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February 23, 2013
We took our first step trekking 355 days ago when we began the Overland Track in Tasmania, Australia. Now, after 470 miles of hiking in some of the most incredible cultural and natural places of the world, we completed our twelfth and final trek, in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.
In some ways this trek was similar to our very first one, back in March of last year. When hiking the Overland Track during that time, we walked through a variety of terrain and stayed in huts at night. While less diverse than Tasmania, Torres del Paine still has its share of sheer mountains, deep valleys, bright blue lakes and imposing glaciers. Similar to our time in Tasmania, we used Torres del Paine’s refugio, or hut system, to sleep in at night, saving us pack weight and sparing us from camping in the area’s unpredictably harsh weather.
There are several trekking options in Torres del Paine and we chose the four-day ‘W’ route. It gets its name from the W shape that the trail makes as it travels through the national park. Our first day’s hike was an out and back trek along the right-hand side of the W, to the lookout point where the Torres del Paine, which are peaks of the Cerro Paine Mountain Range, are the most visible. We trekked up and over a ridge and ascended along Valle Ascencio. After crossing the river and hiking through a thickly wooded forest, we came to the point where the real climbing began. A mountain of boulders stood before us. Periodic red markers provided the general direction of the trail but how to get from point to point, scrambling on the rocks, was up to you.
The difficult climb was worth it, as we could see the Torres del Paine towers peaking out as we hiked. Finally we were at the top of the rocks and standing next to a turquoise lake with the three towers clearly above us! It was hard to believe that the tallest middle tower is about 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) high! We ate lunch at the lake, admiring the awesome view, before returning the way we came.
Day two of our hike took us west, along the bottom of the W, between its right and middle sides. We had good, clear weather and enjoyed the five hour trek along Lake Nordenskjold (several lakes are named for European explorers or scientists who made discoveries in the area). To our right we saw the Cuernos del Paine, a mountain range that resembles cuernos, or horns. Early in the afternoon we arrived in the refugio of the same name and checked into our eight bed room. This refugio is located right on the lake so we spent some time relaxing at the water’s edge, soaking up the warm sunshine and taking in the mountain views.
While admiring the mountains we could see a break in the range, signifying the beginning of a valley. The middle portion of the W travels into this Valle del Francés or French Valley, which is surrounded by mountains at its end. This third day of hiking was our longest, as we planned to hike into the valley, back out, and then continue to the bottom left corner of the W to spend our last night. In order to have plenty of time to cover the distance, we began hiking at about 6:45 am, just as it was getting light enough to see ahead of us. We had the trail to ourselves as we hiked at the lake’s edge. There was no sound in the early morning except the lapping water on the rocks and an audible glide from two ducks on the lake coming towards us. We stopped and took in this magical moment before continuing our hike.
After about one hour and thirty-five minutes, we arrived at the beginning of the French Valley. We turned on to the valley trail and soon discovered, much to our surprise, that the route was very steep and rugged, in contrast to our topographical map that showed it to be relatively flat! We hiked and sometimes climbed, for about 2 ½ hours, covering only a discouraging two miles (3.3 kilometers) in the process.
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When we planned out the day’s hike we set a turnaround time for the French Valley portion to allow us time to hike back out and continue 4.7 miles (7.6 kilometers) to our refugio for that night. We were now only 25 minutes away from our turnaround time and still had about 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) to go to the end of the valley. Looking at the increasingly cloudy weather and assessing our already tired state from the strenuous hike, we decided to use the 25 minutes to take a lunch break and then turn around and head back down the valley.
This turned out to be a good choice. While we sat eating lunch, the mountains around the valley disappeared from view behind the clouds and the weather began to turn cold and windy. As we climbed down the trail, we were able to just catch glimpses of the Cerro Paine Grande Mountain and hear the continual sound of snow avalanches and calving from its French Glacier. Finally, back at the beginning of the valley, we crossed over a long swing bridge and headed down the bottom left hand side of the W towards our refugio.
It was during this portion of the trek that we began to see the damage from the late 2011 fire that burned about 7% of the park. While it was sad to see so many burned trees, we also noticed that, just over a year later, new growth was already taking place. We saw beautiful flowers, such as daisies and foxgloves, growing right along the trail. Finally, after 12.1 miles (19.5 kilometers) and a total of ten hours of trekking, we reached the refugio where we spent the night in a six bed room after enjoying dinner at the restaurant.
It began raining right before we arrived at the refugio and it continued throughout the night. We woke up the next morning to a gray and chilly day with rain still falling. It was another early start for us on this final day of trekking. We planned to reach a refugio at the top of the left-hand portion of the W in time to catch a once a day ferry to the hotel where we would spend the night. The hike to the refugio took about four hours in the continual rain, which got heavy at times. This made the steep rocky downhill portions of the track treacherous, so we took our time hiking through these sections.
When we finally saw the refugio in the distance we were happy to get out of the rain but sad that the trekking portion of our expedition had come to an end. While hiking on this last day, we reminisced about some of the previous conditions we had trekked in, including pouring rain, icy snow, deep mud, scorching heat, plagues of mosquitoes and strong winds. There were many favorite moments to share from the past 11 treks as well. We felt so fortunate and blessed to complete 470 miles with no serious injuries and were both teary-eyed as we took those final steps into the refugio to warm up and have lunch while waiting for the boat.
Although the trek was over we still had time to enjoy Torres del Paine. The boat that we boarded took us right next to Grey Glacier and then about 10 1/2 miles (17 kilometers) down the beautiful Lago Grey to its end. Here, we enjoyed a splurge in one of the park’s hotels, complete with a view from our room of the lake and several icebergs!
The next morning the hotel transferred us to the park’s visitor center. Here, we caught a bus to Puerto Natales, where we left our luggage after arriving from Argentina. Our time in Chile has just begun and we will now head north through its fjords on a three day ferry journey which will take us to the city of Puerto Montt.