On the Chilean side of the Hielo Sur is the world-renowned Torres del Paine National Park, which has followed the U.S. model of contracting the park's management to a private company and opening it to roads, tour buses, boats, and hotels. Torres del Paine—which in the summer has begun to resemble Yellowstone on the Fourth of July—is a cautionary tale for Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Because Glaciares has strict rules regarding camping, as well as a ban on buildings, private huts, and even bathrooms, it remains surprisingly untouched. Even in the January high season, traffic on the trails was light, and we had some stretches to ourselves. But the park's growing popularity has its rangers worried, especially because of the delicate topography: much of its surface area is rock and ice, and only a narrow band of vegetation separates the surrounding steppe from the foot of the mountains.
The remoteness of Patagonia has long been its best protection against development. But the threats bearing down now include more than lax building codes and messy campers. The ozone hole that was first discovered over Antarctica in the mid 1980's has been growing, and it migrates over the bottom third of South America in the Southern Hemispheric spring. In Punta Arenas, the region's largest city, television and radio stations carry color-coded warnings of the level of ultraviolet rays, and nearly everyone wears sun protection before venturing out.
There is also the problem of global warming, which may affect places like Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and El Chaltén more acutely than other environments. Along with the polar ice caps, the Patagonian ice field serves as both a giant reservoir of freshwater and a mechanism for the earth to vent its heat. Such a massive covering of ice reflects solar radiation back into space while insulating the earth's surface from further warming. When the ice melts—as it has already begun to do—the earth begins to lose one of its primary methods of regulating its temperature, which also triggers feedback loops that will make the warming worse.
The people of Patagonia are not unaware that they live at an epicenter of environmental risk. In El Calafate, there is a concrete wall that schoolchildren have painted with murals of the planet. One shows a globe with an animate South America bursting into tears while a crack spreads ominously up from the South Pole: save what we still have, they have written.
And yet, with the Argentinean economy in ruins, no one here can afford to turn down the adventure-seeking traveler, no matter how much trash he may leave behind. It is the bind of Patagonia, and the bind of a place like El Chaltén, which seems both to welcome and to shun. On our last walk through town, we savored its inner Nome and ignored its encroaching Telluride. Change was coming—from tourism and beyond. We felt lucky to have found El Chaltén when we did.
DARCY FREY is the author of The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams and a forthcoming book on the environment.