The High­est Or­der

Backpacker - - PLAY LIST -

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

Con­tact par­que­tor­res­del­

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.

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