If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.
Enjoying the view
I continue up the valley, reaching a short, steep climb to the final lookout: a pile of rocks encircled by an amphitheatre of peaks. All around me, sharp-tipped mountains scratch at the sky, snow cartwheeling off the shoulder of each in the high winds. I lay back on a rock slab to absorb the view, surely one of the finest mountain scenes in the world - even the minor peaks here would be star attractions in almost any other mountain range.
Tonight I'll take shelter in the refuge at the foot of the cuernos, hiding from the winds that now gust like earth tremors. Although hive-busy in summer, these refuges are far from the basic dorms of mountain tradition. Refugio Los Cuernos is the simplest of the huts, with its three-tier bunks, and yet it serves three-course dinners to be enjoyed with a bottle of wine or a pisco sour.
The refurbished Refugio Grey, at trek's end, is the palace of refuges. Looking like a shearing shed from the outside, it's more like a wilderness lodge inside, with leather lounges and lightshades, wooden sunchairs and comfortable mattresses. The chef at the refuge at Las Torres once cooked on the Queen Mary, bringing dishes such as octopus soup and mashed potato flavoured with Greek yoghurt to the trekking menu.
Entering the fire zone
The wind has stilled the next morning, but rain is falling. Along the shores of Lago Nordenskjold, the path is at times a river and the mountains are little more than vague silhouettes pressed into the mist. It's a suitably bleak day to walk into a fire zone.
About 30 minutes past the entrance to the Frances valley, the green land suddenly turns brown and black. Bare trees are bent and twisted with heat, as if in imitation of the mountain shapes above. It's like stepping into an apocalypse.
I will trudge through these burnt lands for the next five hours, with the trail following a chain of lakes around the foot of Paine Grande - their waters so blue, the land so black. In tiny patches of surviving beech forest, it's like waking from a bad dream, but otherwise it's unremittingly desolate.
On the shores of the most brilliantly blue lake, Lago Pehoe, is Refugio Paine Grande, where fire burned to within a couple of metres of the front door. About 100 metres away, a pile of black debris is all that remains of another building.
From the lodge, the trail funnels through a blackened gorge and into the Grey valley, where the fire began. Below me, icebergs calved from Grey Glacier drift into bays at the edge of Lago Grey. A condor traces invisible circles in the sky.
The first shoots of greenery are already beginning to reappear on the mata gris shrubs. On the burnt shores of Lago los Patos, a lone firebush is blooming, as if in defiance of its namesake destroyer. Life begins anew.
If you'd like to follow in Andrew's footsteps, take a look at Peregrine's 9-day Torres del Paine Trek.
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures. This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Image credit: Andrew Bain