Through the cracked windscreen of our mini bus, the Paine massif, an eastern spur of the Andes, rises dramatically above the Patagonian steppe, a primordial, little travelled region at the far end of the earth. It's late November, spring in this part of the world, and Martin and I are deep in Southern Chile, bumping along a dirt track crammed into a van with six other travellers en route from Puerto Natales to one of the world’s greatest national parks: Torres del Paine. Here the landscape is wild, untamed, the weather unpredictable, often savage, the animals exotic. This is a landscape of blue glaciers that slowly slice through solid rock and calve vast icebergs into turquoise lakes fed by icy glacial melt waters, and the mountains are carved into weird and fantastical shapes.
The Paine MassifThe Paine massif, an eastern spur of the Andes, rises dramatically above the Patagonian steppe
Etched against an impossibly blue sky, an army of granite monoliths sporting a fresh coating of snow dazzle in the afternoon sun. Through the dust kicked up by the speeding vehicle, I spy rheas and guanacos amid the grass and scrubby vegetation. A herd of cattle are being directed alongside the dusty road by a couple of tough-looking gauchos (Chilean cowboys) on horseback. They are wearing beret-type felt hats and high leather boots, whips in hand. I’d heard a lot about Patagonia over the years, but nothing prepares you for the utterly face-slapping scenery encountered in this harsh yet beautiful corner of the world. Unsurprisingly, it was recently voted the Eighth Wonder of the World by travellers.
Guanacos near the park entranceWe spot numerous herds of guanacos en route to the Torres del Paine National Park
The Torres del Paine National Park was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978 and in order to maintain the integrity of the park, rules and regulations are given a very high profile and are drilled into all arriving tourists. You must keep on the trails at all times, not feed any animals, no wild camping is permitted, but lighting fires is the biggest no-no. In a region subject to some of the strongest winds on the planet, a stray spark can be catastrophic. Indeed, parts of the park still bear the blackened scars of former fires which are testimony to trekkers’ carelessness. A park ranger spells out the penalties for breaking the park rules, which include hefty fines and in some cases imprisonment.
After paying the park entrance fee a short bus ride brings us to the turquoise shore of Lago Pehoé where we board the Hielos Patagónicos catamaran at Pudeto for the 45 minute journey across the lake to the campsite at the Lodge de Montaña Paine Grande. We have opted to camp during our visit to the park, so are carrying about 24 kilos between us in Osprey 65 and 70 litre rucksacks, including our über-lightweight (1.5kg) 2-man Terra Nova Voyager tent, down sleeping bags, insulated sleeping mats and enough food for 3-4 days. All campsites and refugios must be booked before you arrive in the park.
Fine scenery ravishes the eye as the boat glides through the turquoise water that contrasts with the brown hills and the dramatic smoky-grey ice-covered mountain peaks twisted and frozen into myriad shapes. The weather is unbelievably good, crystal clear and still, but the air, chilled by the lake, is cold and penetrating as I stand on the deck taking in this incredible panorama.
Catamaran Quay, PudetoA catamaran leaves here twice daily for the Lodge de Montaña Paine Grande
On the Hielos Patagónicos catamaranThe 45 minute journey across the Lago Pehoé by the Hielos Patagónicos catamaran brings us to our first campsite at the Lodge de Montaña Paine Grande
After registering and paying our fee at the campsite, we choose a quiet pitch for our tent which is strewn with patches of purple 'arvejillo' (Lathyrus magellanicus) flowers, a type of vetch. A lone guanaco, silhouetted against the deep blue evening sky, stalks the ridge above the camp as the snow covered peaks of the Cerro Paine Grande and Cuernos del Paine glow rosy-pink then ruby-red in the sunset. A canopy of huge stars soon fills the firmament and later the moon, rising stealthily behind one of the ‘horns’ of the Cuernos Del Paine, casts long silvery beams across the landscape like an ethereal beacon. Tomorrow we plan to begin the first leg of the 'W' trek up the Grey Valley and there's barely a cloud in the night sky...
Paine Grande CampsiteMartin outside our lightweight two man Terra Nova Voyager tent
Sunset over the Cuernos del PaineThe sunset from the Paine Grande campsite
Moon over the Cuernos del PaineThe moon rising behind the Cuernos del Paine from the Paine Grande campsite
I awake to the distinctive patter of rain on canvas. A grey, overcast morning greets me as I peer out of our tent; the view that had captivated me just hours before is now swallowed by cloud and mist which boils angrily round the nearby mountaintops. In the camping kitchen the talk among trekkers is inevitably all about the weather. Tales of whiteouts and blizzards, frighteningly high winds, scorching sunshine, buckshot rain, four seasons in one day: typically fickle weather patterns in this part of the world. The day might not seem to hold much promise, but at least it isn’t cold or raining heavily and the air is still. Not unlike a day in the hills of Ireland!
The pungent smell of the wet earth assails our nostrils as we walk above the lake shore across an area of ragged yellow grass and blood-red common sorrel to begin the 11 km trek up to the Grey Glacier, stopping regularly to watch the antics of large flocks of Patagonian yellow finches whose constant chirping fills the air. The first part of the route traverses a valley still bearing the scars of a recent forest fire; the blackened trees and ground vegetation are still struggling to recover from the catastrophe. Higher up, stands of Antarctic beech (Nothofagus Antarctica) with deep green crinkly leaves relieve the somewhat monochrome monotony of the fire-ravaged slopes below. Brilliant splashes of red are provided by the Chilean Firebush (Embothrium coccineum) that seem to mimic the very flames of fire that brought death to this valley. Dense thickets of prickly heath (Gaultheria mucronata) glittering with small, shiny evergreen leaves and decorated with pearly pale pink berries form an eye-catching part of the undergrowth. The berries are edible, but I find them relatively tasteless.
Chilean Firebush (Embothrium coccineum)This bright red plant blooms throughout the Torres del Paine National Park in spring
A short, steep climb brings us to a shelf of rock overlooking Lago Los Patos, indigo, silent and mysterious, its rocky shores fringed with lenga (Nothofagus pumilio) woods that cast purple-grey reflections in its mirror-still surface. Further along the undulating trail we obtain our first view of Lago Grey. Wisps of cloud float slowly across the face of the lake studded with many angular fragments of ice that have broken off the glacier higher up the valley. Birdsong fills the air from trees below, the branches of which grow awkwardly in one direction, blown into this contorted shape by the ferocity of the winds that tear down through this valley.
The rain is falling gently as we pass the signpost for Lago Grey and climb a rock outcrop to a panoramic viewpoint. The surface of the lake shines like liquid mercury and a great raft of cloud drifts finger-like from amid the jagged summits of the Cerro del Paine towards it. In the distance, the splintered end of the Grey Glacier is clearly visible and beyond, the enormous white wilderness of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. The majesty of the scene is somehow enhanced by the lingering mist and brooding cloud, amid which patches of blue sky are beginning to show. The weather is improving.
Panoramic viewpoint over Lago GreyThe majesty of the scene is somehow enhanced by the lingering mist and brooding cloud
The Grey Glacier and the Southern Patagonian Ice FieldThis is the world's second largest contiguous extrapolar ice field and the bigger of two remnant parts of the Patagonian Ice Sheet, which covered all of southern Chile during the last glacial period (the Llanquihue glaciation)
The trail towards Refugio Grey weaves its way above the lake, offering magnificent views as it descends through a fairyland of shady beech woods, over rushing rivers and past immense waterfalls. A variety of small spring flowers are beginning to bloom in this harsh environment and we spot clusters of deep yellow Viola reichei, a type of pansy; Anemone multifida, a creamy white flower with lemon stamens from the buttercup family, and the delicate pale pink Orquidea blanca or 'palomita', (Dog orchid) flecked with cerise pink dots. The glorious perfume of calafate blossom occasionally pervades the air, and we soon spot the evergreen shrub Berberis microphylla with its arching branches covered in many tripartite spines and fragrant bright yellow flowers. These will develop into a delicious purple fruit from which jam and liqueur is made.
Calafate (Berberis microphylla)In the autumn this bush produces bright purple edible berries which is made into jam and liqueur. Local people say that if you eat the berries you will return to Patagonia!
After a beer and snack by the cosy wood fire at Refugio Grey we set off to a nearby viewpoint to see the Grey Glacier. By now the rain has stopped, the sky is clearing and the wet landscape is gleaming with surreal lucidity in the feeble mid-afternoon sunlight. Atop a large bank of moraine deposited by the retreating glacier we spy it across its watery amphitheatre. Its end, shattered, gnarled and contorted into a jigsaw puzzle of white, grey and electric blue pieces, casts shimmering reflections on the lake’s surface. We decide to get a closer look and scrambling up a steep escarpment opposite Isla Nunatak, around which the glacier wraps itself, we hear a loud crack. We arrive just in time to see one of the gargantuan icebergs calve a large slab of ice which slips into the water with a strident hiss and enormous splash, sending huge ripples across the lake. The leviathan, much reduced in size, now sports giant crystal-like projections of deep blue ice, truly beautiful to behold.
The nose of the Grey GlacierThe glacier flows southwards from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field into Lago Grey. Climate change means the glacier is shrinking fast
Iceberg, Lago GreyWe caught this iceberg calving
After gazing at the glacier and absorbing the immensity and stark beauty of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, it's time to return to the camp site. We cover the route back relatively quickly and make our way to the bar to satiate our thirst with a cool Patagonian beer.
After an early breakfast we break camp and hit the trail for the 7.5 km hike to Campamento Italiano which takes us past the shores of the deep turquoise Lago Pehoé, mottled by great shafts of sunlight which radiate down through breaks in the cloud. After a gentle climb up a rocky shelf, we come to the petrol-blue Lago Skottsberg set against a panoramic backdrop of the snow-covered Cuernos del Paine, mist clinging like silken scarves around the spiky peaks. This part of the ‘W’ probably has the largest number of engineered sections, with board walks and steps much in evidence through an area that is recuperating after extensive fire damage. Nearer the Francés River the landscape is again densely wooded with a number of varieties of beech trees, providing a pleasant shady walk. Very soon the tremulous cadence of the river can be heard through the woods and after about two hours we finally arrive at the suspension bridge swaying wildly in the wind that takes us over the Francés River to Campamento Italiano.
Francés RiverThe water running off the Francés Valley Glacier is so pure it can be taken straight from this river
The toilets and cooking facilities here leave much to be desired, but the location in a beech forest is beautiful. We pitch our tent in a sunny clearing, clambering down to the Francés River to obtain water for cooking and drinking. This icy cold water, tumbling straight off the glacier down the boulder strewn river, is so pure and fresh it is safe to drink without being treated. Dozing in the sunshine outside our tent, I think I hear a peal of thunder, but overhead the sky is blue and it seems inconceivable that a storm is approaching. I wonder what on earth the sound could be…
After a very leisurely lunch, we set off to tackle the 5.5 km trail up the Valle del Francés to the scenic viewpoint above Campamento Británico (where legendary British climbers, Bonnington and Whillans, made camp during their successful 1963 assault on the central tower of the Torres del Paine). The gradient is fairly steep in sections and the trail, which ascends 800 metres up into the ribs of the Paine Massif, is pretty rough underfoot, but the scenery is majestic. Massive hanging glaciers are set into vast swathes of granite, the remnants of a solidified magma chamber pushed up to the earth’s surface millions of years ago. A loud crack followed by a deep rumbling like thunder and a strident hiss suddenly reverberates around the valley. I swing my head round just in time to see a great slab of ice shear off a nearby hanging glacier and crash down into the valley below in a torrent of water, sending snow and ice flying in all directions. This was the sound I had heard earlier!
Trekking up the scenic Francés ValleyA tough 800 metre climb up the Francés Valley is rewarded with magnificent vistas
Francés Glacier, Francés ValleyWe had tremendous close up views of the Francés Glacier which was constantly calving blocks of ice
We press on, passing lichen which has left unusual marks on some of the boulders that look strangely like primitive rock art, and we spy beech trees sporting Cyttaria darwinii, an apricot coloured golf ball-like fungus that was named in honour of Charles Darwin who collected it in Tierra del Fuego during his voyage on HMS Beagle in 1832. This fungus, which parasitizes Nothofagus (beech) species causing tumours known as ‘knots’, is also called ‘Pan de Indio’ or ‘llao-llao’ and is edible, though it doesn’t have much flavour. We also spot large spheres of the parasitic Misodendrum punctulatum, or mistletoe, in numerous beech trees that shake their ragged heads madly as if head-banging to the wind’s wild tune.
‘Pan de Indio’ (Cyttaria darwinii)This edible fungus is named in honour of Charles Darwin, who collected it in Tierra del Fuego during his voyage on HMS Beagle in 1832. It parasitizes Nothofagus (beech) species causing tumours known as ‘knots’, and is called ‘Pan de Indio’ or ‘llao-llao’
Higher up we obtain eye-ravishing views back down the valley of the turquoise Lago Nordenskjöld studded with islands, and the granite monoliths comprising the Cuernos del Paine, which, set against a clear blue sky, glow golden in the afternoon sun. We have to ford numerous boulder strewn river beds fed by waterfalls cascading down from the surrounding mountains. We pass shy patches of spray-misted Ourisia Poeppigii, clarinet-shaped scarlet flowers that cascade down from their precarious hold in rocky crevices.
Crossing a large glacial outflow and an avalanche field that has decimated the beech forest leaving bone-dry sun-bleached trunks that have been snapped in half like sticks, we come upon the deserted and somewhat desolate Campamento Británico with its primitive shelter. A steep climb up over a tumbled mass of boulders brings us to a viewpoint offering a stunning panorama of an immense cirque of impressive cliffs, below which lies a verdant amphitheatre bearing the scars of glacial outwash. Here are the colossal walls of the Cerro Cota 2000 (named for it's height), and the Cerro Catedral, so-called as its eastern face resembles the façade of a cathedral. One's imagination could run riot here as it's possible to see myriad shapes and forms in the rock, and it's no surprise to discover that many peaks have richly descriptive names: Aleta de Tiburon ‘Shark's Fin’, Cabeza del Indio ‘Indian Head’ and Fortaleza ‘Fortress’. To the east, the monolithic peaks of the Cuernos del Paine, given equally evocative names to describe their impressive geology (including ‘La Espada ‘The Sword’, and La Hoja ‘The Blade’), look magnificent illuminated by the amber light of the fading sun.
The Francés ValleyThe wild and rugged terrain at the head of the Francés Valley
Viewpoint at the head of the Francés ValleyThis stunning cirque is the reward for a challenging 5.5km 800 metre climb up the Francés Valley
It is with great difficulty that I pull myself away from this awesome scenery to begin the descent back to Campamento Italiano. The beech forests are by now tranquil; a strange hush has descended with the subsiding wind and the valley is filled only with the sound of rushing water, our footsteps crunching on scree and the occasional crash and rumble of yet more ice falling from the glaciers. The valley feels so wild and remote that we might be the only two people left in the entire world at this moment in time. It's almost with relief that we enter camp where the sound of human voices and the smell of cooking welcome us back to civilisation.
As darkness begins to envelop the campsite, we are greatly surprised to see a Chimango Caracara (Milvago chimango) eyeing us from a branch just feet away. Martin grabs his camera and gives chase as it flies to a nearby log in a whirl of white and cinnamon-blown feathers, then hops daintily about on its slender yellow legs as if teasing him to take a perfect shot. Unfortunately, the images turn out slightly blurred but we had incredible close up views of this magnificent female raptor. We eventually fall asleep to the booming echoes of yet more ice crashing from the glaciers up the valley.
The thought of carrying a heavy backpack over 22 km does not appeal at all as we break camp the next day, glad to see the back of the very shabby cooking shelter and the truly ghastly dry-composting toilet, the only one open at the campsite. The weather is fine, with high wispy cloud spread thinly across a cornflower-blue sky between pillow-soft banks of cumulus. The sun is warm on our backs as we begin the 4.5 km first leg of the trek towards Refugio Los Cuernos. This section of the trail is truly beautiful, for the path soon swings towards Lago Nordenskjöld and is fringed with Chilean Firebush which looks more scarlet than ever set against the backdrop of the deep turquoise water. Bathed in sunshine, the lake has something of a Mediterranean feel to it.
Grand views over Lago NordenskjöldThis section of the trek is one of the most scenic. Lago Nordenskjöld has something of a Mediterranean feel to it
After a gentle descent offering eye-catching views of the lake behind which tower the gleaming snow covered peaks of the Cerro Paine Grande with the Francés Glacier clearly visible, we come to its pebbly shore. Taking our packs off, we decide to stop awhile, revelling in a moment of blissful solitude where the only sound is that of small crystalline waves repeatedly lapping onto the shingles with a low, grating roar. On a nearby crag we spot a lone Black-faced Ibis preening itself with its distinctive scimitar-shaped beak, while overhead a Black-chested buzzard eagle soars above the cliffs vigilantly scanning the ground below for prey.
Beach at Lago NordenskjöldWe enjoy relaxing on the pebbly shore of this beautiful deep turquoise lake
Rather reluctantly we leave the beach and proceed towards the Refugio Los Cuernos, an attractive wooden chalet with cabins dotted about the foot of the Cuernos del Paine. This is probably the best sited of the refugios and campsites in terms of scenery, but it does not occupy an optimum position for trekkers doing the 'W' in 3-4 days, as it is some two and a half hours from the Francés Valley. The place is quiet, breakfast is over and there are only a couple of trekkers lazing outside on a wooden bench on the sunny terraza. We join them. Above, cloud drifts languidly about the horn-like mountain peaks. Time seems to be slowing to a virtual standstill and I am loathe to leave the sun drenched terraza for the next leg of the trek to Refugio Chileno, some 15 km distant.
Refugio Los CuernosThis refugio is sited in a very scenic location above Lago Nordenskjöld
After crossing the Rìo Bader via a bridge just past the refugio, the path climbs steeply above the lake, giving fine views west of the 'horns' of Cuernos del Paine. These are the black tipped remnants of a heavily eroded sedimentary stratum atop enormous near-vertical walls of grey granite sliced apart in the past by vast glaciers. In the brown hills across the lake, huge layers of sediments buckled and bent like plasticine over the eons plunge downwards, disappearing into the water only to emerge again further on. The terrain becomes progressively more open and rugged with large glacial boulders that have tumbled down from on high. These are interspersed with wind-sculpted Magellan's beech (Nothofagus betuloides) and lenga. Growing around these are pale green cushions of prickly Mata Barrosa (Mulinum spinosum) and patches of Anarthrophyllum desideratum, colloquially known as 'Guanaco bush' or 'Fire Tongue', due to its covering of tiny scarlet flowers which are just beginning to bloom. Enormous whitened branches of dead lenga trees lie scattered amid the verdure; they might have been the bleached bones of gigantic creatures that fell here when Patagonia was part of Gondwanaland, so timeless does this landscape feel.
Cuernos del PaineAfter leaving the Refugio los Cuernos, the trail passes through magnificent scenery
Lago NordenskjöldThe Chilean Firebush contrasts dramatically with the turquoise lake
We pick our way carefully across smooth boulders in crystal-clear streams that tumble down to the lake from the Cerro Paine Chico Sur, or over suspension bridges which sway wildly as we cross. Half hidden in the sandy bank of one of the rivers, I spot a patch of colourful Zapatitos de la Virgen or 'Virgin's Slipper' (Calceolaria uniflora). These flowers, discovered by Darwin and distantly related to foxgloves, are saffron-yellow and tipped burgundy with a white horizontal stripe. They don't remind me of slippers at all; rather, they look like a collection of long, slightly miserable faces, with mouths wide open as if startled and the stamens look like two eyes! Close to the path on a sunny slope, we pass many patches of Anemone multifida, and spot the beautiful pale pink iris, Olsynium biflorum, a bell-shaped flower with six petals lined with deep lilac veins and bright yellow stamens.
Suspension Bridge over one of the larger riversSharron crossing one of the suspension bridges in the Torres del Paine National Park
Zapatitos de la Virgen (Calceolaria uniflora)These flowers, discovered by Darwin, are distantly related to foxgloves
In the distance we finally catch sight of the Hotel Las Torres and can see where the Rio Paine flows into Lago Nordenskjöld. We are making good progress and the stunning scenery continues to be a distraction from thoughts of how far we have yet to travel. Very soon we arrive at the shortcut towards the Refugio Chileno which takes us past Laguna Inge across open boggy grassland on a trail that contours around the side of the Cerro Paine Chico Sur which offers fine views over the vast Patagonian steppe. On a sun bleached lenga tree stump, we spot a Chilean flicker eyeing us nervously, its barred brown and creamy yellow plumage making it well camouflaged against the dead wood. The trail rises steadily towards the pass above the Río Ascencio which has carved out quite a gorge, laying bare layer upon layer of brown sedimentary rock. On the lower route towards the Hotel Las Torres, we catch sight of a group of people moving slowly on horseback: tourists being gauchos for a day. I imagine being astride one of those horses with the wind in my hair and the freedom of the mountains mine to savour... We pass several other trekkers heading in the opposite direction to us and by the time we arrive at the point where the shortcut meets the pathway up from the hotel, the route is much busier with people heading to and from the Refugio Chileno.
Chilean flicker (Colaptes pitius)The Chilean Flicker is a species of bird in the family Picidae found in Argentina and Chile. Its natural habitats are temperate forests, subtropical or tropical high-altitude shrubland, and heavily degraded former forest
At the top of the pass we gain our first sight of the refugio, a wooden chalet nestled in trees at the very bottom of the majestic Ascencio Valley. The serpentine coils of the river look very far below the pathway. This threads its way down the steep, sparsely vegetated grey-brown slopes below the Cerro Paine Chico Sur and Monte Almirante Nieto and across a large exposed run of scree that would be tricky to traverse in high wind. Beyond the refugio the landscape is wild and elemental, comprised of thickly forested slopes that sweep down to the river and skirt yet more snow clad peaks at the far end of the valley including the icy, jagged shoulder of Cerro Nido de Condor. A wooden bridge crosses the roaring Río Ascencio, bringing us at last to the refugio where a cool beer and slice of (very expensive) pizza await us.
Ascencio ValleyThe Refugio Chileno, a wooden chalet-type building, is sited at the very bottom of the valley
That the place is busy is indicated by the large pile of hiking boots abandoned just inside the entrance. It feels good to remove our packs and take the weight off our feet as we wait for our order to arrive. I sit as close to the wood burning stove as possible watching the flames curling round the logs inside as I relax and warm my naked feet. The pizza washed down with Austral beer tastes divine after three days of freeze dried food! However, we cannot afford to get too comfortable as we still have over 3 km to trek to Campamento Torres and as this section rises steeply, it will take about one and a half hours. Reluctantly, I leave the warmth of the fire and before long we are back on the trail.
Refugio ChilenoThe Refugio is sited right above the Río Ascencio
The route leads us over the river via another wooden bridge and ascends steadily though a shady lenga forest which has something of a Lord of the Rings aura to it. The leaves seem to be whispering secrets in the light wind as we pass through this delightful sylvan landscape. Every so often we cross burbling brooks via a variety of rustic bridges and intriguing vistas of waterfalls cascading down the bare grey mountainside opposite flash in and out of view through gaps in the trees. In a grassy clearing full of saffron-yellow dandelions and lenga stumps, we finally gain our first close up view of the rounded granite tops of the famous Torres del Paine that give the park its name.
We soon arrive at a wide sandy junction where the pathway up to the Mirador Torres del Paine (viewpoint) is signed 45 minutes away and the campsite, one minute along a pathway that leads downhill into the forest. The site, on a wooded slope bisected by a small stream fed by snowmelt, is fairly large and almost empty, with just a few tents dotted about close to the tall triangular warden's hut and cooking shelter, which looks as dire as that at Campamento Italiano! It is a relief to finally drop our heavy packs after over 11 hours hiking and Martin adds yet more cheer by producing a bottle of Chilean white wine which he had quietly purchased at the Refugio Chileno to toast our success at almost completing the 'W'. This is placed into the icy stream to chill as we erect our tent next to it.
Mess hut at Campamento TorresThe facilities at each campsite are pretty primitive. Cooking must be done inside a mess hut to avoid catastrophic fires
The sunlight is fading as we devour dinner and sip our wine, listening to the wind sighing in the beech boughs and the melodic chatter of the stream as it passes by our tent. Through the leaves we spot a few stars but these are soon obscured by a bank of cloud that is stealthily filling the entire sky. It is much colder up here and wraithlike chill fingers round my neck cause me to pull my sleeping bag round my shoulders to keep warm. Martin does not hold out much hope of a spectacular dawn over the Torres and believes it might well snow in the night. We have to rise in just a few hours time to make our way up to the panoramic viewpoint high above the camp, so retire to bed. I fall asleep almost immediately, my mind too tired to replay the events of the day or to imagine what wonders await us at the towers...
I am stirring before the alarm goes off. It’s 4.00 am and Martin unzips the tent letting in a rush of cold air. I dress inside my sleeping bag and emerge to a bitterly cold but still night. Martin is gazing heavenward. There are a few stars in the sky towards the east where the sun will rise, but tiny flakes of snow are falling and overhead the sky is thick with cloud. The signs don’t look good. Lights appear in some of the tents further down the campsite and shapes begin to move about behind luminescent canvas, preparing, like us, for the 45 minute trek up to the famous Torres del Paine viewing point.
Less than half an hour later we are on the trail running almost parallel to a small stream following the pools of light cast by our head torches. The pace is fast as we begin the steep climb through the lenga forest which eventually begins to thin out and we emerge onto a slippery gravel path which zig-zags its way upwards over moraine and scree. To the east, a tiny triangle of sky trapped between the interlocking spurs of the mountains and an angry bank of thick grey cloud is beginning to brighten, heralding the coming of dawn. A hazy crescent moon, setting behind the mountains opposite, momentarily reveals itself through a break in the cloud. On the path below are the dancing head lights of half a dozen other trekkers slowly making their way upwards.
By now it’s light enough to see and we climb ever higher under a blanket of cloud which is emitting intermittent snow flurries. We contour around massive boulders deposited by the gigantic river of ice that once flowed through this valley, negotiating the somewhat perilous Paso del Vientos (Pass of the Winds), a cliff traverse which would be tricky in high wind, to reach the most famous viewpoint in the park. It begins to snow steadily as we arrive at the bleak corrie gouged out by the Torres glacier which has retreated about three hundred metres, leaving behind a milky-green lake below the famous blue-grey towers (‘paine’ being an indigenous word for blue). Great columns of cloud boil about the towers which are completely obscured and the snow stings my eyes as I peer into the greyness hoping to see them take shape in the gloom. We pick our way over the shattered rocks high above the still lake to find an ideal photography spot and stand in the eerie silence of the freezing predawn, still hopeful that the cloud might lift.
More people slowly arrive and congregate; the expression on their faces is one of disappointment as they watch the snow falling from a capricious grey sky. Martin looks at his watch. The sun should have risen by now and we stand, expectant, hoping. In the right conditions, the three towers - Torre Sur (2850 metres), Torre Central (2800m) and Torre Norte (2600m) - glow blood red or rosy pink. Today that is not to be, for as the sun rises above the ridge behind us, the snow subsides and the churning cloud turns a faint rose-pink and then apricot while the cliffs below the Cerro Nido de Condor are bathed in an ochreous warmth. The great vertical striations in the rock face right beneath the towers grow brighter casting reflections into the milky green lake and the granite giants above, skirted by freshly fallen snow, mysteriously take shape in the soft-apricot mistiness, only to disappear moments later, and then to re-emerge, mirage-like. This kaleidoscopic display which repeats itself several times is mystical, magnificent and memorable.
The Torres del PaineThe Torres del Paine just after dawn
Eventually, the towers grow more visible in the brightening light and stirring cloud as the wind has strengthened a little and we watch mesmerised as a lone condor arrives to ride the breeze in great circles above the lake. The wind adds to the morning chill which has penetrated to our very bones and we simply have to move to warm up. We reluctantly retreat from the viewpoint as snow begins to fall once more, retracing our steps back down the steep trail, now frosted with snow.
We break camp quickly in the knowledge that high winds are forecast for later in the morning and we want to be over the treacherous scree slope on the trail through the Ascensio Valley beforehand. The Refugio Chileno is as busy as ever and we stop for about half an hour for refreshments. The wooden bridge over the raging Río Ascencio is already swarming with day trekkers up early from the Hotel Las Torres, and we pass many more on the steady climb to the top of the pass. Here we stop for one last look down this beautiful valley to see thick cloud still boiling round the far mountain peaks and the serrated black ridge of the Cerro Nido de Condor. Ahead, the sky is blue and clear save for a bank of white cloud sitting above the tops of mountains newly dusted with snow beyond the deep turquoise Lago Nordenskjöld.
Top of the Acsensio ValleyFrom here its a steep 4.5 km descent to the Hotel Las Torres and the end of the trek
The wind has strengthened noticeably as we begin the 4.5 km steep descent to the Hotel Las Torres along a well-defined trail which is rocky and slippery in places. We move quickly, letting gravity aid our downward progress to spare knees and feet. We pass by many trekkers, red-faced and panting, battling the wind on their lung-busting climb to the top of the pass. I’m glad we opted to do the ‘W’ trek from the direction of the Lodge de Montaña Paine Grande, as carrying a fully laden pack up to the col from the Hotel Las Torres would have been exhausting. Moreover, the Torres, the pièce de résistance of the park, do not reveal themselves fully until the end of the trek which therefore ends on a high note.
About two thirds of the way down, the trail flattens out and the wind, with nothing to break its passage, is by now immensely strong and gusting, lifting great columns of dust that pulsate across the landscape. Grit hurts my eyes as we descend a gravely slope that brings us to a vast outwash plain of brown earth and rock created by the Río Ascensio. One final suspension bridge takes us over a small gorge carved by the river to within a few hundred metres of the Hotel Las Torres. Above the river we pass through a gate in a wooden fence demarcating the hotel perimeter which was once a working ranch, but which has been converted into a luxury hotel in recent years. I find it hard to walk in a straight line due to the ferocity of the wind and I can only imagine how bad it must be high up in the mountains where we were earlier.
Bridge over the Río AscencioOne final suspension bridge takes us over a small gorge carved by the river to within a few hundred metres of the Hotel Las Torres
Hotel Las TorresOnce a working ranch, now a luxury hotel, we hit the bar to celebrate over several delicious Patagonian ales!
We have plenty of time to spare before we catch the 2.00 pm park shuttle bus that will take us back to the park entrance at Guardería Laguna Amarga where we will board the 2.30 pm bus back to Puerto Natales, so we make our way to the hotel bar. We toast each other with cool glasses of delicious Patagonian ale, celebrating trekking nearly 80 km in three and a half days. We are taking home many incredible memories of our journey through a primordial landscape tucked away in a remote corner of a continent almost at the end of the earth, which boasts some of the most inspiring scenery on the planet. Here nature survives in the face of the most extreme forces the physical world can muster. Before we catch the bus, I nip to the hotel shop to buy some purple calafate jam and liqueur. The locals claim if you eat the berries you will return to Patagonia. Even without the berries, I am convinced that one day I will return here, but nevertheless, I still want to be sure…