Two important things we wanted to do while this far south in South America was go to Antarctica and do the O Trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Well, after worrying that something would come in the way of them they are now both done and both were very cool!
The O Circuit is a 73 mile loop with a couple of offshoots to viewpoints of massive rock towers and it circles the entire spectacular Cordillera Paine. The “W” trek is the red W shaped route in the pic and the O does the whole thing. We seized a perfect weather day to hike to the famous Torres 2 days before starting our backpack trip. It was also beautiful on the next day when we stuffed 7 days worth of food and gear into our backpacks to get ready, then explored a little more of the trails near the truck for the afternoon. That morning I’d startled a puma and caught a glimpse of it’s tan hair and big paws as it tore off up the hillside in tall grass afraid of me. We’d hoped to see more.
Then the morning we donned our packs the weather had turned unsettled and we were worried we were going to be in for a rough week of hiking but so goes weather in Patagonia and we were prepared for it. Off we went to our first hut Seron. Well it turned out to be a long intermittent light sunshower in beautiful daisy filled fields and then the rain stopped. We put up our tent, strolled around, sat outside in our chairs sipping the wine I’d carried up and then headed into the cooking shelter to meet new people and make our dinner. It would be the last normal dinner from here on out. The nice thing about this trek is it is space limited and for the first 4 nights it is a one way trail. So we got to meet some cool people and get to know them over the coming days. That night as good weather moved in, we had some pretty serious wind gusts on our tent. We’d staked it down really well but it was sort of flattening a little in the gusts. Fortunately, they didn’t last long but we do notice a slight bend on one of our tent poles now- that’s a new one for us. But then so is this caliber of wind in Patagonia.
Day 2 was a real sparkler over miles of beautiful single track trail to Lake Dickson, following a fast river, lakes and colorful mountainsides. Coming down to what would become our favorite campspot, we were excited to see a large meadow and a nice backdrop of mountains. We sat in the sun for a bit, showered, then hit the cooking area to make food and socialize. I love the camaraderie of like minds doing like things together because you can tell stories and get ideas. I also like watching all of the interesting things that people bring to the table to cook. Some get pretty creative and we have in the past, but often we switch to freeze dried food for dinner fairly soon with fresh vegetable sides. It doesn’t give us the same amount of calories but it’s lighter to carry. It’s so funny to see all of the packets opening of dried this or that, rehydrating with boiling water. Late in the evening, we walked out to a hanging glacier and a rolling river of clouds coming down off of it. It was a crazy scene we hadn’t witnessed before to that extent. It didn’t really come out in pictures.
Day 3 we hiked to Los Perros, continuing the circle around beautiful mountains. It was a shorter day, often in the woods and we passed some pretty lakes too. Unlike backpacking in the US, this hike is hut to hut. You can bring your own tent, rent one and in one hut I think you can stay in a bunk. You can shower, often buy a beer or snacks. And 4 types of condoms available for when that moment strikes. While I think we both prefer the wilder side of backpacking, this atmosphere does have its benefits especially if the weather is unstable. When we checked in, they told us there was rain & wind coming the following day which was the day we would be climbing the John Gardner pass. So while normally you are required to be out on the trail by 7am for this hike, in this case it was suggested to leave even earlier to beat the winds. To make things easier, we decided to rent a tent instead and keep ours dry making life simpler for our early rise. Of course this was after we’d already put ours up! But it didn’t take long to move camp. It felt so luxurious to be in a big 4 person 4 season tent for the night and not have to carry it! While I wondered how we would spend the afternoon because it was a shorter day, we ended up easily blowing it relaxing with the people we’d met over our campstoves opening our respective packets of powdered whatever. We were beginning to get so hungry after all the miles. You start wondering at some point, why is my gut different than usual? Oh right, it’s just the effect of freeze dried food. It’s food, but is it??
We got up at 4:45 (but heard others hours earlier) for day 4 and out on the trail by 6am for a long uphill day but it wasn’t raining and it was very calm! We trudged up the pass in a long colorful line on bony trail in just over 2 hours, stood around in a light breeze and a few sprinkles taking pictures of each other with the Grey glacier in the backdrop on one side and the valley of Los Perros that we’d just come up from on the other side. Then it was a long, rolling, windless hike all day descending to the Gray glacier through lovely scenery. They have some really long hanging bridges on this part of the trail! The glacier was so blue and crevassed and it went on as far as the eye could see. There were waterfalls, flowered hillsides and pretty woods. Every time we had to go up again our legs were asking us not to. So the threatening forecast never happened and we’d had a wonderful hiking day. Perhaps it was because we got over the pass into a better section for weather. We arrived to Refugio Grey in the late afternoon and pitched the tent feeling pretty tired but elated too. This was a special night because we were getting pizza & beer and NO freeze dried!! We had a large table in the hut full of happy, hungry and thirsty hikers. The pizza hit the spot. It felt so good to be full. And we had leftovers for lunch the next day!
All fueled up for day 5, we left after a bigger brekkie than normal because I bought some fresh eggs there at the hut. Protein fuel! The hike to Paine Grande hut was on smoother trail and very pretty, following Grey Lake and a large canyon. There were lots of high viewpoints and the air felt good. It was a spectacular blue sky day. The clouds in this area are especially interesting, multilayered and everchanging because they are moving so fast. The Paine Grande hut was really pretty and open although the wind was building while we ate our pizza lunch. As we looked at the hillside that we were booked to camp on at Paine Grande, we felt like our tent would fly away if the winds rose higher as unprotected as it was. When I’d booked the huts months ago, there wasn’t space at the next hut- Frances which meant we were going to have to do an 18 mile day in order to take in the Britanico viewpoint that is part of the circuit. But we discovered that like so many things, when you’re actually here in person, you can indeed stay at the hut you want. So we decided to keep moving to the Frances hut and make it another long day but the following day would be shorter.
The second half of the day took us through crazy beautiful scenery. I know I keep repeating that but it really is. This impossibly turquoise lake, massive color streaked mountain against a bright blue sky is something you think might be fabricated by camera software but then you remember you’re seeing it with your own eyes.
The wind continued to build but at least we were hiking in the right direction. While marveling at how the wind whips up the water on the lake and how the mountains are so dramatic we were occasionally being blown into shrubs in the gusts. Then the last half hour, it started to rain lightly. By the time we got to the Frances hut we were in a valley where you could see there would be no end to the rain and it really got rolling. This wasn’t so much A hut but a whole lot of separate buildings down a steep hill and tent platforms up a long steep hill so that there was no way you were going to move between them without getting really wet and out of breath. We pitched the tent on the platform, tied it down snug, took a hot shower in one building, hit the bar in another since there was no sense drowning only in water, then hit the cooking building to make dinner, then the bathroom, then at last the tent. Since now the O part of the trail had merged with the W part of the trail (a shorter but popular backpack), the close knit group had splintered off and people were going in different directions because there are ways of coming off the trail, staying at huts longer or speeding up as was the case for us. We watched a downloaded documentary before bed as we often do in our tent- this one was actually Obama’s National parks series on Torres del Paine… then fell asleep to the periodic deluge of raindrops falling from the trees. Ivan says there’s a Spanish saying that if you stay under trees in the rain you’ll get rained on twice. I do believe this to be true.
Unfortunately, we woke up to rain and socked in clouds so there was no way we were hiking up into more clouds to the lookout. And if that wasn’t going to happen then it didn’t seem to make sense to stop at the last hut- Cuernos because we’d get there way too early to do what? Lay around in our wet tent? So we packed up, moved among the various buildings getting our stuff done and then hit the trail to pack out. Cuernos means horns and they are iconic mountains in Torres Del Paine much like the Torres are. We couldn’t see the whole formation because of the clouds but we hiked right under them and stopped at Cuernos to have a snack before walking out of the valley and in to better weather over the course of the day. Coming around the end of the loop, we were back into the drier part of the park and the sun came out again. At one point there were strong gusty winds for a few minutes and they literally blew us up the hill which made for easy walking! It was a long day of hiking but we got back to the truck feeling great about all that we’d seen and experienced despite not being able to do the last lookout and have that last night. I do have a hard time letting that go. But from all the rain, our gear was pretty wet and we spent the rest of the evening unpacking, hanging everything up to dry, then having a non freeze dried meal and kicking back on our comfy cushions. And that was the end of the O Trek. Every day offered something special. We lucked out with the weather overall, made some new friends and covered a lot of miles of beautiful terrain. We missed one of the lookouts but what can you do?
Backpacking is addictive to me, my most favorite thing to do I would say. I love to get way out to somewhere really beautiful and then not have to leave it. We were talking about how most of what we do together is made better if we do have to work a bit to do it and under our own power so to speak. It gives independence too. Whether it be sailing a passage to a new continent, carrying everything we need on our backs through the wilderness, shore scuba diving at our own pace, paddling ourselves upriver to a huge waterfall or walking on a glacier independently, it’s fun to call our own shots as much as we can and do it our way. The O Trek isn’t solitary by any means, but it covers some impressive territory that takes effort to get to on your own two feet. We are excited to do more backpacking in Patagonia.
We set out the following day after a delicious cup of expresso (yay, no instant coffee!) to explore a few more bits of Torres del Paine park. So first the east side, looking for pumas and taking an easy 10 mile walk on flattish lakeside terrain. We felt like we were floating without our packs. It was sheltered from the wind which was nice. Then to the west side of the park, late in the day to try to see a puma but none. But, we got to see dramatic mountain scenery and a perfect view of the Cuernos that we couldn’t see while backpacking. What a view out the window.
The following morning though, ferocious winds kicked in as I was putting away the last of the hiking gear and everything started blowing down the hill! I lost a sandal and a ladder in the end. Our truck was shaking like an earthquake and we had to get out of there fast.
Further down the road, we were the last ones to see the Salto Grande waterfall before they moved the warning sign to red- that means over 80km/hr and closed the trail. We were having trouble standing up! Even the birds were having trouble getting where they needed to go. We visited a couple more viewpoints and walked the grounds of the historic Pehoe Hotel before throwing in the towel and driving away from the park with sand in our ears and grit in our teeth.
We found a riverside campspot an hour away out of the wind and relaxed in the sun in shorts for the afternoon. I even gave the truck a wash with river water to get all the dust off. I think it’s finally summer!