Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Paine is Pure Pleasure: The ‘W’ Trek, Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile


Through the cracked windscreen of our mini bus, the Paine massif, an eastern spur of the Andes, rises dramatically above the Patagonian steppe, a primordial, little travelled region at the far end of the earth. It's late November, spring in this part of the world, and Martin and I are deep in Southern Chile, bumping along a dirt track crammed into a van from Puerto Natales with six other travellers en route to one of the world’s greatest national parks: Torres del Paine. Here the landscape is wild, untamed, the weather unpredictable, often savage, the animals exotic. This is a landscape of blue glaciers that slowly slice through solid rock and calve vast icebergs into turquoise lakes fed by icy glacial melt waters and the mountains are carved into weird and fantastical shapes.

Etched against an impossibly blue sky, an army of granite monoliths sporting a fresh coating of snow dazzle in the afternoon sun. Through the dust kicked up by the speeding vehicle, I spy rheas and guanacos amid the grass and scrubby vegetation and a herd of cattle being directed alongside the dusty road by a couple of tough-looking gauchos on horseback wearing beret-type felt hats and high leather boots, whips in hand. I’d heard a lot about Patagonia over the years, but nothing prepares you for the utterly face slapping scenery encountered in this harsh yet beautiful corner of the world. Unsurprisingly, it was recently voted the Eighth Wonder of the World by travellers.

The Torres del Paine National Park was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978 and in order to maintain the integrity of the park, rules and regulations are given a very high profile and are drilled into all arriving tourists. You must keep on the trails at all times, not feed any animals, no wild camping is permitted, but lighting fires is the biggest no-no. In a region subject to some of the strongest winds on the planet, a stray spark can be catastrophic. Indeed, parts of the park still bear the blackened scars of former fires which are testimony to trekkers’ carelessness. People shift uncomfortably as a park ranger spelt out the penalties for breaking the park rules which include hefty fines and in some cases imprisonment.

After this sobering introduction we pay the park entrance fee and a short bus ride brings us to the turquoise shore of Lago Pehoé where we board the Hielos Patagónicos catamaran for the 45 minute journey across the lake to the campsite at the Lodge de Montaña Paine Grande. We have opted to camp during our visit to the park, so are carrying between us about 24 kilos in Osprey 65 and 70 litre rucksacks, including our über-lightweight (1.5kg) 2-man Terra Nova tent, down sleeping bags, insulated sleeping mats and enough food for 3-4 days. Fine scenery ravishes the eye as the boat slides through the turquoise waters that contrasts with the brown hills and the dramatic smoky grey ice covered mountain peaks twisted and frozen into myriad shapes all around. The weather is unbelievably good, crystal clear and still, but the air, chilled by the lake, is cold and penetrating as I stand on the deck taking in this incredible panorama.

After registering and paying our fee at the campsite, we choose a quiet spot for our tent away from other trekkers, and, listening to a riot of birdsong, lie in the warm sun until it slips behind a nearby mountain dotted with huge patches of purple 'arvejillo' (Lathyrus magellanicus) flowers, a type of vetch. A lone guanaco, silhouetted against the deep blue evening sky, stalks the ridge above the camp as the snow covered peaks of the Cerro Paine Grande and Cuernos del Paine glow rosy pink then ruby red in the sunset. 

A canopy of huge stars soon fills the firmament and later the moon, rising stealthily behind one of the ‘horns’ of the Cuernos Del Paine, casts long silvery beams across the landscape like an ethereal beacon. Tomorrow we plan to begin the first leg of the 'W' trek up the Grey Valley and there isn't a cloud in the night sky...

The Grey Valley and Glacier

I awake to the distinctive patter of rain on canvas. A grey, overcast morning greets me as I peer out of our tent; the view that had captivated me just hours before is now swallowed by cloud and mist which boils angrily round the nearby mountaintops. In the camping kitchen the talk among trekkers is inevitably all about the weather. Tales of whiteouts and blizzards, frighteningly high winds, scorching sunshine, buckshot rain, four seasons of weather in one day - not untypical for this very fickle part of the world. The day might not have seemed to hold much promise, but at least it isn’t cold or raining heavily and the air is still. Not unlike a day in the hills of Ireland I muse, as I sip my coffee and scrape the last of the porridge from my bowl.

The pungent smell of the wet earth assails our nostrils as we walk across an area of ragged yellow grass and blood red common sorrel above the lake shore to begin the 11 km trek up to Glaciar Grey, stopping regularly to watch the antics of large flocks of Patagonian yellow finches whose constant chirping fills the air. The first part of the route traverses a valley still bearing the scars of a recent forest fire, the blackened trees and ground vegetation struggling to recover from the catastrophe. Higher up, stands of Antarctic beech (Nothofagus Antarctica) with deep green crinkly leaves relieve the somewhat monochrome monotony of the fire ravaged slopes below. Brilliant splashes of red are provided by the Chilean Firebrush (Embothrium coccineum) that seem to mimic the very flames of fire that had brought death to this valley. This colourful shrub was first introduced to Britain by the Cornish plant collector, William Lobb, in the late 1840s. Dense thickets of prickly heath (Gaultheria mucronata) glittering with small, shiny evergreen leaves and decorated with pearly pale pink berries form an eye-catching part of the undergrowth. The berries are edible, but I found them relatively tasteless.

A short, steep climb brings us to a shelf of rock overlooking Lago Los Patos, indigo, silent and mysterious, its rocky shores fringed with lenga woods that cast purple-grey reflections in the water. The mirror still surface of the lake is suddenly shattered by a paddling of ducks, the mother leading her brood to the safety of a nearby bank. Further along the undulating trail we obtain our first view of Lago Grey. Whiffs of cloud float slowly across the face of the lake studded with many angular fragments of ice that had broken off the glacier higher up the valley. Birdsong fills the air from trees below, the branches of which grow awkwardly in one direction, blown into this contorted shape by the ferocity of the winds that tear down through the valley.

The rain is falling gently as we pass the signpost for Lago Grey and climb a rock outcrop to a panoramic viewpoint. Below, the surface of the lake shines like liquid mercury and a great raft of cloud drifts finger like from amid the jagged summits of the Cerro del Paine towards it. In the distance, the splintered end of Glaciar Grey is clearly visible and beyond, the enormous white wilderness of the Southern Ice Field. The majesty of the scene is somehow enhanced by the lingering mist and brooding cloud, amid which patches of blue sky are beginning to show. The weather is improving.

The trail towards Refugio Grey weaves its way above the lake, offering magnificent views as it descends through a fairyland of shady beech woods, over rushing rivers and past immense waterfalls. A variety of small spring flowers are beginning to bloom in this harsh environment and we take time to spot clusters of deep yellow Viola reichei, a type of pansy; Anemone multifida, a creamy white flower with lemon stamens from the buttercup family, and the delicate pale pink Orquidea blanca or 'palomita', (Dog orchid) flecked with cerise pink dots. The glorious perfume of calafate blossom occasionally pervades the air, and we soon spot the evergreen shrub, Berberis microphylla, with its arching branches covered in many tripartite spines and fragrant bright yellow flowers which will develop into a delicious purple fruit from which jam and liqueur is made.


The Refugio Grey, very comfortably furnished with soft sofas and a cosy wood fire, makes a pleasant place to spend an hour or so, to drink an Austral beer and to cook something to eat in its equally well appointed camping kitchen, before setting off to a nearby viewpoint to see Glaciar Grey. By now the rain has stopped, the sky is clearing and the wet landscape is gleaming with surreal lucidity in the feeble mid-afternoon sunlight. Atop a large bank of moraine deposited by the retreating glacier we spy it across its watery amphitheatre. Its end, shattered, gnarled and contorted into a jigsaw puzzle of white, grey and electric blue pieces, casts shimmering reflections on the lake’s surface. We decide to get a closer look and scrambling up a steep escarpment opposite Isla Nunatak, around which the glacier wraps itself, we hear a loud crack. We arrive just in time to see one of the gargantuan icebergs calve a large slab of ice which slips into the water with a strident hiss and enormous splash, sending huge ripples across the lake. The leviathan, much reduced in size, now sports giant crystal like projections of deep blue ice, truly beautiful to behold.

After gazing at the glacier and absorbing the immensity and stark beauty of the Southern Ice Field, it's time to return to the camp site. We cover the route back relatively quickly and make our way to the bar to satiate our thirst with a cool Patagonian beer. After having our discussions repeatedly drowned out by a loud American woman with a truly grating accent who is conducting a rather one-sided conversation with a couple of Danish trekkers who are obviously too polite to get up and leave, we abandon the warmth of the bar for the relative sanctuary of the camp kitchen. Here, those planning to spend the night under canvas are playing cards, engaging in quiet conversation and sharing their food and wine. We indulge in one of our freeze-dried gourmet Mountain House chicken curries and chat to some young Israelis before retiring to our tent for a well earned night’s sleep.

Paine Grande to Campamento Italiano and the Francés Valley

After an early breakfast of porridge and coffee, we break camp and hit the trail for the 7.5 km hike to Campamento Italiano which takes us past the shores of the deep turquoise Lago Pehoé, mottled by great shafts of sunlight which radiate down through the cloud breaks. After a gentle climb up a rocky shelf, we come to the petrol blue Lago Skottsberg set against a panoramic backdrop of the snow-covered Cuernos del Paine, mist clinging like silken scarves around its spiky peaks. This part of the ‘W’ probably has the largest number of engineered sections, with board walks and steps much in evidence through an area that is recuperating after extensive fire damage. Nearer the Francés River, the landscape is again densely wooded with a number of varieties of beech trees, providing a pleasant shady walk. Very soon the tremulous cadence of the river can be heard through the woods and after about two hours we finally arrive at the suspension bridge, swaying wildly in the wind, that takes us over the Francés River to Campamento Italiano. 

The toilets and cooking facilities at this camping site leave much to be desired, but its location, in a beech forest, is beautiful. We pitch our tent in a sunny clearing, clambering down to the Francés River to obtain water for cooking and drinking. This icy cold water, tumbling straight off the glacier down the boulder strewn river, is so pure and fresh it is safe to drink without being treated. Outside our tent, I have my first intimate experience with one of the park’s insect inhabitants, as a midge decides to feast on the sole of my foot after I have removed my boots and socks, causing me to belatedly slap on the DEET! Dozing in the sunshine, I think I hear a peal of thunder, but overhead the sky is blue and it seems inconceivable that a storm is approaching. I wonder what on earth the sound could be…

After a very leisurely lunch, we set off to tackle the 5.5 km trail up the Valle del Francés to the scenic viewpoint above Campamento Británico (where legendary British climbers, Bonnington and Whillans, made camp during their successful 1963 assault on the central tower of the Torres del Paine). The gradient is fairly steep in sections and the trail, which ascends 800 metres up into the ribs of the Paine Massif, is pretty rough underfoot, but the scenery is majestic. Massive hanging glaciers are set into vast swathes of granite, the remnants of a solidified magma chamber pushed up to the earth’s surface millions of years ago. Suddenly, I realise what the sound I had heard earlier was. A loud crack followed by a deep rumbling like thunder and a strident hiss reverberates around the valley. I swing my head round just in time to see a great slab of ice shear off a nearby hanging glacier and crash down into the valley below in a torrent of water, sending snow and ice flying in all directions.

We press on, passing lichen which has left unusual marks on some of the boulders that look strangely like primitive rock art, and we spy beech trees sporting Cyttaria darwinii, an apricot coloured golf ball-like fungus that was named in honour of Charles Darwin, who collected it in Tierra del Fuego during his voyage on HMS Beagle in 1832. This fungus, which parasitizes Nothofagus (beech) species causing tumours known as ‘knots’, is also called ‘Pan de Indio’ or ‘llao-llao’ and is edible, though it doesn’t have much flavour. We also spot large spheres of the parasitic Misodendrum punctulatum or mistletoe, in numerous beech trees, that shake their ragged heads madly as if head banging to the wind’s violent tune.

Higher up we obtain eye ravishing views back down the valley of the turquoise Lago Nordenskjöld studded with islands, and the granite monoliths comprising the Cuernos del Paine, which, set against a clear blue sky, glow golden in the afternoon sun. We have to ford numerous boulder strewn river beds fed by waterfalls cascading down from the surrounding mountains, where shy patches of spray misted Ourisia Poeppigii shower clarinet shaped scarlet flowers from their precarious hold in rocky crevices or near rushing water.


Crossing a large glacial outflow and an avalanche field that has decimated the beech forest leaving dry sun bleached vertical trunks that had been snapped in half like sticks, we come upon the deserted and somewhat desolate Campamento Británico with its primitive shelter. After a brief stop for some snacks, we make the steep climb up over a tumbled mass of boulders to a viewpoint offering a stunning panorama of an immense cirque of impressive cliffs, below which lies a verdant amphitheatre bearing the scars of glacial outwash. Here are the colossal walls of the Cerro Cota 2000 (named for it's height), and the Cerro Catedral, so-called as its eastern face resembles the façade of a cathedral. One's imagination could run riot here, as it's possible to see myriad shapes and forms in the rock, and it's no surprise to discover that many peaks have richly descriptive names: Aleta de Tiburon (Shark's Fin), Cabeza del Indio (Indian Head) and Fortaleza (Fortress). To the east, the monolithic peaks of the Cuernos del Paine, given equally evocative names to describe their impressive geology, including La Espada (The Sword) and La Hoja (The Blade), look magnificent illuminated by the amber light of the fading sun. It is with great difficulty that I pull myself away from this awesome scenery to begin the descent back to Campamento Italiano.

The beech forests are by now tranquil; a strange hush has descended with the subsiding wind and the valley is filled only with the sound of rushing water, our footsteps crunching on scree and the occasional crash and rumble of yet more ice falling from the glaciers. We might be the only two people in the entire world, so remote does this valley feel at this moment in time.

It's almost with relief that we enter camp, where the sound of human voices and the smell of cooking welcome us back to civilisation. As darkness begins to envelop the campsite, we are greatly surprised to see a Chimango Caracara (Milvago chimango) eyeing us from a branch just feet away. Martin grabs his camera and gives chase as it flies to a log nearby in a whirl of white and cinnamon blown feathers then hops daintily about on the ground on its slender yellow legs as if teasing him to take a perfect shot. Unfortunately, the images turn out slightly blurred, but we had incredible close up views of this magnificent female raptor. Belly full and with tired limbs now comfortable in my cosy down sleeping bag, I recall the incredible sights and sounds of the day, eventually falling asleep to the booming echoes of yet more ice falling further up the valley.

Campamente Italiano to Campamente Torres

The thought of carrying a laden backpack over 22 km does not appeal at all as we break camp the next day, glad to see the back of the very shabby cooking shelter and the truly ghastly dry composting toilet, the only one open at the campsite, which is obviously not functioning correctly. The stench upon entering the cubicle almost knocks you backwards, causing violent retching. I suspect many people answered a call of nature elsewhere under cover of darkness rather than brave this most vile of 'conveniences'!

The weather is fine, high wispy cloud spread thinly across a cornflower blue sky between fluffy banks of cumulus and the sun is warm on our backs as we begin the 4.5 km first leg of the trek towards Refugio Los Cuernos. This section of the trail is truly beautiful, for the path soon swings towards Lago Nordenskjöld and is fringed with Chilean Firebush which looks more scarlet than ever set against the backdrop of the deep turquoise water. Bathed in sunshine, the lake has something of a Mediterranean feel to it. After a gentle descent offering eye catching views of the lake, behind which tower the gleaming snow covered peaks of the Cerro Paine Grande with the Francés Glacier clearly visible, we come to its pebbly shore. Taking our packs off, we decide to stop awhile, revelling in a moment of blissful solitude where the only sound is that of the small waves repeatedly lapping onto the shingles with a low roar. On a nearby crag we spot a lone Black-faced Ibis preening itself with its distinctive scimitar shaped beak, while overhead, a Black-chested buzzard eagle soars above the cliffs vigilantly scanning the ground below for prey.

Rather reluctantly we leave the beach and proceed towards the Refugio Los Cuernos, an attractive wooden chalet with cabins dotted about the foot of the Cuernos del Paine. This is probably the best sited of the refugios and campsites in terms of scenery, but it does not occupy an optimum position for trekkers doing the 'W' in three and a half days, as it is some two and a half hours from the Francés Valley. The place is quiet, breakfast is over and there are only a couple of trekkers lazing outside on a wooden bench on the sunny terraza. We join them. Above, cloud drifts languidly about the horn-like mountain peaks. Time seems to be slowing to a virtual standstill and I am loathe to leave the sun drenched terraza for the next leg of the trek to Refugio Chileno, some 15 km distant.

After crossing the Rìo Bader via a bridge just past the refugio, the path climbs steeply above the lake, giving fine views west of the 'horns' of Cuernos del Paine, black tipped with the remnants of a heavily eroded sedimentary stratum atop enormous near vertical walls of grey granite sliced apart in the past by vast glaciers. In the brown hills across the lake, huge layers of sediments buckled and bent like plasticine over the eons plunge downwards, disappearing into the water only to emerge again further on. The terrain becomes progressively more open and rugged with large glacial boulders tumbled down from on high, interspersed with wind sculpted Magellan's beech (Nothofagus betuloides) and Lenga (Nothofagus pumilio) around which grow pale green cushions of prickly Mata Barrosa (Mulinum spinosum) and patches of Anarthrophyllum desideratum, colloquially known as 'Guanaco bush' or 'Fire Tongue', due to its covering of tiny scarlet flowers which are just beginning to bloom. Enormous whitened branches of dead Lenga trees lie scattered amid the verdure; they might have been the bleached bones of gigantic creatures that fell here when Patagonia was part of Gondwanaland, so timeless does this landscape feel.

We pick our way carefully across smooth boulders in crystal clear streams that tumble down to the lake from the Cerro Paine Chico Sur above, or over suspension bridges which sway wildly as we cross. Half hidden in the sandy bank of one of the rivers, I spot a patch of colourful Zapatitos de la Virgen or 'Virgin's Slipper' (Calceolaria uniflora). These flowers, discovered by Darwin and distantly related to foxgloves, are saffron yellow tipped with a white and a burgundy horizontal stripe. They don't remind me of slippers at all; rather, they look like a collection of long, slightly miserable faces, with mouths wide open as if startled, and the stamens look like two eyes! Close to the path on a sunny slope, we pass many patches of Anemone multifida, and spot the beautiful pale pink iris, Olsynium biflorum, a bell shaped flower with six petals lined with deep lilac veins and bright yellow stamens.

In the distance we finally catch sight of the Hotel Las Torres and can see where the Rio Paine flows into Lago Nordenskjöld. We are making good progress and the stunning scenery continues to be a distraction from thoughts of how far we have yet to travel. Very soon we arrive at the shortcut towards the Refugio Chileno which takes us past Laguna Inge across open boggy grassland on a trail that contours around the side of the Cerro Paine Chico Sur with fine views over the vast Patagonian steppe. On a sun bleached Lenga tree stump, we spot a Chilean flicker, its barred brown and creamy yellow plumage making it well camouflaged against the dead wood as it eyes us nervously. The trail rises steadily towards the pass above the Río Ascensio which has carved out quite a gorge, laying bare layer upon layer of brown sedimentary rock. On the lower route towards the Hotel Las Torres, we catch sight of a group of people slowly moving on horseback: tourists being gauchos for a day. I imagine being astride one of those horses with the wind in my hair and the freedom of the mountains mine to savour... We pass several other trekkers heading in the opposite direction to us and by the time we arrive at the point where the shortcut meets the pathway up from the hotel, the route is much busier with people heading to and from the Refugio Chileno.

At the top of the pass we gain our first sight of the Refugio, a wooden chalet nestled in trees at the very bottom of the majestic Ascencio Valley. The serpentine coils of the river look very far below the pathway that threads its way down the steep, sparsely vegetated grey-brown slopes below the Cerro Paine Chico Sur and Monte Almirante Nieto, passing across a large exposed run of scree that would be tricky to traverse in high wind. Beyond the refugio the landscape is wild, comprised of thickly forested slopes that sweep down to the river and skirt yet more snow clad peaks at the far end of the valley and the icy, jagged shoulder of Cerro Nido de Condor. A wooden bridge crosses the roaring Río Ascencio, bringing us at last to the refugio where a cool beer and slice of (very expensive) pizza await us.

That the refugio is busy is indicated by the pile of hiking boots abandoned just inside the entrance. It feels good to remove our packs and take the weight off our feet as we wait for our order to arrive. I sit as close to the wood burning stove as possible watching the flames curling round the logs inside as I relax and warm my naked feet. The Austral beer tastes divine as I quench my thirst and the pizza, absolutely delicious after three days of freeze dried food! We cannot afford to get too comfortable however, as we still have over 3km to trek to Campamento Torres and, as this section rises steeply, it will take about one and a half hours. Reluctantly, I leave the warmth of the fire and before long we are back on the trail.

The route leads us over the river via another wooden bridge and ascends steadily though a shady lenga forest. The leaves seem to be whispering secrets in the light wind as we pass through this delightful sylvan landscape. Every so often we cross burbling brooks via a variety of rustic bridges and intriguing vistas of waterfalls cascading down the bare grey mountainside opposite, flash in and out of view through gaps in the trees. In a grassy clearing full of dandelions and lenga stumps, we finally gain our first close up view of the rounded granite tops of the famous Torres del Paine that give the park its name.

We soon arrive at a wide sandy junction where the pathway up to the Mirador Torres del Paine (viewpoint) is signed 45 minutes away and the campsite, one minute along a pathway that leads downhill into the forest. The site, on a wooded slope bisected by a small stream fed by snowmelt, is fairly large and almost empty, with just a few tents dotted about close to the tall triangular warden's hut and cooking shelter, which looks as dire as that at Campamento Italiano. We select a spot encircled by large moss covered granite boulders at the upper end of the site close to the stream. It is a relief to finally drop our heavy packs after over 11 hours hiking and Martin adds yet more cheer by producing a bottle of white wine which he had purchased at the Refugio Chileno to toast our success at almost completing the 'W'. This is placed into the icy stream to chill as we erect the tent.

The sunlight is fading as we eat some asparagus soup and noodles and sip our wine, listening to the wind sighing in the beech boughs and the melodic chatter of the stream as it passes by our tent. Through the leaves we spot a few stars but these are soon obscured by a bank of cloud that is stealthily filling the entire sky. It is much colder up here and wraithlike chill fingers round my neck cause me to pull my sleeping bag round my shoulders to keep warm. Martin does not hold out much hope of a spectacular dawn over the Torres and believes it might well snow in the night. We have to rise in just a few hours time to make our way up to the panoramic viewpoint high above the camp, so retire to bed. I fall asleep almost immediately, my mind too tired to replay the events of the day or to imagine what wonders await us at the towers...

The Torres del Paine and Descent to Hotel Las Torres

I am stirring before the alarm goes off. It’s 4.00 am and Martin unzips the tent letting in a rush of cold air. I dress inside my sleeping bag and emerge to a bitterly cold but still night. Martin is gazing heavenward. There are a few stars in the sky towards the east where the sun will rise, but tiny flakes of snow are falling and overhead the sky is thick with cloud. The signs don’t look good. Lights appear in some of the tents further down the campsite and shapes begin to move about behind luminescent canvas, preparing, like us, for the 45 minute trek up to the famous Torres del Paine viewing point.

Less than half an hour later we are on the trail following the pools of light cast by our head torches. The pace is fast as we begin the steep climb through the lenga forest, the trail running almost parallel to a small stream. We soon come to a large mound of partially vegetated moraine comprised of enormous boulders and pick our way carefully along the spine of it. Brief flashes of light above us betray the presence of a couple of other trekkers just ahead of us on the trail. After some time the lenga trees begin to thin out and we emerge onto a slippery gravel path which zig-zags its way upwards over moraine and scree. Through the interlocking spurs of the nearby mountains, a triangle of sky in the east beneath an angry bank of thick grey cloud is beginning to lighten, heralding the coming of dawn. A hazy crescent moon, setting behind the mountains opposite, momentarily reveals itself through a break in the cloud. Below on the path are the dancing head lights of half a dozen other trekkers slowly making their way upwards.

By now it’s light enough to see and we climb ever higher under a blanket of cloud emitting intermittent snow flurries. We contour around massive boulders deposited by the gigantic river of ice that once flowed through this valley, negotiating the somewhat perilous Paso del Vientos (Pass of the Winds), a cliff traverse which would be tricky in high wind, to reach the most famous viewpoint in the park. As we arrive at the bleak corrie gouged out by the Torres glacier which has retreated about three hundred metres leaving behind a milky green lake below the famous blue-grey towers (‘paine’ being an indigenous word for blue), it begins to snow steadily. Great columns of cloud boil about the towers which are completely obscured and the snow stings my eyes as I peer into the greyness hoping to see them take shape in the gloom. We pick our way over the shattered rocks high above the still lake to find an ideal viewing spot and stand in the eerie silence of the freezing predawn, still hopeful that the cloud might lift.

More people slowly arrive and congregate; the expression on their faces is one of disappointment as they watch the snow falling from a capricious grey sky. Martin looks at his watch. The sun should have risen by now and we stand, expectant, hoping. In the right conditions, the three towers - Torre d’Agonsti (2850 metres), also known as Torre Sur, Torre Central (2800m) and Torre Norte (2600m), also referred to as Torre Monzino - glow blood red or rosy pink. Today that was not to be, for as the sun rises above the ridge behind us, the snow subsides and the churning cloud turns a faint rose pink while the cliffs below the Cerro Nido de Condor are bathed in an ochreous warmth. The great vertical striations in the rock face right beneath the towers grow brighter casting reflections into the milky green lake and the granite giants above, skirted by freshly fallen snow, mysteriously take shape in the soft apricot greyness, only to disappear moments later, and then to re-emerge, mirage-like. This kaleidoscopic display which repeats itself several times is mystical, magnificent and memorable.

Eventually, the towers grow more visible in the brightening light and stirring cloud as the wind has strengthened a little and we watch mesmerised as a lone condor arrives to ride the breeze in great circles above the lake. The wind adds to the morning chill which has penetrated to our very bones and we simply have to move to warm up. We reluctantly retreat from the viewpoint as snow begins to fall once more, retracing our steps back down the steep trail, now dusted with the faintest hint of white. Back in camp we hungrily scoff the last of our freeze dried meals – spaghetti bolognaise – and I get to enjoy my morning coffee, denied me earlier by the ungodly hour we had risen!

We break camp quickly in the knowledge that high winds are forecast for later in the morning and we want to be over the treacherous scree slope on the trail through the Ascensio Valley beforehand. We descend rapidly and quickly reach the Refugio Chileno, busy as ever, where we stop for about half an hour for a refreshing coca cola. The wooden bridge over the raging Río Ascencio is already swarming with day trekkers up early from the Hotel Las Torres, and we pass many more on the steady climb to the top of the pass. Close to the top we stop for one last look down this beautiful valley to see thick cloud still boiling round the far mountain peaks and the serrated black ridge of the Cerro Nido de Condor. Ahead, the sky is blue and clear save for a bank of white cloud sitting above the tops of mountains, newly dusted with snow, beyond the deep turquoise Lago Nordenskjöld.

The wind has strengthened noticeably as we begin the 4.5 km steep descent along a well defined trail, rocky and slippery in places, that leads down to the Hotel Las Torres. We move quickly, letting gravity aid our downward progress to spare knees and feet. We pass by many trekkers, red faced and panting, battling the wind on their lung-busting climb to the top of the pass. About two thirds of the way down, the trail flattens out and the wind, with nothing to break its passage, is by now immensely strong and gusting, lifting columns of dust that pulsate across the landscape. Grit hurts my eyes as we descend a gravely slope that brings us to a vast outwash plain of brown earth and rock created by the Río Ascensio. One final suspension bridge takes us over a small gorge carved by the river to within a few hundred metres of the Hotel Las Torres, the roof of which we can now see clearly in the distance. 

We climb up from the river and pass through a gate in the wooden fence demarcating the hotel perimeter which was once a working ranch, but which has been converted into a luxury hotel in recent years. I find it hard to walk in a straight line along the pathway through the grassy fields surrounding the hotel due to the ferocity of the wind and I can only imagine how bad it must be high up in the mountains where we were earlier. I am mightily relieved to arrive at the hotel door and after dropping my pack and poles, retire inside quickly to escape the gales! We have plenty of time to spare before the 2.00 pm shuttle bus to the Guardería Laguna Amarga, the park entrance, where we will board the bus back to Puerto Natales. I find a saddle covered in sheepskin that has been converted into a chair and sit down, feasting my eyes upon the impressive scenery of the snow covered Paine Massif through windows that rise right up into the ceiling.

We toast each other with cool glasses of delicious Patagonian ale, celebrating trekking nearly 80 km in three and a half days through a primordial landscape tucked away in a remote corner of a continent almost at the end of the earth which boasts some of the most inspiring scenery on the planet and where nature survives in the face of the most extreme forces the physical world can muster. We buy some purple calafate jam in the hotel shop, as the locals claim if you eat the berries, you will return to Patagonia. Even without the berries, I am convinced that one day I will return here, but nevertheless, I still want to be sure…

Watch the video of our trek on YouTube: