I spent most of January 2014 in the Torres Del Paine of Chilean Patagonia. It was my first time to this range of Patagonia, and the area has some of the world's most amazing peaks. The three "towers" (north, central, south) are well-known and famous, but the Paine also holds other amazing peaks that are not so visible from the trailhead. These mountains are only about 90 or 100 miles from the vastly more popular (among climbers) peaks of the Fitz Roy and Chalten ranges, so the weather is generally the same in both parks. (very bad) Unlike Fitz Roy and the nearby peaks, accessed by an ever-growing international crowd living in a booming city, the climbing in the Paine almost certainly requires an expedition-style approach, with a backcountry camp, or camps, and no quick access to the outside world.
I was climbing with Scott Bennett, and we had big plans to try and freeclimb routes on the west face of the central tower, such as Wild Wild West (Cosgrove-Smith) or Via Delle Mamme. Unfortunately, the longest decent weather span we had during three weeks was about a day, and things usually take at least that long simply to clear of the ice and snow that accumulates. It was cold and blustery, even snowing in our low camp on a couple of days. We ended up climbing a free variation to the "Vuelo Del Condor" ((Pennings-Tague) on the east wall of the Cuerno Este, but this rock climb, like many on the Cuernos, does not summit. Cuerno is Spanish for 'horn' and the cuernos are peaks which are topped by striking caps of (sometimes very overhanging) horrendously compact and friable shale. There is essentially no snow and ice or gully climbing in the Paine, just steep walls and towers. Unlike the climbing in the Chalten/Fitz Roy area, you can't really go swing tools and wear gloves and boots to climb in marginal days. It's rock climbing or no climbing at all, so the range is less forgiving during very bad weather.
We based out of a low camp in the highest stand of trees the Bader Valley, reached via a ~10-12 mile hike from the trailhead at the Hosteleria de los Torres. This was a remote and beautiful locale, but if you are ever headed to the Paine, we found that the rock quality and freeclimbing options in the Bader Valley, despite being in the center of the range, were generally sub-standard relative to the rock quality in either direction. We wanted to climb a super chossy line somewhere else, and name it "I can't believe it's not Bader." However, this is probably also the most sheltered valley in the Paine, so it could be a good option for very marginal weather windows. The head of this valley is glaciated and has a beautiful alpine lake and a dirty moraine lake, as well as easy access to the peak such as the Cuernos (Este, Principal, Norte) the Mascara, Hoja, Espada, and the South Tower of Paine.
Here are a few good points of beta for climbing in the area:
- There is no grocery or supply seller anywhere near the park. Buy everything you need in Puerto Natales, and then take a bus to the park with your provisions. The bus ride is ~2hrs.
- Apply online in advance for a free climbing permit at least a week before you go. You'll need proof of rescue insurance, such as with an AAC membership.
- As a climber, you will ride the bus PAST the park entrance, on to the official administration building, then enter and have the park officials sign off that you can go climbing, then re-board the bus, return to the park entrance, and then catch a bus transfer for the final ~15min ride to the trailhead/camping/Hosteria de los Torres. We never saw any rangers or were asked about our climbing gear, so we certainly could have gone without a permit, but if you were to encounter a ranger and not have one, they might turn you back.
- Depending on your base camp of choice and climbing area of choice, you may be wise to hire a pack horse (Pinchero) or a porter or to for load-carrying assistance. Most of the climbing is done from the French Valley (Cerro Catedral, Cota 2000, Aleta de Tiburon) or the Silencio Valley or Ascencio Valley (Torres Del Paine).
- For help arranging a porter, pack horse, navigating the park rules, or finding a place to stay in Puerto Natales, your best bet is to go see Cristian, the owner of Fortaleza Patagonia in Puerto Natales. He has climbed in the parked and seemingly knows everyone and everything important in the region. The company office is located in downtown Puerto Natales.