We had booked our hotel, Las Torres, with an “all inclusive” program. Beyond all the pisco sours, food, and the room, the program included excursions throughout the park, as many as we could handle. The night before, we chose to do the trip to the base of the towers, a “must see” destination in Torres del Paine. We had an option of hiking the whole way or riding horse half of the way up and hiking the remainder. The horse program at Las Torres is one their specialties. So, despite a checkered past with horses, I agreed to do the half horse half hike option. Becky, with a record of horse thievery, was, of course, all over the horse option.
Posted on the information board in the lobby, the weather forecast for the following day was for “rain with strong winds.” It looked like the weather forecasters had just Xeroxed the predictions as “rain with strong winds” was shown for the next five days. I asked our guides whether the weather would be a problem and they just shrugged their shoulders. I’d learn later that the weather forecasts were near useless in Torres del Paine and that “rain with strong winds” was likely to be part of any day and thus was a safe forecast. What the forecast didn’t say is that calm winds and warm sunshine were also likely to be part of the days weather, but you just didn’t know when or how much. In any event, the weather was good this morning, so we were heading out.
The excursion to the Towers started at 9:30 am. We met the guides in the large great room of the hosteria and headed over the corral to get our horses. Amongst the guides were a few gauchos who were there to make the horse side of the operation ran smoothly. My horse’s name in English translates to “Has No Heart.” I had requested a horse with an automatic transmission, but I was having a hard time telling whether my request had been heeded—all the controls seem to be in different locations on these foreign models. Becky’s horse was named “McCloud” but she was figuring that she might change the name after she got away.
Las Torres keeps over a hundred horses but only has a portion of those available for the visitors at any point. After being used for the guests for about a month, the horses are turned loose and allowed to run free while another batch is brought in. In the winter, when they are not needed, the horses run free. As a result, the horses all appeared fresh without the usual rental horse look.
With a collection of 8 or so visitors on their horses, two guides, and two gauchos we were off up the hill. The guides took the front and rear positions in the group, the gauchos, with there distinctive whistles and shouts, rode heard on the group, galloping back and forth and keeping the “herd” moving and under control. Thin and short with weathered skin and wearing traditional clothing including berets, the gauchos rode with a comfort that spoke of them being virtually born on the horse. The guides were solid riders; the gauchos were amazing on their horses. They understood their horses and their horses understood them. The gauchos knew almost instinctively which horses in the group needed to be pushed which horses needed to be held back. Amongst everything else, the gauchos also seemed to keep particularly close eye on Becky, somehow sensing her past history of equine larceny.
With the whistles and shouts of the gauchos, it felt like being in the middle of a cattle drive. My horse quickly showed me that she wanted to be second in the pack. She would take any opening to work her way around a horse that was in front of her until she was second. Actually, Has No Heart wanted to be first, but she knew the rules of the ride, knew the gauchos were watching, and tried to avoid going around the guide’s lead horse.
The ride started on level ground. Soon the trail started dropping as we headed to the rocky gorge cut by the Rio Ascencio. Higher up, the hiking trail crossed the fast flowing, glacier feed stream. As I was trying to figure out where we could possibly cross this deep, boulder strewn stream, the gauchos and the guides turned the herd down a steep bank towards the water. At this point, with its automatic transmission engaged, my horse went down the steep bank moving across the two foot deep fast moving stream while picking its foot placements carefully to avoid the bigger boulders, and then climbing up the steep side of the bank. It was amazing how easily this whole process worked—all the horses knew the drill and all crossed the stream without balking despite the minimally qualified passengers having nominal control over the process.
On the other side of the river, when the climb up the valley began, Becky and I were glad the horses were doing the work as this part of the journey did not look like much fun on foot. During the climb, I overheard my horse, which was by then breathing heavily and working up a good lather, grumbling to another horse that she wishes she had me a subscription to NutriSystem for Christmas. I didn’t think that was so funny but who’s going to question the humor of an animal that evolved the immensely time saving ability to walk and poop at the same time.
The trail continued up the Valle Ascencio with steep drainage crossings and narrow, high exposure trail segments. There was no choice but to trust the horse on all of these. Eventually, with a final stream crossing, we reached Refugio Chileno. We dismounted the horses. This was as high as the horses would go. After regrouping, we headed the up the hill on foot with the guides.
Continuing along Rio Ascencio, the trail climbed gradually at first, giving us peek-a-boo views of the tops of the towers whenever the vegetation along the trail opened up. About 1 h 15 min or so into the hike, the path turned up steeply on the flank of a boulder-strewn, glacial moraine. Climbing this trail was work. Aside from the steep slope, there were many rock step sections, some of which required scrambling. We were exhausted near the top and definitely glad that the horse had done the work to get us the lower portion of the day’s journey.
When it felt like our bodies could not go much further, we crested the moraine. In front of us was a full view of the torres or towers that rise as a mass of solid granite from the glacier fed lake at the base to the sunlight tips of the spires. There sure are a lot of kitchen counter tops locked up in those peaks! Below the peaks, the rock was carved with gently sculpted curves from years of glacier activity. Created by glaciers, the basin below the peaks was partially filled by a lake and felt like it was isolated from the elements, almost as if it was indoors. The feeling was a bit like being inside a grand Gothic cathedral. Well, at least until a jet-blast-strong Patagonian wind gust came whipping through the valley. That would be one hell of a draft in a cathedral.
The most amazing sight was the namesake granite torres. Rising near vertically from their bases, the intimidating feeling that comes from the size of the towers just cannot be conveyed in a picture or in words. You just have to be there to get the sense of scale.
An extended stay on the top of the moraine let us rest and eat the lunch provided by Las Torres. When it came time to leave, the group headed down the moraine, along the river, and back to Refugio Chileno at a rapid pace. At the horses, we mounted and retraced our path to the hosteria with the pace quickening as the horses neared their barn.
Off the horses, it was time for dinner and recuperation. At this point we were beginning to be suspicious that “Torres del Paine” really meant “Towers of Pain” and not “Blue Towers,” as we had been told. (“Paine” supposedly means “blue” in native’s people’s language.) Our backs and legs were aching from the horse ride, being “saddle sore” had acquired an all too personal context, and our knees were screaming from the hike. Therapy started with painkillers and Pisco Sours and finished with some ice packs. Becky, two zip lock bags in hand, asked for hielos or ice from the bartender. He knew immediately what the ice was for. It was a request that he received frequently.