11.17.2012 - 11.17.2012 60 °F
We wake up a little after 6 to a bright, sunny morning—which is rare in Patagonia. We enjoy a breakfast of meats and cheeses, baked goods, and cereal, as well as fresh orange juice and strawberry juice. Torres del Paine looks beautiful in the morning light, but we don't spend too long eating and enjoying the view. We plan to spend the day at the park and hiking to those famous granite towers.
After we gather up practically half of our packed clothes (Gor-Tex jackets and bottoms, North Face Windwall jackets, various baselayers, and hats and gloves) and other essential items, we hop in the car and take off toward the park. After winding through the hilly, twisting gravel roads through the park (and seeing some flamingos along the way) we stop at one of the park offices to check in and pay our entrance fee.
There are not many roads within the park, just a bare minimum to allow people to get to a general area so they can hike to all the highlights of the area. So to get up to Hosteria Las Torres, where we will park our car and start our 11.5-mile hike to the towers and back, we follow an odd zigzag of primitive roads that slowly curl around toward the famous cluster of mountains in the northern end of the park.
We are surprised by the warm sunshine and calm winds, because all the research I had done on Torres del Paine tell horror stories of people staying for a week and only having rain, snow, and the famous Patagonian winds that can reach gusts up to 100 mph. One blogger explained that, while hiking, one section of trail was so windy that she and her husband fell onto all fours and crawled for about 15 minutes. Even the German couple we had met at Easter Island said that they had done a few day hikes in Torres del Paine the week before, but it rained the entire time they were there. So today's mild weather is a pleasant surprise.
Many hikers come to the park to hike the 3-4 day hike—called the “W” because of the shape of the route—or the 7-8 day circuit hike, which includes the “W” but also loops around along the top of the “W.” So immediately upon starting our hike we see many hikers with loaded packs and sleeping mats, heading to the nearest refugio. That's the nice thing about hiking here; if you don't necessarily want to camp along the way, you can stay in a hostel-like refugio that serves meals and gives hikers a sense of community with each other.
Matt and I are not hiking the “W” or the circuit. Instead, we are doing a 11.5-mile day hike up into the mountains to the base of the famous towers, a hike that is known to be especially difficult for day hikers because they don't stop at the campgrounds or refugios on the way back. But we both are pretty fit, so why not give it a try?
The trail starts out with a steep upward climb over rocks and gravel until we reach the “Valle Ascencio,” a deep valley with a startlingly steep slope off the one side of the lose gravel trail. The path eventually descends to the bottom of the valley to a refugio built alongside a blue, rushing stream. Backpackers and day hikers sit together at the picnic tables or rest in the shade of the trees, sipping water or just taking in the views. We stop briefly but move on in hopes of making it to the towers before clouds set in and hide them from view.
From here, the trail follows through a dense forest of streams, waterfalls, and green underbrush before spitting us out on a rocky moraine in the Valle de Silencio that seems impossible to be a trail. Yet somewhere among the huge mountain of boulders stretching high into the sky, there is a path that is surprisingly well-marked, which is good because without those markers, I'm pretty sure there isn't a defined “path” at all—just endless rocks and boulders.
At this point, our legs are fatigued and our hearts racing with the effort of continuously climbing higher when all our bodies really want to do is rest. We stop a few times to munch on snacks and rest our legs, but we keep up a fairly fast pace all the way to the crown jewel of the park, the lookout area at the towers.
The granite torres stretch up into the afternoon sky like huge monolithic skyscrapers, gray and sturdy. We gaze awestruck at their silent power, their commanding presence over the rocky landscape below. This is a sight for the travel books. All around us, a few of the hearties hikers who have made it up the rocky ascent sit on nearby rocks, looking up at the towers and snapping pictures. We set our packs down behind some boulders where the brisk Patagonian wind is unable to reach us, and simply admire the sight before us.
This lookout area before the towers, though an immense relief, can be quite dangerous and has claimed the lives of visitors who try to climb up toward the towers along the slopes of huge rocks. Just a few years ago the body of an Irish hiker was found up close near the towers, much farther than he really should have been climbing. Today no one is attempting to climb any further. I think everyone is tired enough that they don't want or need to continue.
After about 45 minutes in our alcove against the biting wind, we start the long descent back down the rocky slope, through the valley and back toward our car park. We are feeling good and energized up until about halfway through our return route; suddenly, it all hits us at once. Every muscle in my legs, as well as my upper back from my heavy pack and my triceps from using my trekking poles, screams and aches. Matt's right knee hurts so much that he limps a little bit. We both stop to put on our knee braces for a little extra support down the steep declines, but it really doesn't seem to help much. By the time we reach our car, we are walking so slowly and limping so pitifully that it is a chore just to make it across the parking lot. I crawl onto the passenger's seat and almost cry with relief. Matt, in the middle of removing his hiking boots (once black, now tan from being covered in dirt and dust) lays in the grass next to the car, rolls onto his back and just lies there, looking at the sky.
By the time we leave the park it is already 6:45. Matt drives like a speed demon down the gravel roads while I sleep, and we make it back to Cerro Guido at 8. We take 3-minute showers and rush, stiff-legged and famished, to the restaurant. We start the meal with pisco sours as the servers bring out beef empanadas with homemade salsa; fresh-baked bread with herb butter; a salad with grilled zucchini and hearts of palm; homemade chicken soup; and, as the main course, barbecued lamb cooked over a fire by gauchos. We had seen the gauchos cooking an entire lamb over a fire as we walked up, so we know it is fresh! A few glasses of cabernet sauvignon, a side of rosemary potatoes, as well as a dessert of cinnamon ice cream and an apple-pistachio crepe, finish off the meal.
Satisfied with a tasty dinner and relaxed from the wine, we return to our room where I take a long bath to soak my muscles. Before bed we light a fire in our wood-burning fireplace and fall asleep to the sound of the fire crackling and popping.
Eight hours and 11.5 miles of hiking through the Patagonian mountains. Sleep is a welcomed friend.