TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Inside Patagonia: Trekking Chile’s Torres del Paine

We march upward through innumerable switchbacks on the steep and dusty last mile of trail to the Torres del Paine. Small stands of Patagonia’s ubiquitous, twisted lenga trees cling to an otherwise barren mountainside of dirt and rock, earth overturned by glaciers and continually rubbed raw by the abrasive wind.

The whitewater roar of the Rio Ascencio fades as it slips away below us, replaced by the moan of gusts that grow stronger and colder as Jeff and I climb higher. In these last days of the austral summer, we’re suited up as if for winter in warm hats, gloves, and waterproof-breathable jackets over fleece.

A guanaco below Chile's Torres del Paine

Nearly six miles from the trailhead, we clamber onto boulders as big as refrigerators and look up. Three sheer-walled granite thumbs jut 5,000 feet straight up above an emerald glacial lake. Dark, gray clouds swirl around them, streaming off the summits as if the peaks are blowing smoke. They hint at gales up there that might make the wind blasting us seem calm.

These towers in the heart of southern Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park—which lend the park its name—look intimately familiar from the many pictures I’ve seen. And yet, they are kind of surreal, too massive to really comprehend their scale.

Suddenly, and very much without my consent, I am weightless and moving.

The abrupt, powerful gust releases me a moment later, several steps from where I was standing. I somehow managed to stay on my feet hopping across boulders as the bullying air gave me a very rough shove. Jeff and I exchange looks that say “whoa!” and laugh out loud. We’ve now been formally introduced to the infamous Patagonian wind. It will knock us around many more times in the days ahead.

My Boise friend Jeff Wilhelm and I have come to southern Chile in the second half of March to hike in what is undoubtedly one of the most prized trekking destinations in the world: Torres del Paine National Park. From here, we’ll fly to the very tip of South America to set out on the southernmost trek in the world, the Dientes Circuit. I’ll write about that obscure, end-of-the-Earth adventure in my next blog post.

In a sense, though, Torres del Paine is merely where we ended up. We really came here in pursuit of something bigger and more slippery: the reality behind a legend.

The region called Patagonia has earned a cache among adventurers that’s rivaled by very few places on the planet. It’s an ultimate aspiration for trekkers all over the world. We refer to it like a one-name celebrity. And saying “I want to go to Patagonia” is like saying you want to hike the Rocky Mountains—it’s rather vague.

Being nebulous is acceptable when you’re dreaming big. But there comes a time to fulfill the dream, and that means sticking a pin on the map and poking holes in all of your preconceived notions.

You could say that, perhaps like every other international trekker here, we’ve come to discover the actual meaning of the word “Patagonia.” As is usually the case when you finally visit a place, we’ll find that Patagonia is more complicated, difficult, and rewarding than we imagined.

Not to mention quite breezy.

Read the full story and see a photo gallery, as well as other outdoor-adventure stories, at


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