Trevor Sumner’s puma was far away. High on a cliff, just inside the Torres Del Paine National Park in southern Chile, a four-legged figure moved to the edge of an ancient fissure and Trevor, perhaps 400m downhill, had spotted it through a tiny pair of binoculars. All week long, he was the man who cried “puma!” – every time he heard a rustle in the trees, every time he turned a corner… It became a running joke: open a packed lunch on one of our treks and he’d see a puma; meet new people on a trail and he’d warn them that pumas were just up ahead. But then he insisted he’d seen the real thing. Something about the urgency of his tone suggested he was telling the truth, and our group was unanimously and mutually delighted.
I attached my longest zoom lens and took a picture, then magnified the image as much as I could. I took another to be sure, and then it fell to me to break it to the group. Trevor Sumner’s puma was not as large as it should have been. Or as feline. Trevor Sumner’s puma was not, in fact, a puma at all – it was a red fox.
“Still, it’s an amazing spot,” our guide Lelia Cataldi told the crestfallen man from Noosa. “Good eyes.”
It would have been the perfect end to a remarkable week, but the dozen of us on Aurora Expeditions’ Patagonian Discovery Trek itinerary had little to complain about – save for the gentle song of discontent coming from our calf muscles. Aurora is best known for its polar cruises, but these trekking programs are designed to dovetail with the Antarctic expeditions, giving guests the chance to stretch their legs immediately before or after visiting the White Continent.
The hikes are long and challenging, but they don’t happen on all 10 days of the trip, and there isn’t any camping. Instead guests repair to luxurious hotels and hurriedly replace lost calories in the regions’ increasingly excellent restaurants.
The non-puma sighting happened on our penultimate day by which point we’d already racked up over 50km through Patagonia’s most staggering national parks. The last day would be our longest and most challenging route, adding another 20km to our total.
It all began in El Calafate and the Los Glaciares National Park on the Argentinian side of the border. That humungous territory has many remarkable features, but nothing rivals the astonishing, advancing, creaking, cracking, shifting, shattering Perito Moreno Glacier. One of the fastest moving and last advancing glaciers on the planet, there’s no avoiding the inconvenient truth that this is an endangered beast – rarer than a Bengal tiger, more vulnerable than a giant panda. With the best will in the world – and there is increasingly little of that, either – it seems unlikely that glaciers such as this blue-and-white monster will exist by the end of my lifetime.
They may, however, still be around when most of my trekking mates shuffle off this mortal coil. I don’t mean that as an insult or slight, but while I was the only non-Australian on the trip, I was also the only one under 50; at least 20 years younger than my closest peer.
This age gap presented me with a few problems. Initially I assumed that the biggest would be avoiding showing off – how could I pretend to be as breathless as my trekking mates? But as the uneven kilometres disappeared beneath my feet, this was not hard to fake.
Instead, I had a much larger problem: it turns out that 50-60-and-70-something Australians are as hard as Tarzan’s feet, and despite the decades I had on my side, keeping up with them was no small task. Worse, on the days when I was struggling with the length of the treks, the weight of my camera bag, or the violence of the Patagonian winds, I couldn’t complain or slow down, not when I supposedly had youth on my side.
Mercifully, there were plenty of distractions. From El Calafate we drove to El Chaltén, a rapidly expanding town on the edge of the spectacular Fitzroy National Park. As the crow flies it is just 120km from Perito Moreno, but Patagonia remains a wild, empty place and the sparse roads meant it took most of the day to drive there.
We spent the next two days hiking, leaving directly from our accommodation and simply striding off into the wilderness, Lelia leading the way. Alas, the infamously schizophrenic Patagonian weather was rarely on our side, which ate into the photo opportunities, but wasn’t enough to prevent us, on the second day, from making the brutal ascent to the Laguna de los Tres. We couldn’t quite see the tops of the Fitzroy peaks when we got up there, but the setting was satisfactorily dramatic all the same: as we sheltered behind enormous boulders in front of a turquoise lake, katabatic winds appeared like poltergeists to furiously tear at the surface of the water.
The following day, as we began a long drive to Chile, the mountains appeared like newly unveiled paintings and we stopped to stare at them with the reverence of expert collectors. The Fitzroy Range, with its unnaturally straight peaks and eerie order, looks almost artificial. But if those peaks look like an American’s dentures, then the mighty Torres Del Paine range appears decidedly more… British. The eclectic array of peaks that lend their name to the surrounding Chilean National Park were formed by the same complex geological phenomena that formed their Argentinian cousins. The too-short version is that this was all once at the bottom of a prehistoric ocean, and millennia after it was thrust skywards, glaciers ripped through to sculpt these impossible-looking mountains.
Unlike Fitzroy, however, there is no Chilean equivalent of El Chaltén – no settlement from which it’s possible to casually stroll into the mountains. Instead, the gateway city is Puerto Natales, which sits of the waters of the Última Esperanza Sound and is an hour away by road or waterway from the park’s border.
We took a day to travel up a series of rivers, past several more glaciers, to reach the edge of the park, then spent another on a series of short treks within the boundaries. It was on the last of these that Trevor spotted the non-puma.
The next morning we set off for what we’d been told would be our most challenging trek. Perhaps because we’d been briefed for the worst, it never felt as bad as all that. And besides, whatever we suffered en route soon melted away when we reached the feet of the spectacular Torres peaks. The wind still occasionally howled like banshees, but as we made the final turn for home, the towers were revealed in all their grim glory.
It was exceedingly pleasant to walk with my senior Australian companions, but I’m a younger man and the sun was shining, so when Lelia told us we could make our way back at our own pace, I tipped my hood and opened my stride. Within a few minutes, I was up a hill and away, the only noise around me the fading roar of those winds. As I traversed the last summit, I tipped my hood again, this time to a gaucho leading a caravan of horses back to the refugio at the half-way point. There they’re used to tempt flagging trekkers into paying for a lift back to the start. Not for me – I extended my heroic stride a little more and surveyed the valley below like a conquering general.
A moment later, actual war was on my mind too. Running – actually running – downhill was Trevor Sumner, with two Chileans younger than me in his wake. “Jamie! Jamie!” I heard the same urgency in his voice as when he thought he spotted the puma. “Help! I called these guys dickheads and now they’re after me…” He ran straight past me, the youngsters failing to make any ground on him. As I hurried to loosen the safety stopper on the bottom of my walking pole in order to lance the pursuers, I realised I’d been had. Carried on the wind I heard a giggle – the sound of Trevor Sumner having the last laugh.
A version of this piece was published in Fairfax’s Traveller in May 2017.