High above Lago Paine, the Patagonian wind hits: A particularly strong gust sweeps us off our feet and into the aptly named bushes of prickly heath. We lick some blood from our pricked fingers and continue into the valley and towards the campsite at Lago Dickson. It is our first day of the Torres del Paine circuit trekking in the Chilean Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.
The Patagonian weather
Already, we have had to change in and out of our rain gear several times during the hike. “So, this is the notorious Patagonian weather!,” we think, nodding off to the sound howling wind and dropping rain.
The next day the weather is still unsettled. A skinny Brit is walking in sneakers and with no other rain gear than a “mac in a pack,” a garment like a plastic bag in raincoat shape. He is carrying no tent, and the next campsite where he can rent one is about 10 hours walk away, according to the map. “Oh well, I like adrenalin things,” he says casually while examining his blisters.
Although the 6 to 8-day “circuit” is well-marked and not particularly demanding, it is considered as the real “challenge” in the park, and to our surprise we meet no other women-only groups on the trail.
In comparison to the more popular “W” route on the southern side of the mountains, there are fewer refugios here, and the trail crosses the often stormy Paso John Gardner, at 1241 meters the highest point on the Paine circuit.
When we walk over the pass, we are lucky to have excellent weather and none of the dreaded wind at all. On our way up, we even have leisure to pick some tasty pink berries from those bushes of prickly heath for our breakfast cereals.
The Grey glacier !
From the top of the pass we get the first amazing views onto the Grey Glacier. Its fractured ice sheets are stunningly blue, as is Lago Grey, the lake beyond. Chunks of light-blue ice are drifting in the greyish-blue water. A certain type of artificially blue candy popular in our childhood, which was called glacier bonbon, comes to our minds. And indeed, the “Paine” in the park’s name means “pale blue” in an indigenous language.
This night we stay at the Campamento Los Guardas, one of several gratis camp sites in the park.
Fellow trekkers on the Torres del Paine circuit
“Do you know what is wrong with my stove? Yesterday it worked!” Two boys are fumbling with a liquid fuel stove, complaining that the gasoline is just flowing over. Like them, most of the hikers we meet have apparently never pitched a tent or used a camping stove before renting one from their hostel in the nearby town of Puerto Natales. Their lack of outdoor experience and consciousness of environmental pollution is obvious near the campsites and along the trail. Often the banks of little fresh-water rivers are littered with toilet paper, and we meet people merrily sitting in the streams covered in soap and shampoo, proud to match their own image of a hardened outdoor guy.
“Are you coming to the bar? Two Pisco Sour for one during the happy hour! I don’t even know what it is, but everybody is talking about it…,” a German woman is pleading with some new acquaintances. We have reached the W-route, which allows trekkers to move only short distances between comfortable refugios and take in the spectacular lookout points up in the valleys as day trips from there. In this part of the park the agreeable Chilean national drink made from grape spirit, lime juice and sugar is readily available and accompanied by stunning views over the oddly shaped peaks from the bar window. Even Isa admits after the second drink that another two would be entirely acceptable.
On the last day we get up at 4:45 to see the sunrise at the famous “towers,” the Torres del Paine. At first the rock is just disappointingly grey. But suddenly its colour changes to a baby pink and then into a flaming orange. On our way back to the campsite, we come across some more prickly heath bushes. Just right for a delicious berry breakfast on our last day of trekking the Torres del Paine circuit!