Miradores de los Torres

Up-glacier to Shark Fin

Given Torres del Paine’s meager food sources and general costliness, I only had one day to hike there before continuing to either Cerro Castillo or Puerto Natales to resupply. I had planned to do Monte Almirante Nieto, a bulky but moderate peak near the famous Torres, but the forecast called for a high in the low 20s with winds to 30 MPH, which sounded beyond what I could handle with my current gear. In retrospect it would probably have been manageable, and in fact the afternoon was sunny with moderate wind. The me of my previous trip would have done it, but it was emblematic of this trip’s unmotivated second-guessing that I did not even make an attempt.

Dawn on Almirante Nieto

So I went for a hike instead, and managed to make it at least a little bit interesting. The tourist thing to do in Torres del Paine is to hike up to the Laguna de los Torres, a lake at the base of the peaks’ northeast side. It becomes an absolute zoo later in the day, the equivalent of Laguna de los Tres near Chaltén, but in proved relatively tranquil on a cloudy morning. I got an early start from the Camping Central, followed the road to the luxury hotel for some WiFi, then continued along the broad tourist track across a suspension bridge and followed the signs. The trail was eroded and braided, with separate horse and foot paths in places, and I did my best to stay on the preferred path, feeling some sympathy for whomever has to manage the overwhelming tourist hordes in the fragile environment.

The trail climbs steeply above the west bank of the Rio Paine where it cuts its way through layered choss, then descends to cross it and reach a well-supplied campground and restaurant, run by a different company than the campground from which I started. This outpost of tacky commerce was just waking up as I passed, with only a few people in the cafe or milling around outside. The peaks were hidden in clouds, and I could see fresh snow down below 4000 feet at the head of the valley. The trailhead feels arid, with bare grass and brushy oak-like trees for wind protection, but the vegetation turns strikingly lush only a few miles up the valley, with a forest of large trees covered in moss.

No right way to go

The trail splits at a talus fan, with a lesser branch continuing upriver to another campground and a ranger station, and the main path heading steeply uphill through woods, boulders, and rivulets toward the lake. There has been some trailwork, but it is mostly a (very heavy) use trail. The clouds had lifted some, but I also saw a few snowflakes as I climbed, and spindrift on the higher slopes. The final section traverses around the old glacier’s terminal moraine to reach the lake, with many signs and arrows directing people along a particular route that seems no better than any other.

Enough Torres

I arrived at the lake to find less than twenty people, mostly huddled in the lee of boulders waiting for the view to improve. The Torres were completely obscured, and the clouds and wind drove me to huddle in a protected spot in my down jacket. I ate peanuts, watched some thoroughly-habituated birds peck around my feet for anything I might drop, and intermittently took photos of the peaks when I thought they might be more visible than they had been before. Eventually the crowds started to arrive, and the view became “clear enough,” so I took my final photos and began heading back down. Just then I ran into Robert, the Canadian I had met back in the hut downwind from Chaltén, happily strolling along in shorts as one would expect of someone from the Great White North. We talked for a bit, then I headed back down, mulling my options.

Almirante Nieto

Almirante Nieto was clear, but I did not have the gear or motivation. Still, it was not even noon, and I needed some way to occupy the rest of my day. Panning around on my phone map, I noticed the trail leading up the Rio Paine and around to the towers’ northwest side, from which they are climbed. It also showed a route to another mirador, which I hoped would give me a different and much less crowded view of the central peaks. I was a bit low on food, but had enough Mantecol if I could exercise a bit of restraint.

End of trail

Back at the base of the final climb, I took the spur trail to the other campground, walking past the ranger station as if I had urgent need of the (free!) outhouse. Then I continued on some faint paths that faded in the boulder-field, cut straight down a dry watercourse, and picked up the climbers’ trail along the river. It was surprisingly well maintained, and marked with orange spraypaint dots on the trees, giving it an “official” feel. It eventually led to a shack covered in decaying plastic tarps, and a sign saying “end of trail” placed across the continuation of said trail. There were a couple of people next to the river, but I tried not to disturb them as I passed. The trail had more of an unofficial feel from this point, but was still regularly marked by cairns and pieces of orange flagging. It winds through the woods, then climbs up a dry streambed to escape the brush before contouring around the north end of the Torres and into a glacial valley filled with several large old moraines.

Terminal moraines

I almost turned around where the mirador route diverges from the climbers’ trail, because it looked like a lot of work and was definitely not a trail, but I saw another flagged cairn at the base of the slope. I descended the slope with minimal bushwhacking, then picked my way through the moraines following occasional cairns. These gave out on the far side, but I picked up some old boot-prints side-hilling across a gravel slope and into the drainage continuing north from where the valley turns. From here the route was fairly obvious, following the bottom of the valley up and left, dodging a few cliff-bands. One gave me pause, as it looked wet and outward-sloping, but it turned out to involve only a few class 3-4 moves, then class 2-3 scrambling on conglomerate slabs above. The route then trends left, climbing loose scree and talus to the ridge left of the cornices at its lowpoint. Once on the ridge, it is a short walk to a cairn at the mirador.

Dickson Lake

While it was not entirely clear, the clouds were thinning, and I had captivating 360-degree views. To the northwest and north I could see Dickson Lake and a part of the icefield, with its peaks and exit glaciers. Below, the remnant of the glacier cowered under debris at the head of the valley. To its left were the granite Torres, with Fortaleza and Escudo at the head, granite with black chossy caps. Through the gap between the two I could see Aleta de Tiburon (Shark’s Fin), sharp, granite, and glowing in the sun. Farther along my right-hand ridge was an unnamed summit only a few hundred feet higher and less than a mile away. I had thought of climbing it, but I again doubted and talked myself out of what would probably have been another hour’s moderate work. I ate a bit more food, then mostly retraced my steps, making the grievous error of following the cairns through the brush, and spending five minutes walking on top of and thrashing through it for my sin.

Fortaleza and Escudo

I met a single couple before the ranger station, who did not look like climbers; both of us were startled and moved on without pausing. From the main trail junction onward I dealt with a steady stream of people returning from the Laguna. Many were moving quite slowly, with many hours left in what would be a rough day. I was feeling tired myself, without much pep on the climbs after the refugio. The crowds were mostly foreigners, too many of them American and loud, and I became increasingly impatient waiting in line to pass at the many bottlenecks. This motivated me to run much of the downhills, and even quite a few of the flats, eager to get back to camp.

A pot of glop and an hour lying in my tent improved my mood, and I went wandering around the campground to find Robert. I actually ended up finding some other bike tourists by mistake, Lukas and Holly, the latter riding “around the world” in a strange way that involved going from northern California to Ushuaia, then flying to Africa. Her journey had been interrupted by COVID, so she was picking up where she left off. I enjoyed talking with her about the States and the touring farther north, and we laughed at our shared experience of camping in the Atacama, where a place with enough rocks to tie down your tent counts as a good campsite. Robert showed up and we talked a bit longer, but we were all tired and operating on American Time — early to bed, early to rise. Lukas and Holly were hiking the next day, while I was riding south, so we all needed sleep.

2 responses to “Miradores de los Torres

  1. Sebastian says:

    That Almirante Nieto was looking so tempting!

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Yeah, not climbing it will be one of my major regrets from this trip. So rare to have clear skies there!

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