Fierce Winds at the Edge of the World

Cuernos del Paine in Torres del Paine National Park. Photo courtesy Miguel Vieira under a Creative Commons license.
Cuernos del Paine in Torres del Paine National Park. Photo courtesy Miguel Vieira under a Creative Commons license.

Sailors who ply the southern oceans call these latitudes the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties. We were not sailing, but the fierce winds between 50 and 60 degrees south batter the land as well as the sea.

Andrea and I travelled with Recreational Equipment Inc. (R.E.I.) recently to Paine National Park (in Spanish Parque Nacianal Torres del Paine) in the Magallanes region of Chile. Paine (pronounced Pine-A) has been called the most beautiful place on earth—but with the world’s worst weather. A typical week in summer might have 2 stormless days if you’re lucky. And I guess we’re lucky. We camped 2 nights at a national park campground in sight of the three towers (Torres) of Paine and spent another 2 nights in a tent on the shores of Lago Pehoe without a drop of rain.

The three towers (Torres) of Paine. Photo courtesy Winky under a Creative Commons license.
Sunrise at the three towers (Torres) of Paine. Photo courtesy Winky under a Creative Commons license.
Our tent in the Paine National Park.
Our tent in the Paine National Park.
Towers of Paine from the campground.
Towers of Paine from the campground.

The best way to see this country is to backpack the “W” trail, a favorite trekking route that takes hikers up three valleys and close to the base of the towers and the Cuernos del Paine—the horns of Paine. For a brief but excellent account of backpacking along this trail check out How to Hike the “W” in Torres del Paine.

Map of the "W" in Torres del Paine, Chile.
Map of the “W” in Torres del Paine, Chile.
Does this sign need translation? "Caution: area of strong winds."
Does this sign need translation? “Caution: area of strong winds.”

We didn’t hike all of the famous “W” route, but we did trek about 2/3 of it. And In the evening, after 9 or more hours on the trail, we’re back in a national park campground with hot showers and a mess tent stocked with beer, wine and a variety of snacks. This is travel R.E.I. style. Of course dinner is served as well. There were 7 of us plus two guides in Paine. Andrea and I are by far the oldest—we have twenty or more years on most of the group—but manage to keep up.

Andrea and William Halligan hike the "W" on a recent visit to Chile.
Andrea and William Halligan hike the “W” on a recent visit to Chile.

Why is Andrea standing behind me in the photo? Because we’re facing directly into the teeth of a steady 50 or 60 MPH wind. Gusts of 100 MPH are common here and can knock a guy right off his feet as attested by frequent travellers to Patagonia.

On the fifth day in Paine, a cold wind scudded clouds over Grey Lake and freezing rain made our last day of hiking a wet and uncomfortable one. Luckily, the plan for the night was a nice hotel with heated floors, and a bed with thick comforters. Our room had big picture windows overlooking Grey Lake where giant icebergs from the Grey Glacier floated on the icy water.

In my next installment I’ll post more photos and write about our experience with the people and penguins (hundreds of them!) in and around Punta Arenas, capital city of Chile’s southernmost region.

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William Halligan

William Halligan

William F. Halligan is a 1972 graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Dentistry. He practiced general dentistry during most of his career with an emphasis on restorative dentistry. He is a member of the American Academy of Craniofacial Pain and a founding member of the Academy of Clinical Sleep Disorders Dentistry. Dr. Halligan’s practice is located in San Diego and is focused on treating TMJ disorders.

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