Patagonia Part 1 - Paine
I'm in Patagonia for December 2016 and January 2017. This blog summarises the first part of my trip: Torres del Paine.
Calum, Tony and I stood in a cloud of dust amongst the debris of our bags. The bus thundered away down the dirt road; a blast of the infamous Patagonian winds quickly cleared the air. Our view was revealed, like a curtain being pulled back, and we looked up at the Torres del Paine in awe.
This was the view we’d travelled halfway around the world for; these were the three Towers we’d been drawn to. They thrust into the sky for nearly 1000 metres, perfect pepper-pots of golden rock. The North, Central and South towers are giant fingers of granite which feel the full force of the notoriously bad Patagonian weather.
Heavy cumulonimbus began to ragged across the towers, dark and boiling. The speed at which they hit the towers looked like a time-lapse; they moved as if in fast-forward. The storms come straight from the Pacific and Southern oceans, slamming into the Andean spine of South America.
Calum Muskett, Tony Stone and I wanted to climb in the Torres del Paine National Park. Our aim was to free climb the route (or free as much as possible), rather than aiding it all. We didn't have a portaledge or large quantities of static rope - but nor did we want to resort to fixing ropes all the way up the route, either. Unfortunately, as many climbers will attest, some years the weather never gets good in Patagonia. This seemed like one of those years. 'Es la vida.'
Torres del Paine is a spectacular area. Gentle hills on the Andean Pampas rise nearly 3000 m into impressive mountains, which are almost always sharp and pointed peaks. The popular trekking circuit of the ‘O’ (circumnavigating the Torres) and ‘W’ gives incredible views, from turquoise lakes to snow-capped spires; Guanaco llamas to soaring condors. We appreciated it all... well, most of it; we weren’t happy when it dumped snow on our climbing plans or rained for days!
We spent 12 days in the mountains, which included getting established in our valley, getting our kit to the base of the wall, waiting for weather, and then - after great frustration and consideration - eventually leaving when the forecast did not improve.
It rained or snowed every day except one, the winds were too cold for free climbing, and (fortunately or unfortunately) we could see from the weather forecasts that it would not improve, so returned to the nearest town, Puerto Natales, on Christmas Day 2016.
We'd originally planned to be in Torres del Paine until about the 1st January 2017, but the NOAA weather forecasts seem to be pretty accurate and long term predictions remained poor. Calum has another few days of his trip - his second to Torres del Paine - but Tony and I are in Patagonia until the end of January.
Below is some of my diary entries from this part of the trip. I've added useful information for future expeditions and some lessons I've learnt.
Sunday 11th December 2016
We’re off! After negotiating our way through check-in we flew from London Heathrow to Buenas Aires (Argentina). Next stop, Santiago (Chile) and then on to Punta Arenas. 25 hours of travel to go, but thankfully the excess baggage charges were waived.
We land with a crash in Punta Arenas, Chile. It feels like the end of the world - ‘el fin del mundo’ - and the winds are fierce. The landscape is open, low and cold, but there’s mountains in the distance. The nearby sea froths in the gales. Thankfully, our six enormous bags have arrived with us. They each weigh “23 kilos” - so much for fast and light. I begin to make a list of things I needn’t have brought. We miss the last onward bus so sleep in a hostel in town.
How much food do three people eat, in three weeks? We arrive in Puerto Natales at lunchtime and buy supplies. We speculate how much food we’ll need whilst living in the mountains of Torres del Paine, throwing in extra Dulce de Leche (caramel heaven) for good measure. We struggle to walk back to the hostel with the weight of all our food!
We take a bus to Torres del Paine National Park. It’s a pretty inhospitable place due to the remoteness and wild weather, but there’s some small farms and houses dotted around. The plains fold into undulating hills... and then we see our mountains in the distance! At the Park entrance we unload our millions of bags. The three Torres look incredible, like shark’s teeth ready to bite. The spires give me a mix of excitement, anticipation and fear. I want to be climbing!
Calum and Tony head towards the Bader Valley - our Base Camp - and I sort out the Permit. The usual bureaucracy takes time, and I have to explain several times that we’re not trekking (like the thousands of other tourists to the Park). ‘Climbing? Escalada? Montana, mucho alto, mucho gusto?’ No, they shake their heads... ‘mas vientos!’
I return and start carrying loads towards our Base Camp, somehow missing the boys on their return journey. BC is 11km away and 800m higher, and I slog with two bags until my arms go numb, then collapse, recover, and do it all again. Tony and Calum have done a double carry of monster loads. We all walk back up to BC, and I decide the hill is a Double Cromlecher. I quickly learn to dislike it. If only I had my walking poles...
Why didn’t we hire horses to carry our bags to BC?! We descend from the wilds of the mountains, back to the surreal world of rich trekkers on the ‘W’ circuit. Eating lunch at the Hotel makes me think this doesn’t count as an expedition. We shoulder the last of our enormous (30+ kgs) loads and trudge back to BC. I discover Tony has been using my poles all along! My shoulders are killing from the duffle bags. Calum does a double on the Double Cromlecher to get the final load - good effort.
BC is amongst some trees at the foot of the valley, tucked low from the winds. A shack, loosely made with branches and tarps, makes life a little more pleasant. It does come with a resident fox and mouse, though.
Breakfast is always porridge with Dulce de Leche, and tastes delicious. We hang out for a bit, and Calum stuns the mouse with a well-aimed rock. I find the peg hammer. The shack is a lot quieter now.
We carry a load of climbing kit up the valley, establishing Advanced Base Camp. The valley is incredible, with impressive granite walls everywhere. Many are capped with brown basalt rock, making them look uninviting to climb. We hear stories of people bailing when they reach the loose basalt, and there are few ‘natural’ lines on the golden cliffs. Calum reminds us that south facing + southern hemisphere = no sun! It’s the equivalent of a cold, shady north face back home. The rain and wind continue.
We carry another load of kit to ABC, then go a bit further and build a rock wall around where the tent will hopefully go. Today is supposed to be an ‘ok’ weather day but it’s just the usual four seasons in one day. Looking up the valley at the mountains, it’s always cloudy, snowy and windy. Looking down, it’s always sunny and calm!
We return to BC and hang out with some visiting Americans (Blake and Alison) and some Park officials who are on their day off. The fresh vegetables are starting to run out... more Dulce de Leche is added to the meals.
Rain, rain, rain. We take a rest day and everyone sits in the shack - which the Americans have appropriately named the ‘Trash Shack.’ The Parkies are blasting Spanish metal music, sipping maté, and we all dodge the drips from the roof. A lot of snow falls up high - perhaps up to 30 cm. I managed to talk to my family and Victoria on the Satellite Phone.
More rain! I don’t like this waiting game - but who does? We’ve got all our climbing kit near the base of the wall, so now we just need two days of high pressure weather. Two days of low winds, warm temperatures and sunshine... is that too much to ask for Patagonia?!
We shoot the breeze and laugh with Blake and Alison, and I like their colloquialisms : ‘junk show; super excited; rad!’
At lunchtime we walk an hour down the valley to the Refugio Los Cuernos. The ‘horned’ (cuernos) peaks above the Refugio look incredible, but again, are capped with loose brown basalt. We get a shower (great) and an updated forecast (not great). The mixed, unsettled weather is set to continue, but tomorrow looks ‘ok.’ Through clearings we see the mountains looking plastered in snow: thick; heavy; bad for rock climbing.
We walk the two hours up valley to ABC with sleeping kit, hoping for a two day attempt at the wall. Initially the weather is sunny but it quickly returns to cloud, wind and even some snow falls.
Calum and I reach the slabs at the base of the wall, but they’re not in condition. The entry slabs are plastered with heavy, wet, melting snow; the lower half is running with water, but the upper half is dried by the wind. It’s warm enough to melt the snow covering the first few hundred metres, but still very cold for free climbing.
We only have 100m of static rope, which we intend to fix on the slabs, so we can’t start sieging the Tower. We also don’t want to risk avalanching the snow patches on the slabs; and after that we can’t climb any higher because the wall is wet.
It feels very frustrating to be this close to the wall, but be denied an opportunity. We know the chances of success might be slim, but, as Tony says, ‘you pays your money, you takes your chances!’ The weather and conditions aren’t good enough for us to attempt the route today. I’m reading Paul Pritchard’s book Deep Play, and a Spanish phrase about expeditions sticks with me: es la vida; ‘that’s life.’
We return to BC after leaving our stuff in ABC, ready for another shot. A tin of fruit cocktail after supper helps ward off the scurvy.
The weather worsens and the snow line drops. We head to the Refugio again and play the card game Shithead. The updated forecast is still looking bleak. The accurate ‘NOAA’ predictions show continued and unsettled weather for the next ten days (which is all our remaining time). We have to start leaving for home around the 31st December, and with no clear window - not even a glimpse! - we start thinking of other options. To top it all off, I lose at Shithead many, many times.
Seeking a change of scene, we walk to Mirador Las Torres. The popular tourist viewpoint of the three Torres del Paine looks fantastic, but confirms how much snow has fallen, and the forecast still looks grim: 70 kph winds, rain/snow, low temperatures and a pressure that hovers around 1000 hPa. We want a stable, high pressure window of 1020 hPa. Mierda... but es la vida. I’m optimistic (the boys say, ‘deluded’) but now I’ve come round to the idea that it won’t happen. We get a meal at the Hotel and agree to get some horses to carry our bags down on Christmas Day.
We walk to ABC and bring all our kit down in one big load. Of course, the weather’s ok in the morning, but quickly deteriorates to the usual Patagonian freezing cloud/snow/wind. Tony jokes we should receive the ‘Baton d’Or’ (Golden Walking Pole) for the amount of walking and load carrying we’ve done.
Saturday 24th - Christmas Eve
The farting has reached epic (and awful) proportions. We’ve been having lentils for the past few nights and they’ve really taken their toll. The last batch is tonight. Phew.
We discovered a new mouse in the Trash Shack, but it’s quicker than the last one. We also eat lots of food so we don’t have to carry so much home!
Sunday 25th - Christmas Day
Feliz Navidad! It’s quiet and calm in BC this morning, which is strange. The winds are taking a break and it almost feels peaceful. We have some chocolate coins Vic gave us for Christmas, and some Pepperoni sticks from my parents. The salami is a little random but great to eat on the walk down. I save the miniature Christmas Pudding until we get back to town.
The gaucho and his three horses arrive and we load our bags, grateful we don’t have to carry them again. Mr. Gaucho is a weatherbeaten man of few words, and looks like a real cowboy of the Andes. He smiles when he eats a chocolate coin... but he’s still late to drop the bags off and we miss a bus. Es la vida again.
We catch the later bus, arrive in Puerto Natales in the late evening, and finally - ding! - heat up the mini Christmas Pudding at the hostel. Happy Christmas boys.
Thanks for a great trip, Tony and Calum.
A trip to Paine - and now most of Patagonia as a whole - is a significantly different experience compared to even ten years ago. Tourism has played a big role on the development of Torres del Paine and El Chalten, and they have certainly lost their ‘expedition’ status. However, Paine does feel slightly more adventurous and still has plenty of logistics to negotiate. The information below is probably already online but here you go.
Ideally, arrive at Punta Arenas airport in the afternoon, so you can catch the bus to Puerto Natales. The last bus is at 9pm from P.A., and should call via the airport (double check though!).
Pre-book a hostel in Puerto Natales (Patagonia Adventure is great) for the night you arrive. Do a food shop the next morning, and then get the afternoon bus to the Torres del Paine National Park. You need to pre-book hostels online.
Hire horses to carry your equipment to your base camp from Es Stancia (stables at the end of the road/start of the ‘W’ trek). The Hotel Las Torres are also very helpful. One horse costs Chilean $60,000 and can carry 45 kgs, and will also need pre-booking.
The climbing permit needed for Torres del Paine is relatively straightforward. You need to take a bus to the Administration, where CONAF (the T. del P. base of the Chilean Environment and Food Agency, and Park Rangers) are located. You need to present your passports, rescue insurance and DIFROL. The DIFROL is due to the location of the Park (near the Argentinian border) and can be completed online (at least 3 weeks) ahead of your trip.
You need to pay Chilean $21,000 to enter the Torres del Paine National Park, at the entrance.
Get some Chilean Pesos ($) in the UK (cheaper), or in an ATM at a large airport (e.g. Santiago).
Plan how much food you’ll need for the length of your stay. It sounds simple, but in reality, prior planning is useful and can save you time in the supermarket. E.g., 400 grams of pasta was enough between 3 people for 1 night.
Leave lots of unnecessary equipment in Puerto Natales! If you’re planning to go somewhere after Paine (e.g. Chalten), leave extra kit in your hostel. I took a laptop, chargers, too many clothes etc etc into the mountains, which was totally pointless and poor planning on my part.
Bring a big Base Camp tent (or more tarps/plastic sheets if going to the Bader Valley, to repair the Trash Shack). It’s a lot more pleasant to have a large, dry, communal area to cook in and sit out the weather.
Take several large drybags for stashing your kit at ABC. 150L paddling-style duffle drybags work best.
Our Iridium Satellite Phone didn’t work very well - texts didn’t come through or send very often, or they’d be jumbled up. Calls dropped frequently. However, I think this is partly due to our location (in a relatively narrow valley, with limited satellite signal). It was very useful to have forecasts though - when they did come through! You can get wifi at the Refugio for £5 an hour (!).
One of the interesting points raised was the tactic of climbing a big route on the Torres in a single push style.
An interesting option would be to stash all your kit at the base of the objective, then return to Puerto Natales and stay in a hostel/with friends. You could keep fit, live well, sport climb and the psyche would remain sky-high. When a ‘very good’ weather window arrived, you could get the bus in a few days before, or get a lift in (perhaps possible with a good local friend).
This does rely on you waiting for a very good window, which could take some time (or it may never arrive!). Being in a shack with constant mixed weather is fine, but it can begin to wear you down after a few weeks. However, it does give you a good idea of exactly what’s happening in the mountains.
Chile is relatively modern, but not many people in Paine speak English. This is the same for Argentina (outside of Chalten). Learn some Spanish and embrace the culture.