I meet Victor Cardenas, a young park ranger in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, where he’s stationed at Campamento Italiano. Italiano is the epicenter of the famous W trek, poised at the base of Valle Francés, the trek’s central prong. The campsite is one of the handful of free National Forestry Service (CONAF) sites throughout the national park that offer no frills camping locations with use of running water, sod latrines, and a covered hut for cooking.
The trees are long and lean and block out the sun during the day, although they do help insulate the site on frigid fall evenings. Small clearings make way for tents, and a plastic pipe filters water from the ferocious glacial river beside the campsite into large tubs for cleaning and washing.
Each evening just before dark, Cardenas makes the rounds of the site, registering those camped, and making sure hikers have arrived for the evening. Mountain nights, especially this time of year, can be cold and unforgiving.
After he’s done his rounds, I catch up with Cardenas in the tiny ranger cabin poised at the entrance to the campsite, just beside the raging river and the oscillating suspension bridge that traverses it.
The interior of the cabin is divided into two rooms; one on the far end is lined with bunk beds while the nearer room is a simple kitchen flanked with a fiery wood-burning stove. A handful of scorched iron kettles rest on the sizzling metal stovetop, all boiling water.
Having entered from the opaque, icy evening, the warmth and light inside the little room is an oppressive but welcome blanket. A circle of friendly faces greets me – other rangers, an independent guide, a handful of cold hikers. A mate gourd is passed around, and members of the circle take turns slurping up its earthy warm contents.
Cardenas has worked as a park ranger for two seasons. He began in the aftermath of the perilous wildfire that destroyed large swaths of the park.
“It was something my brother said,” Cardenas described. “Conaf needed people as rangers because of the fire. I applied and began working as a ranger with my brother.”
Since he started working in the park, he’s never been happier.
“I love the job, its amazing – interacting with tourists, nature, the trekking possibilities – it’s a completely well-rounded job.”
During the nine months they work a year, rangers can request different posts throughout the park. Cardenas denies having a favorite station, but he does admit to preferring posts that are further removed from the parks entrance and main ports.
“In general I like the mountain posts, I prefer them over gate posts or administration. Those are more like office jobs, which doesn’t bode well with me at all,” Cardenas described, a true lover of Patagonia’s unbridled wilderness.
On mountain posts, the scenery and the wildlife are spectacular. He mentions huemuls, guanacos, condors and pumas to name a few. But working mountain posts is not all about taking in the scenery. Come high season, rangers often have to cope with serious accidents, most of which arise when visitors to the park disobey basic rules.
He described one situation in which a Chilean hiker crossed a clearly marked boundary in order to get a better picture of the rapids along the Río Francés just 20 minutes farther up the valley from the campsite.
“A strong wind caught him and he fell 60 meters down the waterfall. We were expecting to retrieve a corpse at that point,” Cardenas added.
By a kind twist of fate, the hiker managed to survive the fall and Cardenas and other rangers on the scene toted him off on foot to the base camp over four miles (seven kilometers) away.
Having seen his fair share of unnecessary accidents like this one, Cardenas urged those who visit the park to pay attention to the park’s rules and stick to the clearly delineated trails.
“They’re there for your own good,” Cardenas insisted.
By Gwynne Hogan