21st January 2009: Éanna and I spent the day climbing in the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, in Chilean Patagonia. Windswept, desolate and utterly majestic the Torres themselves dominate the landscape but the attraction doesn’t end there. Glacial lakes, rivers that can turn from gentle streams to roaring torrents in the space of a few hours and peaks that remain snow-capped even in midsummer.
There are those who like to climb to see the sunrise on the Torres, we were not in their number. Teenagers are generally allergic to early mornings and in the refuge – chock full – even a few minutes extra sleep leaves you at the back of the queue for the bathroom and indeed for breakfast, so by the time Éanna had roused and I’d had the obligatory second cup of coffee we could tell ourselves that it was cloudy anyway, so getting up earlier would have been pointless.
The path continued along by the river whose waters had created a thin green corridor quite distinct from the desolate rock of the mountain-sides.
It was an hour or so’s walk to the next camp, a very basic site used by the real hard trekkers that consists of a few small tents, one basic latrine and a bored park warden who informed us that the longer route we’d planned was closed, and that even if it wasn’t we’d have needed a permit, which we didn’t have. Nor did we have climbing equipment, knowledge or ability so the closure on the whole probably saved us a good deal of embarrassment.
Not that the next stage of the path was particularly easy as it took a sharp turn up the mountain, at first following a small mountain stream but then emerging on to a wide, steep scree.
This seemed to go on forever, and the cheery greetings of our fellow hikers on the way down telling us we were nearly there and that it was all worth it was no help. Eventually they were right, and it really was worth it.
Lunch, maté, and photos and some quiet chats with other hikers but unlike being on the trail itself, no-one was very communicative. There was a communal sense almost of awe, people sat and lunched and enjoyed the serene beauty of the place in a companionable silence.
All good things must, eventually, come to an end. The descent was much quicker and easier of course (at least, once off the scree) and we felt we would have time to drive to one or two other lookout points before heading back to join the others. But Patagonia had other plans.
The road – the only road – from the trailhead back to the park entrance crossed, near the entrance, three separate channels of the same river via two rickety bridges and one ford. No longer 3 separate channels, the unseasonal snows of the previous week had melted in the equally unseasonal heat of the last few days and the resulting flood had turned the mild mannered river of the previous day into a raging torrent. The road was completely submerged, much of it under fast flowing water.
The hotel, itself cut off, began ferrying its guests to and from the tour buses by boat. As the evening wore on and some slight ebbing of the water became apparent a truck driver decided to try it out and made it across, though with water well above the axles. With our low-slung hire car this was clearly not an option, but with a place booked on a ferry the next day and the car needing to be returned to the hire company in another country and 3000 km away nor really was waiting it out.
Still there was nothing to be done that night, so we headed to a refugio to try and get more information and ponder the possibilities. There was little enough of the former, but we did discover that the nearby hotel’s transport department could probably organise a transporter to get us out. For a price.
With this comforting yet worrying thought, we retired to bed.