Written by Brian Burnham of Cirque Productions, Creators of TREK – A Journey on the Appalachian Trail
Everyone else on our micro bus was out for a day trip, so when we pulled our packs out at the park gate and bid them farewell, they were somewhat shocked that we would want to spend not only one night, but five in this bitter Patagonian winter wonderland. As we embarked on our 55 mile tour of ‘the W route,’ the lonely road, grey and dead surroundings, and the frozen cloud that had descended upon us brought to mind scenes from Lord of the Rings.
Trudging down this Mordoresque landscape we quickly discovered that Guanacos run rampant in Torres Del Paine. Some are so friendly that they come close enough to touch you. And if you think they are snuggling, they are actually reaching into your pocket to scrounge for food, and probably have it by the time you notice. Just as we find them cute, pumas (coming in at 140 pounds) find them quite tasty. So tasty in fact that fifty percent of their diet is Guanacos and infant Guanacos. With the abundance of both Guanacos and puma tracks in the snow we were sure a National Geographic episode was going to erupt in front of our eyes. As cool as it would be to see nature in action, we also didn’t want to give pumas a chance to experiment and expand its menu to include us, so we trekked upward into higher elevations, where Guanacos chose not to venture.
We continued to enjoy the benefits of coming in the off-season as we saw no other backpackers on our five-day jaunt through the park. Amidst this remoteness, green salt water lakes outlined our hikes and reflected the towers that we hiked under. They also helped to regulate the temperatures, nightly lows would be 20 degrees, and daytime temps would soar to a lofty 22 degrees. Needless to say I never got out of my fleece long underwear for the duration of our stay.
Lake shores guided our way further into the pristine wilderness. Normally gushing rivers succumbed to the relentless cold and were reduced to trickling streams. The backcountry was so pristine and untouched that the water is ranger-approved for the ‘dip and drink’ level of water purification that we have long since abandoned in the US. We were of course careful to dip and drink in the flowing fresh water, and not in the abundant bodies of salt water that surrounded us daily.
Small ice bergs floated by with increasing frequency as we approached Glaciar Grey, and highlight of the Torres Del Paine Tour. Maybe it was because we were pretty close to a huge chunk of ice, but the mercury seemed to drop even further as our trail dropped off into the water, and we stood in the presence of the massive glacier. I would say we were fortunate to be there at sunset, but in Patagonia at this time of year, it’s almost always sunset, and the race against darkness was a constant one. But the sun was low in the sky and shining through the blue ice that spanned countless kilometers into the snow covered mountains in the background. The magnificence of the glacier perched between the mountains made the radiating cold tolerable, and we could enjoy our lunch on the overlooking rock for a few hours.
The last quarter of the hike is a backpackers dream come true. The trail follows the valley floor for 20 kilometers, and is not just stark flatness but set in the most magnificent backdrop of the glorious Torres Del Paine granite ranges and lakes, surrounded by trees fully crusted by solid white ice. We found ourselves at a remote dirt road as darkness was approaching, imagine that. We hoped that for some strange reason, a bus would pull up to take us back to as much civilization as can be found in South America in June. We stumbled upon a ranger station, which was of course not heated, and were able to radio in for a ride later in the day.