2/24/17

Trekkin Through Patagonia


Patagonia, the region at the southern tip of South America, had been on my travel wish list for a very long time. I wanted to go so badly in fact that upon finding a deal on flights, I had purchased a ticket within about 30 minutes. I found two friends who were interested in the adventure, and together we began to plan our trip.

The Plan

The trail that we wanted to backpack was in Torres del Paine national park, a place that I had stared at pictures of for years. The area is known for its erratic weather, unique animals, and incredibly diverse landscapes. While there is a fair amount of information about the park online, recent changes (as in the last couple months) to camping restrictions and campsite reservations made it hard to find current information on the park. Because of this, much of what we now know about the park is what we discovered once we were in Chile.


Hiking around Glacier Grey

Travel Logistics

My friends and I met up in Washington D.C. and from there had flights scheduled to Panama, Santiago and then to Punta Arenas in Southern Chile. Our Panama flight was delayed because of a fuel leak, meaning a hotel in Panama for the night and a 24-hour delay to all our plans. The rest of the flights were uneventful. After arriving in Punta Arenas, we took a 3-hour bus ride to the town of Puerto Natales. Natales is the gateway town to Torres del Paine and is loaded with backpacker hostels, gear shops, and amazing street food. Here we were able to stock up on any last minute items needed for the trek (stove fuel, cookies, etc.) I chose to bring most of my food for the days that I’d be backpacking with me from home rather than mess with finding everything I wanted in small town shops.


These folks gave us a ride, saving us from a few extra hours walking
While very remote, the park is fairly easy to access by both bus and hitchhiking. The ride is about 2 hours to the park entrance and then another 15 – 45 minutes depending on where you are going inside the park. We soon learned that there isn’t a reliable bus system in the park, so without a car one is forced into hitching rides or waiting for one of about two buses that pass throughout the day.

The Trek

Because the weather in Patagonia is so unpredictable, one visitor’s day might be completely different than someone else's only a few miles away. That being said, we lucked out and had excellent weather for almost an entire week. There were still days when I would go from 4 layers to a t-shirt and back to 4 layers in about a 20-minute period, but no major storms.


Since the newly implemented campsite reservation system requires all reservations in advance, I wasn’t able to hike the complete Torres del Paine circuit as I had hoped. I still enjoyed five solid days cruising through some of the most amazing landscapes that I’ve ever seen and was able to hike the entire W trail.

Day one in the park we took a bus, then walked, and finally hitched a ride with a nice Chilean couple in a van to a campground called Pehoe. Once at camp, the clouds briefly parted and we got our first glimpse of the jagged peaks Patagonia is known for. We spent the evening climbing around on the lakeside cliffs, scouting out the local wildlife, and sharing stories with other campers until the rain encouraged us to call it an early night.

Los Cuernos peeking out over Lake Pehoe

Josh and Sarah exploring the cliffs near Glacier Grey

Day two we planned to hike to Las Torres, probably the most iconic landmark in the park. Since we were miles from the trailhead and buses weren’t an option until 2:00 pm, we decided to give traveling “al dedo” another shot. We got picked up by a great group of folks from China who were luckily going to the towers as well and took us all the way to the trailhead. The hike up to Mirador Las Torres is fairly mellow and only gets steepish towards the very end. The weather was pretty foggy on the ascent, but cleared up nicely once we got to the top, probably just to show off. I mean, look at those things... 

Mirador Las Torres
On day three in the park we finally had campsite reservations along the trail. We took a catamaran over to Paine Grande on the other side of the park and started hiking towards Glacier Grey.  This trail was a few miles of gentle uphill followed by a steep descent to the valley that this giant glacier calls home. The trail (by far the windiest area I encountered) offered spectacular views of mountain lakes on one side and massive peaks on the other. We got to camp fairly early and had plenty of time to relax, make a good meal, and enjoy the scenery.

Lakes on the left and this guy on the right as we hiked up to Glacier Grey
One of many icebergs floating around near Glacier Grey
Day four was our rest day. We slept in, got camp cleaned up, and then went to see what all the hype was about surrounding Glacier Grey. It’s pretty rad, but only if you’re into cool things. The icebergs surrounding it weren’t bad either. After an hour or so or staring and taking pictures, we headed back to camp, grabbed our packs, and took off to our next campsite…Paine Grande.


The view from our campsite at Paine Grande
Day five in the park was by far my favorite of the whole trip. I woke up around 6:00, broke camp, and was on the trail by 6:30. My friends decided earlier on that they wanted to go to Argentina rather than finish hiking the full W with me, so it became a solo-hiking day. I rallied down the trail for about 4 hours and only saw two other people. By 10:00 I had arrived at the Mirador Britanico and had the whole place to myself thanks to the early start. The views here were unreal cool with snaggle tooth peaks surrounding nearly the entire valley; easily one of the raddest places I’ve ever been.

Approaching the Mirador Britanico

One of my favorite views of the trip was this river running through the incredible valley

Proof that I was actually there

The incredibly peaceful Lago Nordenskjöld

Massive granite walls along the trail to the Los Cuernos campground
The rest of the day was pretty cruiser and I rolled into camp after a twenty-something mile day by about 5:00. Dinner was a mountain house meal, then another mountain house meal, then a plate of pasta from some new friends, and then a sleeve of cookies…good eatin after a great day on the trail. That night was the first (and only) major rainstorm of the trip. I spent a few hours playing cards and adventure chatting in a cramped tent with some other campers, then headed to my own and dozed off to the sounds of a Patagonian downpour.

Fun Patagonia fact (that might be obvious to folks who think about these things more than I do) - Because the region is soo far south, during the summer it is light outside until well after 10:00pm and then light again before 6:00am. Kind of convenient for playing outside. Another nighttime feature that I found cool is that the stars at night seemed to be moving super fast (like almost airplane speeds), I’m assuming because of the earth’s rotation. Don’t quote me on that science, but it was cool to watch.

The rest of my time in South America was spent in Argentina enjoying the blue beauty of the Perito Moreno glacier, taste testing alfajores in El Calafate, and checking out the seafood scene at the bottom of the world in Punta Arenas.

A huge chunk of the Perito Moreno glacier breaking off and splashing into the water below. Photo - Josh Spurlock

Stoked on snow...and not showering in days

The glacier was incredibly and insanely massive

Making friends on the docks of Punta Arenas

My disappointed face when what we thought were penguins actually weren't penguins


Gear


Peregrine Altai 20 Sleeping Bag
I chose to take this bag from Peregrine because its fill is a Primaloft down blend, meaning the best of both the down and synthetic worlds. The bag compresses really small (I fit it in a 5L stuff sack), but was still warm enough and had enough loft to keep me toasty in nighttime temps right around freezing. I generally slept in only a base layer and never had problems being cold. The bag also seemed to breath well and never felt clammy. The zippered pocket was great for keeping track of my earplugs (a must have for hostels, group campsites, and tent mates who snore) and the drawcord hood sealed in the extra bit of heat that I needed on a couple of the chillier nights.


Outdoor Designs Diablo Tech Gloves
Patagonia is known for its hurricane force winds that will wrestle you any and all hours of the day. These gloves did an excellent job of blocking out that wind, but still breath well enough that I didn’t have to worry about overheating while hiking. Thick enough to protect, but thin enough that I could still adjust settings on my camera without taking them off…the perfect soft-shell glove.

Peregrine Ultralight Stuff Sacks
Because I opted for an ultralight pack that offered very few organization options, these stuff sacks were crucial in keeping my gear separated. I had 4 different sizes and used them to store clothing, food, cooking supplies, and other random essentials. The colors made it easy to grab exactly the bag I was looking for in my pack without having to remove anything.

Olicamp Ion Stove
I chose the Ion stove because of its size and weight. Coming in at only 1.5 oz. it’s barely noticeable weight-wise, but definitely packs a punch. I only used the stove to heat water for dehydrated meals and oatmeal, and each time my water was boiling in just a couple minutes. The Ion is definitely a head turner when cooking in hostels and camp kitchens. I watched other camper’s eyes widen as they looked at the size of the Ion compared to their own stoves. Paired with the space saver mug, this is now my go to for ultralight trips where I can cook everything by heating up water.


Despite our lack of planning, delayed flights, not hiking everything I wanted to, and being sick the last few days of the trip, Patagonia was still one of the best adventures I have ever experienced. While I’ve been a lot of cool places, I’ve never seen another area with so many incredible landscapes all packed together so closely. This region is both barren and blooming with life, perfectly peaceful and overwhelmingly amazing. It's a place that I dreamed about for years, and will continue to dream about for years to come.






Tyler Jones is a mediocre climber, terrible runner, self proclaimed campfire cook, advocate of playing outside, and Communications Specialist (whatever that means) at Liberty Mountain.









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