Last in a series: “It’s just a hike. It’s just a hike,” our guide Rob insisted as he prepped us for our trek up the Ascencio Valley to the namesake towers of Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. Then why did he have to say it twice?
Because Rob knew that the veteran backpackers who spend six to 10 days hiking the challenging Torres del Paine “O” Circuit rank this day hike among the circuit’s toughest. Those hikers would be the ones with full packs who sleep in tents and cook over a fire for six to 10 days. Not us.
The 12-mile round trip from Hosteria Las Torres to the base of the towers requires 2,800 feet of elevation gain. From our vantage point, we had conquered those Patagonia metrics 10 days earlier in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park. Ascencio Valley? No problem. Right?
We met for breakfast before daylight, grabbed our sack lunches and hit the trail as the sun began to rise. We weren’t the first out the door, but we beat the bulk of the morning parade up to Mirador las Torres, the lookout beneath the stone spires.
As we made the first of six crossings of Rio Ascencio, Rob looked back over his shoulder and pointed out the easy rise we had just traversed between the river and the hosteria. “Remember the Hill of Happiness,” he said with a grin. Unmoved, we plowed ahead.
The wide, rock-strewn trail beyond the river ascends quickly out of the steppe through decidedly unspectacular terrain. The ascent crests with a transformative view of the deep V-shaped valley before the trail plummets back toward the riverbed. MontaraManDan felt a twinge of regret at each lost foot of elevation we would revisit later in the day.
At the bottom of the valley the trail makes another river crossing at Refugio Chileno, a lodge, campsite and dining facility with flush toilets run by the Park Service. (Thumbs up!)
We did not tarry, however. The trail once again jumps the river before meandering up hill and down dale through a shady lenga beech forest that crosses multiple rushing cascades tumbling from the highlands.
The route flattens out at Campamento Torres, a wide spot with a campground and more flush toilets. (Hooray!) There are plenty of clearings, fallen timber and boulders for suitable for lounging should a hiker choose to skip the final ascent. “Team Dolphin,” the nickname our hiking group earned earlier in the trip while exploring the Beagle Channel, moved forward as one.
The final mile to the lookout across glacial moraine is thick with boulders. Our rocky semi-scramble was difficult, perhaps accentuated by the half dozen head colds among the team as well as two weeks of ankle tweaks, knee strains and other minor aches and pains. The boulder field seems endless and the trail is difficult to follow in spots.
And then it ends. Mercifully. We regrouped in a cluster of boulders, sliding to the stone moonscape beneath Torres del Paine to rest our feet. We ate our lunch, admired the view and explored a bit. Yassar, our assistant guide, offered an invaluable trekking pole tip for our descent. “Lean in,” he said. “Trust your poles.”
Maybe because this was our last hike together. Maybe because we had pushed our bodies hard for two weeks. Maybe because we were simply ready for a drink, dinner and bed. But no one seemed enthusiastic about the long trudge back to the hosteria.
The group drifted apart as we made our descent down the moraine field and back into the valley. MontaraManDan lost the trail briefly while scrambling solo through the moraine field. The Geek’s sore ankle was barking. An occasional grumble was heard. “This has become a death march,” comes to mind.
By the time we reached the wide but rock-strewn final descent, we were indeed pleased to spy Rob’s “happy hill.”
The mood softened over drinks and dinner back at the hosteria. We even got a little melancholy. Our last hike of this Patagonia adventure was in the books. We had met the challenge. Nobody died.
Distance? About four miles. Elevation gain? About 400 feet. Hiking time? About two hours, with plenty of time to admire the beach.
It’s just a hike. It’s just a hike.
This is the sixth and last in a series of posts on our hiking tour of Patagonia, booked through Berkeley, CA-based Wilderness Travel. We have received no compensation for writing these posts. The observations and opinions expressed are entirely our own. Your results may vary.
Part 6: Assessing the Ascencio Valley Trail at Torres del Paine: Is it ‘Just a Hike’?