Whistling wind and an increasingly bright light lulled me from slumber. Gazing up at a synthetic grey ceiling, I wondered what time it was: 4:30 a.m., the average sunrise. Carefully shifting on my 22 inches of inflatable real estate, I looked toward my feet. “Buenos dias,” I crackled. With a grin on his face and glint in his eyes, my tent mate sang out, “Buenos dias mi nina” (Good morning daughter).
Encompassing the southernmost tip of South America, Patagonia stretches over both Argentina and Chile. Famous for its rugged, windswept expanses, jagged Andean peaks and some of the largest glaciers in the world, this region is touted by many as “the end of the world.”
One of Patagonia’s premier hiking circuits, Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park (TDP), kicked off our three-week backpacking adventure.
Trekkers have two routes to consider when entering TDP. The “O” circuit completes a full loop around the park and requires 7-10 days (68 miles). The more popular circuit, the “W,” can be completed in 4-5 days (36 miles). Both circuits are designed to walk in one direction, moving camp each night. Trekkers can reserve a pre-set tent site or stay in refugios (cabins and dormitories). Both options eliminate the need to haul camping gear, and many refugios offer hot meals and showers.
The other option is to carry your own gear – a much cheaper way that offers the full backcountry camping experience. We chose to huff it, carrying our gear and piecing together a modified “W” route. (Please read “Top Ten Things to Know Before You Go” in my blog at www.backpackerswanted.com)
Gliding across the ethereal green Lago Pehoe aboard a stately catamaran, we relished our first views of the magical 600,000-acre park. A fierce wind gnawed at our cheeks and welcomed us to the fabled Patagonia. Throwing our weight into the wind, we welcomed Patagonia right back.
The cat dropped us at Paine Grande – our first night’s camp, if we could secure a site. As we learned, tent sites and refugios book up months in advance. Simply showing up is not advised, risking eviction from the park. Naturally, we did the exact opposite. A few tears and an Academy Award-winning performance later, we procured an unofficial night’s stay from our new-found amigos behind the desk.
Our modified “W” had begun.
The pinnacle of our first day’s hike was Grey Glacier, a 13-mile out-and-back journey. The milky grey waters of Lago Grey spread to our west while the ice-kissed Punta Bariloche mountain rose steeply to our east. From the exposed ridgeline, we enjoyed an unobstructed view of this 4-mile-wide, 17-mile-long bowl of primordial ice. Showcasing shades of blue even Crayola would be envious of, cereluan, indigo and cobalt gave life and death to this 10-story glacier wall. The more opaque the blue, the more vulnerable the ice. House-sized icebergs floated listlessly in the waters below, further illustrating the inevitable lifecycle of a glacier.
Making camp that first night was a comedy of errors. Our mock tent setup in our Omaha basement felt more foreign than the soil we stood on. Successfully heating water on our portable camp stove felt like a victory, until I burned the plastic liner. And while gourmet feasts of pasta, vegetables and beans sizzled all around, our dinner, rehydrated beef stroganoff courtesy of REI, was almost laughable. Worming into our tiny two-person tent, we mused, “rookies.”
Day two began with our first GTD, “game time decision.” Either hike halfway to our final night’s camp and beg for a site along the trail, or step away from the proverbial table and cherish what we had – a pre-booked site at our current camp. And so it was that we embarked on another out-and-back hike, Paine Grande to Glacier Frances, a 14-mile return journey.
Hiking into the acclaimed Valle de Frances will leave you spellbound. Windswept, desert steppe leads to soupy bogs. Raging glacial rivers shift into dried-up creek beds. And verdant overgrowth is met by petrified forests, the charred remains of frequent wildfires.
Clambering over loose rocks and slippery streams, we discovered the steep and challenging bosom of the Cordillera del Paine. Our reward was a view for the ages. A horseshoe of snow-kissed peaks welcomed our journey, and a glistening green Lago Pehoe sparkled with admiration of our ascent.
Clinging to the backside of a jagged cliff, the hanging Glacier del Frances suddenly snapped to life. We watched in awe as chunks of ice were thunderously removed from their previous residence. The anxious silence between avalanches was filled only by our veracious chomping on Dad’s specialty, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Another morning, another GTD. Hike from Paine Grande to Las Torres Campground, an arduous 17-mile section, or jump on the catamaran and enjoy the highly recommended “Mirador del los Cuernos” trail – by far, one of the best decisions of our trip!
From the mirador, we drank in sweeping panoramic views of the park and most impressively, a sky-high granite outcropping, carved over time to resemble “Los Cuernos,” the horns of TDP.
Torres Centro provided our final pre-reserved campsite. Tomorrow was the big day – a 12-mile return to the park’s iconic granite pillars, Las Torres (“The Towers).
Spilling over the top of a sizeable foothill, a lush hidden valley swallowed us whole. The flourishing contours of the land provided passage into the mythical heart of TDP.
We could no longer see the towers, but we were drawn to them. Like moths to a flame, we tackled the almost vertical final ascent with relentless attraction. Scampering up loose scree and maneuvering through a gauntlet of truck-sized boulders, we finally reached our flame.
Three vertical columns of armored stone shot up toward the heavens. Rising over 8,000 feet, the towers sliced through a brilliant blue sky. The weather was immaculate! A few whispy clouds did their best to cling to her high, granite grooves while the placid lake below changed before our eyes, from gray to a soft, celestial sage.
Turning to Dad, his smile stretched wider than the towers stood tall. Tears filled our eyes as we shared an eternal embrace. Both our bodies relaxed, and tension faded into joy. “Happy 64th birthday, Dad,” I whispered. “I love you.”
And so we stood. Dad and daughter … together … at the “end of the world.”
Stay tuned for the continuation of our Patagonian adventure: Part II – Backpacking in Argentina.