No Paine, No Gain
Dec 14, 2002
David Rich 1700 Words
N o P a i n e, N o G a i n - e e
The farther south you go in Chile, the better it gets, the highlight being Torres del Paine National Park in the rather far south of Chilean Patagonia, where you can hike until you drop. Must you be a macho man (or macha woman) to conquer what may be the wildest and most fabulous national park on the planet? Nah. Anyone can go whether they require plush accommodations, or their wallet prefers to camp. No matter your pocketbook, you'll be awed by what many believe to be the most photogenic and beautiful location in the hemisphere, southern hemisphere that is, the kind of place that might emerge if the big guy whipped Yosemite and Glacier National Parks together in the outback of Alaska and punted them about as far south as you can go. Translated into Chilean Spanish, it's the renowned Torres del Paine (Pine-ee).
What on earth could be worth the effort to travel a million miles south into Chilean Patagonia? That depends on whether you're into glaciers and icebergs, sheer granite needles, and white horned mountains crowned by black pointy peaks, a profusion of wildlife surpassed only by wilder flowers, accommodations ranging from the most basic to five-star luxurious, views to pop your eyeballs out, and weather so unpredictable the locals brag about four seasons a day, and that's in summer. If Montana is Big Sky Country, Torres del Paine is Whopper Big Sky Country.
The Torres are three and a half needles of sheer granite rising over 6500 feet (2000-plus meters) from the sea level surrounding them. The hike to their base is relatively easy if you don't mind a six-hour stroll above a scenic gorge, which includes an hour scramble up a hummock of boulders. Once you've quenched your thirst on the view of the precipitous Torres and taken a dozen pictures from every angle, you'll spend another hour bouldering down before meandering back along the precipitous gorge below. If you arrive at sunrise (not me, though I have an adequate substitute in the form of a telephoto lens), the needles range from rosy red to vivid orange, the plunging base below them striped like a tanned zebra bottomed by a glacial lake down that floats the occasional blue iceberg disgorged from the Torres' flanks, one of the more famous sights in the world.
But Chile's Torres del Paine National Park offers much more than three and a half granite needles. Tame wildlife from rheas (locally known as nandu) and 114 other species of birds cram the park. I saw a rhea mom with fourteen newborn chicks hot-footing it across the road, kelp geese swimming with their chicks stalked by a falcon that looked like Curly from the Three Stooges, and fuzzy parrots galore, five on a single tree branch above my head, two feet away. Black-necked swans navigate every lago.
Besides birds, you'll see herds of rare camelids, Guanacos gallivanting at every turn, silhouetted on the proper ridge for superb photos. The Torres guanacos are an ecological success story. They were almost extinct when special efforts reintroduced them to Torres del Paine and now they number umpteen trillion, frolicking for your pictorial delight, long-necked woeful-eyed beasts covered with snaggy-looking gold and white fur. The Patagonian foxes are so tame and docile you can practically pet them, though I refrained from fear of fox breath and pointy white teeth. I confessedly missed those animals largely unseen including the Andean condor, flamingo, and puma. But the ones I did see, I saw in profusion, cavorting on a tundra strewn with flowers from the widespread bushes sprouting millions of red blossoms to a ground cover of purple and white sweet peas, fantastic spring shades of mountain lupine in all shades of the pastel rainbow, tiny white lilies I named the "teensy flying nuns," super clusters of tiny yellow bells, and a few dozen more wildflowers for good measure. In the background spread bright yellow bushes among the gray skeletons of ancient trees and the forests of green living ones, all sprinkled liberally along 150 miles of trails.
Los Cuernos (The Horns) dominate the park from all vantage points, awesome white granite columns with black-tipped peaks looking like the stacks of the Titanic, if it'd really gotten smacked around and kilted askew. These four, cockeyed chunkers can be seen from most anywhere and everywhere, awesomely reflected in any lake, lagoon, or tarn which range in color from red tarns to deep blue, aquamarine, turquoise, gray, and pale green lagunas, unless whipped to smithereens by the Patagonian winds on half the afternoons of summer. All these sights can be sampled up close by three long hikes of six to eights hours, or, fortuitously for most of us, the majority of these sights can be examined close enough by two short hikes of an hour or two.
Tough hiking stuff first, though we've already lived through the six- or seven-hour hike to and from the Torres themselves. This leaves only the two long hikes from Campamento Pehoe to Valle Frances, between a half dozen glaciers to the west and the Cuernos to the east, and Camp Pehoe to Glacier Grey. Whether you do both or either may depend more on the weather than on your level of fitness. Though the two hikes are lengthy, four hours each way for a tough day of slogging eight longish hours, the views along the way and at the penultimate ends of each are superb.
Valle Frances features hanging glaciers above your head, crackling and calving in cascades of blue ice, constant and unremitting, ceaseless canon shots of blue neon and avalanches, fortunately across a narrow valley, removing the danger of house-sized ice cubes on the noggin, if not the cacophony of their clatter. The view down the valley frames the up-close Cuernos on your left, glaciers crackling on your right, and in the middle, turquoise and aquamarine lagoons framed by the sinuous gray carcasses of driftwood-like trees.
The other long hike from Pehoe to Glacier Grey is literally in a realm of its own. Glacier Grey creates the weather for the entire west and north of Torres del Paine National Park, an offshoot of the Heilo Sur, the huge southern ice cap of Patagonia. The ice cools the air like scotch on the rocks, spawning a raging ocean of frigidity that often creates fifty-mile-per-hour headwinds. The guidebooks brag that hikers have actually been blown off the trail. I've paced clouds in my camper van at between forty and fifty miles per hour, fleeing across the park, the entire horizon boiling as the heavens are swept by the freezing north wind. But the Glacier Grey hike is worth it for two reasons. First, the glacier is a stupendous vast river of blue ice a half mile wide, sweeping around a hapless island into a lagoon bobbing with bright blue icebergs in fantastic shapes. Second, on the way back you have the wind behind you, sweeping you effortlessly back to Campamiento Pehoe. Or you can take a three-hour boat tour to Glacier Grey from Hosteleria Grey, avoiding any hiking whatsoever, sixty dollars for those gainfully employed.
If you prefer not to be blown over, frostbitten, battered, and banged, you can instead do two easy and short walks, usually boasting fine weather, far enough away from Glacier Grey that it can't bite. The first and most spectacular meander is ten miles south of Glacier Grey, at the end of Lago Grey where the bright neon bergies congregate before melting to crystal ice or sweeping down the Grey River to Puerto Natales. The hike from the parking lot is no more than an hour and gives you extremely close and spectacular views of brilliant blue icebergs crammed together at the end of the lagoon and congregating at the mouth of the river, split by a hundred-foot-high peninsula with an easy path up for views to make you gasp, and I have pictures to prove it. There is usually little or no wind, well maybe some wind, but it's usually accompanied by warming sunshine.
The other short walk takes fifteen minutes from the parking lot near Pudeto Refugio to a miniature Niagara, the Salto Grande, a raging waterfall of aquamarine glacier melt effervescing into white spume where Lago Nordenskjold empties peremptorily into Lago Pehoe under the shadow of the ever present Cuernos. Another forty-five minutes will take you to the base of the Cuernos across Lago Nordenskjold, an easy walk among gorgeous wildflowers of crimson red, pale blue and bright yellows, back-dropped by flat pincushion cactus you shouldn't sit on. I violated this basic rule when a fifty-mile-per-hour wind gust tossed me unexpectedly on my tush, but it was my fault as I was concentrating on taking the hundredth picture of the day.
Many visitors to the park insist on doing the "circuit", hiking all the way around the Torres and the Cuernos which the guidebooks say requires an average of seven days, nine days if you hike the side trips up Valle de Frances and to the Torres del Paine. You can do the circuit by staying in free campgrounds with no amenities, an inexpensive ambit, or in hostels with hot showers and meals ranging from ten to fifteen dollars. On the way out of the Park, I gave a ride to two woebegone kids ages eighteen and twenty-two, from Alaska and Arkansas, who'd just finished a three month wilderness experience for twelve hours college credit. The dingdongs had decided they'd do the Torres Circuit fast for fun, without sleeping bags or almost any sleep at all. And they did it in forty-eight hours, which took them forty hours of walking and two skimpy nights of sleep passed out next to the trail in their down jackets for three hours one night until it got too cold and five hours the other night. It doesn't get really dark in the summer, so this was borderline possible. I barely believed them but was sure they'd recover, if they got a shower pronto. I'd recover if I could immediately fumigate my camper van.
No matter how you go, whether camping or first class, just don't forget when you plan your next vacation, "No (Peaks of) Paine, no gain."