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Torres del Paine: The O Circuit [Part 2]

27 Mar 15
Heidi Kumm
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2 comments

For the first few days of my experience on the O Circuit of the Torres del Paine National Park check out Torres del Paine: The O Circuit [Part 1]. Those were the rainy, cloudy, cold days of the trip…the days I spent wondering “why the heck did I fly half way around the world for this?!” because I knew I could find that weather in the MidWest on any given spring day! But things started looking up half way through Day 3 as we dropped down John Gardner Pass and spent the afternoon trekking along a glacier with the sun peeking around the scattered clouds.

Chile Travel: Lessons Learned || Packing + Planning || The O Circuit Part 1

Day 4: Refugio Grey to Camp Italiano

After a night of wine + laughter the 6:30am alarm came early…really early. But we are nothing if not determined so before the sun popped over the horizon [yes! we would actually see sun today!] we had packed up our tent and were on the trail, oatmeal + hot chocolate in hand! The sky turned bright pink as we left camp on a mission to arrive at Camp Italiano early in the afternoon with plenty of time to run up/down the French Valley, a “must see” stretch of trail surrounded by mountains, waterfalls and glaciers.

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As we hiked away from Refugio Grey we kept stopping to turn around. For the first few miles the landscape behind us was far more breathtaking than the trail ahead of us. The horizon offered us a view of Lago Grey, Glacier Grey and an angular range of snow-covered mountains. Every time we turned around it looked different, thanks to the rising sun and every changing clouds. This was the morning when I realized exactly why we spent 3 days traveling just to get here…it was finally all worth it!

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The 11km/7mi trek from Refugio Grey to Refugio Paine Grande went surprisingly fast and we knew we were getting close when we started meeting day hikers on the trail. We were officially on the W Circuit of the trail where we’d be meeting an interesting mix of inexperienced day hikers, dedicated tourists and full-blown backpackers. At the very least the people were entertaining…but not quite as entertaining as the crazies Seth + Tana met on their trek during the busier season last year!

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When we arrived at Refugio Paine Grande we were blown away by the setting. It was…impressive! First off, the buildings + bathrooms + everything was so fancy, and not just in comparison with the more rugged accommodations we’d grown accustom to…it was legit fancy! But it wasn’t the buildings that had us staring and drooling during our quick lunch break, it was our surroundings! These buildings were plopped down in the perfect setting! On one side the weirdly blue-green waters of Lago Pehoe stretched out for miles with a few bright blue ice bergs from Glacier Grey floating around. On the other side of the Refugio the mountains just rose up from a stretch of green prairie grass with the jagged edges of Punta Bariloche towering over us.

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After a lunch of salami, cheese and Pringles [an impulse purchase a the Refugio store] we reluctantly headed back onto the trail en route to Camp Italiano. We didn’t want to waste this awesome weather – the sun was shining and we actually got to see the mountains on the horizon rather than just a pile of rain clouds!

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Aside from a few encounters with a few obviously hikers that definitely needed a lesson or two in general trail etiquette our trek up to Camp Italiano was rather uneventful. We played in the mud, sweat in the sunshine and splashed through crystal clear streams. Before we even arrived at Camp Italiano we could hear the raging Rio del Frances, the river we’d be hiking along on our trek up/down the French Valley. Once in camp we were quick to choose a campsite, set up our tent and repack my Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30 with a few layers + snacks before heading up the valley.

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This was one of the many moments I was insanely thankful I was using the UD Fastpack for this trek! It was so light and easy to use on a quick afternoon hike up the French Valley. Heck, we even ran a mile or so UP the valley simply because it felt so good to move quickly, freely without heavy packs on our backs!

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The first mirador/overlook was less than an hour from the campsite and offered up a panoramic view of the mountains around us, the glaciers on the backside of Punta Bariloche, the Rio del Frances below us, the valley behind us and Lago Nordenskjold off in the distance. It was beautiful…and this was only the halfway point! Regardless, this was my favorite part of the French Valley – if you can only do a short stretch of this hike get to this point!

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If you hang out for a while and watch the glaciers + waterfalls across the river you’ll be able to see the glaciers calve massive icebergs over the cliff before you hear the thundering boom. It’s amazing. Even as we hiked upward we could hear the glaciers shifting and calving. It was like a distant thunderstorm without the threat of rain.

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An hour later we arrived at the top mirador where the mountains greeted us with nearly cloud-less views. It was impressive but we didn’t stay for too long, our stomachs were calling us back to camp and warm meals! On the way down the valley we ran…and it felt amazing. You’d think our legs would be exhausted after four long days of hiking but without our heavier packs it felt like we were running on clouds. Hopping over roots, bounding from rock to rock and splashing through runoff streams has never been so refreshingly fun! My mind + body needed this!

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Once we returned to camp we made dinner with a few trail friends than crashed into our tent – there would be no fun socializing tonight. Sure, we were tired but more importantly this camping area was not set up for socializing! The lean-to for cooking was tiny, dark and wet with the surrounding area less than accommodating so we just called it a night early like the lazy loser that we are. #sorrynotsorry

The best part of Day 4 was…the sunshine! And the thundering glacier in the French Valley!

Day 5: Camp Italiano to Camp Torres

Our morning was less than eventful. Camp Italiano was a wet, cold camp so we didn’t hang around for long. Heck, we even skipped breakfast + brushing our teeth in favor of bailing out of camp and into the morning sunshine sooner! Don’t fret, we stopped by Refugio Los Cuernos once we’d warmed up and pretended to be civilized adults!

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The majority of our trek up to Camp Torres was…up. Surprising, I know. While the stretch of trail was scenic it wasn’t mind blowing and aside from a few encounters with odd hikers it was very uneventful. Around lunch time we came upon a sign that said “Shortcut to Chileno” and did a little happy dance! The main trail had us dropping down the Torres Hotel than climbing up a busy trail to Refugio Chileno while this shortcut skipped the descent and just sent up straight up the mountain. Fun.

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After a quick lunch break staring off at the mountain tops, chatting with newfound trail friends we were back on the trail, heading up some of the steepest trail we encountered on the entire O Circuit. The trail seemed to drag on and on and on as we hiked up in the hot afternoon sunshine. I wasn’t quite stupid enough to complain about the sunshine but I was wishing my leggings weren’t black! Luckily we had plenty of mud puddles + streams to cool our feet in!

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We spent very little time in Refugio Chileno before powering on up to Camp Torres which would have us staying just an hour below the Torres mirador. Hiking up into this valley took us away from the open fields and through a weirdly cold, green jungle of trees. The campsites at Camp Torres were off the trail away bit, down in a cove of trees with a thick canopy that made it feel otherworldly. Don’t judge me, but it felt like one of the Night Elf villages in World of Warcraft. Okay, fine, judge me…I deserve it!

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Once we snagged a relatively flat campsite and set up our tent Logan headed up to the Torres to scope out the area for sunrise photos the next morning. I was feeling lazy and the hours of hiking uphill were starting to aggravate my Achilles so I opted for nap time with the promise of hiking up to the mirador in the morning. Logan was lucky enough to have the clouds part and give her a view of the Torres and I got in another much needed nap [apparently I’m a small child and truly need naps?] before we cooked up our last hot meal and set our alarm for 5:45am.

The majority of Day 5 was “normal” but the final stretch of trail up to Camp Torres was the best – so green + woodsy!

Day 6: Camp Torres to Torres Mirador to Hotel Torres

It was a restless night for me – probably because I spent all my “hard sleep” on an afternoon nap – so I was ready for the alarm to go off but I wasn’t quite ready to put on wet socks and get out of the tent. It sounded like rain as the trees dropped large drops of water on our tent and rain meant clouds and clouds meant no views at the mirador… But I hadn’t been up to the overlook yet so off we went.

As soon as we left the campsite area we realized the spitting rain was quickly turning into pelting snow. Oh, goodie. No, really…I was excited. I like snow, a lot! At first the snow only dusted the trail signs but as we hiked upward snow started sticking to rocks and really covering the trail. At this point we kind of gave up on a sunrise view of the Torres but we had left the sanctuary of our tent so we kept hiking.

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By the time we reached the overlook area we could see maybe 20 feet in front of us? We were basically hiking in a snow cloud with wet snow falling around us. Yup, no sunrise views of us! We joked with the other dedicated hikers that trekked up the mountain for a bit then headed back down to our campsite.

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When we returned to the campsite area the “sign dusting” of snow had turned into 3+ inches of snow all around us! Once we ducked under the canopy of trees protecting the campsites the snow seemed like a thing of the past…until the moment we pulled our rain fly off our tent. That was the moment the trees decided to do a little shimmy and dump ALL the canopy snow down into our tent and onto the tents around us. It was so cool to watch! Sure, our tent got wet but who cared, we were done camping!

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Packing up camp this last time was quick – we had almost no food in our packs and didn’t need to worry about any strategic packing since we would be sleeping in a warm, dry hostel that night. Yup, we were excited about returning to civilization, if only because we desperately wanted a hot shower and dry socks!

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I had a blast on our trek from Camp Torres to Refugio Chileno – I was surrounded by snow, ducking in and out of the dry forest and loving every minute of it. I was in my element! Torres del Paine sure knows how to tell a girl “thanks for visiting, come again soon!”. While I didn’t exactly love the cold, wet hiking earlier in the week I’d definitely return to the area in the dead of winter!

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After a quick stop at Refugio Chileno for a hot breakfast of oatmeal [the very last of our food] we made our way down the mountain and arrived at Hotel Torres before noon. We had done it! In less than 6 full days we had hiked the full O Circuit of Torres del Paine and survived with a smile! We made a quick stop by the Kiosko for snacks + ice cream for lunch then plopped down in front of the fancy, five-star Hotel Torres…feeling and looking like homeless hippies. We were happy. Tired but happy.

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The rest of our day consisted of a bus ride to Laguna Amarga then another bus ride to Puerto Natales where we headed into town to find a hostel. Logan has a reservation at Erratic Rock and I spent about 45 minutes wandering around until I found space at another hostel – it was a busy night for backpackers in Puerto Natales! After a hot shower with real soap Logan and I inhaled pizza at Basecamp then fell face first into soft, warm, dry bunk beds in our respective hostels.

…and there you have it, the final bits of my six days trekking around Torres del Paine on the O Circuit. It was an experience to say the least! I’d definitely do things a bit different if I went back again [see “dead of winter” comment above!] but overall, I’m really glad I went and got to experience this part of Chile and South America!

Chile Travel: Lessons Learned || Packing + Planning || The O Circuit Part 1

2 Comments

  1. Lynn (Tahoe Fabulous) April 1, 2015 at 1:43 pm Reply

    Well, since the Arizona 200 got cancelled, I think you should run the Tahoe 200! http://www.tahoe200.com/

    • Heidi Nicole April 1, 2015 at 3:28 pm Reply

      It’s been considered…but it’s twice the price that the AZ200 was and I’m trying really hard to budget my races this year!

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