Patagonia: the living end

RACV RoyalAuto magazine

The jade-coloured lake at the head of the Chileno Valley

The first indication that this is a place like no other comes with the light. The air is crisp and the sun has long risen above the ridge, yet in this eerie setting the light is reminiscent of the early dawn.

Then out on the glacial lake, our attention is taken by powerful gusts of wind whipping up the water spray into a silky curtain that starts to drag across the surface. Soon our group has been slammed with a tsunami of water mist and powerful gusts that leave us surprised but also delighted by the sudden meteorological spectacle, which in these parts is called a williwaw. Welcome to Patagonia.

This is the end

In South America, even the locals call this tail of the continent “el fin del mondo” (the end of the earth), such are Patagonia’s extremes and contrasts. And here, in Chile’s Torres Del Paine National Park, which is reached via Punta Arenas, one of the most remote cities in the world, those extremes are definitely on show for the adventurous traveller. Much of the park and its surrounds are the Patagonian Steppe, a series of grassy plains punctuated by rivers and glacial lakes. Towering over it is the Torres Del Paine massif, a complex mountain range partitioned by deep valleys. The jewel in the crown of the massif is the Torres, a collection of granite spires carved to perfection by thousands of years of glacial activity.

And it’s into the Torres that our group, unshaken by the williwaw drenching, is now ready to leave, embarking on the W Trek. The route, shaped more or less like a W, is a spectacular 60-kilometre four-day walk that traverses the southern section of the massif, taking in many lakes and, at various points, diverting into spectacular valleys featuring gigantic ice fields. Hardy walkers like to tackle it independently, but a guided trek can be customised in many ways to suit your needs.

Massif effort

Day one of our guided trip starts near the Torres Hotel, and for most of the first day we head west along the beautiful Lake Nordenskjold, with the dark, sleek granite of the massif almost hovering above us. The night is spent in the forested Los Cuernos Camp.

The second day very quickly develops into a steady climb up the centre prong of the W, the Frances Valley. At the Frances lookout, huge chunks of ice can often be seen dropping off the end of the hanging glaciers, exploding into powdery ice avalanches. The roar of the event, resembling a passing jet, is often heard well after the initial release due to the long distance from the avalanche area to where you’re safely positioned. Further up the valley, the route ascends through dense forests of deciduous beech trees called nothofagus pumilio or the lenga tree. The lenga is a species closely related to other fagus trees which, apart from Patagonia, are found only in New Zealand and western Tasmania. And like those in Tasmania, these trees turn a fiery red during the very short autumn here.

Finally, at the head of the valley, the Britanico lookout presents a skyline dominated by sharp peaks resembling the teeth of some prehistoric creature. This is nature so raw that one could easily spend hours just gazing at the smooth granite shapes, but we have to partially retrace our steps to make our accommodation at the Paine Grande.

Sour note

On the third day, we are reprieved with a relatively short hike to the Grey Lake. The northern part of this freezing body of water is dominated by the massive Grey Glacier, a spectacle of jumbled ice that feeds off one of the largest non-polar ice fields on the planet. At the Grey Glacier ranger station, the route requires a boat trip south but the pay-off is we’re taken right up to the face of the glacier. While pondering the scale of these massive walls of ice, we’re each given a pisco sour, the local brandy-based cocktail which in this case is served with 700-year-old glacier ice.

The leg back to base (our original camp near the Torres Hotel so we can do the eastern prong of the W on day four) is by mini-bus across the Patagonian Steppe. Pink flamingos are spotted in the shallows of saline lakes embedded in the landscape, while guanacos, alpaca-like animals that are more closely related to the camel, graze the grasslands. We are also on alert for pumas which can sometimes be spotted stalking guanacos in the long grass. (A sign that a puma attack has just occurred is condors circling, waiting to scavenge any remaining carcasses.)

The last prong of the W is up the Chileno Valley to the Base de las Torres lookout, a long haul through fagus forest and over a moraine boulder field. The prize is the best view in the park. Giant needles of granite rise behind a large jade-coloured lake surrounded by jumbled granite boulders in a huge basin.

Yet the winds that helped shape this breathtaking landscape are threatening to blow us right across it, so we don’t linger too long. Such is the splendour and the challenge of Patagonia.

Story and photos: Janusz Molinski
Published in RoyalAuto Feb 17

In the face of the glacier on Grey Lake
Tourists on a Grey Lake boat
Walkers near the Frances Glacier lookout
A guanaco, the llama that’s native to this part of Chile
A grey fox at the Base de las Torres lookout.