Torres del Paine

9 January 2020

Torres del Paine (the “blue towers” in the Patagonian language of Tehuelche) is a granite massif of three towers surrounded by a compact group of mountains, peaks, crags and narrow valleys that are approached from the Patagonian steppe. In Victorian times, the three towers were known as “Cleopatra’s Needles” – and they are the drawcard and centrepiece for every visitor to the national park. It was our fortune, however, to experience Torres del Paine the long way around – taking the Paine Circuit (also known as the “O Track”) that circles the entire massif before concluding with the climb to the base of the towers.

From valley meadows to mountain crags

Taking seven days to complete, the Paine Circuit moves anti-clockwise from the eco camp, and while it started with a striking view of the towers, it quickly led us into the quiet regions of the park that followed rolling green hills, quiet Rio Paine, meadows and many, many wildflowers. Slowly climbing around the fringes of the massif, we stayed at Camp Dickson on Lago Dickson and then made our way northwards climbing into wet forests rich in orchids, moss and rare lichen. By the end of the second day we were catching glimpses of hanging glaciers and mountain peaks through the passing clouds, and eventually came up to the hanging glacier at Perros. From there, we trekked over John Gardner Pass for one of the magnificent highlights of the Paine Circuit: climbing up through the rocky terrain past mountain peaks with snow clouds drifting off them, alpine mosses, streams and ice patches, with beautiful views back to the valley across to Perros and Dickson – to then reach the top of the pass and see on the other side the wide, grand sweep of Grey Glacier.

An iconic glacier and cloudy-jade lake

Grey Glacier emerges from the southern Patagonian ice field and, from the John Gardner Pass, seems to be forever reaching back into the distance in a gentle haze of soft white mist. Its folds are mammoth-like and end in the cloudy-jade waters of Lago Grey. At the foot of the glacier sits a cluster of white and blue icebergs (fallen in blocks or shards off the glacier) that we enjoyed kayaking amongst the following day. Sadly, Grey Glacier shrunk several hundred metres in the last ten years.

The Paine Circuit then followed Lago Grey. The path crossed three very long swinging bridges that are an ideal challenge for anyone in fear of heights and/or engineering standards in remote national parks.

Joining the W track: Britanico mirador in Frances Valley and Torres del Paine mirador

We arrived at the south west corner of the Paine Circuit at Camp Paine Grande, just as the sun was setting on the massif. Here, the different granites and sedimentary rocks are very noticeable and the massif, reflected in Lago Skottsburg, took on the characteristics of a fantastical fortress or unscalable castle. By now, we had joined up with the more popular “W Track” that took us up into the narrow Frances Valley and Britanico Lookout, where we were immersed in a 360 degree view of a towering mountain circus, then back down and further along the southern foot of the massif to finish the journey with a climb to the base of the towers, and the perfect end to a momentous journey on the Paine Circuit.

Geology of Torres del Paine

The work of glaciers

Less than 20,000 years ago, Torres del Paine was blanketed in an ice field. All the mountains and valleys we see today in the park have been principally shaped by erosive glacier movements over recent years. In formations such as Cuernos del Paine, we can see the older sedimentary rock pushed upwards by the glacier movements, with layers of younger granite underneath. On the other hand, the Three Towers of Torres del Paine have had their sedimentary rock whittled away by wind and rain over the years, and only the hardy granite remains. In essence, Torres del Paine is a chip off the Southern Andes – still being formed today by ever-changing and dynamic glaciers.

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Cuernos del Paine – Sunset

Sunset and clouds formation over Cerro Paine Grande (on the front left) and Cuernos del Paine (in the distance right). View from just outside our tent at the camping “Paine Grande”

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Torres del Paine – Sunrise

Sunrise over the towers (view from Eco Camp). This timelapse was recorded from 3.30am to 6am with temperature below 0 degree celsius and a very strong wind dropping the camera tripod a couple of times… So it’s a bit shaky and started a bit out of focus as it was pitch black but well worth it.