Torres del Paine national park in Chile was probably the thing I wanted to do the most on our South America leg. The now famous hikes available through the Patagonian wilderness perhaps didn't appeal to Georgina as much (at all!), but there was no way we were going to skip them.
The park itself can be tackled in numerous ways, individual day trips to certain parts and the more famous 'W' and 'O' or 'Circuit' treks. We (well maybe just me) decided to go for the full circuit option, around 112km of Patagonian adventure spread over 7 days carrying all of our own food, clothes and sleeping/cooking equipment, hopefully avoiding the Pumas that live there!
Fortunately for me we had met a Dutch couple in Iguazu that told me they had to abandon the TDP hike because they couldn't get availability at the campsites whilst they were there. I knew that you now had to book all of the campsites due to overcrowding last year but wasn't expecting the end of the season still to be maxed out so after talking to these guys I made booking the campsites my no.1 priority.
This turned out to be the biggest pain in the arse ever - thats all I'm saying on that otherwise I won't stop ranting!
We caught the bus back across the border from Argentina to Puerto Natales in Chile and settled into our 9 bed dorm at the Singing Lamb hostel for a couple of nights before our trek.
Obviously carrying all our own food, we had to be well prepared so we made an itinerary of meals for each day then made a shopping list. After a visit to the well stocked Unimarc in town (and relieving the wallet of £70) we were all set food wise - you would be amazed at how heavy a week's food weighs.
Next on the list was the camping equipment which we hired from 'Erratic Rock' in Puerto Natales. I brought my own stove and we bought cups/bowls locally after a tip off that the cooking gear wasn't up to much (thanks to Ronan and Sophia for all their help) and after much deliberation hired Georgina some walking poles. These were quite pricey and I spotted a cheapo option in a nearby shop so opted to buy just the one to save a few pennies (turning proper Yorkshire I tell thee). It also dawned on me that in just a few years I've gone from snowboarding and downhill mountain biking to effectively rambling with a walking stick - I need to sort myself out!
Backpacks loaded and topping the scales at a respective 18kg and 15kg we caught the 7am bus to the TDP national park (3 hours - £17 each return), paid our entrance fee (£26), watched a video (saying how we'd go to prison if we started a fire) and finally jumped on the most over weight catamaran ever (30 mins - £35 each return) to our first stop of the trek - Pain Grande campsite.
Day 1 - Pain Grande to Camping Frances - 3 hours.
The trail maps show all of the distances between camps in time rather than distance due to the change of elevation along the trail making the kilometres irrelevant. We landed from the ferry about midday and set straight off towards our first nights camp spot. What they don't include on the trail map estimates is the amount of time lost due to taking pictures, which on the first day when you're taking the scenery in for the first time added up to quite a lot. We decided not to include the French Valley in this leg, mainly because I was still suffering with the knee and I didn't want to completely bugger it on Day 1. Georgina was pretty annoyed at this as she loves a good view but I stand by the decision and we arrived at our first camp site after a good 4 hours on the trail - 1 hour behind schedule. Camping Frances was a small camp in the woods where you pitched the tent on raised wooden platforms in the trees (the bathrooms were particularly good at this stop
Day 2 - Camping Frances to Chileno - 7 hours
We set off after a LSM special porridge breakfast at about 9:30 for the long walk to Chileno that should take about 7 hours according to the map. After losing an hour yesterday we were quite surprised to hit the first marker (camping Cuernos) after only 1hr 20mins when the map had it at 2 hours from our camp. We used the made up time to have a rest on the pebble beach and laugh at Georgina's inability to skim a stone - video evidence taken. A few hours later and a few stops along the way we were edging closer to our camp only to be slowed to a snails pace by the 300m gain in elevation up to Chileno - it almost killed us! After what seemed like an eternity we reached the top of the hill to spot the camp in the distance albeit still a good 20 minute walk away. We arrived around 4:30pm, meeting the suggested 7 hour time but with lunch and plenty of stops along the way. Chileno is a similar camp to Frances with the raised platforms in the trees but the one big difference is that you aren't allowed to cook there so have to have dinner at the refugio (£140 to camp and be fed for the night!) Even worse they don't serve dinner until 8:15pm!
Day 3 - Chileno to Torres to Camping Seron - 11 hours
Our biggest day so far! The big draw of the park are the famous Torres del Pain granite peaks that create a spectacular view of the lake beneath them. To make it even more spectacular you get up in the middle of the night with the other lunatics and hike 2.5hrs in the dark to watch the sunrise over them. This almost finished Georgina off!
We were able to leave our big bags at the campsite and climb to the top with just two small bags I fashioned from 2 dry bags, a camera strap and some paracord so we could take some snacks and extra layers. The first hour or so was a nice walk (in the pitch black) but the last hour was truly horrible, a 300m gain in 1km up mainly loose boulders and a stream. To make things worse as soon as we came out of the trees you could really feel the wind and also see the headlamps of the people miles ahead of you - a demotivator if ever there was one. After a huge blast almost blew us both straight off the mountain we eventually made it to the top and waited for the sun to light up the peaks in a glowing orange. It was definitely worth the trouble.
Now we just had to hike the 2.5hrs down, pick up our big bags and hike for another 6 hours to our camp! Let me tell you that I nearly threw in the towel that day, no amount of spectacular scenery could cheer me up. We eventually made it to camping Seron at 5:45pm - over 12 hours since we set off in the morning! The camp was a small field set up which I preferred over the wooden platforms of the previous nights. It was also the first campsite on the 'backside' of the circuit, where its now limited to 80 people on the trail per day - this meant we hadn't seen another hiker for over 4 hours!
Day 4 - Seron to Camping Dickson - 6 hours
After the gruelling day before, we decided to have a lie in of sorts and didn't get back on the trail until 10am.
Day 4's trail was a relatively moderate one with one really big climb at the start of the day but then only a few smaller ones after that. We hit the halfway point bang on 3 hours and decided to continue rather than stop for a break to try and get to Dickson as early as we could. We'd heard that Dickson campsite was the most picturesque stop on the trail and after climbing up to a viewpoint and seeing the camp below surrounded by a huge glacial lake we could see why.
Tempted by a healing dip in the water we quickly made camp and headed through the trees to the lake to soak our feet in the water - I lasted about 10 seconds, it was horrific! (George didn't even try after seeing the torture I'd been through!)
Day 5 - Dickson to Los Perros - 4.5hours
With the camp being surrounded by a lake on one side and huge mountains on the others, we knew it was going to be a tough start to the day. This was supposed to be our 'easy' day in preparation for the big one to follow so we headed out early and were met with a big climb to get our legs warmed up. After this the trail stuck mainly to a woodland walk with a few wooden bridge river crossings along the way, some a bit sketchier than others. The last part of the trail was a big uphill climb passing another glacier to our camp spot at Los Perros (another wood campsite but without the raised platforms).
The park ranger duly informed us that if we wanted to go over the pass and all the way to Grey then we had to set off at 7am in the morning, which meant another start in the dark.
Day 6 - Los Perros to Glacier Grey - 11 hours
The big one.
Today was the day that had been in the back of our minds all along with the trail from Los Perros climbing up over 500m straight out the blocks to go over the John Gardner pass.
The map showed 3 hours of severe climbing and we'd heard stories of severe wind and rain making it hell, some days they even close the pass for safety! Luckily we were still riding a wave of extremely good weather and set off bang on 7am with our head torches lighting the way - nothing but up!
I'm not sure if we were turning into extreme hikers or if it was the lighter weight of our bags after eating most of the food but we managed to reach the top in around 2:45hrs much to our relief.
As you reach the baron top of the mountain you are immediately rewarded with a huge panoramic view of Glacier Grey in the distance. After a few very cold photos in the increasingly strong wind, we headed straight down the other side as quickly as possible aiming for the tree line for some shelter. Personally I found the extremely steep and never ending descent much harder than the climb, mainly because I could use my bargain walking stick to help with my knee problem a lot easier when climbing than descending. By the time we reached Camp Paso in around 5 hours (1 hour up) I was in trouble.
We headed straight through Paso and stopped for lunch on a small hill with an incredible view of the glacier with nothing but sun on our faces.
The final part of the day was a 5 hour (map time) hike to our camp at Glacier Grey where we would meet back up with the 'W' trek. I'm not going to lie, this was torture. My knee was absolutely shot and the constant short steep up and down's just never let up. At one point I had to lie down in the trail to try and stretch it out - Georgina was looking increasingly worried but I think that was more over who would make her porridge in the morning if I had to be airlifted out! In the end, I just ate paracetamol like they were smarties and kept applying an ibuprofen gel we had to keep me going.
Along this stretch of the trail there are now 2 (soon to be 3) wooden suspension bridges over the valleys, good for me but not so good for George who is terrified of heights. As we approached the first bridge, a good 60m in length and around 30m high at its highest point I feared for the worst and thought there was no way she was going to walk across it. After George insisted that I went first I made it quickly across, dropped my bag and expected to have to go back and give her a big pep talk from the other side only to see her already almost half way across! I couldn't believe it!
The second, smaller bridge then proved no problem at all and we struggled on eventually making it to camp in 9hrs 45minutes - something I think we were both really proud of.
Day 7 - Glacier Grey to Paine Grande - 3.5 hours
The Glacier Grey camp site broke the nice quiet camp streak that we had enjoyed on the backside, the place was rammed with newbs (I can say that now that I'm an expert!) in all their extreme hiking gear with all sorts of accessories hanging from carabiners whilst they walked around camp. I did feel quite smug about what we'd achieved as I hobbled among them with duct tape on my blisters!
With the sun still beaming down on us we had all day to complete the short hike back to Paine Grande in order to catch the catamaran at 4pm. It was a bloody good job as the previous 6 days had really taken their toll and instead of the 3.5hrs (according to the map) it took us more like 5 hours! We both couldn't be happier as the tops of the Paine Grande refugio and surrounding tents came into view and we enjoyed a relaxing few hours in the sun waiting for the boat.
We landed back into Puerto Natales around 10pm and headed straight into town to drop our rental gear off (luckily Erratic Rock is open until 11pm so you can drop your gear the same day to save an extra day's hire). We both just about made it up to our 9 bed dorm at the Singing Lamb before we collapsed and got straight into bed absolutely knackered.
I thought last year when I dragged George up a mountain in Norway to wild camp on the edge of a cliff I had pushed her past her limits; well a week hiking 112km with a huge backpack in the Patagonian wild with no problems shows that I've been going far too easy on her... on to the next challenge...