Chile's most popular national park, Torres del Paine draws 60,000 visitors per year—roughly 9.5 million fewer than Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most-visited in the United States. Torres del Paine occupies a section of Patagonian steppe that stretches north for 70 miles from the small inland seaport of Puerto Natales. Most of those who venture down the 1,200 miles from Santiago trek the 60-mile Paine Circuit, a rugged, circular route around the Paine Massif—the ultimate outdoor rock gym, comprising four solid-granite spires—the 9,184-foot Torres del Paine, the 8,528-foot Cuernos del Paine, the 8,036-foot Cerro Paine Medio, and the tallest peak, 10,004-foot Cerro Paine Grande. But I arrived during Chile's late fall, and the climbing season was over. Luckily, glacier season, when you can ice-climb and trek on the park's Southern Ice Field, never ends.
On the ride into the park from Puerto Natales with my guide, 34-year-old Chilean Sergio Echeverría, the only outfitter with a permit to lead trips on the Southern Ice Field, and his 22-year-old girlfriend, Carla, my entire view was obscured by fog, save occasional glimpses of ñandús (spotted, ostrichlike birds) and guanacos (relatives of the llama) racing between the turquoise lakes to avoid their ferocious and stealthy predator, the puma. Pretty soon the clouds lifted, and whammo: There in front of me were the Torres, soaring like a giant thumbless hand into the clouds. We made our way to the base of the Torres and to Hostería las Torres, a Yugoslavian-owned hotel that's one of a handful of lodges in the park.
On our first afternoon, Sergio, Carla, and I embarked on a sunset hike up toward the spires, watching Andean condors play in the thermals as the sun sank between the towers. We turned around and navigated the four miles back to the hotel by moonlight.
The next day we drove 16 miles to Pehoe Lake, took a ferry across it, and then hiked six miles to the southern tip of the Southern Ice Field. Climbing on its premier Grey Glacier, which is receding from the northern end of Grey Lake at a rate of 56 feet per year, is like dropping through the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Slap on your crampons, grab an ice ax, and start waddling across it like a duck, and you'll soon be gaping into a crevasse that twists like a diabolical version of a children's slide into an underground river.
Once we hiked down to another chorus of icebergs clinking and calving against the shore of Grey Lake, we retired to Refugio Grey, a toasty nearby hut with beds, a woodstove, and a caretaker who serves as chef. We shared the hut with a British biker, a German couple, a solo Frenchwoman, two Swiss students, and two Australians, sitting around the stove drinking Chilean cabernet sauvignon from a cardboard carton and reading the cabin's only piece of literature, the 1999 guest book, out loud. One entry read, "It's not every day that you can go swimming with icebergs, but I did and it was fabulous." Another read, "Chile Rocks!" I couldn't have agreed more.