Trekking Patagonia
Cruising the Zodiac
Chamonix: To Climb
or Not to Climb

Twight's New Route

It's always been irresistible, now it's comfortable.

The man fell from the second story of a bright blue building. He looked like a goner, but the rope caught him a few feet from the pavement. He laughed and climbed back up, ready to try the hard route on the artificial climbing wall again.

Patagonia used to be, truly, the end of the earth. Arguably it still is, but it no longer feels that way. Until recently, this windblown, ineffably beautiful tip of South America saw, in the way of tourists, only a few hardy climbers or adventurous trekkers. A visit to Patagonia's famous mountains and lakes was even more exotic than a trip to the Himalaya, and badged the traveler as hardcore.

"I'm grateful I arrived in time to see these places before... before they become as crowded as the Khumbu..."

But this is no more. The future has caught up with these southern reaches of Chile and Argentina. The traveling is more comfortable, the border hassles more reasonable, and the amenities — well, we're talking climbing walls here.

After a month in the Falklands, I was beginninng to feel the stab of homesickness. This climbers' oasis, this strangely familiar scene way down here in Puerto Natales, looked like the requisite tonic. The sign said "Amerindia Concept," which wasn't very descriptive, but lower case letters proclaimed, "slide shows, coffee, beer." Home at last.

I was greeted in English (music to a monoglot such as myself) as I entered a sunny coffee shop that would fit in any city's university district. Pages clipped from the Mountaineers calendar decorated the walls. From the aroma I could tell that I wouldn't need to swill Nescafe for a while. I inquired about a room: $10 to $15 per person, double occupancy. The lower priced rooms meant a shared bathroom.

Once settled in my own digs, I found my view was of a Chilean fjord leading toward the glacier-clad peaks of Parque Nacional Bernardo O'Higgans. Just beyond stood the spires and walls of Torres del Paine, one of Earth's loveliest parklands.

I met with the proprietors, Hernan and Romualdo, who spoke warmly about the huge climbing and trekking potential of the area. Both were ardent climbers using their hostel as a means to finance their true love. In addition to running the hotel/restaurant, they guided hiking, climbing, and kayaking parties on the Chilean side of the mountains.

"Cars drive on the wrong side until a driver with right of way forces them over. Despite this... I saw no evidence of human carnage..."

Before discovering the Amerindia Concept, I spent my days among the peaks of Torres del Paine (pronounced "Pine-Nyay") in a state of high excitement. The granite walls dwarfed Yosemite's El Capitan. Glaciers rivaling Alaska's largest ground down the valleys and calved into aquamarine lakes. Guanacos grazed and sparred under the attentive eyes of soaring condors.

Astoundingly, I repeatedly bumped into old acquaintances bound for the big walls. Patagonia has become comfortable enough to attract swelling groups of climbers and other visitors, almost all from Europe or North America. One can huddle in a tent among the spires or relax at a pricey lakeside lodge. The weather can close down for weeks, but here in high summer, I saw the peaks, often bathed in sunshine, every day.

That's the good news. On the other hand, Chile is still an emerging country with a cumbersome infrastructure: climbers must apply for permits before arriving at the park or risk days or weeks of bureaucratic delay.

Across the Chile-Argentina border lies Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, home to Cerro Torre and the Fitzroy massif. Cerro Torre and its neighbors are classic spires, inaccessible daggers of rock that only in the last 25 years first felt the footsteps of men. Wind deposits a meringue of ice on the west faces where Antarctic winds sweep across the Patagonian ice cap and condense moisture on the cold rock. Climbers spend weeks or even months waiting for the weather to calm enough to allow sorties on their targeted routes.

Travel to either park is easy by bus or with a rental car. I found the parks in Chile to be better organized — campgrounds, restrooms, even "agua caliente" showers heated by wood fires. The Argentine roads tend to be rough a la the Alaska Highway circa 1970. Chile saves money by paving only one lane. The road from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales consists of one paved southbound lane and one dirt northbound lane.

Cars drive on the wrong side until a driver with right of way forces them over. Despite this unusual economy, I saw no evidence of human carnage, but lots of deceased machinery.

One thing chilled me more than the winds that can come up from nowhere to wrap the car door around the fender: the world is poised to discover these grand parklands. The good old days are right now. Go, but go now. I'm grateful I arrived in time to see these places before...before they become as crowded as the Khumbu.

James Martin, Mountain Zone Contributing Editor

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