The Crown Jewel // Chile
Patagonia is a place, a space, an idea, a dream, more than you thought, bigger than you imagined, fiercer than the sun, revealing slow moments softer than moon shadows. Patagonia is shared by two countries- a riotous swath of desert, forest, and mountains, of rocks, trees, and grave wind between two churning oceans. Drinking from sole to soul, of lavish freshness, deep with nutrients that have no name, a richness that is vibrant and calming. A wild and largely unpopulated place near the bottom of the earth that holds endless possibility to experience nature with a capital N. The more you read on it, the more there is to learn; the longer we visit, the easier it is to stop the rolling of our wheels and really absorb this bounty.
Having just shared space with family for 10 days in this wild paradise, our hearts were full and readied for another round of exploring the depths and heights of Southern Patagonia.
Beneath the basalt columns rising from Morro Chico, we spent a windy afternoon on the winding waters of the Rio Pendiente. (P.S. this was from our time here in March, been making more content than we can process!)Occurring in the ñire and coihue trees, Pan de Indio (Cyttaria harioti) is so called because the Yámana and Selk’nam natives would eat these edible fungus as if bread- literally in Spanish “Indian Bread.” So once we found this thick outcropping, we of course had to gather some. Most of the pan de indio here were smaller than ping-pong balls, and relatively lightweight. Eating one freshly picked from the tree, the flavor is similar to raw button mushrooms, but the texture is worlds away. It is bouncy like a nerf ball, or an eyeball, or perhaps like squid. Either way, when you bite down on the raw hongo, it bounces back to its original shape like a life form that has fought so hard to emerge from the cracks in these hardy southern beeches. Definitely an acquired texture, and not so much a strong taste as to require any commitment to learn to like. Since we had already plucked so many (an eager 4 year old harvester is hard to slow down), I later prepared the pan de indio thinly sliced and sautéed them in loads of garlic and good olive oil, a generous pinch of rough salt and tossed it all in a warm, fresh pasta. It was downright tasty!
While gathering pan de indio, we noticed these juicy mushrooms in the thick grass at the rivers edge. Not having the proper mushroom knowledge, we gathered them intending to look them up later, because that’d be stupid to die from some mushrooms. Once we had wifi (2 days later) Emily confirmed the mushrooms were edible, then sliced one open, to reveal a stem full of writhing maggots. UCK, with a little barf in the mouth. So, we looked a bit more & discovered ALL the mushrooms were hatching some new type of insect. Not the type of extra protein we are interested in, so we ditched the second variety of ‘shrooms, then promptly scrubbed our hands.
On the sunny shores, we giggled and soaked up vitamin D, watching Adam’s rhythmic casting of his new fly-fishing rod, courtesy of his mama Ellen, who left hers for him to use when she flew back after her visit. Of all the wild and windy stretches of road we have covered, we could not have been more surprised to see in Southern Patagonia, a cyclist pedaling into the wind with a huge smile across his face & a surfboard strapped to the side of his bike. We immediately flipped a u-turn to say hello & see if the brave soul needed anything we had to offer. Lester from Venezuela has been cycling overland for 20 months and didn’t need anything, but gladly accepted an orange we offered. Torres del Paine National Park in Chile is a place that in the 10 days we had just spent there, we’d only scratched the surface. Thirsty to spend more time lapping the crystalline waters, we returned from Puerto Natales with a well stocked pantry, ready to dive into the gem of Chile’s National Parks.But sometimes you discover so much more than you imagined. The time and silence, and vast overwhelming spaces are a gift for the mind.
After the loss of our son Aaro in May 2009, everything was numb, and simultaneously a hyper-sensitive experience. Requiring more effort to breathe, air was heavy, laborious, the smog of LA felt good, like nothing wholesome would comfort the deep and aching sadness that consumed every beat of our broken hearts. Somehow, I stayed completely sober for several months, not trusting myself to even indulge in more than a cursory smidgeon of wine, that the abyss- so dark and welcoming, would completely envelop me in a soft, slow embrace that I would never have the willpower to shake free of. A warm and liquid downfall, perhaps indulging every dark fantasy would swallow me in a world of chaos that called like a glorious siren from the treacherous sea of loss. Death, not just loss, so much more, so much bigger, bolder, angrier, more gut wrenching, then anything such a nice word as loss. Like, I lost my keys. Ah, what a loss. NO. A child, one you have grown inside your belly, felt kick to the beat of his favorite reggae tune, felt hiccup below your heart, one you have made plans for, to hold, to love, to forever cherish, and to have that stolen, in the dark hours of labor, never to return- is a weight that the word of loss makes too pretty. Our son died. We have survived, but it was a choice. So, you see our beautiful photos, of this life unplugged, on the road, with our children. Perhaps you think we are selfish and lucky and only indulging this life of wanderlust for ourselves, but we are not. We live this life with a small urn on our dashboard, taking our son with us every mile we drive, in our hearts every step of the way, showing Aaro, as well as his sisters, the wonders of the world. The majesty we hoped to share with him in the flesh, but now only in spirit. We work hard to lead the life we do, plugged into our children so that we can be with them, feel them, see them, smell them, hear them. To guide them, to learn from them, to tuck them in as many nights, to experience as many slow mornings snuggled in bed as we can. It is not about holding on, but savoring and experiencing all we can from these small moments with a present minded focus. The glory of life, to celebrate it, taste it, embrace it. To live our lives to honor our son, we choose to disengage from the fear factory that whispers so seductively into your ear, and we listen to the deep truth inside, that yells- LIVE! Dammit, GO and LIVE!Choosing not to play by corporate rule and consume without thought, or sign up for a mortgage we will be bound to, or neglect our daughters of each having their own bedroom- is not selfish. We are honoring this as our only guaranteed turn around the sun, a short and tender chance to flourish in the radiance that is this spark called life. A spark, that may catch and grow- if you are lucky. So, yes, we are lucky, but not in the way you may have thought- that we were given this life on a silver platter, but lucky to see what is possible in the darkest corners of loss, and also to see what can be made by embracing this spark of life and letting that light shine.
Adam & I have worked diligently to grieve the death of our son, to process and let the weight of it be. It has been six and a half years, and the taste of tears is not yet a distant memory. Nobody can tell one how long or how deep the tunnel of grief will be. It is like any other relationship- it has ebbs and flows, perhaps flowing thicker after a heavy day, waning after a glorious week, or suddenly blindsiding you with memory so present, the hairs on your arms and back of neck raise in silent terror. The loss of a child is so out of order, we are simply not built for it.
We have not written so often about this element of our lives, that we otherwise share so publicly, usually sheltering this tender underbelly of our deepest grief. It is not because we are ashamed, it is simply because we have wanted to focus on other elements of our multi-faceted lives. But sometimes, a shelf of grief breaks off, and healing is felt, and the words come, and telling, sharing, perhaps supporting or encouraging others in this process, is what feels like the best way to let that iceberg sail free.In Japanese, there is a term used in ceramics called kintsugi, which means golden joinery. As a philosophy, it views breakage and the subsequent repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. By addressing the damage, and repairing it with gold, the broken vessel becomes more valuable, not discarded.
So our calving grief, is mingled with overwhelming, heart-soaring joy. At 9 months- crawling, standing and dancing- is this little one, our second ambassador of love and joy, Sierra Luna. So this is life as we see it, not a singular experience, but a jewel with so many facets, angles to reflect the light.
In this big land with epic views around every corner, we found ourselves helping other stoked travelers document their adventures in Torres del Paine. Adam has been documenting some of the many hitchhikers we pick up (cool and safe ones, not creeps y’all) on a Yashika T4 camera using 35mm film asking them “Where are you from? Where are you going?”
It takes a special type of person to check out of life as you know it and leap into the world as an overlander. Compared to these folks, we are total wussies- living in our van, with shelter from the elements and so much stuff. We first met Ellen & Andi of Two Moto Kiwis at a scenic overlook just outside the park, a few days prior to this photo, when it was just starting to rain and so windy they dared not take off their helmets. We crossed paths again in the parking lot near the Hotel Las Torres where we were camping out waiting for some decent weather so we wouldn’t have to slog with the two babies. Surrounding their bike one afternoon was the sprawl of folks who had just returned from a very wet hike… tied to anything they could find was their tent & gear, arranged to optimize the most welcome sunny afternoon. We had planned on hiking, they had planned on riding, but we all changed plans and enjoyed a long, lazy, lovely afternoon meal, swapping overlanding tales of adventure, basking in the beaming sun on a grassy knoll beneath the behemoth mountain behind us. After 3 years on the road, they are back in Wanaka, NZ now saving up for their next big adventure.To throw around the trendy word ‘eco’ is easy, but to be truly ecocentric, eco-conscious, and ecologic- is an entirely other thing. On a hill where many traverses pass overlooking the majestic hills of Torres del Paine is EcoCamp Patagonia, which truly lives up to its name. We were invited to stay a rainy night at the hotel, which is partners with the Torres del Paine Legacy Fund, whose mission is to enhance both the visitor experience and the long-term health of Torres del Paine and its surrounding communities through action projects supported by travelers and the businesses that cater to them; Their vision is for Torres del Paine National Park to become a world-class destination where visitors work in parallel with residents to promote lasting conservation of natural and cultural assets through travel and tourism.
We went back & grabbed this nice, sunny day pic of the geodesic dome village. When we were there, it was grey & dumping rain- so we were pretty stoked to spread out in the dry dome by a nice fire.
Inside the lounge dome couches surround a crackling fire, and pisco sours flow freely as an aperitif. Through the rain streaked windows, gnarled trees and soaring granite peaks appeared.Inside our two-story suite, an enormous bed sat nestled in a corner of the wood sided interior. As we are family bed folks, the upstairs beds went unused except for a momentary snuggle sesh and some bouncing. Sierra amused herself with the kindling, thinking it like a giant game of pick-up sticks.“They say a good love is one that sits you down, gives you a drink of water, and pats you on top of the head. But I say a good love is one that casts you into the wind, sets you ablaze, makes you burn through the skies and ignite the night like a phoenix; the kind that cuts you loose like a wildfire and you can’t stop running simply because you keep on burning everything that you touch! I say that’s a good love; one that burns and flies, and you run with it!” ― C. JoyBell C.
Elated to have “such a cool, fun house” for the day, Colette climbed the ladder-like stairs again and again. Sierra, enamored with big sister’s every move, attempted to summit (repeatedly!), but the three of us rallied to keep her safely off. Living on the road and in the world, every day is filled with new obstacles, challenges, adventures- the constant is us together as a family. We piled the dirty mountain munchkins in the shower, plopped them in front of the fire, then read books in bed. A perfectly luxuriant afternoon as the raindrops played melody to the chorus of wind blowing outside. At Hotel Las Torres, we arranged for a horseback ride with the girls. The past days constant rain made rivers swell and paths turn to slippery slog, so the guides chose a route that was safe enough to take the four of us on. Colette was thrilled with the whole experience- the anticipation, selecting a special riding helmet “Ooh, I have never worn a helmet like this before!,” getting to meet & greet her horse Chancho (which means pig), and riding in front with Daddy. Sierra just snoozed in the Ergo for the whole ride. Seriously, if you are traveling with a little one, this is an indispensible tool that we use nearly every day, this is not the terrain for strollers, there is no strolling here. Adam caught some sort of nasty bug & was sick for two days (while it was raining, so not such a big deal), then Coco caught it- Emily & Sierra escaped. While under the weather, he was regularly checking the weather, looking for a clear spell to set out. Having time to wait for a weather window is an invaluable gift in Southern Patagonia. This land of extremes, especially when we were there in the shoulder season as summer waned into fall, was a mixed bag of rain, wind, sun, snow and more wind. Checking WindGuru from the wifi in the lodge we were parked in front of (as we were only in the luxury tent life for one night) the gift of time allowed us to select a clear time to depart with the kiddoes into the backcountry.
A clear weather window appeared on the forecast, so we packed our gear for a family hike to the famed Towers of Paine. Proudly slung across her chest rested Colette’s water bottle bag with almonds and dried pears packed inside. We shared our excitement with her “We are going to hike up, up, up into these beautiful mountains and forest and sleep in our orange tent and wake up so early it will be dark then hike up more using flashlights to an enchanted lake at the bottom of rocks shaped like a castle and then we will watch the sunrise and there will be a magic show.” When a tree asks for a hug, be sure to oblige!Up the valley we climbed, the vistas inspiring each step on the well traveled trail. Cattle are present near so many water sources, it is not safe to drink from them. So to be able to just hold your water bottle under the flow of a Patagonian stream and collect icy cold, mineral rich hydration is a true and simple experience. The meditation of hiking: repetition of steps, breath in and out, a present minded focus, choosing each footstep, subtle changes in dappled light beneath the canopy, rocks, roots, leaves, breathe in, breathe out, rustling leaves from a gust of wind, step, step, step, a songbird calling from the forest interior, step, a million shades of green so easy on the eyes. To hike with a 4 year old requires an open mind & a major upswing in trail time (for us about 40% more than listed), this is to account for the vastly shorter legs, multiple stops for rest, to pee, to look at every small leaf, and to eat pockets of fresh Patagonian snow (when applicable). Sierra, the lucky little hitchhiker, gets a front row view of it all. After so much gentle movement, snuggled close on Mama, the babe dozed off into sweet dreams. For Emily, there is little better view in the world than hiking in paradise with a softly sleeping bundle of love & joy. For Adam, who has excitedly awaited Colette’s ability to hike alongside him in challenging terrain, these moments are pure Papa bliss. In the snow and wind, this little champ keeps going, when encouraged and showered with love. We had some new friends tell us recently that on our website we look so wholesome, but when they got to know us, we are more radical than they expected. So don’t let our cheeks flushed from hiking in the cold trick you, we are weirdos ( I mean, we four live in a van, driving around foreign countries & use baby wipes to shower)… it’s just these darn pink puffy babysuits make us look yuppy. Arriving at Campamento Las Torres (totally free $) in the late-afternoon, Adam stacked rocks around our three season tent in a successful bid to trap in our body heat and keep out the infamous biting wind.
I will tell you that when the unfamiliar sound of an alarm going off at 4:45am, there was only one pretty stoked person, one unhappy person, and two rather dazed folks. I’ll leave it to you to unravel the mystery of who was what. Colette (mystery solved: the unhappy one) whimpered and whined that it was too cold, she was too tired, that it was just not fair. We told her she was a strong & brave girl and we were hiking into the darkness with headlamps on because we were adventurers seeking a new and beautiful place. “You will get warm when you hike, you have to start walking.” After 5 minutes that felt like an eternity, Colette turned the corner from misery to joy. “This is like a game!” she exhaulted while using her hands to climb over a fallen tree. – Nearing the top of the trail, we noted a stream of headlamps like lanterns in the night sky. As the indigo faded, in the farthest corner of the sky, day broke. As color gave form to the darkness, the shape of the towers of Torres del Paine became apparent. “Look Colette, the magic towers! You’re doing great, let’s make it to them before the sun rises so we can see the magic show!”When Coco was having a hard time on the trail, we would remind her that although her body may be tired, her mind is strong. Arriving with plenty of time to select a rock with a view, we bundled Colette in the sleeping bag we had brought with us (our camp was still set up down below). There was indeed a magic show we witnessed on the rare, clear morning below the towers. The first light kissed the glacier and tickled the top in a tangerine scream, the water below a mirror of the flames above. In just a few short minutes, the granite spires turned otherworldly shades of amber, tangerine, and magenta, the Lago Torre seemingly lit from within glowing turquoise from a dormant silver. The other hikers gathered to witness the display all seemed to agree silence was the best way to receive such a gift. Under my breath, words of thanks and prayers were whispered together, the mumbling of wonderment often come jumbled.“On the mountains of truth you can never climb in vain: either you will reach a point higher up today, or you will be training your powers so that you will be able to climb higher tomorrow.” – Friedrich NietzscheOur now standard family portrait pose, after the brief symphony of color at sunrise from Mirador Las Torres, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.
Down at camp we ate breakfast and then jumped back in the tent for a snooze, awoke refreshed, packed up and set off to hike down.
Nearing the bottom of the hike, Emily started to feel the sickness that everyone else had a few days earlier… fever, chills, sore throat.
Back at our tiny home, we were awoken the next morning by what we named the ‘narcissistic woodpecker.’ This bird, a Chilean Flicker (Colaptes pities), would land on the side view mirror, cling on by its feet, then peck repeatedly at itself. Its Spanish name carpenter pitío is derived from the Mapuche name pütiw, which in turn is an onomatopoeia of his singing.
Since the good weather was looking steady for a weeks time, Adam pulled the trigger & prepared to set off on his solo expedition into the backcountry on the full circuit “O” so we headed to the other side of the park.
Little can compare to the bliss felt when watching a sky awakened by the days last heartfelt rays. Double that in a supremely still pond and you have perfection.
Patagonia’s Big 5 is: Andean Condor (check), Ñandu (yep), Huemul Deer (super rare & we did!), Guanaco (errrrywhere, and again below) and the Puma (nope). The Guanaco are the main food source for the Puma, who hunt at night. Their ears perk up & they let out a high pitched bleating sound when threatened.
Feeling small usually comes with a negative connotation, but I challenge that assumption. To feel small in the world is to see how vast it is; to feel small means you have stepped outside yourself, where you are from, what your bank statement says, who said what about you, what you were expected to do, and left it far behind. And in stepping outside of yourself, transcending, releasing, cleansing, just being… small. In fact, we are small, just a tiny little bit of magic & a soul in flesh for such a finite flash of time in this never-ending cosmos. A universe that is observable for 13.8 billion light years with over 100 billion galaxies, can make one seem small. Small never felt so good.
Never got to meet the owners of this excellent VW, but we are certain we would’ve gotten along nicely.
It is close to never that you will get the offer for someone (you trust) to watch your (two) children on an immaculate day in Torres del Paine (for free) so you can go & enjoy an ice hike as a couple. So, to say the least, it was complete shit timing for Emily to get sick… and f*@% she did. That fever, sore throat, full body chills thingy Adam & Coco had? Yep, in full effect, wrecking any chance Emily had to join Adam for a boat ride, hike, camp, ice hike we had planned for the next 2 days. So, we air-kissed our goodbyes and Adam set off on the catamaran on Lago Pehoe for a hike a little more hardcore than we as a foursome are capable of doing yet.
So I waved goodbye to my family on a perfectly still morning and floated away into lands I had seen pictures of as a boy. The boat brought me to Paine Grande Refugio and campground on the distant shores of Lago Pehoé. Surprisingly, alongside the campground with many tents there was a hotel and restaurant. I was excited to get walking and had plans later in the afternoon to kayak to Glacier Grey, so I set off on the first leg of the full circuit “O” trek, an 11km stretch heading into the mountains. The first thing that hit me when I sat down for a rest was an unfamiliar sound, our days are filled with chatter and laughter on the regular, and this SILENCE surrounding me felt foreign. The Torres del Paine “O” circuit (6-10 days) is the full loop around the Cordillera del Paine and includes the “W” section on the front side, and the more remote backside, a wilderness that gets far fewer trekkers. There is the no right or wrong direction to trek the full circuit, but most people do it counter-clockwise; it is roughly 110 kilometers, or 68 miles, not including side trips.I chose to hike the “O” clockwise, so I wouldn’t get stuck behind or in front of other hikers and I wouldn’t have to camp with the same folks every night. Not because I am anti-social, but because even in the shoulder season this trail can get busy, and I was looking for solitude on this adventure, a rare occasion in my life.In 1985, 2005 and again in 2011 Torres del Paine- which is not just a National Park, but also a UNESCO World Biosphere- has suffered the terrors of tourist induced forest fires that have ravaged the delicate ecosystem. Over 186 square miles have been torched, fueled by the fierce winds of the region. I made it to Lago Grey campground and hooked up with the guys at Bigfoot Patagonia for some unique experiences near, on, under, and in the glaciers. It wasn’t long before we were in kayaks and headed for Glacier Grey, the same one we had visited with family a few weeks earlier in a much bigger boat. I recall seeing kayakers near the blue ice chunks thinking how amazing their view must be, and indeed it was. Being so low and exposed to these recently melted frigid waters that traveled frozen all the way from the far reaches of the Southern Patagonia Ice Fields was exhilarating! I have kayaked before, but this was a singularly unique experience!Our small group paddled to a glaciated rock outcropping and docked for a walk alongside the massive ice walls. We kept our distance from the soaring, jagged face because of the unpredictable calving that can take place at any moment. We were lucky to witness a huge slab of ice fall into the pool pictured below, causing a wave that splashed over the rocks. To witness nature’s raw power is humbling. We enjoyed the last bright rays of the clear day, then paddled across Lago Grey back to camp. It was a long first day out, so I retired early into my tent at Campamento Lago Grey. There is an upscale refugio and restaurant here, so if sleeping on the ground isn’t your cup of tea you can get pampered for a premium. It is possible to hike from refugio to refugio and have a bed, hot showers and prepared food waiting for you on the front side “W” part of the trek without carrying more than a day pack. I, however, was carrying in my backpack everything I would need to survive on my own for up to a week or so . The next morning, I set off at daybreak with guides from Bigfoot Patagonia in a rigid inflatable boat for an even closer experience with the glacier.We zipped by icebergs of varying sizes, negotiating our way through the maze until we reached a “nunatak” or glacial island carved by millennia of downward moving ice. After hiking for about an hour over moraines and natural debris, we reached the backside of the island where we were briefed on glacier travel then supplied with crampons and ice axes. As the sun peeked over the mountains to the west, a guide said this rare day with no clouds or wind in the notorious Patagonia, was one of the most beautiful days on the ice the entire season. We were trapped in the van during a storm for 5 days prior. A great reward of slow travel is being able to wait for the perfect weather window to go out into nature.
First glance of the glacier is white, but as you look closer, there are infinite variances of white and grey, and blues in hues too many to name. Most of the people in our group were American, many of them from our home state of California. In Spanish I have to pay attention to understand (some) of what’s being said and it was strange to hear all the English chatter and so difficult to block out all the talk of U.S. politics, work ‘back home’ and the details of their 10-day itineraries. Climbing into the ice-womb.
Glaciers are made when snow remains in one location long enough to transform into ice and is compressed into thickened ice masses. What makes glaciers unique is their ability to move. Currently, glaciers occupy about 10 percent of the world’s total land area- this “Campo de hielo Patagónico Sur” is the third largest continental ice shelf in the world behind Antarctica & Greenland.
Kicking in the spikes of the crampons for a solid foothold before looking into a electric blue slurpy crevasse. The otherworldly blues seen here are due to absorption of visible red wavelengths, and scattering of light in the blue wavelengths as it is transmitted through the ice. Glacier Grey is constantly moving under its own weight due to the sheer mass, causing crevasses to open up and seracs to jut skyward from the stress of faster and slower moving ice colliding within the glacier. Beautifully complex and terrifying canyons looking to swallow you whole lurk in the shadows. What an incredible opportunity to walk on this magnificent glacier! (And yeah, Emily is SUPER bummed to have missed this, the flu is no fun.)I still had 10 kilometers to hike after an already demanding morning, so after our boat ride back to base camp, I quickly prepared some granola with dehydrated almond milk and hit the trail. The views were incredible as I climbed higher above the glacier. This new bridge was built a month prior, and was the talk of the town down at Campamento Grey. I gave it a close look before walking across, wondering how the design would hold up in gale force winds. I imagined the thing turning in circles like a jump rope, holding on for dear life as I attempted to get across the canyon. Thankfully it was a mellow day and I cruised across smoothly. Looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, right?The tip of the island on the left is where we stepped onto the glacier. It was fantastic to look out onto the ice, where I was hiking in crampons just a few hours before. There were some pretty sketchy ladder sections but apparently not as sketchy as they used to be.The trail led right over these incredible L-shaped trees, which grow this way from the forces of wind & snow load.
I made it to Campamento Paso after hiking through verdant lenga forest with ever changing views of the glacier. There was a lot more infrastructure on this wilderness trek than I expected or have previously experienced. All the other designated camps had some sort of creature comforts available to you if wanted. But Paso was bare bones with a stoner volunteer ranger and a hole in the ground inside a plywood shack to shit in.The family was back in the van, so I could be a total mess if I wanted to. I’m not used to having space of my own anymore and it was pretty good to stretch out, even though I was already missing them. This was to be a rough night; I battled mice that chewed holes through my tent so they could try to get at my food. I kept one eye open and both ears in tune,
listening for the persistent little fuckers while trying to get some sleep. I had a boot at each hip ready to hammer all mice on planet earth to death, but every time I turned on my headlamp and reached for a boot, they had already retreated out the holes and into the safe cover of night. I counted 5 holes that I had to plug with socks and any other soft goods I could find. I eventually hung all of my food in a cloth bag from a hook in the center ceiling of the tent and they finally backed off. I slept in a bit that second morning because of the mice ordeal, then made some coffee and oatmeal and hit the trail for a 12 kilometer day. I didn’t weigh my pack but I’m guessing it was 45lbs. I’ve owned this backpack for over 10 years and beat it up all over the world including hiking the 225 mile John Muir Trail in the California. Props to Arc’teryx for making quality gear built to last and sorry to my family for bringing along our only pot! Doing the full circuit clockwise as opposed to counter clockwise has one downfall… the steep climb from Paso to John Gardner Pass is up not down. Not as hard as I expected, but it was still hard.The struggle was real, but with views like this who cares!Nearing the pass I had a glimpse into the Southern Patagonia Ice field, which covers over 4,700 square miles of Chile and Argentina. There have been expeditions throughout modern history into these great reaches of planet earth, but most of it is totally unexplored. I can’t help but to want to walk out there to have a look around. Maybe another day! After burning up my breakfast on the climb up, it was time to refuel for lunch before making the final push to the pass. Some ramen noodles with soup mix (rather than the msg laden packets that come with) did the trick, along with some trail mix Emily made. A one cloud rainstorm passed, drizzling just long enough for me to grab my rain jacket, then cleared in a flash. The same storm that had us confined to our van a few days before had shut down the John Gardner pass under deep snow. Park officials closed this pass along with the backside of the mountain making it illegal to trek the full circuit. I remember being in the van parked alongside the ‘W” route on the other side of the park watching hikers struggle in the wind and freezing rain. It must have been a blizzard up here, but you would never know on this embarrassingly beautiful day. A flag covered cairn marks the top of the John Garder pass at 1241 meters above sea level, the highest point on the trail. Many people claim this very spot to have the best view in all of Torres del Paine looking out onto Glacier Grey and the ice fields. I wouldn’t argue with that. I welcomed the downhill section on the backside that was far less of a grade than what I had just climbed. This is one of the reasons most people hike the circuit counter-clockwise, but I was happy for the challenge. I passed a solo hiker from New Jersey that had tall tails of all the 40 pound trout he was catching down here in Patagonia. He was a city guy out in the wild and he kept saying 40 pound trout! I had to keep my composure and didn’t have the heart to burst his bubble and tell him a forty pounder must be some kind of world record. At these higher elevations in early April, fall was already here and the colors were seriously magnificent. It was fun to get dirty and play in the mud on this amazing stretch on day 3. Coco would hate this, she hates to hike in mud.Campamento Los Perros was pretty bare bones but had a small store with some expensive crap food and supplies. I was pretty dirty and went to buy a bar of soap (having forgotten mine!) to wash up a bit but the store keeper just gave it to me, he probably saw the fumes coming off of me and felt sorry. These campgrounds aren’t cheap, so a free bar of soap was welcomed. I have always preferred wild camps to designated campgrounds, but the amount of people that visit this crown jewel of Chile is just off the charts. I saw so many dreamy places to set up camp with grand vistas I could have had all to myself, but there is a time and place for that. I crossed a small creek and set up on the border of the campground. This was low season so there weren’t to many others here on the backside, probably 5 other tents scattered throughout the forest. I woke in the dark not knowing the time but felt like walking, so I packed up and got an early start. I moved through the darkness with my headlamp lighting the way, powered by rechargeable GoalZero batteries. It wasn’t long before faint signs of light filtered the sky. Glacier Los Perros at daybreak on day 4.After a 9 kilometer morning, I mosied into camp Dixon just as most folks camping here were starting their hike for the day in the opposite direction. A suspicious ranger asked me where I was coming from and wondered why I was getting here so early; I told him I left in the dark from Los Perros and he shrugged and walked away. I heard there were hot showers here and just as much as I enjoy roughing it, a hot shower sounded divine. I walked into the refugio and was surprised to see a cozy cabin style cafe with fine wines and imported Irish butter. The benches were up on the tables and a young worker was sweeping the floor. I asked him about hot showers and he informed me there wasn’t hot water until later that afternoon and offered a cold one. I was devastated because I was fantasizing of this hot shower all morning and couldn’t believe I could get a bottle of merlot but no hot shower! I thanked him anyway and kept moving down the trail. After a few miles down the trail I hiked to a small creek and bathed in the freezing cold water, washing a few clothes to air dry on the side of my pack. If I had to bathe myself in cold water, it was going to be outside in nature damn it! I felt refreshed and alive but my feet really started to hurt. After a while they became numb to the pain and I continued on. After 21 kilometers, my longest day yet, I made it to Campamento Seron. The guy I met from New Jersey said he saw a baby puma by the trash here a couple nights before. I skeptically (and hopefully) pitched my tent right next to the rubbish to possibly get a glimpse of a puma, if he indeed wasn’t telling another fish story. When I went in the refugio to pay for camping there was a huge dinner table fully set with 10 chairs and a fresh lasagna coming out of the oven. I couldn’t believe my eyes, different strokes for different folks I guess. I personally love the act of being self sufficient on these types of journeys, carrying everything you need on your back into the great outdoors and surviving without any assistance- for me that is a gratifying thing. I cooked my not-lasagna dinner and went to sleep. In the middle of the night I heard something right outside my tent, it was the puma in the trash! I would unzip my sleeping bag as quietly as possible, then quickly unzip the tent while turning on my headlamp at the same time hoping to get a glimpse and the puma would be gone into the night just like those damn mice. I tried this a hand full of times then gave up and just listened to the big cat a few feet from my tent. Maybe New Jersey really did catch a 40 pound trout?! I was packed up and on the trail just as a few folks were crawling out of there tents. I don’t get to do this to often with the kiddos so am relishing this alone time. Most mornings we sleep late, wake up slow, get the kids dressed, make breakfast and brush teeth before going on about our day. This can be a lengthy process but I love our sweet mornings with our girls.I left camp without eating and after a few kilometers I found a safe place to cook some hooked-up oatmeal and instant coffee on a small creek. On day 5, I made it back to the front side of the Paine Massif and passed by Eco Camp.I stopped at the place where we camped in our van the week before in hopes the family would be there to surprise me with a mid-hike rendezvous (but they weren’t). It would have been nice to stay a night with my girls or just give them hugs and kisses.I passed the fork in the trail to the towers because we did this stretch as a family the previous week. With all the grand nature around it’s hard to stop and focus on the details, but they are there & they are stunning.Lago Nordensköld from the trail, saturated with milky glacial sediment appear to glow in the sunlight.Pack horses riding in supplies to get the refugios stocked with fine wines and Irish butter. After a 20 kilometer day, I made it to Campamento Cuernos and endulged in buying a single, small, expensive $6 beerand listened to top 40 rap with the young crew that was working the place. I had kept mostly to myself on the trail, but today I was in the mood for chatting, so I cooked inside and enjoyed some conversation with other travelers. Next door at Cabañas Cuernos people sipped fine Chilean wine and dined by a crackling fire place. I finally took a hot shower, and it was world class! Bad mice here, but all the holes in my tent were stuffed and my food hung high so they left me alone (I imagine to harass others). Below are a few photos of other folks camp vibes. Up early and on the trail at daybreak on day 6. After 5.5 kilometers I arrived at Campamento Italiano, the gateway to Valle de Francés. This front side of the mountain is the “W” and is one of the most popular hikes in the world. There were probably 25-30 tents when I passed through during the shoulder season, and I heard there are on average 100 tents here in the high season! I saw a woman packing up her camp and asked her if I could take her spot. She said of course, but recommended another place up the river she had seen after already setting up her tent the day before. I went up to check it out and she was right, a private platform right on the river away from the chatter of the busy campground, but still within regulations. I had a quick lunch after making camp, then set off up the trail towards Valle de Francés without a heavy ass backpack! Later that night, I could hear the thunderous cracking of ice scraping down the granite cliffs of this, the French Glacier, even over the rolling river right next to my tent. The trail meanders alongside the river and up into the French Valley. At the end of the designated trail was this sign, and where most people stop their ascent into the valley. I noticed a trail going into the trees and further up the mountain. I still had some hours of daylight to explore and the weather was holding, so I couldn’t resist sneaking into the forest and climbing higher. Once I got above the tree-line, the 360 degree views of the valley were absolutely spectacular. There was no trail, it was a pure, true choose your own adventure. Being up here, off-trail, beneath the granite spires, completely alone remains a highlight in an already fluorescent memory. Rising to 1,850 meters the sharks fin, a rock climbers delight has an 11 pitch route on there somewhere.I scrambled up the valley higher and higher, several times throughout the day the silence was broken by the thunderous sound of avalanches, one of which I captured below.Ominous clouds started to build on the horizon, it was getting late and I still had to hike out about 8 kilometers back to base camp, so this is as far as I made it up the valley. Wanting to hike higher and higher, the decision to turn around was difficult, this place of raw majesty is unlike anywhere else I have experienced. Descending the valley was smooth sailing and I made it back to camp with a little light to spare. I forgot to bring a book and had no electrical gadgets besides my camera, so looking at my map reflecting on the day and planning the next was my only entertainment, although most nights I would promptly fall asleep after cooking dinner. You can see my food bag hanging from the ceiling which worked really well and kept the critters out of my tent. I was very excited because the next day I was hiking out to my family that I was missing. I had no time piece or phone for a week, so I never knew what time it was, all I had was light or dark. This 7th morning I woke up in the dark and felt like walking just as I had on other days past. I wanted to hike out of the cover of forest to see the sunrise hit the front side of the mountains, but the sun never came. I walked and walked through the darkness occasionally turning off my headlamp to view the horizon for any sign of light. There was nothing. I heard rustling in the bushes and caught a glimpse of some eyes looking back at me and kept walking, now with a slight case of the creeps. A rabbit startled me and a white owl flew low, I kept walking. I walked and walked and after a few hours, realized it wasn’t morning at all, but the middle of the night. I stumbled upon a sign telling me I had strolled 5 kilometers then my batteries died in my headlamp. Luckily I had a fresh set and moved on. I found a nice spot alongside the shores of Lago Pehoé where I crawled into my sleeping bag to wait for the sunrise. The air was crisp in the darkness and the silence piercing, it started to rain. I laid there for a few moments in the rain, reflecting on this incredible past week and my near perfect weather window and it felt good to get wet. The cold soon came, so I had to move on. Another 2.5 kilometers brought me to Campamento Paine Grande where I had started my journey around the massif. I showed up in the dark and felt bad for the other campers as I must have been noisy pitching my tent (for the 3rd time in 24 hours). This is the first backpacking trip I have had 2 different camps in one night. It felt like morning would never come, but it eventually did. My trek had come full circle and I jumped on the boat hoping my family would be waiting for me on the other side of the lake. When it was all said and done the trek, including the 2 day trip with my family to the towers and 7 days on my own took me 9 days. Of course Emily, Colette & Sierra were waiting for me when I arrived. They enjoyed a week in the park, taking short hikes, playing at lake shores throwing rocks, viewing wildlife, cooking meals together, reading stories, working in Coco’s school books and camping out with the top un-popped… it is just too heavy for Emily to heave up (even with hydraulic lift- assist) with the sporting goods store we carry up top.
On the first boat of the second day within the ‘arrival window’ of 3 days we had agreed upon, his silhouette as known to us as his smile, Adam stepped off the catamaran, and the three girls galloped to greet him in a frenzy of hellos and hugs and kisses and tell us all about its. We were pathetically low on groceries, so stepped into the small restaurant on Lago Pehoe to enjoy a hot meal all together, which was a super smiley affair. With our main man absent for a long week, it felt so right to have our tight foursome reunited (and for Emily to have the chance to pee without a child at her knees and on her lap).
After our meal of fried eggs, tomato soup and toast, we piled into the van- Adam again behind the wheel- and set off on the 60 miles the Puerto Natales. Although a short distance, we stop frequently and drive super slow on the gravel roads, so it takes us close to 3 hours for this trek that takes others an hour and a half.One of the benefits of rolling easy is soaking up the visual overload that surrounds you in this bewitching landscape. It is not just a blur whizzing by, but a story in slow motion, and stopping to observe a flock of Chilean Flamingoes the obvious choice. Even if it takes a hundred stops and twice as long to get where we are ‘going’, we do so with a smile, because as our favorite Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson so famously said “Life is a journey, not a destination.”Looking over our shoulders for a last peek at the Paine Grande Massif in a landscape so enormous you take a deliberate deep breath just to take it all in. Adam just circumnavigated that range in the epic “O” trek- so dope!!As a young man, Charles Darwin came to Patagonia aboard the HMS Beagle and chronicled well the flora and fauna he encountered. As a result, many English language terms for Patagonian species are “Darwin’s” (more than 250 species!), such as these, the Darwin’s rhea, known as ñandú, a name derived from the Guaraní tribe. We have seen these large flightless birds from Southern Patagonia, in Chile and Argentina, north to Uruguay and up into Southern Brazil.With nearly 20,000 people, Puerto Natales is the only town in the province of Última Esperanza, but feels much smaller. At the opening of the Last Hope Sound, the community was founded a hundred years ago as a port for the sheep industry and lives on today as a fishing and Navimag ferry port, and the main access to Torres del Paine, which receives about 180,000 visitors annually- a number that is rising every year.We found a cozy home-base in town at Erratic Rock– street camping and using the kitchen facilities, wifi, and showers to feed, connect and restore ourselves. Founded by two excellent guys Bill & Rustyn, who discovered their American Dream was a South American Dream, this gathering place is a hostel, information station, rental headquarters, guide service, and pub serving some great thin-crust pizza. If you are planning a trip, the ‘three o’clock talk’ is famous at the first point of access… we were there on April 1, and participated in an April Fool’s Day joke on the talk. Anyhow, if you are in need of just about anything, they can help you or point you in the right direction. If you are coming to this region and don’t have any or all of the proper gear you need to head into the magnificent backcountry, do not let that stop you! Head to Erratic Rock & let the experts help guide you in getting a setup. If you don’t have a hiking partner, head to Basecamp for a beer one night and you will surely meet some like minded folks. If you want to go with a guide, they can arrange that too. Currently they are developing a a program for the deaf and hearing impaired that will encourage backcountry explorations. In conjunction, with Torres del Paine Legacy Fund they developed the first recycling program for Puerto Natales. Seriously good folks doing good works. Down on the promenade, a great skate bowl overlooks the peaks across the sound, so Adam pulled out the skateboard & shredded. After some reflection on our time in the park, we felt really great about all we had seen & done, but one thing was missing. We had not seen a puma and really, really wanted to try. Hiring an experienced puma tracker is insanely expensive (from $2,500- $6,000 USD for multi-day expeditions), so we set to talking to everybody we could to gather some recommendations on how we might sight a puma in the wild. We by chance met a puma tracker in a coffee shop and he told us some basics about behavior, habitat and how to look.Pantry stocked, we set off from Puerto Natales towards the Laguna Amarga entrance of the park to see if luck would lead us to see the largest predator in Patagonia. En route, Adam saw something out of the corner of his eye & pulled the camera as he pulled to the shoulder of the road. Yep- a fox facing off with a sheep! The fox eventually backed off and we thought it a good omen for our intended vision.We were strongly urged by the tracker we met, to not under any circumstances bring the kids on our self-guided puma tracking adventure. Puma in this region of the world do not view humans as prey, they have unfortunately learned the hard way that man is the top predator, but children are a different thing… they are loud, they are unpredictable, they are small enough to think about fighting for. NOPE, not a chance that we will be bringing any tender baby-bait to a known puma zone. So it was decided that Emily would stay with both the girls & Adam would depart at sunrise for however long it took until he saw a puma. Emily really, really wanted to go. This is one of those ‘damn, wish there was a babysitting service to call’ kind of situations, but this is one of the sacrifices of the life we lead on the road. We popped the top on the Westy in front of the Laguna Amarga ranger station- Adam took off at sunrise, Emily & the girls hung out on the grassy bluff overlooking the stunning views of the Paine Grande massif and later hiked to a nearby river.Heading out alone into the wild looking for a puma might seem kinda crazy but I didn’t have a wad of cash to pay for a professional guide. After walking a ways I started seeing guanacos, and puma eat guanacos, so this was a good sign. Hey guys, seen any big cats around here?Then I started finding guanacos that had already been eaten, this was an even better sign. Standing here with these carcases with no one else around started to put a shiver of fear into by bones that I shook off the best I could. I remember when I was a young boy in the mountains of California where my family lived in a cabin. My father built us a bench at the bus stop at the end of our dirt road beneath a juniper tree. As I sat there by myself one early morning waiting for the school bus, a mountain lion started across the road. I was sitting very still and at first it didn’t notice me but stopped in the middle of the road once it did. We sat there staring at each other for which seemed like an eternity as the huge cat sized me up. If I showed fear I would be prey so I sat still in my little body and it vanished into a canyon. Locally known as camancho, the Southern Crested Caracara are a bold raptor with a 4 foot wingspan.I remember the guide telling me if I decided to go out it was very important to sit and observe the landscape. I walked a bit and sat a while, over and over I would sit down and let my senses become in tune, trying to become a part of the landscape. I saw huge boulders and cliffs with caves. I imagined myself as a puma walking along these rocky outcropping calling this place my home. I climbed the boulders and looked into the caves hoping to spot the top predator of Patagonia. Also known as cougar and mountain lion, these ambush predators have large territories, so time and patience is required when seeking to encounter one.I found a shallow cave with an incredible view of the valley below and decided this was a good place to stay and observe a while. I sat here for a long time, it must have been 3 hours just staring out at the land. I got sleepy and considered taking a nap… ok, ok, I took a nap in a puma cave. Emily was very upset about this when I told her later. Oh, the things we argue about!Then I fainty saw something off in the distance moving slowly through the land like a blurry mirage, a slight hallucination or something stuck in my eye causing a blur. It was the same color of the earth or was it the earth? It was there and then gone, or was it ever there at all? It stopped often, then melted out of sight. I questioned the vision and almost didn’t entertain the thought. I made a mental note of where the movement was on the valley floor and came off the bluff slowly down into the valley always keeping my eye on that spot. I got to the area I had seen from the cave, letting my eyes relax, standing to observe the land. While hiking in the Okavango Delta of Botswana on a walking safari, our dear friend Peter of Lodges of Botswana taught us to look through the landscape, not at it. It was like looking at the psychedelic op-art posters where you have to let your eyes relax and even cross a bit before the hidden image appears before you, then *bam!* it is undeniably visible.I am sure the puma spotted me on the cliff long before I ever saw her, but honestly could care less about me. I sat there observing this majestic beast, for a half an hour in total awe. Puma are the 4th largest cat in the world.I noticed some strange behavior and the Puma got really low to the ground like it had seen something it was trying to hide from. For another 30 minutes, the puma laid low in the grass every so often inching towards something in the distance. Prowling a few feet at a time then laying down again for a few minutes. I was confused but had my 400mm lens fixed on its movements, even though my arms were burning holding up my camera. Then I saw what It was sneaking towards, a grey fox. The fox seemed to be laughing at the puma from behind a rock, totally tormenting it.What happened next I could have never imagined in a million years. The puma gave chase to the fox!The puma hot on the tail of the grey fox! Perhaps an opportunistic hunt, as guanaco is the main food of the puma, or revenge for some unknown wrong. It was surreal to witness such an event, to feel the raw power of the big cat in full attack mode. The fox got away and the cat lazed in the grass for a while. A Southern Crested Caracara flew into the scene nearby and the cat seemed annoyed, springing to it’s feet to chase the bird away. I was curious as to why the cat walked around the area where the bird was. After lounging a while more, the puma went to where the caracara was and I could see a leg emerging from the tall grass. This guanaco appeared to be a fresh kill. Can you see digested grass in the intestines the puma is ripping out?I remember this same stare as a boy sitting on the bench at the bus stop. Pumas hunt at night, and as it was getting dark it was time to go. I hiked back to the van passing guanaco carcasses along the way with my open knife in my hand. I was thankful to have such an incredible encounter with this stunning feline. This is my “oh damn, I was just hanging out with a puma” face.Adam arrived back to the van in one piece just as Emily was hoping he would be arriving, the last rays of sun clinging to the edges of the sky. “Daddy!! Did you see a puma on your walking safari?!” Colette asked the instant she saw him. And when his trademark smile broke loose, we knew it was something special. We whooped and whistled as he told us, eagerly looking on the camera screen for a glimpse of the phenomenal pictures.
It rained through the night and the next morning was cold and grey, summer is gone & you can feel the short fall season will lead to deep winter soon. But just like that, Patagonia has all seasons in one day, the wind blew the grey away and the sun shone over the Salto Grande, a rainbow dancing in the waterfall cloud.
Adam was dreaming of catching a 40 pound trout, so we went to a spot on the Rio Serrano we’d visited with family the previous month. A bit soggy from the rain, he drove our 2WD Westy through a big puddle as Emily closed her eyes and chanted “no, no, no” but as we pulled out successfully, Adam glanced in the rear view mirror, saw a huge plume of white smoke, then the van stalled. Oh, sweet. We waited a minute & we were driving again. 100 meters down the muddy road, there was another more foreboding puddle in the road, that Adam deemed uncrossable, so he maneuvered a 17 point turn in the grass and headed back. At the first pool in question, Adam got out of the van & scoped a line of retreat he said was stable, so veered left around the pool and onto the grass which was just a layer of grass and dirt over mud. You know when you order some guacamole and it comes out in a big bowl & you’re stoked, then you stab a chip in and 3/4 of it is really just shredded iceberg lettuce? Yeah, it was like that, except there wasn’t even any guacamole. Needless to say, we really, really want 4 wheel drive (and guacamole).
Emily made lunch in the back of the van, Adam tried to get us out. Then Emily read stories to the girls in the back of the van, Adam tried to get us out. The sliding door was partially open on one attempt, Colette sitting on the floor near-ish the door. Adam gave it some gas and we got a little forward motion, then back into the sloppy, thick mud pit, which came into the van through a crack and directly onto Colette’s face! She was unharmed but very upset and started screaming and crying, and Sierra thought her hero big sister was hurt so she started screaming and crying too! Emily was laughing hysterically and trying to reassure everyone that everything was going to be alright. She wiped Coco’s face without documenting the mud face, because that woulda’ just been cruel. Needless to say, Adam eventually got us out.
Thank you Torres del Paine. Even after these past 10,000 words and 300 photos, it seems insufficient to describe your majesty.