November 21, 2007
Torres del Paine - Day 2: Refugio Paine Grande to Refugio Lo
Refugio Los Cuernos, Chile
Today was destined as the longest day of hiking for anyone who chose to make the trek all the way to the top of Valle del Frances. So a fairly early start was on the docket from Refugio Paine Grande. First call for breakfast in the dining area was 7:30 AM and we were there to try to get an early spot to run through the line for our first fueling of the day. By 8:30 we were packed up and ready to head out for Day 2.
The skies were partly cloudy this morning although any clouds were high and not obscuring any views. In all a picture perfect day for trekking (even better than yesterday in fact). After exiting the boat yesterday we had travelled back south along the west slopes of Paine Grande. At the end of the hike we turned slightly east leaving the shores of Lago Grey and making our way to Lago Pehoe.
This put us almost directly south of the principal peak of Paine Grande. Today's hike would start off with us leaving Lago Pehoe behind and journeying north and east continuing a circular path around Paine Grande. Looking at Los Cuernos, I could also see the slash which marked the valley cut by the Rio Frances. This was our initial destination for the morning section of the hike.
As the trail headed northeast, I covered ground that would prove to be the gentlest and easiest of my time in Torres del Paine. That's a relative measure which meant the trail had only some minor ups and downs and that every few steps I could place my foot on regular soil as opposed to having to balance on a rock or a root or some other obstacle found in the trail.
It was almost a leisurely walk as we covered the distance to the French River and Campamento Italiano (Italian Camp). Sneaking around Paine Grande we began to get glimpses of the snow covered eastern flank of the mountain. A sign of things to come for the afternoon walk up Valle del Frances. To our south and east a variety of small lakes (Skottsberg and others) dotted the landscape before opening up to a view of Lago Nordenskjold. Now we were on the opposite shore from our drive in to the park just 24 hours before.
Our first clue when approaching the French River was the steady roar of rapids from just off the trail. For a short while we paralleled this small but raging river until we reached the suspension bridge to cross over to the eastern side. While not a bridge over a high gorge it was difficult to resist an Indiana Jones joke while crossing to the opposite side. Along this side of the French River one finds Campamento Italiano. Unlike our refugio site last night Italian Camp is a simple campground and a small ranger station. Our plan was not to stay here, but only to have lunch and continue on our journey. We moved downriver a bit to find an open area along the river to eat lunch and enjoy the sun and general warmth of this beautiful day. (Speaking of warmth, the trek today turned quite warm, unusually warm for this time of the area according to our guides and the rangers. I ended up wearing just a long sleeve base polypropylene shirt and my hiking pants and was comfortable much of the day. I had become the guy who was worried about not having enough layers, to hoping I wouldn't need to break out too many short sleeve shirts because I only brought one for the entire trip). As we sat and ate lunch the occasional echo of an avalanche was heard up the valley. With the warm weather the sights of Valle del Frances were going to be stunning.
From Italian Camp and the French River, one has the option of deciding how far up Valle del Frances they wish to go. Since our group included a wide variety of fitness levels and ages and the hike up to Mirador las Torres in two days was the highlight, several of our group decided that they would not hike all the way up French Valley. However there was a viewpoint about 20-30 minutes up the trail and Mauricio convinced them to at least get to that point to see views of French Glacier and also have some views of the lakes from the perch higher in the valley. One nice option on this hike is even being able to leave your packs at the ranger station since it was an up and back journey.
So after lunch and the refilling of water bottles from the French River we were off. After some brief walking through the lenga forest the trail opened up along the rocks above the French River. But the views across the river of the east face of Paine Grande were amazing. Snowpack and drifts graced the upper slopes of the mountain. It was this snow that was falling and collapsing in the occasional small avalanches all afternoon as the energy from the sun reached its maximum. All of this dropped down onto Glaciar Frances. Not as imposing as Glaciar Grey descending from the Patagonian Ice Fields, Glaciar Frances was impressive in its own right nestled in the lower reaches of Paine Grande.
From the sheer icy white up high to the dark rock covered areas nearer the Rio Frances, the mountain and its glacier gleamed in the afternoon sunlight. After reaching a superb viewpoint for the glacier Joann, Ken, Norma, and Carola turned around to begin the descent back to Italian Camp and then onwards to Refugio Los Cuernos. The rest of us continued to attack the valley. A bit further on Scott and Theresa decided to head back as well (as Theresa was bothered by blisters on her feet). At this point we took some more recovery time on a large rock overlooking Rio Frances. (which at this spot was an absolute raging rapid coursing down through the valley). The sound and fury of the river was stunning from our overlook and one small slip off the wrong side of this mini-van sized boulder would have meant serious trouble so everyone was extremely careful. We were able to spend some time watching the smaller avalanches on the face of Paine Grande while we ate some food and drank some fluids.
As Scott and Theresa left to head back down the valley, the final five continued northward (and upward). The valley slowly opened into the massive glacial cirque that forms the top of the French Valley. In the lower sections the trail crossed through a beech forest and crossed many small streams running towards the Rio Frances. These made for extremely slow going on the trail as most had cut steep ditches, and while the trail navigated upward, at each of the 10-15 crossings we had to traverse the 4-10 ft drop to the stream crossing and then climb up the other side over roots, rocks, and mud.
It wasn't that difficult but it was sapping our energy levels that would make the descent and journey to Los Cuernos Refugio an interesting trip. We finally reached Campamento Britannico, a campground used by backpackers. From here it was another short journey as we exited the forest and could finally appreciate the full glory of the cirque around us. From Paine Grande and Los Cuernos which dominates the view from the southern reaches of the park, the valley opened up with a series of mountain peaks that until now had been hidden from view. A final mad scramble up to the viewpoint placed us above the trees and gave us a clear 360 view of the mountains and valley. Traversing from Paine Grande on the west we could see Cerro 2000 (at 2000m elevation), Cerro Catedral, and Aleta de Tiburon (the Shark Fin). On the east was Fortaleza (the Fortress), La Espada, La Hoja, La Mascara, and the peaks of Los Cuernos (Cuerno Norte and Cuerno Principal, Cuerno Este not visible). And to the south we could see many of the lakes of Torres del Paine NP each with its own unique shade of blue merging in with the clear blue skies that we were experiencing on this absolutely picturesque day.
All too soon we had to depart to return down the valley. It was after 3PM and we still had a good 4+ hours of hiking to go (2 hours back down the valley and then 2 hours to Los Cuernos Refugio). The return trek along the Rio Frances was the same way we came up and the section with the stream crossings was probably worse on the way down than on the way up.
The four visitors to Patagonia were all showing some signs of fatigue. At one point I tried to warn Elisa of a low hanging branch, but she was too tired to react quickly enough to the warning. Thankfully she passed under the branch with less than an inch of clearance. For myself it was more about simply losing some of that mental clarity as opposed to being physically exhausted. Like Elisa, I was getting slower to react, less able to catch my balance should I catch my foot on a root or a rock. Which was not a good place to be on the trails that we were covering back down to the camp.
Mauricio stopped and pointed out a Magellanic Woodpecker to us flitting about in a tree. Pulling out a camera to take a picture was too much work at that point. Sometime around that point I pulled out a PowerBar that I had brought with me and passed a bit around to everyone. This helped us get back down to Campamento Italiano where we retrieved our packs from the ranger station (a mental pickup more than anything). We stopped for a bit more refueling and I pulled out some PowerGel and SportBeans. This was a big help, but as we made the final portion of the trek between Cuernos Principal y Este and Lago Nordenskjold, it was still a bit of a slog. There are no pictures from the time we headed back down the valley until we reached the refugio as all efforts were simply focused on reaching our camp for the evening. Finally at 7:30 PM about 11 hours after we left Refugio Paine Grande the final group arrived at Los Cuernos Refugio. I don't think I've ever been part of a more motley bunch than the one that straggled into the refugio that evening.
We settled in our cabins for the evening, showered (be careful of the shower cabin - men's and women's sections of the cabin is separated by 10 ft walls, but a 12 ft ceiling, so you can hear everything on the other side), and settled in for an 8:30 dinner at the refugio dining room. I wasn't particularly enthralled by the evening's meal, but it was nourishment and after the day's activities, I was up for whatever fuel was presented to me. We hung around in the dining room for a while after eating with each group sharing stories of their experiences on the trail. Ken, Norma, Joann, and Carola had seen and captured a large condor flying overhead on their way into the refugio.
I showcased the video I had captured of the 360 degree view at the mirador at the top of the valley. I ordered an expensive can of Coke (about $3) that tasted really good after not having one since I had left home 5 days previously.
As the sun set, the sky exploded in color as clouds and some sprinkles had rolled in on our final approach to the refugio earlier in the evening. The resulting colors over the lake looked like some of the pictures from the southern California wildfires earlier in the autumn. Thankfully this was simply a natural display to end our evening before settling into the welcome relief of sleep.