Torres del Paine - The W+ Trek (part 2)

Day 3 - Pehoe to Refugio Los Cuernos (19km - 600m ascent - 600m descent)

It was payback time! We awoke to find that the view of Los Cuernos from our bedroom window was but a grey sheet, with rain sweeping across the flats just in front of the refugio, driven by strong and icy westerly winds. The forecast was for gusts up to 100kph and a maximum of 4°C. Paine was preparing to test our mettle.

After final adjustments of our wet weather gear and pack covers to make sure there were no gaps, we set off with the wind at our backs (one advantage of doing the trek from west to east). The sound of the wind was drowned by the sound of the rain beating on our hoods, as we strode up the sodden track to start a steady climb through low shrubby vegetation up and over the saddle between Lagos Pehoe and Skottsberg. Crossing the low pass, we were almost blown off our feet by a couple of sudden gusts that caught us from behind. However, once we dropped into the sheltered leeward side of the saddle, we were protected from the worst of the wind and the rain just took on a steady rhythmic drumming on our raingear.

Wet start to day 3

The vegetation soon became denser, shrubs thicker and taller with groves of low beeches overgrowing the track, as we wended our way around the slope on the northern edge of Lago Skottsberg, crossing several wooden walkways in wetter areas. It no longer mattered for us, as the rain had found its way in - gloves and boots were sodden, while beneath our raingear, the perspiration was dampening our clothing - strange how you can cook on such a cold day.

Still, the forest birds (finch, thrush and robin) were singing as they flitted in amongst the shrubs and trees, and the glowing red splashes of of ciruelilla in full bloom that lined the path kept our spirits up. Below, gusts whipped across the lake surface, driving sheets of spray ahead of them.

No not a river - just the path around Lago Skottsberg

Thick bush on the way to Lago Skottsberg

The beautiful ciruelilla - a beacon in the rain

Eventually we left the lake to continue around the slope into deeper beech forest to reach the rushing torrent of Rio del Frances, crossing the suspension bridge to find the welcome three-sided shelter at Camping Italiano. Together, with other sheltering trekkers, we sat in a sodden huddle, eating chocolate and comparing impressions of the day so far. However, it was not weather to dilly-dally; we were here to visit the Valle de Frances and it was time to bite the bullet and head off, leaving our big pack in the shelter.

Gnarled old beech forest of the lower valley

The twin channels of Rio Frances near Campamento Italiano

The mists swirl about Los Cuernos de Paine

Glacier Frances emerging from the clouds

Waterfall tumbling down the lower slopes
of Los Cuernos

Cold and wet on the slippery ascent to the
glacier look out

View across the valley to the two levels of
Glacier Frances

Without packs, we climbed quite quickly up beside the river, passing beneath the gnarly lichen-covered trunks of mature beech, before emerging into a rock-garden of jumbled mossy boulders and dwarf beech (the perfect Japanese garden). From here we had our first views of Glacier Frances, its gravelly lower section terminating at the river. The weather seemed to be clearing slightly and we could now see hanging glacier, pristine white and high above.

Gravel cover terminus of lower Glacier Frances

Dwarf beech in the rock garden

Aleta de Tiburon rising out of the forest
into the mist

The sun breaks through on Cerros Cabeza del Indio (2240m) and Fortaleza (2681m)

The face of the hanging glacier on the side
of Paine Grande

Climbing the beech-covered morain

Upper and lower sections of Glacier Frances

Continuing on, we crossed a small scree slope and a sidestream just below a small waterfall, before climbing steeply up to a rocky morain ridgeline covered in gnarled beech. The track led us along the narrow ridge to another stream rushing down between rock ribs and another steep climb up beside it to reach an open rock platform.

Too bad you can't photograph the wind - we were barely able to stand upright

We were greeted with a magnificent view of the glacier disappearing into the mists swirling around Paine Grande. Snow flurries and several fierce wind gusts had us standing obliquely to admire the glacier, as mini-avalanches of snow and ice slid down from its upper to lower levels.

The sun shines over Lago Nordenskjold far below

Even better, behind, the ghostly shapes of the Cuernos appeared through the clouds for a few minutes; the setting was surreal.

Below, the sky had cleared enough to see distant Lago Nordenskjold. Ahead, beside the sharp profile of Aleta de Tiburon, the upper valley and Campamento Britannico still lay hidden in the mists and, with the fierce winds and weather starting to close in again, we decided not to push our luck by climbing higher as planned, and headed back down again.

Panorama of Los Cuernos rising ghostlike in the mists of the Valle del Frances

Soon we were back at the shelter having lunch, before once more heading out. The rain had eased to passing showers but the wind was still fierce, almost forcing us into a trot as we crossed open grasslands to start a winding climb to cross a rock-face plunging down from Los Cuernos and into the lake.

Rio Frances in its rocky bed

Leaving Campamento Italiano to cross the heath flats

It had rained below but snowed on high

As we crested the spur, a sudden gust of wind from behind blew the poor Nello off the track and into the bushes (apparently you haven't lived the Paine experience unless you are blown off your feet). Pride being the only injury, we pushed on to the eastern side of the spur, once again more protected and with views stretching down the length of Lago Nordenskjold to distant Refugio Los Cuernos - it spurred us on, making a zig-zagging rapid descent of the ridge through thickets of red-flowering ciruelilla and low beech to reach the lake shore.

Backward look to Valle del Frances and Grande Paine

The north shore of Lago Nordenskjold - can you spot the albergue?

Here we crossed a small beach of black and white pebbles, followed by a couple of even smaller white boulder beaches. Finally, the track led us across the quartz boulder bed of a stream flowing from a waterfall that tumbled down from the misty heights of Los Cuernos and on to the refugio.

View up a pebbly creek bed to Los Cuernos

The path around Lago Nordernskold crossed rocky headlands ...

... and at times led us along stony beaches

It was great to finally arrive, as the rain was setting in again and we were starting to chill in our sodden footwear and damp clothes. The refugio was full of trekkers and with two pot-belly stoves fired up, gave us a warm steamy welcome. It is amazing how a hot shower, dry clothes and and a cold beer can make you feel human again. The gaslights were lit, a trekker started singing Bob Marley songs (and well!) and a hot dinner came out; this lodge had a much more pleasant ambiance than the much larger and colder Paine Grande. Thankfully, the weather forecast for the next day was only "debil", not atrocious - as I fell asleep, I was wondering just what that meant.

Day 4 - Refugio Los Cuernos to Albergue Chileno (20km - 1020m ascent - 620m descent)

Good morning Los Cuernos

I looked out the window of the bunkroom - if this is "debil", bring it on! - white clouds were drifting across a blue sky, a condor soared across the tops of Los Cuernos high above the refugio and there was hardly any wind. Even better, our boots and clothes were dry again, having spent the night sitting around one of the pot-belly stoves. The mood of the trekkers in the hut was palpably high and everyone was keen to head on. Perhaps the mountain rewards those who face up to the wild weather and don't curl up and spend the day in bend.

Albergue Los Cuernos on the shore of Lago Nordenskjold

View back along the north shore of Lago Nordenskjold

View across to grass covered hills on the south shore of
Lago Nordenskjold

Soon we were back on the track, crossing a fast-flowing stream via a wooden bridge and climbing steadily up a hill to the east of the refugio. Views opened up back over the lake and, as we reached the crest, we farewelled Cerro Paine Grande, its dark shape still brooding behind a veil of white mists.

Across the lake, the grass-covered hills appeared bright green, contrasting with the turquoise colour of the lake. Once again the track was lined with the pinwheels of ciruelillas, firy red and orange in the bright sunlight, while below small cream flowering herbs were out in abundance. It was a glorious morning and the birds of Paine were singing - even a frog joined in the chorus.

Look up and Los Cuernos are always looking down

Views were now opening up to the east and we could see the outlet of Lago Nordenskjold in the distance. The track took us across several small streams and the boulder-strewn mouth of the Bader Valley between Los Cuernos and Cerro Almirante Nieve. A condor swept low out of the valley and passed overhead.

Panorama of Lago Nordenskjold and distant Paine Grande

The 3m span of the condor

Looking up to Valle Bader

By now, the landscape was gradually becoming drier as we passed through areas of grassland and prostrate shrubs with only scatterings of stunted beech. The variety of landscapes in such a small area has to be one of main attractions of the national park.

Descending a drier tussock covered valley

The beautiful landscapes of stunted beech

Looking toward the western end of Lago Nordenskjold

We pushed on eastward, crossing the white boulder bed of a stream racing down from the heights of Almirante Nieve, before eventually climbing again to reach the shores of a small lake, home to a pair of Upland geese. We were now walking in T-shirts (hardly believable after the weather of yesterday), winding our way around the lake shore and crossing the boggy grasslands behind to climb slowly, but surely across the gentle slope leading up to the Ascencio Valley.

The tranquility of a small alpine lake ...

... home to the upland goose

Pancake clouds - a common sight in Patagonia

Eventually, we joined up with another walking track leading up from Refugio Torres, just below a saddle overlooking the gorge and valley of the Rio Ascencio. Our gaze followed the silver stream below up to the distant Refugio Chileno, our new home for the night. The track had suddenly become busy as we had joined up with the "must-do" walk of the park - a day trip in to view the famous Torres del Paine.

The file of people descended from the saddle to cross a scree slope, climb over a small but steep spur and cross a rustic wooden bridge to arrive at the refugio in its beautiful beech forest setting beside the river. We had pushed through this section fairly quickly to reach the refugio in under 4 hours, with the succesful aim of getting one of the lower level bunks, rather than sleeping just below the ceiling on the third tier. Now we could relax and enjoy our lunch, looking up at the tops of two of the Torres, peeking over a ridge high up the valley.

Landscape of the lower slopes

Lower section of Rio Ascencio

Looking up the Valle del Ascencio

Crossing the swing bridge to Albergue Chileno

Lunch in the sun at Albergue Chileno

Heading further up beech-clad Valle del Ascencio

The Torres were enticing and the weather can be fickle - soon we were off again, following the rushing Rio Ascencio up its narrow valley, clad in the bright green new leaves of beech trees. From the number of people returning, it seemed like the change of shift at the Mirador del Torres.

Just another hanging glacier

The fair Nello nears the top of the boulder morain

After an hour of meandering through this forest, we emerged at the clearing of Campamento Torres - ahead the snow-capped ranges lining the Valle de Silencio looked like a black-and-white photo as dark grey clouds drifted in from the west.

Monochrome landscape of the Valle del Silencio

Our goal, however, was in a different direction, the mirador of the Torres, less than a kilometre away, but 400m higher up at the end of steep boulder morain. Climbing up first beside it, then scrambling up the bigger central blocks, we emerged at the crest to a collective wow!

No, not the great wall - just a curious intrusion

Ochre cliffs of Cerro Almirante Nieto

The panorama of the Torres, hidden until the very last steps, was superb. Guarded by the black wall of Cerro Nid de Condor to the right, the four rock spires towered high above a natural amphitheatre. The green glacial lake at its base was separated from the towers by the ice and snow of a glacier extending from the central bowl to their left. Further left, the steep ochre walls of Cerro Almirante Nieto completed the cirque.

We sat at this spot for an hour, watching the cloud swirling about the towers amidst the odd snow flurry. Gradually the sky lightened and patches of blue sky opened up, giving a different ambiance to the the Torres. This is certainly one of the great alpine views of the world.

The amphitheatre of Los Torres del Paine (Cerro Almirante Nieto, the four Torres and Cerro Nido de Condor)

The four spires of Torres del Paine above
in their glacial cirque

L to R - Torres de Agostini (2850m), Central, Norte
and the edge of Monzino

Zooming in on mist-shrouded Torres Central
and Norte

Slowly, though, the chill air seeped through our clothes and it was time to return to the warmth of the refugio for a celebratory beer with Julie and Nicola, two young women from Perth whose path we kept crossing. They were planning a 4am start next morning to try and catch the classic sunrise on the Torres. It seemed a good idea, but our bodies were sore and our spirits well content - at 4am, when they set out, the fair Nello and I were fast asleep in the comfortable bunks of Albergue Chileno.

Day 5 - Albergue Chileno to Albergue Torres (6km - 90m ascent - 410m descent)

Julie and Nicola returned at 9am with smiles on their faces - their timing had been perfect and they managed to watch the sun rise and bathe the Torres in a golden light just before the mists rolled in. Well done!! For us it was an easy day - a mainly downhill stroll out from the refugio to the end of the track - and our calf muscles, sore after four hard days of walking, were pleased with that. We retraced our steps along the gorge of the Rio Ascencio, climbing once again to the saddle, before heading downhill toward Hosteria Torres.

View down Valle Ascencio toward Hosteria Torres

The clouds gather over the Patagonian lakes

Ribbon fall on the rock face of Cerro Paine

People were already on their way up; serious trekkers with backpacks full of camping gear, guided groups of daywalkers, people on horseback, of all ages and sizes, all keen to get to the Torres mirador. The attraction of these rock spires reaches all! Hopefully, the cloud building up would clear for them, as it had done yesterday.

Mini-canyon cut by Rio Ascencio

The pyramid of 2640m Cerro Almirante Nieto

Soon we arrived at the flat and, passing the luxury Hosteria de Torres, strolled along the gravel road to the less opulent but very comfortable Albergue de Torres, where we waited for the shuttle bus to take us to the Park entrance and our bus back to Puerto Natales.

For those who seek luxury - Hosteria Torres

Trek's end - celebrating with a bottle of Austral cerveza

What an incredible trek it had been; every day was different, with steppes, rivers, lakes, glaciers, forest and mountains, while each night we enjoyed comfortable and warm accommodation and pleasant company. The rock spires of the Torres del Paine deserve their prominence, but this trek is more than just one, or a few, outstanding views - it is a chance to experience the patagonian wilderness. For the most we had fine weather, though we did get to experience a full-blown Patagonian storm and somehow the trip would not have been complete had we missed that. There is a rumour that the "W track" is so-called because of its shape. Maybe, but after completing it, the fair Nello and I agreed that "W" stood for wild, wet, windswept and wondrous.