It’s March and I’ve been called irresistibly to the other end of the planet by the promise of mountain landscapes spotted with glaciers, fast-changing weather and the chance to hike in southern Chile’s 1,810-square-kilometre Torres del Paine National Park.
Three planes and a bus later I meet up with my partner Brianna in Puerto Natales where we wedge ourselves into the Erratic Rock Hostel for its daily information session about Torres del Paine. We find seats on the floor and listen to a dreadlocked Dutch guide tell the international audience about what to expect, why bag covers are useless in Patagonian winds, and her conversion to hiking poles. She’s speaking to students, wanderers, and retirees, all drawn to the splendour of Patagonia, a remote region of mountain, desert, grassland and steppe shared by Chile and Argentina at the bottom of the South American continent. At dawn the next morning Brianna and I board one of half a dozen buses heading two hours north to the park.
Words and photos :: Jon Farmer
Brianna and I grew up in Grey and Bruce counties and now live in Leith. She’s hiked large parts of the Bruce Peninsula, runs marathons, and is in the middle of a month of trekking in Patagonia. At best, I’m a lifelong dayhiker tagging along. Although I spent childhood afternoons scrambling across the Escarpment, and flirted with British Columbian trails in my early twenties, this trip exceeds anything I’ve attempted.
Torres del Paine boasts 130km of hiking trails. We plan to cover almost all of them on the eight-day backcountry ‘O’ circuit with everything we need in our packs. Multiple entry points, shuttles, and ferries make various routes possible and hikers with less time or stamina can opt for the four-day ‘W’ or take a single day to visit the Torres themselves: three towers of yellow granite that rise almost 3000 metres above the steppe and glow pink on clear alpine mornings. Travel magazines from the early 2000s claimed that only a few thousand people visited the park each year but that number has exploded recently, with infrastructure in the park trying to keep pace.
When we arrive it’s obvious that the visitors who come for the impact of the landscape are impacting it in return. In 2012, a visitor camping and cooking illegally started a fire that destroyed 34,000 acres of grassland and forest. Now, hauntingly beautiful trunks bleached white and wrapped in charcoal mark the fire’s border.
After paying our registration fees and watching the mandatory fire safety video we clip into our packs and enter the circuit on the quieter eastern side of the O. On each of our first three days we hike alone, covering between 11 and 18 kilometres a day along rivers, through forests, and up steep piles of glacial till and scree. Camping is mostly restricted to private sites and there we make fast friendships with the other Anglophones heading our direction. They are mostly American, young professionals, recent grads and ski bums travelling for a few weeks or straight through the season. We make small talk, trade travel stories, and compare motivations.
Of all our new friends, Wes, an 80-year-old Californian trekking for more than a month in Patagonia to cross the final few hikes off his list, is the most likeable. He hikes alone but we chat with him whenever we can and there is something magnetic about his shining eyes, quick smile, and stories from 50 years of being a mountain man. He puts our personal triumphs into perspective. Braving 80 km/hr winds coming down a pass on our second day is less miraculous knowing that—despite literally being blown over—Wes made it too. Those Patagonian winds shred any stigma I had about hiking poles.
On day four we hike further and break from our friends. The John Gardiner Pass, which at 1,200 metres is the trail’s highest, is relatively calm when we reach the colourful cairn on top. We, however, are not calm. Below us the Grey Glacier stretches north for over 25km with cobalt blue fissures drawing lines through the cement shades of surface sediment. The trail descends the southeastern side of the valley and we cross two suspension bridges before sinking to lake level and entering the W.
Most of the campsites in the W are twinned by refugios that offer as many modern conveniences as you can afford, from furnished rooms and hot meals to full bars and Muskoka chairs. Our final days show us the postcard images and variable weather we came for, and the volumes of people and garbage we did not. Regardless, we take in every glacial lake, turquoise iceberg and black-capped peak, ending each day exhausted and amazed.
I started the trip thinking of myself as an explorer. Really, I was one of the roughly 200,000 tourists who visit the park each year. Everyone on the trail had a fling with that landscape, whether we carried or bought our meals, visited for a day or a week, or were trekking for the first time or the hundredth. Flying north over the park on my way home it hits me: places change people and people change places. In every case, it’s up to the visitors to decide how.