A towering Paine in the pampa

Chris Bonnington, Don Whillans, Dougal Haston, Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker and my hero Doug Scott, just a few of the men that made up the golden generation of British mountaineering. Strong characters to a man and heralding from a rich variety of backgrounds, these were adventurers in the days when adventure mattered. Perhaps the most infamous of them all was Don Whillans, a straight talking northern brawler with fingers as thick as my legs and harboring the strength of ten tigers. It was he who partnered Chris Bonnington on the first ascent of the Torre Central del Paine (2460m), Chilean Patagonia in January 1963. A fascinating expedition in what was at the time a little known and remote corner of the world. I find tales of Whillans infinitely fascinating and consider Chris Bonnington close to the ultimate role model for adventure, so their partnership adds a particularly intriguing twist to this ascent. Couple this with the strange and lonesome land they discovered in Patagonia and you’ve got the makings of legend. Twenty-nine years later Simon Yates set out to climb a new route up the same tower, he channeled this experience into his outstanding book ‘Against the Wall’. Yates reveals the humanity behind mountaineering and unveils the fragility of even those strong human beings who push the boundaries of ‘adventure’. All of these expeditions and tales made the Torres del Paine National Park somewhere I HAD to visit.

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The multicoloured Cuernos del Paine, finally revealed to us as the sun was setting

Before I started this bicycle ride I’d acknowledge that I only really wanted to visit Alaska and Patagonia, all the stuff that lay between them was largely incidental. In many ways it was the climbing tales I’d read regarding Torres del Paine that drew me to this part of the world and thus the Cordillera del Paine could be regarded as being responsible for me being on this bike tour at all. In an ideal world I’d like to explore the National Park on foot but with the weather viciously changeable and the main hiking circuit closed for the season that wasn’t going to happen. Instead I enjoyed the privilege of riding through in the company of Leah and Celine. Leah’s unbridled curiosity and Celine’s penchant for photography make for long days of short mileage, the perfect combination for enjoying such landscapes. We refused to be rushed, sought to see instead of look and filled our cameras to bursting. Despite a great run of weather coming to an end just as we approached the National Park the clouds did clear enough for us to get some fine views of Cuernos del Paine. Unfortunately the famed Torres never really revealed themselves but just being there in their presence was enough.

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Leah, Celine and myself riding into some incredible Torres del Paine vistas

Despite sounding horribly Lonely Planetesque, Torres del Paine National Park was one of the final boxes that needed ticking on this tour south, all that remains in terms of ‘attractions’ is Tierra del Fuego. Southern Patagonia is dense with these ‘must see’ landmarks, the Cordillera del Paine joining the illustrious company of Perito Moreno Glacier and Monte Fitz Roy. Riding between these points of interest makes for a slightly different rhythm on the bike and a bizarre movement between extremes: stretches of flat exposed pampa, basically nothingness, punctuated by towering examples of natural wonder and beauty. This dichotomy has made fun riding partners an invaluable asset. Despite ordinarily leaning in favor of the intensity of solo riding, I probably wouldn’t swap my current crew for a return to solitude.  Leah and Celine make laughter a distraction on the less interesting stints of riding and their warm companionship make the sub-zero mornings of Patagonian April far more manageable. So thanks to the ‘Old’ lady massive for putting up with me.

Calafate to Puerto Natales via Paine

Route from El Calafate to Puerto Natales via Torres del Paine National Park… click here to view the fully interactive map, elevation profile and download the GPX track

El Calafate to Puerto Natales Route elevation profile

Riding in April is undoubtedly proving a positive experience as the infamous Patagonian winds are much friendlier but the temperatures are plummeting and the periods of ‘bad’ weather becoming more violent and prolonged. As I cower in a Puerto Natales hostal, a two-day deluge of rain continues to soak the wind beaten little town and I am more than happy to be off the bike. The rain has been so incessant that since we left a few days ago, all the trails in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine have been closed and they’re thinking of evacuating the entire area… things can get crazy down here! But the weather will change and Patagonia will once again open her arms, for the time being though I’m more than happy to enjoy some enforced reflection. Here is what I have to reflect on, the relaxed 7 day, 411 km ride from El Calafate (Argentina) to Puerto Natales (Chile) via Parque Nacional Torres del Paine…

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Leaving El Calafate we endure a day of relatively dull pampa riding…

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… the pavement leading us into camp at a road-workers building in El Cerrito

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Favorable blue skies and still air continue into the next morning. Wrapping up against the cold we leave the road-workers behind…

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… and head out onto the pampa once more

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Having left the pavement and traffic behind it’s a much more interesting day on the bike…

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… inspired by distant views of the Cordillera del Paine …

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… and some curious and camouflaged wildlife

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As the sun drops the temperature plummets and we prepare for another cold night camped with some road workers

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It’s still bitterly cold when we head out the next morning…

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… pedaling our numbed extremities down monotonous flat pavement…

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… we draw on distant views of Torres del Paine…

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… before finally turning off the pavement…

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… and onto some warmer riding

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As the Argentine-Chile border approaches we enter some vibrantly autumnal woodland…

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… that stands vulnerable on the brutally exposed pampa

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After a lengthy lunch stop we leave Argentina…

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… and cross the border back into Chile

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After a night camped up in a children’s play area in Cerro Castillo we wake up to cold grey skies and heavy rain

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After scouring unfavorable weather reports, much deliberation and head scratching we decide to press on towards Torres del Paine. By the time we eventually leave town the rain has abated a little…

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… and we’re getting treated to a few encouraging bursts of warm sun

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Our moods don’t reflect the grim weather and we make the most…

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… of the evolving views…

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… and wildlife. Guanacos continue to astound us with their graceful fence jumping…

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… and the giant ostrich-like ñandús start getting increasingly confident

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It’s largely dry and the mountains are starting to reveal themselves as we arrive at Lago Sarmiento…

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… not long after which we pitch up and pray from clear skies the next day

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Once again we wake to clouds and rain. The rain stops but the clouds remain as we spin past the flamingos of Laguna Armarga…

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… and on to the Torres del Paine National Park entrance

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Through methods I shall not disclose we manage to enter the park free of charge. This lifts our moods considerably…

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… and when the clouds lift too we’re a very happy trio of cyclists. After our usual leisurely lunch…

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… we set about winding our way…

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… slowly…

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… through this most spectacular…

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… of National Parks

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Our progress is so unhurried that the sun is soon dropping…

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… the cold shadows lengthening…

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… and the Cuernos del Paine threatening to reveal themselves

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As the clouds do eventually disperse they reveal glorious views of the alpenglow flicked Cuernos…

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… which leave us all transfixed

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Trying to ride away from such majesty is near impossible…

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… magnificence bombarding us from every angle…

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… as we try to pedal towards camp

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By the time we do leave it’s almost dark. Thankfully it’s only a short ride into Pehoe campground where we rest in anticipation for more views the next day

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Unfortunately those views never come. After waiting for the clouds to lift we’re eventually forced to give up and ride out into cold rain. Thankfully views of Rio Paine are there to lift our spirits

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It’s a miserable day and as we forge our way out of the park we’re hit by our first significant Patagonian winds

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Bundled up against the cold and rain we press on past Lago del Toro…

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… to sleep in a bus shelter by Lago Porteno. The shelter is brand new, it’s still tacky from wood stain and the concrete around the bin is still wet

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As a blustery wind rages outside we make ourselves at home

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The next morning things are looking far more optimistic. Flashes of blue sky and daubs of autumn colour accompany our ride away from the shelter

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Somehow I manage to pull away from the ladies and find myself riding the day alone

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A following wind pushes me quickly up to Monumento Natural Cueva del Milodon after which I turn back towards…

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… the dirt roads around Estancia Consuelo

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Riding fast and energised…

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… I stop only to take photographs of small communities…

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… and the now distant Torres del Paine

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Before I’m ready Puerto Natales appears on the horizon…

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… and I’m blown…

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… to the end of another glorious leg of bicycle riding.

Route Tips

7 days, 411 km (255 miles), 4,230 m (13,880 ft.) of climbing

There is a goldmine of information on the web about this well-worn route so I shan’t offer much here. My only recommendation is to take the right turn shortly after Monumento Natural Cueva del Milodon and ride the traffic-free dirt road into Puerto Natales rather than joining highway 9.

My main source of  inspiration and information for this route came from Tom Walwyn and his Bicycle Nomad site. He has route notes here… http://bicyclenomad.com/route-information/chile/ and posts about his and Sarah’s experience on the route here. Tom and Sarah have been an invaluable source of information over the past few years.

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