Something bumps under the zodiac, sending a spray of freezing turquoise water into my eyes, briefly obscuring my view of the hulking glacier ahead. Gabriel, our Chilean mountaineering guide, turns around, pulls down his balaclava and shouts 'tranquilo chicos [relax], it was only an iceberg, welcome to the real Patagonia!'
Straddling the sparsely populated tip of Chile and Argentina, Patagonia is a place of wild South American extremes. It’s a place where purple, snow-dusted peaks loom above grassy, rolling steppe; where bareback gauchos (cowboys) share forested trails with elusive pumas; where the elements have complete, and unforgiving, rule.
With below zero winters and summer winds that clock 130 km/h, to be ‘outdoorsy’ in Patagonia is testament to finding God. This gritty, awe-inspiring region can be so unbelievably cruel, yet so unbelievably beautiful; it’s reached near mythical status for adventurers the world over. And as I sit in the zodiac, hurtling towards the indomitable, icy blue Grey Glacier, I begin to understand why.
Patagonia is not a place of comfort, it’s not meant to be. If you’re after tango beats and fresh pineapple, you’ve missed the turn off. You’ve come too far south. Patagonia is a challenge – a challenge to your athleticism, your mindset, your view of the world.
As a small crew of only 11 people, tackling the terrain of Patagonia is a pretty unique bonding experience. We begin the journey in El Calafate, a small Argentine town nestled against a giant Argentine lake, known for its incredible panoramic vistas and abundance of tacky souvenir stores. Also dogs. They have so many dogs here.
Canine friends and fridge magnets aside, El Calafate gave me my first glimpse of the peaks awaiting us. And even at a distance, I was dumbfounded.
I mean, I understand that over millions of years, the land and the ice has moved and moulded, forming new sloughs and new peaks. It may be difficult to believe, but it’s science. Spending days climbing to the top of those peaks, however, saw science take a backseat to the supernatural.
We’re almost a week into the trip, several bottles of malbec down and our boots are beginning to wear in, when we tackle the trek up to the Torres Del Paine. Arguably Chilean Patagonia’s star attraction; the ‘towers of blue’ are considered a bucket list item for travellers exploring the region.
To reach the granite faces involves a fairly arduous four-hour hike. The beginning is the worst – it’s exactly the kind of gradual incline I hate. The kind of zig-zag that pulls on your joints and sends lactic acid bubbling through your calf muscles. Our porters, Jonathan and Sebastian, encourage us to take rest stops, but all I can think about is making it into the valley.
At the first refugio (rest stop/campsite), we sit on our packs, windbreakers zipped to our chins and watch on as exhausted dawn hikers return back down the mountain.
I ask an Australian guy about the sunrise and he says 'mate, you didn’t miss a thing – it was a complete white out’. He looks like he hasn’t slept much. I give him a muesli bar.
The trek continues through lush forest that winds into a narrow trail before opening out into a 45-minute scramble. The climb is precarious, the snow making rocks slippery underfoot, and I realise that I’ve not looked up the whole time. I am missing the best part – the view.
When you reach the top, every single cell in you is reawakened. All I remember is the quiet. The quiet and the condors and the rest of my group sitting on a boulder, taking in the vista. Snow lightly dusting their shoulders. And I remember being so happy to be there, at those heights, with those people.
New friends in a newly discovered world, that’s what adventures are all about. About being red-cheeked and wind-burned with knotted hair, eating a cold packed lunch 20kms into a hike and filling your drink bottle from the fold of a glacier. ‘You’re hiking the Torres Del Paine,’ I remind myself, ‘you’re hiking the Torres Del Paine, and it’s a Tuesday’. I think I might be on another planet.
It certainly looks that way. In every stock photo, the granite towers are splashed red and orange in the sunshine as they tower above the lake. In our reality, the faces are almost completely shrouded by low-hanging cloud.
Sebastian comes up behind me and offers a sip of his mate (traditional tea). 'You see this,' he says gesturing to the snowstorm and the mountains, 'this is the real Patagonia'. What he means is this place is all the more spectacular at its most rugged and raw. That’s its drawcard – perfection in imperfection. I’m learning to love the real Patagonia.
Days later, after we’ve hiked the French Valley leg of the famous ‘W’ track, after we’ve thundered down the Rio Serrano in a boat manned by Miguel, after we’ve been blown over and under and sideways, after we’ve met a hermit who has braved the wildlands for almost 60 years – after all of that, there are just six of us standing on the edge of Lago Grey, looking out across the water to the small icebergs. We’re down to our swimwear.
I’m not sure whose idea it was. Perhaps the videographer was just after a really great shot or maybe one of the boys thought it would make a good ice bath for weary walking muscles. However it came to be, the seed was planted and the plan was to jump into the glacial lake.
On impact, the breath is punched out of my lungs. God, it’s cold. The air stings every part of my body, I feel strangely warm. But also strangely alive. And as I charge out of that frigid lake and scramble to find thermals, I realise that Gabriel was right.
This right here, this cold, sleet-filled, windy, rainbow-crested wonderland is the real Patagonia. And I am humbled to have felt tiny and insignificant (and frozen) among its turquoise and purple palette.