this appeared in the Toronto Star
by Cindy Ross
Cyclone-force winds race across the surface of Lake Pehoe in Chile’s Torres del Paine NP, scooping up kiloliters of water and flinging it high in the air in enormous curtains. The sun infuses these sky waves with light, creating dazzling rainbows, before they cascade back to earth. The lake’s color is pistachio green looking more like Thailand with swaying palm trees than alpine mountains. The gigantic rollers smashing the shoreline mimic a turbulent ocean, steep enough to surf. We’ve never seen anything like it. But here in one of South America’s finest national parks, the wind, like the spectacular scenery, is like no place else on earth.
Patagonia looks like “Alaska on steroids,” and is considered to be more beautiful than the Himalayas, the Alps, New Zealand, the High Sierra, and Alaska. Everything is staggering in beauty and magnitude. We hikers are the only things that feel small in this Patagonian universe.
My family is here over winter break to backpack the 87-mile Paine Circuit. It circles the Paine massif of 10,000 foot (3,200 meter) peaks, climbs alongside a 240-mile long glacier, before climbing to wind-tunnel pass and looping back around. It is considered one of the Top Ten Best Treks in the World.
Patagonia weather is bizarre, even in the summer. One minute it batters us with frigid cold, spitting hail and driving sleet, to fifteen minutes later, sweating like terrariums, ripping off raingear, and slathering on sunscreen for the ozone hole is directly overhead. Sometimes it rains when the sky is brilliant blue overhead, for the precipitation is carried from miles away on the wild winds. Clouds race at such lightning speed that its worth waiting at any viewpoint, however swallowed in clouds.
Hiking here is challenging, for the trail climbs and descends steeply. River fords are across swinging suspension bridges, or rock hopping where you must wait for the wind to take a breather so you can cross without getting thrown in. A few ravines have 50-foot long steel ladders to assist you.
But despite the challenges, Patagonia doesn’t disappoint. At the Valle de Frances, we stand atop a ridge surrounded by stunning rock pinnacles – spires of chiseled stone emerge from the cloud factory, their tops frosted in snow, impossibly sheer, trailing robes of glaciers at their feet.
Ice chunks bob in the ultramarine lakes, calved off from the glaciers. The turbulent rivers run milk white from glacial sediment. There are hillsides so thick with daisies, it looks like snow covering the ground and walking through them nearly makes you seasick from their bobbing, wind-blown heads. Guanacos graze on the grasslands. Condors, with their 10-foot wind span, glide around the peaks. Patagonia is so stunning and other- worldly that you half expect to see prehistoric beasts walking the valley floors.
A hiker should be good shape to attempt the entire circuit but you can up your comfort factor by staying in a refugio every night, with a hot meal. Besides the main circular loop there is a shorter W-shaped trail for those who don’t have the necessary seven days to complete the circuit. Accommodations fill up early especially if you go in the most popular season- summer- December through February.
Lucky for English-speaking folks, Erratic Rock Hostel in Puerto Natales, the jumping off town for the park, is run by an Oregonian, Bill Penhallow. He offers a daily free seminar on how to navigate the park, obtain permits, arrange bus schedules, help design a schedule and a route of travel, rent equipment, even gives instructions on how to set it up. Besides offering the best breakfast in Patagonia, they are an extremely friendly bunch. It’s best to stay at Erratic Rock before and after your park visit so you can store your excess traveling gear and luggage.
Climbing up alongside the enormous shoulder of Grey Glacier we think about the fact that this ice field is the most massive south of the Arctic, spreading 240 miles. The ice fills the valleys, choking the mountain ranges, rearing up like a bowed back of an animal as it swallows entire rock islands. Creased with deep blue wrinkles, pools of water scatter its surface. The far side of the glacier is guarded by snowy peaks, extending their own tongues of ice to drool into the river. The glacier’s source is consumed in blinding light and fog as if it had flowed out of the sky and its impossible to tell where one lets off and the other begins.
The wind is ferocious up in the pass but luckily for us, it is at our backs. It roars off the glacier and propels us up and over, inflating our rain gear like we are balloons tethered to the earth only by our heavy backpacks. When we yell with pride at the monument marking the pass, the wind rips the sound right out of our mouths.