Patagonia, a land of snow-capped mountains, glacial lakes, frosted woodland and iced beauty. Stretching through southern Chile and Argentina until the continent’s end, Patagonia attracts travellers from all over the world. The summer season, from December to February sees trekkers, photographers, wildlife enthusiasts and many more making the long journey south to explore this frozen tip of South America.
Come winter, however, and there is a different story to tell. From June to September, sub-zero temperatures, few sunlight hours and reduced transportation ward many travellers off. We were met with incredulous remarks and worried glances when announcing plans of a wintertime trip to Patagonia. Doubts placed firmly at the back of our minds, we set off anyway. It seemed like too good a trip to miss, and indeed it was.
Torres del Paine National Park in Chile is one of Patagonia’s many highlights. Images of the iconic “torres” grace countless guidebooks and a three-to-four day trek through the park, dubbed the W Circuit, tops many trekkers bucket lists. This was to be our destination, and the trek, our challenge. Incredulous remarks and worried glances lingering in our minds, we were careful to take extra special care to ensure a successful trip. The following tips were catered specifically to our experience of the W Circuit, but can be applied to any wintry Patagonia trip.
It’s no lie that many tourist services shut down during the winter period. Transfers from the town of Puerto Natales to the W Circuit starting point can be expensive and hard to come by. Having patience and a little extra time on your side just in case is advisable. Lack of snow chains on our under equipped but overloaded transfer vehicle nearly made us fall at the first hurdle. It was time to push. Half an hour of puffing and panting later and we had made it to the starting line. Just don’t expect first class service.
During winter, all but one of the refuges along the route are closed. Camping is unavoidable, but sleepless nights are not. Thick sleeping bags (up to -9 degrees Celsius) and mats do well to keep out the cold and the wet, but many more layers are still needed. I found this out the hard way. Having stripped down to my thermals and t-shirt upon entering the toasty two-man tent (home to three of us) I awoke a few hours later. Teeth chattering, I scrambled around the tent locating my remaining jumpers, coat and hat. Unpopular among my fellow tent dwellers to say the least.
Believe it or not, a heavy-duty jacket is not needed during the daytime. A nice, highly waterproof (just in case) wind breaker on top of your other layers is enough. Walking for long periods of time, bag on back, you will break into a sweat. Sweating in the snow is certainly one of life’s more incongruous situations. However, once you make it to the night’s campsite, you will want to strip off your sweaty outer layers and wrap yourself in a nice down jacket. Light, warm and often brightly coloured, down jackets will now feature on every one of our Christmas lists.
Bring plenty of it. It needs to be light, quick to prepare and calorie-ridden. Wraps are good, as are instant rice and noodles. Plenty of chocolate bars and other tasty snacks also go down a treat. Some words of advice however: change it up a little bit. The prospect of eating instant rice and frankfurters three evenings in a row didn’t seem like a bad idea, but it was. Frankfurters, an item definitely not making an appearance on anyone’s Christmas list. As for the wraps, pay that extra £1.50 for the better quality meat or cheese filling, you’ll thank yourself later.
Nalgenes (reusable water bottles) are a must. Fill with ice-cold water from Patagonian streams (best water in the world, they say) and easily attach them to your backpack during the day. At night, fill with hot water and pop it into your sleeping bag. Perfect.
In a hostile environment, a non-hostile attitude is key. Scared away by the wintertime horror stories, the park was much emptier of tourists but park rangers, refuge keepers and the odd maintenance worker still populated the campsites. You never know when a bit of friendliness can lead to the offer of a floor to sleep on or a chicken soup to slurp on.
AND, ABSOLUTELY NO MOANING!
Within our group we made a pact: grumpiness was banned. Anytime one person made an overly cutting comment or snapped at another, they owed the rest of the group a beer after the trip ended. High-spirited for (almost) the entirety of the trek, this method worked rather well. So we bought the beers anyway. And some wine. We deserved it, after all, we had defied those incredulous remarks and proved wrong those dubious looks. We had survived a Patagonian winter.
Have you hiked Patagonia? Please share your experience with our readers in the comments section below!