'W'

Trip Start Apr 27, 2010
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35
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Trip End Apr 13, 2011


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Flag of Chile  , Patagonia,
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Puerto Natales is the stopping off point for hikers on the way to Torres del Paine. It is a small town of modern, low rise buildings perched on the edge of a huge lake, and was founded a century ago as a port to service the sheep farming industry. Much like the other two Chilean towns I'd been to so far, it is a drab and characterless little place. The main purpose of the town now is to cater for hikers, so the town centre is full of outdoor shops and thronged with Berghaus clad tourists. In peak season, the demand for hotel rooms outstrips supply, so the town centre was littered with multicoloured tents, which gave the impression of a refugee camp. 

Thankfully, we had a hotel pre-arranged so were spared the indignity of camping on a roundabout. The interior of our run down hotel seemed to be based on Del Boy's flat, but it was to be our last night in a proper bed for a few days so I tried not to let the tasteless decor affect me too much. After an afternoon of shopping for essentials (chocolate and waterproof trousers) we attended a briefing at our guides office. He explained our route for the next four days - we would be hiking 40 miles or so following the classic 'W’ route, heading up and down three valleys, past glaciers, mountains and along the shores of two huge lakes, amidst some of the planets most incredible scenery. I couldn’t wait to get started!

We had a taste of the scenery in store for us as we drove into the national park the following morning. We passed a turquoise lake and some alpacas munching away by the side of the road, then the peaks of Torres Del Paine loomed into view – three immense granite spires towering above the surrounding landscape, like something from Middle Earth.

Within only ten minutes of walking I was sweating profusely and out of breath. I was shocked at how out of condition I had gotten. It didn’t help that I was totally overdressed though – I had prepared for freezing cold conditions, so wore my thermals and a hat. However, conditions were glorious, blazing sunshine with temperatures of 30 degrees C, which is freakishly good weather for this part of the world. Every few hundred metres I had to stop for breath and remove another layer of clothing. Eventually, the terrain levelled out and took us through a forest and some much needed shade.  After lunch, the hard work began – a two hour slog in the heat up a bare scree covered hillside.

The payoff for my exertion was a view of an alien world – a close-up the Torres del Paine, looming over a brilliant turquoise lake, under a deep blue sky. It was one of the most breathtaking views I had ever seen, and I could have quite happliy spent the rest of the afternoon up there. We only had an hour though, then set off to our campsite for the evening, back along the way we had came. Our tents had already been set up, so the only thing to do was to watch the mountains change colour in the sunset. I was utterly exhausted and after a surprisingly good dinner, managed an unbroken nights sleep in my tiny tent

I woke at 5am the following morning to see the famous views of Torres Del Paine at dawn, when the rocks turn crimson red in the first rays of the sun. My legs were aching, but the hardest days trekking lay ahead  - a 12 mile trek full of steep uphill and downhill sections, past more turquoise lakes and jagged mountains.

The scenery took my mind off my aching legs, but I was relieved to get to our hotel for the night for some much needed rest. That’s what I thought anyway. We were staying at a so called ‘refuge’. It was jam packed with fellow hikers, and my room for the night was a tiny 9 person dorm room, with three triple-decker bunk beds, like something from a POW camp. Sleep was impossible that night, as the chlaustrophobic room was so hot and noisy.

Day three brought some of the fierce winds this area is most famous for. When a gust came along, it was almost impossible to stay upright, and I had to quickly brace myself by holding onto a rock or tree. We were hiking alongside a huge, brilliant turquoise lake, and the wind blew up swirling clouds of mist from its surface which formed rainbows in the morning sun. These rainbow filled mist-clouds came hurtling towards us with the gusts. The overall experience was a akin to a crazy LSD trip - rainbows speeding towards me across a brilliant turquoise lake, under an almost cloudless blue sky.

The rest of the day continued to provide visual wonders - more spectacular lakes, a huge glacier, and evil looking mountains. Due to exhaustion, I was quite happy ambling along at the back of the group taking in the sights and the silence, and enjoying the sense of remoteness being so far from civilisation gave me. With only an hour of daylight to go, I limped in to our next campsite, where once again the tents had already been set up. After a few well deserved local beers, it was time for dinner. The campsite canteen was like a school dining room, and we all had to queue up with plastic aeroplane trays for our helpings of stodge, which was washed down by some rather nice free wine.

I awoke the next morning in my tiny tent freezing cold, and with a hangover and aching legs. I really wasnt in the mood for more hiking, but luckily the last day was only a short 5 mile trek. We hiked along a lake full of brilliant blue icebergs which led up to a glacier. The glacier snaked its way between snow capped mountains, and disappeared over the horizon into one of the worlds largest ice fields. 

A ferry ride across a turquoise lake provided the last views of the mountains before we boarded the bus back to Puerto Natales. I was utterly exhausted, and looking forward to a much needed night of relaxation in a real bed. Unfortunately, in keeping with the frantic pace of the trip, we had to be up at 5am the next morning! We were headed back across the border into Argentina, and the town of Calafate, from where we would get to hike on a glacier.
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