There is nothing more motivating or rewarding for me than the colors and aesthetics in nature that come together to create a feeling of wonderment and awe. My friend Kevin would refer this as the endorphins driven activities. The other aspect of many outdoor activates would be those that involve adrenaline. Those would include activates that would get your blood pumping and usually experienced while you are doing it, such as whitewater activities, mountain biking, or sky diving. Ofcourse endorphin and adrenaline are not mutually exclusive. While I do enjoy the adrenaline rush, I am by far more driven by the endorphin side of the outdoors. It seems one of the places that could provide the endorphin overdose resided at the tip of South America with large glaciers and granite peaks. That place is Patagonia.
While Patagonia was one of the top destinations on my list, it wasn’t one I had planned for in 2015 as 2014 came to a close. I did started keeping up with the flight deal, a website that publishes daily low airfares. Right after thanksgiving, I saw a sale posted from COPA airlines from Dulles (IAD) to Santiago (SCL) for $381 all in with available all the way through the spring of 2015. The beginning of March, during Tech’s spring break, was the only realistic time would work for Meg since she wouldn’t have to teach then. Being a newbie, I didn’t book the fare right away since I wanted to check with Meg and other friends to see if they were interested. The next day, half the availabilities were gone and I rushed to book the flight. A general rule with possible mistake fares is to wait to get your ticket number (not your confirmation number) and after half a day of not being able to sit still, I received them for both Meg and myself. This bit about mistake fares is a bit different now, but I’ll write about it somewhere else. Anyways, we were going to Chile for spring break.
There are a lot of options to go from Santiago, such as the Easter Islands, Lake district, or Atacama Desert. However, I couldn’t ignore Patagonia at the top of my list and the beginning of March was the perfect shoulder season. From here the questions become how to get down there from Santiago (which is still more than 1000 miles). As a graduate student, money was a limit. Time was the other limit since we would only have 8.5 days between when we landed in Santiago and when our flight was back to DC. There are 2 ways to travel and this had to be the planned out trip.
pre-trip research and planning
For a planned out trip, I usually spend a tremendous amount of time researching the location to make informed decisions of where to go and the logistics of getting there. The main resources I use are mostly online including a simple google search, wikitravel, lonely planet’s thorntree, and other trip reports. After an initial search, I sometime invest in hiking guides or maps. Although this part is usually very exciting, it can also induce some anxiety based on all the what-if that come up.
where and what
I settled on trying for the O-circuit at Torres Del Paine National Park. I chose Torres Del Paine because of its popularity and the trek was well established. Secondly, I decided on the O-circuit rather than the popular W to get away from the massive crowds and to maximize camping in order keep costs down. I also wanted to see it all. The tricky part for doing the O-circuit would be the timing, especially getting over the Paso John Gardiner (more on that later). Lastly, the Torres Del Paine peaks is ofcourse what you see everywhere when reading about Patagonia and it’s the 1st rated trek in Chile.
I did end up purchasing Cicerone’s Torres Del Paine Trekking book for my iphone, it has some good information for the logistics but you don’t really need it for navigation on the trails (unlike their Mont Blanc and Walkers Haute Route books, where it was much more useful as those treks include a lot of alternatives and other routes).
One last thing about planning the route is where to start and which direction to go. Here is a map from CONAF, the actual CONAF website has changed since I last visited and is quite buggy at the moment. Most online sites (and what we did) say to start at CONAF station where you check in and head to the backside of the park first. The reasoning is that there are stores in the front W portion so you can buy additional food if needed toward the end. A slight alternative is to take a shuttle to Hosteria Las Torres and start the loop there. The Cicerone book specifies a route that started at the CONAF Administration building in the south adding an addition section; people call it the Q circuit. Damien, who we met on our hike, did this and said it was a pretty good stroll to start.
I did have my Garmin as backup and here are the free Chilean maps I used.
Update 1/31/2017: According to Adventure Alan, new reservation requirements are needed for Torres Del Paine Campsites and backside of O circuit. This precedes all other information in my post.
Getting to Torres Del Paine was pretty straightforward. The quickest way from Santiago was to fly into Punta Arenas and bus up to Puerto Natales. From there take the Torres Del Paine bus into the Park. It’s the reverse on the way out.
Because of time, I splurged on flights from Santiago (SCL) to Punta Arenas (PUQ). There are 2 airlines that flew direct, LAN and Sky. The established trick is booking on the Chilean webpage, which will provide a cheaper rate than the US page. So I went to the LAN.com webpage and selected Chile as the location I am at. From there (and using google translation), I booked 2 supersaver roundtrip flights (coded Economy-Q) for $217172 Chilean Peso or around $380 US total at the time. Be sure to use a “no foreign transaction fee” credit card since you’ll be charged in Chilean Pesos. One issue that I did read about from flyertalk was to make sure you notify your card of the purchase since it is charged from Chile. I ended up not reserving a bus because we were coming in at the end of the season so there would be lower crowds and we would have more flexibility in case of delays. My initial planned itinerary is here in the Lonely Plant Thronetree discussion and will be reiterated in my trip report.
There are 2 alternative ways of getting down to Torres Del Paine. The first is by boat that goes from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. The internet has said this is a nice scenic route, but it takes 4 days. It is something I will consider in the future. The second is by bus, which takes forever also (33 hours according to google).
Seeing how we are backpacking, our gear list is shown in the picture below.
The following a few tips about our equipment list and addition things we would have done differently.
- Ditch the rain cover on your backpack, it will just blow away in the wind. We found several rain covers left behind on the trail.
- For the rain, we put all our stuff in gallon ziplock bags and had a couple of heavy duty trash bags. Our sleeping bag compression sacks were lined with trash bags on the inside as well. A few extra ziplocks would be recommended.
- You don’t need large reservoirs or water treatment. In the end, we just used a couple of liter bottles and just filled up in the streams and rivers whenever we crossed them. The water was pretty damn clean and there are no cows up on those peaks.
- I should have had a heavier sleeping bag, especially since we were at the end of the season. It does get cold and it snowed on us during one of our last nights.
- We had a 3 season Alps Mountaineering Tent. The wind was rough on it, but it held decently with the tie downs. One key thing we liked was that our tent was very quick to set up, it helps when it’s raining or windy. The wind was no joke.
- Our most clutch equipment was probably our heavy-duty gaiter. They were very good through several areas where you are hiking through a marsh and rain.
- Lastly, I managed with a pop can stove. Our troubles were not with the stove but the heavy wind. Some campsites had 4 wall shelters, but several did not. Whatever your cooking device, make sure you have a good wind blocker.
The report was roughly how much the trip cost us. We loved the food and booze down in Patagonia so we did splurge a couple times. These estimates came from what I remember from our spending and my pre-trip calculations. The cost of food and eating out were less than the US in general. I did not include some of the gear cost that we had to replace or purchase in these calculations since they were what we needed anyways for our backpacking trips.
day 1: March 5th, 2015 Thursday
Planned: Flight 1 – COPA Airlines from IAD (3:29pm) to PTY (8:34pm). Spend night in the airport.
Actual: We almost didn’t make our flight (sorry, side story of how this trip almost didn’t happen). DC was hit with a snowstorm through the night and into the day. The normal 3.5-hour drive became 6. I-81 north of Harrisonburg and I-66 were completely unplowed and white with snow (would never happen in the north). My wheel well was quickly filled with snow and my crappy tires were also covered leading to a couple of spinouts. It really wasn’t an issue since we were the only dumb asses still driving on the interstate. So we kicked out the snow from the wheel wells and continued on. Because we were so late, we had to park at the Dulles parking lot (bye bye $100). Luckily, the shuttle was right there. The security was pretty short because of the storm and a few kind people let us cut. We were the last to make the gate just as it’s about to close. We did have to sit in the plane for another hour and half for deicing and what not, but we made it. Note to self; take advantage of park-sleep-and-fly next time.
We landed late at Panama Tocumen International Airport (PTY) and spent the night there. If you are ever sleeping in an airport, this site is the bible. Everything was shutting down as we disembarked the plane at around 10:30pm. At least we packed several sandwiches for the long flight down south. We were able to find a dark air-conditioned corner in the renovated section of the airport for a good night sleep. There was limited free Internet to boot.
day 2: March 6th, 2015 Friday
Planned: Flight 2 – COPA Airlines from PTY (9:43am) to SCL (6:07pm). Staying the night.
Our flight from Panama into Santiago was uneventful. I had read that immigration in Chile was very strict about food, but they were ok with the couple of cliff bars we didn’t finish. We’ll bring a box of this backpacking staple next time. We also didn’t see much in terms of power bars at the grocery store. Our airbnb host Bernadette picked us up from the airport and took us to the local supermarket so we can load up food for a small fee. Seeing how we didn’t speak any Spanish and she only spoke a little English, she was very patient in communicating with us and made sure we were ready for our backpacking trip.
day 3: March 7th, 2015 Saturday
Planned: Flight 3 – LAN Airlines from SCL (5:40am) to PUQ (9:10am). Bus 1 – Buses Sur from Punta Arenas (10:00am) to Puerto Natales (1:00pm). Bus 2 – from Puerto Natales (2:30pm) to Torres del Paine – Laguna Amarga stop (4:30pm). Shuttle – from Laguna Amarga to Hosteria Las Torres. Time and weather permitting, camp either at Hosteria Las Torres or make our way up to Campamento Chileno.
Actual: Yep, that was my overly ambitious travel day to give us an extra chance at the Torres del Paine towers for the early morning views. We made our early flight to Punta Arenas, but my bag did not make it until noon. I was initially annoyed that the first step was the one that tripped us up, but this ended up a good thing in multiple aspects. We spent the morning at the Punta Arenas airport waiting for my backpack while getting some breakfast, booking a hostel in Puerto Natales, and going over the list of equipment we still needed. Several things had to be left behind since we didn’t have time to check any bags, which including my camping knife.
After my bag arrived on the following flight, we took the 1pm bus to Puerto Natales. The first thing you notice about Puerto Natales is all the feral dogs running around. They keep to themselves but they are everywhere and some of them are pretty damn cute. The second is that you are definitely at the edge of the world with the wind and 50°F at the end of summer. From the bus station, we followed signs to the town center and then to our hostel. It’s about a 20 to 30 minute walk, so keep that in mind if you have to make the morning bus the next day. We stayed at the Casa Cecila.
We were able to book our bus for the next day to Torres Del Paine along with the return bus at the hostel. The owner had a deal with the local bus company to shuttle us directly to the bus station saving us time in the morning. The owner was also able to point us to a few local authentic restaurants and stores where we can pick up the rest of our supplies. This included a dried fruit store on Esmeralda road by I. Carrera Pinto road. They were Meg’s go-to snack while on the go backpacking. Further down Esmeralda road, you’ll find a great local restaurant called La Picada De Carlitos where we enjoyed some local king crab, slow roasted lamb, and a bottle of Carménère wine local to Chile. We may have returned here to spoil ourselves a second time afterwards.
The local grocery store and shops around were pretty decently priced. We saved a little bit buying our supplies in Santiago, but not by much. All the camping supplies you need are sold here with a little bit mark up. Afterwards, we reorganized our backpacks and turned in early to the sound of heavy rain on the roof. I was sure glad my bag was delayed.
day 4: March 8th, 2015 Sunday – Day 1 of O circuit
Planned: If weather is good, head up early to the Torres del Paine in the morning with a daypack. Come down and then head to Campamento Seron. If cloudy, just head to Campamento Seron.
Actual: Well, it was sure cloudy… along with the constant rain that was still coming down when we boarded the shuttle the next day. It was one of those Sundays that you just wanted to sleep in and cozy up with a book, not so much hike 10 miles. Alas, we were on a schedule. Casa Cecilia provide us with a simple breakfast was able to store our traveling luggage for free. After a couple hour bus ride into Torres Del Paine, we all got out at Laguna Amarga CONAF entrance station where we completed our paper work, paid, listened to an orientation, and received a couple of maps. We were here.
Out of the many buses filled with weary tourists, only a handful of us started from this point. This is where you realized the difference between O circuit hikers and W or day hikers. With our boots tightened and our gaiters on, we started our trek toward Campamento Seron and were soaked in minutes.
Did I mention already that I was glad my bag was delayed? We found out later on from Damien that the previous day and night were exactly the same. He said half his stuff was wet from having to set up camp in the rain the previous night.
The thoughts of what have I got us into really started to cycle in my mind at this point; nothing to do but to continue on. Luckily as the afternoon wore on, the sky finally started to break.
During our last few miles before Campamento Seron, it was a pleasant walk as we saw some horses milling around, some snow capped mountain ranges, and even sunshine.
He was on a solo trip on the O circuit and we had a lot of fun the rest of trip hanging out with him.
After we reached Campamento Seron in the late afternoon, we set up our tent away from the cooking and trash areas to avoid possible rats reported by the Internet. It was fortunate we didn’t see any on this trip even though we kept our backpacks in our tents for the majority of the trip. Setting up proved to be pretty difficult as our tent kept on trying to run away. Despite my initial worries, the tent held up well against the wind with all the stakes well into the ground, the guidelines up, and a couple rocks at the corners.
The good thing about the wind was that everything we tied up on the guidelines dried extremely quickly even though there were a few spots of down pour through the night. Just make sure they don’t get blown away. Seron was equipped with bathrooms, showers, and a cooking area that was open.
While making a dinner of rice with cheese and chorizo, we hung out with several other backpackers including Chris. There was team friendship, who met up during their travels across South America and continued on together; the Austrians, a couple young guys spending a few month in South America; an a Israeli friend who we traded rice with; among others. Hanging out with these guys is probably one of my favorite things about trekking from campsite to campsite or hut to hut. Everyone is in the same situation and there is really a community. You get to hear about all the awesome stories from everyone’s travels and become very good friends. After weathering one last brief downpour through dinner, we were ready to call it a day.
day 5: March 9th, 2015 Monday – Day 2 of O circuit
Planned: Trek to Refugio Dickson.
Actual: Our second day was another 11 miles toward Refugio Dickson. The weather wasn’t raining as we pack up camp and get on our way. Our friend Chris had prepaid for breakfast from the camp, so we headed on out ahead at 8 in the morning and will see him at the next camp. This is a thing I love about treks, you have your solitude for the sections of the hiking, but can be social after. We started by following the Rio Paine through some marshland and the largest climb of the day after a small lagoon. At the end of the climb, we turned a corner to see Largo Paine with some snow capped mountains in the distance barely visible through the low clouds. The Cicerone warned of heavy winds here, but we didn’t have any issues.
After a quick downhill, we reach the midway point CONAF ranger station at Coiron. We had a lunch of sausage and cheese sandwich and filled our water bottle with water directly from the stream before continuing on. The trail took us through some more prairie land where we got a couple glances at the mountains ahead.
The next portion was then miserable, not only did the route take us down into a true swamp, the rain resumed. This portion was so wet, there were long stretches where you had to traverse a line of 2x4s laid down so you wouldn’t just sink into the swamp. And because you were down in the trenches surrounded by low hills and tree, you there were absolutely no line of sight onto the majestic mountains around. This was the low point of the trip for me as we’ve flown half way across the world to trudge through a marsh in the rain for two days. With Meg pushing me forward, we reached the last uphill of the day out of the swamp. As we reached the top, the clouds did open so that we can get a glimpse of our first glacier of the trip flowing into Largo Dickson.
Then it was into Refugio Dickson where we set up our tent just before the rain started. At this point Chris rolled in and this is where we met Damien. Refugio Dickson had a cold shower and an indoor area where we went to hangout to avoid the rain. Since they had wine for sale here, we got ourselves pretty drunk on a bottle of nice Carménère wine and a liter of box wine; nothing like 11.5 miles to make you a cheap date. After a failed attempt to cook something on my pop can stove in the howling wind, it was good Meg was around to get me back to the tent and make me a sandwich. I was shivering uncontrollably as I scarfed it down and scrambled into my sleeping bag for the night as the rain continued.
day 6: March 10th, 2015 Tuesday – Day 3 of O circuit
Planned: Trek to Campamento Los Perros.
Actual: This was the first day of really elevation change. I woke up without a hangover and a break in the rain. The guys working at the refuge gave us some hot water so the warm oatmeal and brown sugar made a pretty good breakfast. While Meg was cleaning the dishes, I milled around the camp and Largo Dickson. The light came in wonderfully that I got a nice picture looking toward he valley we would hike toward to approach Paso John Gardiner. I also found a beautiful rainbow that ended directly on an ice flow while exploring the lake. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the day. We took advantage of the break in the rain, packed up our camp, and headed up toward Campamento Los Perros.
The route for the day took us up onto a moraine once carved out by glaciers. It was now over grown with lush green trees everywhere. After crossing Rio Los Perros, we continued to follow it up hills passing a rushing waterfall. Further up on the valley, we cross another wooden bridge and get our first glance at the Los Perros Glacier (that’s means the dog’s glacier, sounds like they ran out of names).We navigated across a swampy patch on the other side of the river where it was probably the only portion of the trek where it’s not well marked, crossed the river once again, and then up directly onto the moraine next to Los Perros’s Glacier lake. On our way up the moraine, we felt the wind of Patagonia at full force and had to over lean forward to compensate for the wind.
This was the moment, the moment you waited for when you decide to drop $600 dollars on your first SLR after pushing the limits to your point and shot. The moment where you are on top of a moraine facing a glacier in all its glory with its shadings of blue. This was the moment for the money shot… until the camera stops working right then. I tired turning it on again, “Error: cannot read lens.” I was pretty pissed, not the best start of the trip from the snow storm going up to DC, to being rained on continuously for two days, to finally have a good day of hiking only to have my new camera poop out. Nothing I could do about it, the wind was still pushing hard at us and we had to get off the moraine. Out came the iphone for a few quick shots and stomping down toward Campamento Los Perros I went while pouting.
We reached Campamento Los Perros pretty early in the afternoon and found Damien and Chris eating lunch in the cooking shelter at Los Perros. This was the first actual building with 4 walls, a roof, and a wood stove there for trekkers to use and cook dinner. I was in a better mood after Damien allowed me to use his stove to make some pasta and hot chocolate as I had lost confidence in my pop can stove. It was nice to not have any wind blowing the fire all over the place and killing it. Meg was great helping in cheering me up by fetching everything I needed to cook and staying positive. She really carried me for the first few days. Patagonia can be a pretty humbling experience in regards.
We set up our tent after lunch and headed up the moraine by our campsite to get a better look of the Los Perros Glacier with Chris. He was pretty fearless as we reached the end of the moraine and started to scramble up the side of the mountain. We flowed up around the corner until the point where he had to slide down a rock face. Chris is not short at around 6’3. Being only very beginners at any sort of climbing, Meg and I decided to go back find an alternative around. We scrambled back to the moraine and then down to the edge of the glacial lake. As we started around the lake, Chris came around the corner of the mountain and gestured to us that there was a way around the lake. After meeting up with him, we made our way directly under the Glacier Los Perros. The view there was something. Fancy camera or no, the beauty of the place was just astounding and makes the photo no matter how you are taking it. Pretty solid win for the day.The rangers gathered us at the building to brief us about Paso John Gardiner in the evening. This was probably the biggest worry for me as this point. While making our way to Refugio Dickson a day ago, we met a group heading the other way saying that they attempted to go across the pass only to be turned back by forceful winds and rain. Another elderly couple had camped out at Los Perros for 3 straight nights waiting to pass. The ranger said that they would gather at 8 the next morning and lead the group over the pass depending on the weather. With that we all went to bed early to sounds of calving glaciers. return to index
day 7: March 11th, 2015 Wednesday – Day 4 of O circuit
Planned: Cross Paso John Gardner to either Campamento Paso or all the way to Refugio Grey depending on weather.
Actual: We woke up the next day to sun and the blue skies (didn’t know they existed down there). As we all gathered at 8am, the park ranger sheepishly walks over. He told us he isn’t going since the weather is too nice and he’s going back to bed. Pretty good sign if you ask me.
We headed up the valley toward Paso John Gardiner first crossing a swampy section for an hour until we reached the tree line. The group consisted of an our female Israeli friend we met the previous evening (though I can’t remember her name for the life of me), Meg, and I. Chris went ahead at this point to catch up with the Austrians. We continued up toward the pass flowing a creek that we periodically filled up our water bottles with. After crossing it several times, the trail started to switchback as an unnamed glacier below Cerro Amistad came into view and eventually sat below us when we got close to the pass. There was no wind at all as we reached the pass. We took a last look back into the valley we came from and continued over. Glacier Grey laid out in front of us with several smaller glaciers pouring into it on the other side.
Even though the towers of Torres Del Paine are probably the most well known formation about the park, this view from Paso John Gardiner onto Glacier Grey is by far the most stunning.
It made the first several days well worth it. We won this trip no matter what else happened. We came down a few feet from the pass where the view opened up more to find the Austrians and Chris chilling to the view. We found the best lunch spot in the whole place. And yes, we saw a Puma too.
Damien and Team Friendship joined us at pass shortly after and we started to head down from the pass. The following section was probably one of the toughest sections I’ve ever hiked. The overall steepness would have been greater than 45% but it was constructed with huge steps that were up to my torso and ropes tied onto trees there for you to hold. I did not take any pictures here, as the possibility for me to tumble to my death was very high here. It wasn’t until 2 days later that my quads recovered from all the breaking I had to do here. The trail took us very quickly down to the tree line and into a dense forest. After about an hour, the trail straightened out a little and came to an opening where a glacial river ran down the mountain and a break in the trees let to one of my favorite pictures of the trip. I call it friendship (featuring Team Friendship).
After relaxing here for a few minutes to let our legs stop shaking, we hiked up to Campamento Paso. Team friendship and our Israeli friend decided to stop here for the day. The Ranger told us that Chris and Damien waited for us at the camp for a while before heading on. Seeing how the weather was still amazing and about 1:30 in the afternoon, we decided to press on to catch up with Chris and Damien. By making up this stretch, we effectively created a flexible day for us. The idea of doing a glacier walk was floated out there by Chris and it motivated us on.
The stretch from Campamento Paso to Refugio Grey is no easy section despite short overall distance. The main reason is that this section is all ups and downs. Since you are practically on a side of a mountain above the glacier, the trail requires a lot of switchbacks both going up and down as you continued along the large looming Glacier Grey. The views of Glacier Grey were pretty fantastic as there were several good outlook spots along the way. After going down to a couple of gorges with stream crossings,metal ladders and up a few exposed sections, we reached the head of Glacier Grey and the first of 2 swinging bridges. Chris humming Indiana Jones came to mind here. We look a last break at the lookout located at the closed Campamento Los Guardas before our final half hour push.
At Refugio Grey, Chris and Damien promptly greeted us and I celebrated by downing a beer very quickly. There were plenty of supplies available at Refugio Grey should you run short. This was officially the W section of the trek. As Damien warned, it was nothing like the other side with probably 10x more people. Refugio Grey was very much up to the task of accompanying the crowd, as the facilities were as good as any car camping location.
The total trek was only 10 miles on the day, but we ascended 3399 feet while descending 5035 feet. Since it was the half waypoint for Meg and I on the O and Damien’s last night on the Q, we decide to splurge with dinner and several bottles of wine at the refuge. A hot shower was especially nice too here. We also made ice walking reservations for the following morning and retreated to our tents, this time to gusts of wind.
day 8: March 12th, 2015 Thursday – Day 5 of O circuit
Planned: Form this point, we deviated from the original researched plans due to certain camps being closed. Now, we planned to do the glacial walk in the morning and hike to Refugio Paine Grande with time.
Actual: After breakfast, it started to rain. We said farewell to Damien as he headed out on his last day in the park. When we reported for our glacial walk, we found out it was cancelled because of the rain. Chris had prepaid for the night so he decided to relax and possibly go kayaking up to Glacier Grey in the afternoon. We decided to stick with our original plan and hike to Campamento Italiano. Typically, Campamento Italiano would be so full, that you may need to call ahead. But it was at the end of the season so calling wasn’t necessary. Furthermore, Campamento Britanico was closed in the Valle de Frances. We bid our good friend Chris farewell also that day.
The trek for the day went up from Refugio Grey with views the head of Glacial Grey on the way back. About an hour on the trail, the rain stopped and sun came out. We were glad Chris would get a nice afternoon kayaking in and a little sad we didn’t walk on the glacier even though it was expensive, I think it was about $80 US each.
Once the trail flattens out, there are sections of the trail where you can walk up on the rock outcrop that block the actual trail from the Lago Grey. The view walking on top of the outcrops was much better and eventually meets back up with the trail. These alternatives should be taken with caution, as they are not the official trails. This was also the point where we were now meeting people on the trial every few minutes, a huge change from the O section. Because of the large number of people, there was much less sense of comradeship as we had developed with fellow O trekkers. In the end we mostly hung out with other O trekkers we had known for the rest of the route. The only other group we met that was very social was a couple of Turkish guys traveling with a Chinese girl and another aussie (I think). We bonded over Chinese cooking and were the only group we saw venture far pass Refugio Grey toward the pass.
The trail then cuts away from Lago Grey and curves around a smaller higher elevation Laguna Los Patos before going down a valley toward Refugio Paine Grande sitting on the banks of the teal Lago Pehoe. Refugio Paine Grande was also a full service location with a store, large cooking room for campers, restaurant, dorms, and bathroom. There is also a catamaran station here, where you can connect to the buses.
After lunch here, we continued onto Campamento Italiano as the wind gusts started to pick up. The trail took us around Lago Skottsberg with the granite peaks of the Valle de Frances looming and through a bit of swamp. We ended the crossing Rio Del Frances into Campamento Italiano. Campamento Italiano was more primitive as there was only a structure with 3 walls and a roof for cooking. However it was in a forrest, so the wind gusts were kept decently at bay. The bathrooms were outhouses and water was directly fetched from the river. Even though it was the end of the season, there were a lot of campers here.
We found an area closer to the river to set up our tent. After setting up our tent so many days in a row, we became careless. Both Meg and I pushed on one of our poles to hard as we were clipping it in and snapped the pole in half. After a brief freakout, we used our duct tape to repair the pole as well as we could. To our delight, it lasted the night. The forest helped dampen the gusty wind. After dinner, where I successfully used my pop can stove in the corner of the cooking structure to make some ravioli with beef bullion cube favored soup, we feel asleep to the rushing Rio Del Frances.
day 9: March 13th, 2015 Friday – Day 6 of O circuit
Planned: Day hike into the Frances Valley and head to Refugio Los Cuernos.
Actual: Before we went to bed the previous day, the forecast drawn on the Park Ranger station was a lot of clouds with sad faces for the next few days. The grim weather outlook and my still aching legs from coming down Paso John Gardiner lead us to a later start. We woke up to a fresh layer of snow that had fallen just above where our camp sit.
We then packed up our backpacks and left them at the ranger building before heading up into the Valley feeling as light as a feather (that would be pushed around by the Patagonia wind). As we headed up, we caught a break in the clouds leading to some initial views and some optimism. However after passing the first marker, the skies closed up. Strong gusts and snow flurries came down hard blocking any view. After an hour of battling the elements, we gave up and headed back down.
Once we got out of the Valle de Frances, we were greeted with blue skies once again. The wind remained for the rest of our trek toward Refugio Los Cuernos. The gusts were so strong that the rain we felt was actually from the water of Lago Nordernskjold. The last stretch of the trail toward Refugio Los Cuernos was on a pebble beach on the lake.
This was no relaxing beach as I was almost taken off my feet several times by the strong gusts.
Refugio Los Cuernos was a good full service camping spot with very good hot showers and cooking room. We were able to buy a few eggs for a very reasonable price. Combining the eggs with some charizo, soy sauce, and noodles, I made some zajian noodles. The one complaint of the campsite was that most of the tent spots were on wooden platforms. This made setting up tent a difficult process taking us an hour and several different configurations. Furthermore, there was a lack of trees to shield the strong gusting wind. It just didn’t seem like a good combination.
day 10: March 14th, 2015 Saturday – Day 7 of O circuit
Planned: Head to Campamento Torres. Head up to the Torres Del Paine if time permitting.
Actual: So, our tent did not survive the night. The gusts got stronger throughout the night and our duct tape fix didn’t do it at 2am in the morning. We ended up removing the entire broken section and shortening the rod, but all the excess tent fabric just blew like crazy in the wind. It was enough to keep Meg up the rest of the night. After an early wake up and breakfast, we decided to scratch all our plans and finish today skipping Campamento Torres all together. The ideal situation is to camp at Campamento Torres so we can catch the morning light shinning on the towers, but without a functional tent and still ominous forecast, we decided day 7 was our last. The weather did provide a beautiful backdrop to the mountains in the morning.
We left most our extra food at Refugio Los Cuernos and headed out early on the trail. The wind was so strong that when we were in the cooking room, it felt the celling was about to be taken off by the strong gusts as the wood creaked heavily. On the trail we had to brace ourselves multiple times were physically moved by the wind. Dotting the trail were also several lost backpack rain covers. If you ever need on for later, this was the place to get them. We heard later from another hiker that a girl broke her ankle on the section and had to be lifted out. Yikes.
We were on an actual deadline as the last bus out of the park was at 7:30pm from Hotel Las Torres. We hiked very swiftly along the coast of Lago Nordernskjold across several swing bridges and up the alternate route toward Refugio Chileno in the Valle Ascencio. The wind was still at full strength when as we merged with the standard trail, but we were not. We took an hour break for lunch at Refugio Chileno splurging on a warm sandwich and a Mexican Coke er Chilean Coke, the ones with real sugar. Leaving our bags, we headed up toward Base de Las Torres feeling refreshing and much lighter around 1pm.
Despite the strong winds, the sky was decently clear. Once we reached Campamento Torres, we were only a km of steep uphill from Base de Las Torres. The up included several switchbacks, a good amount of scrambling, and a little bit of exposure. But it was all worth it was we came into view the teal glacial lake and the Torres Del Paine towers. We found a nice rock to lay back on and relax for 15 minutes before the clouds started the roll in again and obstructing the peaks. We felt very accomplished, but it was time to go home.
We started down before quickly before the large group at the lake could so as to not be stuck behind them. About a couple minutes on our decent, we were treated a large fox sighting (for reals this time). It was like the park was saying goodbye. Alas the fox was too quick that I couldn’t get a picture, but it was pretty majestic. The rest of our decent was in typically Torres Del Paine fashion, in the rain. Only when we were out of the valley did it stop.
We reached Hotel Las Torres with plenty of time. Again we splurged with a seafood pizza in the hotel restaurant; it tasted like victory. On our bus out of the park, we turned to see what we should have saw on that first day into the park, those large granite peaks. It seemed a long time ago.
We arrived pretty late in Puerto Natales and would have to stay the night. After picking up our luggage form Casa Cecila, who had no vacancies, we went next door for a room at Isla Morena. It was a little more expensive but we were ok with it at that point. Plus, they gave me a couple of free beers. Those beers were great with the Churrasco Italiano I bought from the joint at the intersection of Tomas Rogers and Manuel Bulnes. We were out pretty quickly that night. return to index
Day 11: March 15th, 2015 Sunday
Planned: Last opportunity to go up to Torres del Paine. Catch out of the park bus from Laguna Amarga at 2:30pm arrive in Puerto Natales at 5:00pm. Bus from Puerto Natales 6:30pm to Punta Arenas 9:30pm via Buses Fernandez. Flight from PUQ 11:15pm to SCL 2:35am on the 16th via LAN. Flight out of SCL at 12:21pm on the 16th back to IAD.
Actual: It was raining again as we woke up. This time, we could take advantage of the lazy morning and sleep in. This extra day was nice to just relax. After checking out, we were on our way to La Picada De Carlitos for another celebratory Sunday lamb lunch.
It was glorious, through probably too much so as we missed our original bus out of town. Definitely be at the bus stop at least 10 minutes before your scheduled time and keep in mind that the bus station in a distance away from the main street. All is well though as it gave us some time to pick up a couple bottles of carménère wine and a bottle of pisco.
It took us 3 days to down to Patagonia and only 24 hours to get all the way back DC. There we no delays and I was pretty impressed by COPA’s service overall. Wouldn’t mind another sale for spring break next year from them.
For me, Patagonia is up there right there in terms of areas I will always return to. The aesthetics did not disappoint and my endorphines were running wild. Torres Del Paine was only one small piece of what the region has to offer. We met many fellow trekkers that were spending weeks and month exploring the region. Our week long extravaganza was in the minority. While it is a place of beauty, it also lives up to its reputation of being inhospitable. The first few days were pretty miserable, but you learn to adapt and just endure it. It helps that there are real friendships to be made and carménère wine to be drunk. For that, I would recommend the O-circuit. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
- views: 5. Amazing, even when weather prevented us from seeing it all.
- difficulty: 4. Heavily dependent on the elements, such as wind. Could be rated between 2 to 3 for endurance needed during a 7-8 day trek and the amount of marsh on the trail. The worst section was section from Paso John Gardiner to Campamento Paso for intense downhill.
- technical: 2. there wasn’t much scrambling and the route was very clear.
other trip reports
These trip reports were helpful in my preparations. They are listed in no particular order.