The Quest to Complete the Greater Patagonian Trail

The 1,900-mile-long thru-hike winds through the southern Andes from Santiago to the climbing mecca of Mount Fitz Roy. To complete it, adventurers need a lot more than physical stamina.

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Photo: Matt Maynard

In late 2017, I contacted explorer and German engineer Jan Dudeck, who was just completing a decade-long quest to create a new long trail through South America. The Greater Patagonian Trail (GPT), as he named it, would come to be 1,900 miles, stretching through the southern Andes from Santiago to the Argentinean climbing mecca of Mount Fitzroy.

“This trail rewards the humble,” Dudeck replied in his e-mail to me, “and humiliates the proud.” That came as no surprise. Since 2014, I had been running technical Andean trail races, as well as mountaineering, climbing, and bikepacking throughout Chile from my home base in Santiago. Access to the land had always been a major issue, and I was a keen believer in his vision of a unified route.

Photo: Matt Maynard

A lone condor close to the Santiago trailhead 

Stories were emerging from some of Dudeck’s collaborators of glacial river crossings, trailblazing, and frontiersman-like bushwhacking on the GPT. These challenges were compounded by the fact that Dudeck’s creation has no trail markers, nor official recognition. It passes through isolated arriero cowboy country and the settlements of indigenous people. Resupply points are up to 120 miles apart and separated by 10,000-foot mountains. Several sections are reached by culturally sensitive negotiations at restricted access points. Only a trio of adventurers so far have had the sufficient linguistic, logistical, and technical skills necessary to thru-hike Dudeck’s labyrinth.

Photo: Matt Maynard

An arriero and his son bring cattle down from the Andean foothills.

Dudeck and his Chilean wife, Meylin Ubilla, spent ten years hiking the few established trails in southern Chile and Argentina before beginning to knit together the GPT. Dudeck got the idea for a single trail after returning home from a 2012 horse trek; once back in Europe, he deciphered the route his guides had taken him on using satellite imagery. “You don’t see it continuously,” he says, “but you see enough to know there should be a connection.” The 12-inch-wide depressions made by the arrieros and Pehuenche people driving animals could be seen in images captured from space. It was a eureka moment, enough for Dudeck to start creating his massive Andean thru-hike.

Linking this rough singletrack together with established routes, Dudeck mapped 800 miles from Descabezado Volcano to the town of Cochamó. Initially, he encountered problems weaving his route through Chile’s southern river and lake regions, where forest obscured tracks visible in satellite images.

Then he discovered pack rafting. By carrying a five-pound inflatable pack in his rucksack, Dudeck and Ubilla were able to leapfrog areas made almost inaccessible by thick rainforest.

Photo: Matt Maynard

Riders in a sea of monkey puzzles

In the summer of 2013, they set out to ground-proof the route. Dudeck’s surgical dedication to details complements powerhouse Ubilla’s gift for cultural diplomacy. Together the pair extended the trail south from Cochamó into the Patagonian region as well as north to Santiago. One day, Dudeck plans to continue beyond Fitz Roy to Cape Froward, at the bottom tip of the continent.

Photo: Matt Maynard

The author high and alone on the GPT in the O’Higgins region

I set out on my own GPT attempt in the summer of 2017. I quickly learned that Dudeck’s creation bears little resemblance to the famous thru-hikes of the U.S.  

From the Santiago trailhead, my first hike began with an hourlong interview with the Río Clarillo administrator about why I planned to hike so far beyond the limits of the reserve. It ended three days later, when I was politely escorted out of an Andean copper mine by the duty manager. My second attempt involved negotiating a locked gate, a death-fall scree scramble, and an inquisitive campesino visitor who discovered my after-dark bivy.

Photo: Matt Maynard

Speedy yet safe travel on the remotest sections makes equipment choices key.

This, I was finding out, was a trail that rewarded skills such as Spanish fluency, cultural understanding, and humility—not athletic endurance or speed. Vast tracts of the Patagonian section of the GPT are still on private land, run by landlords who see little incentive in opening up their property to intrepid recreationalists. Both the Chilean and Argentinean governments have tried before to create national trail networks, but they’ve been thwarted by private interests and lack of funding.

“Keeping this as an informal nongovernmental project makes it much easier to explore routes, to publish them—always with a question mark, always leaving it so you don’t have to resolve the right-of-way issue,” Dudeck says. “Anything official should be a different project under a different roof.”

Photo: Matt Maynard

Chilean hikers prepare to enter Cerro Castillo National Park.

Dudeck’s GPT Wikiexplora page and hiker’s manual emphasize the need for solid bush-bashing stamina and backcountry wilderness skills. The Her Odyssey website, run by GPT hikers Bethany “Fidgit” Hughes and Lauren “Neon” Reed (a triple-crowner), is essential reading to understand just how wild, and unofficial, this trail is. The kooky-but-brilliant Unbounded GPT documentary shows what happens when you bite off more gritty Andean adventure than you can chew.

My third attempt at the long hike took me into Patagonia proper. I began with the GPT’s Patagonian highlights. From the hamlet of Chile Chico, I took the back-door trail into Patagonia National Park. Wading chest deep into the glacial-blue current of the Jeínemeni was just the warm-up. Forty more crossings that first day eventually led into a thick web of forest. Tangles of Antarctic beech gave way to scree, followed by snow.

Photo: Matt Maynard

It’s still a very rare occurrence to meet other GPT hikers.

For two days I saw no one, only returning to civilization on the descent through the guanaco grasslands on the relatively groomed trails of the original Tompkins Conservation project. I also took in the glacier-drenched Cerro Castillo National Park and rode my hardtail beneath volcanoes and monkey puzzles in the Araucanía region. Dudeck’s GPT passed through it all.

Photo: Matt Maynard

Shredding in the Araucanaía region

Back in the foothills above Santiago, I met with Sebastián Torrealba. The center-right Chilean politician had presented his new ley de montaña (mountain law) to congress, aimed at improving access to the mountains that represent 63 percent of his country. On the banks of an electric-blue glacial river in the Yerba Loca Valley, Torrealba told me he was calling for a “democratisation of the mountains.”

Photo: Matt Maynard

Torrealba promoting his mountain law, Yerba Loca Nature Sanctuary

Part of his inspiration is the British “right to roam” model: an off-trail, open-access agreement with origins in the infamous 1932 Kinder Scout trespass, during which lower-income Brits defied gamekeepers in a successful demand for access to private land.

After a year of crushing hiking along his fantastical route, I finally met Dudeck and Ubilla in Santiago in February. Over a beer, Dudeck explained the secret motivation of his project. “We need to get people into the mountains and away from the shopping malls,” he said. “We need to create quality of life, without consuming resources.”

Admittedly, he is conflicted about hikers (including himself) jetting in from other continents to hike his trail. He is keen for his routes to be adopted by Chilean and Argentinean adventurers as they explore the mountains on their doorstep.

Photo: Matt Maynard

Cerro Castillo National Park

Most importantly, he stresses the importance of “hikers making positive experiences with people (they meet) along the trail” and of being good ambassadors for the GPT. Everyone participating in his 1,900-mile trespass, he explained, “is just a guest. They do not have the right to be there.”

Dudeck can’t stay for long. They have just finished a four-month pack-raft new-routing exploration of the Patagonian fjords. There’s kit to be cleaned and new routes to be written up.

I buy the beers. It’s a small price for the adventure of a lifetime.