Climbing legend says Chilean hike one of world’s best

He’s conquered the Earth’s loftiest peaks, but the greatest living climber on the planet, Reinhold Messner, has a soft spot for the Northern Patagonian Ice Field.

He is regarded as one of the greatest mountaineers of all time; the first person to climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and the first to ascend all 14 of the famed “eight thousanders” – peaks of over 8,000 meters (26,247 ft) above sea level.
But though those 14 peaks all lie in the Himalayas or Karakoram mountain ranges of Asia, one of Reinhold Messner’s favorite hikes is found not in lofty Nepal or Tibet, but in one the far-flung regions of South America, Chilean Patagonia.
The truth came out when the heroic climber from the Italy’s autonomous German-speaking of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, leveled with the Financial Times.
“There are so many possibilities for great treks around the world, and yet people are all doing the same ones – Everest base camp, the Annapurna circuit, Kilimanjaro and Mont Blanc,” Messner said.
Instead he came up with an alternative list of four hikes – Seti Khola in Nepal, Italy’s Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Nanga Parbat in Pakistan and Chile’s Hielo Continental Norte, or Northern Patagonian Ice Field, which the Italian maestro described as “one of the most beautiful treks I’ve ever done.”
The Northern Patagonian Ice Field
The Northern Patagonian Ice Field, contained within the Laguna San Rafael National Park in the Aysén Region, is one of two remnants of the Patagonian Ice Sheet, which covered all of Chile south of Puerto Montt during the last glacial period.
Encompassing 1,600 square miles (4,200 km²) and containing 28 exit glaciers, it is, along with the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second largest continuous mass of ice outside of the polar regions.
The glaciers carve intricate valleys and feed countless rivers and lakes, and the area, much of which is at sea level, is characterized for its diversity.
“You begin [hiking] through forests, carrying tents and food, then climb onto the ice cap, being very careful to avoid crevasses,” Messner says of his favorite trail, which crosses the field entirely.
Be warned, this is not a trail for amateurs; even Messner describes it as “very challenging.”
“You need at least a week [to cross],” he says, “but it might take two because the weather can be terrible.”
And then once you do make it across, the biggest challenge awaits.
“The hardest bit is descending over the glaciers on the other side to the Pacific coast – it’s steep and you need to abseilen,” he says, referring to a controlled descent down a rock face using a rope.
Hiring a guide
It is still possible, however, for the average trekker with a handful of guides operating in the area.
Bella Treks is running a hiking and horseback trip through the field this year from November 18, until December 2.
Antofaya Expeditions is planning a crossing of the field in February of 2013, which will involve kayaking between icebergs, and river rafting, while Latin Discoveries offers tailored treks in the area.
Other companies are out there, and a google search should help you get the experience you are after.
Chile is a hiker’s paradise and there are plenty of incredible treks of all magnitudes of difficulty, some of which are accessible by public transport, others so remote they require weeks of travel just to get to.
For ideas on getting out there and beginning your preparations, check out our guide to winter hikes in Chile.