Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park

Lonely Planet Magazine (US) - - Great Escape -

The An­des pass many spec­tac­u­lar land­scapes on their 4,000-mile jour­ney along South Amer­ica’s spine. There are the ter­races of Machu Pic­chu in Peru, the green hills that rise from the Caribbean in Colom­bia, and the first trib­u­taries of the Ama­zon basin. But it is at the south­ern­most point of the con­ti­nent where the moun­tains reach their grand fi­nale – and save the best for last.

Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park is the ge­o­log­i­cal mas­ter­piece of the An­des; it is a place where the weather pat­terns of the Pa­cific and At­lantic con­verge, de­stroy­ing hik­ers’ tents and sculpt­ing gran­ite moun­tains into crooked, for­bid­ding forms.

Once a back­wa­ter of re­mote cat­tle herders, gua­naco herds and the odd puma, the park now brings in ad­ven­tur­ers for trekking, moun­taineer­ing and horse­back rid­ing in this lit­tle Mor­dor at the end of the world. Among them is Cris­tian Oyarzo, a lo­cal with an in­fec­tious grin and a salt-and-pep­per beard, who has pi­o­neered a dif­fer­ent way of ex­plor­ing the park.

“With a kayak you can get to places no one else can,” he says, cast­ing off from a peb­bly beach on the shores of Lake Grey. “You get a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive when you are down on the wa­ter.”

We glide out onto the lake, pass­ing forests of Antarc­tic beech that reach down to the shore. Snowy sum­mits ap­pear be­tween gaps in the storm clouds; among them are the ver­ti­cal spires of rock – tow­ers, or “tor­res” – that lend the park its name. Ahead are more icy pin­na­cles: ice­bergs afloat on the lake, sail­ing south­ward, car­ried by the wind.

“Ev­ery time you pad­dle among ice­bergs it is dif­fer­ent,” Oyarzo says. “They are al­ways chang­ing forms and color. Once you pad­dle among them, you never want to re­turn to land.”

The ice­bergs are ves­sels made of mil­len­nia-old ice: bro­ken frag­ments of the mas­sive Grey Glacier, which be­gins in the Patag­o­nian An­des to the west and ter­mi­nates at the lake’s north­ern reaches. The glacier – one of the park’s most spec­tac­u­lar – is a branch of the South­ern Patag­o­nian Ice Field, one of the world’s largest ex­panses of ice.

At 6,500 square miles, it is a frozen wilder­ness so vast and un­char­tered that nei­ther Chile nor neigh­bor­ing Ar­gentina can de­cide pre­cisely where their ter­ri­tory ends and be­gins. It is, how­ever, un­der threat: the Grey Glacier is rapidly shrink­ing, de­creas­ing in width and thick­ness as a re­sult of cli­mate change.

Closer to the ice­bergs, the creak­ing of ice is au­di­ble above the splash of kayak pad­dles. The ice­bergs’ warped shapes bring to mind a Sal­vador Dali sketch or a Pink Floyd al­bum cover. Some are pris­tine white; oth­ers have strata of deep blue. Some are the size of a dou­ble-decker bus, though few sur­vive longer than a few days be­fore they are small enough to fit in a beer glass.

Fre­quently, they can be seen calv­ing, or break­ing apart. On more than one oc­ca­sion, Oyarzo heard a sin­is­ter rum­bling up above and had to fran­ti­cally pad­dle out of the way of a col­laps­ing tower of ice.

“This is the way to see the ice in Patag­o­nia,” he says. “When you come so close you can touch it.”

The ice­bergs sparkle in the af­ter­noon sun­light, as lit­tle waves lap against their base. Oyarzo puts down his pad­dle, and for a few mo­ments joins them in their slow, silent drift along the cold wa­ters of the lake.

Head to the Patag­o­nian wilder­ness to pad­dle among ice­bergs in the shadow of mighty gran­ite peaks.

A storm over the Cordillera Paine range; ice­bergs on Grey Lake // Op­po­site: the lobby of Tierra Patag­o­nia

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