Blown Away in Patagonia
Holger seemed unconcerned with geological instability at the stem end of earth.
“I wonder when the last rock slide occurred,” I said to Holger, my German hiking companion, as we scrambled, occasionally on all fours, to scale this steep rubble. Our target point, atop a nearly vertical incline, was the lookout for the three towers.
It was another wet and windy day in Torres del Paine, Chile’s national park where these Patagonian treasures have grown up over the eons. Holger seemed unconcerned with geological instability here at the stem end of the earth, where tectonic plates meet. He powered up ahead of me, no poster boy for the dangers of smoking on which I had given up lecturing him.
We had hooked up back at Las Torres Refugio to hike to one of the park’s namesake attraction. (Torres=towers and Paine, Pie-ee-nay, is transliteration for the indigenous Nandu people’s word for blue, the color of so much water here.) We had left all vegetation behind just after the five-mile mark of the trail to reach this slope that looked like a demolition site where a wrecking ball felled a structure and spread the jagged debris over the ridge in chaotic fashion.
Sharp-edged boulders tumbled over each other precariously ready to slide with just the right pressure. But as I watched the steady stream of hikers persevering upward, I realized I was wrong. That ground had been well trampled. The last time I had similar visions of being entombed was in Southeast Alaska when I climbed the Chilkoot Trail out of Skagway. In fact, that trail’s last kilometer, a near 90-degree angle of stacked rock, was called “the tower” by the 1898 gold-seekers climbing the pass into the Yukon’s Klondike. I felt as if I were ascending the planet’s mirror image of its northerly 54th parallel.
With little chance of stone cairns balancing or standing out, bright orange slashes of paint on the boulders guide the hiker toward the top. Holger and I made it to the summit safely and I expected to look down on a symmetry of more talus, falling into a basin. But the spectacle, austere as the moon, featured a snow-fed emerald-green lake at the base of the sheer granite obelisks. We caught up with two fellow lodgers, Sunny (from India by way of the Bronx) and Laurie (a man, from England). Along with about a hundred other gawkers, we took in the bare bones of the uplifted granite, gray igneous monoliths still partly sheathed in black sedimentary rock. Laurie and Sunny rock-hopped down to the lake for photos of the towers, named South, Central, and North. The last, at an altitude 2,850 meters, was the highest.
There was some hushed chat about a man, who appeared to be in his late sixties and in good shape. He fell, lower down the talus, about the time I was worried about rock slides. He landed on the side of his face and got a deep gash that will no doubt require medical attention. It was about eight inches long and bandaged with lots of gauze, thanks to his friends. He was determined to summit and not let this wound turn him back.
Listening to the young and old who had made this pilgrimage, as they shot images of the bald scape, I deciphered many tongues. Hebrew, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Scandinavian, and Japanese blended with every brand of English, from Yankee, Cockney, and Queen’s to Kiwi and Aussie. I realized that Patagonia, a land mass of Andean peaks, plateaus, and plains pocked with bodies of water at South America’s tail end, was not so far-flung these days.
I once thought it was and that I would never get closer than the seat of my pants. Going on 20 years , I’d owned a pair of much-loved aquamarine pants from Patagonia, the ecologically-aware outdoor outfitter founded by French climber Yvon Chouinard. My pants were like a cloth travel trunk with patches or holes on butt, knees, and thighs, representing wear and tear from many walks on the wild side. I wouldn’t be adding Torres del Paine’s W or Circuit to the pants’ roster. These two backpack trips, required four to nine days outback, carrying 30- to 40-pound packs with lots of waterproof gear. Those treks would afford access to some of the park’s most extraordinary scenery, including the desolate beauty on the back sides of peaks. But I was not interested in having to all but mortar down tents against fierce howling winds that make grown men and women go down on their knees and crawl.
Which is exactly what I had to do on my way back to our lodging. Holger and I had separated because I lingered in the warm atmosphere of the Chile Refugio along the trail. I had no one to cling to as I tried to round a narrow ridge corner with a drop off, which the sudden wind — seemingly 60 mph — wanted me to test. I sat on the ground until the wind settled down.
I had no more such challenges the rest of my return down the broad rolling pampa steppe. After leaving the only trees here, thin stands of “lenga,” a sort of beech tree that turns golden yellow in fall, the vegetation was all low growth, mostly the calafate or blueberry bush (pity, there are no bears, only the lama-like guanaco, here to eat them).
The landscape mimics tundra in its open expansiveness with lots of big sky. In spring there are wildflowers, including virgin’s slippers. But it was late March during my visit, fall in the Southern Hemisphere, so I saw only the late bloom of a brilliant orange-red flower of the Chilean fire bush.
I had arrived the previous day from El Calafate, Argentina, a five-hour bus ride to the park entrance. From there, a van with guide gave us all a brief tour of the park before depositing us at our lodging. As we rolled over the unpaved, packed-dirt roads, I could see the visual appeal here where the Andes gave way to Tierra del Fuego. Dark peaks, many still cloaked in snow, ragged the horizon. Besides the druid-like towers, a formation called the Cuernos del Paine rose above Lago Pehoé, one of many lakes we passed, whose waters seemed to come in three shades — emerald, aquamarine, and sapphire. When the relentless wind blew, it was a sight to see hundreds of frothy white caps stand up and dance on their rippling waters.
We passed many native guanaco foraging on the plains, who having never been hunted let humans get very close — though with the risk of being spat upon. I saw a bird with a wide wingspan swoop down into the low brush. Daniel, our guide said it was a caracara, a type of hawk. I wanted it to be a condor. But I’d have to wait.
We parked near a sign that said “don’t feed the foxes (gray)” but saw no foxes, and walked 1,500 feet to the Salto Grande, a waterfalls that is a mini replica of Iguazu’s Devil’s Throat. It crashed with a forbidding gurgle from Lago Nordenskjold into Lago Pehoé. The wind knocked most of us down at least once and we found we could lean a good 45 degrees into it and not fall until it died. A common photo pose here.
Although we had some rain and clouds, we were lucky, Daniel said, to have unimpeded views of the usually mist-shrouded towers and cuernos. When a couple of rainbows appeared he said notice how they are flatter, given their location here at the bottom of the earth. But he was a biologist, not a physicist to be trusted with commentary on curved space.
I met mostly foreigners, hardly any Americans, many of whom shared my lodging. The sprawling Las Torres Refugio, a stylish wood-log structure, featured quarried-stone floors, beamed high cathedral ceilings, and large-paned windows. It was spacious, airy, and crawling with trekkers.
Back from my hike, I found its three wood-burning stoves roaring and Holger enjoying a hamburger — before he stepped outside for a smoke.
I sank into a bean-bag chair seeking solitude in a commons area where throw pillows and an acoustic guitar suggested group sing-alongs. My bed was a comfortable lower bunk in a cheery dorm sleeping six, but I was the only one for two of the nights. In the morning through my picture window, I saw snowy peaks, wild hares browsing, and horses running loose from a nearby estancia.
I found Holger, post-smoke, chatting with Juan, an Argentine man who had saved and planned many years for this trip. His eyes glowed and teared with satisfaction — Patagonia had lived up to his wildest dreams. He worked for utilities in a province outside of Buenos Aires, and Holger and I regretted that he wouldn’t join us for dinner. He retreated to his room, or tent maybe, to dine alone on food he brought in to save on expenses.
Holger, who was a structural engineer, Sunny, a research biologist, Laurie, a photographer, and I all supped together on the inn’s fixed menu, lasagne with meat sauce that night. At some point they seemed to forget, or not mind, that I was there, and discussed their relationships, the women who had left them (Holger and Sunny) or whom they left (Laurie). Sunny said it took four years to make a breakthrough in his research and relationships were much harder by comparison.
Then Holger tried to get one of the cooks, a young Chilean woman, to show him her country’s folkloric dance, the cueco, which is an aggressively flirtatious line dance between men and women, with pañuelas (handkerchiefs). She demurred, saying she didn’t have the right music, but Laurie (who recoiled into stiff British demeanor) and I thought she was intimidated by Hoger’s wine-induced Teutonic exuberance.
She looked relieved when we led him outside. There we craned our necks back to see stars, silver sparkles scattered thickly over black velvet, with the translucent Milky Way achingly close. The sky was so dense with stars, it was impossible to pick out any constellations. Someone, not I, claimed to see Orion’s belt.
I left the refugio next day and went on to see more natural wonders of Patagonia in Argentina—glaciers, pink flamingos, and the stunning Mount Fitz-Roy.
See Patagonia’s Dazzling Blue Ice next.
If you plan to go, fall (March in the southern hemisphere) or November (spring there) are both good times to visit. Do bring Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.