What it’s Like to Trek in Southern Patagonia

The towers above, the glaciers below

Any great trek should test you physically and mentally, but it also should get you where it counts – emotionally.

Trekking in Southern Patagonia does all that, but if you had to pick just one of its outstanding elements it would have to be the spectacular scenery.

In Torres del Paine National Park in Southern Chile, Tusker’s W circuit trek leads to the base of the iconic horned towers within the Cordillera Paine massif. If those rising throne-like gray brooding peaks weren’t enough, the contrasting glacially carved huge azure lakes will get you – emotionally.

To pick one drop dead gorgeous view is silly, but for silly’s sake how about the trek entering French Valley on the W circuit’s mid-leg where there are calving glacial icebergs alongside the looming yellowish granite towers above you.

Physical nature

This trip comes with a lower physical cost. Altitude is not the issue, the challenge is the distance we cover,” said Andrew Springsteel, Tusker’s South American trip leader. “One of the longest segment is hiking up and down French Valley. It’s an eight hour hike. There are other segments on the trek that will take eight or more hours.”

The highest point in Torres del Paine is hard to pin down and gets lowered every time someone bags one of the three largest peaks. This is a land of high exaggeration and rightly so. Since 2011 Cerro Paine Grande at 9,462-ft., has been considered the highest point. None of the W circuit treks attempt to summit as the three highest peaks are all technical climbs. Cerro Paine has only been summited three times.

Much of the trek is below 6,000 feet, however there are several major miradors or look out points; and to reach them requires 600 to 2500-foot ascents and descents. Andrew describes these climbs as rugged because they are on rocky and sometimes scree covered terrain.

Wind, rain etc.…

The variable weather is a big x-factor while trekking in Patagonia. Expect Mother Nature’s smorgasbord. “The wind comes and goes and it could be blowing between 10 and 20 miles per hour for hours then be calm. It could be sunny or rainy throughout the day; you can start your day in 30 degree freezing weather and later in the day hit the 70’s. It averages in the 50’s and 60’s so a good layering system, rain gear and a pack cover are essentials,” Andrew adds.

A walk on the icy side

Hiking on a glacier is another southern Patagonia special experience. The Grey Glacier in Torres del Paine is where Tusker’s trekkers strap on crampons and wield ice axes for their 2.5 hour guided glacier hike. Glaciers are not a giant white ice cube but have their own distinctive icescape that includes ice caves. These are crystal clear blue and interrupt the terrain which is not flat. Andrew describes the glacier walk as low risk, but high emotional reward. The path has no massive crevasses and is one of those once in a lifetime experiences that only Southern Patagonia can provide.

More than just a trek

Completing Torres del Paine’s W circuit yields a hiking high much different than reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro. Getting to the top of Africa requires immense physical challenge that can result in immense satisfaction and an infusion of self-confidence. This trek might be the opposite. Although still tough in hiking terms, Torres del Paine’s raw timeless beauty brings a humbling effect that transports you back several millennia to when the planet was pristine and humans were at one with their environment.

If you want to be humbled by the land and shaped by nature’s variable, sometimes capricious weather, then trekking in southern Patagonia might be an out-of-this-world experience that some of us crave, but all of us need.

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