Winter Trekking in Patagonia
By Helen Cordery
There is something strangely delicious about stepping onto fresh snow. There’s the soft crunch as you place your heel, that tiny sinking feeling as the ball of your foot goes down, then the gentle smattering of ice as your toes press in. Patagonia in winter is like a forgotten wonderland, a solitary space tainted only by white powder, birdsong, and my footsteps. A crisp breeze caresses rather than smothers, the notorious winds for which the area is so well-known have died down for the season (and won’t start up again until spring). This is a place to close your eyes and tune in to your breath, a meditative moment that pricks the hairs on my arms and forces me to realize the insignificance of the world I’d left behind. Right here, in this most fairytale-like of settings, I feel closer to something grander than I ever have before.
I am in Torres del Paine, a sprawling 181,414 hectare park enclosed by pampas and subpolar forests, a place that few people imagine as doable in winter. In summer, the crowds descend en masse, some 250,000 hiking boots trampling the famed W and O circuits in the hope of seeing the towering Paine massif for themselves, or perhaps some of the Park’s legendary fauna. It turns out, however, that winter in Patagonia is actually one of travel’s best kept secrets. The crowds have all gone (most likely to one of Chile’s incredible ski centers), the long-traversed tracks taking on new life as they glisten beneath a fresh wave of snow. The famous sights, like the aforementioned granite towers, appear new and revitalized, soaring above mountains, lakes and blanketed fields crisper than any painting.
Embarking on the W Trek in winter is not for the faint-hearted. It is cold, but once the initial shock fades it becomes refreshing. The views are sublime and I don’t see any other people on the trails beside the small group I am travelling with. My first day out exploring and I am rewarded by a group of guanacos, cousin of the domesticated llama, who are completely oblivious to our clicking cameras because they are busy frolicking in the snow. The guanaco is, without a doubt, a beautiful creature, all long limbs and doe-shaped eyes, with numbers of around 2,500 in the Park. One of the perks of off-season travel is that the wildlife leave their nooks and crannies more often, spurred out by the lack of human visitors. It is not uncommon to see skunks, baguales (wild horses), armadillos, huemul (South Andean Deer),or even pumas (mountain lions) in the open, as well as all manner of birdlife including the loica (Long-Tailed Meadowlark), and Lesser Horned Owls.
I spend my days venturing out into the valleys and trying to zoom in on distant Andean condors.
Nights are spent snoozing in the refugios, hiker accommodation within the Park that provide a comfy bed, hot showers and heartening Chilean stews for dinner. These spaces have a communal atmosphere, and serve to further the connection with my group. Connection is what Cascada Expediciones – the company I have booked with – are all about, whether that be a connection to people, nature or with the Park itself. They are also dedicated to maintaining the Park, whose fragile ecosystem is straining beneath the weight of all those tramping boots; by travelling in the off-season, you allow for the Park to take a breather.
On my fifth day, I find myself in front of the Grey Glacier. It is colossal, 6 km wide and more than 30 meters high with its front end severed due to a large iceberg breaking away in 2017. There is snow falling as I gaze over its length, fragmenting the blackness of my gloves, but the clouds overhead pass quickly, a reminder of how unpredictable the weather is in this part of the world. It is hard to turn my gaze away, but eventually the time comes to continue the adventure.
My final day I spend clambering through gorges and forests en route to the towers themselves. It’s an arduous climb and my fingers are freezing, while the moraine (a mass of rocks deposited by a glacier) is difficult to traverse and there are moments on the ascent where I question my sanity.
And then I reach the Mirador. This is it, the culmination of my trip and the closest I will get to the towers. I am spellbound, struck; I cannot tear my eyes away, and neither can anyone else. The towers themselves, labelled Paine (blue) in the local Tehuelche language, look like the gateway to another world with a sharp sheen brought on by the contrasting snow. It’s electric, a 45 minute flashback to an Earth I’d long forgotten that goes too fast but definitely makes my unhappy fingers feel their sacrifice was worthy. As I turn away to begin the downward sludge, a pang of sadness hits me. Some places have a magical quality, and Torres del Paine is one of them; this will surely go down in the annals of a life’s best travel moments.