A BIG STEPPE

The next morning was a blustery and wet one and, after a good night under shelter, I set out for Cerro Castillo which would take me back into Chile.  Thankfully, the bluster, which was pretty fierce, was once again a tailwind and, with a decent road, by lunchtime I had made it to the Argentine border post.  Finally, however, Chile’s hitherto superlative record of smooth asphalt running up to the border was broken – an incredibly muddy track running alongside the asphalt road, which was still under construction.  Having remained relatively dry/clean up to the Argentine border, I arrived at the Chilean post dripping mud all over their nice white floor!  I got plenty of looks from tourists who’d just stepped out of their nice and cosy coaches to complete the border formalities!
Rolling into the small town, I enquired at the hospedaje as to vacancies but was told they were full – I suspect my appearance may have had a part to play!  The lady there suggested I try asking at a house round the corner, where there might be a room available.  As is so often the case, however, the directions turned out to be totally useless and, after knocking at a few houses which may or may not have been the right ones, I began to look around for some sort of municipal building where I might be able to shelter.  Pulling in to get out of the weather at the bus station, I couldn’t have been more surprised to see my bearded American friend, Ryan, step out!  We had quite a few mutual friends (he’d ridden down from Ecuador, from memory) and I had finally met him a few weeks earlier in El Chaltén.  He had taken up residence in the bus station waiting room, which turned out to be one of the best-equipped and cosiest I’ve ever come across!  Not only did it have large black leather sofas but a nice big wood-burner and a decent bathroom with shower, albeit only with cold water!  Ryan had been there for two nights already, waiting for a weather window to arrive.  The attendant at the bus station didn’t seem too fussed that we were there, although other tourers have been forced to put up their tents outside the building.
Despite the temptation to stay in the warmth of the waiting room and no visible sign of a change in the weather, we headed out together late the next morning.  The forecast showed a good window to go and visit the only major attraction in the area.  I say ‘only major attraction’ – that ‘attraction’ is the world-famous Torres del Paine National Park, a spectacular range of mountains that rise suddenly from the relatively flat and barren Patagonian steppe.  For now, however, as we cycled towards them, they would remain cloaked in cloud and mystery.
The clouds above us slowly started to clear a little here and there, revealing little flashes of blue sky, giving us cause for optimism.  Having paid up the considerable entry fees at the gate, we made our way over to one of the campsites that, thankfully, despite suggestions that it was fully booked out online, had plenty of space for us to pitch our tents.  The storm that had been hovering over the mountains for the previous few days had dumped a huge quantity of rain on what was already soaked ground, washing out and closing several of the popular trails.  There were suggestions that the hike we were planning, up to a lake at the base of the famous Torres (literally, three huge rock Towers) might be closed.  Moreover, the notoriously unpredictable Patagonian weather means that, even if you do make it up to the lake, there’s absolutely no guarantee of seeing the Torres – in fact, many have visited on multiple occasions and never even got a glimpse!  Our plan was to set off on foot before sunrise the next morning and try our luck.
It’s always fun setting off in the dark, in particular because the the landscape around you slowly reveals itself and it was already considerably clearer than it had been the day before.  We started to get an appreciation for the enormity and majesty of the range whilst, behind us, a glow in the East suggested that we might have a nice sunrise.
It wasn’t long, however, before we had to stop entirely – we couldn’t keep our backs turned on what was unravelling behind us!  The next 20-30 mins gave us quite frankly the best sunrise that I have ever seen.  The range of different colours were extraordinary and breathtaking.  I couldn’t pick my favourite photo so here are several… (I have done minimal editing – there are no filters applied or liberal use of saturation, beyond what perhaps my camera did automatically – that’s really what it did look like!)
Once the light show was over and we had composed ourselves, we continued on up the trail.
A sign at the campsite and ranger station further up the trail suggested that the final section of trail was still closed for the time-being.  Keen to give ourselves the best possible opportunity to get up there all the same, we kept on heading up.  Skirting round a rope across the path (a distinctly different manoeuvre from stepping over it 😉 ), we climbed the steep final pitch to our destination, up a path that was more like a river bed than a hiking trail.  As we neared the top, we started to see flashes of blue sky and got a few momentary glimpses of what we’d walked all this way for…
Shortly after arriving at the Mirador Las Torres, the clouds parted for about twenty minutes to provide us (and about ten other lucky souls) with a view of the spectacular Torres…
But then, as quickly as it had cleared, the view disappeared and they were shrouded in cloud once again…

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