Sapphire Dyneema Gridstop and a flash of bright yellow. The sight was so familiar to me, yet so unexpected. I elbowed Danny in the ribs. “Look, that guy has my same backpack!” I whispered and surreptitiously pointed three rows ahead.
As we funneled off the modern bus and lined up at immigration, I made sure to navigate towards the owner of this pack, as he was certain to be an interesting guy. We were 20 kilometers outside of Puerto Natales, crossing into Chile from Argentina, on our way to Torres del Paine National Park. Danny and I had been traveling for almost 3 months in Latin America and had yet to see the GoLite brand.
“I love your backpack!” I said to this tall, smiling stranger. He introduced himself as Steve, and we soon learned that he had finished thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail a few months earlier. As we helped our new friend eat the bananas and oranges that customs’ officials wanted to confiscate from his GoLite Pinnacle, we exchanged hiking tales and talked gear. He was on his way to Torres del Paine as well.
After two busy days of preparation, the three of us took the ferry across Lago Pehoé to begin our trek in the park. Steve was doing the classic “W” hike, as he only had four or five free days. Danny and I brought enough supplies for 10 days, and were planning to hike the “Q” route. After our last fresh meal for a while – avocado and tomato sandwiches – we said goodbye to Steve and promised we’d meet again.
Refugio Paine Grande. Kristin’s pack, Steve’s pack, Danny’s pack (left). Danny and Steve posing in front of a field of rental tents and Paine Grande (right).
The first day we hiked up the Valle del Frances, from Refugio Paine Grande to Campamento Británico. Midway up the valley we stopped here, beneath Paine Grande, to have a leisurely lunch break while listening for glacier movement and watching for mini avalanches.
Whereas most backpackers stop at the lower Campamento Italiano, which is usually overcrowded and heavily impacted, we hiked a bit further up to Campamento Británico. This was our view from camp of Aleta de Tiburon (Shark’s Fin), at the end of Valle del Frances (Frenchman’s Valley).
Rather than descend back down Valle del Frances, we decided to hike further to see if we could traverse across a high pass. Behind Danny, and slightly hidden by clouds, are Cota 2000 and Catedral Peaks.
We found one set of tracks in the snow that stopped before the pass. Near the top we realized that late spring conditions would prohibit us from continuing further. We weren’t prepared to circumnavigate the glacier in the saddle, as the snow obfuscated the edges. Kristin is shown here hiking underneath Fortaleza (Fortress).
We returned down Valley del Frances and enjoyed the mellow hiking on this well-defined trail along Lago Nordenskjold.
Leaving the open views of the lake behind, we turned into Valle Ascensio. The trail continued to gain elevation up to Campamento Torres.
The next day, we awoke at 4:30am and hiked 45 minutes to this point, where we watched the first rays of the sun splash red hues onto the Torres del Paine.
We spent a day hiking up Valle Ascensio and into Valle del Silencio, coming to a dead-end underneath the imposing Fortaleza and Escudo (Spanish for “fortress” and “shield”).
Returning down Valle Ascensio, we followed the meandering trail along the Rio Paine. It took us to the backside of the range where we found a milder, greener landscape and fewer backpackers.
After a week without precipitation, a rarity in Patagonia, this is probably the driest the trail ever gets.
As we climbed higher towards John Gardner Pass, the trail disappeared under snow pack. We were able to navigate without any problems, thanks to the relatively clear weather. Our feet were wet after several hours of hiking on the snow in trail runners without gaiters. We were able to easily dry off and warm up at the next camp.
After we hiked up and over the pass, we stopped in unison, awe-struck. Before us was the vast glowing beauty of Glacier Grey, a teeny, tiny tip of the Patagonian Ice Field. It was the most stunning vista we’d ever experienced.
We descended from Glacier Grey to Refugio Torre Grande to complete the hiking loop. After picking up our small cache of food and fuel from the refugio, we continued hiking south. We crossed the Rio Grey, then hiked northwest to this point, where we admired the roar of the Rio Pingo Waterfall.
Our final trek led us to the origins of Rio Pingo, where we enjoyed the solitude and understated power of Pingo Glacier.
We packed up camp early on our last day and walked to Park Headquarters. While waiting for the bus back to Puerto Natales, we stretched out our worn bodies in the soft grass and enjoyed the warm sunshine.