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Chile

Trekking the Torres del Paine… (subtitle: The Goldilocks Trek)

A lounging guanaco (a type of llama native to this area)

I’m not gonna lie: my last few treks have been hard. I’m not just talking about the physical part either, which was challenging enough on its own, but within my range of ability. What made the last two treks difficult was everything else that goes with any outdoor activity—the stuff that you can plan for, but not control. I’m talking about things like extreme weather conditions, altitude, trail erosion, hard sleeping conditions—all of these things (and more) can make a merely “challenging” trek become “extremely difficult” in no time flat. Normally, despite a bit of grumbling, I take it in stride because I understand that it’s part of the experience; however, this year I decided I had earned myself a break. I wanted this year’s trek to be more comfortable so I could focus on the physical part without having to worry about being swept away by high river crossings, slipping down a hill of mud, or unable to sleep because freezing within the confines of my tent is still infinitely more preferable to freezing outside while peeing behind a rock.

EcoCamp Patagonia

This line of thinking is what brought me to EcoCamp Patagonia, the “world’s first geodesic dome hotel,” which prides itself on providing the most comfort possible while being 100% sustainable. So, I can enjoy a bit of luxury and know that my impact on Patagonia’s fragile ecosystem is as low as possible. The trek itself is the Torres del Paine 5-day “W” trek, which is made up of a series of out-and-back trails that take you to the best that the Torres del Paine has to offer, which include the Paine range, glacier-fed lakes, and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. With the exception of one day/night, all treks start and end at EcoCamp, so I have the promise of a hot shower, a gourmet meal, and as much wine as my dehydrated body can handle after a day of trekking. Now this is my kind of camping.

 

Day 1: Arrival at EcoCamp.

My god, it feels good to be amongst nature again. This place feels like a geodesic paradise—just a smattering of green dots at the base of the Paine massif, unobtrusive, not detracting at all from the immense beauty of its surroundings. Buckminster Fuller (the inventor of the geodesic dome) would have been proud to see his creation thus employed.

EcoCamp

The “hotel” is comprised of a number of domes of varying levels of comfort, along with larger “community domes” that contain the dining hall, bar, and lounge area. There’s even a dome for yoga and one for massage. Merely having a bed and a hot shower is far above the standard to which I’ve grown accustomed on my treks, so I didn’t go crazy by also splurging on a “suite.” That said, I’m in a shared basic dome without heat or electricity, but equipped with beds piled high with woolen blankets, so I won’t have to worry about freezing during the cold Patagonian night. I am joined on this trek by a small group of lovely people from Canada and the U.S., all of whom are fellow lovers of the outdoors and experienced hikers. It’s always a treat to be among like-minded souls.

Tonight’s dinner is albacore on a bed of toasted lentils, accompanied by plenty of Carménère. Will I ever be able to return to normal trekking after this?

Day 2: French Valley; 15 miles, 2250 ft elevation gain. 8 hours.

Paine Grande

The day starts with a ferry ride across the exquisitely turquoise Pehoe lake to get to the starting point of the Valle Frances trek. Claudio, our guide, is a wealth of information about Patagonia—he’s like a historian, botanist, zoologist, and geologist in one tidy package. He explains that while Chilean Patagonia was declared a national park in 1959, much of the Torres del Paine trek (including the land upon which the EcoCamp resides) is on privately owned land, a fact that surprises me. Apparently, the land was owned by a Croatian family long before 1959 and they had ample documentation to prove it, so when the government attempted to reclaim it, the family’s savvy legal team prevailed. 

We disembark from the ferry and arrive at the Paine Grande Refugio, which is where we will sleep tonight (tonight is our one night away from EcoCamp). From here, we begin our trek to the French Valley, which is in the heart of the Paine massif. It feels good to be moving and I’m invigorated to be ensconced in nature, on a warm gorgeous day, breathing fresh mountain air. Unlike my last trek, the hiking trails are clearly marked and blissfully free of donkey poo (donkeys are not allowed anywhere in Patagonia). It’s nice to have one less thing to look for when you take each step. 

All of the trails in Torres del Paine are what’s called “Patagonian flat,” which is basically a series of undulating uphills and downhills. We hike along the trail for hours, occasionally stopping at bubbling streams to replenish our water. Having had giardia in the past, I’m hesitant to drink the water, but Claudio insists it’s fine. Oh, what the hell. At least the water is crisp, cold, and refreshing.

A small avalanche on Paine Grande

After four hours, we finally reach our destination: the heart of the massif at the base of Paine Grande. We sit upon a rock to eat our lunches in the sun, admiring the view of the mountain that rises before us, a massive geological formation of granite, ice, and snow. Occasionally, we hear a roll of thunder and a loud crack as cornices break free in small avalanches. It’s a mesmerizing sight to watch and we’re reluctant to leave it when it’s time to begin the long trek back.

As we make our way back, we see several condors flying high above us. Remembering last year’s trek, I mentioned to Claudio that the indigenous people of Bolivia believed a condor sighting to be a sign of bad weather. He hadn’t heard of that superstition, but didn’t discount it either. Hopefully this doesn’t apply to Chilean condors.

We finally make it back to the Paine Grande Refugio, which is a like a big rustic lodge with rooms full of bunk beds and a large dining hall serving a limited menu. Tonight it’s pressure-cooked chicken with a massive dollop of runny mashed potato. On any other trek, I would be perfectly fine with this meal; however, one night at EcoCamp has made me soft and I listlessly pick at my potatoes.

Day 3: Grey Glacier; 9 miles, 800 ft elevation gain. 4 hours.

As if last year’s experience with bad weather were not enough, I now have a newfound appreciation for the wisdom of indigenous superstitions. Despite the gorgeous weather of the previous day, it stormed all night, with thunder clapping and pellets of rain hitting the window of our room. By morning, the rain had turned to snow, which didn’t “fall” so much as it was blown horizontally by the strong winds. I looked outside, feeling completely demotivated and unwilling to venture out. Remind me, why do I do this again?

Grey Glacier

Naturally, Claudio is undeterred and acts as though it’s nothing. He knows Patagonia better than anyone and says it changes from moment to moment; however, right this second it’s hard to imagine it improving beyond its current pathetic state. I eat my breakfast in silence, barely registering my soggy toast as I contemplate the day ahead. I feel a brief moment of gratitude that today’s hike is short compared to the others.

After breakfast, we venture out—this time, fully bundled up with several layers and a rain jacket. As we trudge on, the wind is howling, but the snow dissipates to an occasional sleet. Soon, the angry sky breaks up and patches of blue make a timid appearance. The wind is still biting, but the day is showing signs of promise. By the time we reach our destination four and a half hours later, the weather has cleared—within the span of six hours, we experienced all four seasons. I should have trusted Claudio this morning and not wasted any time on a negative attitude.

Because the Grey Glacier is inaccessible by foot, our destination is a ferry on Lake Grey, which is as turquoise as all the lakes in this area, but dotted with little islands of ice floating lazily upon its surface. We get on the ferry and it slowly takes us closer to the glacier, which is a breathtaking ice field made of massive blocks of pale blue ice crystals rising from the earth. Suddenly, my question from this morning is answered: this is why I do this. This is why I venture outside on blustery mornings—it’s because of this and a multitude of places like it on our beautiful planet, none of which you’ll see if you stay inside where it’s warm. There are simply not enough adjectives in our limited vocabulary to describe the beauty of this place. If today was the last day of our trek, I would be content.

The Grey Glacier

Day 4: Mirador del Torres; 13 miles, 3000 ft elevation gain. 9.5 hours. 

Today is the big day—the signature trek of the Torres del Paine to see the granite towers that are the iconic symbol of the national park. It’s also the hardest day of the trek, with several climbs culminating at a moraine that we’ll need to cross to get to the towers. This trek is often broken into two parts by other trekkers, but we’re doing it in one long day. 

The day could not be more sublime: perfectly clear, warm, and with no hint of bad weather. We start the trek in high spirits, hiking along terrain that has grown familiar, enjoying the valleys and streams and suspension bridges that are all over this land. After many hours of this, we reach the base of the moraine, which is a hill of massive rocks. It’s like a “trial by boulder,” a rite of passage that must be crossed in order to be deemed worthy enough to gaze upon the jewel of the Torres del Paine. We slowly climb, carefully picking our way through, mindful of our steps to ensure we leave this place without sprains or strains or broken bones.

After nearly an hour of climbing and clambering, we finally reach our destination: three massive granite monoliths rising into a clear blue sky, with a glacial pool at its base. Nikola Tesla said “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” It’s in places like this where you really feel the truth of this statement, surrounded as we are by a spectacle of nature and engulfed in the energy of these ancient stones. 

The infamous towers

We sit in the presence of these giants, eating our lunch and recovering from the climb. Soon, it’s time to descend and start the long journey back. It feels a little anticlimactic to have such a long trek still ahead of us, but I am propelled by the thought of a hot shower, a delicious meal, and wine at the end. Never underestimate the motivating power of a few simple pleasures.

Day 5: Departure. 

I woke up exhausted and more than a little discombobulated from yesterday’s long day. Descending from that moraine was the absolute limit for my poor knees and they woke me up several times in the night, screaming reminders of my age. Nevertheless, I am profoundly sad to leave this place today. I feel as if I could make this little hotel my home—or as they say here, my “dome sweet dome.” It’s a lovely oasis in this exquisite wilderness.

After a few years of treks that were too wet, too muddy, too cold, too everything, I finally had a trek that was just right. My Goldilocks trek. I cannot imagine a more perfect experience, with just the right balance of effort and comfort. Of course, a perfect trek doesn’t exactly make for interesting storytelling, but it does give me something to cherish—a memory so lovely that it inspires me to keep my feet moving along the trail, and my heart open to the next new adventure. 

I can’t wait to return someday. The Torres del Paine is only a small part of Patagonia and there is much left to see. 

***

“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains…“ – John Muir

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About colleen finn

Colleen Finn is a globe trotting, sight seeing, day tripping, frequent flying traveler with a penchant for voluntourism.

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