Campamento Los Cuernos –> Base de las Torres (4.4km Up –> 9.4km Down)
3:00am was much too early, much too dark, and much too cold to be out and about, but I had a date with the grand finale of my hike. When the alarm went off, I groggily hit snooze once or twice before I could summon the willpower to start moving. My pupils shrank in protest when I turned my headlamp on and began trying to get dressed without leaving the comfort of my sleeping bag, and aside from a few floating whispers, the campsite was still.
By the time I finally left my sleeping bag, it was nearing 3:30. Outside, with no nearby sources of light pollution, it was one of the darkest nights I had ever seen. At the other end of the camp were the small dancing lights of people starting up the trail for sunrise. I hurried to catch up with them. One of the only potentially dangerous aspects of Torres del Paine is the occasional wild puma, and aside from my broken tent, I couldn’t have asked for better luck on this journey. I had no fancy to screw that up by hiking alone in the dark and getting stalked by a wild mountain cat, however slim the chances may have been. I didn’t know the group I was tailing, but I stayed just close enough that they could hear me scream, and hoped that they wouldn’t all run in the opposite direction if I had need to. Thankfully all this worry was for naught.
The side benefit of trying to stay near groups of people however, was that I was charging up the mountain, much faster than I would have alone. And, perhaps my body was finally kicking into gear after seven days of this, because toward the top, as the light of dawn fell over us and the trail traffic got heavier, I actually started passing people. The elevation maps above don’t do it justice: the last kilometer of the hike felt like a straight uphill ascent. The steepest switchbacks were at the top of the forest, right before it opened up into rocky mountain sides. Although the trail was less steep there, we were still met with plenty of false summits and “just around the corner!” disappointments. Although you approach from the left, the last couple hundred meters of the hike take you around a rocky hill which completely obfuscates the Torres until you are right there. Talk about a dramatic unveiling.
I arrived about ten minutes before sunrise, leaving me just enough time to unpack my camera gear and find a good vantage point. There were also a few minutes to pointlessly agonize over a cloud that was going to be right in the way of the sun as it rose. Almost like magic, the cloud quickly dissipated in the face of the rising sun, allowing everyone to get those golden photographs of the illuminated towers. Perhaps it was just the dramatic terrain, but the sunrise seemed to go on forever.
While taking it all in, I managed to reunite with several friends from the earlier parts of the hike. It was quite copacetic that although we all stayed in different campsites on the final night or two of the hike, we still all ended up enjoying sunrise together on the final day. With an hour to spare until my breakfast slot back at the refugio, I regretfully said goodbye to everyone and turned away from the scene to start my hike back down the mountain. When I got back to the campsite, the rising sun was still painting gorgeous light on the scenery, and it was hard to put down the camera for breakfast.
As an aside, everyone I sat with was noticeably disappointed in the lack of sustaining food we were given. The meal started with toast, and ended there. For about a half hour we sat, expecting more to come, until they started asking us if we were done. It seemed a bit strange to me to ban cooking at the campsite, thereby forcing everyone to eat the refugio-provided breakfast, and then not provide anything more substantial than two pieces of toast. Especially to people who would be hiking up and down mountains all day. In contrast, the other refugios I had eaten at (although none for breakfast) all seemed to offer a well-balanced meal. So, Chileno was a bit weird in that aspect. Unsatisfying breakfast aside, I was excited to start my hike down the mountain. I was also on a schedule to catch the park shuttle back to my pre-reserved bus into Puerto Natales, and from there onto Punta Arenas.
The hike down went about as fast as expected. It was certainly less exerting, but more painful on my knees, so I kept a slow and steady pace. On the way down I passed hordes of hikers going up to see the towers during the day. When I finally got back to level ground, I sped up significantly, stopping only for a few final photos. And then, with time to spare, I delighted myself by ordering a giant pizza at the hotel where I had started.
A few final photos to conclude my trip: Patagonia sold in Patagonia, which gave me a chuckle; the penalty of not wearing sunscreen (that would continue to be a trial for the rest of the trip); and some final, slightly more restrained horses than what I came across on my first day.
It seems weird to wrap this all up with nine blog pages and a host of photos, but after this I feel like it’s completely done. More than a year later, Chile is still one of my favorite trips of all time. It was fresh and challenging, in ways I expected and ways I didn’t. And, as I stated previously, I would redo the exact same trip in a heartbeat if the opportunity ever presented itself.