adventure

Torres Del Paine Circuit Trek Chronicles

When my friend and I decided to go to Patagonia, we found a few helpful sites to plan the trip ourselves rather than paying exponentially more to go through a tour company. I’m so grateful we did it this way. stingynomad and tenacious travel were very helpful blogs to help this non-camper get prepared for 8 day backpacking and tent camping trip with my badass frequent camper and tri athlete friend, Lisa.

But these sites didn’t tell me what it would really be like day to day, which is hard to say in an ever changing place like Patagonia. It was more of packing lists, technical details, and weather expectations. When I arrived on day 1 and started off (as you’ll read) with (what seemed like at the time) intense weather, I thought to myself, ‘this place is a dang story.’ So I wrote mine. These are my entries from the tent at the end of each evening. If you’re planning a trip, you’ll want to know that we went in late February, and this was our route on the O circuit (mainly because of campsite availability). Frances- Torres- Torres- Seron- Dickson- Los Perros- Grey.

You should also know that I’m a 33 year old washed up D1 basketball player that is in mediocre shape at best taking on this trek on my pure athleticism (in my head) and I’ve only camped twice in my life. Odds are if you’re stumbling upon this you’re either a friend who will find this astonishing and hilarious or a regular badass outdoorsman/woman planning the trek who will think I’m a sissy. But I’m here for both…

Day 1

We drove our little rental car for 2 hours of alternating gravel and paved road on route 9 into Torres del Paine national park and then watched our 9 o’clock ferry leave the dock (a couple of minutes early) as we parked. That left plenty of time and confusion until the next ferry at 11. It also provided our first opportunity to get out of the car in the park (the registration office doesn’t count). When I tell you the wind about slammed the door shut with me in it, it’s not an exaggeration. Within 2 minutes of walking to the unmanned ferry station to figure out the ticket situation I was seriously worried about what I had gotten myself into. Stinging cold rain and wind gusts were just wrecking my world, and I had signed up for 85 miles and 8 nights of camping in it.

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I was internally freaking out. But, once we got on the ferry and then started our journey at Paine Grand refugio I figured well hell, I’m here, just do it… if this is it, I’ve had a good life.

But, the 6 miles we did to get to refugio Frances weren’t that bad. And the views were just stunning. Lisa and I shared a tent on a platform (that’s all that was left for the reservation at this campsite) and we ate our lovely dehydrated enchiladas rancheros with a gorgeous view over the lake. Day 1 started out scary as hell, but I’m going to sleep feelin a little better about this adventure.

Day 2.

Day 2 was survival mode day.

I woke up to rain pouring down on our tent at 6am and it was the lovely kind of rainy morning. So lovely I feel back into a deep sleep and didn’t mind at all when Lisa snoozed our alarm, a few times, and we woke up at 845… for a 9am ‘check out’. Yes, they have a check out time from a tent. Which we didn’t do until we had our oatmeal, coffee, and were ready to hit the trail. We went up to the Frances viewpoint which was an unbelievable 360 display of different scenes. It was also unbelievably windy at the lookout point and I got a really good chuckle at the couple wearing ponchos that were fighting the plastic as it was alternating from flying around slapping them in the face to parallel to the ground Superman cape style. It was not, however, keeping them dry.

That was a steep climb and 6 miles round trip, then we had another 12 to get to our next campsite. Those proved to be the most challenging as there were 60-70mph wind gusts (we later found out) when we were walking along the path on a cliffside for 3-4 of those 12 miles. We got knocked down into a thorn bush once and had to constantly do what I, as a flight attendant, call the turbulence stance. Legs spread, slightly bend, and ready for the unexpected, and also we learned to just hug each other for safety and strength. But really, just shoved right down by the winds invisible hands. We are not petite little girls, and that was definitely a first for me. The rain was pretty persistent most of the afternoon BUT, with the rain came rainbows gracefully curving out of the lake onto the cliffside ahead of us. Suddenly the wind gusts weren’t so bad. Just kidding, it was terrifying for a bit and I’m just glad we survived.

We checked into Torres central camp ground, threw our tents up and then went to the restaurant to have a much deserved gin and tonic and French fries before our dehydrated curry meal. Such a bizarre ‘campground’ contrast to the rough day and my expectations, but I’m certainly thankful as I lay down to sleep with a full belly and aching body. Tomorrow, we climb to Torres lookout to the towers, the place everyone comes to see.

Day 3

Day 3 is what coming to Torres del Paine is all about for most people. The granite towers, 3 gargantuan rock formations towering above a beautiful milky turquoise lake draw day-trippers in by the bus load, yet I think it was my least favorite day so far. The wind behaved much better than yesterday, but it was really cold. For the last hour of the 4 hour trek up the mountain it was spitting snow/sleet or some form of the 2 at us horizontally. Once we reached the top it was overcast, colder, & snowing, but we posted up on our foam mats we had brought all the way up and set up our picnic. That consisted of cold quesadillas we ordered at dinner last night for this very purpose. Having cold soggy quesadillas is a treat yourself kinda day out here. So we sat huddling together on our foam pads eating cold quesadillas while it snowed just hoping the sun would come out. It didn’t ever come out.

The entire experience would have been different if the crowd were smaller. I made the mistake of hopping across rocks to a large boulder in the turquoise lake for a photo op I thought would be cool. After that there was a line formed in front of our perfectly set up foam stadium seating and we couldn’t enjoy our view at all. The tour companies and number of people that I’m not even sure how they made the hike up made the way down sooooo slow that it was frustrating to be that cold and not be able to hurry back off of the mountainside and into the covered forest. I applaud you grandpa, and good for the overweight folks who made it up, but frankly I just wanted back down quickly and everyone was in our way.

But since this is such a major tourist stop on the W trek, and for day trips/tour companies, we took advantage of the facilities we had at the Torres camp. We made dinner reservations… Yes, we went from our stinky tent and showered (a magical hot shower indoors) and went straight to an overpriced but much appreciated dinner. I bought a bottle of wine as well to sit here and sip and write before I retire to my book and lord willing, sleep. This campsite is pretty crowded and last night 2 tents over should have rolled over or used a CPAP the snores were so loud. I prepared with wine tonight in case my new neighbors are just as bad. As I sit writing this they just knocked 2 stove burners off the picnic table and almost caught the grass on fire, so I don’t have high hopes. It’s 9:45pm at the moment and they’re just making dinner. But the sun is just now going down since it’s summer here, so I suppose that’s a forgivable camping offense. Not that you’d have known it was summer today, brrrrr.

Tomorrow we start the full circuit part of the trek and ditch the tourists. Annnnnd the dinners and amenities part as well, sooo bring on day 4… I think.

I should also mention that at this point we have done 39 in miles in 3 days with some pretty legit altitude gains. My left knee is swollen and hurting and it’s not even my bad knee. I have blisters forming on both feet, and my face got really sunburnt today despite the 30 degree pelting snow, becauuussse apparently the hole in the ozone layer is directly above us… But honestly Patagonia is like no place I’ve EVER seen before and even with all of my bitching, I would highly recommend to anyone to come see it for themselves. Walking across the cliff side yesterday getting blown all over like a rag doll I was still looking at rainbows forming over a massive turquoise lake and gorgeous mountain backdrop. As my adrenaline was pumping I was thinking… ‘what a time to be alive.’ It’s been a hell of an adventure already.

Last minute update on day 3- it’s 10:11pm, the new neighbors iPhone alarm has been going off for 10 minutes, & they aren’t there. I don’t know campsite courtesy rules very well, but I’m pretty sure they’re a breaking all of them. Maybe they went to cook in the designated cooking area. Melatonin + wine it is.

Day 4.

I started the easy 9 mile day this afternoon in a pissy mood for no good reason, and the evening followed suit. I really didn’t sleep well, my toes were icicles attached to my body for most of the night, but the day started off great. We treated ourselves to breakfast at Torres camp, where there’s actually a hotel for all of the lovely day hikers previously mentioned, and decent sized restaurant annnnd I paid to get on WiFi for 1 hour. This was a huge upgrade from our jet boil + instant oatmeal and instant coffee in our tent or the ground. Today was an easy 9 miles hike to the next campsite, Seron, which we knew would be much smaller. But I was just aching and irritated that the ‘easy’ hike day started with a big ol mile straight uphill. My pack felt heavier, I have a couple of blisters forming up nicely, my legs are really sore, and it was spitting rain. Cue pissy attitude.

But the path leveled out, I got myself under control, and Lisa and I had some good convos along the nice forested path for quite a while. Then the winds returned along with the rain and we couldn’t hear each other if we tried for another 2 miles. It wasn’t great scenery from Torres to Seron anyhow, and we rolled into camp as the rain became consistent. We saved the evening by getting our tents up before the wet really set in and arranged to be close enough to hop door to door easily. We finished the pissy day by watching the Aaron Hernandez story I had downloaded on my phone in my tent (2 person tent), drank wine that I had hauled from the last camp (because priorities), and had our cheesy enchilada rancheros dehydrated dinner and a show while it rained.

Now it’s 1030 it’s pouring rain, and supposed to rain tomorrow too for our next ‘easy day’. The wind is blowing so hard one side of my tent is almost collapsing onto me. Stay tuned.

Day 5

I’m never listening to Lisa again. The ‘easy day’ I mentioned yesterday turned out to be 19km, roughly 12 miles. We battled the same elements in rain, cold, and an uphill start. By hill I mean mountain. But, what beautiful scenery we had today! Every turn or hill we made it around or up offered a new mountain range, glacier, or stunning lake view. We arrived at Dickson camp as a rainbow was forming over the lake and campsite to cap off a messy weather but stunning scenery kind of day. We are running low on camp meals for the rest of the trek and managed to order a pizza from the restaurant (they offer a pizza, sandwiches, and cake), and sat in the inside communal ‘cooking’ area envious of the delicious meals half of the backpackers were throwing together. I’m talking pasta with marinara sauce with a little baggie of minced garlic and another bag of some secret foreign seasoning that smelled delightful. We’re at the part of the trail now that’s the farthest from any type of help, tourist attraction, etc. So it’s just the hardcore backpackers, and me, with my swollen knee wrapped in elastic wrap I begged from the check in office workers first aid kid.

We also talked her into selling us the elusive boxed wine. We saw it on night one. But, never considered how much easier it would be to carry cardboard over a heavy bottle. Every dang pound counts when it’s on your back. Then night 2 we asked about it only to find out they could sell us a bottle or individual glass, but not the box. Ok fine. Night 3 we were also told no, but Lisa watched as the check in guy poured a glass for her, ran out, and then refilled his decanter (i have no idea why) with THE COVETED BOXED WINE. Tonight was the night. She already felt bad because we told her I fell and that’s why my knee was so swollen and needing wrapped. I asked once, she said she didn’t have any boxed but could sell us a bottle for 20,000 Chilean pesos. I asked again, because I had spotted the elusive boxed wine in the verrrrry back of the fridge. She said she could sell us strawberries and wine. Which we still don’t know what she meant. But finally she smiled and said ok, it’s 10,000 pesos but don’t tell anyone. In the moment it felt like the biggest success of the trip so far, forget climbing mountains. By the way, when I say a box of wine I mean like a extra large elementary school milk carton. Times are hard out here in the wilderness y’all, little victories go a long way.

Anyyyways. Tonight we set up camp on top of a hill overlooking the lake Dickson and I am hoping the forecast for tomorrow stays true and the rain that’s falling now ends at 9 am for a beautiful and WARMER day. I have a feeling the next 2 days are going to be stunning.

Day 6

Today was stunning! It was maybe my favorite day of hiking. We started off with a cold rainy morning at Dickson, but we were gifted a rainbow as we left and the clouds cleared to show off a glacier that was so high we initially thought it was low hanging clouds.

We continued through the forest and hopped around mud for most of the 9 mile day, but at the end we exited the forest to glacier Perros hanging right in front of us. That meant a ton of photos. Then everytime we came back out of the woods or climbed to a viewpoint we were closer. Finally, the uphill before the campground brought us to a turquoise pond with the glacier above it. What a lovely surprise and possibly my favorite part of the trip so far. It would have been wonderful to sit and have lunch if we hadn’t been freezing.

It’s day 6, 67miles, and we are almost down to rationing our protein bars for the final 2 days. So tonight we bought wayyy overpriced but well worth it items from the little market to make dinner. With the maybe 20 items in the store (and 5 of them being cookies and another 5 feminine products) we threw together a delicious carb loaded meal of bow tie pasta boiled in the jet boil, canned tuna, tomato sauce, and Parmesan cheese. So dang good or we were just so dang hungry we each had 2 servings.

Tomorrow is THE day. We pass through the John Gardner pass which is known as the most dangerous and wild part of the trek. Winds are estimated to be 100mph tomorrow for the pass. It’s a long day and lots of miles in addition to that. But bring on day 7 out of 8, I’m one day closer to the heater in the car! I’m not being a brat, well maybe a little, but it was 32 last night and even colder the night before. I wasn’t prepared for a cold front in already windy and rainy Patagonia.

Day 7

It felt like game day this morning. A handful of times early into the trip I have had to dig into my memory bank and remember that I was a D1 athlete and I know my body can go much further than my mind says it can. I really did not prepare for this trip and am in the worst shape I’ve been in in years, so yep… it’s coming down to personal pep talks. We have a long day so this morning we woke up early to do the pass that we’ve been warned about the difficulty of since the first time googling the O circuit.

We had an absolutely perfect day and not a cloud in the sky, great sign #1. We hiked up the mountain in really good timing, good sign #2. We got to the pass and weren’t exactly sure that we were even there because the wind that gets so bad they have to close it that we’ve heard about was barely blowing, great sign #… wait a minute, when is all hell gonna break loose? Because that’s what I’m mentally prepared for.

It didn’t. We had the most perfect lunch of crackers, goat cheese, and canned tuna on top of the mountain looking down on a glacier. When you reach the top of the climb and look behind you at the gorgeous peaks and scenery, then turn around and see Grey glacier expansively spread out before you, it’s a moment. It’s a moment that made every frozen night worth it, every sleeting rain day, and fighting the Patagonia winds. All of my bitching from the past 6 days were worth it, instantly.

I’ve never seen anything like it to be honest. And to see it after hiking up 3000ft in 5 miles on day 7 in a row of camping and carrying 30 something lbs on my back… even more worth it.

We continued on to Camp Grey for the night and enjoyed chatting with a polish/german couple who came down the day before, and had just cleared the pass before they shut it down. Their stories of literally hugging boulders to not get blown off the mountain, not being able to walk against the strong wind most of the time, and constant sleet in their face made our perfect day even sweeter.

It’s my last night in my little orange home and I actually have mixed feelings about it. I’ve been on WiFi for 1 hour in 8 days, and been immersed in some of the craziest weather and most stunning views I’ve ever seen. Frankly I wasn’t really sure if I would be able to do 7 nights of camping and all of the miles. My knees agree with me, as one is the size of a grapefruit and this flimsy little first aid wrap is pretty much lost all elasticity.

But we’re outta here tomorrow on an ‘easy’ 6 mile hike to Paine Grande to catch the ferry and find our car! I cannot wait for a bed and consistent warmth. We don’t even really know where we’re going for sure, but we have a car and will figure it out along the way I suppose.

Day 8-

Writing this one afterwards since I was in a bed in El Calafate, Argentina and probably on WiFi. We woke up early at Grey campsite and hauled out to be able to catch the 11 o’clock ferry at Grande Paine. Once we reached the car we decided to cross the border and head to El Calafate. We drove on pretty horrible gravel roads in our little stick shift car and crossed the border at a house with customs and immigration and a chain blocking the crossing. Next up was parking our car and grabbing a beer at Patagonia brewery where we booked a hotel. We figured we needed a shower before we tortured anyone else so it was an early night. Thus completing our full 8 days of trekking in Torres Del Paine National Park.

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