Torres del Paine, Days 4 and 5 - Las Torres

Trip Start Mar 29, 2010
Trip End May 24, 2010

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Flag of Chile  , Patagonia,
Sunday, April 11, 2010

Day 4 – A Las Torres

Today was our scheduled "light" day – 4.5 hours with full packs through moderate terrain.   The forecast – if you can call a couple of squiggly lines on a blackboard that somewhat resembled a raincloud a forecast – called for rain.

As we left the Refugio, I snapped a few additional photos of Los Cuernos.  As you can see from the first photo in this post, there wasn't a cloud in the sky despite the ominous weather forecast.

The trail to Refugio Las Torres starts along Lake Nordenskjold and continues around Los Cuernos.   After a few kilometers, the trail ascended affording us some stunning views of the Lake and some distinct perspectives on Los Cuernos.

As we continued along the trail to Las Torres, the landscape became drier.  Gone were the lenga tree forests of the French Valley.  In their place grew small shrubs and grasslands – extending for miles – that comprise the Southern Patagonia Steppe.  

The absence of trees, coupled with our late start to the day and the absence of the forecasted rainclouds meant a complete absence of shade.   I was prepared for high winds and torrential downpours, not sunstroke.   I arrived at the Refugio Las Torres with a minor – though entirely unexpected medical condition – sunburn.

 After an interesting dinner with Richard – our Slovakian friend whom we first met in Refugio Los Cuernos – I stepped outside to take a look at the stars.  This night, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, allowing us to see the full night sky, including the Milky Way.

The guttural sounds of cattle calling to another resonated throughout the countryside.

Day 5 – Las Torres del Paine

Despite being the crown jewel of the Chilean National Park system, a large swath of the Torres del Paine National Park is privately owned.  In fact, the land we needed to trek across to reach the Torres del Paine – the iconic granite massifs for which the Park is named – lies in private hands and is used for ranching.  Apparently early April is the time of year when the cattle round-up takes place.

We left the refugio at 6:15 in the morning, about 30 minutes before first light and more than a full hour before sunrise.  The first 45 minutes or so was on flat ground, so we were fine with a flashlight.   Cow pies were the only hazard to watch for.   The consummate city slicker, I was tempted to try my hand at “cow tipping” (some cows really do sleep standing up), but Monique kept me on the straight and narrow.   We needed to climb up to the Torres and back in order to catch our 2:30 bus back to Puerto Natales.   And we knew that Las Torres would be the toughest hike of the “W.”

Las Torres is a peculiar trail.  At the base of the trail, where a hotel and the refugio are located, you can see the Torres del Paine on a clear day.  Once you begin the trail, however, there are very few spots where you can actually see the Torres until the very end, when you are blessed with a fantastic up-close-and-personal view of the massifs.   Moreover, the trail is terribly steep – especially at the beginning and end – meaning you are exerting a tremendous amount of energy, but not seeing particularly scenic views.

By the time first light hit, we were in the midst of our first ascent.   I was hurting.   Maybe it was the extra couple of glasses of Chilean Cabernet the night before, or the obscenely early wake-up call, or the fact that over the prior four days I had hiked more miles than the previous ten years combined.  Most likely, it was a combination of all these factors.  Regardless, I was slow and Monique was not pleased with my progress.

Appropriately so, I might add.

Fortunately, in between barking orders at me to pick up the pace, Monique had the good sense take a few photos as the sun rose over the Patagonian steppe.   They’re great, and show the intense red hues that are present in the sky during the early morning down here.

Equally fortunate, because Monique was pushing us (i.e., me) during this early part of the hike, we were making fantastic time.  We completed the first ascent of the hike in less than 90 minutes, when the suggested time for this section was two hours.   

After a break for breakfast, we continued through the second, flatter portion of the hike.  The trail continued upward, but a moderate grade.  We re-entered the lenga forest, where again we were surrounded by red, orange, and yellow leaves. 

Around 9:45, we reached the base of our final ascent.   The hike gained roughly half its elevation – about 400 meters or so – over the final mile or so of trail.  

Five minutes into this final portion of the trail, Monique and I became mildly drunk on our own arrogance.    We were ahead of schedule, feeling strong (relatively), and the end of the trail – as well as the “W” – seemed near.  At this point I remarked to Monique, “this isn’t that bad.”

Then it became that bad.

The trail steepened dramatically, which within minutes sapped my remaining strength.  Moreover, we left the forest and were now hiking on the exposed face of a mountain.   The absence of trees resulted in looser, less stable terrain, and fewer hand and footholds.  It also meant that we could feel the wind ripping through the valley.

Patagonia generally – and the Park especially – is known for its high winds.  In fact, throughout the park, it is common to see trees with no branches on the side of their trunks that face the wind.  While the wind speeds were not particularly bad at the moment by Patagonian standards, it was the first wind we had encountered in five days.  And given our location on the trail, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

As we continued upward, the trail cut across a large rock field littered with car-sized boulders.  We scrambled across the boulders, wind howling in our face, all the while looking a few thousand feet down into the valley below us.  

Further complicating things, we could see that the weather was changing for the worse.  Clouds seemed be rolling in and wind gusts picked up to about 30 miles per hour (give or take).  We even felt a few rain droplets.  The whole situation was rather harrowing.

We were literally minutes away from the end of the trail, but were also keenly aware of our precarious circumstance.  We contemplated turning back, but decided to push through the final few minutes of the trail.  When we reached the lookout point, I snapped a few photos and tried to sear the image of the Torres into my mind.  After just a few minutes at the lookout, we began our descent.

Truth be told, the whole situation seemed a little ridiculous.  We spent more than four hours trudging through the toughest hike of our lives simply to spend three minutes at the lookout.  But with the benefit of hindsight, I think we made the right decision.   While we weren’t climbing Everest, there was plenty of danger around us – especially for two novice hikers.   Being caught in a torrential downpour on an exposed mountain a few thousand feet up from rescue would be unpleasant at best, downright tragic at worst. 

Fortunately, our descent proved much easier and less eventful than the ascent.   We arrived back at the Refugio Las Torres at 1:15, roughly seven hours after we left.   Looking up at the mountains, I could see wisps of clouds kiss the Torres, and I thought of the hikers up there who started later in the day.   It wasn’t getting any clearer up there. 

Once on the bus back to Puerto Natales, the sleep came quickly.  I looked back towards the Torres one final time, and saw that they were completed obscured by clouds.  The storm had finally arrived.  
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Pat Mather on

WOW What an adventure. Thanks for letting us share your trip.
What fantastic pictures. Stay safe. Love Pat.

Maggie on

Sure glad Monique had good sense and you guys missed those rain clouds! Don't let those rocks get you down. Again, incredible adventure and pics. Enjoy and stay safe. Love, Mom

Melodi on

Love the photos and commentary. I feel like I am on the trail with you both.

Bob Mather on

Just got this blog you or no one else will need to send me the blog address...very interesting reading and viewing

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