by Nate McDowell
If there were a trail runner’s heaven, at least some of it would be in Patagonia. It is a place of tortuous trails threading thick forested slopes; of wide open alpine meadows ablaze in scarlet flowering notro bushes; of pristine lakes and immense glaciers; and of very few people. Recently, a dozen runners from the U.S. sampled the fantastic national parks in Chile and Argentina during the far south’s summer month of December.
Gathering from Alaska to Arizona, from California to Georgia, our common love of running lead us to sign on with this trip organized by Andes Adventures. The friendships that formed over the miles we shared continue to grow with us even while the images of some of the world’s most scenic beauty have begun to fade. Our group included ages from the 30s to the 60s, six men, six women; with running experience ranging mostly from marathons to 100-milers. It would be hard to put together a better mix. The owner of Andes Adventures, Devy Reinstein, is himself an addicted runner, and took to the trails with us as one of our guides through out our trip.
Punta Arenas, Chile was our first gathering place, after a series of exhausting flights. We all got a chance to meet and recover from jet lag. Once assembled, we traveled by land north to Torres del Paine. This was a leisurely travel day, with a stop for lunch and shopping at the little town of Puerto Natales.
Continuing north we got the chance to observe wildlife, including Magellan penguins, American ostriches, and herds of llama like animals called “guanacos.” By late afternoon we saw the striking Granite Towers that dominate the skyline of Torres del Paine National Park. These mountains form the center of the park, and there are several lodges or “Refugios” that circle this expanse like a giant necklace. Each is several miles apart and connected only by trails.
Our first stop was Refugio Torres, where we spent an extra day testing our legs and gear by running the classic trail from the lodge to the base of the towers and back. Although each refugio was different, all of them abided by a simple rule: “Take your shoes off before entering.” They were all warm, clean, and cozy.
Classic Route-Day One
This shakedown day provided us with our first taste of the fickle winds, dramatic weather changes, and the rugged trails to come. We had all day to complete this 10 to 12 mile route, so we took our time enjoying the dramatic views. Our plan was to run, hike, and climb all the way around the park in four days. We needed to carry personal gear and protection from the weather along the way, but the refugios would have food and bedding for us. Still, running with even a small backpack proved to be a burden. From Refugio Torres we set out for refugio Dickson, then to refugio Grey, refugio Cuernos and finally back to Torres. None of us could agree on how far the actual distance was to do the whole circuit; I would guess 65 to 70 miles. All of us agreed that day two, running from Dickson to Grey, was the highlight of the circuit.
This “eco challenge day” took us from 8 to 14 hours to complete. Our group of twelve left refugio Dickson shortly after breakfast at around 8:00 a.m. The run began with two hours of steady winding trails occasionally slowed down by stream and river crossings where keeping dry feet and not losing the trail could be challenging. Another hour of forested switchbacks and we had our first rest stop at Campo los Perros. By then we had split into a lead group of eight, including Devy, and a trailing group of four accompanied by another guide, Christian. After a few trail snacks and re-supplying water we continued on. The trail soon became an intermittent stream, getting wetter and wetter until we entered “bog land.”
Those of us with dry feet maintained a futile attempt to stay that way until it was simply impossible. It seemed like we spent a full hour in ankle deep icy cold water and shoe stealing muck. This ended abruptly upon reaching a tremendous gushing river separating us from a tall steep rocky and snowy ridge on the other side known as Gardner pass. Its snowy top was invisible as it merged in low clouds, and somehow we had to get over it.
But our immediate problem was to ford the river. Stalled for a few minutes we finally located a wire strung across that we could hold onto to keep us from getting washed down stream. At least the icy water cleaned all the muck from our legs! Sopping wet from our waist down we now started up the snowfield, pelted by light drizzle blowing from above that had us all wondering the same thing. “Is this a recipe for hypothermia?”
Higher and higher we climbed. I watched Larry in front of me, wearing only shorts, as the snow crept up to his knees. At least I had tights on. Midway up this pass we found an island of bare rock that blocked some of the rain and the ever-increasing wind from above. Taking advantage of this shelter, we ate more trail food, drank, and added all the extra layers we had. This put us about five hours into our journey. Devy had warned us the pass could be so windy that we may need to cross it in a group with arms intertwined. Larry, Ann, Linda, Melissa and I went on staying close just in case. The wind and the rain held back and we enjoyed a fabulous view up top. Looking back, our trail up was just lost in the vast expanse below us, and on the other hidden side, the enormous blue/white Grey Glacier, spread out below like a fantastic city built of ice.
We slid down steep snow banks on the other side until we entered a section of tree studded muddy slopes. Tarzan-like we were able to lower ourselves hand by hand down each tree to its roots, to the next tree, down its trunk to its roots and over again. As the terrain leveled we could finally run again, now shedding layers we had built up in the snow above.
At about the six-hour mark our group hit a clearing in the forest that held our last aid stop. Devy had arranged a feast of fruit, chocolate bars, cookies etc. for us, along with water and Coke. I took off my soggy shoes, dried my feet and put on dry socks. As we rested, Devy, Liz, John, Peter, and Beth all came in.
Only four now missing, Sandy, Ira and Miller, plus our sweeper guide Christian. Refreshed and out of the wind, we still had some very challenging trails to cover before arriving at refugio Grey. Nothing flat, nothing straight. Our first group made it in about eight hours. As the afternoon turned to evening all but the last four had arrived. Finally we got a radio dispatch that the four had made it to the last aid station. As it was now getting late, Devy and Larry returned with a horse to assist one runner getting to shelter before dark.
Despite the incredible terrain we suffered only from blisters and bruises. Beth took first prize with a king-sized blister that plagued her for the rest of the trip. Four wonderful days, each ending with hearty prepared meals, warm cozy beds, and hot showers. In short, one could justify the whole trip just by doing the Torres circuit and then going home! But wait—there was more.
Argentina: El Chalten
We drove across the border to Argentina for our next leg of the trip, staying next to the Parque los Glaciares, in the tiny village of El Chalten. The majestic peaks of, Mt Fitzroy (11,171 feet) and Cerro Torre (10,177 feet) dominate this park.
From here we did different runs each day, each of us selecting routes and running in groups depending on how we felt or what we wanted to try. We had terrific weather, with occasional rain, brief sleet, and ever-present gusty Patagonian winds. The running was mostly uphill in any direction from El Chalten, at least for the first hour.
My favorite was day one, when most of us ran a route that took us high up to Lago de los Tres, a beautiful lagoon at the base of dramatic rock spires. The final 45 minutes leading to the lagoon is a rock strewn slope of some 45 degrees that lifts you up a couple thousand feet above the forests below. On the return, we took a long traverse through the forest and skirted a pair of sapphire blue lakes, named “Madre y Hija”, or “Mother and Daughter.” Eventually we hooked up with another trail leading back to town from the opposite side. I was out about five hours that day, and besides our group I saw only about six hiker/campers the whole time.
Leaving El Chalten, we drove to Rio Gallegos, and flew to Ushuaia, the “southernmost city of the world,” on the island of Tierra del Fuego. Here, within Tierra el Fuego National Park was our last trail run of the trip. The plan was to be dropped off from our bus for a point to point 16 to 18-mile run through forested trails, and along the rocky shores of the bay. The area is famous for its avian wildlife, including a variety of waterfowl, South American condors, the crested cara cara, and flocks of squawking parrots.
As the trails here were not marked very well, Devy brought along a stack of maps, good enough to navigate by, and on handing these out explained that our goal was to reach parks cafeteria. There we could elect an additional out-and-back if we wanted, or just hang out and have lunch before returning to Ushuaia.
Sunset in Ushuaia
Unfortunately I was not paying attention, because I had just realized I forgot to leave my heavy pack on the bus, and was now trying to figure out how to lug it along with me. Struggling with my extra load I soon dropped behind the rest of our group. Of course, eventually I got lost. Looking at my map (for the first time) I found nothing on it that even remotely said “cafeteria.” In fact, I didn’t even know where we had started in the first place. Dumb. Lost and alone on the final day, when the trail broke out onto a dirt road I figured I’d try it. I managed to flag down a passing truck and in broken spanish/english asked “Donde esta el cafeteria?” To my amazement the driver pointed down the road and said, “tres kilometers.” So I continued on at a slow jog. An hour later I was worried that this was an awfully long three km, when I came upon a sign with the familiar plate, knife, spoon, and fork. An arrow pointed the way onward. In the end I hit the trail I had lost and wandered into the “cafeteria” alone. To everyone’s amazement I had found a short cut of several miles and the first runners were just coming in as I took off my pack. A few intrepid souls ran and then climbed an additional mountainous section to the top of “Guanaco Peak” before heading back to Ushuaia. Not wishing to press my luck, I stayed back.
Back in Ushuaia, we took a boat tour, and had plenty of time to roam around and shop. From there we flew north to Buenos Aires, one of the largest and oldest cities in the Americas. So beginning with snow capped peaks, forests, and rumbling glaciers, we end in a land of centuries old cathedrals, modern high rises, and raucous subways. Before departing, Devy took us out to dinner and a glamorous Tango show followed by a morning guided city tour. Somehow we managed to shop for souvenir Christmas presents to bring back home to the U.S. If you love to run trails, be it a do-it-yourself trip or a pre-arranged trip like this, Patagonia is calling!
You can plan your own running adventure in Patagonia. However, arranging flights , reservations, and ground transportation is an effort that will take some time. It also helps to speak Spanish. Devy and Andes Adventures took care of all these details for us, allowing us to spend our time enjoying the trails.
Expect wind, wet feet, and rain.
Stick with synthetics, fabrics that dry quickly. Gortex is great for everything but shoes; our group found it stayed too wet and caused hot spots and blisters. Hats will blow away if not tied to your head. Water is abundant. We filtered or treated it with tablets just to be safe.
There are no dangerous animals. Leave you bear proof boxes and snake bite kits at home.
Maps are more useful if you find out where you are and where you are going first.