There are few, if any, national parks in the world with the level of accolade and infamy that surrounds Torres del Paine. The grandeur of its natural features, the remoteness of its location, and the brutality of its weather all combine to create a marvelous beast of an attraction and a notch that every outdoor enthusiast would like to add to their belt. There are many ways to explore the crown jewel of Patagonia, but I opted to go all out and hike the famed ‘O’ Circuit. The 8 day / 7 night stroll covers something on the order of 130km and is nothing short of spectacular, but it’s challenges begin long before you step foot on the sacred trail.
Although my permits for camping in the park hold dates in late February, my journey to Torres began way back in September. With what has to be the worst booking system in history, collecting seven consecutive, reasonably spaced, and affordable campsites can be close to impossible. There are about a dozen camping zones within the park, and due to privatization of operations within many national parks in Chile, three different organizations control the campgrounds. Needless to say their systems are completely independent, and exist in various states of disarray. Operators are not even necessarily in a single zone of the park, so reservations may bounce from operator to operator on a daily basis. This means to book campsites you must confirm availability of all seven spaces, with three organizations, for the specific dates needed and if a single one fails to be free the entire plan needs to be reconfigured; and this is only where the struggles begin. I’ll spare the gory details but after starting this booking process in mid-September, I was not confirmed for all seven nights until early November; for reservations in February! I wish this experience upon no one, but I suppose it’s a test of preparedness and organization before the stakes get higher. I am told as of writing this that the absolute worst of the three has improved their booking system slightly to making things less painful, but that is hear-say.
Booking nightmares aside, prepping for this journey is no easy task. Before hiking the ‘O’ I had never executed an overnight stint of more than three consecutive evenings. How the hell was I going to carry eight days of food, let alone gear up and over 1000m climbs in gale force winds? Detailed planning is the key to success in Torres, and I did everything I could to be ready. Rigorous menu preparation is critical to ensure enough food is carried but not a drop extra. And since water is overly abundant in the park, using dehydrated everything is a must to keep a manageable pack-weight. If only the creators of Chef’s Table could have shot a beautiful expose de cuisine of the week long spread: delightful chimes would ring in the background as inspired bowls of cuscus were delicately spiced with dried soup packets; a triumphant timpani roll would climax as a slow motion egg* plummeted towards gushing rapids of boiling ramen; tremoloing flutes would sing light morning fanfares as instant oats simmered, OH MY, is that a little ziplock baggie of cinnamon, what a preparation! I did my best to keep it interesting with fresh vegetables or a special treat Snickers, but overall anything and everything needed to be sacrificed if it wasn’t essential.
On day one, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. My bag weighed somewhere between 18-20 kilograms depending on how much drinking water I carried, and being a week away from the finish line the whole endeavor seemed a little lofty. Once on the trail, an auto-pilot of sorts took over and slowly but surely I started knocking back the kilometers. Rolling hills opened up onto golden valleys of winding blue rivers. In the distance, jagged teasers of what was to come stood tall; the dusting of perennial summer snow aged these veteran peaks. Approaching camp on day two a glaciated pass revealed itself, lounging carelessly, glowing from the sun above, gazing towards the pristine lake it gave life too and upon which my favorite campsite of the journey, Camp Dickson, resided.
Onward, deeper into the park flowing grasslands gave way to pine forest and rocky tundra. Glaciers now perched above each passing lake, some still meddling in the water, yet to recede completely onto land. The rigorous days of hiking and frozen nights became my new norm, and the park my home. The ‘O’ offers a benefit beyond just additional days and views of the park. Compared to it’s more heavily trodden, front side only, cousin the ‘W’, more limited camping options and the distance between them necessitates a nightly reconvening of everyone who begins on the same day. By day three, comradery was strong amongst the dedicated few who opted in for the full circuit. Over bowls of bland pasta we romanticized the delicious, gluttonous, feast that would be had once back in Puerto Natales. At morning instant coffee sessions the rumor mill ran wild about impending weather, mud, and climbs.
The big climb eventually did come, and with it my first run-in with the infamous Patagonian winds. An early start had me scaling up to John Gardner Pass alongside the sun as wind ripped at my large pack like a sail. Gusts sent me sliding across loose rocks as I fought to stand my ground. But luck was on my side as I came over the final ridge, 750 meters above last nights camp, blue skies provided endless views of glacier grey, one of the largest ice fields outside the arctic zone, which stretches from the park through to Argentina. It’s a sight I have no means of comparing to anything previously encountered, and one I wouldn’t be able to fully grasp until I had a closer look later on.
Jagged ice edges splinter off the glacier in methodical, calculated patterns: frozen ripples trapped in time. Between each peak the trough of a royal blue crevasse emanates a haunting glow. As I began to descend I couldn’t believe eyes, what originally appeared to be 10-20 feet of ice was actually 10-20 meters. In the distance I could see kayakers at the base of a recently separated iceberg giving scale to the gigantic natural buoy they paddled passed, hardly a spec in comparison. I knew glaciers could be thick, but I did not realize the effective unit of measure was stories. For two days I walked alongside the expansive ice field and never seemed to make notable progress in relation to its size; huge doesn’t describe it. I spent a night camped above the ice; as wind shrieked over the frozen land, and the sun dropped behind distant mountains I took my post on the Night's Watch in this Game of Thrones scene.
Things change as the path winds back into the frontside of the park. Foot traffic slowly increases from the opposite direction; at first a trickle and soon a flood. The quiet, semi-private trail became a mega-highway for large tour groups and even larger camera lenses. It’s important not to be distracted by the hordes though as the wind in previous parts of the park had been child’s play to what I now faced. Gusts upwards of 70km/h left behind a trail of tent carcasses in each campground. Frantic headlamps could be seen every night as a few nylon abodes failed to hold through to the morning calm. My own tent, one I considered to be well suited for this type of work, didn’t come out unscathed. It has taken on a permanent lean as a change in wind direction left it unsheltered, bending multiple poles into new, more organic forms.
I took in the iconic views of the Valle del Francés and Mirador Británico, which offer up in your face natural beauty at its best. The giant Cerro Paine Grande, ornately decorated with glacier and waterfalls is a marvel to watch as the afternoon sun carves bits of ice from it’s face. Thunder reverberates for minutes as each gigantic falling block is pulverized upon contact with the ground below. With a much lighter backpack and the finish line in sight, the final two days of hiking were relatively easy. My legs were on cruise control and the daily camp setup and teardown routine had been perfected. But with only five kilometers left to the final campsite, and the true end practically visible, my luck with weather finally ran out.
Any other blog post, review, or general discussion of Torres del Paine would spend a good portion of time discussing the weather and it’s brutality. That hasn’t been the case here because it didn’t happen. For seven consecutive days I had nothing more than a light drizzle and even that was fleeting. Almost a week of bluebird days anywhere in Patagonia is unheard of, and to have that happen in Torres was just about the best possible gift Mother Nature could have granted me. However, I couldn’t get out completely untouched, no matter how much good outdoor karma I had racked up, and for my last hour of hiking I felt the wrath. Rain drops, driven by the furious wind, exploded like tiny bombs as the momentum on each one drove it into the ground like a bunker buster. When one managed to evade my hood the crack of it landing on my cheek was audible. Once the rain set in there was no end in sight, and it didn’t let up. I can’t imagine the toll that type of weather would take on a person over eight days of hiking, let alone the wintery mix you would find higher up in the mountains. Dry(ish) and in the tent I went into a deep hibernation knowing the loop was complete and the next day I would be on a bus back to Puerto Natales.
Up until the last moment of this trek, when asked where I was headed on my trip, Torres del Paine was the answer. This hike was the only anchor point of my entire South America journey and now it was complete. Back in Puerto Natales the feast me and my ‘O’-mates had dreamed of a week earlier came to fruition. We gorged on pizza, pasta, and delicious cocktails. It was a feeding frenzy and all budgetary concerns were, for a moment, forgotten. After sharing a few laughs, and saying our goodbyes for now the group disbanded as a unit for the last time. Walking back to the hostel the only thing I could think about was the question: where to now? There was no obvious answer.
* Yes, we bring eggs camping. Abi is a far more delicate and conscious person than I am and she carries out all egg transportation operations. However this has become a staple of our camping diet and it seems to be pretty successful. When added to boiling pasta or ramen an egg turns it into a sort of egg drop soup or carbonara, it is quite delicious.