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.
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.
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.
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…
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.