In January, I had the good fortune to travel to Chile with my good friend, Bill Bloomer. We planned this after the rise-and-fall of Covid’s delta variant thinking that, just maybe, the window would remain and, with due care, we could wander a few distant places once again. And then there was omicron.
I have already given our decision away. With our triple-play of vaccinations and several tests of various varieties, we left the winter of northern Nevada to find summer in Santiago, Chile. After a few days acclimatizing to the new season – really an unneeded, built-in buffer in case of travel delays, we flew to Puerto Natales to meet up with the other three members of our trekking party and our two guides. Once oriented, we caught a van to the entrance at Torres del Paine National Park and, almost immediately, started walking. It would have been hard not to; the magnetic beauty of the Torres pulling us forward.
We were there to hike the O Circuit, eighty-six miles, give or take, circumnavigating the park over eight days. It is basically a hut-to-hut or camp-to-camp daily walk, with all parties traveling in a counter-clockwise direction. The O Circuit incorporates the well-traveled and somewhat more popular “W”, where travel is a bit less regulated given its possibilities of relatively easy access and multiple variations. While the “W” offers up the requisite highlights of Torres del Paine, the “O” provides a full-immersion trek, accessing the park’s wilder backcountry on a single-track path of diversity and, indeed, sublime experience. Only a climbing expedition into the high glaciers, ridges, and walls would be more remote.
Our group, unknown to each other prior to our rendezvous in Puerto Natales, consisted of a nicely diverse group of experienced hikers. Although our previous hiking resumes varied from demanding day-hiking to month-long jungle excursions to backcountry mountaineering to multi-day Himalayan treks, we bonded with each other easily over the first few days but had taken to our two wonderful Chilean guides immediately. We could not have been more fortunate getting to know Karina and Andrea.
I was there to experience the mountains of Patagonia and hoped to follow dramatic light among peaks I had dreamed of since I first flipped through climbing magazines in high school. I no longer crave the technical climbs, but as a wanderer and photographer, I still sought the experience of nature’s light – cool or warm, drama or subtlety – along the trails and hills in front of me. I was soon immersed in the pleasurable pace of our point-to-point hikes. I did, however, find it difficult to get into the mindset of photography. First, with two exceptions, we had mostly sunny days filled with blue skies; wonderful days for walking and absorbing the beauty of the boundless expanse of Torres del Paine, but difficult days for creating compositions that would express the feelings of that expanse. Also, we did have to keep a basic daily schedule, whether hiking seven miles or fourteen. The camps – whether in bunkhouses or tents – provided all the provisions we needed, wonderfully throughout the trek – luxurious in a Chilean backcountry way. This afforded the opportunity to get out early and stay out a little late, but I struggled for focus in these places unknown to me. I would generally wander along at the back of our group, watching for birds and admiring the variety of habitats and landforms along our trail. It was always so good. The trail sections were not difficult, although the steep, bouldery and brushy drop from John Garner Pass into the valley of Glacier Grey was an exception. This took a good all-day effort, a pleasure nonetheless.
On two days, however, the drama of Patagonia reigned. On our first-day foray into the Rio Ascencio we followed a storm that prevented any visit to Lago Torres at the foot of the iconic pinnacles. The clearing storm hinted at the power the atmosphere ripping between two oceans. Then calm set in, for days. Finally on our penultimate day, and fortunately as we traversed the foot of the Paine Grande to climb in the French Valley, drama returned. It was perfect – wind-driven squalls tore at my jacket and pack, trees slashed and were suddenly calm, avalanches thundered from Paine Grande, and dark clouds cut among the peaks where sunlight flashed rainbows to light the granite walls. So perfect, that for long moments I could not hold back tears – the light, wind, and rain overwhelmed me so simply that I had to pause in the perfect emotion, for long moments the beauty surrounding me was beyond words and my eyes were literally full. My favorite images come from this day.
I should have anticipated this. The day prior a Chimango Caracara (Phalcoboenus chimango) played with me on the footslopes of Paine Grande. The Chimango is a common falcon here, but her eyes seduced me into believing she was the only thing worthy of attention. She inquired into my presence and finally released me back to the trail. The storm was coming and maybe that was the message she stared into me – why would I be there if not to experience her mountain. Silly stuff, but I am keeping it with me for a while.
The best thing about the O Circuit is that it gets better each day. It soothes you into rolling hills along floodplains of the Rio Paine. It climbs into glacial lakes that yesterday only peaked from the bases of massive glaciers and icefields. It wanders through beech woodlands to dance at the foot of waterfalls cascading from the backs of the Torres. Astounding hanging valleys of Glacier de los Perros and Glacier Amistad Glacier culminate at John Garner Pass overlooking Glacier Grey and the South Patagonian Icefield (the second largest, non-polar, contiguous expanse of ice). From Glacier Grey, one is led to the foot Paine Grande and into the drama of French Valley – the “W” is joined at Glacier Grey, its arms reaching into adjacent valleys. The black-capped Cuernos rise above Lago Nordenskjold as the O closes back at Rio Ascencio. If someone planned the required counter-clockwise circuit, it had to be with this sublime build to closure. A perfect trek.
Over the next few weeks, I hope to present a ‘behind-the-image’ for a photograph taken on each day of the circuit. It will augment this Patagonia Collection, which also may evolve as I continue to digest this group of 50 or so images from a wonderful experience – ultimately culling these to a ‘calendar’ portfolio of a dozen or so prints. Thanks to Bart, Bill, Rosalind, and Sarah; it was such a pleasure. Utmost thanks to Karina and Andrea for sharing their homeland with us, it was an honor to walk, learn, and laugh with you.