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April 3, 2009

Torres del Paine: The Black Bridge

Filed under: Chile 2009, Travel, UNESCO World Heritage — anotherheader @ 6:23 pm

With his head out the window, a driver creeps across the Black Bridge with a load of clients.

With his head out the window, a driver creeps across the Black Bridge with a load of clients.

In our ideal world, we would have trekked the Valle Frances on our second day.  Unfortunately, the boat that transferred trekkers across Lago Nordenskjold just switched schedules to once a day.  We could have made it across, but not back, which would have made for an uncomfortable return to the lodge.  Then again, perhaps the schedule change was not so unfortunate.  Our previous day’s excursion to the base of the towers left us sore in parts of our bodies that we didn’t even know existed.  It was hard to move, let alone climb another trail up a steep glacier carved valley, so it was just as well that we couldn’t do the excursion.  Valle Frances is still on the list of things we want to do (the pictures look spectacular), but it will have to be on another visit.

View towards the massif of Torres del Paine from the Black Bridge

View towards the massif of Torres del Paine from the Black Bridge

Instead of Valle Frances, we opted to do two of the half-day treks offered by the hosteria.  The morning conditions included periodic spitting rain, intermittent sunshine, and the occasional jet blast of the glacier chilled Patagonian wind.  All of that constitutes good weather in Torres del Paine.  Along with two other couples from California, we loaded up into the van for the morning’s excursion. To get to the start of our trek and almost everything else in the park from Las Torres, we had to head out on the road that we traveled on the night of our arrival.  It is the only way in and out of Las Torres, after all.

Load limit sign for the Black Bridge

Load limit sign for the Black Bridge

As we crept onto the narrow black suspension bridge in the left hand mirror-less van, I asked to the guide, “Perhaps this is a bad time to ask this, but doesn’t the sign say that the bridge is limited to 1,500 kg?”

I had neglected to mention that sign also said passengers must get out and walk across the bridge.

Driving as close as possible to the left side of the bridge, the driver had his head out the window monitoring the small gap between the van and the bridge as the van moved onto the metal span.  The bridge swayed gently and creaked and groaned under the load of the slow moving Ford Econoline van filled with 8 passengers and their gear.

View of the Black Bridge with Valle Ascencio and the towers in the background

View of the Black Bridge with Valle Ascencio and the towers in the background

Near the middle of the span the guide eventually replied, “Eee…err…um…it’s OK.”

After a pause he continued as we neared the end of the suspension portion of the bridge, tailing off at the end of the sentence, “That’s what the sign says.”

Ever helpful, I shared my math with the tour group in the middle of the span, “I think the van, by itself weighs around 5,400 lbs.  Eight people and their gear probably weigh at least 1,300 lbs.  That comes to about 6,700 lbs.”

I left it at that as the other tour members were calculating the sign’s 1,500 kg weight limit times 2.2 equals 3,300 lbs in their heads.

Another pop came from the metal bridge as the van moved off the suspension portion.

A guanaco the other side of the Black Bridge

A guanaco on the other side of the Black Bridge

“Maybe that wasn’t a good time to ask that question,” I finished as the rolled down the wooden approach ramp.

All around there were nods of agreement.  It was definitely not a good time to ask that question.

For us, it was another successful crossing of the “Black Bridge,” as the hosteria staff refers to it.  The bridge is stress tested in much this way many times a day.  To be fair, the metal suspension bridge looks like it could handle substantially more than 1,500 kgs.  I’m certain it can handle at least 3,000 kg!  I’d also like to hope that the bridge, being metal, would bend and not break completely and plunge a van full of clients into the fast flowing ice-cold waters of the glacier fed Rio Pehue.  I suspect that the last part is just wishful thinking, however.

Multi-colored granite in the Torres del Paine massif

Multi-colored granite in the Torres del Paine massif

We learned more about the bridge from the guide.  The bridge was built in the 19th century for what was then the estancia or ranch and is now the hosteria.  When the river was flowing, the road, with this bridge, is indeed the only vehicle access to Las Torres.  In the winter, when the level of the river drops, heavy trucks and construction equipment ford Rio Pehue allowing the road on the other side to be repaired and major construction to be done at the hotel.  There has been discussion about replacing the bridge but neither the Chilean park authorities nor the hosteria want to be the ones to pay for it.

If the Black Bridge is someday replaced by a more modern structure, it will certainly change the Las Torres arrival experience.  With a new bridge, convenience will be gained but the easy access will diminish some of the remote feel of the hosteria.  It is hard to say which experience would be better.  Of course it won’t be hard to say which experience would be better if you happen to be on the Black Bridge when the actual load limit is determined!

A grey fox in Torres del Paine

A grey fox in Torres del Paine

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