By Michael Lanza
We march upward through innumerable switchbacks on the steep and dusty last mile of trail to the Torres del Paine. Small stands of Patagonia’s ubiquitous, twisted lenga trees cling to an otherwise barren mountainside of dirt and rock, earth overturned by glaciers and continually rubbed raw by the abrasive wind.
The whitewater roar of the Rio Ascencio fades as it slips away below us, replaced by the moan of gusts that grow stronger and colder as Jeff and I climb higher. In these last days of the austral summer, we’re suited up as if for winter in warm hats, gloves, and waterproof-breathable jackets over fleece.
Nearly six miles from the trailhead, we clamber onto boulders as big as refrigerators and look up. Three sheer-walled granite thumbs jut 5,000 feet straight up above an emerald glacial lake. Dark, gray clouds swirl around them, streaming off the summits as if the peaks are blowing smoke. They hint at gales up there that might make the wind blasting us seem calm.
These towers in the heart of southern Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park—which lend the park its name—look intimately familiar from the many pictures I’ve seen. And yet, they are kind of surreal, too massive to really comprehend their scale.
Suddenly, and very much without my consent, I am weightless and moving.
The abrupt, powerful gust releases me a moment later, several steps from where I was standing. I somehow managed to stay on my feet hopping across boulders as the bullying air gave me a very rough shove. Jeff and I exchange looks that say “whoa!” and laugh out loud. We’ve now been formally introduced to the infamous Patagonian wind. It will knock us around many more times in the days ahead.
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My Boise friend Jeff Wilhelm and I have come to southern Chile in the second half of March to hike in what is undoubtedly one of the most prized trekking destinations in the world: Torres del Paine National Park. From here, we’ll fly to the very tip of South America to set out on the southernmost trek in the world, the Dientes Circuit.
In a sense, though, Torres del Paine is merely where we ended up. We really came here in pursuit of something bigger and more slippery: the reality behind a legend.
The region called Patagonia has earned a cache among adventurers that’s rivaled by very few places on the planet. It’s an ultimate aspiration for trekkers all over the world. We refer to it like a one-name celebrity. And saying “I want to go to Patagonia” is like saying you want to hike the Rocky Mountains—it’s rather vague.
Being nebulous is acceptable when you’re dreaming big. But there comes a time to fulfill the dream, and that means sticking a pin on the map and poking holes in all of your preconceived notions.
You could say that, perhaps like every other international trekker here, we’ve come to discover the actual meaning of the word “Patagonia.” As is usually the case when you finally visit a place, we’ll find that Patagonia is more complicated, difficult, and rewarding than we imagined.
Not to mention quite breezy.
By its broadest definition, Patagonia sprawls over nearly 400,000 square miles (about one million square kilometers) of southern Chile and Argentina—almost as large as California and Montana combined, with a population comparable to Houston. The name Patagonia conjures visions of severely vertical stone monoliths thousands of feet tall, peaks that resemble sharp, dangerous kitchen implements stood on end. And in Torres del Paine, we see those peaks. But like most foreign visitors, we were surprised to discover that much of the region is a flat, treeless pampas.
In the five-hour drive from the small city of Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine, we see almost no man-made structures save for barbed-wire strung between stick fence posts, and hardly another person until we’re stopped in a two-lane highway because gauchos are leading a herd of sheep across the road. When the sun briefly pierces the armor of the hurrying clouds, the grassland’s subtle greens and browns seem to glow. The sudden spray of sunlight lends the landscape and sky a depth that magnifies the sense of vast emptiness. You can understand why the American outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled to here, believing the world could never catch up with them.
Most trekkers bound for Patagonia end up in one or both of two parks, each the Yosemite of its respective nation: Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park, home of the famed Mount Fitz Roy, or here in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, south of Los Glaciares.
The first group of tourists to visit Torres del Paine included the British writer and feminist Lady Florence Dixie, a big-game hunter who brought a jaguar home from Patagonia to keep as a pet. She introduced the wider world to the three now-iconic towers, describing them in her 1880 book Across Patagonia. In 1959, Chile established it as Parque Nacional de Turismo Lago Grey—Grey Lake National Tourism Park—and then changed the name in 1970 to Torres del Paine. In 1978, it became a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
Jeff and I came here hankering to hike the 65-mile (104.5k) Paine Circuit around the Cordillera del Paine; thinking like backpackers, we liked the aesthetic completeness of it. But upon learning that the weather on the north side of the mountains was so bad lately that part of the trail may be flooded and impassable, and we wouldn’t see a thing, we opted for the increasingly popular trek known simply as the “W.” Roughly 31 miles (50k), depending on variations, the “W” sticks to the south side of the mountains, which often have better weather, and takes in some of the park’s finest scenery: the Torres del Paine, the French Valley, and Grey Glacier and Lago Grey, or Grey Lake.
There aren’t many places in the world—and certainly few this remote—with as much of an international feel as this park. In the line of perhaps two dozen trekkers waiting to enter the tiny permit office at Torres del Paine, we stood with other Americans, Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, Germans, Spaniards, Israelis, and other foreigners. I’m reminded of Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit or Switzerland’s Bernese Alps: Talking with other trekkers, you can forget for a moment what country you’re in. And I laughed seeing a bumper sticker from a favorite New England ski area in the window of the Refugio Chileno hut: “Mad River Glen—Ski It If You Can.”
But once out on the trail, there’s no forgetting where you are.
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On our second morning in Torres del Paine, with several dozen other foreigners, we take a one-hour catamaran ferry ride across one of the park’s big lakes, Lago Pehoe. Most of the passengers crowd onto the open upper deck, aiming cameras and phones at the unreal, serrated skyline of peaks above the lake. The ferry drops us at the Paine Grande Lodge, which opened in recent years on Pehoe’s shore with bunkrooms for 100 guests, a dining room, bar, hot showers, and even a couple of computers with Internet service.
From the lodge, which actually sits, like the lake, just a few hundred feet above sea level, we look out on jagged peaks that rise to about 9,000 feet. It’s some of the starkest relief I’ve seen anywhere in the world—like looking at Yosemite Valley stacked atop one of the deep valleys of Glacier National Park.
By afternoon, Jeff and I start the seven-mile hike on the Grey Trail to the Refugio Grey hut.
The trail ascends a rocky canyon and bounces along a low ridge a few hundred feet above the seven-mile-long, crooked finger of Lago Grey. Icebergs float in the white-capped water, piling up in a cove on the downwind shore. Ahead of us, the face of the Grey Glacier rises above the lake’s north end. Thousands of feet overhead, lenticular clouds hover like UFOs over sheer granite pinnacles that sport a gleaming sheen of ice.
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Just like yesterday, rain and fleeting moments of sunshine trade places frequently, but the wind doesn’t take a break. Again, we’re hiking in pants, rain shells over fleece, warm hats and gloves. I have to remind myself that there are a couple days still left in summer. Occasional gusts spin us around, as if someone as big as the Hagrid character in the Harry Potter books were grabbing our packs from behind and shaking us.
Where the trail drops off the ridge, we walk through denser woods of somewhat taller trees all leaning in the same direction, away from the constant onslaught of air. It looks like the amusement-park funhouse version of a forest. Moss carpets virtually everything. Waterfalls plunge over cliffs.
Looking over our surroundings, Jeff says, “I feel like a hobbit.”
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We reach Refugio Grey by late afternoon. A fairly new wood hut on the shore of Lago Grey, it sleeps 30 people in several bunkrooms. Some trekkers camped outside in rain-soaked tents are hanging out in the dining room, buying their meals in here. Jeff and I drop our packs on a couple of bunks and hit the dining room for dinner. Prepared by a crew whose median age is, I’d guess, below the minimum for drinking legally, the food is nothing special, but there’s plenty of it.
Later, besides the usual noise of people coming and going in a hut bunkroom, the wind buffets the building walls all night long—thumping, whistling, and moaning like a haunted house in a B-movie thriller. Locals tell us the wind sometimes tops 120 miles (200k) per hour. Hounding us day and night, it starts to feel like a wild animal stalking us.
On top of that, the hut’s young Chilean staff parties late downstairs, talking and laughing over Bob Marley blaring from a boom box; breakfast will come later than scheduled tomorrow morning. I quickly learn to sleep with earplugs in these huts.
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The Grey Glacier
A rumble of thunder rises over the background noise of the wind on our third morning. Although the persistent heavy overcast again spits on our efforts as we hike uphill from Refugio Grey, the thunder we heard didn’t come from the sky. Minutes later, Jeff and I step onto a rocky overlook a few hundred feet above the snout of the Grey Glacier. Below us, a slowly widening ring of small bergs floats in the lake, shrapnel from a massive chunk of the glacier that just calved off with that booming sound.
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See all of my stories about Torres del Paine National Park and about trekking in Patagonia. Also, you can combine a trek in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park with the much more rugged and rarely hiked Dientes Circuit—it’s a one-hour, 15-minute flight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams.