Sightseeing by Foot in Los Glaciares National Park

Sightseeing by Foot in Los Glaciares National Park

When we rolled into El Chaltén it was a blustery afternoon and the surrounding Andes Mountains were hidden by dark grey clouds. Through the rain splattered windows I saw outdoor gear shops, hostels, coffee shops, boutique hotels, and a small grocery store all within a short walk from anywhere in town. This was our home base while we spent two full days hiking and running some of the most famous trails in Patagonia. Our tour bus carried runners and hikers from Asia, Europe, and USA as part of Andes Adventures Patagonia Running Adventure. As our bus slowed to a crawl through town I was aroused from my road trip stupor to a state of excited anticipation.

The weather was clear and warm earlier that day when we stopped at Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park. We walked the boardwalks beside Argentino Lake where the 250-foot front wall of the glacier was calving. We often saw waves in the lake before we heard the sharp crack of the ice breaking and its splash into the water. Perito Moreno glacier is part of the second largest extra-polar ice field in the world comprising over 200 glaciers; it is one of the few glaciers in the world that is still advancing. Fifty kilometers of the Chile – Argentina border, which runs through this ice field, remains undefined and a source of dispute between the two countries; this southern Patagonia ice field is an enormous resource of fresh water.

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Chaltén means “smoking mountain” in Tehuelche and refers to numerous peaks in the area because they are notoriously shrouded in clouds. The most famous tower is 11,020 foot Mount Fitz Roy, named after the captain of the HMS Beagle that carried Charles Darwin on his famous expedition; this granite tower and its accompanying spires form the skyline that the Patagonia clothing company uses for its label. We planned to hike to Laguna de los Tres at the foot of Mount Fitz Roy on our second day when the weather forecast predicted clear skies.

The first day we hiked or ran 6 miles to Laguna Torre (“Lake of the Tower”) with an option to extend north to include Laguna Hija (“Child Lake”) and Laguna Madre (“Mother Lake”) completing a 17-mile loop back to town. Laguna Torre is a glacial lake that sits at the base of 10,177-foot Cerro Torre; this tower is considered one of the most difficult climbing challenges in the world because its vertical walls are topped by overhanging mushrooms of ice. When we reached Laguna Torre, we were disappointed to find low clouds concealing Cerro Torre.

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A brisk wind was blowing across the water and rain was intermittently sprinkling, but with the temperature in the 50’s the conditions felt comfortable for running so I joined two others from our group and continued to Lagunas Hija and Madre to complete the loop. It was significantly warmer in the shelter of trees as we made our way up to the lakes. The trail was soggy in spots and we spotted the occasional small frog at our feet. Once in a while we would glance up and catch a glimpse of a rock tower peeking through the clouds. This was one my favorite runs on the trip; it was easy to moderate terrain without the crowds of the more popular trails.

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The trail to Mount Fitz Roy was more crowded and with good reason; the dramatic mountain spires were in view much of the way to Laguna de los Tres and the skies were clear that day. We started at the north end of the park and proceeded up through a beech forest offering us views of Piedras Blancas Glacier.

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Once out of the trees we could see Mount Fitz Roy and its accompanying towers in the distance.

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A ranger near the base of the final ascent to the lake sternly told us not to run the last kilometer. He wagged his finger, shook his head “no”, and then pantomimed pushing people out of the way. I wondered who had ruined the reputation of runners in this park. This last ascent was steep and rocky with areas of loose footing. The hill was so steep that the mountains and lake were hidden behind it which made for a breathtaking moment when we reached the top and experienced the full impact the view.

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I opted to hike down to the shore of Laguna de los Tres and up to another viewpoint where a lower lake could be seen. I could hear the waterfall between the two lakes but it was hidden in a crevice of the rock. I paused here taking in the stunning panorama, appreciating that the summer Patagonia weather, notorious for being rainy, cloudy, and windy, gave us a break on the day of our run to Mount Fitz Roy.

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An Epic Day in Patagonia

An Epic Day in Patagonia

“DAMN IT, UGH!” I cried out in frustration after being lifted by the wind and thrown against the rocks for the umpteenth time on Gardner Pass. I had been inching forward up the pass for nearly two hours with snowflakes stabbing my eyes and intense winds intermittently thrashing me backwards and sideways. I squinted in a futile attempt to protect my eyes, as I searched up the pass for the next orange post that marked the trail. The insanity of the conditions and my painfully slow progress triggered an urge to cry; after a lengthy inner dialogue my rational side won out; crying accomplishes nothing and I simply couldn’t spare the energy. I turned my entire focus to incrementally moving forward.  Summer weather in Patagonia can be atrocious.

On the southern end of South America, Chile and Argentina share the region of Patagonia. It is sparsely populated by people but plentiful in wildlife unique to the area. I frequently saw herds of three-foot tall camelid guanacos, small ostrich-like birds called rheas, and Andean Condors sporting wingspans of up to 10 feet. The Andes Mountains, steppes, grasslands, and deserts fill this space flanked by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.  In Chile, near the town of Puerto Natales, is Torres del Paine National Park – a phenomenal natural playground for climbers, trekkers, and runners. There were 14 runners on our Patagonia Running Adventure with a company named Andes Adventures. The Torres del Paine Circuit – also called the “O” for its shape – was one of the highlights of our trip.

Trekkers typically take seven to nine days to complete the roughly 75-mile Circuit. The fastest known time was 16 hours and 20 minutes achieved by elite ultra-runner Jason Schlarb in January 2014. Our itinerary was less ambitious dividing the circuit into five legs. The first was a short out-and-back from Hotel Las Torres, where we spent our first night in the park, to see the three giant granite towers for which the park was named. Torres is Spanish for “towers”; Paine is from the native Tehuelche word meaning “blue”.

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Andes Adventures had reserved meals, bunks, and bedding for us at three Refugios which eliminated the need to carry sleeping bags, shelter, and meals for the next four days. Our personal packs held snacks, extra running clothes, light clothing to wear inside the Refugios, rain gear, and toiletries. It was safe to drink the water directly out of the streams in Torres del Paine and opportunities to refill our 20-ounce bottles were plentiful.

The leg from Hotel Las Torres to Refugio Dickson was 18 miles of undulating terrain. We saw teal blue glacial lakes, open fields of daisies, and distant mountain peaks. We started our run in a chilly breeze under mostly sunny skies. Later, dark clouds lurked in the distance and the wind picked up so hard that while skirting along a ridge my hat was ripped from my pack and sent flying forever out of reach. We hustled past a trekking group from the UK as we descended to Refugio Dickson determined to get our share of the hot water before the rest of the crowd arrived.

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Our instincts proved to be accurate. When we arrived at Dickson there were only two functioning showers to serve the 30-40 campers and Refugio guests. Feeling more grimy than modest I slipped into one of the showers knowing there was a man in the neighboring stall. I figured the relaxed European modesty standards would prevail in this situation, but the gentleman was Latino and seemed deeply chagrined when he found himself sharing the space with a woman. Later, we made eye contact across the crowded dining room and gave each other a slight nod and tiny smile.

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Our running group occupied all the beds in Refugio Dickson. The rest of the guests slept in tents on the designated campgrounds. I shared a bunk room next to the common area with five other women; there was a men’s bunk room and a few private rooms upstairs. The dining room was for all to share and the kitchen crew efficiently served everyone in shifts. We shared stories and bottles of wine into the late evening hours. The dry humor of the Brits combined with liberal servings of wine made for an escalating volume of conversation and laughter. Knowing we had to get up early the next morning, I hoped the noise would die out at a reasonable hour. Thankfully, the Refugio quieted down by 10:00; the kitchen closed and the electricity was turned off.

The timing of our trip, near the Summer Solstice, offered 18 hours of daylight – plenty of time to get to the next Refugio. On Christmas Eve at 7:00 a.m. our group embarked on the most challenging leg of the circuit – an 18-mile stretch between Refugios Dickson and Grey that included 3,937-foot Gardner Pass. At home in Colorado this elevation would be lower than the forested foothills, but because Torres del Paine is so far south of the equator we would be well above the tree line at that elevation and exposed to Patagonia weather conditions notorious for random spells of nastiness.

Standing outside Refugio Dickson in the morning drizzle, we listened to our instructions. Our group consisted of experienced trail runners ranging in age from 20’s to 60’s. We were prepared to be strung out from each other and out of contact with our guides most of the day.  Our leader was adamant about one point: “Stop at the Los Perros campground shelter. Put on all of your rain gear and perhaps an extra layer for warmth,” he said, “Eat your lunch – even if you don’t feel hungry — because it will be a long time before you can eat again.” He said this at least twice. Los Perros was clearly our last chance for shelter before the final push up Gardner Pass and the weather forecast was ominous.

As we ran up through the beech tree forest toward Los Perros the trail alternated between forested muddy stretches and steep open rocky climbs. Wooden bridges offered dry crossing over gushing glacial streams. High snow fields peeked out through low hanging clouds. The air temperature dropped and a frigid wind chilled our ears. The last quarter mile into the campground was lined with small stones but it was unclear exactly where the shelter was located. As we wandered the grounds looking for the shelter, we spotted the first two members of our group continuing up the trail. They said they didn’t need to stop; they weren’t hungry; and moreover, they had chosen not to carry rain pants.

My partner and I had plenty of experience braving harsh conditions in the Colorado mountains above tree line and respected the guide’s warning that the weather could get gnarly. Stopping to eat and don our rain gear was never in question even though it was still mid-morning and we were feeling relatively fresh on our legs. We joined some trekkers in the shelter and sat down to eat lunch packed for us by the kitchen staff of Refugio Dickson. I opened the warm foil and discovered a fish sandwich made using fresh quinoa pancakes instead of bread; I was extremely grateful for the extra effort the cooks made to accommodate my gluten intolerance. Despite sitting in the enclosed shelter, I began to get chilled and decided to add an extra layer under my rain gear. Thankfully, a fellow runner had loaned me her spare hat to replace the one I lost.

We set off up the steep, slippery, muddy trail squeezing past a few trekkers weighed down by their packs. There were unavoidable sections of trail where we sank up to our ankles in mud. When we emerged from the trees, it was snowing lightly and the trail traversed across a snow field. I noticed the two frontrunners of our group up the mountain on the left, about 100 meters off the trail. They were sitting down. It seemed odd since they left Los Perros at least a half hour before us. We yelled up to them, pointing in the direction of the trail. Our main guide caught up to us at that point and became concerned when the two runners didn’t budge. He told us to go on and he would take care of the situation. Later, we learned, they had stopped because they were hungry, cold, and discouraged; they thought they were lost. After eating some lunch their energy returned; they changed into dry socks and warmed up when they got moving again. The brain fog that comes with low blood sugar can lead to dire consequences in the mountains; they were lucky they had stopped within sight of the trail.

As we rounded a bend on a low ridge above a river, we were suddenly slammed by a ferocious head wind. Trekkers, unable to stand up due to their larger packs catching the brunt of the wind’s force, deliberated over whether to turn back. I crouched low, and moved forward as fast as I could between surging gusts. The inconsistency of the wind velocity made it difficult to maintain my balance. Even crouching low, I found myself repeatedly knocked to the ground onto my knee or my hip.

The blowing snow created thigh deep drifts; our feet sank through and were soaked in icy cold streams of water. We encountered more floundering trekkers struggling in the deep drifts and intense wind. Because we didn’t have to carry so much gear, the runners had an advantage against the fierce winds. We trudged by the trekkers, made sure they were all right, and wished them luck.

A man coming down from the pass approached me and in crystal clear English said “The pass is closed”. I was confused. How do they close a pass? I briefly envisioned a locked gate. With the wind howling in our ears we had a shouting conversation where he was speaking Spanish and I was speaking English, neither one of us knowing what the other saying. But his message was clear when he pointed up to the sky, drew a circle in the air, and then pointed behind me down the trail.

I argued with him, telling him we were strong, traveling light, and needed to go forward, not back. Our next food and lodging were on the other side of the pass. We had nothing to go back to: no sleeping bags, no shelter, no food. In obvious frustration, the man waved me on, with a look on his face that said “I don’t have time for this idiocy, just go!” By the time this interchange ended, my partner had caught up to me and asked what it was about. I answered, “Just some guy who didn’t think we could make it over the pass.” We continued uphill into the howling wind. As the wind intensified, my partner and I became focused on our own personal battle with the elements. We had visual contact but were separated enough that communication was impossible. The rest of our group was nowhere in sight. I wondered about my sanity and worried about the safety of my running mates who were all strung out behind us.

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At the top of the pass, there were prayer flags wildly whipping in the wind and I marveled that they weren’t torn to shreds. I wanted a photo but the risk of having my mitten snatched by the wind was too great, so I settled for the memory. I glanced back for my partner; he waved me forward. No argument there.

The wind eased up slightly on the other side of the pass and allowed us to partly run and partly slide on our feet down a snowfield following the trail of orange posts. Suddenly I noticed the clouds had parted in the distance allowing a stream of sunshine to break through and reveal the massive glacier below us – Glacier Grey. Spanning 104 square miles, it commanded nearly all my field of vision.  Ghostly dark fissures gave it texture and character, and though its movement was imperceptibly slow, its presence had a lifelike quality. Chills rippled through my body.

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We reached the shelter of the trees knowing we were about to experience an entirely different challenge. Our guide had referred to the next section as “the monkey trail”. This steep, slippery, muddy, winding trail required us to grab branches with our hands to help control our speed and direction down the slope. Despite the branches and strategically placed ropes and metal railings available to grab, my feet slid out from under me and I wound up careening down the hill on my butt. My rain gear was offering zero friction, and if it weren’t for the tree roots, the trail could have served as a fast and muddy bobsled course. After the recent harrowing experience on Gardner Pass I found this situation on the monkey trail to be hysterically funny.

After the monkey trail the path turned to firm rolling terrain lined with wildflowers. The sun fully emerged from behind the lingering clouds.  We peeled off our layers and relaxed in the warmth and calm. Peeking through the trees was the eerie, ever-present Glacier Grey. The rest of our run was along exposed ridges and forested areas. We descended into a rocky gulch and climbed out on fixed metal ladders.  The deeper gulches offered crossing via high suspension foot bridges. We passed through a large burned area from a fire that forced closure of the park four years earlier; the cause was determined to be by an irresponsible tourist.

Refugio Grey was situated near Grey Lake on the south end of Glacier Grey. In singles, pairs or threes, our group straggled in to the Refugio over the course of the afternoon. When dinner was served at 7:30 we were still missing several runners. Keeping an eye on the entrance to the Refugio we sat down to eat our Christmas Eve feast.

Conversation over dinner was dominated by traumatic stories; some members of the group were caught in a whiteout; others were delayed by rangers at Las Perros; feet had gone numb; hats were blown off; and food supplies exhausted. I told my partner about how I wanted to cry on the pass and he said “Hell, I cried!” One of the younger women was escorted by two rangers down the monkey trail; one holding her hand and the other bracing her feet so she wouldn’t slip; they gave her hot chocolate at Campamento Paso; she “friended” them on Facebook later.

Glaringly absent were the stories of our tail group of older runners. While we were lingering over dessert, I caught a glimpse of our sweep guide standing outside near the entrance of the Refugio. We rushed to the door and were relieved to see the last arrivals of our group. As I was hugging one of the women, old enough to be a grandmother, she let out with endearing candor a string of expletives to describe her ordeal on Gardner Pass. These runners had clung together and were heroically assisted by our sweep guide over the pass. We thanked him profusely. He looked exhausted.

Our guide, in his 19 years leading groups on his Patagonia Running Adventure tour, had never experienced such horrible conditions. I learned that the man who tried to turn me back was a ranger and the pass was indeed officially closed. Allowing the runners through was against the ranger’s better judgement but he acquiesced first at my stubbornness and again at the pleas from our guide who convinced him there was no viable alternative.

Christmas Eve will always trigger fond memories of that day in Torres del Paine. The vast unique landscape and the temperamental weather made me feel at once puny and strong. My running mates in their 60’s inspired me by proving age does not necessarily define a person’s drive or sense of adventure. Finally, I learned, that in the middle of summer in Patagonia you can get caught in a blizzard.

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