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Torres del Paine: The O Circuit [Part 1]

25 Mar 15
Heidi Kumm
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I did it – I survived a bajillion hours on airplanes, a few naps on busses and 6 days of trekking around the Torres del Paine O Circuit! It was awesome. It was wet. It was beautiful. It was something I’ve never done before…and will probably never get to do again. I learned a few things about traveling in Chile and a lot of things about myself. And, of course, I returned to the States with a few photos + stories worth sharing!

Chile Travel: Lessons Learned || Planning + Packing || The O Circuit Part 2

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Logan and I arrived at Torres del Paine National Park on Sunday, March 8 after a little bus schedule snafu. Our original plan had us camping in Torres del Paine on Saturday night and starting our hike early on Sunday morning. Since we failed at scheduling our bus tickets far enough in advance [aka, not the day of] we arrived a day later than planned. Even though we weren’t starting our hiking until noon we decided we were going to go for it and do whatever we could to cover the full 28km/17.5mi that afternoon. We were optimistic…and successful!

Day 1: Refugio Las Torres to Refugio Dickson

When we arrived it was raining – a calm, steady rain. We pulled on our rain layers and headed up the trail dodging mud puddles with the naïve idea that we could keep our feet relatively dry. It didn’t take us long to realize we’d have to get wet…as soon as we came upon a stream we had to wade through we decided to just give in and embrace the mud!

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Our [revised] plan was to focus on getting to Camp Seron before stopping to eat lunch – we arrived at about 2pm when there was a much appreciated break in the rain clouds. After woofing down a salami + cheese tortilla roll we were off again. Camp Seron had the basics – bathrooms, a lean-to area for cooking and flat ground for tents. Little did I know this was one of the least accommodating campsites on the entire loop [rivaled only by Camp Paso]!

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The next few hours were spent learning the hard way that the signs/maps along the trails are lying turd burglars! One sign said we had 4km to go…then an hour later another sign said we had 3km to go. Yea, there is no way we were moving that slowly on flat ground! We knew Refugio Dickson was located at the base of a hill so every time we got near a hill we got excited, only to be disappointed when the trail veered away from it. The last 3km lasted approximately 243 miles! But when we got there? Holy gorgeous setting!

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We paid our camping fee, set up the tent and headed directly to the cooking area to start dinner. It was about 8pm and we were hungry! During dinner we learned that the John Gardner Pass was closed due to weather and it may stay closed for a while. After heading back to our tent we started brainstorming a Plan B should the pass be closed in the AM – we didn’t have the days available to wait for the pass to re-open! We ended up with a Plan B that had us backtracking to Refugio Las Torres [ugh!] and doing the W Circuit so we’d still get to see 90% of the park. But all that re-planning was unnecessary when the ranger told us the pass was open on Monday morning.

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My favorite part of Day 1 was when the clouds parted and we got to see the valley stretch out ahead of us – if felt very Colorado.

Day 2: Refugio Dickson to Camp Los Perros

On Monday we started the day a bit later than planned, leaving camp around 10am. I was a little nervous about this since our game plan was to cover close to 25km/15.5mi with a climb up and over John Gardner Pass. We arrived at Camp Los Perros just before 2pm and after checking in with he rangers we settled down for a hot lunch after hours of hiking in the rain. When we initially asked about the pass it was confirmed that it was open, but as our water boiled a ranger stopped by to let us know it wasn’t actually open. Rather than hiking up and over to Refugio Grey we were stuck at Camp Los Perros for the night.

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Honestly, at that point, I was happy. I didn’t think we’d be able to happily make it to Refugio Grey that day and I wasn’t quite ready to spend hours hating myself for flying half way around the world to trek in wet forests. Hands down, this was the roughest day for me and I was glad to have an excuse to set up camp really early and eat two hot meals! When I headed to the tent to dig through my pack and set up my sleeping bag I may have “accidentally” took a 3 hour nap…totally worth it, I clearly needed it!

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The rangers told us to be ready to leave camp at 8am if we wanted to go over John Gardner Pass. There was some hesitation from other trekkers about pace and being restricted by rangers. While pace was a valid concern we didn’t have any reason to fight the rangers decision and we wanted to continue forward on the O Circuit so we adjusted our game plan, again.

The best part of Day 2 was…my nap? It was a rainy, dark day and I was definitely on the struggle bus!

Day 3: Camp Los Perros to Refugio Grey

A group of maybe 40 trekkers left Camp Los Perros at 8am and headed for John Gardner Pass. The slower hikers were up front with the ranger then we spread out by pace, or that was the plan. While I thought the slower pace was kind of refreshing it didn’t take some people long to forge ahead. By the time we left the shelter of trees and the well-defined trail the group had spread out quite a bit, easily passing one another on the open scree field.

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It was chilly with wind pelting rain down on us so everyone kind of tucked into their hoods and hiked as quickly as they could to keep warm. Logan and I split up but with the open mountainside ahead of us we never lost each other. As we climbed the rain turned into snow but I managed to stay warm, even with feet soaking wet from the cold mountain streams we forged through. I gained a lot of confidence in my ability to layer during this trip – never getting too cold or too hot, even when the weather waffled around.

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The entire trek up the pass was windy but as we neared the top the wind kicked it up a notch. It wasn’t unbearable to me but I’ve survived some pretty insane wind at the top of 14ers so maybe I’m biased. Yes, you had to lean into the wind and the pelting rain/snow hurt my cheeks but the wind never felt dangerous. It was actually a lot of fun to stumble around in at the pass summit. With stronger gusts slamming into you it was impossible to stand upright – instead you’d stumble forward when the gust of wind let up and your balance was off kilter.

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As soon as we crested the pass we were greeted with cloudy skies and a massive field of white below us – Glacier Grey. Unfortunately our first view of this massive glacier wasn’t exactly breathtaking, the true beauty of the icy beast was hidden from us by clouds. I took off down the mountainside, frolicking over the scree and rocks with the wind slamming into me – I was having a blast! This was my kind of mountain life – up close and personal with the mountains and everything Mother Nature had to offer.

Shortly after dropping off the pass we left the scree behind and ducked into the woods for an extremely muddy descent to Camp Paso. Turns out this particular descent was MUCH more challenging than the climb up the pass. We saw very few switchbacks throughout Torres del Paine…and this was on stretch of trail that really needed them! After days of rain the trail was a mess of mud, slippery mud! Rather than zigzag down the mountain with control we sort of plummeted down slippery chutes between trees, trying to stay on our feet not our asses.

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We made a really quick [ie: less than 7 minutes] in Camp Paso to dig lunch out of our packs then we were off again. Camp Paso was, hands down, the least favorable camp on the entire loop – it was wet and cold [thanks to the rain + glacier] and very cramped with limited space for cooking or flat-ish campsites. I’m very glad we didn’t push over the pass on Monday as we may have been forced to stay at Camp Paso.

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The trail got a lot better after Camp Paso – it wasn’t nearly as steep or muddy and the rain was letting up! Heck, the sun was even peeking out from behind the clouds bringing out the stunningly blue crevasses on Glacier Grey. It was amazing to see how incredibly huge the glacier was! I have a new life goal – explore a glacier, on foot!

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Things were looking up and I was still having fun, hours into the day! We had initially considered pushing through to Refugio Paine Grande but called it a day when we arrived at Refugio Grey – we tired and happy, why push it when we didn’t need to?

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Stopping in Refugio Grey was the best decision we made on the entire trek, at least socially speaking. We got there pretty early, around 4pm, so we got dibs on the good campsites and then spent the rest of the evening/night socializing with other trekkers. On a trip to the camp store to buy a packaged rice meal for “second dinner” Logan discovered they took credit cards…and came back with rice, Twix and a box of wine. Needless to say it was a late night full of laughter and over sharing among our group of about 10 backpackers. Totally worth it!

My favorite part of Day 3 was the glacier – it was so much “larger than life”, so new, so undiscovered!

That’s all for now – for the sake of keeping my Torres del Paine stories short enough to actually read without taking a nap half way through I’m splitting this up into two parts. The next one will cover the three days we spent going from Refugio Grey to Refugio Las Torres with side trips up the French Valley and to the Torres.

Chile Travel: Lessons Learned || Planning + Packing || The O Circuit Part 2

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