Destination: Patagonia (Zapata Summit, Torres del Paine, Chile)

The Chilean border agent marked my entry form: Dirección: PATAGONIA. Motivo: OTROS. Destination: Patagonia. Purpose of visit? Other.

  • Date: 2017-12-13
  • Objective: Cerro Zapata
  • Trailhead: Lago Grey/ Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park (2.5 hrs drive from Puerto Natales)
  • Basecamp: Zapata Camp, 14km, 4-6hrs hike one way with stops at two waterfalls
  • Summit day: 14 hours

Tom and Harriet, my Swoop Patagonia travel agents, advised that the well-known treks in Torres del Paine (TDP) would be “heaving” with visitors over the winter holiday and suggested instead that we head into the Pingo Valley, Valle Pingo. Where the rivers from Pingo Glacier and Tyndall (Geike) Glacier meet is Zapata campsite. And from there, Cerro Zapata is a mountain we might be interested to attempt…

After a layover day in Puerto Natales at the serene Noi Indigo hotel, we shuttled into the national park with Cristian (guide from local partner Fortaleza Patagonia) and Nico (porter and chef).

Punta Arenas, the gateway to Chilean Patagonia and Torres del Paine National Park
Town of Puerto Natales, the gateway to Chilean Patagonia and Torres del Paine National Park

As we drove through the pampas it was difficult to imagine that this is the land of granite spires; all I could see was grass land, cliffs and rolling hills. We passed the milodon fossil caves (suggested read: Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia) and spotted wild guanaco , lesser (Darwin’s) rhea, and black-faced ibis. As we drew near to the park entrance we got our first glimpse of the mountains, jagged and entrancing.

Paine Massif from the road into TDP. Wow!! Bert's photo.
Paine Massif from the road into TDP. Wow!! Bert’s photo.

We arrived at the trailhead and promptly headed towards the Pingo Valley, in the opposite direction of everyone else. Cristian predicted that we’d see nobody else over the next four days at Zapata. He was right.

“You’ll need a special permit to go on the trail… If you’re the luckiest hiker on Earth, sure you’ll have the permit. But we believe you won’t, so be nice: follow the guide and enjoy the sweet sound of the Pingo River… First, it offers you one of the best opportunities – probably in the whole Chilean Patagonia – to spot the Huemul (South Andean Deer), an endangered deer species that is as scarce as elegant. Second, it is a trip to the forgotten past of Torres del Paine… This should be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

The remotely visited southwest corner of Torres Del Paine is the Pingo Valley; it is mandatory for visitors to be accompanied by a guide.
Overview of Torres Del Paine. Schematic from
Approximate locations of our trailhead, campsite, and Cerro Zapata.
Zapata Summit, on the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Most visitors to the trailhead hike to Lago Grey viewpoint.
Parks warden horses graze in the valley. Cristian dismissed them as being out of shape compared to 'real' working horses, like those of the gauchos.
Parks warden horses graze in the valley as we hike to Camp Zapata. We’re told these horses are out of shape compared to ‘real’ working horses like those of the gaucho.


Former estancia building, now used as an emergency shelter.
Former estancia building about a half hour from the trailhead is now used as an emergency shelter for hikers.
View of Cerro Zapata from camp. Sticky flowers abound; they stick to everything, especially boot laces
View of Cerro Zapata from camp. Stick-heads abound; they stick to everything, especially boot laces. They look prickly but they’re very soft.

Camp Zapata is used by visitors going to Zapata Lookout, glaciologists, and gauchos hired by Parks to cull wild cows leftover from dissolution of estancia ranches in the 1950s. There used to be a shelter building but it was accidentally burned down –  now “camp” just refers to a designated area for tenting.

We’d hear the wild cows at night, and their lowing with the occasional shriek sounded much like someone snoring loudly (my opinion), or a dog being woken up by a bad dream (Bert’s opinion). Cristian showed us what to do in the event of a wild cow encounter.

– It is not likely we will be bothered by the cows. But you should know what to do.

He took off his backpack carefully, and deliberately placed it on the forest floor.

– You take off your backpack.

We waited expectantly. He moved towards a tree.

– Then you go behind a tree.

During our approach to base camp it rained and I wasn’t too interested in seeing the last of the waterfalls that are short side trips off the main trail. I felt sick and headachy, probably because Bert gave me his cold. I’d actually been thinking of forgoing the trip.

Over the days and nights it would rain on and off. The meadow was waterlogged in spots. When the sun came out we’d try to judge the perfect combo of sun and wind needed to dry out our gear and predict the next sprinkle. Large mosquitoes and various big beetles and other bugs and slugs crawled around. The slug reason is why I kept my dry boots in the tent. Later I found a small slug in my wet sneakers. Gross.

Camp Zapata, in a meadow area frequented by wild cows.
Camp Zapata. Trees falling on tents due to strong winds is a real safety concern. We are allowed to eat snacks in the tent and it’s standard to store food in the tent. There are no bears, but there are puma…
The four summits of Paine Grande from near basecamp. Normally three summits are seen from the main trekking routes in TDP.

Winds were strong and water was high. We used our contingency day to look around. We were unable to cross the Pingo River to visit the Pingo Glacier – water levels were over waist-high – so we followed the Ice River, Rio de los Hielos, to look for fossils while waiting out the wind. None of the tourist info I’d previously read about Pingo Valley mentioned fossils, so this was a fantastic surprise.

Discoveries of entire ichthyosaur fossils were made in this area in 2014. “Researchers said the marine reptiles, buried by rocks from the huge Tyndall Glacier, lived between the Triassic and Cretaceous periods, which extended from 250 million to 66 million years ago.”

This fossil is one reason why this area is protected – it’s an “Ichthyosaur cemetery”. The vertebrae cross-section is the area of a camera lens. These fossils are BIG.
Fungus traditionally eaten by indigenous people lay all over the trail. They are spongy in texture and hearty-looking.
Ice River fossil hunting with Zapata’s colorful rock bands and slab in the background. The pink-red heath berries in forefront are totally delicious with notes of honey, thyme, and mint with a slight bitter finish. Yum.

The way to Ice River served as a preview of the first hour of our approach to Cerro Zapata. We checked out water levels on the Ice River, as we’d have to cross two branches of it on summit day. Water reached to just under my knee and Bert noted it didn’t seem too bad. Cristian smiled and replied that it would look much different in the early morning.

Summit day wake-up call 2:30am. We spied the glowing eyes of an owl, and of a wild bull. While the winds had abated, it was overcast with the promise of rain. I venture to say that this is not a trip for novice hikers.

  1. We crossed the river, made our way around the lake, crossed the second branch, and started scrambling up the rock bands. Cristian had prepared us for this by telling us it was just like stairs though I would rate the scrambling and downclimb firmly in the ‘moderate’ difficulty category. As usual Bert and I picked different lines.
  2. Then we got on some really interesting colorful slab, encrusted with fossils.
  3. Then proceeded bushwhacking through thick thorny shrubs, some over head high with wet areas and deadfall. I put on gaiters on the way back having learned my lesson on the way out.
  4. Then up some boulders and we found ourselves solidly on rock and into snow patches. The summit still looked very very far away, but at least the bushwhacking was done. Cristian estimated 45 minutes to the summit. My experience with foreshortening (!) told me it would be well over an hour, but we were optimistic.

This is when it kind of fell apart..!

The wind picked up, with increasingly persistent rain, and I can’t describe it but to say that it became difficult to walk, and we were falling over and needing to shelter more and more frequently. At the last snow patch Cristian estimated 10 minutes to the summit. A short snow section and just a bit of rock left, I could see, but soon the ice pellets started. These were opaque tiny, white, granular ice particles, maybe caused by the ‘rapid freezing of supercooled water droplets’? I don’t know the meteorology but I know for sure it hurts upon impact. They blew me down the mountain by forcing me backwards or across. I staggered around. Bert later described it as being sandblasted by ice.

I turned around at around 11:30 ish. That is how I did not summit Zapata Summit. Cristian, who summitted with Bert, later described the day as difficult and said I made a good decision to turn around. I don’t think he was saying it for my sake to make me feel better. It really was difficult. I could not even stand up in the wind. Of course I still regretted it later.

Zapata Lookout on the ridge in the center, and Ice River. Camp is on the left, on the shore of the tiny silver thread of a river.
The camera didn't capture the texture or size of the Tyndall Glacier...
Tyndall Glacier
Partway up Cerro Zapata, views of Tyndall Glacier. Not shown is Pingo Glacier, on my other side.
Tyndall Glacier. Pingo Glacier on my other side, not shown, but very beautiful. Cristian gives a thumbs up.
View of the summit. Looks benign doesn’t it, no biggie…

The descent in the wind down the rock bands and slab was horrible to say the least. During breaks we would sit silently in the rain, no point trying to stand upright, looking down into the valley, and I would think how so very tiny and far away the lakeshore appeared to be.

We tromped through the river crossings with boots on, so ready was I to get back to camp that I could not be bothered to change shoes.

Flowers everywhere. It's the start of summer in Patagonia.
Flowers everywhere. It’s the start of summer in Patagonia.


Despite all this Fortaleza was excellent; thank you so much Cristian and Nico! A hot meal prepared for us at breakfast and at day’s end in the rain, with wine at dinner, were luxury. We learned about the land, its flora and fauna, and its history. Thank you for the considerable effort put forth to make this trip memorable and as safe and comfortable as possible.

Zapata was meant to be an intro to Patagonia and mountaineering in Patagonia, so we looked forward to our next leg in Los Glaciares with a somewhat tempered attitude…

Back in Puerto Natales
Back in Puerto Natales, a bit of rest now but soon into Argentina…

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