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A lesson in sustainability from a single trail at the end of the world

A stunning Patagonia trail is getting a major makeover so hikers can enjoy the landscape without harming it.

Photos by Annie Reneau

The Base Torres trail offers gorgeous views through Torres Del Paine National Park.

Shortly after leaving the Punta Arenas airport, our van driver points out the window and says in a distinct Chilean accent, "That's where the Pacific meets the Atlantic." Gazing out at the Strait of Magellan, which I'd only ever seen on a map, it hits home that we are farther south than 99.9% of the Earth's population—quite literally at the end of the inhabited world. Five hours later, after passing herds of emus, flamingoes and guanacos (a relative of llamas), we reach Torres Del Paine National Park, the crown jewel of Chilean Patagonia.

I live in the Pacific Northwest and am no stranger to beautiful places, but Patagonia is on another level. One person here called it "savage beauty," which is a perfect description—raw and rugged mountains, glaciers, lakes, forests, and prairieland on all sides at all times, with barely a sign of civilization. Torres Del Paine offers up close views of Grey Glacier, part of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field, the third largest freshwater reserve on Earth.

jagged blue glacierGrey Glacier, part of the Southern Patagonia Ice FieldsPhotos by Annie Reneau

If there's any place that'll make you fall head over heels for our gorgeous planet, it's Patagonia.

I've come to Torres Del Paine National Park to witness this beauty and to see how Las Torres Patagonia's "10 Volunteers for 10 Days" ecotourism contest played out. Las Torres is a privately owned reserve nestled inside the national park, and as part of their ongoing sustainability efforts, they are rebuilding a hiking trail that leads to the park's iconic granite towers. Las Torres offered 10 voluntourists the opportunity to visit the reserve and help work on the trail. I accompanied the winners during the second week of April—peak autumn color time—to see firsthand why sustainable trail-building matters.

hotel sitting in front of a mountain

The Las Torres Hotel sit s just inside Torres Del Paine National Park.

Las Torres

First, I got to experience the old trail, a 12.5 miles (20 km) round-trip hike to and from Base Torres, the base of the towers. It's not easy, requiring a trek up and down 3,000 feet in elevation, but it is absolutely stunning. Imagine being surrounded by scenery like this with the occasional majestic Andean condor soaring overhead:

mountain views with fall colors

The fall colors in Patagonia were striking against the gray rock.

Photos by Annie Reneau

The hike takes you up mountainsides, through forests, across rivers, past waterfalls and finally up a steep boulder climb.

a river running along a forest

Every lake and river is a different shade of blue, green or gray.

Photos by Annie Reneau

The trek ends at three huge granite towers flanked by a glacier with a bright turquoise lake greeting you like a scene from another planet. This is Base Torres.

large granite towers over a turquoise lake

Base of the towers—Base Torres—at the top of the hike

Photos by Annie Reneau

The Base Torres trail is one of the most popular hikes in the park, and it sees a good percentage of the 250,000 visitors who visit Torres Del Paine each year. The problem is, it was never meant to be a hiking trail in the first place. Carved decades ago by cattle ranchers on horseback, the trail was created before the national park without any real thought to sustainability. Both human use and natural erosion have badly damaged the trail, making it incompatible with the protection and preservation of the natural landscape.

The goal is to make the trail both sustainable and accessible, minimizing human impact on the land while still allowing people to enjoy the park. I had no idea what went into creating a sustainable trail, but there's a lot, from slope to drainage to impact on natural vegetation. Patagonia's weather plays a big role in erosion as well, with strong winds and snowy winters that have to be taken into consideration. The new trail takes a different path than the old one, with a more gradual ascent and more up-close views of the Ascencio Valley and river, and offers a wider and more comfortable climb.

a rocky trail

The old horse trail is eroded and treacherous in places.

Photo by Annie Reneau

The trail rebuild is a huge, collaborative project between Las Torres, the park, international conservation and trail experts (such as Shuswap Trail Alliance and Conservation VIP) and others. For the past two years, both professional crews and volunteers have done the slow, manual labor required to build a trail in the wilderness, and there's still a ways to go.

"It's a colossal job. We need all the help we can get," Las Torres CEO Josian Yaksic tells me. The Las Torres Reserve has belonged to Yaksic's family for several generations, starting as a small, independent farm and growing into a multi-faceted business tied to the national park. Yaksic emphasizes that Las Torres takes responsible stewardship of the land seriously, protecting Patagonia while helping people enjoy it. That commitment becomes more and more apparent the more time I spend talking with the people who live and work on the reserve.

As I learn about the trail project and other sustainability efforts of Las Torres, I'm struck by how their conservation work is driven by two key elements of success: caring and collaboration. Conservation isn't a political talking point here; it's a way of life inspired by caring for such a beautiful place. And that genuine love for the land fuels a shared vision that invites collective action. Back home, we tend to place responsibility largely on the backs of individuals and their individual choices. Here, it's clear that collaborative efforts aren't seen as just nice to have, but rather must-haves in creating a unified system of sustainability.

people using hoes and other tools to build a trail

Volunteers working on the new Base Torres trail (left) and walking the new trail (right)

Photos by Annie Reneau

The volunteers who worked on the trail noted that as well.

"It was eye opening to see how Las Torres along with the other organizations involved took something that is a big task and most hikers don’t blink an eye at, and said this is unacceptable and that they are going to change it," shares Amanda Bjorge, a contest winner from Minnesota. "Seeing the trail that Las Torres and AMA [a non-profit NGO helping with the trail rebuild] are working on, the difference is astonishing. While the old trail is clearly a horse path, the new trail is made with so much careful thought and calculation into not just who will be traveling on it, but the effect that the elements may have on it."

Patricia McGuire says her experience working on the trail showed her how passionate the Las Torres staff are about conservation. "This is the kind of work that requires sharing knowledge and building community," she says. "It’s necessary to spread awareness of why sustainable trails are important in order for the work to continue happening."

"The people of Las Torres know so much about the land and its history, and they’re passionate about it too, which really invites you to immerse yourself in the knowledge," shares Angela Hrari from New York. "A majority of the food eaten at the hotel is grown on the premise to cut down on all the excess waste needed to transport food to remote areas. Every person I met had such deep reverence for the land, ensuring that we were leaving no trace and respecting the wildlife." She adds that the new trail "ensures not only that differently abled bodies are going to have an easier time accessing hikes, but also many people for many generations to come can enjoy this land without the fear of turning it into an at-risk destination."

Jon Moser, from Boulder, Colorado, says it was "amazing" to see the commitment to sustainability in Las Torres's partnerships with conversation groups. "The entire hotel is a sustainability machine, harvesting from their gardens to create their menus, eliminating their use of plastic, and even using glacial runoff to distill their own gin," Moser says. "Because I build trails for a living, this opportunity was obviously an immediate attraction, but getting the chance to be a part of trail construction that has been happening for the past two years was truly special."

Some might wonder: Couldn't people just not go to Patagonia at all and save the tourism impact rather than just trying to mitigate it? Sure. But it's in our nature to explore nature, and we're never going to be able to stop people from traveling to see naturally beautiful places. Sustainability is about balance, which includes balancing human activity with the needs of nature. When done responsibly, visiting and enjoying Earth's wonders can not only nurture a love for our planet, which inspires greater conservation efforts to protect it, but also help us collaborate and learn from one another to improve those efforts as well.

The author was invited to Torres Del Paine as a guest of Las Torres Reserve. Las Torres did not review this article prior to publication.

Minnie John thought she heard a familiar voice before she opened her eyes and wondered if she'd fallen asleep watching TV. But she wasn't at home, she was in the middle of Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. The voice was indeed familiar, though, which she discovered once she finally came to.

John had been hiking a difficult trail in the park with her family over the weekend when she became too fatigued to continue. She didn't want her family members to miss out on the site they had been hiking towards, which was still 15 minutes away, so she insisted that they continue on while she rested on the side of the trail. It wasn't terribly hot and there was a cool breeze, so she figured she'd be fine.

The last thing she remembered was sitting down on a rock with her head in her hands.

John told the story on Facebook in three parts, but the final post is where it gets fun.

"Next thing I hear someone with a familiar voice kept asking me questions," she wrote. "I wondered if I might be watching TV. My eyes were closed and they said I will be fine and they were cleaning my face and bandaging me up."

She continued:

"I heard that familiar voice saying I am going to be ok, a doctor is cleaning me up. After so many more questions and sticking gooey things in my mouth, giving me electrolytes, they lifted me up as I opened my eyes and set me back on that rock, that face looked so familiar again and I asked her again if I knew her or was she famous and the doctor said yes. As my eyes started to focus more, she smiled and took her hair tie off and shook her hair for me to figure out. Her sister the doctor asked me to guess and I told her I just hit my head, I can't remember. She said smiling 'Modern Family' and I said of course!"

John said she told Bowen she was "so beautiful," then Bowen introduced her to her sister, Annie, who happened to be a doctor. The guide they were with had seen John fall from the rock, and they had everything on hand to clean up her wounds. The group also used John's phone to call her family and some ran ahead to find them.

"Such wonderful men and women, selflessly giving of themselves!" wrote John. "God bless them!"

No one expects to pass out while they're on vacation, much less wake up to a famous actress and her sister giving them medical care. John told CNN that Bowen and her sister "were so down to earth, so genuine, so sweet: Not at all how you might expect a big actor or a big doctor to be -- which they are. They were just so humble, so loving."

She asked if she could have her picture taken with them, and Bowen said, "Of course," before giving John a hug and posing for a photo.

"I knew I'd never meet them again but I appreciated and admired the human part of what they did -- selfless, not selfish," John told CNN. "We tend to forget the daily kindnesses we encounter. We're blind to everything around us and don't imagine that people will be so good, kind and caring."

John is okay, but battered a bit from where she fell and hit her face and glasses. Despite ending up with a fractured nose and five stitches at Moab Regional Hospital, doctors say she was lucky.

What a delightful ending to a potentially tragic event.

In a year where Major League Baseball has been delayed, the 2020 Olympics have been postponed, and the NBA season has been moved to something called a "bubble," a new sport has emerged as the ultimate athletic challenge in our COVID-19 world, at least for one British woman.

"Peak bagging" is an activity where hikers, mountaineers, and sometimes runners attempt to reach the summit of every mountaintop in a published list of peaks, and Sabrina Verjee, a British ultra runner, has just become the first woman to complete the 318 mile route through the 214 English peaks known as the "Wainwrights." Oh, and she did it with a bum knee.

The 39-year-old veterinary surgeon ascended over 35,000 meters on her run, completing the trek in just 6 days, 17 hours and 51 minutes, just eleven hours short of the record, which was broken last year. She completed the race on July 12th, after beginning it on the 6th, and plans to do it again in the near future. When she finished there were two previous Wainwright record holders, Joss Naylor and Steve Birkinshaw, waiting to congratulate her at the finish line.

"I'm so happy to have completed my round and more than a little relieved. My right knee hasn't been happy for a couple of days, so the final sections were very tough, especially as the fatigue really started to kick in," Verjee said in an interview.

Sabrina Verjee isn't new to pushing the limits of human endurance, just last year she took fifth place in the Montane Spine Race, a 270-mile ultramarathon through the blistering winter cold across the Pennine Way, an English national trail that runs through Scotland. She was also the first woman to complete the race. Before that, she came in second in the 2017 Berghaus Dragon's Back Race, a Welsh mountain race that boasts ascents adding up to twice the height of Mount Everest. Despite her resume of being, perhaps, the greatest walker alive, Verjee claimed in a Facebook post that she doesn't "claim any record for this achievement," on account of her relying on her support due to a knee injury. She does, however, look forward to completing the challenge again in the future. More than 200 people have responded to the post, praising Verjee for her endurance and humility, and congratulating her for completing the challenge.

Despite being one of the most prominent athletes in her field, Verjee is also a veterinary surgeon based in Ambleside. She had been waiting for the go-ahead from Prime Minister Boris Johnson for British citizens in the pandemic to be allowed to participate in "unlimited exercise." As soon as she got it, she completed the hike, despite having minimal support due to her insistence on taking COVID-19 precautions.

Verjee exhibits perseverance in an unprecedented time of anxiety, uncertainty, and immobility for the world as it faces the current pandemic. By continuing to train throughout quarantine, adjusting her support system to lower risk for potential COVID-19 transferrances and continuing to push through a knee injury that threatened to spoil the whole hike, Verjee proves that global pandemics aren't an excuse for people to stop doing amazing things, as long as they're gone safely, that is.

MDA Live Unlimited

Sophia Spooner's dad always finished what he started. That's one thing that kept Sophia going during her 2,659-mile hike.

Sophia's dad, Ray, passed away from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) — a neuromuscular disease that causes weakness and eventual paralysis of all voluntary muscles, including those used for breathing and swallowing — on Aug. 8, 2016.

10 months later, Sophia started hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which spans from the Mexico/California border all the way up to the Washington/Canada border, to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) and its ALS Care Centers, which provide specialized care for people like Ray.

"I wanted to do something I thought my dad would be proud of," Spooner says. "I know he would’ve been proud of me for doing this.”

Spooner on the PCT. Photo via Sophia Spooner.

Ray was no stranger to tackling major feats of endurance either.

Immediately after finding out he had ALS in 2014, Ray decided to bike across the country from San Diego, California, to St. Augustine, Florida, to raise funds for MDA. Not only did he complete his mission, he also raised $85,000 in the process and encouraged others to fundraise too, bringing the total to more than $120,000.

This was the initial inspiration for Sophia's walk.

"One thing I learned from him is if you do something crazy, people will give you money for a cause that you care about," Spooner says.

But what led her to the Pacific Crest Trail wasn't just this one example of strength. It was a culmination of everything her family went through after Ray's diagnosis.

Sophia and her dad Ray. Photo via Sophia Spooner.

Sophia had just returned from a semester abroad in India when her family sat her down and told her that her dad had ALS. It was January 2015, which meant she had to go back to school after being dealt this enormous blow.

Her last year and a half of college was anything but easy because she felt so removed from everything that was going on back home in Urbana, Illinois. Then she graduated and things changed dramatically.

Her father's condition had advanced rapidly, and she was immediately thrown into the role of caregiver along with her mother and siblings.

Going from being totally disconnected to caring for her father full-time was hard but ultimately life-affirming.  

Sophia and her family advertising shirts for Ray's bike ride. Photo via Sophia Spooner.

The experience solidified a bond between Sophia and her family in a way that nothing else could. It often involved challenges, especially when Ray lost the ability to speak, but there were still beautiful moments that Sophia cherishes.

The family had a ritual of putting on Leonard Cohen's album "Popular Problems" while they got Ray ready for bed; then they'd all lie down with him until he fell asleep.

And even when he could no longer speak, he'd tell his family he loved them through a series of breaths.

Despite the difficulties, Sophia and her dad's relationship grew stronger, especially because he got to see how capable his daughter really was.

Ray faced life and death head-on. Sophia wanted to do the same, and that meant stepping out of her comfort zone.

Sophia looking out on a sunset while on her hike. Photo via Sophia Spooner.

While her dad was a prolific hiker, Sophia had no such experience when she set out alone to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. It was altogether exciting and terrifying at first, but then she made some new friends on the trail and things started to get easier.

"I set up my tent the first night and yelled out, ‘Does anyone want to play Euchre with me?’ I got a couple takers and ended up hiking with them for more than 1,000 miles,” Sophia recalls.

She was by far the youngest — and probably the least experienced — among her group, but her confidence made up for it.

Sophia with her hiking buddies. Photo via Sophia Spooner.

Covering almost 20 miles a day was certainly taxing, but her emotional journey hit her just as hard, if not harder.

Her new friends were incredibly supportive, but she longed to have someone there who really understood what the past year had been like for her. Thankfully, her boyfriend Yoni was able to join her at mile 485.

Sophia with Yoni on the PCT. Photo via Sophia Spooner.

"Just being around someone who was aware of what I was going through was so liberating," Sophia says.

However, that didn't mean there weren't extremely difficult days.

Sophia with her hiking crew trudging through the mountains. Photo by Kayla Miller.

Some days the hikers trudging through heavy snow; others, they were laboring under oppressive heat. On one of the hottest days, they had to scale an impossibly steep hill. Sophia thought they could take a breather under a small tree at the top of it, but when they reached it, it provided little to no shade. That's when she heard her dad for the first time on the trail.

He told her, "Whelp, you better keep going!"

So she did, knowing he still had her back.

He was with her at night too in the form of the Lou Reed song "Perfect Day," from the album "Transformer"that Ray had “assigned” Sophia to listen to before and after his death. She would also play it over and over again on her phone as she hiked.

Her dad wasn't the only one pushing her forward when things got tough though. The MDA was also behind her.

Sophia at mile 500 on the PCT. Photo via Sophia Spooner.

MDA helped Sophia launch her campaign to raise money for ALS care and cheered her on just when she was about to give up.

"I was in Northern California and very very ready to quit the trail," Sophia recalls.

Then MDA reached out to her with messages of encouragement. She knew she couldn't let her cause or the MDA and ALS communities down.

Sophia finished her walk on Sept. 9 and is eager to get back home and start on a new adventure — life after college.

She'll always carry the lessons she learned on the trail and while caring for her father: live life beyond limits, keep your loved ones close, and always finish what you start.  

For more about Sophia's story, check out the video below: