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November 10, 2001
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Torres del Paine
Travelers can explore the wonders of Torres del Paine National Park on horseback or on foot. (Erik Olsen/
Sunset with Moncho
Exploring the bottom of the world on horseback

By Erik Olsen

T O R R E S   D E L  
P A I N E,   Patagonia,  
— I am standing less than a mile from the base of the Torres del Paine, four magnificent granite towers that, for the last two hours, have been shrouded in heavy, snow-pregnant clouds.

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     My traveling companion, Erik, is a buddy from high school who has come down to South America on a month-long hiatus between jobs as an attorney and to take some time off from a long string of 80-hour work-weeks.

We consult one another to determine whether it is worth the climb to make the towers. I am eager to snap a few photographs, but the clouds seem in no hurry to leave; further, snow has begun to fall, threatening to strand us in the high country. The crisp air fills my lungs and makes my body feel like a smoothly-running engine. I am ready to continue.

Erik reminds me, however, that our provisions are nearly gone, and we still have a six-mile trek to get back to the park's entrance, where we hope to catch a ride to the park's only store to buy more food. Despite the fact that an imminent return to the park is unlikely, we decide to leave the elusive towers for another day.

A few hours later, we find ourselves negotiating with a dark-bearded Chilean man named Miguel, who runs a stable within the park that rents horses to visitors. We have arrived a month short of the regular season, however, and Miguel informs us that there are no horses to be had. I slip him a twenty and this convinces him that an exception is due in our case. "You gringos sure know how to bargain," he says, pocketing my money. I have the feeling that I'm being taken for a ride, but in a way, that exactly what I'm paying for. Besides, when's the next time I'm going to be in one the world's most beautiful places?

UNESCO Reserve

Located on the far southern tip of South America, in a sparsely-populated, wind-swept corner of Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park, sprawls across some 600,000-acres. It is a beautifully desolate place of broad plains, crazy-shaped mountain peaks, thundering waterfalls, and open skies. The park was registered as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978, and is rich in unusual wildlife and well-known among the international climbing cognoscenti as the source of some of the best rock climbing - and often the worst weather - on the continent.

So far, the hardest part was just getting here. There are no roads from the North, so for Erik, who came from San Francisco, the trip required a six hour flight to Miami, and an eight hour flight to Santiago, where we met up. Then there was a four-hour plane ride to Punta Arenas, the world's southern-most city, and finally a 250-mile van ride to the park entrance. No one ever said reaching paradise was going to be easy.

Of course, this remoteness is one of the park's hidden blessings: as many people visit Torres del Paine a year as visit Yellowstone in a day.

Meeting Moncho

Our goal now is to reach the Grey Glacier, a frozen finger of the Southern Ice Cap, the continent's largest remaining body of ice left over from the last Ice Age. We are ready to ride, but Miguel tells us he must first scare up a guide, as there are none currently on shift.

"Come back in the morning," Miguel orders. "You will meet your guide, Moncho."

The next day, we arise early to clear skies. The sun begins to creep above the jagged mountain-tops, giving them an otherworldly lining of gold. We hurry to the stable from a nearby hostel in order to take advantage of the weather. As we've learned, in this part of the world, there's no telling when Mother Nature might change her mind and hurl a storm at us.

When we arrive, Miguel introduces us to Moncho, who is bent over, shoeing our horses. He is a thickly-built huaso, or cowboy, wearing a ragged pair of jeans and a heavy brown poncho made of guanaco fur. It's obvious to both of us that Moncho's plans for the day did not include leading a couple of city slickers into the mountains; his disheveled appearance suggests that he has just been dragged out of bed. When we approach, clad in expensive REI rain gear, our faces lit by bright smiles, Moncho glares at us over his shoulder as if we are lower than the gunk he's digging out of the horse's hoof. He straightens up and spits a wad of tobacco on the ground, missing my Timberlands by a few inches. He looks me in the eye and squints, and I can't help detecting in the gesture a bit of Clint Eastwood. "Vamos," he says.

Around nine in the morning we start up the trail and beat a path across a broad grassy savanna which has been turned into a swamp by the recent rains. As my horse steps through the mud, his shoes make an amusing squelching sound that can easily be mistaken for an intestinal problem. Off in the distance, we see the bizarrely-sculpted peaks known as Los Cuernos, or "the horns" which resemble a kind of Brobdingnagian post-modernist layer cake.

The wildlife along the way is as varied and peculiar as the surroundings. We are stalked briefly by a pair of rheas, or nandú, as they are known locally. Rheas are large, round, ostrich-like birds that are known for their ability to run at high speeds, a necessary talent when you look like a giant turkey and can't fly. Guanacos, a distant cousin of the llama, gather in arrogant herds and aloofly watch us pass. I observe one of them (a male, I think) chasing some of the others around, nipping at their butts, and making an odd, high-pitched noise, like the bark of a small dog.

Further along, we pass a series of magnificent lakes, bluer than seems possible in nature, like an LA swimming pool from a Hockney painting. It is this color that gives the park its name, as the word Paine (pronounced PINE-aye) is a Tehuelche Indian word meaning "blue". The Tehuelche were the original inhabitants of Patagonia, and it is from their other name, Patagones, that the name Patagonia is derived. The word means "big feet", and comes from observations recorded by the first European explorers to this region. They saw huge foot prints in the mud, which most likely were due to the over-sized fur boots worn by the Tehuelches. For decades afterwards, it was believed that the lower reaches of the continent were peopled by a tribe of giant men.

Taking Refuge

Around three in the afternoon, after passing over a perilous ridge of dark, serrated rock, we come upon the Refugio Pehoé, a medium-sized log cabin in the middle of the Patagonian wilderness. Our bodies ache from the ride, and the refuge is a perfect place to stop for lunch. We're happy just to be indoors. A few minutes earlier, a notoriously harsh type of wind, known locally as a williwaw, had taken us by surprise and made progress difficult. We sit down inside the refuge and ask for something cold to drink. The extraordinary Cuernos can be seen through a broad window from the refuge's dinner table.

The people working in Pehoé are gracious and friendly, and they cook for us a delicious lunch of rice and beans, a common (some would say too common) Latin American staple. The break has made me realize how sore I am, and I suggest aloud that the refuge might be the ideal place to stay the night. But Moncho will have nothing of it. He is convinced we can make it to the glacier by sundown, and he refuses to stop. He is not the type of man you argue with. So with full-stomachs, we re-mount and begin the final leg of the journey to the Gray Refugio, about three hours further along.

Our ride continues through pristine country, and at one point, we reach the top of a rise and spy the glacier off in the distance. The glacier looks like a monstrous river, frozen in time. It is one of the most spectacular vistas I can ever remember seeing. We enter a forest of lenga trees, which look like cypress and are ornamented with an aptly-named moss known as Old Man's Beard that hangs down from the branches in gloomy, Solzhenitsyn-like clumps. An obsidian-black woodpecker eagerly knocks a hole into one of them, high in the branches. A condor spins wide circles high overhead. In the soothing silence, I take a moment to consider what the Tehuelches must have thought when gazing upon these sights. Perhaps the harsh climate would be easy to tolerate if this was your backyard.

Moncho rides about a mile ahead of us; apparently he figures we can find our way along the trail without getting lost. We meet up with him a few hours later, as our weary, two-man team hobbles through the trees and we find Gray Refugio, nested in a narrow clearing on the lakeshore. We dismount our horses and tether them to a tree. It is early evening. The sun dips behind the mountains and casts a dazzling light over the lake, a warm persimmon blush of such stunning luminescence that it is hard to believe the scene is real. Moncho, who has been silent and sulky during the entire ride, takes a deep breath and gazes at the surroundings. He casts me a grin, the first time I've seen him smile. "Fantastico," he says.

The glacier is now close, hardly an hour's hike away, but we have been on horseback for over eight hours, and neither of us can muster the courage to remount and set out again. We decide to make the trip first thing in the morning. On foot.

We pitch our tent in the campground outside the lodge and start a fire in an old, abandoned refuge that still squats among the trees. Moncho, perhaps not quite the rugged cowboy I'd imagined him to be, sleeps inside the refugio. That night, with a billion stars blazing overhead, we are lulled to sleep by the whisper of the breeze through the trees and the weary groan of the glacier.

Heading for the Glacier

In the morning, we are up at dawn and make for Gray Glacier. It takes us over an hour to reach it on foot, and when we arrive, breathing heavily, our expectations are wildly exceeded. The glacier stands before us like a great wall built by giants; a 75-foot high battlement made of sharp knife-like protrusions of glazed blue ice. Blocky house-sized chunks that have recently calved from the glacier float in the water, looking like crystal ships setting sail for distant lands. The rocks where I stand are scoured smooth by the rapidly retreating glacier, which by some estimates, loses 50 feet a year. The feeling I have standing in front of the glacier is like being in another world, a place where the common artifacts of everyday life have been replaced by the unfamiliar, the magical. The moment is broken by Erik's voice, informing me that Moncho is waiting for us.

"He won't wait long," he says.

We meet up with Moncho, and then make it back to the Refugio Pehoé by mid-day. However, our bodies, which have not fully recovered from the day before, can go no further. We try to explain this to Moncho, but he tells us that he will go on, with or without us. After a brief consultation, Erik and I decide to bid our guide farewell. Gripping the reins of our two (now rider-less) horses in his fist, Moncho departs with a wave. We have no guide.

We stay another two days at the refugio, but we have nothing planned. Before making the two-day long hike out, we decide to take the time to get the soreness out of our bodies. I sit down to write a letter to my family to tell them where I am. It's difficult to describe at first, because the nearest large city is over a thousand miles away. But then, I know exactly where I am: I'm at the end of the world as we know it.

And I feel fine.

Getting There

Reaching Torres del Paine is not easy, but is worth it for those with the endurance to make the trip. If you are coming from the US, the trip usually involves flying eight hours from Miami to Santiago. From there, take a four-hour plane ride to Punta Arenas in Southern Chile, and finally, a six hour van ride north to the park via Puerto Natales. There are a number of places to stay in the park, ranging from the expensive Explora Lodge to cheap camping grounds that can be found in areas specified by Sernatur, the Chilean tourist bureau.
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