Encountering Patagonia's Wild Frontiers
There are few places left in this world that can conjure up wild dreams of exploration and adventure like Patagonia. For years I heard stories of this wild place at the bottom of the world barely a hop skip and a jump away from Antarctica. I heard stories of the wild men that pioneered the word ‘adventure’ by loading their combi-van with surfboards and driving the entire length of the Americas to make the first ascents of enormous granite torres for no other reason than because they were there to be climbed. I'd built this place up in my mind to be an almost mythical world that was so far out of my reach I would never know or experience it. Climbing those peaks will certainly be a feeling I will never know, but I recently returned from a dream trip where I was able to experience just a tiny part of this enormous and wild frontier.
Flying into the small city of Punta Arenas at sunrise, It quickly became clear just how vast and varied the longest mountain range on earth is. Miles upon miles of impenetrable jagged peaks bursting through the clouds, split by entire networks of glaciers calving into lakes that run into a system of raging rivers. Through the window of the plane it looked gnarly and I'm sure there's areas that have never seen a human footprint.
The one major road out of Punta Arenas stretches through seemingly endless rolling acres of farmland. At Puerto Natales the mountains start to rise around the edges of Golfo Almirante Montt, an incredible network of waterways eventually leading to the South Pacific Ocean.
Torres Del Paine National Park has been named at the top of many lists of the world's most beautiful National Parks, and for very good reason. As you drive closer and closer, the enormous twisted and evil looking granite fist of the Cuernos (Horns) grows ever more imposing. It's hard to describe in words just how incredible this mountain range is, the giant grey granite towers capped with black basalt horns just look hellish. On a fine day you could stand there for hours taking in all the detail of the mountain faces, but more often than not the swirling winds are gale force and cut through to the bone.
It's a wildlife lovers paradise with lakes and heathlands swarming with dozens of incredible looking birdlife including flamingos, hawks and condors. Groups of native Guanaco related to the llama can be seen roadside grazing, undoubtedly being spied upon by Pumas from above on the hillsides. They are rarely seen in daylight and luckily very timid, but you always get the feeling you are being watched when hiking the trails alone.
There are many to visit, but seeing one of the huge glaciers up close and personal is a seriously humbling experience. I jumped on a boat from the Hotel Grey that takes a 3 hour round trip and stops briefly at all three faces of the glacier. Each face seems to be more epic than the last both in height and structure. The colour, shape and texture of ice thousands of years old making its final stand before melting into the lake is incredible. Truly one of mother nature's most epic creations, but for who knows how long. Our planet's glaciers are all in a state of retreat - an undeniable fact that global warming is real and amplifying. It's horrifying to think that these monsters of nature may not be there in a hundred years time, maybe less.
The park is a hikers paradise and can get extremely hectic in peak season which is December through to March, so I would suggest a trip in early to mid Autumn. Mountain weather is always going to be unpredictable but it was not overly cold with little snow at low altitude. The crowds were light at the majority of the camps except for Campamento Torres which is one hours hike below the most popular sight in the park, The Towers. At that time of year especially on the Argentinian side of the border, you will be treated to the most vibrant autumn foliage you’re likely to see anywhere in the world.
Torres Del Paine unfortunately has suffered several bushfires in the past 10 years caused by careless tourists and as such has lost the majority of its trees. Acre upon acre are now covered by twisted dead trunks and serve as a memory for all who visit that this precious environment is fragile and deserves the utmost respect and protection from all who are lucky enough to visit.
Cross the Argentinian border to the north and follow highway 40 towards the tiny mountain village of El Chalten until the famous rocky peaks of Cerro Torre and Mount Fitzroy are at your feet. This road has to be one of the most epic in the world. Stopping for a photo looking down the road at sunrise or sunset is a must with the giant peaks dead ahead. Seeing Mount Fitzroy for me was a particularly special moment.
I've been inspired by the founders of the brand Patagonia for years both for their adventurous nature and environmental efforts to protect Patagonia. I'm not a rock climber and never will be but reading the tails of Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins scaling Fitzroy back in the 70s still blows me away. For those that really want to test their grit on the rock faces, this area is a mecca. I can only imagine what the views from up there would be like.
Many trail heads begin on the fringes of El Chalten and wind their way through beautiful forest valleys up to the base of the famous peaks. Laguna Torre is a must see with a stunning camp ground situated just a 10 minute walk over the hill to the glacial lake in front of the mighty Cerro Torre. We were treated with a perfect sunny day’s hike to this campground through the most beautiful autumn colours I’ve ever seen. I only had a small taste of this amazing area but you could literally spend months exploring the endless trail system that winds through the mountains.
Poincenot and Laguna Capri were the two other campgrounds I stayed at in the region both offering stunning views of Mount Fitzroy, surrounded by lakes, streams and tarns allowing endless photographic compositions. From the Poincenot campground the brutally steep hike up to Laguna Del Los Tres is a must. The walk is only about 1 kilometre but rises over 400 metres vertically, but worth every drop of sweat if the peaks are visible. Unfortunately Fitzroy was clouded in the morning we made the trek up, but still an epic experience nonetheless.
What else can I say? It is an absolutely epic place on the grandest of scales. Your jaw will drop at every turn leaving you speechless. It’s easy to see why people become addicted to this place spending year after year exploring the parks. It definitely did that to me and I'm already trying to plan when and how I can get back there to see more. For those with serious wanderlust for wild places, I could not recommend a visit to Patagonia highly enough.
Written by James Unthank. See more of James' adventures and photography on Instagram: @jim_delmar