“μ” Trek, Day 1: The western lands of Torres del Paine greeted us with smells of charred wood and scenes of black ash, remnants of a tourist’s mishap when burning waste at a campsite at Grey Glacier. To the south, we could see smoke rising in the distance. Our route was safely finished smoldering, but remote areas of the Park still suffered in flames.
We disembarked from the Ferry at the western shore of Lago Pehoe and bundled tight against the onslaught of stormy wind and rain. When I say wind, I mean blow-you-over, knock-you-down, turn-you-around, take-a-seat-in-mid-air wind. Somehow, the pictures look so devastatingly calm…
Earlier in the week, Patagonia’s famous gales had swept grey and black storms of ash so furiously around trekkers that they couldn’t see more than a few yards beyond their feet. We’d come prepared with scarves and glasses and just enough fearlessness to be considered naive. The gusts blew, just as we’d been warned; thankfully, though, rain sent spinning through the air also acted as a settling agent to keep the ashes glued to the ground.
The wind carried acrid scents, stirring up my little-girl memories…
Smokey Bear posters: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”
(Morphing later to “wildfires,” since of course the blazing orange reset button is a valid part of nature).
An autumn return to Eastern Oregon for our family’s annual hunting trip and an explanation from my parents that our burned out campsite suffered the consequences of lightning fire.
A sadness at the upright trunks of black against the sky and the forest floor of char…
Walking across scorched earth is humbling.
Disasters in life larger than our power and control remind us that we are but children, trying and trusting, learning and growing our way through.
We leaned into the wind for hours, making our way uphill through the burned out wreck, observing areas where fire crews dug trenches and flames lept in defiance.
In other spots, death and life flanked the trail; a thin streak of compacted earth valiantly divided green from black.
Some cautioned ahead of time, saying the trek to Grey Glacier might not be worth it: 11.5 kilometers in and out through a forest of skeletons for glacial views easily found elsewhere in Patagonia.
On the contrary, when Ted and I made it to Gray Glacier, we found the creeping of water and ice juxtaposed with a land broken swiftly made for a new, melancholy sort of beauty.
The iconic scenes in this part of Chilean Patagonia are doubtless changed for years to come.
When tragedy strikes in life or on the land, good graces rarely grant a speedy rebound, and slow and painful recovery and growth seem to spell the story of Torres del Paine’s long-term future.
Is it worth a visit? Absolutely.
Are there continuing changes in store? We hope so.
The troubling current conditions of park management and the calls for improved emergency response plans, adequate fire fighting training, and responsible allocation of park fees are issues brought to the surface through this unnatural-tragedy. Again, for more insight, take a read of The Travel Chica’s write up: Tragedy in Torres del Paine: Stories from the Park.
The western end of the Park now looks to visitors with a face of pain and resolve, asking questions of the Chilean government and park managers, displaying scars from the swift and lasting consequences that began as a trekker’s small mistake.
This saddening and uncomfortable call to reevaluating forest care may ultimately serve Chilean Patagonia well, if authorities and visitors are willing to learn from the errors made and respond with wisdom going forward.
Land and people are beautifully resilient when given tender care.
We met Torres del Paine’s wincing gaze, walked upon the scarred land, and together we look forward, anticipating green hope to grow again.
This piece is third in a series following our boot tracks in Chilean Patagonia from Puerto Natales to the little known “μ” Trek at Torres del Paine National Park, through burned out beech forests, past color-charged lakes, up fantastical mountains, and into snug-as-a-bug sleeping bags in a cute little tent in the woods. Follow us on Twitter (@twoOregonians), like our Facebook page, and stay tuned for more photos and stories from the trail…