January 12

(8.5 hours on the trail, approx 19 km, 798m elevation change): Campamento Torres to Albergue Y Camping Los Cuernos

A brightening morning sky and ironically, calming winds wake me about 5am. Hurriedly, I unzip the tent for a peak outside: it’s a blue sky, far above. I shake Ron awake and holler to Alfred, ‘lets go!’…we rush to climb up to the base of the Torres granite spires and see them lit by early rays of sun. This ‘kodak’ moment frequently appears on promotional material of the park, spires pink or gold against the blush of a clear dawn sky. It’s 45 minutes of heavy breathing as we scramble 400m up (although only .8 km distance according to the map) the rock strewn moraine to a view point. Looking east, the morning sky rims clouds fire red with orange crusts.


The cold wind blows but with no vegetation to rustle leaves, its deathly quiet. We are alone except for 3 figures in the far distance…it feels like the roof of the world. Now, I can appreciate the thrill peak baggers get upon reaching the summit – the outside world ceases to exist, its only you wrapped by the elements. Unearthly mists obscure peaks, instead, golden light washes their bases in a pale light, and a milky gray glacial lake lays calm at their feet. The contrast in rock textures is exaggerated by light and shadows: the Torres spires smooth and silky, their shoulders rumpled, their feet scree. We sit in silence, transfixed by the moment. 

The Torres views are awe inspiring:  the over whelming height, the crushing weight of their immensity bears down, squashing me to humbleness. It a more humane and sublime view across the Valle Ascencio: condors circle overhead, stretching their wings in the dawn warmth. Subtle grays blend with shapes, a monochromatic palette that calms a sun burnt retina. Time straddles two dimensions, present and past. Hikers have left offerings in the form of small stones on a table rock. I have no urge to do the same, instead steal the moment on celluloid, satisfying my urge of possession.

My stomach rumbles, and I start to shiver. The moment has passed and its time to return to camp. The descent is slow, legs burn, braking all the way down. A tiny stream of water along the trail, nourishes bright yellow daisies, pink heathers, feathery grasses and lush moss, the only greenery at this elevation. As we descend, the trees come up to meet us. I linger, savouring feelings of calm and peace until interrupted by wind driven snow pellets that sting my eyes.

Back at camp, we breakfast, pack and start the walk back, retracing our steps of only yesterday. It was 2.5 hrs up but today, the return descent takes only 90 minutes down to Albergo Chileno. First, another morning coffee then a beer to celebrate the joyous start of the day. Hordes of tourists have descended on mass, swarming the trail, on foot and horse back. We’re glad to clear out, feeling privileged to have had sunrise to ourselves.

Valle Ascencio opens wide, and a hot wind greets us at a place I nick named yesterday ‘Windy Corners’ (later I find out it has been officially named “Paso de los vientos (pass of the winds)”. We struggle to maintain our footing on the gravel path as wind gusts shove us to and fro. The indented shores of blue-green Lago Nordenskjold come into view. Happily, we carry on. Blue skies, full bellies and a down hill slope contribute to the steady pace as the day will be long.

It’s mid afternoon, the trail now parallels the north shore of Lago Nordenskjold…its relatively level and my toes are thankful after that last 24 hours of up and down. The greens in the valley delight the eye after the simple colours of higher elevations. Mounds of yellow flowers like huge pincushions abut the trail. White peaks are outlined by blue skies.

But as the hours pass, I grow weary despite the stunning jewel waters and ever changing pattern of cloud cover. The four hours to Los Cuernos campground stretch to never ending, my tongue grows thick from the dry air. 

Lake Nordenskjold surrounded by rolling bare slopes. The trail climbs up and down these little knolls which keep the feet alert. Note how the tree has been bent by the prevailing westerly winds.

Looking west along Lake Nordenskjold. Ever changing sky is typical for spring weather. Undulating land with varied vegetation kept me entertained when the sky didn’t.

Stunning sculpted slopes of Cuernos del Paine (central: 2600m/8530 ft and east towers: 7218 ft) are the result of glaciation on millions of year old upthrust rock.

Finally, after 7 hours, we reach Camping Los Cuernos on the north shore of Lago Nordenskjold. The camp site is far from ideal, campers jostle for level areas amongst the lenga trees to avoid rocks that have emerged from the earth. We purchase a bottle of wine from the Albergue – a fringe benefit of the location. Warm coats and fleece hats are necessary in the shade of the tree as the strong winds cool our tired bodies. It’s an early night after a memorable day of stupendous hiking, views and weather.