Everyone has their bucket list and it's an ever changing list. It changes with age and what’s going on in your life and yet some places or events never change. About five years ago when I really started getting into the outdoors and trail running, I learned of all these amazing places: New Zealand, Patagonia, the dolomites, the PCT, AT, etc. How long would it take for me to travel to all these places while still trying to race, work and spend time with friends or even find friends who would want to go with you!?
The drive from Punta Arenas to Puerta Natales is breathtaking as you see the rolling landscape get more green as you move north and the mountains appear in the distance. Anyone going to Patagonia is likely going to make this drive after they land in Punta Arenas (basically the end of the world in south america). We spend two days in Punta Arenas taking in the local history andvisiting “Los Penguinitos” at Otway Sound about an hour from downtown. The city sits on the Straight of Magellan so you will always see tanker ships to the south and Tierra Del Feugo in the distance. You look south and realize that Antarctica is only a couple hours away by plane - a trip I will have to make the next time I’m down there.
As we drive north toward Puerto Natales, anticipation builds and I feel like a little kid on christmas eve. How can you not be excited to see a remote area of the world with crystal blue lakes, sky piercing granite towers and dense green forests crawling up the sides of the mountains? waiting for that view and eager to get onto the trail…..
Puerto Natales is a small port town about an hour and a half south of Torres Del Paine (pronounced pine-A, not pain as most people commonly call it). We are lucky enough to have amazingly warm weather even considering it was the summer down in the southern hemisphere. The weather changes rapidly and can go from eighty degrees and sunny to wind driven rain and forty five degrees. You must always be prepared when you go into the mountains and knowing this i brought all provisions I would need for a long hike on the trails.
The hotel, Hotel Singular, is seated right on Golfo Amirante Montt (which looks like a lake but is a fjord between several mountains). All fifty three rooms face west and have an unobstructed view of the fjord and daily sunsets. The westerly view from the room has one single large piece of glass, which as a construction guy I can certainly appreciate this along with many of the other amazing architectural features of the hotel. The hotel is five star and we had the all inclusive package, a little more than what I am used to but was nice to indulge. The food was unbelievable, so tasty and being unlimited I ordered everything I could. It was exciting to think about all i could eat after a long day hiking.
At the hotel, they help you plan your desired adventures based on what they offer. Of course I am the crazy one who wants to run and hike as many of the trails as possible in the park. They look at me like i have three heads after I tell them I want to do the entire W circuit in one day. They tell me “not happening” and we immediately adapt and change our plans.
New years day is a double session: a horseback ride in the morning followed by a fun hike up to an overlook of the fjords somewhat close to the hotel. We were treated to a lunch with fresh lamb, salmon, potatoes and wine. The views were spectacular and the weather was great; but I was itching to get to the good stuff: Torres del Paine.
Finally on January 2nd we were off to Torres del Paine. the hotel van left at 8 am and we arrived at the trail head by 10 am. A much later start than what I wanted but considering we were about to embark on a 12 mile hike with beautiful views and great weather, it’s not the time or place to complain. I told myself to just enjoy the views, take lots of pictures and smile! you need to enjoy every minute and that I did.
We started at the base of the mountain at the Patagonia Hotel where we would begin our eight hour hike with 2,400 feet of gain up the Ascensio Valley to the base of the towers. We were with a group from the hotel with all different walks of life (thinking to myself are these people going to keep up?) but after an hour of hiking and a good amount of gain, I was usually at the end because i couldn't stop taking pictures and really trying to take it all in. Every five minutes I had to turn around to see how much higher we were getting and how much closer we were getting to the towers. At some points they were not in view as we were on the east side of the W circuit where it loops to the east and then north. It is a pretty high trafficked route but well worth it.
You can easily see why this is called the W circuit. Lago Grey is the western leg, the french valley is the middle and the Ascensio valley up to the base of the towers is the most popular trail. Many people hike this entire trail in three to five days. When I return in a couple years, I WILL complete either the W circuit or the O circuit. Our local guide Pipe has promised to take me under his wing and show me around. I cannot wait.
We crossed several rivers and wound our way through the national park. We eventually made it above the tree line and kept ascending but this time over small rocks and boulders. It was getting hotter since it was mid day by now and we could see the towers in the distance. How close were we? I knew there would be an amazing view but when would it be? Our guide had to calm me down as I was almost running to get to the look out. We finally had a great view of the towers but little did I know, this was just the teaser.
We slowly hiked over a mini hill of rocks and came upon the most spectacular view of the towers and the glacier lake. I was speechless, well not really, all I kept saying was “holy crap!” over and over. Our guide couldn't help but laugh as he sees so many reactions to this view but I immediately sat down on a huge rock and took it all in, enjoying the peace of what was created by the glacial retreat ten thousand years ago. Looking at the sky piercing peaks you can see the distinct color change from granite to sedimentary rock. You imagine how this place looks a thousand years ago; five thousand years ago and the reactions of the natives who first discovered this lake. I am so glad to have experienced it.
After thirty minutes it was time to head back down and down to reality we went. lucky for us, the staff of the singular had cheese, wine, and beer ready for us at the base of the mountain. what a nice surprise and great way to enjoy the two hour ride back; drinking and laughing with good friends with more food to come at night. but we needed sleep for tomorrow as we had a car rented so we can get to the park early and hike up to the french valley.
We woke up at 6:30 am so we leave by 7 am and get to the ferry which would take us to the trail head. I highly recommend this route; a peaceful trip on the ferry to the base of the western side of the W circuit. We had high hopes to hike up far into the french valley but the weather was not cooperating at the start of the hike. it was pouring and we decided to relax with a nice view of Lago Nordenskjord before we departed.
At 11 am we left for our trek up to the base of the french valley where we had lunch and turned around. By this time the weather was turning and back to clear skies and sunshine. We brought the right gear so when it rained on and off we changed jackets and kept dry. Constant eating and picture taking were part of the hike back to the trail head. While the wind was picking up, the view of the lakes had become much more apparent with the disappearance of the clouds. Never had I seen such majestic shades of blue. I wish I had my tent and a book so I could soak it all in for hours and watch the sun set. again, something to note for when I come back! We ended up hiking for about five hours and got in just under eleven miles.
While I had wanted to get in twenty mile days, hiking the trail was definitely more enjoyable and allowed me to take in the beauty of the national park. Remember to enjoy all your time on the trails. Whether its a two hour hike along the hudson or an eight hour hike to the base of Torres Del Paine towers, the beauty of the land should be respected and enjoyed.
GOODBYE PATAGONIA - UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN….
MPF Athlete, Jim Jansen