It was so early in the morning that we stumbled around our tent in complete darkness. Not even the midnight blue of the sky at dawn had set in yet. With only the rocks and tree stumps caught in the beam of our headlamp ahead of us, we tripped on those right under our feet, searching for the trail.
Still in the dark, we came to the end of the short trail which had followed the creek slightly uphill from our small, primitive campground. The forest and valley were behind us, the sky finally took on a deep, dark shade of blue. We didn´t need our headlight anymore but the dawn light did nothing to help us find the trail which had abruptly ended.
We were headed up to the Torres Base, the lookout point located right at the feet of the great finger-like towers of granite for which Torres del Paine National Park is named. Far, far south in Patagonia and not too far from the very southern tip of South America, this park is often cited as South America´s best with ´The W´, its most popular hike, appearing on most ´world´s top hikes´ lists.
We had only two and a half days in the Park, not enough for ´the W´ but perfect for ´The Mu´. ´The Mu´ route through the Park is much less known than ´the W´. OK, it is basically unknown. Alright, we made up the name.
´The W´ is named for the W shape of the route hiked through the heart of the Park. The math geek and teacher in me was quick to spot on our trail map that the route that WE would take through the Park also resembles the shape of a letter. It is an almost perfect Greek letter Mu (pronounced myu and resembling a mirror image ´y´).
So, we were hiking ´the Mu´ and our first stop was the Torres Base. Sunrise turns the Torres granite towers in incredible fiery red and orange pillars, rising into the morning sky. We couldn´t miss this spectacle so we set off by the cover of darkness and stood at the end of the trail just as the morning light dimly lit the boulders in front of us.
We knew that the Torres Base was somewhere up in the boulders above and ahead of us where the steep side of the mountain ended and one could stand on the rim of an icy, alpine lake and gaze at the towers of stone ahead of them. We had no choice, trail or no trail, we began our scramble up the mountain, over boulders larger than our tent.
Within a half hour, the sun revealed itself between the slopes of the mountains behind us. It rose right over the dark waters of a lake we had passed in the valley below the evening before when we had arrived in the Park. It was hard to decide which way to look. We had made it to the top of the mountain, and sat on the rim of boulders surrounding the lake. Behind us, that incredible sunrise and in front of us, the Torres.
We had seen this scene in photos for months and months. Everytime we had done a search on South America while preparing for our trip, we had come across photos of the Torres del Paine. A place we carried only in our imaginations until this moment was now right in front of us. The granite towers were amazing and, with the heat of the new sun, the mist and clouds around the towers parted, melted away. As the light hit each tower, it caught fire, turned from cold blue and grey to a warm red, then orange.
We stared for a solid hour before scrambling back down to our campsite. Only two other tents. Good thing we had come in October rather than the November to March high season during which the Park has been so crowded in recent years that restrictions on entrance may soon take effect.
One of the other tents was a familiar bright yellow. We knew who was in that tent even before the campers emerged fifteen minutes later. The Scots! We had camped in the same old Slovenian lady´s backyard in Bariloche, Argentina just a few weeks before!
With the Scots, we set out for a full day hike from Campamento Torres to Campamento Italiano, our home to be for our second night in the Park. Along the way, the Scots told us about the weather they´d been having in the Park over the past 3 days. Rain, snow, rain, and more snow! Arriving at 6pm the evening before, we had arrived just as the skies had cleared for the first time in days. It had been a miserable half-week of torrential rains and snow. Rain jackets and bag covers had been useless. As other hikers confirmed along the way, everything and anything that one had been carrying had been soaked and all campers had slept in wet tents, sleeping bags, and clothing for two nights. We thought back on all the delayed buses, unexpected overlays in uninteresting towns, and longer-than-expected bus rides over the past week or two and couldn´t help but think that it had all happened for good reason. Our timing was perfect.
We followed the glowing, turquoise waters of the long glacial lake, Lago Nordenskjold for seven hours before turning into the Valle Frances, the second side of our mu-shaped trek through the Park. Campamento Italiano was only one hour ahead probably somewhere near the bas of that huge snow and ice-covered peak to our left. That peak is Cerro Paine Grande, one of the more imposing peaks in the Park, and that pack of ice on it, Glacier Frances.
Good thing those are glaciers and ice on that mountain, Ashe commented as we all stared up at the the immense block of ice resting precariously between rocky peaks up on the mountain.
At least then we don't have to worry about an avalanche... she continued. Her words were cut off by a thunderous roar that echoed through the valley, greeted and froze us at the entrance to the valley. The sixty meter high stack of snow sitting on top of the glacier was moving.
Avalanche!! we yelled in unison. We exchanged glances with the Scots, Kat and Paul, then quickly looked back up, not wanting to miss any of it.
The snow moved slowly, or so it looked from our vantage point way down in the valley. Snow from the very top of the mountain was sliding down the glacier, a massive cloud of white powder trailing behind the rushing snow. As the avalanche tore down the mountainside, it roused the snow it met along the way until the rush of snow tumbling down the mountain was a huge wall of white noise.
Maybe we should have been running, but instead we stood fixed, staring. It was incredible and over within a minute.
Wow! we exclaimed, in unison again.
OK, who's going to lead us into that valley, I asked, pointing into the Valle Frances, in the general direction of our campground which may or may not still be there.
Our campground was still there, right under the huge Glacier Frances. All night long, we were awoken by more thunder as more layers of snow and ice rolled down the mountainside. The next morning, on our way deeper into the Valle Frances, we passed the very base of Cerro Paine Grande and could see the huge pile of snow, the result of all those avalanches, at its base just across the river.
That day, we hiked thirty seven kilometers, following the tail of 'the Mu' right to its very end at Park Headquarters. 'The Mu' is a serious hike and two days is a short time. Along the way, we passed a string of tiny lakes in all shades of blue as some were glacial and others weren't, and the fantastic Lago Pehoe with its dock for the overpriced catamaran back to the road on the other side.
The final twenty kilometers were in the plains. Tall grasses surrounded us, the landscape was mostly flat with some gentle hills, and richies on horseback trotted past. Torres del Paine is in the plains and that is what makes it even more spectacular. Looking back we could see the rough, jagged, snow and glacier-covered mountains rising abruptly from the plains like a giant silver crown dropped in the middle of this cold, windswept prairie.
The winds were so strong that we were blown over many times as we hiked that last stretch and with every fierce gust of wind, we would look back to see heavy, dark clouds rushing into and filling the valleys between all those peaks behind us. We thought about the Scots and all the other hikers still in those mountains and the rain and snow they must be dealing with at this very moment.
Our timing had been perfect. We came in after the rains and left right before the next storms rolled in. This close to Antartica, the weather changes hourly and can never be predicted. It's no wonder that Patagonia is one of the least populated regions of the world.
At the same time, the weather that has kept people from inhabiting this great wilderness has shaped the land over millenia into the awesome place that it is. The last great wilderness? Maybe. Incredible? Without a doubt.