We had been a little spoilt on our previous trek, having camped with no more than eleven people, tops, at any one campsite. Just the two of us, on one occasion. Torres was a lot more popular and the campsites were awash with orange, yellow, green and blue tents; groups huddled together in matchy-matchy hired ones, their guides perfecting their peacock routine before the refugio care-keepers and rangers, who were equally perfecting their own dance, ‘miraculously’ feeling the need to tightrope walk (two out of three campsites) chop wood and fix/build fencing in the late afternoon, just as the first wave of trekkers arrived.
The night before tackling the pass, we had stayed at the tiny forested Campamento Los Perros. Named after the nearby river, Rio de los Perros, river of dogs, reportedly named after two herders’ dogs that had drowned in the fast flowing waters, we were glad the numerous crossing we had made over the streams had proved uneventful!
With no real facilities to speak of, it was a far cry from the fully serviced campsite we had experienced the night before – Refugio Dickson – an oasis beautifully set on a lakeside spit in flat meadows where we had eaten our first home-cooked refugio meal; ushered to a seat by the pot bellied wood fire, we had eyed each other nervously, as we were not entirely sure what Matt had agreed to when he booked supper. Pleasantly surprised, we tucked into a salad of tomato and onion with fresh coriander and garlic dressing, asparagus soup (packet) followed by a tasty and hearty stew, a cross between a beef bourguignon and stroganoff with rice, finished off with a dust of paprika on the plate. It had been delicious albeit bereft of vegetables.
Having overslept we packed up in record time (for us) and began our first climb of the day, through the stunted forests and boot sucking peaty bogland, with roped-together log bridges and the odd stepping stone to save us from a muddy foot bath. Onwards and upwards we trudged towards the tree line and barren rocky slopes of the terminal moraine that marked the start of the climb over the pass. With a few spots of rain on our tent in the night we had been expecting the worst. Overhead “Lenticular” clouds were forming in the sky, and as we had learnt on our Antarctic trip, they only spelt one thing – high winds were on their way.
John G was a straightforward kinda fella but nonetheless he did lead us along with a number of false summits on the way. We traversed the moraine, dropped back several times to the raging river below and back up amongst the craggy rocks and boulders, one step at a time, zig-zagging our way to the summit and over the saddle. At 1241m, it is the highest point on the Torres del Paine circuit and worth the slog…..
The astonishing view across to the colossal Glaciar Gray ahead and to the right, the vast edge of the Campo de Hielo Sur, the Southern Patagonian Ice fields. You could take a hundred photos and never quite capture it’s magic or immensity. Unreal and beyond amazing.
Time for the dreaded descent…..
Here’s the thing, you feel every step of effort ascending; lungs and calves screaming as you focus on placing one step at a time. Downhill can be just as gnarly and decidedly harder, as your legs start to shake with the effort of keeping upright in a wider leg stance, back leaning into the mountain, placing each step with care to avoid sliding and slipping your way down the next ten metres. I have what can only be described as an irrational (bordering on pathological) fear of steep descents and exposed ridges; basically when I feel I am not in control and start imagining the very worst with every small stone that dislodges and careens down the escarpment, bouncing off rocks as it makes it way to certain death. A touch melodramatic, I know.
The descent from Paso John Gardner was deemed difficult, a straightforward trail yet steep. In fact horrifically steep in places. Although I really don’t like being on exposed sections, on itsy-bitsy paths, the initial descent was ‘relatively’ easy, as we slipped and slid only a couple of times on our way back and forth the moraine to lower lengas forest. The views at each turn, almost more spectacular than the last, which gave us something to focus on rather than our stumbling feet.
Working our way through the forest was an altogether different story. Grab ropes and railings made from metal tubing were a godsend as the trail descended sharply through the evergreen forest, weaving back and forth; the ice field coming ever closer into view. Rocks, tree boughs, limbs and roots all played a part as we scrambled our way steadily, but slowly down. we were supremely grateful it was not raining as we could only imagine how slippery and treacherous it would be in poor conditions. Someone was definitely looking out for us on this trip!
Arriving at our next stop, Campamento Paso, we decided to push on to the next camp site; it was only 4.30pm and yet the small site, packed in either side of a bridged stream was already over flowing with tents. As we rounded the next slope, the trail opened out and we had the most amazing view of the snout of Glacier Grey with the Hielo Sur behind. Fuelled by the vista unfolding before us and a desire to make camp well before dusk, we almost skipped along the undulating wind blown path that hugged the mountain slopes.
The steep slopes gave way to an eerily pretty exposed section that had not yet recovered from a series of forest fires; stunted blackened trees lined either side of the path, ragged steps cut into the slopes and makeshift handrails kept walkers on course and away from the crumbling edges. The wind off the glaciers started to howl as we carried on towards the gullies and much talked about ladders we would need to climb up and down. Having seen some of the ‘maintenance’ carried out on the trail I had already started to worry what health and safety checks had been carried out on the ladders!
They were easier to climb up, rather than down, or it may have just been the first one (up) was shorter and felt much sturdier by a long shot. Gingerly leaning over, placing hands either side of the rail I did say a little prayer (as did Matt before me) as the pin holding the right hand rail visibly moved a fraction out of its holding plate. Clutching on for dear life, you could feel the weight of your rucksack catching gently in the wind with each slow (and for me, quite terrifying) movement down the ladder…
Back on solid ground, albeit it rocky boulders that lined the ravine, we got our second wind. Probably just as well, as the the next site was most definitely closed with tree branches covering the pitches, and for a very good reason… There was no longer a viable drinking supply close to the camp. Although we hadn’t planned to, we would have to push onto Refugio Grey. Either the path was easier or we were just pumped with adrenalin, but either way, we made it into camp, well before the sun set, pitched tent and hit the camp showers and shop… A sight for sore eyes with rows (and I mean rows) of luxury things you start to lust after when you are camping for a while. We settled for a litre of vino to celebrate our double walking day! We were gonna suffer tomoz!!