Monday, 8 April 2013

The Towers of Torres del Paine....

[Continuing a personal blog of life in the Falkland Islands, with the occasional detour to Chile. Last week, I described getting to Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.  This week, I try to show some of its highlights.  By the way, I see there are some readers of this blog in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.  Hello to all!]

Torres del Paine National Park is famous for its guanaco herds.
In January, my wife and I had a short visit to the Torres del Paine National Park, in Chilean Patagonia.  It's in a remote landscape, much of which is covered in a huge ice-cap, with scores of glaciers still shaping the land.
Icebergs in Lago Grey
I've always been interested in physical geography and found the park a fascinating display of the topics I learned about in school (many moons ago!) - glaciation; erosion, hanging valleys, etc.

Glaciers have gouged out deep troughs between the mountains and these were filled with countless years of melt-water.  One in particular, Lago Grey, had a huge glacier at one end, which regularly calved icebergs into the lake.
Glacier's end
You can walk to, and onto, the glacier, but we were short of time and took a 3-hour boat trip from one end of the lake to the other, and back.  The boat took about 30 passengers and we reached it by a short zodiac trip as the lake had silted where the jetty was.
The glacier has retreated about 200m in 10 years.
The area is notorious for its strong winds, and that day was typical.  Most people got some icy water down their neck, and once under way in the middle of the lake, the "cruise" resembled a desperate expedition in mid-ocean.  So passengers stayed below decks in a bid to keep themselves and their cameras dry.
Ice scouring the tilted layers of sandstone
But after about 30 minutes we approached the far end  of the lake where the mountains afforded some shelter.
Glacier or meringue nest?
It was amazing and breathtaking to see a glacier snout close-up.  We could sail right up to rock faces that, until a few years ago were covered in scouring ice.  The marks left by the ice were still embedded in the rock.
Zodiac picking up walkers.
We could also see the thousands of exposed layers in the sandstone rock, much of it twisted and contorted by huge forces.
Future iceberg
I have seen glaciers in Iceland, and Antarctica, but none as close as this, or with such an easy access.  No hiking miles across wastelands -  there was even a bar to serve hot drinks once you noticed the temperature had plummeted!
New icebergs making their way down Lago Grey
The cruise sailed for a mile across the end of the glacier, hugging the shimmering ice cliffs, before turning and heading back to base, dodging icebergs, and providing an unforgettable highlight of our trip.

Our other main highlight was a walk up to the Torres del Paine themselves.  "Torres" is Spanish for towers, and is extremely appropriate - 3 vertical, windowless, granite skyscrapers!  (It's not clear who or what "Paine" was, but we did "feel the pain!").
View from hotel

We could just glimpse the top of the towers from our bedroom window, but quite often they were shrouded in cloud.   We had heard tales in the bar of people who had hiked uphill for several hours only to gaze at mist when they got to the viewpoint!   However, we only had one day spare to do this, so set off early one dank morning, hoping for the best.
Happy not to meet some horses.....

We followed a well-worn horsetrack up a side valley for about 3 miles, stopping frequently to enjoy the growing view, and to get our breath back.  The path was very narrow in places, and it was with some relief that we didn't meet any horses coming the other way.  There was a 500-foot drop into the river on one side!
4,000ft waterslide, and contorted landscape.

After a couple of hours we came to a Refugio - a hostel and camp-site on the banks of the river.  Here were toilets and a cafe,  and for the campers, it meant a shortened walk to the Torres.

We continued on the path, crossing the river, and enjoying the shade provided by the evergreen beech forest.
Evergreen beech forest

The path undulated higher and higher up the valley, until we came to the foot of a steep scree slope.  This is where the real uphill effort started, like climbing a set of stairs for an hour,  and where I missed my Nordic Walking poles the most.  Oh, how I missed them!   (Given the number of people using trekking poles, I assumed they were readily available to hire.  But, it seems, only in Puerto Natales, 80 miles away).
The scree slope approaches...

Gradually, with many stops to admire the view, we steadily gained height.  Our total gain was about 1,000 metres - about the same as climbing a Munro in my native Scotland.
Nearing the top of the scree.

But it was definitely worth the effort!  Thank goodness the clouds had cleared!
Raw glaciation.  Ice vs Granite
For a glaciation nerd, this was seventh heaven!

Looking across to the towers, some people said they could see climbers on them, but I couldn't make them out.  In fact, until I read a book, "Against the Wall", by the climber Simon Yates, I doubted they could be climbed at all!  They were sheer, for 2,000 feet.
We made it!
And, in fact, I later discovered that the Central Tower (at 8,100 feet; 2460m)  had first been climbed as recently as 1963, by the renowned British mountaineers, Sir Chris Bonington and Don Whillans!
A quick snap before the weather changes.
I would have loved to spend hours up there, but we could see the weather changing by the minute.  Simon Yates describes, in his account of the climb,  violent storms that threatened to blow him off the cliff, and yet were not felt at its base!
One last look before heading down.....
So, we enjoyed probably the most scenic setting to eat a packed lunch, took dozens of photos as the light changed, and then turned to negotiate the scree slope.  It was probably a good thing that the view disappeared in seconds, meaning we could concentrate on our footing.  
The sign guides you through the scree.
Once again rueing the mistake of not bringing poles, we gingerly made our way down the path, through the beech forest and back to the Refugio.  
Grey granite, topped with brown sandstone
This route is part of the famous "W" trek, so-called due to its shape.  We had just walked the right-most part of the "W" .  The whole circuit takes about a week, so, sadly we could not do it all in the time available.  It's not actually a circuit, as some of you will know, but the boats and ferries that ply the lakes connect hikers to the next section, or to lodging for the night. 
Excellent signs don't hide the truth.  It is uphill!  Torres in distance.
A last glance back at the tops, and then we continued for about an hour back to civilisation and our hotel and a hot soak  - very tired; very happy.  I feel for those who got all the way up there, only to see cloud.
Friendly sparrow at the Refugio.
But, perhaps it's better leaving something unfinished, as an incentive to go back?

If anyone would like more details on the Torres del Paine National Park, check this site, or ask away.  I'll try to help if I can.  There are also good online travel forums such as Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor.

I wonder where we'll end up next...?


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