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.
Besides for a good breakfast of scrambled eggs and oatmeal with honey, day 1 didn’t get off to a great start. For one, it is completely unclear which direction to head for the O circuit. The signage usually is pretty inconspicuous (if present at all) in South America, and became a bit of a running gag. As we got deeper into the park, it was harder to get lost or off trail because there is clearly only the ONE trail, so no problems there. It’s the big camp zones with various tent areas, refugio areas, parking areas, sometimes bus areas or boat harbors that can be the most confusing.
Our first mishap was due to some interesting directions the Torres Central staff member gave us in order to find the trailhead. If you were told “You just have to follow the trail of cars”…how would you interpret that? Well, if you think like David and I, then you would think it meant where virtually all the cars were parked, hence “trail of cars.” Sooooo we walked all the way back to the entrance where we got dropped off, through the bus station, and began wandering around the edges of the parking lot looking for signage. When we didn’t find it, we backtracked and asked another staffer, who told us it was way back by the campsite and to take a right at the road. Great, first 30 minutes down the drain.
We find the path that points to our next campsite, Serón. Only 8 miles away! The switchback path up the foothills that is the start of the O circuit is actually a road for awhile before it becomes a hiking trail further up. At the top of our first mini-ascent, already all sweaty as the sun came out and we needed to shed some layers, it occurred to me what had clearly been lost in translation. Trail of cars, as in the TRAIL that CARS TAKE. My verbal exasperated reaction at the time “…why the F#@$ didn’t he just say FOLLOW THE ROAD?!!” In retrospect, his English was probably sub-par.
Second setback was really a “D’Oh!” moment as it is the oldest trail-fail in the book – do NOT assume the people in front of you know where the trail is (even if they are happy, chatty Americans). There was a spot that got a little rocky and this group of 4 headed off to the right, straight up a vertical foothill filled with shrubs, small trees, and bushes. For about 20 minutes into this ascent it seemed fairly reasonable that we were on the path, as clearly many others had walked it and it looked like a freakin’ trail. Continuing to go steeply uphill, one of us noticed that there was no one else around besides those four and us…come to find out we had veered way off to the East of the actual trail, up a damn vertical horse path. Facepalm. Clumbered our way back down to the base of the valley and found the nice, now obvious, steadily climbing trail through the ravine that we could’ve been on the whole time. COOL. Another hour down the drain.
Our luck came back after that and the rest of the day was pretty straightforward. After climbing vertically about 200 meters through patches of forest and rocky overlooks (and regularly turning around to watch base camp and the lake disappear into the distance) we were met with a rewarding and tranquil view of the Rio Paine in front of us, and the lovely river valley through which we’d be weaving to get to camp. The descent was nice, not too steep! And the last 4 miles were basically just flat, tall grasslands with a few streams to cross.
We appreciated the end of our first day being flatland hiking, as our shoulders and legs were definitely feeling the burn. There was another couple who we kept going back and forth with passing each other when we’d take breaks. They had huge packs of clunky camping gear that had to be heavy, definitely heavier than ours. We always got a bit of a spring in our step when we’d see other people with bags way bigger than our own.
Beaten down by a long day of schlepping packs, we all found time to take a break by the riverside and creeks along the way.
Winding left and right along the river we finally made it to Serón where the party was going on! People were playing soccer and slacklining and everyone had a beer in hand. This was us:
While washing dishes, made a new friend. Kate, a teacher from Oakland, CA, who became one of our favorite hiking buddies! She had hiked to the base of the towers that morning and back (nbd, just 12 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 600+ meters then back down again), ate lunch, took an hour nap, then woke up and decided to do the 8 miles we had just done to Serón. She’s a badass! And the nicest person ever, to boot. Kate, we miss hiking with you! Let’s do it again sometime (half dome, maybe?)
Took welcomed showers, cooked dinner over the stove, enjoyed the sunset views and the hilarious caracara birds in camp, attempted to watch a show on the tablet and failed, PTFO. Success.
What a couple weeks it has been, folks. Let me just lead with that.
A LOT has changed since March 3rd, the day we set out for Torres del Paine National Park. David and I have had some of our highest highs, alongside the world and the human race having some of the lowest lows. I can’t recall a time in my life where those two were so back-to-back chronologically…usually it’s more spaced out, probably for the betterment of individual mental state, balance, and coping ability, you name it. But life is never what we expect it to be. There are powers in place that we have no control over and it is better if we can focus on what we are able to control in these tiny blips of time we call our human lives. This was one of my reoccurring thoughts while gazing out at vast, sight-encompassing glaciers that began forming 20,000 years ago…now only remnants of the original Southern Ice Field of Patagonia, but striking, enchanting, and humbling to a human nonetheless. You leave their presence with a greater need to make your own years count.
On that note, back to the present moment. Bittersweetly, we speak to you today from back in the US, specifically southern Illinois. Sweet because we made it home safely while many are stranded in foreign countries around the world, bitter because of the very serious and real reasons we had to come home. The spread of COVID-19 throughout all the inhabited regions of the world has put a halt to everyone’s plans and expectations for 2020 (remember around the New Year when we were all calling 2020 the year of “perfect vision?”…there’s a sad, ironic joke in there somewhere). Not 2 days after our return to Puerto Natales post-trek, we received messages from the US Embassy in Chile urging us to get flights back to the US while “commercial flights were still available.” So here we are.
Having to go through 2 major airports on the way home in Santiago, Chile and Atlanta, Georgia, David and I are aware that we were at a higher risk of exposure and are currently self-quarantining for the next few weeks in Alton, IL. We are blessed to have loving and gracious family members here who reached out and offered a home that is currently uninhabited for the next several months. (THANK YOU, AUNT ROSEMARY! We are sending you all our love and gratitude and will take good care of your beautiful home <3)
It’s funny…with all the craziness of coming back to civilization from the Chilean wilderness, getting hit with 12 days worth of news ALL AT ONCE on March 15th (from which I literally got nauseous after reading), and having to book passage and jump on a plane lickety-split and find a place to live and self-quarantine for weeks… we haven’t had any chance to reflect or process our 12-day trek. Let alone look at practically any of the pictures. Until now.
There’s a parallelism here that could mean nothing, but I’m gonna go ahead and choose for it to mean something. About two weeks in the mountains of Chile without any wifi, cell service, or any type of connection to news or civilization….and now two weeks in quarantine. Huh. It’s almost as though this experience was given to us so that we may share this raw, wild joy we found with the world…in a time when this world seems turbulent and joy more scarce. So for each day of quarantine, we will share the story of a day from our 80 mile trek along the complete O circuit of Torres del Paine. If it transports even a single one of you reading this to a better place mentally or inspires some kind of small joy, well, then that’s enough.
Arriving to Torres Central: March 3rd, 2020
We spent the first few days of March prepping in a town known as the “gateway to Torres del Paine” – Puerto Natales. I liked that it wasn’t too built up, still had the small-town feel of a lot of the towns in Patagonia, but with the occasional big outdoor recreation/camp store and fair amount of tour companies. Oh, and a TON of hostels, we saw at least 30. Puerto Natales gets a large amount of tourists from every corner of the world. As we were going the most economic route for food and packing in every meal we ate, David and I had fun collecting dehydrated foods, trail snacks, and lightweight foods that will last. Some of it we knew from having camped in Colorado, or from packing lunches in our ski coat pockets on ski days so we didn’t have to pay Vail Resorts prices! Ha. Wish we had a picture of ALL the food…everything deboxed, debagged, and rolled up in ziplocs.
Dinner foods (all dry): Lentils, garbanzo beans, rice, assortment of pastas, mashed potato flakes, instant polenta, quinoa, and a whole little pouch of various dehydrated flavor cubes
Lunch foods: 8 cans of tuna, separated in half, with one half plain and one half with cut up pickles and pickle juice added, dry sausages/salamis of various flavors, dried apricots, dried and slightly sweetened green bell peppers (LOVED these! have never seen them in the US), tons of mixed nuts, honey roasted peanuts, a jar of peanut butter, sunflower seeds, a Toblerone, pack of oreos, and a huge bag of fun size snickers bars FTW
Breakfast: Oatmeal, honey, marmalade in a pouch, power seed mix w/ chia, flax, and pumpkin seeds, some oatmeal crackers, jasmine tea and instant coffee
Dude…believe me when I tell you those backpacks were HEAVY. Heaviest they’ve been to-date. Luckily, we left a large shopping bag of stuff we didn’t need on the hike with our airbnb host, who kindly offered to hold onto it in her home, but still…first time taking on 12 days worth of meals. We didn’t know what we’d gotten ourselves into.
Last point of contact with the world right here….
Then, ONWARD! An hour and change bus ride to the entrance. You stop at the park entrance at Laguna Amarga to sign in, and then have to take a shuttle to Las Torres campsite and refugio, a base camp area which everyone just calls Torres Central. The sense of anticipation just ramps right up as the mountains of the Paine massif and Torres get larger and larger on approach! We were lucky in that we arrived on a clear sky day and could see the granite spires from afar.
The campsite was a 5 minute walk from the refugio and bus station. In the park, trekkers have designated areas that you are required to stay at overnight – it is strictly enforced. If you try to camp outside the campsites, you will be fined and kicked out. They don’t mess around, as this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place of intrinsic and endemic beauty and value, and basic leave-no-trace ecological conservation guidelines are posted throughout the trail. Most of the campsites are owned and operated by 2 private companies: Vertice Patagonia and Fantastico Sur. We had to book our campsites for the specific day we were going to be staying at them about 6-8 months in advance. It requires some KA-razy advance planning and knowledge of your logistics, weather for that time of year, and travelling plans to be able to do this. Luckily, one of us is a master of detail orientation…mwahaha.
The most expensive option is to stay at the refugio (basically a hostel with bunk beds) and have all your meals prepared for you by the refugio staff. These folks only have to carry their clothes, lunches, and essentials while hiking. The middle price option is to rent a tent that the refugio sets up for you and you just leave it in the morning. The cheapest is carrying your own tent, setting it up every night, cooking your own food you brought over the stove you brought and then breaking down the tent every morning and carrying it with you to the next campsite. Yup.
We cooked some garbanzo beans and pasta with rehydrated cream sauce, a “treat” on the night before our first hike. A couple shots of the Torres Central campsite and Mount Almirante Nieto peeking out at us behind the hill.
The O trek actually takes us East, in the opposite direction of Almirante Nieto, so we wouldn’t be seeing it again until day 7 or 8.
It was interesting walking around Torres Central and seeing all the “ominous” signs of hard trail ahead on other hikers – band aids on ankles, limping people with sore muscles, wrapped ankles and knees, faces flushed and exhausted. One guy was even laid out facedown and shirtless moaning while a gal gave him a back massage. Hell or high water….dawn, here we come.