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The School at the End of the World

The learning curve is steep when you train with Chile's top guides at remote Explora Patagonia. Bonus points for puma spotting.

 Apprentice guide Daniela contemplates the mountainous challenges ahead of her.

Apprentice guide Daniela contemplates the mountainous challenges ahead of her.

It’s 6:04 p.m. and the sky over Patagonia is blushing, casting an orange glow over the Torres del Paine range, which looks like it’s catching fire right before my eyes. I reluctantly leave my front-row view at the window, knowing that I’ll likely be missing one of the most memorable sunsets of my life. I fly down the stairs that lead to the basement of the hotel – it’s been a while since I was in school – and emerge in a softly lit lecture hall, where 10 pairs of eyes scrutinize me. My face turns a shade deeper than the sunset. I choose a seat and take out my pen and paper.

Lake Pehoe with Hotel Explora Patagonia in the background

The calm waters of Lake Pehoé mirror the Explora Patagonia hotel.

I’m in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park to attend Explora Patagonia’s guide training, one of the most rigorous courses of its kind in South America. Over a 12-week period, candidates learn from instructors who really know the lay of the land: rangers, gauchos, even university professors specializing in the local geology. My classmates come from different corners of the world and every walk of life: Vicu is a former art buyer from Buenos Aires; Daniela is an artist from Santiago; and Tim, a Frenchman, worked as a safari guide in South Africa. This diversity of the student body “is a requirement,” according to Romina, who is in charge of training. As a travel writer, I’m more accustomed to following the guide than trying to be one, but this week I’m immersing myself fully in the educational landscape – from the classroom to the trails that criss-cross the national park’s 181,000 hectares. As Juan Luis García, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, begins his lecture on the morphology of the region’s glaciers, I realize that I’m at a kind of Harvard – majoring in Wild Kingdom.

Marco, an experienced guide, reaches a summit overlooking Lago del Toro.

Marco, an experienced guide, reaches a summit overlooking Lago del Toro.

On a gravel road that winds through shaggy plains dotted with pasture, García, now sporting a red knit beret and a blue down-filled jacket, stops the trucks that are taking us to the head of the Río Pingo trail (named after the adjacent river). We hop out and climb a hill speckled with patches of calafate, a local shrub whose small fruits resemble blueberries. Its roots and leaves have been yellowed by the cold, even though the mercury rarely drops below -2 or -3ºC in the dead of winter. Reaching the top, I see an enormous tongue of bluish snow melting into an emerald-hued lake that stretches out before me. This is the Grey Glacier. Surveying the rugged landscape, García immediately puts his students to work. “What do you see?” he asks us, sweeping his arm through the air. Tomás, an experienced guide with a mohawk and several days’ worth of stubble, tosses out the answer. “The U-shaped valley is proof a glacier was once here,” he says, pointing to the rock faces that bookend the horizon. Our professor nods approvingly. While the newbies among us start scribbling notes, the more advanced students go straight to identifying the moraine and different types of rock.

 Explora Patagonia’s catamaran ferries guides and students back to comforts after a hike in the Valle del Francés.

Explora Patagonia’s catamaran ferries guides and students back to comforts after a hike in the Valle del Francés.

Working for Explora requires physical skill but also a knack for explaining things simply. To demonstrate how the huge rock formations that stand before us came to be squished together like an accordion, Tomás pushes the sleeve of my sweater up toward my elbow, mimicking the effect of pressure on the Earth’s crust. A bit farther down the trail, I spot two of the guides, Lili and Cristina, their eyes fixed on a large boulder. Lili pulls out a walking stick, which she uses as a measuring rod, and Tomás, whom I have now come to think of as my personal tutor, explains, “By measuring the diameter of lichen, you can determine the age of a rock.” He gives me a quick tutorial on the three types of lichen found in the park – crustose, which clings to rock; foliose, which is leaf-shaped; and fruticose, which is trumpet-shaped – all under the well-trained eye of Anahí, the resident lichen specialist, who gently corrects Tomás’ pronunciation.

Soup’s on for professor and glacier specialist Juan Luis García.

Soup’s on for professor and glacier specialist Juan Luis García.

After 90 minutes of walking through fields, then trudging up a steep, root-lined path that is no doubt popular with pumas, we arrive at a waterfall where staff have carefully laid out a spread of sandwiches, cream of mushroom soup and grilled vegetables. I take the cushion out of my backpack and sit down on a damp rock (next to a crustose lichen the size of my hand) to watch a torrent duck bob around in the swirling water. I’m lucky to be here at the beginning of official training because in the weeks to come, the budding guides will be doing 47 more hikes, including 16 on horseback. Some of those trips will be a lot tougher; the one into the Valle del Silencio requires a climb with a 1,000-metre elevation gain. The trainees have to think of everything, from simple details (like not forgetting the picnic tablecloth) to more crucial matters (like knowing the proper distance from which to observe an avalanche, or a puma and her cubs).

The sun rises over the Torres del Paine range.

The sun rises over the Torres del Paine range.

Back at our hotel, a boat-shaped structure aptly dubbed the casa bote, we take a break in our rooms before reconvening an hour later in the hotel bar. I barely recognize Cristina, who has changed from her orange puffy jacket and sunglasses to a black blouse and discreet makeup. Over pisco and 7Up, Romina fills me in on the routine: “When guests are having a drink, the designated guides drop by to suggest expeditions to try out the following day.” Since the training takes place during low season when the hotel is less busy, it’s the perfect time for students to push beyond their comfort zone. Cristina, with Lili as her assistant, pulls out a map and points to different areas of the park, while a Chilean couple on their honeymoon flip through the expedition catalogue.

Hikers are greeted by a friendly guanaco.

Hikers are greeted by a friendly guanaco.

At the crack of dawn the following day, the hotel catamaran ferries us to the other side of Lake Pehoé. Immediately after disembarking, I rummage through my backpack looking for the dried strawberries and chocolate minibars that Romina handed me for snacks before heading out. (Thankfully, the guides also have a maternal side.) There is a strategy to my carbo-loading; the hike to the Valle del Francés isn’t all that demanding, but it is long. We set out along the lakeshore, the water slowly turning mirror-like as the ripples from the boat fade away. This is the first time that the apprentice guides are doing the 16-kilometre hike, and the challenge is to find the proper rhythm – one that will allow them to educate the hikers who are joining them while still making sure they get back to their camp on time.

 Lago Grey knows how to break the ice.

Lago Grey knows how to break the ice.

Marching steadily along, I study the Paine cordillera as it becomes engulfed in clouds. At over 3,000 metres high, this Neogene-era formation of granite and magma is the park’s focal point – you can see it from just about everywhere – and the peaks of black metamorphic rock remind me of Toblerone chocolate. I repeat their names like a mantra, committing them to memory: Espada, Hoja, Cuerno Norte, Cuerno Principal, Paine Grande. After three hours of hiking through an almost desert plain, a burnt lenga-tree forest and a dense forest of conifers, we reach our destination. The sun breaks through the clouds and lights up the bluish crust of a hanging glacier, as if to reward our efforts. And for added dramatic effect, a deafening boom is followed by an avalanche, right before our eyes. As I reel back instinctively, Manfred, one of the guides, shakes his head. “There’s no danger,” he tells me reassuringly.

A star chart is ready to help map the Patagonian firmament.

Come nightfall, a star chart is ready to help map the Patagonian firmament.

After five days in the park, I’m starting to fit in. I’ve learned about the people who first lived here and the seismic activity in the region. I’ve observed the pecking order among condors, tried rock climbing on the practice wall at the casa bote, sipped maté with the gauchos and discovered how to tell the difference between a hanging valley and a terrace. Still, there are some things that can be learned only by doing, and on my final day, I’m invited to take the ultimate guide test: jumping into Lake Pehoé. While the water is the colour of the Caribbean Sea, it’s a glacial 3ºC. As Manfred and fellow guide Marco jump in, I stand at the end of the wooden dock, barefoot and, well, frozen. “Can I take the test again next year?” I ask them as they warm up in the hot tub. When we say our goodbyes, Marco makes sure to remind the group of my moment of cowardice. “But you did work hard,” he says, placing a tightly knitted black-and-white gaucho beret on my head. In this university at the end of the world, it feels like the ultimate graduation cap.

Tags

ADVENTURE TRAVEL     CHILE     PATAGONIA    

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