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Back Packing in Patagonian Chile

A five day walk around the Torres Del Paine
Description and photos by TJ Phillips

The granite spires glowed in the sunshine and icebergs floated lazily in the small grey lake beneath the vertical rock. Here we were at last at the fabled Torres Del Paine. The southern most effort of the Andean mountains to rise above the vast Patagonian plains.

The previous day the winds had threatened to blow us off the path on our trek into the basecamp. Now all was calm and only the occasional wisp of white cirrus moved high above the towers.Our hardest walking was yet to come. A full circuit of the area, about 50 miles in distance, but very tough going at times.

Descending from the Torres valley the next day we traversed over a shoulder and after 5 miles reached the beautiful valley of the Rio Paine. Tired and aching feet were compensated for by the amazing puffball fungi and the sweet smell of meadow flowers, including strange orchids with green veins.

We pitched our tent on the first available patch of flat land, near 4 Americans who were just visiting the valley.

Well rested after a long night's sleep, we set off early up the valley of the Rio Paine, our breakfast of bread and jam fueling our journey.

It was to be a long day. The path climbed up and down over low ridges at the side of the valley and when we did eventually reach the valley floor long detours had to be made to cross small streams via fallen trees. Around midday several condors soared above us at incredible heights, Coming over the last ridge of the day we spied our destination in the distance, the small refugio at Campamiento Lago Dixon.

On the last section it became a matter of guesswork to stay on the vague track. We often strayed off into wet boggy sections and by the time we reached the Campamiento (little more than a dirty old hut) we were very tired. Dropping down into the tongue of grass where the hut was standing we could hardly appreciate the amazing situation; the blue-grey waters of Lago Dixon with the brooding hull of the Ventisquero Dixon glacier at the far end were framed by spectacular but probably unclimbed rocky summits on each side. The evening was spent in our tent well away from the marauding mosquitoes that searched us out.

Day 3 was a shorter day for walking. It would have been a very short day but for the 300 (yes we counted) fallen trees, some so massive that we had to detour several hundred feet to return to the track, only a few feet further on. The track was so littered with fallen timber that our distance was probably doubled.By early afternoon we reached Lago de Los Peros (Lake of the Dogs) and even had time to explore the creaking glacier that fed the lake with its icebergs. Every so often a deep thunderous roar would herald a further movement of seracs on the steep icefall high on the glacier.

Late in the afternoon we had the surprise of a heavy snow shower, we were only 4 days away from midsummer's day. This fall of snow was to make the next day a real challenge.

The fresh snow had hidden the track completely, it also hid the many knee-deep bogs which eventually forced us to walk on the stunted branches of fir trees at the edge of the track. We frequently lost the track completely and it would have been all too easy to end up in the wrong valley. Fortunately the occasional cairn marked the route to Pass John Garner

The steep climb up old snow fields bought us by midday to the high point of the trek at around 1300 m and allowed us to look down onto the vast expanse of the Grey Glacier, another outlet from the Patagonian ice cap.We met a Swiss couple in ragged rain capes heading up to meet us. Their warning that the path was steep and difficult was something of an understatement. For the next 3 hours we slipped, stumbled and clawed our way down through birch forest. It was nearly vertical in places, and our boots slid on the deep mud surface. As we descended we felt the presence of the glacier by the cold damp atmosphere that it generated and before our day was to end we still had the difficult section of track traversing the steep hillside towards the end of the glacier. Climbing makeshift wooden ladders and traversing unstable scree on sections of path suffering from recent landslides were just a couple of the remaining challenges that day.We arrived cold and tired at the camping area. However a fire warmed us up during the evening as we chatted to a few other people that shared the small clearing.

The next day was a long 20 mile stretch to Lago Pehoe. However we were now on easier terrain and enjoyed the spectacular views across to the Grey Glacier

This section of path was quite busy with people out on shorter treks up to the glacier. Pleasant sunshine accompanied us for part of the day and by early afternoon we gained views of the Cuernos Del Paine, horn shaped pinnacles in the centre of the massif we had just circumnavigated. We camped on the shore of the green lake, and enjoyed eating our excess supplies - tomorrow was our last day.

A long walk through featurless grassland was somewhat an anti-climax. Our finishing point (a park visitor centre) lay somewhere beyond the horizon and took many hours to come into view. Ironically we saw more wildlife at the visitor centre than at any other point of our walk. Condors wheeled overhead and Caquen geese with chicks wandered close to the picnic table where we relaxed before cathching a bus back to the park entrance.Later that day we were on the bus back to Puerto Natales. It was now coming up to Christmas and we had a rendevous at Cerro Torre (Argentina) to make so we couldn't afford to hang around.

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