Jagged mountain peaks line the sky, glaciers cling to the rugged landscape, streams cascade into turquoise lakes. The lakes, at times calm with a surface of mirrors, at other times breaking waves, speak of her changing moods.
This is Torres del Paine National Park. A place of extreme weather and beauty that draws people from all over the world.
Our first full day in Torres del Paine was beautiful even with moments of hurricane force winds. We had managed to stay dry so far. Getting drenched and then chilled to the core was one of my biggest concerns for this trek.
This article is part two of our Torres del Paine series. Read part one here.
Day 3: Valle Francés (French Valley)
According to Rustyn, this was one of his favorite valleys, even declaring that Valle Frances and Mirador Britanico have the best views in Torres del Paine, instead of the towers themselves. Even if we only made it to the first viewpoint the hike would be worth it.
We carried our backpacks from the Paine Grande campsite to the Campo Italiano, a 7.6 km hike that follows the edge of Punta Bariloche mountain on which the Frances glacier sits.
Skeleton along the trail
The sky was blue and we had our jackets strung to the top of our packs. It was a beautiful day. Many of the trails in Torres del Paine offer little shade, this section was the same. The difference is that it used to offer shade.
In some areas, we were walking through a graveyard of white skeleton trees, once lush and green but now are only remains of what once was before. A massive fire in 2011 changed the landscape. The trail is still beautiful, life gradually returning to it, but it’s a stark reminder that with dominion comes responsibility.
Stowing bags at Campo Italiano
At Campo Italiano we dropped our packs in a big pile of other backpacks. This was the base of the middle leg of the W. We could climb up the valley with only our day pack and pick up our backpacks on the way back down.
One thing to note: There is a ranger station at Campo Italiano. Hikers who intend to go to the Britanico viewpoint need to start no later than 1PM. Hikers who only want to go as far as the first viewpoint can start as late as 3PM.
The trail leads straight up the French Valley. It is steep almost the entire way to the first lookout, sometimes rocky. It’s not too bad but it was slow-going for us. There was a crowd when we arrived at the first viewpoint. We gazed at Glaciar Francés with Cupcake Mountain behind us. Trin asked if I wanted to go back now. I was determined to complete the entire W, that meant
Occasionally we would hear the thunder of
The second viewpoint is entirely different. The trail had wound us around the mountains at the entrance of the valley and exposed an entire range beyond. It was as if we were in a bowl surrounded by jagged peaks. We could see water falling off the back of Paine Grande hill (a hill that rises over 3,000 meters) in small streams. The wind would catch the falling stream and
Not everyone continued from the first lookout to reach this point. We sat there in silence gazing all around us at the
We talked to a Swedish guy who was doing the O-trek. He was on his own long journey wandering the world catching rides on cargo ships and making his way as he went along.
The pile of backpacks was greatly diminished when we returned. We picked ours up and threw them on our backs and continued to our next campsite at Camp Frances only 2 km down the trail where we had reservations.
Campamento Frances actually offers hot showers. The camp is set up on a steep hillside at the base of cupcake mountain, on the opposite side of the valley we just traversed that day. It would not be possible to set up tents on the slope without the addition of the tent platforms that have been installed. The camp was pretty full so we picked the very last platform at the highest end of the camp where were no tents behind.
It looked like it would be another dry night. The surrounding trees sheltered us from the wind. All night we could hear the calving of the French glacier just on the other side of Cupcake mountain. The cracking and movement sounded like thunder followed by the avalanche of ice cascading down cliffs of rugged rocks.
Day 3 Stats: 24.5 km 2,800 feet elevation gain; Summer, all day long.
Day 4: The Long Short
We woke warm, dry and well rested, ready for day 4. So far we were dry and not too cold. We started out at 10AM on what seemed like an easy 15 km hike along Lake Nordenskjold to Campo Central. Today we would carry our packs all day to get to the base of our final trek for the following day.
The trail was scenic and we had a constant view of the lake. There was a short section where we walked along the lake’s pebble beach. It wasn’t all flat, there were sections where we had to follow switchbacks to go down the lake and then back up again, though this gave us some good viewpoint along the way. The sky was clear all day and the sun heated us till the last kilometer where the winds coming out of the last valley would once again chill us.
The sun coupled by the weight of my backpack sucked out most of my energy. When we finally reached Campo Central. We chose a campsite and I sat on a rock.
“Want to set up camp now?” Trin asked,
“No,” I responded.
“Should we make dinner?”
“Want to take a shower?”
“What would you like to do?”
“Just sit here.”
I drank some more water. We were both a bit dehydrated despite continually drinking water along the hot trail.
He took a shower while I sat there. Thankfully I recovered enough to set up the tent before he returned. We made dinner in the cook tent and turned in for an early night. We wanted to start our final day with the sunrise. The sun would rise about 5 AM the next morning.
Day 4 stats: 15 km hot summer.
Day 5: Torres del Paine
Our phones woke us up at 4 am. I crawled out of the tent and looked up. The clouds covered the sky and were especially dark over the valley where we would head into to see the Torres towers. The forecast said 100% cloud cover all day, not good news if we were to see the towers at the peak of our hike today.
Not knowing if we would even see the Torres towers after a
We filled our day pack with food and rain gear then stuffed the sleeping bags and tent into our backpacks and stowed them in the cook tent for the day. Both of us felt well rested and ready for our final hike of the W trek.
We headed off with most of our layers on into the cool morning. It was no longer dark but not yet bright. The sun was just coming up, we were on the trail by 5 AM.
I wrapped my wool scarf around my neck and fastened the front of my down coat. Our final trek was ahead of us and we had a deadline. The shuttle from the campground to the park entrance where we would take our bus back to town was scheduled to leave at 6:30 PM tonight. We had to cover about 20 kilometers today with some considerable elevation gain.
As we hiked up into Ascencio Valley the winds cooled us down while the incline kept us warm. I continually took my coat on and off to avoid sweating and then getting chilled from being wet.
At some point, the wind started to pick up. We had to push against it, walking at an angle that otherwise would have had us falling on our faces. This was the famous winds of Torres del Paine, the one that people warned us about, the wind that could blow tents away even when there’s somebody in it. It was unsettling. One side of the trail was a ravine and we stayed clear of the trail’s edge.
We reached a summit and there was a sign that showed the name of the area, just in case somebody didn’t notice I guess. It said, “Windy Pass.”
On the other end of Windy Pass, the trail descended into Campo Chileno and the wind eased up.
Moving with the Storm
We could see the rain ahead of us, we were just on the edge of the storm.
A rainbow appeared in the valley and grew in intensity as we approached. It was one of the brightest rainbows I’ve ever witnessed. It was like a promise for better weather as we trekked higher and higher.
When we reached the edge of the treeline Trin and I sat down to take a break and eat some trail mix. We hoped to give the fog time to lift while we were still in the trees. We knew that once we got above the tree line the winds would chill us through if we were not moving.
As we sat there a couple came down the trail. They had just been at the base of the towers so we asked them if they had a good view. In response, they shook their heads gloomily. The night before, they had stayed at Campo Chileno so that they could catch the sunrise which would put an orange glow to the towers. Unfortunately, the sun didn’t show up for them and the towers were obscured by clouds.
Undaunted, we continued up the mountain. The last portion of the trail wanders through massive boulders leading to the glacial lake that is only visible at the very end of the trail.
We finally climbed over the last boulder and saw the lake. We had made it to the top around 9:30 AM before the crowds. Even with the clouds covering the top half of the towers, the view was astounding. Only a few other people were there sitting around watching and hoping the clouds would lift.
Waiting for the View
We found a rock to sit on, waited, and chatted with other hikers. At rest, our bodies began to cool down and we put on every layer we carried. We watched as strong winds blew mist over the water surface creating fleeting rainbows that danced in the rays of the sun.
For the next half hour, the clouds on top of the towers morphed and undulated in a slow whirl that gave us views of one tower at a time. We waited some more until at last the clouds cleared enough to give us a full view of all three towers. I enjoyed that moment not just for the majestic view but also for how special it is, after all the prep and anticipation and the hiking for the past few days to get here.
An hour passed and clouds had once again descended upon the towers and the cold began to be uncomfortable. We took our final look at the towers and began the return hike. Within a few minutes, we were able to start taking off layers. Once we entered the tree line we were down to our base layers and hiking comfortably down the valley.
We made it back to camp central with plenty of time to make some soup and Trin even took another shower before our 6:30 PM shuttle back to the park entrance.
We were truly blessed with great weather and beautiful views. Torres del Paine is an amazing place. We are so happy we didn’t let our doubts keep us from making the trek.
So many gifts are given freely to us all. We just have to accept them. Go seek and find your blue door.