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Patagonian treks: Torres del Paine

I could try and describe the extreme beauty of Torres del Paine in words – but that would be futile. I would rather let our photos convey some sense of its wonder and grandeur.Lago Pehoe, Apine Grande and Las Cuernos We walked the classic ‘W’-trail over 9 days covering some 107 km, starting at the CONAF administration HQ near Rio Serrano and exiting the park at Hosteria Las Torres in the east.

I first read about trekking in Torres del Paine in Outside magazine, an American outdoor adventure publication, some seven years ago. That article remained filed in my subconscious, until Kelson mentioned the magic word “Patagonia” three-years ago under that sodden oak in the Elandskloof. This year’s trek thus represents a dream realised – and we could not have had better weather. “Unprecedented, unheard of” weather according to Kelson. Out of the nine days of the trek we had eight consecutive days of windless, sunny conditions. Luckily for him, the rain and wind on the last day saved him from having to eat his (wife’s) very cute, pink beanie as part of a wager that had him progressively more worried as one perfect day followed the previous one. We would have fed it to him with the herbs and spices that he is so fond of…

Photos and Google Earth track follow. With time I will add some video clips.

The South African Route on Central Tower

The South African Route on Central Tower (PlanetMountain.com)

In the CONAF (Chile’s National Forest Corporation that is the custodian of the park) HQ’s entrance hall, there is a display  of artifacts, a 3-D terrain model and historical photographs of the park. In a nondescript display case lies a coiled rope which is clearly not a modern mountaineering rope. The caption explains that it is the pitch rope used by a team of South African climbers who were the first to scale Las Torres’ Central Tower (which is probably one of the most photographed pieces of granite on earth) in 1973-4 – when Torres del Paine was still an estancia. The incredible story of that expedition makes for riveting reading. One of the climbers broke his back in a fall but survived to tell the tale. The route is still known as the “South African Route” (it did make me wonder why there is no campsite named after the South African team when all the others are named after other nations’ climbing teams … Britanico, Italiano, Japones). A recent video entitled “Free South Africa” (scroll to the bottom of this page to view) shows the first free ascent of the route.

While searching through the Outside site’s archives for that article I was struck how Torres del Paine has grown in popularity, first amongst the trekking crowd and more recently, I suspect, for the mass tourism market. An article dated 2000 mentions an annual visitor volume of 60 000; by 2010 the number was reported to be 130 000 turistas. In more innocent times, soon after the park was proclaimed in 1976, only 5000 visitors trod its trails! It is not a large national park, only 2 400 km2 in area (about 12% of the Kruger National Park’s area) and large tracts are inaccessible with the popular areas limited to the ‘W’ trail and the campsites and lodges on that route. So the human impact on the park is palpable, manifesting recently in more frequent wildfires as discussed further on. Given the limited sizes of the campsites and ablution facilities, we visited at the best possible time – at the end of the tourist season just before the refugios and lodges closed for the winter on 30 April – when visitor numbers are low. I would hate to be there when there are hundreds of trekkers at any given site…

Or download the trek’s GPS track and view in Google Earth

These days the park is heavily commercialised. Large hotels like Hosteria Lago Grey and Hosteria Las Torres dominate the western and eastern approaches and it is possible to walk the ‘W’ yet sleep comfortably in a refugio, lodge or hosteria every night. Access to the park is by mini-bus from Puerto Natales and then by ferry to key locations on the ‘W’. There are, however, also atmospheric, small lodges like Grey and Las Cuernos which offered us welcome relief from the camping grind every few days.

Cuernos del Paine - The Horns of Paine

Cuernos del Paine – The Horns of Paine

The south-western sector of the park, from the CONAF administration building almost up to Refugio Grey has been badly damaged by last December’s fire.

“Paine” means blue in the language of

the Aonikenk, original inhabitants of the area.

Refugio Paine Grande stands as an island in a black wasteland, its campsite destroyed while the lodge itself was only semi-operational. But the eastern legs of the ‘W’ are relatively unscathed. The southern beech forest is not a fire-driven ecology so recent news of a five-year ecological restoration project is indeed welcome.

It has been said that ecotourism carries the seeds of its own destruction. Torres del Paine is walking that fine line between preserving a landscape and destroying it with love. If you ever get the chance, you should go and see this place and breathe in its searing beauty. But tread lightly and respect its fragility. At least, unlike the Kruger Park, almost the only way of moving around the park is on foot, except for the ferry trips. But the big hotels on its fringe jar.

Las Torres

Las Torres

Lago and Glaciar Grey

Lago and Glaciar Grey

Amateur video clip (about 8 minutes) of the Los Glaciares and Torres del Paine treks

Or download the trek’s GPS track and view in Google Earth

Random tips:

  1. Be prepared for bad weather and cold. We were, but got lucky.
  2. Visit in April – best weather, no crowds.
  3. Take your time. Too many rush like mad people through the ‘W’ or do the circuit in three days, just to say that they have done it, without gaining a sense of the place.
  4. Check that your cameras work in sub-zero temperatures. My SLR required an early-morning warm-up in the sleeping bag to do its thing.
  5. The cold reduces battery performance. My GPS and GoPro camera both exhibited shorter-than-usual battery life. Do take chargers. They can be used at the refugios.
  6. Take your mp3 player and e-book reader (my iPhone ran for 9 days in aeroplane mode without charging for these purposes). The nights are long in the tent, up to 12 hours long in autumn.
  7. Don’t skimp on digital storage for your photos and videos. Take a decent camera.
  8. … Oh yes – hang all foodstuffs high up in the trees out of the reach of mice and foxes.

Trek planned and guided by Kelson da Cruz of TrekSA.

Video of free climbing expedition on The South African Route:

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