So a few years ago I led a trip out to Patagonia in South America to see what it had to offer. Quite amazing place. Below is a diary I wrote when we did the incredible 9 day Torres del Paine Circuit.
Galapagos was Bex`s big trip and this was to be mine. The Torres del Paine Circuit is one of THE treks in the world taking in magnificent scenery, glaciers, alpine meadows, forests and mountains along the 105km trek. The guide book time is eight days for the trek plus a couple more if you want to do the side trips of the Vallee Frances and the Torres del Paine look out (adding another 40km).
There are refuges (huts) along the trek but they are expensive to stay in and I hadn`t carried an ultra light tent all the way from England for nothing (we were to find out the disadvantages of a lightweight tent later).
Day 1 of "The Trek"
On the bus ride to the park I was getting very excited. This area of Patagonia is infamous in climbing folklore, tales of daring do, wild weather, wild scenery, wild climbing :Basically a wild area. I was going to Heaven.
Bex looked a little concerned at the mention of wild weather. "But we are here in the summer so it won`t be that bad, WILL IT!" The last words demanded rather than questioned.
We shouldered our packs which were filled with 8 days food, tent, sleeping bags, a stove some gas and one spoon (got to save weight) oh and a change of socks. I estimated my pack at 14kg and Bex`s at about 11kg. They were about as lightweight as I could manage but still heavy.
The first day we covered about 20km through alpine meadow and the weather was being very kind to us. In the last half hour the weight of the packs took its toll on Bex and her ankle began to ache. Not wanting to be beaten she changed into her Teva`s (sandles) and walked comfortably to the first camp.
We had hardly seen anyone all day and were surprised to see only 4 or 5 other parties at the campsite. This was a world class trek, we had heard (and read) that it would be very crowded - where was everyone? Still mustn`t grumble, pitched the tent and began prep for dinner.
Having introduced Bex to the delights of mash potato on the Huerquehue walk earlier in the trip, we had opted to go for the same again. We had invested in a small plastic plate to make prep a bit easier but it was still the same routine;
1) fry up the bacon, onions, pepper and courgette in our only pan and pour out onto plate.
2) boil water and add stock cube followed by powdered mash potato.
3) mix all together on plate and eat (sharing spoon)
repeat for next seven meals
The first night was quite warm and the campsite had a hot shower - this was literally going to be a walk in the park.
It rained and blew hard in the night. I noticed that to save weight on the tent (it weighed only just over 1kg) the designers had removed quite a lot of material on the flysheet meaning it didn`t go all the way to the ground. This didn`t seem a major problem but if it rained any harder the water might get under the fly and onto the inner. However it had rained hard in the night and the inner was still dry - nothing to worry about.
What was a problem though was Bex`s ankle. It was still a bit sore in the morning. Asked if she wanted to continue she said she hadn`t travelled all this way to turn round at the first hurdle. An ibuprofen diet was organised and a bit of extra padding on the ankle and off we set again. We climbed a coll and got our first experience of Patagonian wind, it took our breath away (and nearly our feet). It was head down until we got through it but the views of Lago Paine and Glacier Dickson in the distance were superb and certainly made up for it.
It was another 20km day and Bexs` ankle had seemed to hold up, but a further change into Teva`s was required shortly before we got to Lago Dickson and the next campsite. We had met a Swiss couple on the final section of the leg and had enjoyed some banter with them.
Breakfast had not been that well thought out by us and consisted of a cheese sandwich and a little bit of dried fruit for Bex and chocolate for me (repeat for 8 days). But the mug of tea warmed us up in the morning.
This day was the first day of real ascent and I hoped Bexs` ankle was up to it. After about 1 hour she wanted to change into her Tevas. This was against everything I believed in in the mountains. Heavy pack and no ankle support, no shock absorbing footbed. You could easily sprain an ankle or do serious damage to knees. Enough was enough and I thought it was time to turn back, the walk has beaten us.
It was fair to say that in the woods we had a "heated discussion" which didn`t really help the situation. I was petrified of Bex doing serious injury to herself and Bex did not want to turn back. Bex carried on in her Tevas and I went into a bit of a spoilt brat grump. The walk was only meant to be 10km but the guidebook was wrong (this became a common occurance) and it was more like 15km. As we were walking past a hanging glacier, a serac fell off and splashed in the lake. It was a beautiful scene and reminded us of where we were and apologies were made of both sides - happy smiles again but Bex still in a bit of pain.
We had a good long chat with Silvia and Victor (Swiss couple) at the campsite and a good night was had. At about 21:00 a group of 4 trudged into camp, they looked like hell (turns out that they had done days 2 and 3 in a single day).
The night was freezing. To make the tent as light as possible the designers had made the inner tent out of a mesh material. Very light but as wind proof as a sieve, it was a very very cold night - worse for poor Bex who isn`t good in the cold at the best of times. May be this trek wasn`t going to be a walk in the park after all.
In the guide book this is by far the hardest day and takes you over the John Garner pass. At 1241 this is the highest point on the trek and involved the most ascent and descent on any day. The morning dawned wet and cold. A phrase in the guidebook was stuck in my head "do not cross this pass in bad weather, gale force westerlies are common".
Silvia And Victor were going to give it a go and set off at about 8:30. Bex and I weren`t so sure. It was a very cold campsite (more like a flat muddy section in the woods) and not a good place to sit out a patagonian storm also we didn`t have that much spare food to sit about for a day. Bexs` ankle seemed to be much better this morning and we had borrowed a compede pad off Silvia (keeping our wound dressing and banadages in reserve). It was either forward or back.
Clothing wise, we were the best equipped we could ever be. Excellent quality full waterproofs, modern powerstretch base and mid layers, down filled jackets hat and gloves. Coupled with the fact that I class myself as a pretty experienced mountaineer who has seen his fair set of storms, if anyone could get over this pass it was us.
The wind on the coll was like nothing I had ever come across before. Blowing at least 100km/hr and whipping your face with ice crystals from the glacier below, even with a heavy pack I struggled to stay on my feet. Bex couldn`t stand up in the blizzard. The only way I could get Bex across was to tuck her in right behind me (like a slipstream) and power my way forward. Added to fact that it was snowing, it was close to the worst storm I had ever seen. I WAS LOVING IT! To me it was a great challange to Bex it was hell and I realised that this was really too much for her. She is however even more stubborn than me and refused to be beaten, everytime she was knocked off her feet she got straight back up and fought on. Incredible.
After we got over the coll, I knew the back of the entire Paine circuit was broken and we would get through it somehow.
The last section of the day involved a really steep section of descent through the trees, assisted by knotted ropes. I hated this section but Bex faired much better. By this time the clouds had lifted and we were rewarded with our first sighting of the Patagonian ice cap. This is the second largest mass of ice outside of Antarctica. I have seen my fair share of glaciers but this was amazing, ice as far as the eye could see. It lifted our spirits and we fought on to Camp Paso proud to have done it. There was a little shelter and a log burning barrel which I kept well stocked for a number of hours.
The group of 4 we had met the other night came in a couple of hours later with similar tales of wind at the coll. They were an Australian girl, an Isreali guy and a Canadian couple - due to the excessive weight of nuts and dried fruit they´d brought with them, they were christened `Trail Mix` and we were with them for the rest of the circuit.
The weather was getting better (still not shorts weather though) and for the first couple of hours we followed the side of Glacier Grey stopping off many times to view the glacier below. As today was down as being a short day (only 3hrs) we decided to tie it together with the next day. This would mean that we would save a day and enable us to eat more food at the remaining evening meals.
We were still getting over the highs and lows of the Pass the previous day, but the walking was flat on the whole and we got into Camp Pehoe at about 17:30 that evening. The reward - a hot shower I could have stayed in all night. Trail Mix turned in 1hr behind, Briony (Oz girl) had a sore ankle and the Isreali had had to carry her pack for the last hour. Hard Bas$%!d.
A problem we were having was my feet. I didn`t have any blisters or pain - but the smell! Weapons of mass destruction. It had got to the point where I had to get into my sleeping bag before Bex got into the tent or the smell would make her wretch. To be honest I was close to wretching myself! I scrubbed as hard as I could in the shower but to no avail, I had reduced the smell but not removed it.
Another famous trek starts from Camp Pehoe, known as the `W` it takes the last 4 days of the circuit and drags it out over 5 days. During the first (northern part) of the Circuit there had been about 10 people dotted along the path. On this second (southern part) of the circuit that number exploded, and there must have been 100 people in the campsite. This is because this section is much more accesible and doesn`t involve any high passes or dangerous ground.
Bexs` ankle was still sore but the ibuprofen diet was doing its job and she could see the end was close - only 3 days to go! we walked for 3hrs past the crazy blue Lago Pehoe and got to the Italian camp, a free campsite in the forest. We ditched the packs here as we intended to return later and stay the night.
Above us was the famous "Vallee de Frances", a highly recommended side trip from the circuit. At the top of the Valley lies the British camp. Something ironic there about it being called the French valley but having a British camp at the top! The top of the valley is a massive cirque of 1000m high granite rock faces. Serious climbing territory. At first, Bex didn`t want to go as she wanted to rest her ankle. I persuaded her that she wouldn`t be carrying a pack and that I had a feeling that the clouds would break when we got to the British Camp. How often do we come here, you`ll regret it if you don`t come etc.
She changed her mind and as soon as she could walk without her pack it was like someone had released a coiled spring. The pain in the ankle subsided and she shot off up the valley like wild dogs were chasing her (a morbid fear of Bex`s). I had to practically run to keep up. We had passed a few people on the way down who had said that they had seen nothing and it wasn`t worth us going up. The higher we got the more the clouds broke. We WERE to be rewarded for our stupidity. After cries of "Onward to the British camp" we finally got to the top of the valley as the clouds parted and blue sky was everywhere. Bex loved the views back down the valley and I loved the views of the rock faces (there was even a climbing team high up on Cuernos Norte).
On the way back down we met the Trail Mix team who were one member down. Sarah (Canadian Girl) was sleeping down in the valley. It turns out she had never done any trekking before and as this side trip wasn`t part of the circuit she would rest.
The Trail Mix team were an ecclectic bunch who had met a couple of weeks previous on an Antarctic trip similar to the one we were going on. Where Bex and I were seriously lightweight they were seriously heavy weight, Brionys pack was at least 1.5x the weight of mine. Turns out they were carrying an enormous amount of food. It was beginning to show though as they all had serious blisters and the 2 lads had pretty buggered knees. There is a lot to be said for lightweight. They couldn`t believe that we only had 1 pan and 1 spoon between us. They were carrying 1.5kg of dried fruit each, wine, orange juice, 12 avacados, fresh tomatoes (hadn`t survived 2 days in Adams pack), and large quantities of pasta and sauces. The total wight of our food was about 4kg!
The last full day and it was to be a long one (25km). The weather was still kind to us (ie no rain, still windy and cold) and either Bexs` body was becoming used to the pain or it was subsiding. We set off a bit in front of Trail Mix heading for the famous Torres del Paine. everybody will have seen pictures of these mountains, simply stunning.
The path started out a bit up and downy below the Cuenos (Horns) of Paine and then took a rising traverse into the Vallee Ascencio with the final bit being a haul up to the climbers camp below the towers. Its safe to say that it was all becoming too much for Bex who was now walking on will power alone. The packs were as light as they had ever been but the ache in my shoulder was getting to the stage where some pain killers were required.
When we finally got up to the camp (don`t beleive the timings on the sign posts, for 30mins read 50mins etc) it was snowing. We pitched the tent (the honeymoon suite!) and Bex got staight into her sleeping bag fully clothed. I set to work with the stove, got a brew on and set about making tea. I don`t think Bex had been warm since the showers at Pehoe and the blizzard had been the end for her.
Trail Mix turned up 1hr behind us. The air soon turned blue as they realised that the last of the wine had leaked in Adams pac and no mulled wine tonight!
Tomorrow was to be an early start to try and catch the sunrise on the towers an hours walk from the camp.
Day 8 (Last Day)
04:30 is early where ever you are, 04:30 and snow - chances of the towers being clear of cloud 0%. Still, we hadn`t walked for 7 days not to go up and at least try. After 1hrs boulder hop up hill we arrived below the towers and low and behold the clouds began to part. The sun rose and even though the Towers never fully cleared I don`t think either of us would have missed it for the world. Camera clicked like crazy, then when the snows returned so did we to the campsite.
Trail Mix broke camp and we did the same. We walked the 3hrs down to the end of the circuit together talking and laughing all the way. We had a celebration photo by the map at the bottom and then bumped into Silvia and Victor at the bottom. They had been a day ahead of us after continuing on a further camp after crossing the John Garner Pass. It was great to meet up again and exchange tales.
The circuit didn`t beat us, but we didn`t beat it either. An incredible experience and I feel very proud to be able to say "I`ve done the Circuit".