Andrew Bain treks into Chilean Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park to view its glacier, lake and needle-sharp peaks.
At the foot of the Torres del Paine mountains in southern Chile, pink flamingos step through the shallows of turquoise lakes. Llama-like guanacos trot from the roadside and Andean condors swirl around the rocky mountain tops. Life seems to flourish wherever I look, and yet so much has just been destroyed here.
In the last days of 2011, fire ripped through Torres del Paine National Park. Allegedly started by a hiker burning toilet paper, the blaze scorched more than 17,000 hectares, or about 7 per cent of one of South America's most famous national parks.
I arrive at Torres del Paine just days after the full reopening of hiking tracks in February. Like most visitors, I'm here to trek. If it seems a bad time to visit, it's not. The fire scarring is confronting and the land will take decades to recover - early forecasts are that 20 per cent of burnt trees will never recover - but the fire affected only about 15 kilometres of the park's main trails. Every feature that draws people to the Torres del Paine - the peaks, the glaciers, the lakes, even most of the forest - is still here and mostly unaffected.
The W Trek
I've come to hike the W Trek, a popular 70-kilometre route that slips in and out of the valleys that lead deep into the heart of the Torres del Paine massif.
On the morning I begin at Las Torres, there are brown clouds to the west as wind hurls ash into the sky. More impressive is the view of the massif. With its crown-of-thorns skyline, the Torres del Paine forms one of the most striking mountain outlines on Earth. Quills of rock rise sharply from almost every ridge and the mountains appear bent into shape by the notorious Patagonian winds.
The three towers
In the distance, dominating the view from Las Torres, are the three towers - the Torres - that give the mountains their name. They are my trekking goal this first day.
The guiding line to the base of the towers is the Ascencio valley. The first view of the valley comes after about an hour of walking, as the trail crests a small pass. Behind me, the land outside the massif appears almost volcanic in origin - its colours all black and rust-red - but inside the mountains, a new world is unveiled.
Waterfalls skid down the steep slopes, hanging glaciers perch above the head of the valley and beech forest tapers into grassed slopes. Through the centre of it all runs the white line and white noise of the Rio Ascencio. It's almost impossible to stand here and not be drawn forward into the scene.
The climb to the foot of the towers is probably the steepest ascent of the entire W Trek, though it's not difficult - nowhere on this trek do you go higher than 900 metres above sea level. At the base of a massive terminal moraine, the trail turns and climbs, rising eventually to a lake pooled beneath the three Torres, which soar to two kilometres overhead.
Cloud steams off the mountain tops, even while the rest of the sky is blue, constantly changing the colours and the shadows on the rock. It's a difficult view to turn your back on, but eventually I must return through the valley to Las Torres.
Within minutes of setting out the next morning, the towers slide from view, hidden behind other peaks. But it's not so much a loss as a transition. Traversing the foot of the massif, I will trade my tower view for a position at the base of the Torres del Paine's cuernos (horns).
In the classic postcard views of the Torres del Paine, it's the cuernos' peaks that draw the eye. With their caramel-coloured cliffs tipped with black rock, they look as bent and worn as a farmer's fingers. Below them spreads a chain of lakes, each one a slightly different shade of blue. From up high, it's like looking over a very large paint chart.
Just beyond the cuernos, separating them from Paine Grande, the massif's highest peak, is the Frances valley. The middle arm of the "W" (which is named for the shape of the trek), this valley carves its way into the massif, past the crevassed foot of the Frances Glacier.
By the time I rise to a lookout above the glacier, wind is charging through the valley, blowing me about like paper. The air feels as icy as the glacier and snow has started to fall.
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures. This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Image credit: Andrew Bain