2014 Patagonia (2/3): Torres del Paine Circuit

Places Patagonia, Chile. Torres del Paine National Park
Time & length February/March 2014, 2 weeks
Partners several
Originally I had planned to do a major 3-week-hike from Torres del Paine down to Puerto Natales, following some magnificent glaciers close to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Unfortunately, I didn’t get permission for this endeavor: the kind of permit that I would have needed can only be issued to scientific expeditions, the officer in chief explained to me. So I ended up “only” doing the famous hike around the Torres del Paine massif.

This time lapse video shows you Torres del Paine National Park in less than 2 1/2 minutes and includes about 4.000 pictures.

This is the second part of my Patagonia journey; click here to see the first part.

I took the bus from El Calafate (Argentina) to Puerto Natales (Chile) in the morning of February 21. Since my actual hiking partner Alan had lost his passport, he had to stay in Argentina, where he planned to do a solo hike in the area north of El Chaltèn.

My backpack was stuffed with food for three weeks – I had a pretty big adventure in mind. The idea was to start off with the “W” hike in Torres del Paine and continue south all the way to Puerto Natales. The day before I left I met Philippa, a 29-year-old teacher from England who travels the world and works at international schools and universities all over the place. She wanted the do the “W” trek as well but didn’t have a tent – since I was still carrying my spacious 3-person Hilleberg Kaitum 3, I invited her to join me in my palace. So the first five days we travelled together.

We reached Torres del Paine National Park before noon on February 23 and went through the mandatory instructions given by the park rangers; they even made us watch a video. Basically, we were not allowed to leave the trail, camp away from the designated campsites or cook outside of the provided cooking areas. The restrictions were insane, I thought, but they probably have their reasons. Any violation of these rules is considered a felony and will lead to a 4.000 USD penalty. I heard about that before, but after a short conversation with the rangers it was clear that they were actually very serious about all that. This was extremely unfortunate for me – if I wanted to stick with my plan, I would overstep these rules every single day.

Generally speaking, Torres del Paine has two hikes to offer: most people only do the “W” trek, which is 50 km long and follows the east side of the Torres massif. Only very ambitious hikers do the entire circuit (“the “O”), which includes the “W” and leads people around the massif on a 130 km trail.

Starting the “W”, Philippa and I went up to Camp Chileno and pitched our tent. The place was filled with teenagers with tennis shoes, using mainly rental gear and alcohol to survive their first “adventure” ever. They also kept stepping on my lines which I really didn’t appreciate.

In the late afternoon we hiked up to the “Mirador Las Torres” where I talked to a ranger about the route I’d originally wanted to take. He liked the idea but made it very clear that I couldn’t do that legally – and that the rangers would make me pay a lot of money I was found out. After I’d told him about my hiking experiences and the guiding business in arctic Alaska, he mentioned that the park service can give “special permits” to qualified wilderness hikers who provide proof of their knowledge and experience. He advised me to apply for such a permit at the administration office which is only a day hike away from the end of the “W” trek, which I wanted to complete anyway. Fine, I thought.

Here are some pictures of the “W”.

On February 27 Philippa went back to town and I walked down to the administration office. There I first talked to two rangers who’d never heard of any “special permits” and had actually never heard of anyone who was allowed to hike off-trail in the park at all. Twenty minutes later I sat in the superintendent’s office explaining my idea. He firmly made me understand that there was simply no way for individuals to get the kind permit that I was asking for – only scientific expeditions can apply for it and even that would take weeks. He still made some phone calls and tried to work something out for me but without any success. I was devastated. Quickly I decided to leave the area and hitchhike back to Puerto Natales.

On my way out of the park I had second thoughts. Maybe I should just complete the circuit (the so called “O”) like every normal person would do, following a trail and staying in campsites? I’m not particularly known for acting affectively, but in this case I changed my mind within a minute, got out of the car and hiked back to the trail head. That night I camped right at the Rio Paine somewhere in the woods and reached Camp Seron the next day.

The next days I travelled with a wonderful group of people. We all met at Seron: an American/Canadian couple, a French couple, an English couple, an Italian, two American friends an me. Every day we had good conversations, plenty of fun and simply a good time on the trail. I have met quite a few people during my previous travels, but this group was somehow exceptional in its diversity and harmony. The Americans gave everyone a nickname, I was called the “Mountain Swami”, others were Barista, Sugar Tee, Pop-Tart and so on… it was hilarious.

I actually found the west side of the Torres massif more interesting than the eastern part. Since the hiking was all easy I was able to focus on photography a bit more than I usually do – sometimes I waited for an hour and let everybody pass me just to have the right lighting on the glacier.

On March 5 we reached the Refugio Paine Grande where our ways separated. The others kept going and did the “W” (which I had already done before), while I took the ferry to the park entrance. That night we celebrated with a good amount of “pisco sour” drinks and went to bed at midnight.

I spent a night in Puerto Natales and then took the bus back to El Calafate, Argentina. On the one hand, I was pretty disappointed about my Chile excursion – what I actually achieved is far from what I had intended to. On the other hand, I met all these wonderful people and took a few good photographs, which almost made up for the lost wilderness adventure.

All in all, it was a social experience more than anything else. I guess I’m just so used to wild places and off-trail hiking that it’s not easy for me to do it “the ordinary way” – still, I had a really good time.

Click here to see the third part of this journey.