Backpacking Patagonia

We woke to the shadows of forest dancing on our tent from the passing headlamps and the now-familiar clicking of hiking poles on the trail. It was 3:15am, 15 minutes before our alarm was set to go off. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning–Las Torres awaited.

Actually, we experienced two “Christmas mornings” in Southern Patagonia –a place where the main road out of town reads “Fin del Mundo.” The first was waking up at our bunk room in Puerto Natales and saying to each other, “Chris and Val show up today!”

Our friends from Portland pulled off a major logistical feat when they planned their family Thanksgiving in Tennessee via a two-week trip to the southern end of the world, Torres del Paine National Park. Apparently they were pretty excited too, as evidenced by their dancing up the trail with 40-pound packs on day 1 of 9.

The blue of the glacial rivers and lakes is unrivaled. The never-ending skies remind you of Montana except that the clouds are so windswept as to make you feel like you are at the end of the world. There are many reasons Parque Nacional Torres del Paine is worth a visit, but it is for the unparalleled granite mountains, and specifically The Towers, that people fly from all corners of the world to be here.

And as the four of us backpacked for nine days through the park, our conversations became increasingly focused on Las Torres.

Our first attempt to see the towers was in the afternoon of Day 4 at the end of a 10-mile rain-soaked hike up the valley. After setting up camp, Chris joined us for the two-mile side trip up to the mirador of Las Torres: low, thick clouds obscured the view as huge snowflakes accumulated on the trail. Not a good omen for coming back at sunrise the next morning.

But at sunrise on Day 5, Chris and Alex ignored the rain in camp, hiking back to the mirador, only to see even thicker grey clouds hanging just over the lake at the base of the red granite completely blocking the view.

For the next four days we hiked the “backside” of the Park, which receives less than 10% of the visits of the famous “W” trek. Every day brought new experiences and challenges, particularly the challenging weather conditions, but the conversation amongst ourselves and with other hikers kept coming back to “Did you see Las Torres?”

At the end of our “Q hike,” despite sore feet from the previous 90 miles, a forecast of clear skies was too appealing to ignore; at 7am on Day 10 Alex and I left to hike an additional 30 km back to Las Torres for a chance to see the sunrise spectacle. Chris and Val were set to meet us via the scenic boat-ride across Lago Pehoe but a migraine sent them back to a well-deserved bed in Puerto Natales.

Day 11: Just like a kid on Christmas, once you are awake there is no going back. I turned off the 3:30am alarm and we packed a backpack with warm clothes, our sleeping bag and sleeping pad, preparing for the arctic temperatures that would surely greet us at sunrise.

As first light broke we reached the mirador at the base of Las Torres, hiking the last 100 meters or so without our headlamps. Wispy clouds floated across the sky, but The Towers were almost fully in view.

We found a large rock to escape the icy winds but we were only partially successful as the winds seemed to shift every few minutes. We set up our makeshift camp: sleeping pad on the cold rocks, sleeping bag draped over us, wearing every layer of clothing we brought on the trip. Yet, we were still freezing.

Finally the rising sun began to creep into the valley. Ever so slowly, the towers transformed from a flat gray, ablaze with red light. This was it; the moment I had waited for.

Despite the temperatures, we shed our sleeping bag, and wandered around our protective rock to get a full view of the valley. The entire canyon was alight with the morning sun.

Alex came up behind me and wrapped me in a huge sleeping bag hug. I was lost in the incredibly romantic moment when a wind gust raced across the rocks and out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of our sleeping pad as it went flying by. “Let me go!” I yelled and attempted to run after it, quickly realizing that anything more than a fast walk over the rocks would likely result in a broken ankle.

Within seconds, the pad was aloft, soaring on the gale. It twisted and danced, catching the sunlight as it rose ever higher. From our vantage point, it appeared to reach two-thirds of the way up the 9,000-foot-high middle tower as we stood there helpless and mortified.

I was devastated. For the last ten days, I had dutifully picked up bits of trash along the trail, silently cursing those who would sully such a beautiful place. Yet, in an instant, I went from feeling like the hero to the villain. Tears were shed as I cursed myself for my carelessness, replaying the entire episode in my mind, wishing I could somehow rewind the tape.

A few hours later, I was able to gain a bit of perspective on what had happened. It was an accident, pure and simple, one of those innocent but horrifying situations that we can’t take back no matter how much we wish we could. But it was also a reminder that even those of us with the best of intentions have a profound impact on our natural world.

I also realized that I couldn’t let this honest mistake sully what was an amazing, beautiful, challenging and incredibly fun adventure! One that we experienced with our awesome friends who traveled far to share it with us. We enjoyed the experience that much more because we got to share it with such wonderful company.

Over the course of 11 days, we experienced gale-force winds, snow, sleet, rain and a little bit of sunshine, a few exhaustingly long hiking days, generally terrible trail conditions and some of the most striking scenery we’ve ever seen. We hope you enjoy the photos!

Hiking in a sustained 30mph headwind is no easy feat

The aptly named Rio Grey

Lago Pehoe Mirador

Hanging Glacier – Valle Frances

Chris and Val brave the rain on the trail to Los Cuernos

Verdent Nothofagus (beech) forests abound

On the trail of the elusive puma

Neneo Macho blooms greet us at the top of a grueling slope

Sweeping views of Lago Paine

A rare unobscured mountain view

Did I mention the challenging trail conditions? This was one of the easier sections!

Mustering my excitement at the end of a 32km hiking day

Cerro Escudo looms large

I can see Argentina from the trail!

Icebergs and driftwood on Lago Dickson

A tough hike over the pass

Chris and Val enjoy the view of Glacier Grey

Edible? I resisted the urge to try them

View from the hanging bridge – Glacier Grey meets Lago Grey

Alex crosses the hanging bridge 120 feet in the air

Snow icing

Creek near Los Cuernos

If you ignore the snowy mountain, it almost looks tropical

Happy campers!

Last of the Chile birds: chucao tapaculo, dark-faced ground tyrant, spectacled duck, giant hummingbird^, striped woodpecker, upland goose, cinereous harrier, correndera pipit (^ denotes species seen in other countries previously on this trip)

8 thoughts on “Backpacking Patagonia

  1. Watch out for those errant pads…I forwarded an Alaska backpack with my Russian friend…

    Trying to hook Amy up w/an environmental lawyer I met hiking,,,

    Bon voyage!



  2. Looks like a difficult but amazing trip. I’m enjoying following your adventures, though reading about them makes it harder to focus on grading law school papers at my desk! Good luck on your next leg; I’m looking forward to reading about it.


  3. Oh my! That flying sleeping bag story is going down in history. That’s a good one. 🙂 But the pictures, once again, are the winner here. I LOVE PATAGONIA!


  4. Thanks so much for sharing these stories and pictures of your adventure. Suzan and are headed to Torres del Paine the first week in February to hike the W. We’ll undoubtedly have warmer weather than you got! We’ll also look for your sleeping pad! 😉


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