Torres Del Paine
Day 1. 12 Nov 18. Rifugio Las Torres to Seron. 16 km 438 up. 412 down. 5 hours.
After passing through Laguna Amarga entrance and again at Las Torres the trek can start. Initially climb north up the track for a good km until you pass the geodesic camping pods where the track peters out and a path through the scrub starts. There are some tantalizing views to the west towards the glaciated Almirante Neito and snippets of the Torres, before the ridge to the west of the path rises to obscure them.
After a couple of km where the path climbs through scrub you reach the first of the nothofagus beech forest where large lenga trees dominate the forest and dappled light filters through to the grassy floor. The path now contours across the hillside for 3-4 km across easy terrain with increasing views to the NE down across the Rio Paine valley and Laguna Azul beyond. The path then descends down to the river and you have to wade a small stream where the path eventually meets the valley floor. From here there is an easy delightful 5 km walk north up the valley floor on the west side of the huge Rio Paine.
The going is very easy and the scenery is pleasant with modest hills to the North and East across the river and larger hills directly to the west. This pleasant saunter through scrub and open pasture leads to Seron, where there are both self-camping, and also serviced camping facilities with tents, sleeping bags and meals provided.
Day 2. 13 Nov 2018. Seron to Dickson. 20 Km. 597m up. 520m down. 7 hrs.
From Seron the path heads down to the river, where there is rich birdlife in the pastures and scrub. It follows the river for a very pleasant couple of km as it heads north with modest mountains on each side. The path then climbs over a small spur as it veers west and then descends to a clear crescent shaped lake rich with wildfowl.
Further west of this lake the path now starts a more sustained climb up a dry stony ridge covered in mounds of cushion plants climbing a couple of hundred metres to gain a fantastic view to the west. Below lies Paine Lake, coloured light green with glacial silt. The lake fills the valley and beyond the delta at the far end is the wide open Paine Valley with the large silty river meandering down it. At the far end of the valley are the jagged peaks on the east fringe of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap. These peaks hold the ice back like a giant dam. The path now makes an easy descent down to the west end of the lake near the delta and then it leaves the scrub and cushion plants and heads back into the nothofagus forest with its mostly Antarctic Beech with a few larger Lenga’s here and there. Not far into the forest is the Coiron Ranger Station where your reservations to Dickson and Perros are checked and if not in order you are ordered to return. It is easy to bypass the rangers by going through the forest. After Coiron the route now goes west along the River Paine flood plain for about 8 km through scrub and across grassland with a steadily improving view. To the south is a modest rocky ridge some 1000 metres above the Paine Valley with an illegal off piste route over the Oggioni Pass from Valle del Silencio which I sneaked over in the early 1990’s the previous time I did this circuit. To the north and west the mountains get ever more impressive and a chink in the rampart of peaks appears allowing a glacier to push through and head down to the north end of the still unseen Dickson Lake. The scenic saunter across the valley floor is easy and the 8 km pass quickly. For the last 2 km the path climbs up over a spur at the top of which a fantastic view bursts upon you over Dickson Lake.
The dull green/grey lake stretches north to the foot of the glacier draining the icecap. Icebergs line the shore of the lake where they have been blown from the calving area at the north end. It is a steep descent down the spur to the shore of the lake where Rifugio Dickson sits on a flat pasture. Here there are facilities for independent campers, and also for those wanting rooms or already set up tents for lodging and a set menu.
Day 3. Dickson to Los Perros. 14 Nov. 13.5 Km. 544m up. 218m down. 4.5 hours.
From the beautiful open setting of Dickson head SW back into the nothofagus forest and start the gentle climb. The path weaves through the large lenga trees, high above the Rio Los Perros, for a good 90 minutes until you reach a spur with a clear view down to Dickson Lake and further up the main valley towards the John Garner Pass. Descend the spur into the side valley where the clear Rio Cabeza de Indio tumbles down a side valley to the south. Cross it on a bridge and then veer west up the silty Rio Los Perros. The small path again winds through the lenga trees for another 2 hours. The continual forest here boast some magnificent clusters of Lengas which dominate. Beneath the. The forest floor is rich with a prostrate understory and ferns. Certainly the terrain is becoming wetter than the last 2 days. The path crosses the larger and silty Rio Los Perros twice before it starts a rocky climb up the old moraine of the Glacier Perros. The forest now becomes sparse shrub as the path climbs the stony moraine until a great view over a glacial lake, clogged with ice, and the glacier just beyond it. From this view point the path weaves through moraine mounds for a rocky km to reach a small sheltered copse of larger lenga trees. The Los Perros camp is in the middle of this copse. There are set up tents and sleeping bags for rent or you can set you own up here, both with prior booking.
The food provided by the camp as rustic army catering supplies which self cook. From here it is 6 hours through the treeline over the rocky pass and down the other side so it makes a good place to camp.
Day 4. Los Perros to Grey. 15 Nov. 20km 1215m up. 1720m down. 9.5 hours.
An early start is needed at Los Perros, 580m, for this long day which starts with a slow climb through difficult terrain with wet areas covered in tree routes and windfall. This awkward terrain lasts for about 2 km, but none of it is steep. Eventually you emerge from the gnarly forest onto the open slopes where there are just clusters of beech scrub. Ahead lies the pass in the southernmost of two gentle dips in the undulating ridge. The mountains on each side of the pass are anything but undulating with jagged peaks and snowfields between high glaciers.
The path, marked by red stakes, slowly climbs on the south side of the river into the drainage fan high up on the stony slopes towards the pass. It takes about 2.5-3 hours to reach the pass at 1200m from Los Perros, which can be seen from the saddle. The other side of the pass is dominated by the massive Grey Glacier which drains south from the Southern Patagonian Icecap, visible at the head of the glacier. Its fissured, rutted surface stretches 5 km from one side to the other, making it almost impossible to cross.
The path initially zig zags gently down the easy stone path for the first km but after it reaches the forest it plunges steeply down, initially through scrub and then past ever increasing lenga trees, some almost a metre in girth and 30 high. All the time the enormous Grey Glacier can be seen through the forest canopy as you descend. Occasional flocks of parakeets can been seen in this canopy with the glacier beyond. The path drops some 800 metres from the pass to eventually reach Passo after 2.5 hours of descent. There is a ranger station and uninviting campspot here at about 400m, but most people elect to continue to Grey. The walk to Grey is only some 8 km but the first half is slow with frequent climbs and descents through the beautiful lenga trees whose roots are strewn across the path. After an hour you cross a deep torrent-carved ravine on a 100 long airy suspension footbridge with excellent views. The path now returns to the forest for another half hour of slightly easier walking through the lenga forest to a second and even more airy suspension bridge over a deep gorge. The bottom of the gorge spills into the lake near where the glacier carves icebergs into the lake.
From here the path is much easier with infrequent climbs as it gently descends another half hour to a third suspension bridge. The last hour is a delight as the path descends on an easy flat path through the forest to reach Grey, 65m, where there is a tented city and a large refugio offering a variety of food and lodging which all needs to be prebooked.
Day 5. 16 Nov. Grey to Paine Grande. 11.5km. 451m up. 473m down. 3.5 hours.
From Rifugio Grey the path gently undulates along the slopes above the lake for a few km generally keeping a few hundred metres from the shore. A few icebergs are scattered along here. Unfortunately this area suffered a large forest fire in 2011, which burnt 15,000 hectares of prime nothofagus forest. As a consequence there are views down to the lake, over to the glacier and up the flanks of Paine Grande mountain, but the barren hillside is littered in blackened stumps with a few colonizing plants establishing themselves. The path climbs steadily up over a spur for a few km to reach its crest some 5-6 km after leaving Grey. There are great views back to Grey Glacier and up the steep flanks of Paine Grande. The descent down to the SE is a pleasant saunter with the azure blue waters of Lago Pehoe beckoning in the distance, making a fine contrast with the dull brown of Lago Grey. After a few km the path passes the picturesque Laguna Patos tarn before it drops into a ravine. The ravine twists and turns a few times before it spills out onto a grassy meadow beside Lago Pehoe.
This meadow has been taken over by Rifugio Paine Grande and the multitude of fixed tents beside it. One can rent a tent and sleeping bag or opt for more luxury in the refugio, all with prior booking. To the north of the refugio rises the steep craggy mountain of Paine Grande. This massive block is the highest in the park at 3012m.
Day 6. Paine Grande to Camp Francais. 17 Nov. 24km. 1069m up. 913m down. 9.5 hours.
Head NE from Paine Grande over gently undulating ground for a couple of km to reach Lago Skottsberg, which is an oasis in a sea of barren fireburn. Follow the west shore of the lake for another couple of km towards the gapping French Valley which is a deep trench between the craggy serrated ridges of Paine Grande and the distinctive ochre coloured towers of the Cuernos del Paine with their black caps. It is just a couple more km through the fireburn area until the ancient forest is reached again near the tumbling stream which drains the French Valley. Cross a bridge to reach the so called Italian Camp, where you can leave much of your hiking gear for the return journey up this magnificent valley. It takes about an hour to walk up through mixed Nothofagus forest to the French viewpoint. This stunning vista looks over the heavily glaciated east face of Paine Grande. As you watch huge seracs should break off and tumble down the cliffs showering the large glacier below with smashed blocks of ice, which reconstitute to form a new glacier. High above are the peaks of Paine Grande with its mushroom like snow structures near the summit.
For many this mountain vista is enough but the path continues for another 2 hours up past the east ridge of Paine Grande to the rustic tree branch and plastic shelter of Camp Britanico. The way is generally easy as it slowly ascends through the forest with many stunning views in all directions. Once you pass the east ridge of Paine Grande you enter a hidden cirque of mountains which is truly breathtaking. Towers, serrated ridges, and small glaciated cirques almost envelope you. Apart from the forested French Valley there are very few chinks in the armour of this precipitous world. From the ruined Camp Britanico it is a half hour climb up to a viewpoint on a knoll at the treeline.
There is no access beyond this now but previously I went on for another 1.5 hours to a col to the south of Pic Fortaleza. From this now forbidden spot there is a rare and magnificent view to the west side of the Torres del Paine and over the sheer lip of the col down the Valle del Silencia. 3 rapells are needed for this route. From the viewpoint above Britanico Camp it is about 3 hours back to Italian Camp at the valley entrance. On the descent you are blessed with great views of the Cuernos and down onto the islands in the turquoise Lago Nordernskjold.
Once back in Italian Camp retrieve your stuff and continue east. The route goes across some meadows where Coigue nothofagus dominate and then over a spur to reach the flanks of the Cuernos where Camp Francais lies in the forest between mountain and lake. It takes about half an hour to cover the 2 km between Camps Italian and Francais. Italian is camping and self catering only while Francais has board and lodging, and camping, all with prior booking.
Day 7. Francais to Torres Central via Torres Lookout. 18 Nov. 36 Km. 2529m up. 2482m down. 13 hours.
This day is an amalgamation of the normal last 2 days if the weather forecast dictates it by being good on Day 7 and poor on Day 8, as it was for us. Leave early with a packed breakfast and lunch and certainly by 0630. It takes an hour to walk the undulating track through nothofagus and firebush forests keeping above the turquoise lake to reach Rifugio Cuernos. Pass through and continue east undulating across open hillside under the huge ochre coloured towers of the Cuernos, with gaping chasms between them. Below Lago Nordernskjold reaches east to its inflow delta where the Rio Paine enters. Its waters are often ruffled with downdrafts from the mountains. Some 4 hours after leaving Francais you reach a junction with one fork continuing to Refugio Torres Central and the other heading up to Camp Chileno.
Take the latter and climb steadily for a long hour across beautiful open country with few walkers and a beautiful lake as you skirt round the lofty flanks of Almirante Nieto. This route climbs above the Ascension Valley and eventually meets the path coming up from Refugio Torres Central, where you meet hordes in tour groups. The path now skirts the gravel covered west side of the Ascension Valley for a short hour and it undulates down to Camp Chileno. If the wind is blowing there are a couple of spurs on this section where violent gusts may strike. Just before Camp Chileno the path crosses the river on a bridge. Camp Chileno exists to cater for day hikers, with fast food and music and is an intrusion. From Chileno the path, which closes at 1500 hrs, up the Ascension Valley can get very busy with up to 1000 people a day passing up it. It follows the river for a bit, then crosses it and undulates through an ancient beech forest with huge lenga trees. After a short 2 hours the path reaches the Torres Ranger Station and the end of the forest. There is a magnificent view up the rest of the Ascencion valley here to the now restricted Japanese Camp and the to the east of Oggioni Hill is Papa Glacier which I sneaked up and over to Rifugio Dickson some 25 years ago, when the Park was not so regulated and much less visited.
From the ranger station the path, which closes at 1600 hrs here, now climbs west steeply up wooded moraine for a short hour. The views do not improve rapidly with height until the last few metres when one traverses across the moraine and nips through a slot when the 3 Torres del Paine burst into view. They themselves are extremely impressive, but this is enhanced further by the plinth they sit on which rises vertically from a jade coloured lake in a massive rocky amphitheater. It is no surprise this is often voted as one of the great views of the world.
It takes a good 8 hours to get here from Camp Francais. In good weather one needs a good hour up here to soak up the vista, which is the jewel in the crown for the Torres del Paine Circuit trek. The return to Chileno is quite quick and it takes some 2 hours to reach the rope barrier to stop people ascending after 1500 hrs. It is further hour from the garish Chileno Camp and back across the gravel flank of the valley to the junction of the paths. The left fork is the one to take as the right fork is the one ascended earlier in the day from Camp Francais. The left fork heads down the large braided path on top of the spur above the deep Ascencio Valley with its exposed striated rock and within an hour the valley floor is reached. Turn east here and saunter past the large expensive hotel to Rifugio Torres Central. There is camping, already set up tents for rent and lodging here, in addition to food. This is the end of the circuit and it will probably necessary to spend the night here before taking the bus back to Puerto Natales the next day.