After Returning to Puerto Natales Seumas and I settled into the more sedate rhythm of ‘normal life’. Welcomed back with open arms by everyone at Erratic Rock Hostel we spent several days recovering in-front of a fire catching up with friends and drinking tea.
By sheer good luck we had timed our return just before for the annual hostel expedition to one of the more exciting parts of Torres Del Paine national park. A traditional trip of friends seeking adventure after a long season. The plan was to go west of the main park on a lesser hiked trail to Campamento Zapata and see Glacier Pingu, we hoped we could go further and get close to the ice field beyond. When we returned Seumas and I would go on alone and hike the famous ‘W-Trail’ with an exciting additional twist.
I was excited to finally use the permission slip which I had obtained early in the year to allow access to these places which now required special permits to get to.
In a group of about 15 we set off in high spirits with hope to camp at the official site near Lago Pingu. Resisting the urge to hum the Pingo theme song the entire way I enjoyed filtering between friends sharing stories and jokes together.
Leaving late in the afternoon we arrived at the lake around dusk. Wandering through the Lenga forest which blazed a fiery array of autumn colours I was blown away by the beauty in this time of year and the crisp frosty air brought a tranquil beauty to a place normally so wind swept. Glacier Pingu was of course another beautiful tongue of broken blue flowing from the distant mountains.
The next day we set off together hoping to get closer to the ice field. I was excited to see a new angle of the Tyndall Glacier, which I so regularly guided journeys to the end of during the season. From here we would arrive mid-way up the ice and gain a new perspective.
What stuck me most was how different this landscape was to the fjords on the other side of the ice-field. Instead of mile upon mile of impenetrable forest there was open rock scattered with bonsai like trees. Mountains fell to ice, ice fell to shingle, shingle swept into the rivers I paddled so often. This was truly a place for walking, a place of pristine wilderness, untouched by none but the elements.
It felt liberating to be walking again and Seumas and I relished being dry all day ‘I can nearly feel my toes’ he joked as we plodded up a steep hill. We were now so comfortable in our camp systems that at night our tent was up and tea brewing far ahead of the others, without wet gear to hang and kayaks to unpack it felt gloriously simple.
As we grew slowly closer to the long white horizon capped in snow the terrain grew less green and more open. Scraped bare by the receding ice it started to look quite lunar.
Spreading out onto bare virgin rock our group fractioned into fast and relaxed teams. Enjoying racing ahead with long lingered pauses to catch the view as the others approached we explored the buckled rocks so clearly defined without any weathering. In a place so spectacular, it was hard to focus on the small details but around our feet we searched with eager eyes for the many fossils hidden in the rock. With hopes of finding tremendous dinosaurs we settled instead on the smaller relics of ammonites and belemnites (pictured) polished by the nearby glacier to museum quality perfection. It was hard to imagine this place so high in the mountains and so far from the sea was once ocean.To stand high and look down on the ice was spectacular. I could see in the distance the familiar snowy pinnacles of Cerro Balmaceda and the edge of Lago Tyndall. Somewhere around those landmarks the Serrano river wound its path, I could still picture every corner and realised that I missed it. At some point during the season it had started in a weird sort of way to feel like home out there. Behind us the gentle sweep of the glacier curled away to distant peaks and shattered overfalls of ice as it steepened to the horizon- the mighty expanse of the Patagonian cap blazed in the sun bare in unhindered glory.
Of course it seemed a shame to get so close but not wander upon it, so with tentative steps I and a couple others wandered a short way onto the ice. It was sharper than I imagined, broken into little razors hardened by a millennia of wind. At this time of year all the snow had been blown or melted away, I felt safe to stride between the clearly visible crevasses and pull a few silly antics before sliding back to the rocks and the rest of the group.
For all our distance to get there we couldn’t linger long. It was still a good 12km back to camp and the sun was sinking slowly into the distant horizon. Turning back toward the mighty peak of Paine Grande we descended into the forest and followed back on a long ridge. After the open expanse of scraped rock the colour of the woods seemed now more vibrant than ever, especially in the evening light which stretched shadows and burst gold through the leaves. Autumn is without doubt the finest time of year to see the forest. Camping back at the designated Zapata site we left early just after dawn to get home and after a four hour gentle hike we reached the road. This for most would be the end and a long journey back to the hostel awaited, but for Seumas and I this was half way. It seemed criminal that he should have come this far around the world not to visit the Torres National Park. It would be the fifth time I had walked the ‘W’ trail, so to make it interesting we would venture into another valley I had listed on my permit- Valley Bader.Camping just a few kilometres toward the park at the Las Carettas site we rested by the river and watched as the sun sank into shadow. The next morning started frosty and we enjoyed the crunching steps as we wandered through the grasslands. Behind a nearby herd of wild horses the mighty summit of the Cuernos (the horns) dominated a cloudless skyline, before long we would be in it’s shadow and then climbing behind it into the hidden Bader valley.
The Torres del Paine national park has over recent years been suffering, with increased popularity through social media and the web tourists have flocked in their thousands hike the beautiful trails without limit. During the first season that I came here in January alone had 30,000 visitors, the second year that same month was closer to 45,000. Conaf: the park regulatory body are struggling to cope with such rapid increase in demand. In summertime the hike has become increasingly congested. Volunteer groups such as the Torres Del Paine Legacy Fund who survive on donations alone (see website) are the unsung saviours spending hours repairing and restoring the places most in need.
In May however the park closes down, fewer buses arrive and the refugio huts are locked. The once packed trails go empty and the true beauty of the wilderness returns in full glory. Over the entire walk we saw no more than 10 to 20 people a day, This was the Torres Del Paine everyone hopes to visit and our final treat to an already adventurous month. Passing into the shadow of the mountains we delighted at being the first to make fresh steps in the deep hoar frost rising from recently restored boardwalk paths. To our south the lakes spread out toward familiar distant mountains, the satisfying triangular summit of Cerro Tenerife rising like a volcano (it isn’t one) on the horizon brought memories of past days hiking the summits.
Camping in Valley Francais beneath the imposing face of the parks highest mountain Paine Grande (3050m) we watched as ice tumbled and boomed down the cliffs. Sheltered in the forest we shared dinners and stories with the few other hikers who braved the cold in search of their own winter wonderland.
‘It’s pretty loose, be careful’ I called back to Seumas. We had left the trail and were headed toward Valley Bader. For the last hour we had been steadily climbing beneath a towering wall of granite. At last the path levelled out beyond the top of a large boulder and a faint route could be seen winding through the scree fields ahead. The further up we had climbed the more barren and rugged the terrain had become. At either side of the valley tremendous walls of world class granite cliff rose imposingly and awe inspiringly over us. Here we felt we were really getting close to the mountains.
Clambering over a last moraine wall I balanced atop a large loose rock and peered across a frozen lake. We had made it into the top of the valley and were waiting to watch the sun set around a stadium of rock. We were encased on every side by colossal spire like peaks shaved bare by ice and wind. There were no plants here, only rock and dust. Without life there was an eery silence except for the occasional distant clatters of rockfall or ice dislodging somewhere high above.
Watching the sun set from the door of the tent was one of finest moment of any of our camps to date. Unlike the sea there were no waves to break the silence, only crisp air and a faint rustle of canvas on a gentle breeze. We gazed for hours, counting stars beyond the serrated skyline. Where are we? Seumas whispered ‘Patagonia!’ I said with a smile.
Waking before sunrise we slowly packed over a coffee poured from a flask. Below us a thick blanket of cloud hung softly over the lakes like a sea of cotton wool. It was bitterly cold and every breath sent columns of steam spiralling up into the air. All was quiet.
Descending in the shade as the sun slowly crept down the peaks behind us, we took extra care not to slide on the seams of ice where streams once flowed, at the higher altitude the cold air had dried the rocks making them stick together, grippy underfoot and easy to wander on.
Pausing only to play on the rocks before the final descent we waved goodbye to the ‘hidden valley’ and returned to the W-trail. Now walking in mist we aimed to reach the famous Mirador Torres and see the towers that evening. Ascending into the Torres campsite we enjoyed resting in the woods watching the clouds gently wisp around the summits hanging over the canopy. We shared coffee with our fellow campers who had wondered where we had gone the previous night and made plans to hike in the dark the next morning. We all hoped to the viewpoint some 40minutes climb further above before the sunrise. With any luck the cloud would rise first.
Climbing up toward the Mirador Las Torres under head-torch was a familiar routine. Following the little reflective poles left for the throngs of tourist during the summer we didn’t expect much of a sunrise, we were almost in the cloud already. After a long run of spectacular weather the mist had finally returned swallowing the summits into mystery.
But for us it didn’t matter, we had already seen some amazing peaks. Well, that was a pretty adventurous holiday mate! I chuckled to Seumas, I’ll be back he replied. We had come to an end of our Patagonia journey, in a few days we would fly home to Scotland.
But where one adventure ended the next would begin, we were heading from one range of mountains and fjords to another…….next stop Norway.