The notorious Patagonian weather had been following us uphill for most of the day as we made our approach to the ‘crux’ of the Torres del Paine Circuit trek in Chilean Patagonia: John Gardner pass at 4660’ elevation. I know, less than 5000 feet, shouldn’t be much of a big deal – but at 51 degrees south latitude and almost within eyeshot of the Antarctic current coming up the Chilean coast a few dozen miles west, Mother Nature here was a genuine drama queen. Over and over we’d been told ‘if the wind is bad or you can’t see the trail, turn around!!” So it was with a strong sense of anxiety and urgency that we plowed through the deep mud under a thick southern beech canopy, past the Perros Glacier and camp, and up the steep blasted scree field below the pass. Already the view behind us down to Lago Dickson and the Dickson Glacier was obscured by mist and fast-blowing clouds.
We’d hefted our backpacks and set out on the fabled Paine Circuit heading counter-clockwise from Refugio Torres Central three days before. The well-marked trail (and sometime dirt road) had started out through rolling grassland and sparse forest, seldom out of view of the meandering Rio Paine.
Campamento Seron, about five hours walk east from Torres Central, was a modest complex with a fenced dirt camping area, small kitchen-dining building, a couple of sleeping domes and rusted farm equipment next to picturesque half fallen down outbuildings tucked into a curve of the river. Between the front door of the dining building and the river was a vast field of flowers and a shining rippling carpet of three foot tall golden grass, just begging to be pushed through but acquiescing no trace of our passage. A small group of campers did yoga in front of the building. Dinner cooked by a twenty-something temporary employee was stunningly good, and included a soup course, entrée, homemade bread and dessert cooked on a primitive wood-fired stovetop. We ate in shifts of 12 people at a time, crowded onto benches in the tiny dining hall, our elbows or backs grazing the walls of the small room as we ate.
From Seron the trail descended to the river flats, and paralleled the river as it meandered and braided across a mile or more of valley bottom that rose gently into more golden hills on the other side. As we came into a patch of Lenga just above the river and stopped for a brief drink from our water bottles, a tiny Patagonian pygmy owl (Glaucidium namun) – the smallest of the world’s true owls – flew to a branch within a foot of our startled faces and stood there, looking, absolutely unperturbed by our presence.
After an hour following the river, the trail led us north and west over a series of steep moraine walls to a ridge with a staggering view of the snowy glacier-studded Andes crest and Lago Paine below, aquamarine sky and tufts of cloud reflecting in the smooth water. Not a breath of the famed Patagonian wind blew here this day. Then it was down, down, the trail clinging to a cliff wall on our left and dropping steeply off to our right to the lake. As we passed onto a forested bench beyond the west end of the lake, the peach and black granite of the famous Towers of Paine gave us a peek at their backsides, just the very tops in view over a high ridge to our left. Finally by early afternoon we gained a full view of Lago Dickson and Refugio Dickson, in the loveliest setting of all the Paine refugios on a small curve of land wrapped all around by the lake, the Andes in full glory just behind.
Descending to the refugio and setting up our tents in the camp just behind, we had a fine afternoon in the warm sun, soaking in the lake, chatting with the lively international crowd. From a little hill behind the camp, we watched the sunset put on a show over the lake and Glacier Dickson behind. Already, swirling and rushing cloud-feathers far above our heads portended high winds above and a change in the weather.
Thick clouds blew in overnight, and by morning the wind was whipping the red and white Patagonian flag straight out from its standard in the field before the Dickson dining hall. Not certain that conditions would even allow a crossing of the pass, we set out to wind our way up the narrow valley to the southwest. For the first two hours the passage was under a dense Lenga canopy – as we’d been told, some of the oldest and largest to be found anywhere – broken periodically by stretches of open stony moraine.
At one point, the toe of the Perros glacier peeked through the mist. Despite the forest cover, the chilly mist and wind worked its way through canopy and clothing layers alike, and three hours into the day, when we arrived at the simple Los Perros camp compound, the shelter of the simple dining building was a welcome respite. We sat and ate our sack lunches, clothing steaming from the warmth of a few dozen bodies similarly waiting for some message from the Gods about whether to proceed (weather forecasts from the local ranger were no more reliable).
After an hour, the rain and wind had abated somewhat and we wrapped ourselves in raingear and and wound our way up – first a mile-long calf-deep mud adventure with slick rolling logs and steep creek banks for excitement; then, out in the open and up successive barren, stony moraine benches. For the final mile to the pass the trail wound through a rugged near vertical boulder-pile with the bright ice of Glacier Armistad flowing down toward us from the north. At last we rounded the final boulders, the slope abated, and we passed over the crest – and here we were, struck speechless in our tracks by the massive expanse of the South Patagonian Icefield – fourth largest in the world.
Sunbreaks illuminated an ocean of creamy ice, vivid blue crevasses and tilted spiny seracs stretching from horizon to horizon, tributaries ‘flowing’ in around the snowcapped black-rock peaks of the Andes crest. Our fellow travelers were tiny specks in front of the white vastness as they descended from the pass. We would gain the privilege of two more views of the Icefield during our month long Patagonia adventure, but this, our first, was the most magnificent.