We awoke in Torres Central campsite to the sound of the morning chattering parakeets back at work on the food hunt. This was going to be an easy day for us since we didn’t have too far to travel up to the Chileno campsite. Taking our time, we got up and walked over to the Welcome center for coffee and donuts! We also loaded up on a sandwich to split for lunch and a big bag of these veggie root chips. After packing up camp we are headed back towards the Hotel Las Torres, which we’d pass along today’s route up the valley.
On the trail there, we were commenting on how light we felt, how accomplished we already were from everything we had already tackled, and how excited we were for the last two days to see the iconic Towers. This experience has been so different and more amazing than anything else we’d ever done before.
Hotel Las Torres is a pretty grand and sprawling place with multiple buildings joined together from the main lobby area. They house multiple barns on the property with livestock and horses. There are also greenhouses where they grow vegetables for the farm to table restaurant. If you want luxury at the end of the world, this was it. We stopped in to look around and cozy up to the lobby bar for a beer. Little did we know that they have a little “nano brewery” onsite that makes just one beer – a hoppy pale ale that is made with endemic hops that they grow in the greenhouses! Maybe it was partially the excitement and hype of the moment, but we thought it was spectacular.
We left the Hotel on a high note and with a little buzz rolling, we headed back up the mountain. After passing the point where the trails converge, we were passed again by the horses that were carrying supplies up the mountain to the campsite. Before you get to Chileno you must go through the Windy Pass. Its not visible until right at the top of the canyon crux.
There was a cool lookout point that I told Gabrielle to run up ahead so I could take her picture. Unfortunately, it was closed off, most likely for restoration purposes.
It began to drizzle near the end of our hike, but the views did not disappoint!
We made it to the Chileno campsite, halfway up the valley to the Torres (towers), with lots of time to spare so we looked around for a bit and then set up our tent on our platform which was VERY high up off the ground on one side!
After some showers, it was time to feast. We could not use our camp stove at Chileno because of the high winds restricting open flame/high fire danger, so we had to buy tickets to the dinner in the lodge. It worked out well, though, because we had wanted to try at least one of the refugio’s paid meals, so how fitting for our last night in the park! The night’s special was a scrumptious salmon platter with salad, grilled veggies and a creamy lemon polenta that went perfectly with the salmon…Yum! We made friends with some other Americans and shared some steins of the Torres del Paine Helles Bock beer from Cereveza Austral that we had come to love so much. Its label is a picture of the Towers so, I mean…you gotta drink that beer when you’re in the closest campsite to the towers and you can SEE them dominating the horizon from your seat in the dining room.
Everything was eaten and they wouldn’t give us seconds even with Gabrielle asking nicely for more multiple times! The server just kept laughing and telling us there was only so much for everyone. It was amazing though and we retired to our tent very satisfied. The alarm was going to come early for our sunrise hike to the Towers and we slept like two fatted pigs.
As luck would have it, the story of our 10th day on the trail was another perfectly clear blue sky with lush sunshine touching everything and giving it the fantastic hues that only sunshine can give. Oh, what a life it was to awaken to the wild of Patagonia every morning.
Los Cuernos campsite and refugio sits on a slope that curves down toward the edge of the lake, Lago Nordenskjold. As such, our tent site was on a wooden platform, which was commonplace for any of the campsites that sat on uneven ground. The sun rose up over hills and hit our tent early, as we were situated in an area that was mainly brush and small trees, so very little tree cover to block sunlight. And it was quite perfect in that regard, as we got to truly drink in the majesty of the Los Cuernos rock formations and granite spires to which we were in such close proximity.
Awe-inspiring. And with the moon just above it, too!
Someone sitting next to us the night before at dinner had mentioned they occasionally had fresh bread leftover and available for purchase in the morning. As an afterthought, we went to the refugio’s front desk to ask and found that the morning luck was still with us: They had a warm, freshly baked full loaf of bread available, and even a couple eggs if we wanted to pay a little extra! We bought 6 eggs and a loaf and treated ourselves to an incredibly simple and storybook-level-good breakfast of scrambled eggs and bread.
I don’t think either of us have ever enjoyed hot scrambled eggs and fresh, warm bread as much as we did on this day. Whoever said it first wasn’t lying when they said it’s all about perspective. Perspective helps you find the joy in the simplest of things….even if you’ve done the same thing a hundred times before in your life, that ONE time can be totally different 🙂
Happy minds and happy bellies, we struck out to the East and began our trek to Campsite Central (Cen-TRAL). There was a fun little hill just next to the Los Cuernos campsite, and it gave fantastic views for the start of our hike.
Not for the first time (nor the last), I thought to myself how we could’ve sat and stayed on that boulder a good while longer, simply looking, listening, and breathing in and out.
Fluffy clouds sat cushioned amongst jagged rock formations above us as we went, and made for beautiful, wispy, and sunny contrast against the dark stone.
We crossed many small streams and medium-sized waterfalls this day, and the amount of detail you could observe in the water was intense and exciting. With the sunlight piercing every part and shadow of the water, you can see through it and it is just as crystal clear as your imagination wills it to be, like something out of a dream.
I would stop and want to fill my water bottle with more fresh water, even though it was still half full from the stream we’d crossed a mile back! The mere fact that you can just fill your water bottle with any of these stream’s water invigorated me to just keep doing it whenever I got the chance. I mean, how often in your life to you get to drink this caliber of pristine, naturally-occurring agua? Without a doubt, I planned to SAVOR that shit like these were our last days in Patagonia……. (And yes, the irony of that statement just slays me).
Had a calm lunch on our own at a clifftop spot about halfway through our day. We could still see Los Cuernos in the distance, getting smaller and smaller. This day took us alongside the southern edge of a different peak, Monte Almirante Nieto, or in English “admiral grandchild.” Not quite sure why it’s named that, but I’m sure there’s a story behind it.
Those of you that read our previous days’ posts from our hike in Torres del Paine may recall this: On our 8th day of this O circuit, we went through a valley that had frequent daily avalanches from hanging glaciers that were warmed in the daylight. You would hear an intensely loud crack like thunder, and then the avalanche of snow would plummet down followed by a new waterfall that sprang from where the snow had been shifted. It is just the most incredible thing to witness. I bring it up again now because what was just so, SO cool is that we could STILL hear the avalanches that entire day – and we were hiking continuously away from it! Every time we’d hear the sound of a seeming crash of thunder in the distance behind us, it brought a smile to our faces. It was almost like….we had a shared secret, and anyone hiking in the opposite direction towards that valley didn’t yet know that secret 🙂
Even when we arrived at our campground for that night, Torres Central, we could still hear the avalanche thunder, albeit more muffled. The distance at that point was about 14 or 15 miles. What a wild and crazy thing she is, that Nature.
Also, lots of fun bridges to swing from!
FYI, not recommended to do with a full backpack on. My arms almost died.
Near the end of this day’s trek, we passed by a tranquil little lagoon. It was almost like glass – not a ripple on the water. Until I poked it with my hiking pole.
We ran into two older ladies with a guide that had walked up to the lagoon from the Hotel, only a short mile or so. We had pleasant conversation – one of the ladies was American. When she found out that we had been out in the wilderness for the past 10 days and didn’t have any access to phone service, wifi, or news, she elevated to a new level of alarm and took it upon herself to start telling us of the state of emergency the world was in and how we needed to get back to the States ASAP because COVID-19 was taking over the planet.
(Soooooo….forgive me while I borrow an apropos line of Angelica’s from Hamilton for this moment and what was going through my head as this lady spoke to us….cue the music) “And I re-a-lize three fundamental truths at the EXACT SAME TIME.”
Number One: We probably would’ve been better off not hearing any of this and finishing our last two days in this park without the damn news of how the outside world was going to hell in a handbag. I mean…c’mon, lady.
Number Two: It was obvious that she did not understand the crash of negativity she was bringing to our vibe, and was probably thinking she was “saving” us and doing us a favor….I don’t hold it against her. I wasn’t angry. More just saddened by this sudden reality check and the simultaneous realization that we were likely going to have to face some somber stories and hard decision making in near future.
Number Three: Up to this literal second, every night we had camped in Torres del Paine people had NOT ONCE brought up the topic of the outside word and what was going on with coronavirus. I hadn’t even realized it until these very seconds that this lady made me realize it. Was the fact that it was never a conversation topic intentional? Accidental? Uncanny to say the least. Made me feel hopeful, too. Hopeful in that after a day of sharing the trail with fellow hikers, having encounters with wild animals, experiencing the peace and joy of being in the wilderness….that a group of strangers from various countries and backgrounds can come together and focus on THIS day, THESE memories, and not need to read things on their phones, post immediately about what they are doing, or hear about what is happening anywhere else other than Right. Here.
I think those are the kind of places where the root of happiness lives, metaphorically speaking. 10 straight days of an unspoken agreement to live in the “here and now” and forget the rest. What a change of pace it was, and a whole new perspective from what I’d become accustomed to in our country’s typical focal points and stressors that we (much of the time) bring upon our own shoulders – myself included!
Again….perspective is a blessing. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through these past 5 months without it. Hell, I don’t know how some people go through LIFE without it! I feel bad for them, though, because they are missing out on a depth and richness that is otherwise unreachable.
We finished the last ~mile to Torres Central. After heading over to the refugio’s hotspot, we paid the money to get an hour of wifi, let our parents know that we were healthy and significantly better than okay. Checked to see if Chile had locked down its borders (it hadn’t)…and then we let go of what we couldn’t control.
Put the phones away, walked back to our tent and enjoyed the now familiar bodily fatigue of a good, long day of exercise. Laughed at the hilarious squawking of the Austral parakeets that filled the campsite, drank a craft beer and watched the sun set over Monte Almirante Nieto.
**Disclaimer: There are far too many photos of me in this post and far too few of David. It’s really just because there are far less in quantity. I will now, from here on out, be making a point to stop and take more photos of my love while on the trail!
To see all of our photos from this day, click here:
We planned this day to be a short day, 2 mile walk from Campsite Frances to Los Cuernos Refugio. Since there was time to spare, we took our time getting up and ready in the morning and waited for everyone else to be on their way so we could actually have space to cook breakfast in the tiny kitchen area! We packed up and took some last pictures from the bathroom/kitchen area and set out for a nice afternoon stroll.
Our path ran along the big lake (Lago Nordenskjöld) most of the day up and down the terrain of the foothills. There were great examples of Lenga and Ñire trees everywhere and David pressed some leaves in his journal.
As we traipsed along the way we could still hear the occasional small avalanche behind us as Paine Grande and the glaciers of the Frances Valley melted in the sun.
Rounding new corners brought sights of new waterfalls flowing from way up high to trickling over the trail in front of us.
We took a nice long break for lunch sitting by the lake on a beach of rocks. Tranquility at its finest.
As we arrived to Los Cuernos refugio/campsite, the sun popped out and lit up the mountains!
This campsite was named after the iconic rock formations under which it is situated, Los Cuernos. Literally translated, it means “the horns,” which they resemble. The O trek of Torres del Paine is a circle trek, so you end up back where you started if you walk long enough. The area of land around which the O trek makes a ring is called the Paine Massif. It is a cluster of mountains, granite towers, and spectacular rock formations. Most any image of the Paine Massif features Los Cuernos front and center, as it is an unmistakable image of “the horns of Patagonia.”
While our 8th day in the park dawned still a bit overcast (bummer), we kept our hopes up for partly sunny. Maybe, just maybe…there’d be some clearing and sun by the time we got to the top!
The hike up to the Británico mirador/overlook was 4.2 miles from our starting point at the Frances campsite, which made for (up and back down) a total of 8.4 miles. Elevation gain up to the mirador is 2,011 feet, so not an insignificant climb! But – and this is a big BUT – this being our first round trip day hike in Torres del Paine, we got to leave the vast majority of our stuff in the tent. Which means LIGHTER PACKS! We took only extra clothing layers, lunch, water, first aid kit, and trail necessities. We left our tent pitched with the sleeping bags, air mattresses, stove and utensils, hobo rolls with all the clothes, extra books or journal, and everything else.
It was just the most thrilling thing to start our hike with backpacks that felt like they were carrying nothing but air. I remember for the first twenty minutes or so, the two of us would randomly burst out laughing at how strong we felt having removed all that weight. It was a nice treat, and put into perspective just how much stronger our bodies had grown in only 8 days. All those people that pay to have the horses or park employees carry their stuff/food and do the hike with the lightest of backpacks…well….good for them for having that kind of spending money! But believe me when I say they are missing out on the highly rewarding weight-training-style satisfaction that comes from finally doing a hike without your full pack. WORTH IT. Felt like kangaroos sometimes, with a little extra jump in our step.
We wound our way up the Valle del Frances, which extends north from Lago Nordenskiöld and keeps to the east side of the valley’s river, Rio Frances.
The Frances Valley is a special place. Not only is it awe-inspiring from every angle, but there are hanging glaciers spread all across the tops and crags of the mountains that give you daily shows: Avalanches! Now, these aren’t the kind of avalanches that hikers need to worry about, as they are too small to cause any kind of danger, and the trail is far enough off of the fall zone.
At first (and partially because everything was still shrouded in clouds throughout the morning), David and I thought the rumbling we were hearing was thunder up the valley. It sounded almost exactly like a storm in the distance. As we approached and were able to see more clearly in the presence of the mountain, we witnessed it firsthand. The warmth of the sun works on the hanging mountain glaciers up high, and then a loud crack or a loud rumble is the first sign. If you turn fast, have a clear line of sight without any tree blockage, and are lucky enough to find the movement in time…then you watch in amazement as a huge patch of snow and ice breaks off and falls down the sheer face of the mountain-side, plummeting everything in its path. And every time, without fail, a brand new stream of meltwater bursts from where that avalanche had just fallen.
We were watching waterfalls being created.
It doesn’t get old.
After a snack break at the Frances mirador, we pressed on. The paths today were up often on tree-covered ridges, which made for cool perspectives looking down on either side as you walked.
At one point, we passed an impressive and larger multi-tiered waterfall on the Rio Frances. I made sure to hold on to sturdy branches as I got up close to it! I love the tendency that large waterfalls have to take over all your senses. It’s very meditative. You have to treasure those things that help you slow down the mind when it is usually so hard to do.
While we had glaciers and avalanches to the west of us, granite spires and towers lined the sights to the east and north. And sure enough, as it got closer to midday, the clouds began to clear out and the sun came out to light the way.
By the time we reached the peak, Británico mirador, it was 360 degrees of awesome and you just can’t help but be humbled by the geologic power displayed in your surroundings.
While it was a bit crowded up there, we stuck around and enjoyed for a good long while. I saw one girl arrive, take a few selfies, and then leave to head back within 5 minutes. WTF?! I was still eating the same piece of beef jerky for the duration of it. People baffle me.
The Británico sights are worth spending the extra time. I mean, let’s be honest…the whole park is.
Another thing that’s funny was that David and I both remarked later that when we hit the mirador at the peak, both of us were a bit surprised that the upward climb was over, feeling like we could’ve kept going and done more! That is SUCH a great feeling, and I hope everyone either has experienced it or gets to experience it someday. Validation.
Our hike back down the valley was as if the wind we felt at the top had come through and whooshed all the rest of the lingering clouds out of the valley.
Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.
There were a couple times on the way back down that we’d hear the loud crack of an avalanche and both of us would instinctively jump before remembering after a second what it was. I said earlier in this post that it doesn’t get old…additionally, you really don’t get used to it, especially when it is so close in proximity!
For dinner that night, we wanted to check out the nice view overlooking the lake down by the Frances restaurant, and refugio domes, so we brought all our dinner stuff down the hill (to hell with the steep walk back up!). We found an empty table on which to cook, some rocks on which to sit, played cards, watched the line of sun creep up the mountains across the way…and (if I were to put it simply) – found yet more solace in this place where solace is overflowing.
I recall feeling pretty good as we rose and began the breakfast routine on our 7th day in the park. We were past the halfway point! It was both an exciting thought as well as a sad one…simply because we were that much closer to having to leave this wild paradise. I recall thinking how I wanted to be sure I cherish these memories now as I will look back on them often in the future.
Little did I know how right I was, being as this was our last big adventure before having to return to the US to quarantine and then hunker down for an undetermined amount of time. Isn’t it funny how poignant (and ironic) a moment can seem in retrospect? I feel like that happens more and more to me as I get older. Maybe that’s what elder folk (all you with the silver and white hair!) feel like every day.
Anyway, back to our trail. After breakfast, we bought a couple important items at the camp store of Paine Grande – espresso shots, 2 beers to have with lunch, a can of sour cream and onion Pringles, and a bird identification guide. Treasures, all! The hike to our next campsite, Frances, was 5.9 miles Northeast. Onward, baby.
The view looking back towards Paine Grande as we climbed up and away from it was really great! The higher we got, the more we could see the wide and expansive scale of the lake we’d be on.
This day was 100% cloud cover all day – just another variety of your classic Patagonian weathers. You never know what you’re going to get! At a couple campsite check-ins, they had a sign hanging up that said “Don’t ask about the weather…Live the Patagonia.” It always made us laugh. I am going to have to get that on a shirt at some point.
The clouds covering the mountains and views up high had the effect of keeping our eyes and focus more at ground level all day. Which was definitely interesting in itself – your daily dose of streams and waterfalls, autumn color in the leaves, blooming flowers, and winding trails was all we needed. The first half of our trail was still through a lot of the burned area from the wildfire in 2011, so we did see many scars of that as the ecosystem continues to heal itself.
I like to think of waterfalls like snowflakes…each one is completely unique, no other like it on Earth. Oftentimes on this day, we’d come across distant waterfalls seemingly pouring from the clouds themselves! It was both mystical and quite enchanting.
We came to a lake called Lago Skottsberg, which seemed a good stop for lunch. As luck would have it, we didn’t have too much of a crowd hiking this day, so we were pretty isolated for lunch which was really nice. Of course…I say isolated and I mean people. We of course still had our now-expected Chimango caracara pals, always looking for some type of munchies. But because they hung around us, David got some fantastic close-ups of these raptors, and even made me run at one of them so he could get some shots of it in flight.
From our lunch vantage point, we could look down into the lake water and actually SEE the shelf dropoff, which made for a captivating and lovely color contrast, even without the sunlight. It never ceased to bring me wonder how clear and clean the agua is.
The second half of the hike went beyond the extent of the forest fire from 2011, so we transitioned back into more lush greenery and grasses of the Andes lowlands. For a bit, our trail was just hiking through a small stream, which was really cool because you are able to see all of the runoff from rains and meltwater up high trickling into where we were walking.
Some of the blossoms we saw this day were just so striking, and unlike anything I’d ever seen.
For a brief 5 minutes, a cloud moved out of the way and we saw some of the Los Cuernos formation to which we were getting closer! It was a swift and very cool moment – felt like a gift in the mist, like something out of a spooky movie.
We crossed another river, the Rio del Frances, and the Frances Valley stretched North into cloud cover. Our hike tomorrow would backtrack slightly and head up into this valley to the Britanico viewpoint/mirador, which makes the middle of the “W.” It was such an odd feeling crossing that bridge, looking Northward, and not being able to see anything of where we’d be hiking! We crossed our fingers that tomorrow would be a bit clearer for us (remember, don’t ask park staff about the weather, live the Patagonia). HA
For now, we braved the bridge that said “capacity: 1 person” and walked the last 20 minutes to our campsite, Frances.
Such an interesting campsite! The whole thing is under canopy and on a mountainside, so it’s pretty much impossible to pitch a tent on the ground except for a few level spots. Everything else is on such an incline, so all the tent sites are wooden platforms sunk into the mountainside so you have a level wooden square on which to pitch your tent. Here’s the kicker, though – the bath house with straight downhill from the platforms, so you got a mini-workout coming back to your tent every time!
Not just that, but if you wanted to go down to the store/refugio/spot with the cliff view, it was an even further and STEEPER incline downward, and you had to walk that much further uphill coming back from it to your tent. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me, but it does make it tougher when you’re trying to rest your muscles for the evening after already having hiked the entire DAY! Needless to say, Frances campsite is not for the weak of will.
We stayed 2 nights at Frances, as tomorrow’s trek was not a thru-hike – up the valley to the mirador and then back to the campsite. For that reason, we opted out of walking all the way down until tomorrow. After hot showers, we cooked a quick dinner because the Frances cooking area was way too small and everyone was elbow to elbow. Played some cards by lamplight in the tent as an evening rain made it way through the canopy above us. But droopy eyes were bound to come soon.
Let me tell you…if anyone out there is having trouble sleeping at night and looking for a way to get some solid, restful, and all-through-the-night-sleep, a multi-day hiking trek would help you immensely! I would fall asleep faster these nights than most any other nights I can remember, and it is a recharge in every sense. Even just typing this makes me miss those restful nights….
Our day of rest yesterday paid off – we woke at Grey campsite feeling rested and ready for another day trekking through the unknown. And PUMPED! I mean, after conquering the monster that was the mountain pass, we felt ready to take on the world. Give me trail and give me LIFE.
Our morning started with a quick little 10 minute walk to a viewpoint of the front of the glacier, which we wanted to see before we headed off. We almost skipped it, giving how incredible our sights had been two days ago after John Gardner Pass. But on a whim, we thought it would be cool to see a different perspective and maybe some icebergs. SOOO glad we did this – not only were we right next to the icebergs, but also the perspective looking directly at Grey Glacier from the front was awesome. It’s a bit of an optical illusion because it’s hard to tell if it’s just inclining straight back or if it’s just a giant wall in front of you. Your mind would play tricks on you a bit as you looked!
Another amazing thing I want to mention is the COLORS of the icebergs. They are just all over the place! White icebergs, silvery grey icebergs, soft blue icebergs, bright blue icebergs, icebergs as clear as crystal that looked like blown glass sculptures, green icebergs… and the most unfathomably deep blues that take you breath away. Blues that I didn’t know could exist, blues that put human-made paint or markers to shame.
Blue diamonds of the glacial type, I’d say.
The more vibrant blue hues in glaciers come from compacted ice and trapped air bubbles. The stronger the blue, the denser the ice as the air bubbles become smushed tinier and tinier. This just means the light can penetrate the ice more deeply because the air in the bubbles is so small that it isn’t scattering the light nearly as much. It’s all very fascinating.
Sadly, the vast majority of the Southern Ice Field has been retreating in the past 30 years. This includes Grey Glacier, a big component of it.
For a good long while, we just sat quietly and enjoyed our Friend, Glacier Grey, and the icebergs. Every once in a while, we’d hear the sound of a splash and would quickly scan the waters to see where a piece of iceberg had broken off. It was up there with one of the most zen activities I can recall doing, listening to and observing icebergs (you’d think it would get boring but it DIDN’T!). We think we could’ve sat there a lot longer had it not been for the need to get on our way.
They are singularly captivating works of art. My mind was stilled and satisfied in these moments’ simplicity.
A good start to our day. We headed back to camp, packed up, and pressed on.
Grey refugio is the start of the W trek, which the O merges with, on the Westernmost side. Unlike the O portion, which you can only hike East to West, everywhere on the W portion of the hike can be hiked in either direction. This is because there are a lot of different places/campsites that people can start from, depending on how much time they have and what they want to see. Anyway, our 6th day on the trail took us from Grey to Paine Grande, 6.7 miles.
It was weird at first having so many people passing us going the opposite direction, after hiking a one-way for so many days. Not just that, but there were considerably more people on this portion of the trail (from what I understand, this is fairly normal because the W is, overall, an easier hike than the back/O). It was funny, though, because we would comment to each other how new everyone’s coats, backpacks, or gear looked while a lot of the folks we’d grown used to hiking with on the back side had gear that looked old, weathered, broken-in. Take that how you will? Just an interesting observation.
In December of 2011, an irresponsible hiker tried to burn some of his used toilet paper and it got out of his hands and hit the ground. With dry summer conditions and the typical strong winds of Patagonia, it escalated quickly and became a massive forest fire that destroyed 125 square kilometers of the park (or a little under 50 square miles). Over the next 2 days, we would walk through portions of this fire, and it was all at once sobering, eerie, and beautiful. At least…in a hauntingly beautiful way.
It just reinforced for both of us how important it is to be careful with our stove flames and lighter. Bearing witness to the result of stupidity all around us, we just kept shaking our heads.
But of course – life finds a way! (Jurassic Park, anyone?) New growth was everywhere, both plant and animal.
We even saw a few Magellanic Woodpeckers hard at work. You could hear their pecking so loudly on approach. The females have the small splash of red feathers around the beak, while the males are the more obvious full head of red feathers. Really great to observe these industrious creatures in the wild, and a friendly passerby bird-watcher lent us his binoculars so we could get a close-up.
Everyone along these trails is in such a great mood. If you don’t feel similarly, you’re doing something wrong. Also, we were hiking below a snowstorm that day! Quite satisfying, beautiful, and kept drawing our gaze all day. We never at high enough elevation to be within the storm, so we just admired from below.
Lots of great miradors on the hike up, as today we were primarily continuing to walk the East side of Lago Grey. With each mirador that was further away from Grey Glacier, we’d stop to turn around and see if this was our last look at the big glacier.
Our windy lunch was accompanied by a new pal looking for scraps of food left by hikers.
Finally, after our lunch at the peak of the trail, we turned inland and had our last parting gaze of our Friend, Grey. It was hard to say goodbye.
We both plan to come back and see it again someday in the future. I think some glacier hiking and kayaking amongst icebergs will be in order then.
Came across the charming Laguna Los Patos in some late afternoon sunlight. Enjoyed the waterfowl out on the little islands.
It was a nice relaxing bit near the final leg for the day when we did some gradual downhill going through a wide valley. Finally got to the Lago Pehoe on which Paine Grande sits, and were rewarded with some nice, clear sunset colors over the Southwestern view of Los Cuernos and some of the smaller towers to the north. A rich reward.
Paine Grande was nice, one of the bigger refugios because it sits on a harbor where people can arrive by boat to start their hike of the W. A lot of hikers end up using Paine Grande as their home base. It was a little crowded for our taste – the kitchen was packed and we had to wait in a bit of a line to wash our dishes. Not a big deal, just a reality of being in a more popular spot.
The surprise kindness of strangers was always following us. A lady we cooked next to was asking about our time on the trail, our favorite parts. She had just done her last day that day and was headed home tomorrow to Spain. She gifted us each a full chocolate bar for the trail the next day, as she had some leftover that she hadn’t eaten. It’s the little things. Small wins.
It was a good night to hit our halfway mark – we felt alive and prepared, always hopeful and always curious of what the morning would bring. Still sore without a doubt…but in a mental state of living in the “now” more and more with each day.
We welcomed a semi-early bedtime with the dark and a few sips of bourbon.
After our very long, intense day of John Gardner Pass and then some, we gave ourselves a break day at Grey to relax and wash our clothes. Gabrielle slept in and missed our friend Kate leaving for Paine Grande (the next campsite) and I traded coffee with her and said goodbye. After handwashing our clothes and hanging them out to dry near the tent, we decided to splurge a little for a late afternoon lunch and got cheeseburgers and beers! The restaurant and bar in Refugio Grey was very nice and we scored a spot on a comfy couch next to the heating stove in the corner. Once we noticed that liquor was cheaper than beer, we ordered gin and tonics. We were happily surprised when these came:
Giant Tanqueray and tonics with ice cubes literally from the Glacier Grey!! The bartender had a big block of ice behind the bar, chizzling chunks off. It was so crisp and refreshing – best G & T’s we have ever had!
It was a very relaxing day and was much needed as we stumbled around camp that day in pain. Hard even to walk around and much stretching was needed. It was a nice break and we had completed the backside of the trek. The next day we would begin the W trek on the front side of the park.
Ask anyone that knows this area and they’ll tell you – hardest part of the circuit is John Gardner Pass, hands down.
We knew ahead of time that today was probably going to be our most difficult. Knowing it beforehand and being there in the moment doing it were totally different universes, though. Fair warning: This may be a slightly longer post than normal as day 4 of our trek was pretty significant. It holds the trophy as both our hardest day and our favorite day in the park.
Alarm went off well before sunrise. Gotta get in a solid breakfast. Plus it was nice to get moving because Los Perros was one of the coldest campsites – very windy, isolated, at elevation near some smaller glaciers, etc. The forests were a welcome refuge against the constant wind.
There were about 40 to 50 people in the Los Perros campsite, and it felt like EVERY ONE of them was in the kitchen at the same time as us. That room was packed arm-to-arm on the benches, everyone boiling water to have something hot before the climb. We heard one guy say he’d slept in the kitchen because his tent was no bueno and he was freezing. Yikes! Luckily, our tent is awesome. Here’s the small porch at the campsite at about 5:30 AM….gear everywhere, backpacks galore.
The crazy part (or at least one of the crazy parts) of John Gardner Pass is that they close it at 8 AM. That means you HAVE to start the hike before then. It’s nuts! Now, I’m not sure if that is every day, or if they base the closure time on the weather and wind – seems likely – but regardless, I’ve never seen an 8 AM trail closure before. Weather foreshadowing, much? HA, we were gonna be in for it.
Our day was essentially split into 2 parts. The ascent and descent of the mountain pass was the first, and then the trek from the Paso ranger station (our unofficial halfway point) to Grey refugio/campsite. The total mileage to complete for the day is 9.3 – not so bad, right?
WRONG. Putting this into persective, the second half of our hike past the ranger station was 4.3 miles with a 1,300 ft mostly steady decline. But the first 5 miles? 2,050 feet straight up followed by an immediate descent of 2,460 feet which should be renamed Death to All Knees.
We got the full force of Patagonia on our hardest day. A giant thunderstorm that turned into sleet and then became a snow storm at the higher elevations in which the wind just continued to grow. From a distance, it was hard to see where our trail led because the clouds enshrouded it. The only thing we really knew was the trail seemed to go up, up, and away.
The edge of the tree line came pretty quickly. Once that happened, though, we lost the protection of the Lenga trees from the elements. It was about this time that we decided to put on our insulating layers (aka down coats) underneath our rainjackets. First time yet on the trek that we’d needed allll the layers. And on a steep ascent, if you’re putting on MORE layers rather than removing them…that tells you something. Very thankful we did that early.
It’s funny, David and I are plenty familiar with snow in a variety of circumstances. We grew up in the midwest, for one, and are also pretty frequent alpine skiers in the Rockies, so we’ve been on many slopes and lift chairs in intense weather conditions. On a lift chair, you just sit there. On the slopes, you go with gravity – downhill. This was more similar to hiking up to Expert Terrain at the top of the mountain, where the storm is most intense. Brave the blizzard and the rewards are well worth it.
Most of the people from the campsite were in front of us and no longer in sight through the sleet blowing in your face, so you have this sense that it is just YOU and the mountain. It’s paradoxically comforting and terrifying. Terrifying because all you have to depend on is your physical strength and everything you can muster up in your mental state to get you through this storm and this mountain that is just the next level and beyond. But then, that same line of thinking is comforting because you know that you can, unquestioningly, depend on yourself to get you through this because there really is no other choice. Put one foot in front of the other and keep going.
We took breaks by turning our backpacks into the wind so it wasn’t whipping against our faces, and also remember to take in the majesty. It’s not everyday you get to be on your feet within a stormcloud.
(Even saw some really beautiful ground dwelling birds that only live in mountain highlands! Grey-breasted Seedsnipes. So cool! We came upon them suddenly and they ran away hooting pretty quickly.)
This was raw. Step by step, pole by pole, all the while getting belted with rain, wind, and sleet as our clothing did the best it could against the elements. Just look for the next thing painted orange and go in that direction! The coldest part of both of us was our hands, as the gloves we brought were windproof but not waterproof (facepalm). I lost feeling in my hands more times than I could count.
At different points, both of us felt fear creep in. One of the natural human survival reactions when the odds appear against you. Too cold, too wet, too tired, too vertical, too hard, too much. I thought I saw the top of the pass and a little shelter in the distance at one point. It was just a big boulder and the trail continued up. A little while later, David thought he saw the top of the pass in the distance and we were relieved. Then we got to that rocky crest to find more inclining mountain path of snow and sleet covered rocks. I remember hearing him say “Oh my God…” right in front of me and I just knew.
At a particularly weary point after that, we set our bags down on a snowy rock for a break and shared the last couple pieces of a Toblerone. Freezing fingers kneaded themselves and brought feeling back. We chewed and gazed at waterfalls the entire length of a mountainside. Not for the first or last time came the silent acknowledgment that we were here in a place on Earth that few humans get to be. And we drew strength from the mere fact that we would do this together.
To all professional mountain climbers out there: Respect.
After putting a pin in the dumb thought that I may get frostbite in one of my soaked fingers, I unknowingly tapped into the strength of a human when confronted with the savage of the wilderness. This is very difficult to describe if you haven’t experienced it. I imagine it is kind of (to a much smaller degree) how a state of spiritual enlightenment feels. For one, all fear is gone. It is a place of tranquility where things like doubt, insecurity, and worry do not live. In retrospect now, I think you come to this state of mind because you are weary, pushing yourself to the edge and giving it everything you’ve got, and knowing that you have to draw on strength unseen. You accept, and you do. It’s one of the calmest and most appreciative mental states I’ve ever had…stillness in a wild, crazy-ass mountain storm all around.
Strange, right? Or maybe not so strange.
We knew when we hit the top. The wind actually blew us back a few steps down the mountain. Couldn’t look straight ahead for too long. It was a flat bit of land with only cloud in the distance – a good sign because that would finally indicate descending land.
The trekking poles we had to use to PULL our bodies across the pass against the wind. Absolute insanity. The thrill of having reached the top was pure adrenaline – had to yell at each other at the top of our lungs from like 2 feet away. Came to find out later after looking it up that it had been 60 mph winds up there. WHAT?!
A picture started to form ahead of us. Distant mountains, far off and in the sunlight. We could see the edge of the storm in the direction we were headed. And if that wasn’t reward enough in itself, the most spectacular sight stopped us dead in our tracks.
Glacier Grey, filling the valley and your eyesight as far as you can see…bathed in the sunlight with a fully-formed, complete rainbow over it.
It was our storm’s end.
I just CAN’T EVEN with this place. We were not prepared for how colossal Grey is. As great as these photos are, they still pale in comparison to being there in these moments after what we had just done. Magnificent. Sublime. It could have warmed and thawed the heart of the Night King.
That rainbow stayed there. As we descended, we just kept looking up and loving how steadfast it was. It finally disappeared about an hour later. An HOUR. Patagonia rainbows > All other rainbows. They’re pretty much a daily occurrence down there, and it is MAGICAL.
Soooooo the descent…..it sucks. Again, the distance was around 2 miles, and in that mere blip of a distance you go down ~2,460 feet. Monumentally steep downhill going, tired bodies with heavy packs making it slower going than normal. Oh, and it was muddy and slippery from the rain, too. Borderline undoable? HA, not for us, not today!
Most of it was giant, steep steps oftentimes longer than the distance from my foot to knee. Cool.
Lots of cursing. Exclamations of wanting to punch whoever this John Gardner was in the face. Making sarcastic comments at the tons of signs that way “Caution: Risk of falling.” We didn’t think going down would be physically harder than going up. We were wrong.
I don’t think our knees, quads, calves, or low backs would’ve survived without the trekking poles as extra feet. They were clutch. And (another bright side) our weather had now become scattered forest sunlight with no wind! Whole new side of the mountain = whole new world.
It became apparent at some point after the pass that we were soaked inwardly head-to-toe. Socks, underwear, bra, you name it. The water had been blown into us steadily and for multiple hours from every angle, so it was really just a matter of time. Finally reaching the Paso ranger station meant a blessed lunch break and change into dry clothes – YES! But oh wait, still have 4+ miles to go…dangit.
The ranger and some other park staff told us the trek to Grey from that point was “muy tranquillo.” Personally, I think the Chileans have a different idea of what constitutes a tranquil path. Muy tranquillo, in my mind, is a flat trail with some beautiful scenery and some cozy twists and turns. This trail was NOT muy tranquillo! If they were comparing it to what we had just did, than literally ANYTHING could have been muy tranquillo! Crazy Chileans…I have a feeling they’d rate some black diamond ski trails in Colorado as greens (can’t help but kind of love it, though – it’s like they’re natural-born badasses).
Anyway, we pulled ourselves up by our wet bootstraps (but now with dry socks) and set off to Grey campsite as the sun sank. I just didn’t think too hard about it.
As if I haven’t already been speaking in enough constant dynamic by this point (kind of sorry, but not really) here’s a few more scoops of that ice cream: The sights of hiking alongside Grey Glacier are unbelievable. To your mind, it almost looks fake! You have to stare and take it in because it is just. that. Beautiful. We’d be walking for a while and it’s on the peripheral and your brain just kind of auto-assumes it’s a body of water…and then you catch sight of it and do a double-take after seeing it again and laugh with incredulity.
It is really special to be in the presence of this giant. And these thoughts are also energy fuel. When you’re running on close to empty, it’s amazing what you can find to use as drive. The snowstorm felt like days ago at this point.
Glaciers like Grey are game-changing. Period.
There are 3 really sweet and semi-frightening suspension bridges on this stretch that span beautiful gorges over streams running towards the glacier and its adjoined lake. The bridges would have signs in front of them saying “Max: 2 Pers. ” or “Max: 4 Pers.” which makes you think, oh good, this seems safe….
So much power and adrenaline in a single day. Probably a record bodily production between the two of us.
That last mile and a half was, simply, very rough. Every muscle in my body from face to pinky toe was sore. I don’t know how it works for everyone else, but when I am exhausted, my two natural defense mechanisms that come out are tears and anger. So I found things to be pissed at in between bursting out in tears. David kept laughing at the ridiculousness, so he got a lot of the anger directed at him. At some point I lost control of the sounds I was making and was just kind of panting/groaning/moaning while snotting on the sleeve, all the while punctuated by hysterical laughter. Near-ish the campsite, these two guys behind us looked like they were gonna try and pass us and I (of course) got tired-angry at them and decided there would be no more people passing us TODAY. By some act of God, I led what can only be described as a silent, fury-driven power trek into camp for about 3/4 of a mile in which I ignored all soreness and fatigue.
You never know what you’ll find within yourself out in God’s country. It can often surprise you what’s been there all along.
Bonus: Made it to camp at 8:50 PM, ten minutes before they turn off the hot water. We wouldn’t have had hot showers that night if not for powering through the home stretch with the walk-of-fury. The gal cleaning the women’s told me she was trying to close them 5 minutes early, to which I croaked out “Por favor…?” Then she saw my face. She knew. She let me shower. It was glorious.
Started the hike before sunrise, ended it after sunset. Definitely pitched the tent in the dark that night. It happens. I think our dinner was rice with something? Maybe just flavored rice. We were too tired to cook anything else. Oh, and a little Bourbon as an added reward.
This day was one of the hardest of our lives. We saw so many shades and hues, felt a lot of ups and downs across the board, and discovered things that have no name. We asked for Patagonia and we GOT Patagonia. Real life, wild and wonderful and worth every second of the challenge. I wouldn’t change a thing. I said it before, I’ll say it again: Game-changing. These are the kinds of highs you don’t forget and which bring you perspective as you move forward with your life. Captivating, in every sense of the word.
It rained A LOT that night in Dickson and we awoke that morning to some wet stuff under our tent vestibules. We also had left our fold-up camp chairs out. All we could do was pack up everything but the tent and move to the covered porch of the main building. After eating breakfast and drying as much as we could, we packed up the still-sopping tent. Some things stay wet all day – it’s all part of backpacking and learning how to pack all your gear so the right stuff staying dry is important. Our trusty Duck’s Backs kept our bags pretty dry for the most part. Duck’s Back by REI is a waterproof covering that is designed to strap around your pack like a glove.
Now, ready to head out around 9, we ran into our new friend Kate and set out together. The trail moved uphill pretty quickly just outside of the Dickson campground. I was following Kate and we were talking and keeping a pretty good pace most of the way up to the first mirador lookout. 45 minutes had already passed and for the first time I remember thinking “this is getting a little easier.” Later that day I was a little gassed, so small steps. Getting close to a mirador lookout point is always a dramatic exit out of the forest and into a vast gallery of astonishing views surprising you every time.
Walking amongst the clouds, overlooked by mountain crags topped with gleaming glaciers.
The path through the forest followed a white water river roaring around the mountainsides. The majority of our time walking through the valley’s forest was in light rain.
Break time to walk down to the waterfalls.
After the lunch energy boost wears off and you have been carrying this heavy ass bag all day, each mile seems longer then the last. I thought we would never get out of that forest! The last bit of our day was climbing up a boulder pile to this beautiful glacier lake:
Getting to this point in the day is the most rewarding I think. You get a nice grand finale on your hike and you know camp is close. Plus, how amazing is this place?!
Los Perros campsite is situated in the trees of a high mountain valley surrounded by towering peaks and scattered glaciers. Needless to say there are not a lot of amenities here – no hot water so no shower. Luckily, we got a good spot in the trees where all of the gear and clothes dried.
By this point of 3 days of being our own pack mules, we were ravenous for food. A tour group of older ladies who we’d seen on the trail the past few days were laughing at how much food we kept making that night in the kitchen common room. 4 bowls worth of food each! I think we just cooked and ate, cooked and ate on repeat for over an hour. Pasta and mashed potatoes and lentils. It all tasted amazing. And it was a good thing we loaded up too because we would need all that energy for Day 4!
Which was encouraging and refreshing, as this would be our longest distance day. 11 miles to our next campsite!
The first few miles hugged the river, Rio Paine, so we enjoyed some level trail through the tall grass. Not a bad way to spend a morning. Not at all.
Our trail curved Northwest and began to incline, up to a high mirador (what they call scenic viewpoints in Spanish) with some gusty winds and incredible sights over a turquoise lake to more mountains in the distance.
Spectacularly lucky that we got to do this leg of the trip on such a gorgeous day. And then….a gift from the sky spirits! CONDORS.
As we were resting at the top of the mirador, there they were – floating on the warm thermals like it took no effort at all. Enormous wingspan, unmistakable black and white backs, with the distinctive white “collars” against the rest of their black feathers. It had to have been at least 10 of them, and as we stood there in stunned silence they just circled and glided, passing so close to us at times that they were almost in arms’ length. I was afraid to move because it might scare them and they’d fly away.
Our perspective was even cooler because, often, they would be flying UNDER us over the side of the cliff!
It was an awe-inspiring couple of minutes. Silent but for the wind, with giants gliding among us. When they finally moved away, David broke the silence with “Ooookay, mountain condors…my new favorite bird.”
Continued on alongside the Lago Paine for a while until we hit our halfway mark at the ranger station, Coiron. Can’t get past this point without your hard-copy reservations of the campsites. Filled up our water at the stream nearby – it’s the most incredible thing, being able to drink some of the purest water on Earth out of a stream. We would fill our water bottles and camelbacks from streams all over the park and there would be hardly a speck of sediment. And the TASTE! So crisp, so incredibly cold and refreshing, nothing like any water we’d ever tasted before. Sometimes, we would stop to take drinks out of a stream even if our camelbacks were still full…just to savor the fact that we were in this incredible place where you are ACTUALLY able to do that.
After lunch near the ranger station, tackled our second half of the day. The nice part was that this half was much more “tranquillo” as they would say – snaking grassland paths through the foothills on the backside of the park. Reminded us of the foothills in Fort Collins, near Horsetooth area. Vibes of our home mountains ❤
Of course, then you come across views like Glacier Dickson devouring a mountainside and are reminded you’re not in the Rockies anymore. This is Patagonia.
We also got great sunset views of the backside of the towers and this magnificent granite canyon that basically looked like an amphitheater for God. Just…amazing. As we walked, the shadow of the sunset crept across it.
Those last 2 miles were brutal, my friends. We each, separately called for multiple “back breaks” as they were neeeeeeded. The shoulders and mid-backs were the most sore at the end of day 2. Plus it was infuriating to have tours of people passing us carrying basically nothing because they’d paid to have all their own shit carried in by other people or horses. ARGH
By the time we crested that last mirador and were looking down at Dickson refugio and campsite..the sun was getting pretty low, not gonna lie. Dickson was actually situated really nicely, on a peninsula on a lake that had a view in the distance of Glacier Dickson. Again, the hot showers were welcomed and dinner after days like that is just godly. I think we ate lentils and some pasta, and it was just a wonderful feast despite the simplicity (a common theme in our meals). All food tastes like heaven when you’re ravenous and have trekked all day. It is satisfying on a level that goes beyond being satiated from stuffing yourself full at a nice restaurant. Like, you eat to replenish your body from what it lost and because you know you’ll need it for the next day and it is just the best feeling to fall asleep knowing that your body did everything you pushed it to do.
We’d forgotten what it felt like to tap into the strength of a human when confronted with the savage of the wilderness. More on that to come.