We woke up at 6:15 and climbed out of our domo. Come to find out that Evan had seen a puma on the Ecocamp grounds at 6 o'clock. We wandered around the grounds a little bit but it seemed that once again we were too late for a puma sighting. Cristian wanted to get an early start so that we would get to our hiking destination before most of the crowds. We had a clear view of the Torres in the sunlight from Ecocamp, and we hoped that in the highly changeable weather of Patagonia, the clear skies would hold out until we got to our destination. Cristian had told us that afternoon clouds will likely block a nice view of the Torres so an early start had many benefits. We went to the "majordomo" for breakfast at 7. As we entered the tent we felt a little bit guilty as all the same staff were waiting on our every need, just as they had the night before. Although they are doing what they do, we couldn't help but feel it was a bit of a drag for them to plan their day off our schedule rather than the other way around. They go to bed later than we do, they wake up before we do...we hoped they at least had time for a siesta during the afternoon. In no time at all they had brought out all the makings for breakfast. We had cereal, bread, peanut butter, eggs, fruit salad, and apple juice. Meanwhile they brought out all the supplies for making our lunches too. We have become very fond of the little sandwiches we made for hiking. The bread was different than we were used to at home and we knew this would be our last day making our little packed lunches. We were getting very used to the day to day routine of hiking in Patagonia and today was the last full day.
We finished packing our lunches and caught a ride to the Hosteria las Torres. Although it is a short walk from Ecocamp to the trailhead, Cristian felt it was better to save the 30 minutes or so and get going right away. From there we started our hike at 8:00. The first third of the hike was pretty steep getting us up into the valley, as Rodrigo and Juan had warned us. The uphill hike was constant and there was almost no protection from the dangerous sunshine. It was amazing how much the sun beats down at such an early time. There were a few scattered trees along the hike where we could take a quick break to drink some water, but overall there was nothing. The trail wasn't very crowded but we were not alone either. As we made our way up the slope, the trail was wide open and exposed a beautiful view downhill toward the lake. The land here is so big and enveloping that it really takes a decent amount of hiking to arrive at those sights that seem rather close by. After about an hour we had made the initial ascent into the valley. We were right on schedule according to our plan. This was a relief to us as we were in a sort of auto-pilot mode just placing one foot in front of the other making our way up the incline. Arriving at the "peak" we felt it wasn't nearly as difficult as we had prepared ourselves for.
The second third was a lot of up and down undulating terrain in the valley. At one point we got to a section that was very windswept and exposed. The wind was strong enough that we needed to be careful not to be blown off the side of the mountain. It looked like a volcanic lunar landscape. There were very small gray and black stones in a vast landslide across the trail. The valley we were now hiking in was a perfect conduit to funnel the wind and it was blowing very hard in our faces. After another half hour, we reached the Refugio Chilenos. We didn't cross the river to the refugio and instead chose to press onward. After that the trail wound through some wooded areas generally following the river through the valley. The variety of landscapes was quite remarkable and the beautiful weather made it all very enjoyable all around. Vast landscapes surrounded us and the trail was very comfortable to walk on. Where bridges would be helpful, they were there. At one point there was a rather steep spot and there was a rope making it much easier, and less dangerous to navigate. After about an hour, we rounded the corner revealing a nice view of a moraine avalanche crossing the path. At this location was a wooden sign instructing us how to proceed. Straight ahead, only 5 minutes away, was Campamento Torres, a campground nestled in the valley. To the left was the start of the final ascent to the Torres. The sign claimed it would take 45 minutes to get to the lookout.
Craig and I drank a little water and looked upwards thinking, we would be up there in 45 minutes? That seemed awfully ambitious. We could recall the discussion around the wood stove last night. Rodrigo showed us a postcard that gave a great view of what lay ahead. We knew from past experience in the park, things definitely are farther away than they appear. These didn't appear very close either. Looking up the moraine we could see that large rock looming overhead. Rodrigo had told us that rock is the size of a school bus and yet, from here, it looked rather insignificant. We had a quick snack, drank a little more water, and decided to begin the final ascent. There was a very well marked trail through the rather disorientating maze of crumbled rock. Small orange spray paint dots were placed along the trail attempting to keep all the hikers in a set pathway. Not all of the trail was climbing rock over rock though. Very often we were winding back and forth across a small stream and we were dodging in and out of trees as we stayed to one edge of the moraine. Here we started to come across more hikers. The steep incline meant there were many people at various fitness levels stopping when they needed to. Very often we were able to round a corner and take a breather while saying "hola" to those that we passed, or who were passing us. We actually gained confidence seeing these people as it made us feel we were in better shape and were handling the hike pretty well. Cristian can do this hike in no time (probably with his eyes closed), but for me it was a little challenging and I just needed to keep a nice pace and keep moving along. Craig seemed to be inspired by the majestic location and probably could have also bounded up this final section pretty quickly, but he waited for me very often. He would move quickly ahead but then wait for me to catch up. I think he was trying his best to keep me from getting overwhelmed and to help me to just take it all one small section at a time. Once near the large rock Craig could no longer contain himself and bounded up the final section. He even climbed on top of the huge rock looking down at me and waving me along. I have no idea where he got the burst of energy to make the extra climb, but clearly his adrenaline was pumping furiously at this point and I was happy to be not too far behind. Cristian kept calling out to me, encouraging me to press on. He had a tough love sort of way about him, but it worked to keep me motivated. After a short final climb, we managed to get to the top at about 11:45. Looking at my watch I realized we did that final ascent in about an hour. Despite the sign saying 45 minutes, we felt a real sense of accomplishment arriving in an hour.
As we turned toward the Torres, the view was phenomenal. We were standing at the top of the moraine avalanche and looking across a glacial lake at the three towers. The lake had that odd blue/green/gray hue resulting from all the glacial silt suspended in the water. As the towers loomed overhead, the clouds playing with the sky made an exciting backdrop. Although the sky wasn't as clear as it had been in the early morning, it looked like we were just in time to have some rather breathtaking views before more serious clouds would roll in. At one point a shaft of light came beaming through the clouds and lit up a section of the middle tower. Cristian managed to get a photo of Craig and I standing in front of the scene, but in this ever changing environment it was hard to truly capture the breathtaking views all around us. Although the lake seemed rather small, Cristian informed us that it was at least another 4 hours of hiking to work your way around the lake and get yourself to the actual base of the towers. He said it was also rather dangerous as there were many glaciers in the area that would need to be crossed. From our vantage point it didn't look like it was very far at all but we knew how deceiving this landscape could be. Only a few other hikers were up at the top, and there was plenty of room for everyone to spread out and feel as if we were the only ones in such a lovely place. We had our own little spot nestled on a large rock. Cristian claimed that it was his rock. We broke out our lunches and had to add a little bit of clothing. The winds up here were pretty significant and suddenly our bodies were aware of the chilly air around us. We added our windbreaker coats to preserve our body heat. As we sat on top we noticed the clouds were definitely getting more dense and we knew that Cristian was right. Getting an early start and keeping moving was a good idea and we felt lucky to have the terrific views we had. Soon after we were settled, Evan showed up. He was the first of his group to make it. They had left about an hour after us, and he had run the second third of the hike (he and Megan are triathletes). Steven showed up next. It was a little chilly at the top so we decided to put our hats and gloves on. Looking down the trail on the moraine we could see many hikers making their way to the top. As the top seemed to be getting more and more crowded, we decided to move on and let the newcomers enjoy "Cristian's rock". We headed back down, and met the rest of the group on the moraine (except for Jane, who it turns out had decided to stay back at Ecocamp for a day of pampering).
On the hike back down, we passed a lot more people. Craig was very concerned with his knee going down the moraine. He was wearing support on both knees, and hadn't had any problems at all today. He hoped all would be ok and it wouldn't make the return to Ecocamp harder than it needed to be. We made good time working our way down the rocks but I found that Craig and Cristian seem to have no problem stepping from rock to rock while heading steeply downhill with confidence. On the other hand, I felt a bit more apprehensive and took more time making my way along. This is definitely a case where one misstep could make you miserable. As a whole I am gaining much more confidence with this sort of hiking and I'm sure with more experience and more repetition I will be able to improve a lot. In what seemed no time we were back at the base of the moraine and heading into the woods. One last look up the rock slide revealed a very overcast sky that blocked much of the Torres from the viewers. We thought about all the people still hiking up, and how our timing had been perfect. Hikes like this are really fantastic on their own and a view is not always mandatory in order to enjoy them, but we felt so fortunate. We had basically finished up our Patagonia hiking, where the weather is notorious, and always had what we thought was fantastic weather for the circumstance at hand. We were prepared for much worse weather and were blessed with nice weather, nice temperatures, and incredible views for almost all of our days in the park.
As we turned into the woods, Cristian met up with a friend and was chatting away. We decided to go ahead knowing that Cristian would catch up easily, regardless of the distance we would cover. Continuing down the trail, through the woods, we quickly recognized all the different sights we saw just a few hours ago. It's funny how you really feel like the hike goes by so much faster once you have been over the ground previously. We saw all the beautiful flowers we had passed, the section of large trees that were knocked over, all the roots sticking up from the ground trying to catch unsuspecting hikers. It all seemed to go by so quickly. Sure enough, Cristian came running up the trail behind us saying that we didn't make it that far ahead and thanked us for letting him chat with his friend. We had to laugh as we were thinking we had actually covered a pretty good distance. When we got to the short steep climb where a rope was installed for assistance, Cristian got a bit nervous with me as apparently I was using the rope a little more than I should. He pointed out how you should never trust a pre-existing rope and only use it to help, always thinking it could let go at any moment, and to make sure you never fully are relying on it.
As we continued down the trail, passing many more hikers, we came to a small section where the water coming from the glaciers above would run across the trail. The small stream ran right through a mossy section of rock creating a great curtain of water along the edge of the trail. It was a nice place to fill the water bottles or simply to run some cold water on your face. Soon we were back down to the river's edge and approaching the Refugio Chilenos. As we approached we could see all sorts of hikers around the building and since we had water, had food, and didn't need a restroom, we decided once again to just continue on and not make the detour over to the site. From there the trail starts to ascend the side of the valley, away from the river, and makes its way to the ridge. Here the wind was incredible. We seriously had to be careful to not lose our footing and fall over. The trail was high above the valley and river below and falling off the trail would be very dangerous. Once or twice we actually delayed moving a foot, waiting to make sure we were stable first. The wind at our backs was shoving us up the trail, and we could see other hikers coming toward us walking into this wind. It was somewhat amusing seeing people round a corner becoming exposed to the wind and looking a bit frazzled as they passed by. We were very glad to have the wind at our backs at this point and we were also well aware that the wind was hardly this strong as we were coming this way earlier.
Back at the volcanic lunar landscape, the wind howling, we really felt that our surroundings were from another world. What an amazing day we had and what an amazing hike this really had been. Before long, we were back at the top of the ridge, looking down at the final descent out of the valley. We knew that we had covered this section of the hike in an hour earlier this morning, but we also had gravity helping us out this time. The sun was really beating down on the backs of our heads and shoulders, and we were fortunate to have decent hats that helped protect us. Craig was a little concerned about the back of his neck, but it didn't seem to be as burned as he felt it was. As we got down to the bottom we passed a family that was hiking up. There was a young girl with the family who was so red. She looked completely sunburned and we wondered where the family was possibly going. Were they just walking around the area or were they actually hiking? Either way, the girl was in no situation to be hiking. Cristian gave the parents a quick warning about how burned she was and even offered to give them some sun protection, but the parents didn't seem to be concerned at all and they just kept hiking. Exposure in Patagonia is not something to take lightly. Not only will this girl have a terrible sunburn, she is likely to cause her skin serious harm.
I crossed the bridge at the bottom of the hike. When I got to the other side, Craig and Cristian were busily picking and eating berries from the calafate bushes. Unlike some of the berries that we had encountered during the past few days, these were perfectly ripe and yummy. We made our way through the hosteria grounds. It took us about 3 and a half hours to get back to the hosteria. We stopped at the gift shop and bought maps of the region, a magnet, some postcards, and some ice cream (Craig got a vanilla strawberry sundae and I got a cookie sandwich). They accepted credit cards, so we decided to use ours in an attempt to hang on to some of the harder to come by cash. It appeared easy enough but then took on a life of its own. Well, the woman running the shop had to lock the shop and accompany Craig to the hotel's reception desk in order to get them to run the card. Craig tried to back down and give her cash after all, but the woman insisted it was no problem and that he should follow her. Craig said it was a madhouse in the hotel lobby. There were people trying to catch busses and looking for cabs, others looking for information, others checking in. Some were making phone calls and others were working in a small office behind the main reception desk area. Craig said he tried to call it all off and pay cash, but the woman was on a mission and again insisted it was no problem. There were probably close to a dozen different employees running around trying to take care of all the different needs of the guests. I stayed outside with Cristian and Craig didn't emerge for 15 minutes. Even then, he wasn't done. He just needed his passport number. So he went back inside and finished up. Craig said that eventually the woman managed to get one of the office workers to handle the purchase and write up the credit card receipt. Craig came out of the lobby looking quite frazzled and laughing at the whole situation.
We put our bags into the back of a pickup truck and were driven back to Ecocamp at 4:00. We said our goodbyes to Cristian in case the opportunity didn't present itself again. He gave us some evaluation forms and asked us if we would please fill them out and seal the envelopes when done. It all felt so formal and we had nothing but good things to say about Cristian. We got a final picture of the three of us in the shirts that we had consistently worn through the hiking trip. We had a lot of laughs about the clothing and that photo made us all have one last laugh together. Craig wanted to buy a beer after a great day of hiking so we went to the refugio next door to get one. Once again he got himself a room-temperature grande Austral and really enjoyed that first sip. We sat on the nice wood walkways between the domos and filled out the evaluation forms. We said our final goodbyes to Cristian again and handed in the forms. Craig and I were feeling our typical sadness after saying goodbye to our new friend, so we thought a nice shower would help us feel better.
We went into the "majordomo" and had cookies and tea. We had cocktail hour, but it didn't quite seem the same without Cristian. Rodrigo and Juan served crackers, guacamole, meats, and pisco sours. The rest of the group would be doing two short hikes tomorrow (we would be leaving early in the morning to catch our flight to Puerto Montt), so Rodrigo went over the next day's itinerary with them. They would be doing hikes to see cave painting and guanacos. We were invited to sit with the rest of the group for dinner tonight and we were very thankful. We definitely felt a little sad as we had lost Cristian earlier tonight, and now we felt a little left out since the rest of the group was planning their final day of hiking in Patagonia. We had become rather friendly with the group over the past few days and were already feeling a bit sad to leave. Even though we still had a couple more weeks of vacation ahead of us, this felt like the end of an era. It is always difficult saying bye to those people you meet and share time with while traveling.
We sat at the long table and it became quite breezy outside. At times the domo door flap would open and the wind blowing in was quite cold. It was amazing how well the domo kept the heat in, but it couldn't compete with the wind. It seemed the flap had a problem with its zipper, and the staff managed to get it fixed so it could seal properly. With that minor setback repaired, dinner was brought to the table. We had a delicious tomato-based soup as an appetizer. Craig had red wine and I had white. Word on the street was that dinner would be salmon, and sure enough, the rest of the group was all served a tremendous looking salmon dinner. Everyone was quite excited about the meal and Craig and I patiently waited for ours to arrive as we were served last. As the plates came to the table we were very surprised to see that we were given some meatballs that were like little meat loaves. The meal was actually very good but I think Craig was rather disappointed. He was really looking forward to the salmon dinner, especially after seeing it arrive at every other place setting at the table. By this time a few of the others at the table had already eaten what they wanted, and some of them donated some fish to Craig. It was in a nice cream sauce and was served with spinach. For dessert, we got variations on a theme. Craig and I each had two strawberries and a raisin. Evan had seven small strawberries and a peanut. We all had a lot of laughs regarding the varying meals and desserts and it was a nice way to end the day.
We chatted for a while and one of the employees took our passports to have photocopies made. She told us that she would give them back to us in the morning. A few of the group snuck out and we were unable to say goodbye to them. We hoped that we would get a chance in the morning since we would be leaving pretty early. Because of this we decided to say our goodnights and we headed to our domo. As we got settled into our beds we were glad that the wind had died down. Maybe the windmill wouldn't startle us awake as it had last night. In the middle of the night (around 3 a.m.) Craig woke up to the sound of someone opening the zipper on the tent. He assumed it was me leaving the tent for a bathroom mission since he couldn't see me laying in my bed. After a short time he still never heard me come back and began to get a bit worried. I was there the whole time, though. He must have heard someone else opening their tent.