Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
We were warned that today would not be easy. In fact, it would very well our most difficult. “Twice as far and twice as strenuous,” Eduardo told me during the morning’s briefing. That might have been an understatement.
The challenging trek would take us deep into the Valle Frances (French Valley), a steep trail that goes to the very heart of the Paine Massif. The day’s hike was also said to be one the most beautiful stretches of the W circuit. We fueled up on a breakfast of eggs and coffee and began trekking along the lake beneath a huge Patagonian rainbow.
The first leg was difficult but we settled into a moderate pace and by the time we arrived at Mirador Italiano, a camp at the foot of the valley, we were all feeling well. As we turned upward, the trail became increasingly difficult and the weather temperamental, as rain moved in off of the nearby glaciers. We reached the first lookout where gusts of winds almost knocked us over.
After lunch, the group split up. Those who wanted to move forward to the next camp did so with Hernán. The other two guides would take us brave folks past Mirador Britanico to the second lookout. It was another 14 kilometers roundtrip. “Jonathan, this must be your hundredth time doing this, right?” we inquired. “No, only my fifth,” he said. “The weather, it’s always bad. No views.”
Our pace picked up considerably. To keep up with our guide, we often broke into a jog — which was difficult when much of the hike involved scrambling over boulders. As we climbed higher, the weather worsened and the temperature dropped. At the peak, breathing deeply, snow began to fall. And alas, there were no views.
We headed back down, precariously scrambling across boulders that had become slippery with the precipitation. Crossing the French River on a hanging bridge (only two hikers allowed at a time), we descended through an undulating terrain of mixed grassland and light forest on the final 2-hour leg.
About 15 minutes into it, the skies opened up. For the next 90 minutes, pouring, horizontal rains drenched us while winds whipped through our clothing. By the time we arrived at Refugio Paine Grande, on the banks of Lake Pehoe, we were completely soaked, completely freezing and completely ready for bed.
We dried off and met at the bar for a round of Austral cervezas. All together, we had hiked 27 kilometers in some terrible conditions. Downstairs, we wolfed down some cafeteria-quality slop before heading back to the bunks.
And, in what was another flashback to summer camp, lights were out at 9 p.m.