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10th March
written by Justin

You might think that a two-day horse expedition was enough. We might have been ambitious to think otherwise, but in fact we began our next adventure on the same day that we had our second horse ride. We decided to trek in the Torres del Paine national park, a very famous place in Chile with some spectacular alpine and glacial scenery. However, one does not simply hike for a few hours in Torres del Paine! The park itself is a 2-hour drive from the nearest town (Puerto Natales) and is too large and varied to see even a fraction in a few hours. So we decided to do a 5 day trek instead!

El Mapa

El Mapa - The "W"

Before we departed for horseback riding, we made some preparations. Our backpacks are a perfect size for us, but our stuff is more appropriate for sleeping in hostels than for camping. We rented some of the equipment that we needed at “The Erratic Rock”, a hostel run by some Canadian ex-pats that runs an informational talk (in English) and rental shop.

We liked the talk a lot, as it helped us to know exactly what we needed, but the rentals gave us a little bit of disappointment. It seemed like the equipment was top of the line when purchased, but that they were stretching the life of their stuff just a little too long, and without caring for it much in between rentals. For example, the first tent that we were given had a small hole in the floor. Not A Good Thing! Thankfully we found it before setting off and got a new tent. The second tent had no holes, but one clip was partially broken. We took that one, since it was mostly functional even broken. We were also quite lucky to realize that there was no bag of stakes with our tent. Again, Not A Good Thing since the wind can be really fierce in places, and the fly requires stakes to stay off the tent! The sleeping bags were very large – they were 15F rated bags, so quite warm, but we were worried that they would not fit in our packs! (Thankfully we were able to figure out a system for that). They also needed a good airing out, as the stinky feet of the last customer appeared to have remained with them for a few days after we rented them. Stove and pot were both great, we had a lot of good meals in them, and the stove was fast and small. Sleeping mats smelled a bit but otherwise kept the cold ground away from us.

The talk also reminded us that our clothing was not quite sufficient for the varied weather that we now knew we’d encounter.  The suggested clothing was two separate outfits, one for hiking and one for sleeping.  Both two layers, long underwear tops and bottoms, and a shirt and pants above that.  For the hiking, we also had our fleeces and for the sleeping we had raincoats.  The theory is, the weather changes so much, and the wind is so harsh that the hiking outfit is likely to get sopping wet no matter what you do – wet from rain if you don’t have gore-tex, and wet from sweat if you do.  So save the raincoat for camp where you’re not sweating, and have a set of dry clothing that you can sleep comfortably in.  Then you put on your hiking outfit again in the morning.  It smells, but it really works!

Of course, we did not have quite everything we needed.  I was missing a long underwear top and bottom, and Hazel needed a bottom.  Between that and the other trekking clothes we had enough.  We also bought fleece gloves for $2 a pair (mine said Tlmsdale on the wrist, which is designed to look like the “Thinsulate” logo.  Ah Chinese knockoffs, we love you) and a woolen hat for me for the cold times.

Finally, we needed food.  After a bit of debating, we decided that the simpler the better and had a small list of filling ingredients that would be more or less the same each day of hiking.  We planned for 6 days (one extra just in case something goes wrong) and got:

  • 2 kg rice – this is our staple dinner starch, and the most heavy of our supplies.  1 kg equals approximately 5 cups of rice, so we figured on a little under 2 cups per night for the two of us.
  • 6 tins of tuna in oil – Tuna was our main source of protein, and the oil turned out to be good mixed in with the rice to provide a little fat and flavor.  Hazel was brilliant and made sure we got tins with openers built-in so we didn’t have to carry an opener.
  • About 1 kg gorp – We bought dried fruit and nuts and mixed them together to make a trail mix that would be the basis for our nuts.  Lots of good cashews and almonds provided both proteins and fats and were easy to eat cold.
  • 12 cereal bars – good trail food, and an alternative to gorp for lunch
  • 2 sleeves crackers – also good trail food, but we figured out a much better use for these!
  • 2 100 g tubes of cream cheese – cheese and crackers
  • Powdered juice mix
  • 1 kg oatmeal (instant)
  • 2 bars chocolate
  • Boullion cubes
  • 50g Parmesan cheese
  • Carne seasoning

It was a lot of food!  This was probably the heaviest thing in our packs.  Thankfully, all the water in the park is drinkable!  This was a blessing, since it meant we only had to carry enough water to make it to the next stream, not to carry all 5 days worth.  We simply wouldn’t have made it if we had had to do that.

Once we had the food, we were ready.  Of course, we didn’t know if it would all fit in our packs!  After a great deal of hemming and hawing, we finally got everything together.   It all worked once I strapped my sleeping mat and the tent and fly to the sides of my pack, and Hazel strapped her sleeping mat and the tent poles to the sides of hers.  Our packs bulged, and were heavy, but they had everything we needed!

We can’t recommend our hostel The Singing Lamb enough.  In addition to great cooked breakfast every day, feather duvets and individual lamps per bed, the proprietress Susan has a whole set of lockers at her hostel which she provides gratis to hikers who need to leave some things behind while they’re gone!  We left a bunch of nonessentials behind – papers, Spanish textbooks, flash cards, purses, etc.  This was an amazing amenity and a great help to our cause.  We made sure to stay another two nights when we got back, to recuperate and plan for the next segment of our trip.

So we were armed with heavy packs and a lot of excitement when we set out for the park.  We didn’t know how hard we were being on ourselves at the time, though.  Our first day of hiking, we realized, was the same day as half a day of horseback riding.  On top of that, it was the steepest path we had to take with our backpacks on of the entire trip.  So you could say that we were tired when we finally reached Refugio Chileno around 5pm that night.  We had hiked straight up a large hill for 2.5 hours, and while the views were nice, we could only see one mountain face ahead of us, and a large expanse of Patagonia behind, which is to say sparse sandy land.

The refugio was a really nice little campsite set by a mountain river. There was a building, where you could buy food or rent a bed for a night (some people do the W without camping at all but it’s expensive) and a small camping area in the trees above. We set up camp at a relaxed pace since there was so much daylight left and cooked ourselves some dinner. The menu was – you guessed it – Tuna with Rice! But we decided to doctor it up, so we threw a boullion cube into the water while the rice was boiling, and threw the tuna and oil in right at the end. The rice absorbed all the water, so we had a jambalaya of sorts! Maybe not gourmet, but totally delicious after a really long day. We also treated ourselves to a bottle of Chilean wine from the refugio for making it up that hellish hill and for beginning our journey!

That night was COLD. The wind came right down off the mountains and swept through the valley all night, sweeping away all the heat with it. Our equipment was sufficient, though, and we were finally glad to have those enormous, heavy, but warm sleeping bags that left only our toes chilly that night. We warmed up to a nice pot of apple oatmeal in the morning, and were full and rested enough to begin our trek up to the famous Torres section of the park – thankfully without our packs.

You can find the Torres in National Geographic, on postcards, and in guidebooks, but to really experience them you have to get up close. And the Parque makes you work for that view. For the whole trail up to the miramar (viewpoint), the Torres are completely obscured, or just barely visible over a ridge. You gruel up a 45% grade slope, with rocks mud and scree for an hour, and as you scramble over the last ridge of rocks, you are treated to a vista worth working hard for:

You finally get the full view of the towers, a glacial lake that you never suspected would be this high up, Glacier Torres, and a fabulous rest and lunch of trail mix and bars.

Legs jello, we began the trek down. This part is harder for me than up, since my knees really start feeling it on the way down. Luckliy my trekking poles really help in this department and we made it back to camp without problems. Then trouble began. We were back around 2pm, and we had a decision to make: stay at Chileno another night or move on to Refugio Los Cuernos and camp there. We chose wrong – to break camp and move on. We didn’t realize what was in store for us until it was too late. The map gives this leg as being 6.5 hours, but we were told of a short cut that would cut the corner and make our trek a lot easier and shorter. We estimated about 4 hours, downhill and gentle, and left camp at 3.

We were wrong on all counts. At first the trail was true to our prediction, the shortcut seemed great and life was good. But as we trekked along our packs really started weighing us down. It was likely a combination of the horse riding, walk up to the miramar, and the time of day that we started, but we were beginning to get really exhausted just 2 hours into our trek. An hour later we rejoined the main trail and found that we still had 6 km remaining, and a couple of hills between us and our destination. The last 2 km took us a full hour, we were so tired and sore. But we kept on, and made it to Los Cuernos around 8pm. Our mistake had cost us the enjoyment of that nice long trail by the lake, with ever-changing views of the mountains. We also didn’t stop to take many pictures since we were just trying to make it, one foot after the other.

To top it all off, the campground was nearly full, so we had to set up our tent in a spot with a funny slope and nearly in the bushes. We weren’t the worst off, because there weren’t any rocks in our spot (in fact it was grassy) but we were really wiped out. So we treated ourself to a hot dinner in the refugio. Roast chicken, soup, potatoes, vegetables, chocolate and wine were the menu for the day, and we needed all of it to recover from our endurance challenge of the last few days. We resolved to take it easy the next day and only hike the 2.5 hours up to Campamento Italiano.

The night passed (quite warm, actually) and we got up and had some oatmeal. It was raining off and on, so we decided to hang out in the refugio and rest till it cleared, or until we needed to leave for the camp. Hazel had the intuition that it would dry off after a little bit, and she was right! It was 2pm when we packed up camp and left for the next camp. But luck was not on our side, and as it happens there was a section of very very steep hillside in the middle of the trail to Italiano. The trail was rocky and very windy, and Hazel twisted her ankle! As if that weren’t enough, towards the end my knee threw a fit and I had to sit down for a while! So much for our day of rest. We eventually made it to camp, fighting the wind the whole way. Hazel is proud to have been in a gust so hard that it spun her 180 degrees! Our packs were like little sails and it was difficult to stand up during some of the gusts. I guess they were 50-60 mph winds.

We finally made it to camp and found a site. After we set up our tent, we were lucky to have no more hiking planned for the day so we relaxed and made dinner. This is when I had a genius idea – put the tuna on a cracker with some cream cheese. This was a really delicious alternative to Atun Con Arroz, aka “Rice Surprise”, and reminded Hazel of her delicious NW Salmon crackers that her family is fond of having. We slept really well that night, and were excited for a day completely free of backpacks the next.

To Be Continued…


  1. Nigel Ball

    Wow! Makes me tired just reading about it. In about 15 years when you’ve finally recovered, you’ll have a real sense of accomplishment

  2. Judie DeWitt

    this is quite an adventure!!! Have your knees and ankles recovered(when did your knees get so bad Justin??)
    that view of the peaks/lake were spectacular!!!
    love reading about it..

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