Re-discovering Patagonia under the stars on a mountain summit.
The sun beat down on my arms. Tingling warm it was a welcome heat in the crisp morning air. With each slow step dust cast into the air like a puff of sandy smoke, through knee-deep thorny bushes I was climbing toward a shady wood on the skyline.
To my side my new flatmate and good friend Ruth walked seemingly effortlessly at my side. Dropped from a bus on a remote bridge we had set our own trail direct for a steep clamber in an attempt to camp on the top of a remote summit. We hoped to escape the crowded trails of the Torres Del Paine, to capture a view of the entire range and to trace new steps where we had not been before. So far our voyage of discovery had been hot, arduous and sweaty. I thought Patagonia was a cold region.
Discovering a fresh well formed trail on the ridge we wound our way skyward. To our backs the wide expanse of the Rio Grey outwash plains swept west into mountains and glistening ice fields. Like a winding snake the Rio Serrano; the river I paddle for work and passion wound into the distance.
In 2011 a wildfire caused by burning toilet paper swept through the national park. Burning more than 16,000 hectares of pristine birchwood, pampas and wild-land the catastrophe left its mark upon the Torres Del Paine national park. For Ruth and I the destruction had swept our path clear of woodland making easy walking but leaving the ghostly remains of trees once proudly defiant of the harshest of climates. It will take 200 years for the land to recover yet the skeletons of the birch claim an eery beauty.
Thankfully the fire had not reached the entire mountain face. We soon rose into the cool shade of healthy open forest. Here the birds called, woodpeckers tapped and we chased footprints of fox in the snow. Underfoot our path was solid snow and ice, seldom would we stumble to our knees in a powdery path. A dazzling interplay of light and shade pulled our senses toward the forest floor, we grew immersed in the micro-beauty of the park hidden before the grandeur of the mountains.
As quick as we had arrived into the forest we were soon rising once more into the barren world of the mountain summit. A land so scoured by wind and snow that few plants survive. Our trail now crunched not with ice but with shattered shale. The black rock baked under crystal skies. Our horizon dominated in a 360º panoramic of rock and ice. Cerro Toro: The mountain of the bull, to our side the Cuernos (horns) of Torres rose mighty above azul lakes.
Pitching the tent on a ridge with rocks to weight it down incase of the wind Ruth and I set about exploring the empty, lunar landscape before us. Far to our side the Cerro Balmaceda rose clear of cloud before the Patagonian Ice sheet. I have rarely seen it clear, and never failed to be inspired by its rugged razor like ridges. A mountaineers mountain, one I shall never climb but admire from afar.
Seldom have I had a day in the wilderness I would describe as perfect. Just 3 days into another season in Patagonia and I was in paradise. A wilderness from heaven carved by the weather from hell on pristine display without cloud nor wind to challenge the spectacle. I perhaps went a little ‘tent photo’ happy but was ecstatic to pitch so easily in somewhere so difficult under normal conditions. Ruth and I settled in for a calm evening watching the sunset.
I forgot the pot, Ruth and I burst out laughing; I had just joked about it. As the sun sank low and golden to our side we brewed hot water inside my sigg bottle before semi-cooking tortellini into a passable mush inside her flask, the rest we ate as crisps…a surprisingly tasty discovery.
Filled with pasta and snow melting in the remaining hot water we wandered in the quickly cooling air to look down and around our vista to the rivers, valleys, mountains and glaciers below.
As the sun dropped over the horizon with a final explosion of warmth and colour we sat on our mats, clambered into our sleeping bags and settled in for a night of watching the stars.
Waking to the tissue paper blue, purple light rising over the glaciers in the distance I struggled to emerge from my sleeping bag. Opening the door to a burst of frosty air and a view to rival any other I took little time in leaping into a world of colour and cold.
Passing the golden hour alone on the mountain-top while Ruth watched the sunrise from the comfort of her sleeping-bag (much wiser) I ran back and forth to discover different views and to keep warm.
As the sun finally broke the brow of the mountain Ruth and I quickly ate a pack of cookies before de-setting camp and heading for the top. A short 30 minute gentle wander soon brought us to the cairn. Rising to tradition with a celebratory star jump we tapped the cairn and set off to the east. We were now facing a choice; to stay high and hope to reach the road some 40km away, or to head low and linger in hope of a hitch and the chance to see a puma. We chose to head low. The ride soon broke from open scree into bands of scrambly rock. Playing and exploring we found ourselves lost in finding fossilised tree trunks and ammonite impressions. Chasing the lines of rock downhill with crackles of tumbling scree we wound our way to the lakes below.
Sneaking past a condor which took flight on the mid-day thermals we descended back into forest to a world of colourful plants. The Mata bushes rising like spikey pillows dotted the shale between deep reds and yellows of the winter scarred alpine plants. Behind a vista of the entire Torres Del Paine range, the towers and walls of rock before a necklace of green, azul lakes. A finer view there is hard to find.
With a last look at the mountains Ruth and I dropped somewhat sneakily to the local estancia (croft). In an attempt to move unseen (foiled by a friendly gaucho) we returned to the road and headed east.
With a swift hitch and a long wait in the sun for the bus to return to Puerto Natales Ruth and I returned safe and sound. For I our two days in the mountains were the perfect beginning of a Patagonian summer and I am left with a lust for adventure to come.