In Patagonia Day 9
Puerto Natales—Lago Grey, Torres del Paine
One of those days that makes me wonder about transportation infrastructure for scenic hiking. Torres del Paine is probably the largest tourist draw in southern Chile. A park with mountains, lakes, glaciers, and well-designed paths, it serves to draw huge numbers of walkers, each with varying experience. The systems in place—buses, ferry boats, refugios, campsites, equipment rental companies, hostels, and travel agents—all conspire to both attract visitors and fulfill their needs. The stress on the ecosystem is palpable, though the number of people has been restricted in the past few years, owing to a fire that destroyed much of the hardwood forests growing in the park. It was started by some foreign campers causing something of an international incident, apparently with the offending country paying reparations to Chile. Now I understand why when I bought matches at the supermarket, the cashier asked if I was going to Torres del Paine and frowned when I said yes. There is much resentment for the destruction, which I saw firsthand today as all the trees were dead, dried bones with scorch-marked still-standing trunks. My transportation started with a very early walk to the bus, three hour ride (the last on gravel roads) across huge tracts of grazing land, both sheep and cattle. After entering the park (which seemed like crossing an international boundary) the bus wound past tall, jagged mountains with a lot of snow-pack at altitude. The rock strata are clearly evident with the upthrust pitching the lines at all angles. The bus dropped the crew at Lake Pudeto to await a water taxi to take us to Paine Grande— a deluxe refugio (that also has a campground) which serves as one of the entrances to the trails. As I could not get enough sites reserved to make a substantial trek, my days are determined by the reservations I could make, so today I walked to Refugio Grey along the lake to the glacier, and settled in there. Tomorrow I explore a bit then back to Paine Grande to camp and catch the ferry the following morning. Not exactly a rigorous trek but been really having knee problems so it’s just as well. The beginning of today’s walk brought double deja vu—the very beginning was exactly like the start of the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland, but once the path started up a narrow valley and the sun appeared, it was exactly like the opening climb up Kinder Scout on the Pennine Way.
It was a rocky path, though the ascents and descents were gentle. The campsite at Grey is in an unburned woods, including an old growth section of beeches that closely resemble the ones in New Zealand, which helped give some sense of what the park used to look like. It was also one of those walks with a climax at the end. At the head of the lake is a large glacier, and the path stops at a viewpoint just above a quiet cove filled with huge pieces of blue and white ice broken off and just drifting. Curious why the ice is so blue, but as I write this the Internet is no where to be found. Besides, I just want to think about it for a while. As I sat there watching the sun sink, the air would echo with sharp cracks which I first took for avalanches up the mountainside, but then realized (of course) it was the ice breaking off into the lake. Evening music.
T. Hugh Crawford