| The South of the World - Trekking the Wilds of Patagonia
Location: Chilean & Argentinian Patagonia - Torres del Paine National Park, Los Glaciares National Park, Perito Moreno Glacier
Time: Three Weeks
Distance: Approximately 80+ miles for 12 total days of actual trekking.
Summits: None. To climb down there requires an entirely different kind of trip. Our time was about getting into the landscape rather than collecting peaks.
Crew: My beautiful bride and I.
Disclaimer: Sorry for the length this thing got to. It's hard to boil down so many things in one TR. But hopefully the pictures alone make up for my ramblings.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Ahhh, Patagonia....it's the stuff of legends: over a million acres of iconic peaks, soaring towers, ancient glaciers, hurtling winds, and vast openness as far as the eye can see. It's hard to describe it without (seemingly) dipping into hyperbole. Suffice it to say, you can't help but come here and shake the feeling that this place is very, very special. Perhaps it is the remote and vastly open setting. Or maybe it is the constant nudgings from nature of its presence: whether it be a soaring condor, a cracking glacier, or the relentless winds, Patagonia is all too eager to remind you that it is alive. Whatever the case, we were struck time and time again of the beauty and wonder of creation. At a loss for words most of the time, the best we could usually come up with to describe this place was to simply call it, "otherworldly."
This TR is my effort to log and organize some of my thoughts, musings, and pictures from our trip. Interestingly, I was surprised to see that there are few other reports (on this site anyways) from these spots. Although we didn't actually summit any major peaks, that is not really what we were down there for. Indeed, to get on top of most summits in these places requires a tremendous amount of skill, planning, time, and luck. However, we did spend nearly three full weeks travelling across two countries, four cities, and multiple treks covering well over 80 miles on the trail. While I could never hope to cover all the details of each unique trek in only one TR (who would want to read that much anyhow?) I do hope that the information and small bits of beta below are useful to someone at some point in the future. I am only too happy to help with more info if anyone ever wants to PM me about it or is planning their own journey.
The spark for this trip happened, quite ironically, in none other than the Mosquito Range. My wife and I have been blessed with a 3 month sabbatical from work which means we get to take some time out to do our favorite thing: travel. Back in January our departure date was fast approaching and we were struggling with finalizing our destinations (first world problems I know...). As so often seems to be the case, a good conversation with a friend helped to really kick start the idea of hitting Patagonia. Lordhelmut, Benners, and I were coming off of a great day on Sherman/Dyer, and Brian and I got to talking about our past world travels and experiences. For the better part of an hour we mused and fawned over all sorts of far away places we had been to or wanted to visit. At some point in the conversation, Brian paused and offered some fantastic perspective on all the incredible things to be seen outside the borders of Colorado. He reminded me just how many special things are out in the world just waiting to be seen and what a joy and honor it is to visit them. Don't get me wrong, we both love our home state, but it is a big wide world out there. The possibilities are endless. Motivated by his passion and desire for the world, our conversation inspired me to take a risk and commit to Patagonia.
Truth be told, I was actually pretty thin on knowledge early on. I was familiar with the clothing brand of course and knew a few of the major peaks, but other than this we had a decent amount of planning and learning to do before we headed out. But of course, this is all part of the adventure. Looking back now, getting to truly know a relatively 'new' region was one of the better aspects of the whole trip. Simply getting down there is a feat in and of itself. All told, it was three flights, a bus, two taxis, and the better part of 35 hours just to arrive at our first destination in Chile. But the time and effort in getting to Patagonia is what makes it such a great spot. The buffers of distant location and complex logistics helps keep things relatively gaper-free and very wild.
The first spot for most travelers on the journey is in the city of Punta Arenas in Chile. Situated on the Straight of Magellan in the far South of the country, Punta Arenas boasts a population of well over 100,000 and is the Southernmost city in the world. While still a ways out from the peaks and national parks themselves, this spot offers an excellent and insightful introduction to not only Patagonia, but also Chilean culture. It is also a great place to plan out logistics and get ready for the travels ahead.
BELOW: The sights and setting of Punta Arenas. Interestingly, this is one of two ports in the world serving Antarctic expeditions, the other being Christchurch, NZ. Mix this fact together with a steady influx of travelers making their way to the national parks and ranges further north, and Punta Arenas is kept very busy with the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
After a day of getting our bearings it was on to the next town of Puerto Natales. A three hour bus ride north, one of the things I loved about that trip was it offered the first chance to see the openness of Patagonia firsthand. And open it surely is. There is essentially one paved highway in the whole region, and it journeys through miles and miles of open prairie on the Patagonian steppe. For hours at a time we would see scarcely a homestead or ranch building, let alone towns or villages. Eventually to the west the distant peaks begin to steadily creep into view as we neared the staging town for our first expedition: Puerto Natales. This charming little town of 5,000 residents sits on an inland fjord at the southern foot of the Andes. It is from here that travelers make arrangements and plans for the first trek in Torres Del Paine National Park.
BELOW: The mountains beckon from the shores of Puerto Natales.
BELOW: A map of the whole region, with most of the major sites and towns shown. This is a big place - encompassing more total area than Texas and Alaska combined.
"Soaring almost vertically more that 6,500 feet above the Patagonia Steppe, the granite pillars of Torres del Paine dominate the landscape of what may be South America's finest national park. Filled with vast open steppe, azure lakes, trails that meander through emerald forests, roaring rivers with rickety bridges and one big, radiant blue glacier, we know no parallel." - Lonely Planet, Trekking in the Patagonian Andes
Torres del Paine is the jewel of Chilean Patagonia. This park sweeps across 700 sq miles (almost double the size of RMNP) and includes eight distinct climate zones - from glaciers to forests to the Andean desert. The centerpiece of the park is a small range known as the Paine Massif. This tight collection of peaks features a seemingly innumerable array of soaring granite towers and faces, penetrated by a few select valleys which reach up into the mountains. Surrounding the massif are large stands of beech groves interspersed with dozens and dozens of glacier carved lakes. Finally, on the edges of the park lie the Andean Steppe as the rains run out travelling east.
All of this of course, is a trekker's dream. There are a number of different options and excellent trail systems by which to explore the park. The most common route is a 5 day trek known as 'The W'. There is also an option to circumnavigate the entire massive which takes the better part of 9 days, known as 'The Full Circuit'. Of course, numerous trails and many excellent free campsites along the way offer tremendous freedom in planning a route. As for us, we planned on going for the Full Circuit and mapped out things as such. We ended up cutting it just a few days short to save time for other places, but that in no way took away from the experience.
Again, there is no way to effectively capture a week's experience in just a few short paragraphs, and the pictures do it far more justice than I ever could anyhow. But our route essentially circumnavigated half of the massif itself, with several day trips available to venture up into a series of valleys cutting their way into the highlands. Being in the park was one of the more incredible experiences of our lives. We averaged anywhere from 5-8 hours walking per day, going at a mostly leisurely pace to simply relax and enjoy the moment. There are few better places I can think of for good conversation, stunning views, and plenty of adventures.
BELOW: Map of the park with our route and campsites drawn in. After staring at this incessantly for a week, it is seared into my mind pretty deep. The organization here is very impressive to say the least. It is evident that the people deeply value this spot, and the necessary controls and regulations are in place to help preserve it. Flooded by trampers in the southern summer (December-February) we were quite pleased to have relatively little traffic as the season was getting later on. In between the busy campsites, we had many days of walking for hours on end only while passing few other parties.
BELOW: Food! After this trip I am quite happy to never eat oatmeal again. But the nutlella makes up for it in a good way.
BELOW: Our TH started a full 10 miles out from the massif itself, which made for incredible views on the approach the first day and a half. We trekked through restored grasslands en-route to the main trails beyond.
BELOW: One of the remarkable things about the Patagonian climate is the way that the wind and precipitation dictate so much of the environment. As storms and moisture blow in from the Pacific Ocean, they are buffeted by the Andes as they travel inland. Hitting the high peaks, these storms virtually stop and dump a vast majority of their snow and rain on the western edges of the region. Indeed, certain areas in the far west of Torres del Paine (and Patagonia as a whole) can see well over 8 meters of precipitation a year, while areas only slightly east of the rain shadow will see as little as 1/10 that amount fall in a given year.
BELOW: Sedimentary rock sitting on top of a solid granite base. The eroding sediment will someday be gone, and this is a trademark feature of the towers in this area. After a somewhat rainy first two days of our trek, we were unbelievably fortunate to have near perfect weather the remainder of our stay. With the clouds finally breaking (or at least not pouring on us), we were afforded excellent views of most of the finer towers and summits in the park.
BELOW: Perhaps the most interesting aspect (to those from Colorado anyway) of the land is the prevalence of glaciers. Without exaggeration, these can be found pretty much everywhere above treeline. The whole region previously sat underneath a massive ice cap, and the remnants of that can be seen on virtually every high peak. These fields of ice and snow are almost hypnotizing to look at. For the patient observer, one can see and hear massive chunks peel off their faces and come crashing down into the valley below.
BELOW: The unquestioned highlight of trekking here are the Torres del Paine themselves. These reclusive spires lie mostly hidden from view - blocked either by the tall peaks surrounding them or, more often than not, enshrouded by the clouds. However, when they are out, they are a sight like few others. The towers are a series of three massive granite spires which rise up some 2,000 ft from the valley below. Sheer, imposing, jagged, and unforgiving, they are the unquestioned monarchs of the park and a must see for any visit here.
BELOW: On clear days, it is pssible to hike to a high alpine lake at their base to see them lit up by the morning sun. As the first rays of dawn hit their eastern aspects, the colors are second to none.
BELOW: If there are more romantic spots than this, I know not of them.
BELOW: More scenes and images from the trail. The sheer diversity and wildness of the land is bewildering. It's almost embarrassing how many incredible sites or views lie around every new twist or turn in the trail.
Success! After a very full 7 days and almost 55 miles, we got to enjoy the sun as we await our return bus to Puerto Natales.
Leaving Torres del Paine, I think we were both overwhelmed by the moment. In some sense, we were a bit sad to go and wondered if we should have not stayed longer to make the most. Pondering this on the long bus ride back to town, I could only hope that we had hedged our bets correctly as we ventured on to our next spot in the journey - Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in Argentina.
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
If Patagonia is the land of legends, then this park can only be described as the playground of the Gods. Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park is the greatest trek of wilderness in the country, almost as big as the entire state of Delaware. Filled with innumerable peaks, valleys, and glaciers, this park lacks the development of other places in Patagonia. With the fantastic exception of the northern end of the park, this is about as wild and remote as it gets. Of course, even in the spots where established trails and camp sites do exist, just outside of virtually every 'easy' route lies some of the most enticing, difficult, and complex terrain a mountaineer could find anywhere in the world. The peaks and mountains here are otherworldly - soaring up in vertical aspects almost too big and too magnificent to believe. Of course, to even get to these faces requires an entirely different challenge involving crossing any of the thousands of glaciers dotting virtually every drainage and approach.
As if all that isn't enough, Los Glaciares is also home to the unquestioned icons of the south - Cerro Torre and Monte Fitz Roy. Almost arrogant in their jaw-dropping beauty, these two peaks define and dominate everything around them for dozens and dozens of miles. They loom over all and capture your gaze like almost no other mountain can.
The approach to the northern section of the park (and all the trekking & climbing) starts with an obligatory stop in the small town of El Chalten. Filled with nearly 5,000 locals and trampers in the busy season, this town exists for the one and only purpose of supporting and catering to hikers and climbers as they come and go from their forays into the hills. It is an almost embarrassingly perfect town. Situated at the foot of Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy and along two rivers, El Chalten is filled with hostels, gear shops, restaurants, dozens of other trekkers, and all kinds of access to the trails - it even has its own microbrewery! Suffice it to say, it is something straight out of a mountaineer's dream. We spent the better part of 5 days here doing a series of day hikes along with one night in camp.
BELOW: A map of the northern section of the park, with our treks drawn in. Again, the wonderful thing about El Chalten is the access. The trail systems are never more than 5-10 minutes directly from the center of town.
BELOW: Views around town.
One of the things I love about getting into the mountains is specific moments which stick with you. As I've climbed all over the past few years, certain spots just get seared into the mind like none other: Crestone peak from Kit Carson, gazing up at Capitol from the lake, looking out from a winter's summit, climbing virtually anywhere in the Weminuche...there is just something about these spots with get branded into our conscious and we are fortunate enough to carry them for the rest of our lives. This is one of my favorite parts of climbing, and I really don't thing it is wrong to think of them as anything other than sacred moments.
Los Glaciares is full of those types of spots. Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy are simply incomparable. They loom over just about every corner and turn of the park, but you never come even close to tiring of seeing their beautiful faces. Instead, their allure only seems to grow with each new angle or fresh lookout point. To try and describe them here with my own words would not do it justice, so I will simply let them speak for themselves.
BELOW: The Fitz Roy Range. After staring for the better part of an hour I turned to my wife and said, "This is the most beautiful line of peaks I have ever seen." She just looked on and smiled in agreement.
BELOW: Sunset over Cerro Torre.
BELOW: Our first full trek took us nearly 6 miles up a valley to Laguna Torres - the premier lookout to see Cerro Torre. Eager to find some solitude, we left right at dawn and reached the lake in time to find clear skies and calm winds - two things virtually unheard of in this part of the world, let alone at the same time.
BELOW: "I'd scaled a frightening, mile-high spike of vertical and overhanging granite called Cerro Torre; buffeted by hundred-knot winds, plastered with frangible atmospheric rime, it was once (though no longer) thought to be the world's hardest mountain." - Jon Krakauer, Into The Wild. Simply nothing compares to this mountain. The images and views from here are imprinted on my mind in a very special way and I know they will never leave.
BELOW: The next fews days of our time were spent visitng Cerro Torre's big brother, Monte Fitz Roy. This peak (along with Torre) has as rich of a climbing history as anything in the world. This is the playground of climbing legends and icons from all over the world. Ascents here do not come easy. While hundreds of climbers may reach the top of Everest in a given season, Fitz Roy could very easily see less than 10 summits in a single year.
BELOW: The trek to Fitz Roy's base reaches high up into the alpine, ending at yet another glacier carved lake, Laguna de los Tres. This absurdly beautiful spot is dominated by the crags and faces of Fitz Roy and the nearby lesser summit, Cerro Poincenot. Can you spot me below?
BELOW: The upper faces of Fitz Roy and Poincenot, respectively. These summits have been reached via dozens of routes by now on virtually all faces. Nevertheless, even the easiest route on Fitz Roy is a 20 pitch 5.6 R, made even more difficult by the long approach, need for a base camp, glacier crossings to reach the base, fierce and unrelenting Patagonian winds, and the threat of rain or snow descending at a moment's notice.
BELOW: The day after our lake hike, we realized just how lucky we had been. The mountain went back to its 'natural' state, hidden beneath a near permanent blanket of clouds.
Coming out of El Chalten, we knew we had one more stop to make before finally getting on the plane back home. The Perito Moreno glacier is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Argentina and with good reason. At 25 miles long, 3-5 miles wide, and 100-200 feet tall, this was an opportunity we knew was too good to pass up. By far one of the more touristy things anywhere down there, we decided to hop on the boat (literally) and sign up for an all day guided boat/glacier trekking tour.
BELOW: On the approach to the glacier. As I mentioned, the front face it anywhere from 100-200 feet tall, rising vertically off of the lake. This runs for over 4 miles.
BELOW: The 'crampons' strapped on to everybody before venturing out onto the ice. The hilarity of watching a group of 25-35 completely inexperienced tourist gapers try to walk around on crampons on an active glacier cannot be overstated. Luckily my girl is a pro.
BELOW: Miles and miles of ice filled peaks and valleys.
BELOW: Nothing like a little bit of guide-served Jameson on the rocks to warm you up on the ice.
BELOW: By far, the most incredible thing about the Perito Moreno Glacier is the constant calving of ice coming off the front faces. This glacier moves up to 2 meters per day as the never ending pull of gravity draws it downwards to the lake. As the snow reloads the ice further up the valley, the opposite is true at the water. Here, building-sized chunks of ice peel off from the main glacier leaving massive splashes and mini-tsunami in their wake. We were lucky enough to see a number of these falls on a sunny day; the chunk below is probably around 150 feet tall.
BELOW: Simply taking it all in.
"All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost."
Virtually the only downside to this place is just how far away it is. A few bus rides and a long layover easily made for 50+ hours of travel on the way home. But no bother. While the stress of planning and travelling quickly fades, the memories and experiences from trips like this do not. We both feel indescribably blessed and humbled to have gotten to spend so much time in the south of the world. The conversations, memories, and sights of Patagonia are truly a once in a lifetime experience. For anyone who has ever considered making the pilgrimage down there, I cannot encourage you enough to do it!
As always, thank you for making it through if you did. I love getting to share experience with other like-minded folks on this site. Happy climbing!
Until our next adventure...
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):