Alright so I know this is supposed to be a blog about biking, but truth be told I didn’t bike at all in the last two weeks. I was on vacation with a friend in Patagonia, a week of which was spent hiking in Argentina and trekking through Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. I had planned on renting a bike at some point – at least in the southern city of Punta Arenas, where it was actually flat enough to be enjoyable. However, that plan never came to fruition. And I’m not sure the extreme winds down there would have made it too enjoyable anyway.
But seen from two feet, the only way to really see much of it, Patagonia is unbelievable. The landscapes are awe-inspiring as well as unrelenting. Its vastness, its variety, and the unmatched feeling of isolation you get from all this is indescribable. As someone far more impressed by the beauties of nature than those of mankind, I was amazed. What amazed me even more was how punishing nature could be as we attempted to traverse through the Patagonian wilderness to marvel at everything around us.
Patagonia is famous for its unpredictable weather. Yet we were about as lucky as possible, with rain and wind storms holding off (for the most part) until we brokenly slept in our tent each night. Nor was it particularly cold, which is still a possibility in the early austral summer. But the landscape of Torres del Paine was unlike anything we could have prepared for at home on the East Coast. I don’t claim to be an iron man, but as someone in generally good physical shape (thanks to biking, perhaps) I was taken aback by how unprepared I was for this trek. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, but I simply wasn’t expecting the wear and drain on my mind and body.
On the first day, we started on a steep segment of the famous W trek through the Torres Valley to see the torres, or towers, themselves (pictured). It’s a beautiful hike along mountain ridges and through a forested valley before climbing a long and steep rock trail to the torres lookout. After that, we continued into the valley on an unmarked route you can only access with special permits that were provided by our guide. We stayed that night at the small, remote Japanese Campsite, a launching point for climbers and guides trekking the back country in their free time…and the rare lucky visitors like ourselves about to see a side of the park that most don’t get to.
Our physical endurance would be tested as early as Day 2. While the Torres Valley is as difficult as most hikes on the East Coast, our back country expedition trough Torres del Paine on this day was 12 miles of untamed, unmarked, and unworn wilderness. That is, no path and only the knowledge of our guide and porter to get us where we were going. We launched from Japanese camp up to the Oggioni Pass, a low mountain pass only crossed by a dozen or so people each summer. How lucky we were. And yet while stunningly beautiful, the challenge of the pass was not lost on us. It took nearly five hours to bushwhack and climb our way only a few kilometers, up 1,200 meters of elevation and with our 35-pound packs to the snowy summit. Tough stuff. And as if that weren’t enough for one day, we had uncounted miles of descent and bushwhacking through a dense forest – another eight hours – before we reached our camp at Dickson Lake. While the hike was spectacularly adventurous, I paid the price in blisters all over my feet and mild exhaustion from two full days of hiking.
It was primarily because of the blisters and my reckless unfamiliarity with multi-day trekking that Day 3 – our “easy” day – was anything but. Used to going full throttle on relatively undemanding hikes back home, I ascended and descended the pass with little regard for my legs’ long-term wellbeing. My feet being so blistered meant I walked on even the smoothest terrain with searing pain, which slowly spread up to my right knee since I walked unnaturally and had not taken care of my legs the day before. The hike between Dickson and Los Perros was eight or so miles of moderate terrain, but by the end of it I felt both physically and mentally defeated. I was honestly unsure of whether I could complete our last, longest leg the next day.
Thankfully, I was able to mitigate the pain in my feet by hiking in my friend’s camp shoes on Day 4. The mountaineering boots I had worn so far were great boots, but the blisters I had developed meant anything over my ankles caused unbearable discomfort. I fit into his size 12, quadruple-wide sneakers thanks to my thick wool trekking socks and tied the big boots to the outside of my pack. Today we would cross the John Gardner Pass, a highlight of the W and O routes and of the park in general. While not as high or tough as Oggioni (and worn by a trail), Gardner had arguably a more spectacular view. Summiting the pass offers an absolutely brilliant…breathtaking, honestly…sight of the Grey Glacier that spans 6km ahead and many more to either side of you. I honestly cannot describe the sight in words nor emphasize just how surreal it really is. And to think that this panoramic expanse of ice stretches around the mountains for miles and miles on end, a mass so big it covers a huge chunk of Patagonia as seen from space.
Crossing the pass leads to an extremely steep, long descent into the forest that took a heavy toll on what remained of my knee. Each step down – most abnormally high – was a searing crunch on my worn limbs and joints. Thankfully, I was able to enjoy the long finale (10 miles or so after crossing the pass) with the knowledge that it was our last full day. The remainder of the hike was, despite my discomfort, quite fun. It was perhaps the most scenic stretch, as you hike along the magnificent glacier for awhile and then along the lake where the glacier calves into the waters of Grey Lake. There were many points at which I could stop on a ridge and just take in the incredible sights of the place around me: dramatic mountains in every direction, the glacier and lake spanning my field of vision, condors and even a peregrine falcon on the hunt. When I finally reached the end at Refugio Grey, I was relieved to be done with the physical challenge but saddened that the sights I had just become accustomed to were soon to be behind me.
So, it wasn’t biking at all, but an adventure through of the of few places a bike simply cannot take you. I’m extremely lucky to have seen it. And I hope I don’t scare off anyone afraid that this will quickly turn into another travel blog – I can promise I’ll return to biking next week when my dull drone life and the commute that goes with it carry on. But in the meantime, I wanted to share a bit about my truly once-in-a-lifetime adventure carried out on my own two feet.