Exploring the effects of climate change in Torres del Paine National Park for National Geographic Traveler and Adobe

As our flight landed in Punta Arenas, Chile, I instinctually pulled out my cell phone and opened Google maps. There I was, a pulsating blue circle barely hanging onto the tip of South America. I scrolled sideways and was surprised to see I was much farther south than Cape Town and Sydney. Not far below, Antaractica was snaking upwards like an icy tail.

I traveled to Patagonia with a group of two students and eight other creatives to explore how climate change is affecting Torres del Paine National Park, a poster child for the world’s melting glaciers. The park is a five-hour drive north of Punta Arenas. We piled into a van and passed horse-mounted shepherds, flamingoes, guanacos (the region’s famous red-haired llamas), and what looked like baby ostriches. After passing through hill country we entered a forest reminiscent of an elephant graveyard. Living and petrified wood mingled together–bending, twisting, and hinting at the dramatic weather of other seasons. The mountains emerged on the horizon like shattered teeth. As we entered the park I marveled at a cerulean lake, realizing the photographs I’d seen were not over saturated. The visual drama is concentrated here. As the eastern and western coasts of South America converge, it is as if they push nature’s forces together, creating a holy land. 

Torres del Paine is the rare park where humans are the outsiders in a vast, legitimate wilderness. Though it occupies 930 square miles, the park receives only 2,000 visitors per day in peak season. This might be because it takes two planes and a five-hour drive to arrive at one of the park’s only four hotels. By the time I dropped my bags in my room, I had been traveling for 48 hours. There was little time to relax. We went out to meet Geraldinne, a native Patagonian who would be our guide throughout the week. Geraldinne spends her days running horses through the valley and hiking 20 miles as if it were a walk in the park. She introduced herself with a genuine smile and warmth that felt like a natural byproduct of living each day in a landscape of wonders. Within twenty minutes of arriving we set out for a hike to Lake Sarmiento. The trail we chose curved downward, and every five minutes we fell into a new biome. 

There were bones everywhere. First a skull, then vertebrae with hardened skin, and suddenly an entire carcass. Geraldinne explained, “The life of the guanaco is to eat and run from the puma.” Many of these guanaco were not fast enough, and neither were we. Our group made up of photographers and videographers moved slowly. As dusk settled in we were two hours behind schedule. We arrived by the lake in what looked like a land-based coral reef and Geraldinne suggested we head back, “It is puma hour. I don’t like puma hour.” She recalled that a man was mauled and killed by one of the large cats not long ago. “Where?” I asked, expecting her to describe somewhere far away. “Over there,” she said, pointing to a rock about 100 feet from where we stood. Moments later we heard a deep rumbling as a white cloud rose from the mountains in the distance. Torres del Paine is an avalanche behind you, a condor in the sky, bones in the grass, and pumas somewhere, everywhere, always watching from afar.

The group managed to move much faster on the way back, munching on the chocolate Geraldinne handed out as a sweet distraction. Part of the park’s enchantment is how untouched it feels. On our hike we saw no humans and no traces. Littering would be a mortal sin. When the wind picked up, one of our candy wrappers took off across the grass. The gasp was comical as the group began running after the tiny fleeing trash. After recovering it, one of the camera operators sheepishly asked if it was okay to use the bathroom out here. Geraldinne assured him it was fine, “Just be careful of the puma.” Nervously laughing, he disappeared for a few minutes before announcing: “I think this is the prettiest place I’ve ever peed.” As a photographer I am used to racing the sun, knowing that there are pivotal hours to capture a foreign place’s soul. I’d never been somewhere that the light is always beautiful. Even as the sun went out there were moments of poetry.

Early the next morning Geraldinne greeted us with her ever-present grin and began, “Today we are going to see the blue lagoon, the large lagoon, flamingoes lagoon, and swan lagoon. Welcome to Patagonia, the land of obvious names.” Our schedule included 12 hours of driving, hiking, and boating to see an overview of the park. The highlight was seeing our first glacier, although stalking the giant was not easy. To get there required a long drive, hiking through a forest, walking over a drawstring bridge (with a harrowing capacity of two people), and another hike across a black sand beach with 50mph gusts of wind. After passing these trials, we initially spotted the pale blue bergs that had detached from the main glacier and drifted down the lake. The mother loomed in the distance, crawling up a valley and into the horizon. 

Standing on the roof deck of our boat, the icy chill of the glacier hitchhiked with the wind. The temperature dropped almost 20 degrees and made my eyes water, like the glacier was fighting us back. Approaching it felt like tiptoeing around a sleeping dragon. Glaciers have tremendous presence with their size and danger. There are hidden caverns of the deepest blue and you can feel their age, the way an old tree fills the air with wisdom. I spotted a waterfall spilling out of a towering wall. This unfathomably large and complex beauty was being slowly murdered by a distant foe. How conniving that we can poison this creature from thousands of miles away. Only five years ago, this glacier was five times as tall. Patagonians estimate it is receding at a rate of 100 meters each year. Geraldinne has visited this glacier since she was a teenager and says it will be gone in three years. “We will miss them,” she says, with a tone of heartbreaking acceptance that a family member might use when announcing a relative is dying of cancer.

On our fourth day, a ranger agreed to guide our group to the French Glacier. We would be the first tourists to see it up close. After six miles over boulders and through a forest, we arrived at the wounded behemoth. The French Glacier is a shadow of what it once was. We stood over a small pond 20 meters from the ice wall and the ranger, who hikes there every day, described how this water was where the glacier stood a mere two weeks ago. The weather, too, was a reminder of the changes. Typically the entire French Valley is closed by March 15th due to the start of wintry conditions. On March 21st we hiked in light spring layers. Upon arrival, one of the students embraced the glacial wall. Beneath her was a small cavern with faucets of water pouring down. I watched the droplets as I ate my lunch, each one heavy with a growing ache. It won’t be long before the French Glacier is extinct. Our group was deflated as we turned back through the valley, the glacier disappearing from view. We talked about the weight of touching an ancient object that future generations will never see. For a group that grew up believing “we’ll fix it before it is too late,” it was tough to comprehend these effects of climate change are permanent and real. Once the glacier is gone, it’s gone. We faced this tragedy knowing that similar scenes are playing out all over the globe.

In the morning I confirmed that waking up in Patagonia is a permanent extension of that groggy headspace between dreams and reality. To my right, I saw a rainbow in the fog as I walked to breakfast. To my left, two free-range horses ran up as if to say good morning. My pre-coffee brain tried to catch up as I thought: It is too early to weep in the face of nature. I arrived in the lobby where Geraldinne was waiting to announce her next slogan: “Welcome to Patagonia: Four seasons. One day.” East of the hotel there was a stable operated by baqueanos, the Chilean cowboys. We set off to see the park from a different angle, riding on top of a horse. I mounted stubborn Piojo, the laziest and hungriest horse in the group, and we trotted along as Geraldinne and the baqueanos demonstrated a deep connection to nature. They kissed and hugged the horses with a parental tenderness, always speaking of how we must respect this land. We entered the Lenga Forest where Geraldinne’s tagline proved itself. Peering at the sky above, snowflakes began to fall through the blue and settle on the dirt below. The next hour brought a light rain, some snow again, and then sunlight filtering through the trees. The wind was strong enough to throw my helmet backward. In Patagonia the wind is a spirit. It arrives at night, waking you up with the sounds of the afterlife. It howls and spooks and will easily knock you down. Last year it blew a bus of 40 people off the road. From atop Piojo, I understood why Chile is described with mystical language. The lakes are bluer, the mountains are sharper, the winds are stronger, and the weather is stranger. Meteorology is a moot profession. A waterfall in Patagonia can’t fall just once. It has to fall three times. On two sides.

On our final morning we hiked to the most classic image of Torres del Paine, the base of the three towers. We set out at 2:30am, hoping to complete the 6-mile trail before sunrise. Halfway through I stared up at the other headlamps that crept along the mountains towering above. It seemed we were hiking to the stars. I sat down and felt my knees quivering, unsure if I would make it to the top. With Geraldinne’s encouragement and the huffing silence of the group, I made it with 15 minutes to spare.

If Patagonia has four seasons in one day, the base of the towers has four seasons in ten minutes. This was nature’s finale. Across the lake you could see the wind coming, a wall of mist as mini tornadoes spun off into the water and kicked up dust on the sides of the valley walls. We were repeatedly bitch-slapped as wall after wall of water and rocks tore at our faces and eyes. In the eye of each mini hurricane we had a short break to gather our scattered belongings and search for a shield before the next blow. I huddled into a ball and let out a primal scream into my knees, asking the rhetorical question: “Why am I here!?”

After sunrise we raced down the mountain. We only had four hours to descend, pack our bags, and catch our van to the airport. There was no time to reflect. As the plane ascended from Punta Arenas I realized the misery of the extreme weather in that morning’s microclimate felt like a warning of what was to come. As climate change progresses, that bowl will spill over.

Travel makes the world feel smaller. You look on a map and suddenly understand the large and complex places that used to feel far away. I now know travel does the same to large and complex problems. Climate change is a big issue. It is potentially the largest issue humanity has ever tried to solve together. Because of that scale, the problem can feel impossible to face and hard to understand. It can be easier to deny than to confront. I am from Florida where my friends who are looking to buy houses are being warned that certain properties will be under water by the time their kids are grown. In Patagonia I saw waterfalls, rivers, and endless small streams pouring from glaciers where normally, at this time, the season is turning toward winter. My time in Chile helped me see the complete picture: The cause and effect. The melting ice and rising tides.

Arriving in New York, my little blue circle pulsated in a familiar place. JFK Airport. I zoomed out to view the Earth and imagined humanity’s other 7 billion orbs combining to make the larger pale blue dot. I looked up a transcript of Carl Sagan’s grand meditation on Earth’s place in the Universe and found the lessons relevant: “In all this vastness there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves…Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.” The only problem is, as the wind gets stronger, standing gets harder.

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