My husband (Barry, the Mountaingoat) and I did a 5-day (four-night) hike of Torres del Paine recently and I thought I’d post my journal in the forum in case it has helpful information for other hikers. We did the “W” from west to east in order to have the relentless wind at our backs for as much of the trip as possible.
Day 1 (Dec 11, 2010)
Up early to have breakfast and be ready for our bus at 7:45. It picked us up right at the corner by our hostel (Niko’s II) and then went around town picking up others.
We were pleased that the weather was great -- sunny with a few clouds — great day to start our trip! Daily temperatures are around 10C - 15C with nights going down to 5C. Windy!
8AM: Bus ride to the park ($15/person). The park entrance is an hour and a half bus ride from Puerto Natales. It takes two hours to get there though because the bus drivers all stop for a break half way there at a restaurant/souvenir stand. Everybody on the bus has just come from a hostel & breakfast and is carrying a heavy back pack that they don’t want to add souvenirs to, so the only person happy about the stop is the bus driver who gets a free meal for bringing a busload of people to the shop.
10AM: Arrived at the park gate and lined up to pay $30/person entrance fee. Back on the bus to travel another half hour where we would take a catamaran along the length of Lago Pehoe.
11AM: Arrived at the east end of Lake Pehoe and waited for the Catamaran that only crosses the lake a few times a day even though it only takes a half hour to cross the lake. We have no idea why it doesn’t just keep going back and forth, but it doesn’t.
12AM: Boarded the catamaran with about a hundred other hikers and traveled along the most beautiful lake of aquamarine color. Cost: $22/ person.
12:30PM: Arrived at the west end of Lake Pehoe and claimed our backpacks from the pile of hundreds.
1PM: Started our hike heading north. This part of our trip created the first part of the “UU” as we walked for 4 hours, mostly high above Lake Grey (aptly titled as it is colored grey from the silt in the glacier at the head of the lake). The trail is a pretty good path with many ups and downs, but the wind is like nothing we’ve ever experienced. It is relentless and varies from 40-50Km/hour to gusts up to 80Km/hour that just about knocked us off our feet. It was almost impossible to take photos and hold the camera steady in this crazy wind. I wore my toque to stop the wind from howling through my ears and giving me a headache. Although it was quite sunny, the clouds hugged the mountain peaks so our photos weren’t very vivid. About 2/3 of the way into our hike we could see the southern end of Glacier Grey and we tried to pose at a mirador (lookout) without getting blown away by the hurricane force winds. We discovered that our hiking poles were not only terrific for hiking, but also for helping to stabilize ourselves against the icy blasts.
Our goal for the afternoon was to arrive at Refugio Grey, just south of the glacier, where we would spend the night.
5PM: Arrived at Refugio Grey and got settled into our dorm room. The kitchen, dining room, and bathrooms are on the main floor, and there are several (four?) dorm rooms upstairs. Each room has four bunk beds so there are eight people in a room that is about the size of a normal bedroom so it’s really crowded. The dorm rooms are co-ed so they’re no place for shy people. The bunk beds have a sheet on them and you can either hike with your own sleeping bag or rent one at the refugio (which we did). We enjoyed a hot shower, a dinner of overcooked mystery meat & rice, and the fact that nobody in our dorm room snored all night. Cost of bed & rented sleeping bag: $40/ person. The first sleeping bag they gave me stunk, so I asked for a different one. We were traveling with sleeping bag liners but found we didn’t really need them. Not because the rental sleeping bags were clean, but because we wore clothes to bed in order to be warm enough.
DAY 2: Refugio Grey to Paine Grande Mountain Lodge
Overcast with some sunny periods and relentless wind.
7AM: Up to get cleaned up, glob on the sunscreen, and get ready for breakfast. We had been told to expect eggs for breakfast, but apparently there weren’t any. Barry paid $10 for Tang, coffee, corn flakes, toast, & jam. I chose to have half my lunch sandwich. At each refugio we bought a take-away “box lunch” that consisted of a large sandwich, a drink, and whatever else they threw in (granola bar, orange, cookies, trail mix, etc. – there really was no consistency in the “extras”).
9AM: We left our heavy packs at the refugio and carried light daypacks as we did a “quick dash” (the Mountaingoat’s phrase, not mine) further north to see Glacier Grey closer up.
Glacier Grey is only the southern end of an enormous ice field that is over 300Km long! Looking down on it, it looks all fractured, like many fingers pointing up. I thought we had “dashed” far enough after an hour, but Barry wanted to see more so he carried on dashing north for another hour while I turned around and started sauntering back to Refugio Grey. I walked so slowly and stopped for so many miradors (and went off the main trail to sit and admire the view at posted miradors) that Barry managed to beat me back to the refugio at 12:30. After our lunch and repacking we were ready to go.
1PM: We started hiking south back to where the catamaran had dropped us off the day before, thus retracing the same first stroke of the “UU.” At the catamaran site there is also a very large refugio where we would spend the night.
5PM: Arrived at Grande Paine Mountain Lodge Refugio. We were tired with very sore feet, but were pleased to see a huge building that looked like a large hotel. We had tried to book a regular dorm bed but they were all filled so we had been upgraded to a two-bunk, four-person room with sheets, comforter, and pillow! It felt like the Ritz! We still had one bathroom for the whole floor to share. The large dining room had tray service like an army mess hall and we enjoyed a chicken and pasta dinner. Cost of made bed: $61 – luxury comes with a price. Unfortunately the showers had only two temperatures: ice cold and scalding hot, so they were a challenge. Even more unfortunate was the snoring man in the other bunk who kept us awake much of the night.
DAY 3: Paine Grande – Frances Valley – Los Cuernos Refugio
Sunny with a few clouds and relentless wind.
6AM: We got up early because we were tired of listening to the snorer and figured we would get an early start to the day. That didn’t happen because breakfast wasn’t served until 7:20. Perhaps it was late because it takes extra time to make scrambled eggs as runny as soup.
8:20AM: We started our day with a two-hour hike heading east. The trail was pretty easy but the wind was blowing from the north and at times almost knocking us off the path. When we got to a campsite called Italiano, we left our heavy packs at this base camp and took light day-packs with us to “dash” north up the Valle de Frances and see the stunning mountains and glaciers.
10:30: Started our dash north. This was a difficult hike for me, not because it was steep (which it was) but because the trail was very rough. I was too slow for the Mountaingoat. After 1.5 hours we came to a stunning mirador and I decided I had had enough fun on this part of the hike. After posing for photos in gale-force winds I decided to head back while Barry carried on north up the valley for another hour.
12:30: Back down at base camp, I had lunch (1/2 hour) and then decided to carry on with the eastward hike at a leisurely “girly” pace. This part of the hike was very difficult due to the rough trail and the winds that were strong enough to almost blow me off the trail a few times. Unfortunately there were also some creeks to cross that didn’t have bridges. Barry usually helps me with creeks. He takes both our packs and just skips across the rocks (he must have been the original “River Dancer”) then skips back and offers his hand and steadies me as I slowly, shakily make my hesitant way across. I’m quite a “fraidy cat” with creek crossings. While crossing one creek that afternoon I slipped off a rock and ended up in the water — that meant hiking for the next hour with wet feet. I don’t understand why the park hasn’t built bridges over the creeks! The hike was along Lago Nordenskjold and although the trail was usually about 25 meters above the lake, the wind was whipping the water up enough that I could feel the spray high up above the lake. I could look down and see the water being blown by the wind the same way snow is blown in a blizzard. It was the first time I’ve ever seen a “water blizzard!”
4PM: I finally arrived at our refugio for that night. We had decided to splurge and booked one of the cabanas at Los Cuernos. The good news was that we had a cabana to ourselves. The bad news was that they had twin beds and all the cabanas shared one common bathroom. Staying in the cabanas also meant that we had to hike outdoors to get to the shared bathroom – not much fun at night in the wind and rain!
4:30PM: Barry the Mountaingoat arrived at the Cabanas Cuernos. Even though he had hiked one hour further north (and then had to hike back again for another hour) he was only a half hour behind me arriving at our refugio.
One of the appeals of the cabanas was that they came with a hot tub. It was a big round wooden tub heated by a wood fire. The stove was smoking and I felt the water — it was warm enough and our aching old joints were looking forward to the soothing warmth. We treated ourselves to a can of beer from the refugio and got ready to soak our weary bodies in the tub. To our dismay, only the top few inches of the water were warm. Remember your old physics lesson about hot water rising. The rest of the tub was ice cold. Apparently they had just started to heat the tub. When another couple tried it at 7PM it was barely warm enough for them. I figure it would have been just right around 11PM when the staff was finished work for the day and all the hikers were in bed. Price for a cabana: $131.
The disappointments just kept on coming at Los Cuernos. We went for dinner at the refugio. It was supposed to be served at 7:30 (first sitting) but didn’t get served until 8:20 — just about our normal bedtime on this trip. The bread they served us had not risen and had only been baked on the outside crust. We could pull the slice of bread and the gluten in the dough stretched. It was totally inedible. The overcooked chicken was accompanied by undercooked rice. The worst meal, most disorganized refugio staff, and worst bathrooms of our trip.
DAY 4: Los Cuernos – Refugio Chileno – Torres – Chileno
Slight drizzle this morning, but it cleared to hot and sunny skies later in the day. The relentless wind was calm until the afternoon so there were bugs in the air. Yippee.
8AM: Presuming that the disorganized staff would be as inefficient with breakfast as they had been with dinner the night before, we slept in and went for a lousy breakfast. Unfortunately the staff met our expectations.
9AM: Our hike today continued heading east for about two hours. We then turned north-east (taking a shortcut that is well-marked on the path, but not marked on the map) to start the last part of the “UU” and the hike up the valley towards the crown of the park: the Torres.
1:30PM: We arrived at Refugio Chileno, which is the refugio at the base of the Torres, and our accommodation for the night. We had not been able to reserve a bed in this refugio (it’s summer, high season and very crowded here) so we had settled on renting a tent and sleeping bag. We got checked into our tent and asked to be notified if there were any no-shows for the bunk beds in the refugio. We ate our lunch at picnic tables outside in the sunshine and decided that since it had become a glorious sunny day we should keep going to the summit to see the Torres in the sunshine that afternoon rather than waiting for the next day as we had originally planned.
2PM: With only our light day packs, we started a steep hike up to the Torres. After an hour it got really steep and tough going for another 45 minutes. But what a stunning reward at the top — the Torres (towers) with blue skies and glorious sunshine! We couldn’t believe how incredibly lucky we were to experience the Torres without clouds!
4PM: We hiked down (1 hour, 45 minutes).
6PM: We celebrated our good fortune with a couple of beer. Then got showered and ready for dinner. We had noticed at other refugios that the campers were inside using the refugio showers, so we did the same here. Great bathrooms here that were kept very clean.
7:30PM: Dinner in the refugio of undercooked rice and overcooked meat. We were still hopeful that a couple of people had been blown off the mountain so there would be two spare beds for us in the refugio that night rather than us having to sleep in a tent. A young lady from Spain who was also tenting was in the same situation and we both kept asking the lady at reception and being told that there were no beds. When we talked with fellow hikers at dinner we learned that they had empty bunks in their rooms. Finally the Spanish lady persevered and was told that there were two unclaimed beds but we’d have to pay for them ($40 per bunk) AND still pay for our tent site ($50). I declined just because of the principle of the matter of having to pay twice. The Spanish lady did the same. Sleeping in the tent wasn’t too bad except that the camping area was right next to a noisy generator and smelly sewage treatment area, and each tent was right next to its neighbor. We had paid extra to have two sleeping pads but they are so thin that they’re pretty much useless. Thank goodness for sleeping pills!
DAY 5: Refugio Chileno, TDP – Puerto Natales
Rainy, cloudy, windy.
7AM: We woke to rain blowing sideways. We looked up to the Torres and couldn’t see them — they were completely hidden by clouds that looked like snow! We felt so sorry for the people who had planned to get up in the middle of the night and be at the summit for sunrise. We were again amazed at our incredible luck from the previous day’s clear blue skies and brilliant views of the Torres. We had a leisurely breakfast and packed up our gear to start our hike south, down the last leg of the “UU” to end our adventure. The path was very steep and we were pleased that we were going down and not up for this part of the route!
10:30AM: Arrived at the end of the hike where there is a large, luxurious, expensive hotel. We peaked into it and were impressed with how lovely it was. But what would you expect at over $500 a night!? We found a comfy couch in a salon area and hung out reading a book while we waited for the afternoon shuttle.
2:15PM: We caught the 2:00 shuttle bus from the hotel to the park entrance ($5 / person for a 15 minute, 7.5 Km trip to the park gate). At the park gate (Laguna Amarga) we transferred to the bus to go back to Puerto Natales ($15/person). The bus driver stopped for his free lunch at the restaurant/souvenir shop halfway back while we all waited eagerly to just get back to our hostels.
5:30PM: Arrived back in Puerto Natales and immediately handed in our laundry at our hostel, Niko’s II. It was good to be “home” and sleep in a real bed in a private room with a private bathroom!
7PM: We went out to our favorite restaurant (Picada de Don Carlitos) and celebrated with the lamb – it was excellent!
Important NOTE: Travel with your passport (or a copy of your passport) and the paper you get when you cross the border to enter Chile. The refugio staff may insist on seeing these if you are paying in US dollars (even if you paid in advance) in order to ensure that you don’t need to pay the tax.
Meals: Prices at the refugios are quoted in both Chilean pesos and US dollars, but the exchange rate isn’t very accurate. Apparently it’s because of the tax. Expect to pay about $10-11 for breakfast, $13-15 for a box lunch, and $18-20 for dinner. You do not have to reserve your meals in advance, but you do need to request them and pay for them when you arrive at the refugio (except Paine Grande which is like a cafeteria).