A storm was raging around me, trying to pull me away, but I managed to stay on the rocks from where I was looking down at colossal icebergs in the Lago Grey with the glacier at the far side of the lake. Distant memories of the lake were coming back to me; it had been 17 years since I last visited Torres del Paine. Although I vaguely recalled hiking the wild terrain, I was curious to see how much I would remember. To begin with, where I had hitch-hiked to the entrance of the park, transportation now is provided by a touring car; what once was a gravel road, now is asphalted. But a quite ridiculous break at a bar after only 45 minutes of driving, and the endless wait for all passengers to buy their entrance ticket, meant that it took more than three hours to reach Pudeto, where I quickly hiked to the nearby powerful Salto Grande waterfall, spotting plenty of guanacos on the way, before catching the catamaran across Lago Pehoé to the Paine Grande refugio. I was in a hurry now; I dropped some stuff and started out on my first hike to the face of the Grey glacier. And here I was: on a panoramic lookout where a merciless Patagonian wind was blowing icy air directly from the Grey Glacier with full force. As the trail descended, I entered the woods where strong trees protected me against the wind. I reached a rocky beach, where chunks of ice had run aground; in the distance, the huge iceberg I had seen from above before now showed its full size from this different perspective. I continued hiking until the Campamento Los Guardas lookout point; this is directly above the face of the Grey Glacier. After the 3,5 hour hike here, I decided I deserved a break, and I found a good spot with a fine view. I was too far to really hear the noise of the glacier, but I did see some pieces falling into the lake and slowly drifting away. The Grey Glacier is receding fast: on my previous visit, the face of the glacier reached the southern tip of the island, where now it was already a long way inside the moraine. It was time to go back; on the way, I walked to the tip of the peninsula that juts out into the lake - it allows for an unrestricted view of the eastern face of the glacier. I was in a hurry now: I was starving, and had to be back in time for dinner. Now, the strong Patagonian wind was working in my favour, and I almost ran back to camp, just in time for dinner.
The next day would be a long one. I was set to do the W: a circuit in the Torres del Paine park that has the shape of a W as you hike up three roughly parallel valleys. The day before had been the left fork of the W, today, I would do the middle one. The weather was quite good when I walked along Lago Skottsberg, allowing for a great view of the famous Cuernos, oddly shaped mountains with a light grey base and a dark brown top layer. I could not resist the water of the lake, and went in for a quick dip before I continued on an easy trail to the Campamento Italiano. On my left, a view of massive walls of ice clinging precariously to the steep walls of the Cerro Paine Grande range opened up; when I crossed the Río del Francés, I knew I had arrived in the next valley, and I turned left for a two-hour climb on rocky terrain. This might be the wildest stretch of the Torres del Paine park: every now and then, a loud cracking sound quite like thunder roars through the valley, announcing yet another avalanche of ice breaking off high above. At different levels, thick layers of ice rest on the black rocks; there is a constant sound of water running down from the ice. Haphazard streaks of fresh snow ran down the mountain. The top of the glacier looked particularly dirty: it was covered with a layer of small rocks. It was evident that this landscape is in continuous reshaping mode. I was at least happy that I was walking on the eastern side of the valley. At one of the many river crossings, a deer was patiently waiting for me. After passing Campamento Británico, it was a short hike up to a lookout point. Even before, when walking through an open area, the full view of the mountain range soaring above me became clear. On one side, the famous Cuernos with their two-coloured bands, then, the Cerro Catedral, Cerro Cabeza del Indio, Cerro Aleta de Tiburón, and others; unfortunately, the highest peaks of Torres del Paine were surrounded by clouds. Still, the sight of the horse-shoe shaped crown of the Valle del Francés was nothing but spectacular. I stayed for an hour, looking from left to right, and back, when I realized the clouds were closing in. I hiked up to a higher level, through snow, and felt even closer to the mountains that looked even more impressive now that I was right at their feet. I had to go: I still had a few hours hike ahead of me to campamento Cuernos, where I arrived exhausted: I had not eaten enough that day. That evening, during dinner, we saw a massive avalanche coming down the Cerro Paine Grande chain. Unfortunately, with the windows closed, we could not hear it, but we were sure it must have been an impressive noise.
Despite the rain that was raging on the roof during the night, we woke up to a sunny morning, and after a quick breakfast, I was out for a shorter hike today, to Campamento Chileno. The trail took me over the hilly shoreline of huge Lago Nordenskjöld; behind me, the Cuernos dominated the sky. Earlier than I expected, I reached the turnoff for the shortcut to Chileno, and the trail started to climb until it reached a vantage point where the Ascensio valley opened up below me. I had reached the beginning of the right part of the W. It did not take long before I had checked in in the refugio, and I was out right away. The weather was still good, and I hoped to get a glimpse of the Torres del Paine, the pillars from which the park derives its name. On my previous visit, they had been hidden by clouds, as they often are. Already from the camp, I could see the top of two of the three Torres, and I was in a hurry. After all, you never know in the mountains. The first part of the trail leads through a friendly forest, crossing the thundering Ascensio river; the last stretch is more exposed, and leads you over the rocky mountain slope to a ridge which it took me just over an hour to reach. I was in time: before my eyes, a steep, shiny rocky face rose sharply out of the green lake; above which three gigantic granite pillars soared high into the sky. I descended to the shore of the murky lake, found myself a rock offering some shelter against the wind, and just stared at the three Torres. On the right, the Torre Norte, the broadest one, with small ledges on which a thin layer of snow was clinging to the rock. The Torre Central, the tallest one, majestically dwarfing the others, and next to it, Torre Sur which is probably the most perfectly shaped pillar. While my eyes stayed glued to the spectacular sight, a condor descended in circles from the Nido de los Cóndores, the massive, square mountain next to the Torre Norte. After more than an hour of watching the granite giants, the wind made me feel chilly and I decided it was time to move down. After three days of intense hiking and climbing, it was time for a break: I found myself a nice, sunny spot without wind where I just closed my eyes and enjoyed the images of Chilean Patagonia for a second time. The next day was my last in Torres del Paine, and I wanted to try my luck and climb to the Torres again to see sunrise. To my surprise, several others wanted to do that, too, so at 3.45 the next morning, our headlights pierced the darkness around the refugio on our way up again. The weather looked amazingly good: we saw bright stars, and there was already enough light to see that there were no clouds in the sky. We worked our way up pretty fast, and were at the lake well ahead of sunrise. Behind us, the sky was already turning orange; ahead of us, the three towers stood silently in the early morning air. Behind them, small clouds gathered, and we just sat there to see the spectacle. The clouds slowly started to show signs of colours, and then, suddenly, the top of the Torre Central was not grayish anymore, but a bright and deep orange-red. While a white cloud started to build behind the mountain chain, the sunlight set the Torre Norte and Central on fire - the Torre Sur was still out of reach for the sun. The lake was very calm and reflected the towers perfectly. But this was not a quiet morning: several times, pieces of rock came falling down the steep slopes of the Torres. This impressive sunrise scene at the Torres was a perfect end to my stay in the Torres del Paine park.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Torres del Paine (Chile). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Torres del Paine. Read more about this site.