Torres del Paine - Day 1: Into the Park and Lago Grey to Ref
The alarm dragged me from sleep very early in the morning (6:00 AM) as we had an early departure time of 6:50 AM for the trip north to Torres del Paine. A nice continental breakfast in the hotel, a quick walk around outside the hotel and then we were in the van and heading out. On the outskirts of Puerto Natales we could see Dorotea where we had hiked the previous evening. Less than 30 minutes north of town the paved road came to an abrupt end and for the remainder of our journey (indeed, until I entered Argentina 5 days hence) we would be traveling on ripio (gravel) roads of various quality to and around the park.
So the pace of the journey slowed with the road conditions but that simply gave us more time to appreciate the sights and sounds around us.
Our journey kept us mainly to the steppe and the low rises east of the mountains, but almost always there was a range to our north and west as we travelled northward. Finally, coming around the shadows of a small mountain and out into the steppe again I finally had my first views of the Paine Massif (the entire line of mountains that make up the main sites of Torres del Paine). Truly a site to behold as the range literally rises straight up from the flatter lands where we were driving.
Our destination for the morning was the western edge of the massif and Lago Grey. So we had the opportunity to drive through the entirety of the park and enjoy some of the outstanding views. Shortly after our first views of the Paine Massif, we were greeted by the mesmerizingly blue waters and calcium deposit ringed shore of Lago Sarmiento. Lago Sarmiento is one of the few non-glacial fed lakes in the park so the water color is significantly different from the other lakes we saw through the course of the week.
Clouds and currents flitted around the peaks such that each view offered a strange vision and photo opportunity. I caught sight of some of the wildlife of the park. Guanacos (a relative of the llama) and rheas (an ostrich relative, also known as a nandu) are very common in the steppe and lower hills of the park. I also saw some pink flamingos on one of the smaller lakes (lagunas) although they were too distant to get any decent pictures (other than little pink dots on the water). As we officially entered park territory at Sarmiento Porteria (station) I even saw a Patagonian fox wandering along the road.
Entering the park we had turned west and were travelling with the northern shore of Lago Sarmiento on our left. The next lake to appear was Lago Nordenskjold to our north. Looking across this lake I had some close up views of Los Cuernos (the horns) so named for the change in rock strata evidenced by the different color rock at the top of the peaks giving them their "horn" appearance. Between Los Cuernos and the lake is also where I would be walking tomorrow and Thursday. Lago Nordenskjold was also a more turquoise color than the deep blue of Sarmiento due to more dissolved sediment from the glaciers that flow downstream into this lake system.
The road turned south to get around Lago Pehoe and cross the Rio Paine. It is along this section of road that Hosteria Pehoe can be found on a small lake in Lago Pehoe and that the Explora Hotel sits where Lago Pehoe empties into the Rio Paine. After crossing the Rio Paine, the ripio road becomes extremely rough on the final approach to Lago Grey, but we eventually reached the drop off point for our boat journey to the north end of the lake and our journey to the face of Glaciar Grey.
Our early start gave us some opportunity to explore the south shore of the lake. The shore we were exploring was the terminal moraine of the glacier hundreds if not thousands of years ago. It was a very fine pebbly (but not sandy) surface that was extremely difficult to walk across. Large icebergs floated off shore for us to examine and a short walk to a viewpoint gave some better views of the icebergs and of Glaciar Grey itself 17km away.
As noon approached we returned to the dock to board the Grey II that would take us on our boat journey. A small zodiac-type craft took us from the dock to the Grey II itself and we were off on the next phase of the journey. After 10-15 minutes we were allowerd up on the deck to view the scenery from outside. The weather today was cool and the wind was coming straight down off the glacier from the Heilo Sur (Southern Ice Cap). As long as you were in the protection of the bridge it wasn't so bad. If you leaned out to capture a picture you needed to be prepared because the wind would grab you and spray from the lake would get you wet. But the views were too magestic to sit inside and view from behind the glass panes of a window. Odd ice formations on Paine Grande. We supposed that ice was condensing and freezing directly from the clouds to cause that grainy layer on the mountain.
We were greeted by the occasional iceberg but the early oddity were the ice crystals on Paine Grande. Lost in the clouds swirling among the peak the rocks glistened in a coating of ice. The best we could come up with was that the clouds/fog were condensing and then freezing immediately on the mountain surface to cause this strange sight (see pic).
As we continued north the icebergs grew in size as they had less time to melt than their brethern further south. That said at this time (mid-late spring) there were relatively few icebergs that had calved from the glacier at this point in the season. Passed one that was so large as to have no effective way to get the whole iceberg into a picture that would convey its actual size.
As we approached the glacier proper the zodiac departed to pick up a group of ice trekkers on the glacier (I would get the opportunity for this activity on another glacier later in my journey). The boat kept moving closer to the face of Glaciar Grey and I thought we will be turning soon. But still we kept inching closer to this behemouth of ice. Our closest approach was probably 200 ft or so, but it felt much, much closer. In the sun the sheer whites and blues of the glacier shone with amazing intensity. It's hard to write about seeing the glacier so its best to just check out the pics. The one scary thing about the glacier was talking to the boat crew and our guides about the "nunatak" (island from the ice) that has appeared in recent years as the glacier has retreated significantly (almost 1 km over the last decade or so). Our journey ended shortly before 2:00 PM as we again climbed into the zodiac (which had met back up with us after picking up the ice trekkers) for a short ride to the northeast shore. From this point we had an 11km (about 7 mile hike) back down the west leg of the "W" to our first evenings lodgings. So we were turned around and headed south along the shore line, sometimes at the level of the lake, sometimes climbing around small headlands for views of the glacier and the ice cap beyond. Always the trail was heading up or down. And the trail itself was littered with stones (more like boulders) and roots. Which made sense in a way since we were walking through an area a glacier had been carving out for millenia leaving behind its rocky remnants and a shallow soil system where the tree roots had no choice but to remain close to surface. Unfortunately this meant that almost every step was a precarious endeavor and progress relatively slow.
But there was so much to see that progress was really not a concern. Closer views of the waterfalls we could see from the boat now coursed off the mountain in front of us. Birds flitted through the air over cliffs high above our heads. Wildflowers growing off the sides of the trail were in full bloom in the late spring air. Other than the ever present wind, it was a picture perfect day to be hiking. About an hour into the hiking we stopped along the shore to finish what remained of our bagged lunches and refill water bottles from a stream flowing into Lago Grey. We were informed that there was no problem with drinking the glacial water untreated (one of the few locations in the world where this is still possible) and I had no "problems" following this practice during my time in Torres del Paine or Los Glaciares (outside El Chalten).
As we continued down the trail we came upon two hikers who had come to a full stop in front of us. In front of them just off the trail was a Huemul, or Southern Andean deer. These deer are seen occasionally in the park, but are also an endangered species so it was still a special encounter (and the only one I would have in Chile or Argentina). At the same time it was also a deer and I have had too many close encounters with deer back home in Ohio than I care to relate.
Our trail curved away from Lago Grey through a cut between Paine Grande and a smaller hill so we looked back at the last views of Glaciar Grey and its immediate surroundings. It was 5:00 PM and we were on the home stretch of our first days journey.
And thank goodness to, becuase the early morning start was starting to wear on everybody just a little bit. Conversation that had been freely flowing earlier in the day had silenced as the focus was on getting to our destination. Lago Pehoe finally peaked out from the hills which meant we were getting close and we descended furiously. It was still another 45 minutes or so until Paine Grande Lodge our refugio for the evening finally graced us with its presence on the shores of Lago Pehoe. The views were grand with Paine Grande, Lago Pehoe, and Los Cuernos all surrounding us this evening.
We settled in at the refugio in our six to a room lodging. Don't be shy, because the rooms are basically filled and a group gets whatever spaces are available (the staff takes the reservations and fills all the rooms in the best way possible). So we had one room of six and three others sharing a room with three strangers. But it was possible to get a shower and the refugio has a dining room (dinner part of the room rate) and a bar (drinks extra Chilean pesos). Dinner wasn't much to speak of (served cafeteria style), but it was fun interacting in the large refugio dining room with some of the other hikers in Torres del Paine. Most were doing some version of the "W" or the full circuit. After dinner we chatted a bit more (and I worked on some notes for this blog), but a long day and the promise of our longest day of trekking on the morrow meant that as the sun set shortly after 9:30 PM we were calling it an evening.