During the night, fierce winds pounded the lodge. We felt like we were back on the Navimag ferry as the building swayed from the brute force of the Patagonian wind. When dawn came, the cold winds mixed with rain
made the weather of the prior days in Torres del Paine seem like a distant, almost tropical memory. If we had to have rain, this was as good a day as any to have it. Our scheduled excursion would let us see the park from the sheltered interior of the Econoline van. At the 9:30 am standard departure time with clearing skies, we piled into the vehicle with the other visitors and headed out. Once again we tested the weight limit of the Black Bridge before turning southwest on the park road towards Lago Grey.
Hosteria Las Torres calls the day’s excursion “Full Paine” meaning that it covers the whole park or at least the portion of the park accessible by road. The tour van traveled the park road paralleling the edge of the multi-hued granite massif while passing numerous lakes and herds of guanacos on its way to Lago Grey. About midway, between heavy, horizontal rain showers, we were able to sneak in a view of the impressive waterfall that links Lago Nordenskjold and Lago Pehue. Perhaps “sneak” was not quite the right word. It was raining so heavily for the walk out to the falls that I didn’t bother to bring the camera. At the gorge, it briefly cleared to partial sunshine letting us view the intimidating force of the torrent of ice-cold, silty-blue, glacier-water-fed falls spotlighted in the sun light on an otherwise cloudy day. Leaving the roar of the water behind, we returned to the van on foot. The deluge resumed immediately making sure that we paid a sufficient price for the visit to the falls. I’d like to say this is normal weather for Torres del Paine. But, in Torres del Paine, there is no “normal” weather.
Rolling further southwest we came to Hosteria Grey, our access point for a boat trip across the lake to see the Glaciar Grey. The microclimate in the park changes in this area and no longer supports the large guanaco herds that we saw further east. Here rabbits take over as the primary food source for the pumas. A short van transfer and a half-mile hike that included a bouncy, trampoline-like suspension bridge with a six-person load limit put us near the dock ready for transfer by a small boat to the larger boat that was set to take us across Lago Grey to the base of the glacier.
Why such a convoluted route to get to the larger boat? It turns out that there is a spit of sand on top of the old terminal moraine of the glacier that is mostly submerged in the lake. The sand spit closes off the end of the lake to navigation and blocks direct boat transport from Hosteria Grey. Thus, to access the boat, we hiked onto the spit, and then stepped up on a ramp to the metal dock. The ramp was constantly being reconfigured and jury-rigged making it look like this was the first time they had ever used it. Of course, that couldn’t have been the case. The tours of Lago Grey occur daily. But little quirky things like this happened all the time during our visit to Chile.
From the dock, we loaded into a small open boat. The silty, ice-cold lake water was visible through cracks in the hull of the small boat as we moved through the chop and wind for the short distance to the big tour boat. The tour boat was a multiple deck affair that sheltered close to 50 people in its cabin.
I’m still trying to figure out how they got such a large boat on to a lake that has no apparent road access. Once the boat was on the lake, it seems like it would be hard enough even to refuel it. For that matter, how did they get the boat in to the park itself? The bridges don’t look like they would support that much weight. But then again, after the Black Bridge, bridge load limits don’t seem to mean too much in Torres del Paine.
On the boat, with the multiple loads of passengers from the shore now on board, we headed out into the light rain. Once out of the small cove, the boat hit the heavy chop and fierce winds of the open lake. It is hard to believe that a lake the size of Lago Grey could generate such large waves, but it did. The tour boat heaved and smashed through white-capped waves. This might have been the most scenic part of the trip, but we couldn’t tell. Wind swept water from the lake blasted the windows of the boat. An easier way to get the same view that we had during the trip across the lake would be to step into your shower stall, turn the shower faucet on full, and view a poster of the massif of Torres del Paine through the water splashed glass. Not much of a view, either way. The upside of not being able to see out is that we couldn’t see how close we were coming to the substantial icebergs that had calved from Glaciar Grey and were now being pushed across the lake by the wind.
George, the guide on the boat, explained that his name was like George Bush’s, but he was not related. I think it was a joke. He then told us that the rough waters were normal and things would lighten as we got closer to the glacier. After about forty minutes of the pounding waves we were most of the way across the lake. I was wondering exactly how close to the glaciers we would have to be for the waves to ease. I was also thinking that seasickness medication might have been a good idea at this point of the trip.
Eventually the waves did mellow when we neared the jagged blue ice of the eastern portion of Glaciar Grey. We could now go out on the deck. Cameras in hand and elbows flying, the tourists moved off of their seats and out of the portal onto the deck. Reaching the deck, I was hit by the still substantial lake spray driven by the strong, gale force wind. With the wind this strong, there was no doubt why the waves were so big at the other side of the lake.
If there was any question about the water temperature, I only had to look off the side of the boat and see the glacier ice moving by. Hanging on with a death grip to the handrails, I climbed to the somewhat drier upper deck and tried to take pictures. At this point, the efforts were mostly futile. The lens was coated with water almost as soon as cover was removed. The heavy spray didn’t stop most of the tourists from continuously snapping pictures of the glacier and the mountains. I suspect, though, that when they looked at the pictures later, they would realize that they could have as easily obtained the same results in their shower stalls at home.
Three tongues of ice from Glaciar Grey extend through the dark, slick wet, glacier-carved rock to Lago Grey. As promised, the wind and water slackened as we neared eastern extreme of the glacier, allowing for good views of the intense blue of the broken ice cliff formed as the glacier pushed into the lake. Picture taking was no longer futile and competition for the spots on deck with an unobstructed view was fierce.
Extending along the edge of the massif, the eastern tongue of the glacier was cloud covered and the ice was deep blue at the water’s edge. We continued along the glaciated northern extreme of the lake from east to west. Pisco sours and shots of whiskey were served to the passengers whose stomachs were calm enough to handle it. The central and western veins of the glacier reach the water through flatter terrain. With the sun shining on the ice of these sections of the glacier, the blues were less intense. Reaching the western edge, the pisco sour glasses were stowed and the boat turned south back towards the dock.
With the gale now at our back, the return trip across the lake was faster and smoother. The sun moved close to the horizon while we retraced our route to the shore and to the van. From the road, with the skies now clearing, the massif and the lakes glowed in the twilight during our hour or so drive back to the ranch. It was dark and the stars were out when we reached the hosteria at 8:30 pm in time for a late dinner.
Getting out of the van, we tried to get our Chilean guide to verify what we thought was the Southern Cross in the sky. He couldn’t do it. For some reason, none of the Chileans we had asked could identify the Southern Cross for us. We would continue to search and try to find a Chilean who could identify it for us through the remainder of the trip.
At dinner we ate, consumed a bottle of Chilean wine, and made plans and arrangements for the next day. It would be another full day. We were sad, though. Tomorrow we would leave beautiful Torres del Paine.
A map of Torres del Paine:
Note: The Hosteria Las Torres is completely off the grid, as if there is a grid in Torres del Paine. All the electricity is generated at the estancia. Wood-fired boilers produce the heat. Internet and phone service come by satellite.