The Highest Order
Trek to the bottom of South America, where sawtoothed mountains and bright- blue glaciers collide with the Southern Ocean. BY MARK JOHANSON
WE CLINKED BEERS in front of the refugio’s crackling fireplace just 24 hours ago. Our view of the steppe was broad and brimming with the excitement and possibility that radiates off the world’s most mind-bending scenery. What a difference a day makes.
Now, trudging through the Ascencio Valley, 10 miles into the Patagonian wilderness, a warm fire seems like something from another world. I can barely see a few feet into the storm clouds that whip in from the Southern Ocean.
We’re three couples from three continents, all drawn to this antipodal extreme by the chance to skirt past calving glaciers, Caribbean-blue lakes, and granite massifs. For us, the W trek—a five-day, 50-mile journey through Chile’s famed Torres Del Paine National Park—promises Patagonia on a budget. With a well-marked path and perfectly spaced campgrounds, we don’t need guides, and the whole thing costs only $125 per person.
Despite the fact that we’re experienced backpackers, however, none of us is familiar with the challenges inherent at this latitude. In Patagonia, the spine of the Andes creeps into the sea, creating an unpredictable and sometimes violent clash of seasons and weather.
On day two, we’re standing on that ridge when the clouds dissipate and the sky opens to reveal Los Cuernos, a rock formation that rises over the steppes like the devil’s horns. We may be on a backpacking budget, but here, it’s apparent that the reward is expedition-worthy scenery.
We push on to Los Cuernos, where we camp alongside a handful of others on wooden platforms tucked in a dense lenga beech forest. The next day, we continue into the heart of the W, where the two U’s meet in the French Valley. It offers our first glimpse of the glaciers that nestle between the granite pillars of this iconic park.
The wind picks up and the clouds return when we skirt Lake Skottsberg en route to our meadow camp on Paine Grande. In minutes, the weather goes from summer to winter. Hail shoots horizontally across the sky and safe travel becomes impossible. Unable to budge, or even hear each other’s voices, we huddle together amid a stand of charred trees. As suddenly as the storm came, it’s over. The sky brightens, warming my skin and setting the glacial lake in front of us a shade of cotton-candy blue.
We have two more days of this as we trek to the edge of the Patagonian Ice Field, where we’ll cap our tour with a ferry past Glacier Grey. It will deposit us back at a cozy refugio, where we’ll land with enough battle stories to last a lifetime.
DO IT From Santiago, connect to the new airport in Puerto Natales, from which shuttles make the 1.5-hour drive to the trailhead at Refugio Las Torres. Reserve campsites ahead of time (free). After the five-day W trek, catch a boat out at Refugio Grey. Alternatively, you can continue onward to complete the eightday Paine Circuit. Season October to April
White-tailed Ptarmigan | Mountain West
Ptarmigans aren’t hibernators, but they’re excellent hiders. When winter rolls around, this brown bird turns white and grows an extra patch of feathers around its feet. Though these wintry birds will likely be out in the open, they’re hard to spot unless they’re moving.
Striped Skunk | North America
Like black bears, the striped skunk enters a state of “torpor,” a light form of hibernation. Unlike bears, skunks will den together, grouping males that would otherwise fight it out under warmer circumstances. During torpor, they sometimes raise themselves from dreamland for a mid-sleep snack.
Black Bear | North America
All across the country, bears are taking cover from the cold in hollow trees and small caves after binging all autumn. But don’t be fooled: These sleepy bears are more in nap mode than fully passed out, and will reveal their hiding spots by way of self defense if invaded.
Honey Bee | North America
It’s good to be queen. As temperatures drop, colony priorities shift from sucking nectar to keeping the top lady alive, which the bees do by forming a shivering, warm cluster around her. You may glimpse a hive, but you’re unlikely to find many bees shirking their duty. Most will be out of sight, snuggling up to the boss lady.
Little Brown Bat | North America
During winter, bats hole up in “hibernacula,” a word which does nothing to rehabilitate the cute little creatures’ vampire reputation. In cold northern regions, find little brown bats roosting in caves, attics, and mines, sleeping so hard that they appear to be dead.
Wood Frog | Midwest and Northeast
How’s this for the miracle of life? These amphibians go underground and “die” during the winter, stopping their hearts while protecting their cells from icing over with a cocktail of glucose and urea. This act of self-cryogenics keeps the frogs alive through the winter so they’re healthy and hoppy come spring.