There’s something undeniably special about long multi-day treks through nature. They revitalize our souls in a way few things can. They offer us a different way of understanding a place, moving slowly, really taking a scene in with all of your senses.
I personally have hiked mountains in Ethiopia, and thru-hiked the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier. I’ve hiked the length of small islands and the coast of Portugal. Each of these places left an impression on me that I wouldn’t have gotten through the glass of a car window. It’s no wonder I was called to Torres Del Paine National Park deep in the heart of Patagonia-often deemed the best place to hike in the world.
I chose to hike the Torres del Paine full circuit with the great outift over at Erratic Rock. While guides are not required for any of the treks in Torres Del Paine, and, yeah, I could have handled this trek on my own, going with a guide turned out to be an excellent decision. In retrospect, it made the whole experience more enjoyable overall (much more on that below!).
What to Know Before Hiking Torres del Paine:
Want to be laughed at in Patagonia? Ask a local what the weather is going to be like for the next week. The term “four seasons in a day” doesn’t even seem to do this place justice. During the trek we experienced everything from beautiful 80 degree sunshine to driving sideways rain, 85 mph (you read that right) winds to a white out blizzard. Oftentimes it was as if the rain and the wind were at war with each other; just after the rain soaks everything in it’s path, a strong gust of wind out of Antarctica blows through drying everything within reach.
The crazy weather made it an authentic Patagonian experience. It’s also why going with a knowledgeable guide proved to be truly important when it came to our itinerary. The night before setting off, he adjusted our starting point to ensure we would go over the John Gardner Pass on a good day (avoiding the snow and sleet storm that seemed imminent in the coming week). As a result we had a wonderful day with spectacular views of Glaciar Grey from the the top of the pass. Going over the pass with visibility for miles in every direction made comprehending the sheer size of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field a possibility.
The Torres del Paine trek, more than any I’ve ever done before, required the right kind of gear for the trail. Many of the campsites provided little protection from the elements, and it wasn’t out of the ordinary to see someone’s tent take flight with the caracara birds in the area. The high quality four-season tents provided by Erratic Rock kept me warm on nights when the temperature dropped well below freezing. More importantly, the tent stayed stationary when the strong winds fought to carry them along.
Tough tents were not the only necessity, though. “I always thought trekking poles were for the senior citizens going for slow walks next to the beach,” thought Nick, one of six in my hiking group. It’s fair to say his opinion had changed thoroughly by the end of our circuit. With a full pack on your back, trekking poles support your knee and hip joints on the steep declines throughout the hike. More importantly, they acted as stability when we found ourselves on the narrow trails on the sides of mountains and the aforementioned wind gusts did their best to try and knock us off our feet.
Quick-drying base layers, waterproof outer gear, warm layers for the cold nights, dry bags for your electronics, and the low-tech but extremely effective trash bag around your sleeping bag and dry clothes inside your pack are all highly recommended as well!
One of the many advantages to doing the full circuit instead of just the extremely popular W trek is that the crowds on the backside of the park were much more manageable. As soon as we hit the W portion of the trek, the number of people fighting for trail space, tent space, and cooking space was much greater. At present, there is no limit to the number of people that can trek each day, and it’s understandable that people are coming from all around the world for the special experience here.
Again, here is where going with a guide proved to be well worth it. There were days where we spent more time exploring, and there were days when we hustled to make camp earlier in the day. After witnessing about 100 people sleeping head-to-toe on the cooking area floor because there was no room for their tents, the hustle to the Campamento Los Cuernos completely made sense.
While the crowds were a hassle in camp, on the trail most people were very courteous and friendly, realizing and respecting that everyone was there for the wonderful experience with nature.
Trekking in Torres Del Paine felt like my high school Earth Science class had come to life. Martian-shaped lenticular clouds that would have been at home in the sky of a Dali painting floated overhead. Weather systems traced mountain ranges and changed so quickly it was like watching a movie in fast-forward. The sheer size of Glaciar Gray suddenly made it easy to understand how glacial erosion works. The towers made of granite remain where the overlying sedimentary rock layer has been completely eroded away.
I peppered Koen, our wonderful guide, with question after question about how this amazing place at the end of the world had been formed. He patiently answered all of my questions, and suddenly all those Science classes of my past became extremely relevant and equally fascinating.
We also talked extensively about how the massive glaciers were receding. Tree lines on La Isla reveal just how far Glaciar Gray has receded in only about five years’ time. It’s one thing to think about the theory of climate change and another entirely to see it personally. Despite already knowing the overwhelming importance of its effects and the pressures to reduce them, seeing such jolting evidence in real time left an impression I will never forget.
With all it has to offer, Patagonia always held an air of fascination for me, and this is one of those trips that truly outpaced all expectations I had. A big thanks to Erratic Rock for organizing this wonderful excursion – one I hope to revisit before long.