January 29, 2003

Chile flagLast night it rained for a while, then the wind started to blow. But neither of those things kept us awake much. When we woke up, the sky was clear and the mountains behind the refugio, which look like the same rock the Torres are made of, had no clouds on them. We wallowed in self-doubt in our sleeping bags for a while, but finally decided to pack up and go for the pass. The notorious Paso John Garner.

Stage one of the trail was the part up to Campamento Los Perros, which we expected to reach about lunchtime. At first it led up through the forest which here was lenga instead of coigüe. Today we could look at the flowers, instead of forging ahead through the rain, and we saw the orchid with the yellow flowers that never seem to be open yet and a white cup-like flower on a bush with small dark green leaves. All along the trail we could look up at mountains rivalling the Torres in steepness and spikiness, several with considerable snowfields. And we could look back and get a great view of Lago Dickson and the glacier at its northern end.

Before long we were at the suspension over the Río Cabeza del Indio. Its rope handrail was suspended independently from the planks underfoot, which made it uncomfortably shaky to cross. But it wasn’t at all unsafe. The trail continued up the valley of the Río de los Perros, whose name means “River of the Dogs” although nobody seems to be sure why. The trail had at some point been cleared of fallen trees, but it hadn’t seen a chainsaw for several years and we had to climb over a number of good-sized trunks.

Shortly after the trail went over the massive end moraine that encloses the lake at the base of Glaciar Los Perros, it reached the campamento. It was in a nice flat location, and there were a lot of identical white dome tents that I suppose are available for rent. We stopped there and ate our lunch in the cook shelter, which was a little tin shed with a wood stove. While we ate our lunch, a flock of Rufous-collared Sparrows hopped about under our feet, cleaning up the crumbs we were dropping. These sparrows are very common in Torres del Paine, and indeed all over Patagonia, but in January most of them are immatures, which aren’t depicted in the bird book.

After lunch we put on our gaiters in preparation for the dreaded “Zona de Pantano” or “Swampy Area”, as our map described it. This was the mud the Swiss pair had warned us about the previous night. If it had been straight knee-deep mud it might not have been so bad, but there was all kinds of mud of various depths mixed with tree roots and streams and rock intrusions, separated into five or six swampy areas by bands of trees. As it turned out our gaiters only got muddy to just above the ankles, but it took about an hour to struggle through the swamp. We were very glad we had decided to bring the hiking poles, as they were invaluable for balance and depth-finding in the swamp.

We were finally saved from the swamps by the arrival of alpine terrain. At this point we asked ourselves if it was safe to attempt the pass: it was sunny, there was no wind, and it wasn’t snowing much. Two out of three in favour, we were going ahead. Practically ideal weather, in fact. Looking at the flowers again we could see many that looked familiar, in that they looked much like flowers found in similar places in the Rockies. There were a few ñirres, the alpine variety of the southern beech tree, and some of their leaves were already turning red.

At first the slope wasn’t too steep, and then we came to the Río Paso. This was the river the Swiss pair had mentioned. It was cold and fast-flowing indeed, but we soon found a spot where it could be crossed on rocks without much trouble. Of course they had had to cross it after a day of rain, so it could well have been deeper for them. And after that the trail grew steeper and steeper, up into the rocky zone where no plants grow. We stopped more and more often to rest.

Finally we crossed a small snowfield and reached the pass. And there we looked down the other side, to the Glaciar Grey. What a glacier it is! A river of ice that looks as wide as the Columbia River near its mouth, so large that it has smaller glaciers feeding it. And yet when we looked to the right, we could see that the great Glaciar Grey was only one branch of the Southern Icefield, which was barely visible lurking under its own private cloud cover.

We were elated; from here it was all downhill, figuratively speaking. We staggered across the pass into the gusty winds that were trying to blow us over and followed the trail across the gravelly ground. It switchbacked down the slope until it reached the top of the ñirres; these trees form a krummholz band along the treeline in Patagonia, so it’s impossible to push through them. The trail followed an old rockslide steeply down through them, all tree roots and loose rocks and slippery soil. Down for nearly 600 metres of elevation loss.

But eventually the trail changed, and started to undulate over rocky bluffs. And it had been cleared very recently, so we didn’t have to climb over dead trees. Suddenly at the top of a hill we saw a tent. “Eureka!” said the tent, and so did we. Campamento Paso is a newly built site on a small flat spot on the mountainside. The old site had been even smaller, so perhaps that’s why they moved it. There were about 10 or 12 tent sites at the new location, hacked out of the slope, with a metal cooking shelter in the centre.

We selected a site on the less fashionable south bank of the creek, in the trees with swarms of little flies. We put up the tent, to make sure it would fit in the site, then went up to the shelter to make dinner. We must be getting stronger; after 9 hours of severe hiking we didn’t need a nap.

The usual mix of inhabitants were in the cooking shelter: a couple of Americans, a couple of Australians, a wild and crazy guy from Brazil, three girls speaking Spanish, and a couple of Germans. We had passed them a little earlier on the trail, where the girl was having a physical breakdown. And so to bed; but what’s that awful smell? Oh, our socks smell like swamp mud. All right, they will have to go at the bottom of the pillow tonight.

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