The names themselves–Tierra del Fuego, Cape Horn, the Straight of Magellan, Ultima Esperanza, Patagonia–have held a fascination for me for over 50 years, since I first read about them in my geography textbooks in grade school. So, when I was contacted recently to see if I would teach a software class in Santiago, Chile my first response was, “Fine wines and Patagonia. That’s the Chile you’re talking about? If so, I think I can find my way down there.”
This is how I came to find myself, several weeks later, packing both a bag and a backpack to hike the “circuit” of Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, a 10-day trek that is considered one of the two best hikes in South America, comparable to the trek to Machu Picchu in Peru.
Unlike the Machu Picchu hike, which is complicated by high elevation, the Torres del Paine circuit hike is relatively low. What makes the Torres del Paine hike challenging is the extreme terrain and the notorious Patagonia weather. The wind, in particular. Torres del Paine National Park, at 51 degrees of south latitude, is only 1200 miles from the tip of Antarctica. These latitudes have been known to ship captains for centuries as the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties because of the strong winds that often develop between the cold Antarctica continent and the warmer oceans surrounding it. You can expect every kind of weather in Patagonia, and often experience it all on the same day.
The Park is situated at the end of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s second largest contiguous ice field at some 220 miles in length. The Ice Field is extremely remote. The first north-south crossing of it was only accomplished in 1998 and much of the Ice Field is still unexplored today. It is a land of massive glaciers, turquoise lakes, soaring granite spires, and wind. Lots of wind.
Most people come to Torres del Paine to hike the W, a four or five day hike, that showcases many of the best features of the Park. These include the namesake iconic towers that appear to be on fire in the first rays of the morning sun, and spectacular views of the Gray Glacier on the western end of the Park. I planned to make a complete loop around the towers, a hike that takes 8-10 days, depending on the weather. I also planned to arrive in late March, hoping to avoid the summer crowds of January and February, and the strongest winds, which occasionally weaken in March. As I approach the start of the W trek, my luck is holding. The wind is blowing, but it is manageable, and much of the normally huge crowd has disbursed, although the Park is by no means empty.
It is possible to carry a day pack and hike the W, staying either in hostels or in the dormitory-like refugios along the way. It is even possible to rent camping equipment and tents if you prefer to camp. Meals can be purchased in the refugios, too, although everything must be carried in on horseback and is extremely expensive. It is cheaper to carry your own food and camping equipment, staying either at free camping sites (which are rapidly being converted to refugios) or at the refugios, which charge a small fee of $10-$20, depending on their location. For your money you get access to reasonable toilets, a bit of level ground, a cooking shelter, and the occasional hot shower. For a little extra you can purchase a cold beer. In late March, some of the refugios have already closed, but it is possible to stay at their camping sites for free, although there is no beer or other comforts.
I feel occasionally crowded in the camping sites on the W route (I usually count 20 to 30 tents), but I don’t feel crowded on the trail. I spend most days walking by myself, and only occasionally run into people passing in either direction. It is a friendly and worldly crowd. I meet people from England, Switzerland, France, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the United States, and all over South America. Almost everyone goes out of their way to speak Spanish on the trail, even the obvious English speakers.
The thing I like best about hiking in the Park is that a water filter is unnecessary. You just dip your Sierra Cup (transformed these days into an empty half-liter plastic Coke bottle to save weight) into any stream and drink perfectly safe water. (Well, I did choose water upstream of the camping areas, but I’m a cynic at heart.)
I’m a good 30 years older than most travelers doing the circuit, and carry a backpack a good 30 pounds lighter, too. My knees would collapse under the tonnage most of these people carry, but they seem happy enough to do it. I am the only one camping under a tarp at night. Many people have rented four season tents from outfitters in Puerto Natales (a gateway city, similar to Estes Park) that look as though they weigh as much as my backpack. When the wind picks me up one day and blows me 10 feet off the trail and into the bushes, I understand the reason for the heavier packs.
Once past the W, the park flattens a little, and there are many fewer people doing the circuit. I become friends with a couple of young men and ask if I can cross the notorious John Gardner pass with them. Strong winds come over the pass every day, and they can easily reach hurricane force. Park rules forbid attempting the pass alone. The most common injuries in the Park are broken wrists and arms from people reaching out to catch themselves when they are blown over by the wind.
They agree, and we make plans to camp at a location just before the pass and cross the next day. Getting an early start, I arrive at the camping location at noon, much earlier than I had expected, and I feel particularly strong. Yesterday and today were both clear and calm, without wind, an absolute rarity in Patagonia, and I thought my chance of a third windless day was nearly non-existent. I fear the wind more than I fear the authorities, so I decide to attempt the pass on my own. I leave my friends a note and off I go before the pass trail closes for the day an hour later.
It doesn’t take me long to realize I am going to be the only person on the pass at this hour. The trail up is steep and rocky. The wind is blowing at 25-30 mph on this dead calm day. As I stop to rest and look around at the magnificent glaciers in every direction, I think this would not be a good place to make a mistake and break a leg. Patagonia would definitely make me pay a price for my exceptionally poor judgement!
The view from the top of the pass is the reason I have come to Patagonia. The Gray Glacier extends off as an ice stream for miles into the distance. I’ve seen plenty of ice streams in satellite images, but none in person. It is magnificent. I pay for this extraordinary view on the way down from the pass, though, with literally hundreds of steps built into the extremely steep trail, each at least two feet and sometimes three feet high. Brutal for an old hiker, or for anyone who tries it without hiking poles.
The next day, I stroll into Refugio Gray on another dead calm and sunny day (sigh…), drink a couple of expensive Patagonia Pale Ales, and lay around like a lizard on the sun deck, getting my strength back, waiting for my friends to arrive. And then, finally, we walk to the catamaran that carries everyone back across the lake to the buses, by way of another tour and quick pictures of those massive spires of the W walk, and the trip is over.
Patagonia has certainly lived up to its reputation, and has been everything I expected it to be when I first read about it all those years ago.
This article originally appeared in the Fort Collins Coloradoan newspaper.
You can view an under three minute video of this hike on my YouTube channel.