Torres del Paine - Day 4:The Ascent to Mirador de Las Torres
Once again I awoke to an absolutely gorgeous morning. After the horror stories I had read about Patagonia weather the luck that I continued to have day after day this week was amazing. It was a bit chilly climbing out of bed but Las Torres awaited and so whatever small piece of me wanted to stay warm was ignored to get moving, fueled, and heading back down the road to the Rio Ascensio and the climb up the valley. After yesterday's lazy day I was feeling incredibly refreshed and ready to tackle the challenge. The kitchen had prepared a simple, but excellent breakfast of cereal, meats and cheeses, toast, eggs, and coffee, tea, and/or juice. They also had our sack lunches for us to eat at some point on our day's journey.
And so we were off down from our hilltop camp, past the Refugio and Hosteria Torres, and towards the Ascensio bridge. Where yesterday we had come in via the left fork of the trail (from Lago Nordenskjold), today we were going to head right up the Ascensio valley. One small problem there: the Ascensio cuts a pretty steep gorge just north of the bridge crossing and up to Refugio Chileno about half way up the valley. So the trail we were to hike ascends to the top of the gorge heads along the ridge top for a short time and then descends back to river level at the refugio. The climb is probably less than 1000 ft of elevation change but then you give almost all of it back, realizing that everything you gave back you will have to climb again on the final ascent to the towers.
So off we went with everyone pretty much setting the pace that they were comfortable at and agreeing to meet at the top of the ridge and allow everyone to recover. I led with Mauricio, Bill, and Elisa and we reached a resting point after about 45 minutes of climbing. Alexis, Scott, and Theresa followed about 10 minutes later and Ken, Norma, and Carola about 5 minutes after that. We gave the final group a good 15 minutes of recovery before the next leg of the journey down to the refugio. I was thankful for the excellent weather because the trail we were on was very narrow overlooking the river below and was mostly loose dirt and on one of those days where the Patagonia winds were blowing would create one hell of a duststorm. But a small part of me wondered what it would have been like to experience some of the rougher weather as well.
At the refugio, two of the towers peaked out over the ridge and provided an excellent view as the sky continued to stay amazingly clear and the winds remained light. It was time to reapply sunscreen which was always a constant thought down this far south (near the southern hole in the ozone layer). It seemed like one had to do this every 2-3 hours on any exposed areas to ensure that one didn't get a fairly serious burn. We didn't spend too much time at the refugio before pressing on. The trail past the refugio stayed more at river level, but it presented another set of problems. The trail had pretty much eroded away in several locations and that meant some bushwacking and boulder scrambling.
But all in all it wasn't bad and was more a warm-up for the true bouldering that we were going to do shortly. In fact as the valley widened slightly we had some relatively flat sections through some moderately forested areas on this section of the trail. But it was short lived as this section was only about an hour or so long before we reached the left hand turn to begin the final climb to the towers.
The first section up the rocky scree slope followed along and in a small stream bed. I was constantly shedding layers as I used more energy climbing the trail and the temperature continued to rise (even though we were ascending). It wasn't long before we came out onto the main slope for the final slog to the viewpoint.
Mauricio had Ken and Norma follow directly behind him to give them some additional assistance with picking out the best footing up the slope. For the rest of us following behind it was truly inspirational to see this older couple (Norma was in her mid 60s and Ken in his early 70s) make this moderately difficult scramble up the slope. It was a slow and steady climb as we aimed for the large house-sized boulder that signified the near top of the climb (the pace also let me pause and capture some amazing pictures as we made the climb). As close as we were to Las Torres they were initially hidden behind the steep slope that we were climbing. But as we neared the top they began to peak out their granite heads from over the ridge top that we were climbing. As we passed that house-sized boulder they were well and truly visible. But as one finally passed the true top of the ridge to the viewpoint Las Torres simply filled the entire view in front of us.
These towers of sheer granite were an imposing presence in front of us. What was more amazing was the blue sheen of the crystal clear sky that contrasted against these gray monolithic structures. I had read the stories of people making the climb to the viewpoint to find the towers partially or completely encased in cloud cover. They would wait until a partial clearing occurred so they could take the obligatory photos and then head back down the slope. The winds and weather would be so rough that they would spend as minimal a time at the mirador as was necessary.
On this day, however, I was more worried about getting a sunburn than anything else. We claimed a spot for the group, unlaced our boots, and then unpacked and ate our lunches all the while soaking in the majesty of our surroundings.
We were by no means the first early noon-time group to reach the mirador, but as we relaxed on our rock, more and more people arrived at the viewpoint to capture their sight of Las Torres. Especially on this day, the climb to Las Torres was not one for solitude as easily 150+ people were lounging at and around the mirador. I kept occasionally taking photos of the towers in various settings thinking maybe one picture would highlight a different view than one I had taken previously. What I realized though was that no single photo can capture the enormity of Las Torres and how they literally tower directly above you at the mirador. To take a decent picture one has to zoom back so far that in a picture the towers appear less omnipresent in the photos than they do when you are there in person.
After not quite 2 hours at the mirador we figured it was best to be heading back down towards camp. It had taken us a bit over 4 hours going up and the return would probably not be much if any shorter. Again we had Norma and Ken take the lead behind Mauricio. Heading down was a bit more chaotic as the two-way traffic on the trail was much more congested than it was when we made the climb up earlier in the day.
The weather had not really changed at all and it was still picture perfect to get to the view. We slowly retraced our steps down the slope, through the lenga forest, along the Rio Ascensio back to Refugio Chileno. We made the climb and descent through the Ascencio gorge and returned to the Hosteria Torres road and back to Eco Camp.
Back at EcoCamp we cleaned up for another evening of good food and wine, some additional drinks, and great conversation with friends. Tomorrow was the alternate day for the Las Torres climb if the weather had not cooperated so we just had some minor sight-seeing planned. No early morning, no long hikes, just a mostly relaxing day to look forward to. As evening progressed clouds finally arrived on the horizon and blanketed the area.
As we slumbered off to our tents for the evening the wind started getting a bit blustery. Overnight our first taste of Patagonia weather finally arrived. Strong winds of around 50-60 mph whipped our tents (nothing to worry about though as the tents had withstood a 100+ mph wind in the park and were designed to withstand 150 mph winds) and rain pelted down. It was a bit difficult to sleep with all the noise, but one ignored it as best they could to get the rest they needed.