bothered to pack out. This was especially disturbing to see at the river's edge on my way to pump water. Just how many backcountry zero impact rules can you break at once? Although most people in the park drank directly from the rivers, lakes, and streams, this sight confirmed that we would continue to filter our water for the duration of the trip.

That night we met up with a German couple from Thanksgiving who had hiked up the French Valley and they strongly encouraged us to take the time to see the incredible view. We decided to get up early and day hike up the middle section of the 'W' and were treated to a clear, sunny morning with incredible views to the snow capped mountains and the 'backsides' of the Torres and Cuernos. The sun was melting portions of the hanging glaciers on and near Principal and little avalanches thundered down the valley. Matt and I played the 'who can find the avalanche' game whenever we heard the tremendous booming in the distance. We were able to get some snap shots of these that you can check out below.

By now, Matt's other knee had checked out and we found ourselves with 1 good knee between the 2 of us. We headed back to camp, and while packing up our stuff, we ran into Rob and his Aussie buddy (whose name I couldn't pronounce then, and can't pronounce now.) We gave the same raving reviews of the day hike the German couple gave us and headed out on a warm afternoon towards the windswept rocky icons of the park - the Cuernos.

The Postcard Campground (Campamento Los Cuernos) Nights 5 & 6

Although the weather was the best we experienced while in Patagonia, the short hike between these two campgrounds took its toll on both our knees with tough climbs and descents through the ravines. The going was rocky as we traced our way along the lake's edge, pushing our way towards the green tin roof of the refugio shining in the distance. We were both exhausted and I took a clumsy step and tumbled forward. The weight of my pack slammed my hurt knee into the rocks. This was the first time I've ever truly fallen while backpacking and my mind gushed with the panicked "what if" game. Relieved to find that my biggest trouble was the turtle like position I had rolled into, I cried for Matt to help me release my hip belt. Memories of our '99 spring break getaway to Mexico and Kerry and Ted telling me that I look like a turtle when I drive, popped into my head. For the next several days, I was reminded of this fall each time I knelt down in the tent by a nasty turtle-like green and blue bruise.

By the time we reached the refugio, Matt and I were ready for a serious break. We decided to take advantage of the excellent site we were able to score and stay an extra day. While resting at the picnic table next to the tent (truly roughing it here…) we were treated to our first sighting of condors swirling around the 3 rocky Cuernos or 'horns' above us. Even from our vantage point, their wing span was enormous. And for another first, Matt finally decided to get in on the refugio shower thing. To celebrate (ok we didn't celebrate that - well maybe I did) we had dinner 'out' at the newly constructed refugio and enjoyed dinner on a tablecloth with real napkins.

After dinner, we walked to the lake's edge, hoping to catch a sunset. With only gray skies on the horizon, we gave up and hiked back to camp. Just before hopping into the tent, the sky began to turn incredible colors, and Matt grabbed his camera and bounded down to the lake before I knew what happened. While the sun was setting on the distant mountains, the moon was rising above the Cuernos creating one jaw-dropping Patagonian sky.

The Crowded Campground (Campamento Chileno) Night 7

Although we had half intentions of hiking out of the park this day, we were graced with a fortuitous wrong turn and found ourselves staring down at Hosteria Torres and up towards Campamento Chileno. Having already completed a good portion of the necessary climbing, we decided to carry out our mission and finish the last leg of the 'W' in what would be a solid 8 days.

The trail into the Ascencio River Valley and gateway to the base of the park's namesake granite Torres clung to the side of the hill and provided views that reminded me of the High Sierra in springtime. The refugio rested next to the river and looked like a frontier outpost complete with waving flag and pack horses. The adjacent campground was a postage stamp piece of land and a parking lot of tents. We found a corner to call our own and prepared an early dinner. We had big plans for the morning.

With a 3:30 AM wakeup call, Matt and I were on the forested trail a short half hour later with headlamps… Our goal: to reach the base of the Torres by sunrise. Although it was dark, we could see the starry sky was clear and hiked onward with the Southern Cross at our backs. Our excitement began to build as dawn approached and we knew that today, our last day in the park, the weather was finally on our side.

Eventually we reached a clearing and stared in awe at the giant boulder field in our path up to the base of the 3 granite peaks. Matt and I set our knee pains aside, and began a race with the sun as we clambered up the rocks, picking our way uphill as fast as we could. When we were about half way up, light began to paint the Torres red and we tried to move even faster until we stood breathless at the sight in front of us.

That morning, we were the first people to reach the base and see the sunrise. If only all wrong turns ended in such a spectacular show! This truly was an incredible moment and will live in our memories as one of the most amazing sights we've seen. As our American friend Rob described the hike when we met him again on the trail, "I've seen national parks on 4 different continents, but this one, this one takes the cake."

Headed Out

While in this park we met a lot of travelers who were backpacking, but not many backpackers who were traveling. Spending 8 days on the trail without rushing through to the 'next thing' or the 'next place' afforded us an opportunity to really feel and experience Torres del Paine in all her different moods... something I can only wish anyone who visits this park, or any national park for that matter, can have the chance to experience. Just don't feel like you need to injure your knees ahead of time as an excuse to move slowly. Simply enjoying the time outside is reason enough.

The morning's high carried us back to camp to grab our things and down the hill to catch a bus out. On the bus ride back to town, we were able to snap some photos of guanacos grazing at the side of the road (a llama relative - or at least they look like it) and a panoramic shot into the park… not bad from a moving bus on a rocky dirt road eh! Looking at it, it's hard to believe we walked around all those peaks!

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