Hiking to Las Torres

Our trip to Torre del Paine started with a bus ride from Ushuaia. We left at 8 in the morning and were supposed to be in Puerto Natales at 1 am the next day after 15 hours. The transfer included the border crossing to Chile, the passage of the Magellan Strait and the switch of the bus in Punta Arenas. At the beginning the bus ride felt more like an expedition, as we crossed the snow covered mountains north of Ushuaia on a narrow dirt road. After that we reached the flat and treeless Patagonian steppe and soon the bus followed the then paved road along the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. The Chilenean border came sooner than we had expected. In just a couple of minutes Natalie and I had to eat up all our oranges and apples, as the import of almost every fresh food was stricktly forbidden. It struck us when we were queuing up for the immigration that there was still half a salami in our luggage, when two very seriously looking custom officers and a motivated tail waving sniffer dog started to check the luggage in the bus compartment. Somehow we got away with it and we held freshly stamped passports in our still fruit juice sticky hands.


The next stop was when the road suddenly ended and blue water appeared ahead of us, the Magellan Strait. It turned out quickly that we were stuck there for a while. Strong winds on the strait forced the ferry company to shut down their service temporarly. At the beginning we still hoped just for 2 or 3 hours, at the end it was 6 hours before we were shipped across through the still rough Magellan Strait. The bus company informed us however that we would not get our connecting bus, we would not be in Puerto Natales at night and we would not be able to start our planned 5 days hike at Torre del Paine the next morning for which we had booked huts already. Furthermore we were stranded at 1 am in Punta Arenas, we had obviously no booking for the night and the earliest bus to Puerto Natales would leave at 7 am in the morning which would allow us to be in the park earliest at 5:30 pm in the afternoon.


Somehow the luck came back to us and we found a place to sleep for a few hours. The place was actully booked out, but the lady there was nice and shared the only left room, in which she was actually already sleeping herself, with us. A Dutch girl we had met in Ushuaia before, also came along and we shared the room between us four. The next morning everything went well and we got the last seats on the early bus at 7 am. We reached our hostel before lunch. Our hosts were just great and helped us immediately to find a solution for our bus and ferry transfer to the right place in the park. In just 3 hours we got ready and left with the last bus for the park. The weather was pretty, blue sky dotted with fast moving clouds and sunshine when we reached the park. The scenery was already stunning. The ice covered Torre del Paine mountain massiv sat majestic in an open almost endless areal. Turquoise litte rivers and lakes were as far as we could see.


We took the last catamaran to cross one of the big lakes as we had to start our trek at the other end. The little half an hour cruise was our first adventure. The wind was incredibly strong and the waves high enough to let the catamaran jump. When we got to the other side it was already 6:30 pm and we started immediately to walk towards the first refugio (hut) which was still 4 hours hiking away. Not a nice prospect considering we had very little sleep and an exhausting bus journey from Ushuaia behind us. The way ascented moderately through a small valley but we had to walk against very strong winds, which was quite challenging. We passed a few exposed sections where we were almost blown away even with the heavy backpacks. Patagonia at its best!


Half way to our hut we saw the Higgins Glaciar for the first time. It was situated at the end of lake Grey, which was to our left as we were hiking along. Little icebergs were here and there on the lake, leaving kind of a trace leading us to Refugio Grey. When we sat our feet through the door it was 10 pm and we were incredibly happy that after all the trouble, in the end we had succesfully started our long awaited hike at the Torre del Paine National Park and still had made it to our booked hut. Even better Refugio Grey was a treat. It was built only a few years ago and everything was new, smartly designed and somehow perfect to recover from a strenous hike. The best was undoubtfully the warm and cosy dining room. Fitted with old English style furniture, old leather sofas, wooden walls and two iron ovens at both ends, we both loved that place instantly. It even had a Christmas tree.


The next day we took it easy as we only had to hike down to our next refugio, Paine Grande, which was actually where we the catamaran had dropped us off the day before. We used our free time to first hike up 2 more hours to catch a better view of the glaciar. On our way there, we passed through a hundred of years old semi arctic forest of bend and fallen trees. Those trees were mostly burned in most of the lower area, when a park visitor accidently caused a massive fire in 2010, as he tried to make a campfire. So it was nice to see here how the real forest used to be.


Finally at the look out we enjoyed a great view of the glaciar. We took a small break before we started again. Our five hours hike down to the refugio was tougher than expected. As we had such strong front wind the day before, I expected an easy and fast hike downwards. But my calculations did not work out. The strong and unsteady tail wind we experienced on our way down made every step unpredictable and forced us to slow down in order not to fall over. In the end we made it and were quite tired after 6 hours of walking, probably also still feeling the lack of sleep the night before.


Refugio Paine Grande was not such a nice place. Just too big and too cold to put it in two words. Nevertheless we had a place to sleep, went to bed early and started the next day with fresh elan. And that was necessary as day 3 was the longest one with 24 km of hiking. We started early in the morning but had to stop after a few minutes when our cheap day backpack we got as a gift suddenly started to fall apart. Natalie was just amazing. She rescued the day and started fixing that bloody thing with needle and yarn right on the trail :).


After 3 hours we left the main trail for a little 15 km side step, which led us to two major look outs. The first was a beautiful glaciar. We stopped there for a small lunch and were lucky enough to see how a massiv iceblock crashed down. The second was officially closed due to the strong winds, but as we saw other hikers coming back anyway, we tried it too. It was not as windy as we had expected and the trail up led us through a beautiful forest again. At the end we were gifted with a stunning 360 degree round view on the spectacular sharp mountain tops which surrounded us.


When we reached our next refugio for the night, we both were happy but tired. Refugio Los Cuernos was a cute little hut, packed with lots of hiking folks and good food. We slept long and started the day with a late breakfast. The refugio was almost empty when we had breakfast. Just one other couple had done the same as us and had a late breakfast. Penny and Simon were from Australia. We started with them together into our fourth day which should bring us to the last refugio at the end of the trek. I tried to take it easy with my right leg as my ancle was a bit swollen, probably caused by the additional weight of my backpack, which I had carried the last 50 km. Luckily it was only a 11 km hike to Refugio Norte.


The area along the trail became more open and offered us great views in and out of the Torre del Paine massiv. When we got to Refugio Norte we four tried our luck and Natalie asked if they would have free beds at the upper Refugio Chileno. It had already been booked out when we had made our reservations 4 weeks earlier. It was however our prefered option, as it was closer to the park’s highlight, the triple mountain tips Las Torres. We wanted to be there for sunrise and from Refugio Norte it meant hiking up 4 1/2 hours in the dark, while it was only 2 1/2 from Refugio Chileno. Refugio Chileno was still booked out, but they had free tents up there. We did not think twice and took the opportunity to stay there. It would allow us to hike up very early and see the sunrise at Las Torres.


So we started again for additional 2 hours although my ancle was done for the day. Simon was so nice to let me take his poles, which was a great help. Somehow I made it to Chileno. We had a joyful and tasty dinner with our Aussies and thoroughly enjoyed the food which was the best out of all the ones we had along the walk. The night was short when our alarm went off at 2:30 am. I was surprised that Natalie and me were the only ones who started for the night hike. It was totally dark in the forrest, except for the light of the stars and our headlights. After some meters it struck me that there are Pumas in these forests. I had read randomly that the Patagonian ones are the biggest of the entire continent, something about 100 kg for a fully grown up male. I just hoped these guys were not around or at least not hungry :). I did not want to count on it though, so I started to sing stupid songs to make some noise and scare them away.


After long 1,5 hours we reached the upper campsite where lots of moving headlights in the dark indicated that we were not alone anymore. The final ascent to the look out was a challenging 1 hour climb. With the first grey morning light we made it up there and caught the first full view on Las Torres. We found us a good spot, put on all our clothes as it was still freezing cold and made us some breakfast.


And then finally the first sunlight touched the highest tip of Las Torres in a warm red light. From this point onward, more and more of the sharp rocky tip was enlightened. It was so spectacular! Especially when Natalie discovered a condor which had obviously warmed up enough and started from Las Torres to glide down towards the valley. We shifted our frozen bodies into the warm sunlight too and spent a little more time there before we headed down.


After we had our second breakfast at Chileno we went down again to catch the bus back to Puerto Natales. We were early though and streched out in the grass near the bus stop and enjoyed the sun. We had 5 amazing days with a unique nature and landscape experience. We covered about 80 km by foot and were extremely lucky with the weather for Patagonia. We had no rain apart from a bit of drizzle and most days beautiful blue skies or at least patches of it. After the trek, our muscles and bones needed to recover, but not for too long. We would leave the next day for the next trekking highlight to see the famous Mount Fitz Roy in Argentina.


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