Early Summer Snowstorm
Asleep in dense, virgin, antarctic forest of Patagonia, I was shaded from the 18+ hour days of December. Upon waking up, I was greeted with humidity and snow. The forest I had made camp in was low enough in elevation that only fat snowflakes made a sporadic appearance. Their crystalline structure immediately turned to liquid when coming into contact with either the ground or some type of vegetation.
The trail I was chasing supposedly led to a world-class trout lake, home of 20+ inch fish. Few people make it to the water and supposedly, according to local legend, thar be monsters. The spontaneous snowstorm was creating an additional challenge to an already tough hike.
Most trails on Isla Navarino are not clearly marked. This one, in particular, had zero maintenance and sign postings. The only markers that did exist were bits of red string, tied into tree branches. Using a crudely drawn map, my compass, and following bits of string created a navigable challenge. The hike slowly began to lead uphill, higher in elevation. The lake in question was located a few hundred feet above sea level and I needed to traverse some steep topography to reach it.
The mountains around me were blanketed in snow. The black and white colors of the surrounding landscape absorbed all other wavelengths. It was as if I was transported into a black and white movie. The cloud bank, dense, cut off the tips of the peaks, giving the valley an intimidating feeling. Unable to decipher how high the surrounding summits were, I felt insignificant as I trudged ever higher into the thickening snow.
The Storm Intensifies
The farther inland I hiked, the stronger the snowstorm became. Unlike my previous hike into Dientes De Navarino, there was no harsh antarctic wind blowing toward me. This storm was completely unique to Patagonia and unlike anything I had experienced so far. There was no wind. The air was still and silent. The temperature would have seemed almost balmy if it wasn’t for the snow falling around me. If I was to guess a temperature, it would probably be 31F.
The lack of wind relayed into the clouds becoming unceasing titans above my world. Blocking out the sun, they continued to drop wet, heavy snow. Enough was falling that logs and downed trees were beginning to become covered up. Stepping over hidden obstacles was increasingly difficult, and my progress slowed.
My softshell raingear had completely failed. The wet snow was nearly instantaneously turning to water when it landed on my jacket. It was akin to standing inside an extremely cold shower. The amount of precipitation proved too much and the supposedly “waterproof” outer layer was breached. Cold water permeated my clothes and soaked my skin.
Why You Should Always Wear Wool in Cold, Wet Climates
I still credit my clothing decisions with averting hypothermia that day. Underneath my raingear, I was wearing a thick, 100% merino wool sweater. The old adage, wool insulates when wet, was put to the test on this hike of mine. Before the trip, I was still on the fence about how important wool is to wear, but I witnessed wool’s life saving properties first-hand.
My raingear was borderline useless and melted snow was soaking through every layer I was wearing. But my extra thick, merino wool sweater kept me toasty. Sure, I was wet, moist would be a more apt description, but I was warm. I felt no coldness over my torso and in turn, my blood continually pumped to my extremities.
I attribute wool’s unique ability to keep me warm, even in saturated conditions to the natural fibers of the material. It certainly absorbed less water than any other material I had on. Water pooled at the end of my sleeves and toward the base of the garment but more than 90% of the sweater never became soaked. Compared to my “Waterproof” jacket, it was nearly identical in its liquid retention.
Frostbite and Retreat
The day dragged on as hiking became harder. My feet began falling through the now accumulating snow, and every step forward took the energy of 3 or 4. My footwear was woefully unprepared for the conditions. I had on a pair of trail-runners, designed for fast hiking over rough terrain. Their breathable membrane and low cut tops made them a sponge for snow and ice.
Thanks to my sweater, nearly my entire body was warm but my feet had turned into icicles. It came to the point where I was removing my shoes every 10-15 steps to warm up my toes, rubbing them to encourage blood flow. The skin of my feet had turned a pale-white and I had lost all feeling.
Looking up the valley, I could only see more snow, deeper, and falling fast as ever. There was no wind in the sky and the storm sat above me, dumping the white stuff that I naively thought of as pretty before. Snow had now become my enemy, an icy reminder of my own inability to stay warm and make forward progress.
My feet required attention, I knew that if I kept on the trail, serious frostbite was a concern. It was at this point that I decided to turn around. Losing a digit in order to find a trout lake was not my list of things to do. I was 5-7 miles from town and the route back was through snow, luckily, it would be downhill and towards the warmer end of the valley.
Out of my backpack, I grabbed three ziploc bags. Inside them were individual dinners I had made for the hike. I poured two of the meals into the 3rd pack, giving me two empty bags.
Taking the ziploc bags, I untied my shoes. I slid my freezing feet, wet socks and all, inside the plastic. Then, I inserted my now ziploc covered feet into my shoes. I tied them tight and turned around, making slow progress through the snow.
The plastic bags did the trick and expertly insulated my feet from the harsh icy ground. The impermeable material kept most of my body heat inside. I wiggled my toes fiercely, using the friction of movement to make heat. Blood slowly began to fill my toes and feeling gradually came back. The bags were insulating my feet while simultaneously preventing more snow from affecting me.
Back to Puerto Williams
The closer I came to town, the warmer the temperatures were. The heavy snow quickly turned to a drenching rain and I felt my body warming up. I made it back to the hostel and was greeted with a hot fire and not enough bunks to sleep everyone.
Taking pity on my failed attempt, the owner found enough space in a shared room and I was able to commandeer a bunk for the night. I learned that when the wind stops, it can snow for weeks on end. Luckily I turned around as the storm showed no signs of relinquishing its grip on the high mountain country. I hung up my gear to dry, and my saturated clothing was heavy on the clothesline.
Making conversation with some friendly Europeans (they hated it when I categorized them all as Europeans and kept demanding I recognize their national differences) it became apparent why the hostel was overcrowded. The ferry crossing between Chile and Argentina had been booked out a month in advance. The longer ferry ride, from Puerto Williams to Punta Arenas, had been sold out for the rest of the season. And to complicate matters, there were no available plane tickets for at least 7 days, or at least that’s what a couple had relayed to me. Turns out, I was the only solo traveler trying to get off the island and the general consensus was that there might be a single airplane ticket still available.
After my run in with the snowstorm and feeling sick of the awful weather on Isla Navarino, not to mention the cramped conditions I was sleeping in, I set myself to do everything I could to escape the island of Patagonia.
The Quest for Plane Tickets
Realizing the airport was closing soon, I grabbed my wallet and rushed out of the hostel. The weather was now dropping fat drops of rain, but luckily the airport was close. Puerto Williams is a tiny village in Patagonia and everything is in walking distance, it made getting around incredibly simple.
The ticket office for airplane tickets was located in the town center and I stepped inside, out of the rain. There were three women, all around the age of 30, talking loudly, rapidly, and in Spanish, working the ticket booth. I walked up to the counter and made an inquiry about tickets:
“Necesito boleto de avión a punta arenas”
With a heavy American accent, and the inability to speak much more than that, I eagerly anticipated the response. I also heavily emphasized my speech with hand gestures and plenty of smiles. Whatever I did seemed to have worked because almost immediately, all three of the women broke out laughing.
They couldn’t understand why I was so happy about asking them for airplane tickets in the rain. I won them over with some hiker charm and it turned out, there was 1 available ticket on the next plane out. I nearly jumped for joy and I handed over my credit card to make the purchase.
On this fateful day, the electricity was also out and there was no way to process my payment. This, however, I was prepared for. I had brought some emergency cash and it was always on my person.
I begged the women to not sell my ticket and they laughed but assured me, nobody else was coming. They pointed to a small “cambiar de dinero” business in the town center to get some Chilean pesos.
The transaction was smooth and I was given a favorable rate, something I was extremely grateful for. In my predicament, they could have ripped me off and I would have paid it. I walked back inside the ticket booth, triumphantly, and bought my 1 ticket to Punta Arenas.
Flying into Punta Arenas
The following morning, I was happy to leave the hostel. While warm and friendly, the openness in which European couples display their love for each other in the midst of a crowded bunk bed environment made for an uncomfortable night’s sleep.
I packed my gear, now dry, and walked down the road to the only runway on the island. The sun was blazing and blue skies shone down at me. The wind too, had picked up, and it was back to being incredibly powerful.
Boarding the plane, there was not a single open set. The aircraft was tiny and I sat directly behind the pilot, able to see the man work the controls. I was the only foreigner on the plane, and most people seemed to either live on Isla Navarino or know someone who did.
On take off, the plane simply faced into the wind and we lifted off before making it down the entire runway. I felt the choppiness of the air current and I clutched my armrest as the plane made a wide bank over the island.
I caught glimpses of the mountain ranges I was leaving behind, now glistening in fresh snow cover. The plane began its northern trajectory and below me, the wonders of Patagonia revealed themselves.
The amount of fjords and islands that make up the southernmost landmass is a maze of pristine mountain peaks and blue ocean waters. I must have spotted what I perceived as a dozen glaciers. There were hundreds of islands and I could only wonder how many of them had not seen a human footprint in hundreds of years, if ever.
It quickly opened my mind to returning to Patagonia, only this time on a boat. The immensity of this untamed landscape made me unable to think about anything else. For over an hour, I witnessed the most pristine ecosystem on the planet stretched out below me. I had fallen in love.
Donde Esta Las Pinguinas?
My plane landed Punta Arenas and it felt good to back on the mainland. The sun was out and the wind was ferocious. It tore across the pampa, having nothing to slow it down. Standing, facing directly into the wind, made it hard to breathe.
I was so happy to be out of the plane and away from Isla Navarino that I quickly navigated my way out of the airport. After reaching the exits, it dawned on me, I had no transportation to get into town.
I knew which direction the city was and I stuck out my thumb for a hitch. Luckily, hitchhiking is normal in Patagonia and a pickup truck stopped in the first couple of minutes. Although my Spanish was bad, the driver quickly inferred I was American and I needed to purchase some supplies, food mostly.
I asked to be dropped off at the “free-trade” complex. It was a sort of mall that provided tons of products, all without tax, and at reasonable prices.
A History of Trade and Shipping Routes
Punta Arenas became a city because of its favorable location on circum-navigable shipping routes. The Panama Canal was not built until 1914 and before its construction, the best way to the Pacific from the Atlantic was the Strait of Magellan.
The waters inside the strait are relatively protected from the rough Antarctic seas and wind powered vessels could make safe passage between the two oceans. Such an important trade route made it extremely valuable. Wars were fought over controlling Patagonia, specifically because of the shipping routes. Look at a map today and it’s clear that Chile drew its borders completely around the strait. Argentina controls Ushuaia and a small triangle of land south of it.
Such unique borders exist because of the importance of this part of the world. Both countries still have large military bases in Patagonia and military posturing occurs on a nearly daily basis.
The Penguin Monument
Located in the middle of the Strait of Magellan is the Los Pinguinos Natural Monument. On this windswept rock is a colony of Magellanic Penguins, over 60,000 strong. When I first heard about this magical place, it became a necessary destination in my travels.
There is a ferry that leaves daily from Punta Arenas and it takes tourists to the island. This is an extremely popular tour and tickets can be sold out for days in advance. My first try at commandeering tickets was a failure. The ferry was inoperable due to wind speeds of over 90mph in the strait.
Even in Patagonia the wind is sometimes too strong. It was unfortunate because on the windiest days, the sun shines the brightest. If the wind slows, clouds will generally cover the sky.
I tried to buy tickets for the following day but the ferry was already sold out. At this juncture, I did not want to be stranded in Punta Arenas for multiple days. I decided to hit up Torres Del Paine first and then circle back for the penguins.
Backpacking Center of Patagonia
Torres Del Paine is the most popular national park in Chile as well as all of Patagonia. Punta Arenas is the closest city to the park and nearly all tour bus companies run a route from the city to the reserve. This has turned the small city of Punta Arenas into a backpacking mecca. Name brand companies like Patagonia and North Face have large outlet stores.
I was able to do some quick resupply, buying fuel and a backpack cover. The bus station was easy to navigate and I bought a ticket to the park for the following morning. It was still the beginning of tourist season but already, the crowds were apparent. Countless nationalities crowded the streets and the myriad of languages gave this small city a metropolitan feel.
Entering Torres Del Paine
The bus ride was long and uneventful. It is worth mentioning how comfortable the buses in Chile are. They are modern, spacious, and clean. Comfortable seats make the long rides easy to do. My favorite aspect about the transit system was that locals were just as likely to be on the same bus as the tourists. There was no distinction between the services.
I transferred buses about an hour outside of the park and I entered the backpacking world. Nearly the entire cab consisted of tourists, and plenty were American. Say what you will about American tourists but I thoroughly enjoy meeting my fellow countrymen in foreign countries. The primary reason being, they speak English and are unashamed about not speaking much else.
Before anybody out there judges me for that statement, hear me out. After spending days on end speaking only beginner Spanish and rapidly learning as much as I could, having a real conversation with another human was a luxury. And that is why talking to Americans on the bus was so enjoyable. It is similar to sitting on the couch after running a marathon.
Into the Park and Into the Wild
The rocky spires rose out of the pampas. The incredible thing about this park is how isolated the mountains are. Seemingly independent from any other range, they are an isolated outcropping, in a sea of grass.
I paid the tax to enter the park and I quickly got off the bus. I was planning on hiking the entire “O” circuit, as compared to the shorter and more popular “W” trek. The “O” takes about 7 days to hike and the “W” is only 3-4 days. Most people hike the shorter one and make it a part of their overall Patagonia vacation.
I was happy that I chose the longer route and was one of the few people to vacate the bus at the trail head. The vast majority of people were headed for the “W”.