Torres del Paine (W: Valle del Frances), Chile Nov. 27, 2011
This was the toughest hiking day of the W. We hiked 3 miles with all our gear from Paine Grande to Camp Italiano, then up and down the steep French Valley, then 3 miles more to Refugio Los Cuernos. Topo map included again; click on it and use the magnifying glass to see full resolution.
Start of trail about 9:15AM in the high overcast weather we usually had on this trip.
Wind was light today except for the most exposed locations, but we were in forest more than the other days.
First good view of the distinctive peaks on the east side of the French Valley.
We reach the Rio Frances flowing out of the valley.
I'm on the bridge crossing the river to Camp Italiano.
Climbing above the camp we get our first view of the French Glacier.
For the next stretch the trail is mostly over irregular rocks and scree.
This hike gave me a greater appreciation of Inca engineering from my 2007 trip. The Inca Trail is smooth and many of the steep sections are orderly paved stairs. If you're adequately acclimatized to the altitude by spending a few days in Cusco first, the Inca Trail is an easier hike than the W. The W is longer also, ~48 miles in 4 or 5 days vs. 30 miles in 2 half days plus 2 full days. Cumulative altitude change is similar except that over half of the Inca Trail climbing is on one day while the W's climbing is more evenly distributed.
Much of the lower French Glacier is covered in dirt with just the steep toe at its base ice exposed.
We climb up a forested spine and eventually emerge at an exposed windy viewpoint with good views of the glacier.
Within half an hour the trail parallels the right bank of Rio Frances. However we weren't paying close enough attention and climbed a secondary trail to the right of this tributary stream.
The trail was similar to what we had been doing but eventually we noticed there were no orange trail markings on the trails or rocks. However, by this time we had been off the main trail 15 minutes and could see the tree line another 10 minutes above us. So we decided to keep going through rougher terrain and hopefully get similar views as if we had stayed on the longer main trail past Camp Brittanico. We got lucky to emerge above the trees at 2,200 feet during a partial clearing of weather about 2:15PM. Cordillera Paine at the far end of the French Valley.
Fortaleza at center, La Espada at right
Zoom of La Espada and La Hoya
Farther away but during a sunny break
Upper French Glacier on the opposite side
Zoom to overhanging glacier that falls off a sheer cliff
There's a 10,000 foot peak Cumbre Principal above that glacier that was never visible through the clouds. The on-trail viewpoint above Camp Britannica may have a better view of that peak, but we met other hikers that had been up there at noon and seen less than we did as the clouds were lower then.
Back down our(?) trail we stopped at the stream intersection with the marked trail for lunch. Scenic cascade just upstream from our lunch spot
View over the birch forest to Lago Nordenskjold and Lago Pehoe
Lower French Valley
The sharp line from the forest above to rocks below might be where the glacier was 200 years ago. It reminded me of a similar line above the Mer de Glace in Chamonix.
Rocky descent of the French Valley
More nostalgia for those Inca engineers
One last sunny break view of the mountains from La Espada to Cuerno Principal
Trail intersection at Camp Italiano
Hiking toward Lago Nordenskjold
The trail runs along the beach for a hundred yards or so.
View back after climbing away from the beach
A steep canyon feeds a waterfall between Cuerno Principal and Cuerno Este.
Zoom of Cuerno Este
Another waterfall below Cuerno Este
We felt pretty good when we reached Camp Italiano at 5PM. The trail to Refugio Los Cuernos only drops 400 feet net, but there was a lot of up and down and it was rough enough that we were plenty tired when we got there at 7:30PM.