Below is an unofficial and incomplete gringo-guide to climbing logistics for the Torre Towers in Torres del Paine National Park. It is based on my personal experience from my trip to the Park in February 2018. Hopefully this will provide a decent overview of the pre-climbing process required to climb on these beautiful monoliths. To my regular readers: this is not a standard blogpost. If you aren’t specifically planning a climbing trip to Torres Del Paine, I would not recommend reading anymore. If you want to read about my personal trip to the park, click here.
YOU MUST APPLY FOR A CLIMBING PERMIT WELL BEFORE ARRIVING AT THE PARK. This is big one, that is why it’s first. If you read only one thing in this article, make it this section.
The “DIFROL” permit is issued by the Chilean Foreign Ministry. In theory, you can fill out the application online (in Spanish), but the link to the application was broken when we tried to use it. There is an email address listed on the website that you should contact in case of technical difficulties. We emailed this address (in Spanish) and within a week a reply came with the appropriate form to fill out and submit. After filling out and submitting the form, the Ministry will email you a response in two weeks or less. Print out this DIFROL form and be sure to bring it with you when you go to enter the park.
Pro tip #1: Be sure to be very generous with the dates on your DIFROL application. There are no negatives to having more time than you plan to stay listed on your application, but it is a problem if you have too little. Give yourself as much extra time as you think you could possibly need, and then a week more. As the owner of Redpoint Hostel said; “These are the mountains people change their flights home for.”
Pro tip #2: Also be sure to be very generous when listing what routes you plan to climb when you are in Torres Del Paine National Park. Think of your DIFROL form as like a passport, and the routes you list as country visas. You will only be allowed to travel to (and stay in) locations that are logical for the routes you have listed on the DIFROL form. Even if you only want to climb on the Central Tower like we did, be sure to list at least one peak/route in the French or Bader Valley in case weather conditions favor the smaller peaks. At the very least, list one route from both the West and East Faces of the towers so you have permission to go up and camp on either side.
In addition to the pre-printed DIFROL, you must bring your passport and proof of rescue insurance. The rescue insurance that that American Alpine Club provides to all its members is enough, just be sure to print something out that actually tells about what the insurance benefit covers (it does not say directly on the membership card).
Be sure to bring a color copy of your passport photo page and rescue insurance information. I am not absolutely sure that this is necessary, but the staff seemed to really appreciate it when it came time to register.
Times are a changing when it comes to the Torres Del Paine climbing game. With the improvement of weather forecasting and (mostly) improved access to wifi, the more common strategy for climbers these days is similar to that in El Chalten. Live in town (Puerto Natales), and head into the hills when the forecast shows a window. I feel this approach is better for people hoping to free climb routes in a short push, as the forecast does have to be more ideal for such attempts. If you plan to bigwall/aid climb/fix pitches, it might be better just to camp in the Park, so you can take advantage of any short window, no matter how brief. This later strategy is the one we chose.
The first step is to get yourself to Puerto Natales, Chile. Most folks travel to the park via a 4.5 hour bus-ride from El Calafate, Argentina. This is a result of flights often being cheaper and more direct to El Calafate than to Punta Arenas, Chile. If you take the bus, know that crossing the border is an experience. Lot of getting on and off at different checkpoints. It is worth noting that the Chilean border is very strict about what foods they allow in the country. Anything fresh or not in a sealed bag/container will be taken from you. They search every bag by x-ray and with sniffer-dogs. Best to leave the home-made snacks/dehydrated meals behind and bring the packaged stuff. If you do decide to risk it, your strategy should be to list on the customs deceleration from -some- of the contraband items you have with you, but not all. I have been told that in this case they will search your bag and often confiscate only the biggest offenders, letting you slide with the rest. If you list nothing though and they find out, bad things will happen.
Because of the way the bus schedules line up, once in Puerto Natales you will have to spend the night. This is okay, as Puerto Natales is where you want to do all of your stocking up anyways. It is a big town with plenty of choices for groceries, restaurants, lodging, and outdoor stores. Canister fuel, white gas, dehydrated meals, and basic climbing equipment can all be found within walking distance of most hostels. You can also make campsite reservations in town, more about this below.
Special places of interest include:
Redpoint Hostel– Definitely the climber’s scene in Puerto Natales. Good beta, super friendly-climber staff, bouldering wall, competitive prices. These folks are good people. They were welcoming and inviting, gave out up-to-date route beta and condition reports, and even offered me access to the bouldering wall even though I wasn’t staying there. They also have the most thorough online database of climbing route topos in the park (its a large part of the collection you will find at Erratic Rock, and much better organized). Lastly, its a good place to sell gear post-trip or to organize a trip to the semi-close sport climbing area.
Hostal Bellevista– If you want something a little more quite, secluded, and all-inclusive, try the rooms at Hostal Bellevista. The staff is exceptionally friendly and accommodating; they will bend over backward to make your stay pleasant. The rooms are all private and the amount of guest limited. Breakfast is included in the price of a room and they have a big yard and common area where you can sort all of your gear. Both places are happy to hold all the stuff for you that you dont want to take into the park at no extra cost and are very flexible when it comes to reserving a room when the time comes to leave the park.
Erratic Rock Gear Rental Shop– This is where all the hand drawn topos are stored from past expeditions. At one point there was some organization to the system, but not these days. Ask to have a look, take the folders, and pick a spot on the floor to layout and get to work. Best to take a fully charged phone for taking pictures.
After you are done taking care of business in Puerto Natales, get an early-morning start and take a 3-hour bus ride to the the Park where the fun really begins.
Entering the Park:
First thing you must do is pay your entry fee. Get off at the park entrance (first stop). Save yourself some trouble and leave your stuff on the bus. Join the hordes of day-trippers as you work your way through the entry process. This takes a while. After the entry process get back on the bus. Be sure to tell your driver where you want to go and pay attention for where he says to get off. All the bus companies are different and with some you might have to change buses.
Once you navigate your way to Administration, you have to register for climbing. As mentioned above for the DIFROL, have all your required documents, photocopies, and at least one route name per basecamp site you may wish to visit memorized. Also, they will ask you for an expedition name. Might be fun to have one thought up, versus having to think one up on the spot. While I have heard horror stories about this part, our experience was nothing but pleasant. Just be sure to have what you are supposed to have. At the end of the check-in process you will be given your official CONAF form, allowing you to climb in the park. You will also be assigned a field ranger to periodically check in with. It is normally the ranger who is in charge of the last staffed camp you will pass on your way into the mountains. Our was very friendly, as I imagine most are. After showing him our CONAF form he let us do as we pleased. Just be sure to wave at them every once in a while to let them know you are alive, and dont loose your CONAF form!
After your done at Administration, take bus back to entrance (for an extra fee, maybe 5000 pesos or the equivalent in USD, just be sure to have some cash for this) and then take short shuttle bus (additional 3000 pesos) to Hotel Las Torres. All the back-and-forth with the buses and registration takes the better part of a day. With this is mind it is best to book a camp spot here (Las Torres) for the first night. You can book this in advance in Puerto Natales. This ensures you get a good nights rest and can get an early start the next morning. It is much cheaper than staying at Chileno Camp and it would be a long hike to Campemento Torres that day (they also do not allow hiking at night on the trails in the park, so keep this in mind).
The next day hike towards Campamento y Refugio Chileno which is about 2 hours away up the trail. Then, proceed uphill to the Campamento Torres (additional hour+), which is free to stay at with your CONAF form. The trail to this point is a highway/conga line of day hikers and horseback riders heading up to see the views of the Torre Towers. If you wish to climb on the West Face of the Towers, continue from Campamento Torres further up towards the Valle del Silencio to “Campamento Japones” (Japanese Camp). This is approx. another hour walk from Torres. This trail is technically unmaintained (but still easy to follow) and is only accessible to those with a guide or CONAF form. The Japanese Camp consist of a small tarp-and-log cooking shelter and a few spots for tents. Its pretty much the last flat place to camp with easy access to water. From here you can hike to most routes on the towers in 3-4hrs. The trail is mostly obvious, especially at the beginning.
Pro tip #1: The bivy at the Bonington Cave is the closest decent bivy to the west faces of the towers.
Pro tip #2: Many of the pay campsites/refugios in the park offer showers, hot meals, and staple foods should you find yourself wanting. Be sure to carry some cash with you in the park if you plan to indulge.
For climbing routes on the East Face, it is best to stay at Campamento Torres. Enjoy the flush toilets, cooking shelter, and protection from the wind. To get to the base of the East Face routes you must hike the trail toward Mirador Los Torres. Soon after passing the treeline, the trail takes a hard right-hand turn. It is here that you will want to continue straight, leaving the normal hiking trail. Fight your way through the brush and across a few sections of exposed talus. Soon you will come out into a small drainage area which will be on the left side of the lake (you probably wont be able to see the lake from here though) which you makes for easy hiking. Soon, the terrain begins to get steeper. Pick your way up the ever steepening talus/drainage until you spot a very large “split boulder”. You will know it when you see it. This is your bivy spot. The hike is maybe three hours with heavy packs from Campamento Torres
The subject of actual climbing on the towers is a subject better left for someone else. Below is just a very brief description and overview of the areas.
- West Face routes are generally more mild in grades and shorter than the East Face routes.
- The East Face has an easier approach and generally much more sheltered from the wind.
The French Valley:
- Despite few mentions online, the French Valley has seen a fair amount of activity. At least most of the obvious, more moderate lines have been climbed. Still, for a stronger free climbing team or those teams looking for a short aid objective, there is some new route potential left.
The Bader Valley.
- By far the least explored valley in the Park as far as climbing goes. Word has it that many of the peaks in this valley are more sheltered from the wind than other peaks in the park, so it might be a good option if the weather is good but winds are bad.
- Most of the obvious routes have been climbed, but still a good bit of new routing potential.
- Check with the Redpoint Hostel folks for the latest info on what has as hasn’t yet been climbed.