We now have cudos amongst trekkers worldwide as we have hiked the “O”! An 8 day circular trek in Paragonian Chile with some tough climbs, great views, packs filled with tents & food and highly unpredictable weather.
I’m not sure of the moment we decided to go ahead with the full 8 day trek, rather than settling for the easier 4-day “W” – it seemed to become an unspoken agreement as we stocked up on dried foods and snacks in Puerta Natales, and once we made it over the John Gardener Pass there was definately no turning back.
Day 1 saw us on the bus to the ‘Parque National’ by 7.30am having consummed the most hearty of breakfasts. After the systematic ushering through park registration, entry fees, being given a map and attending the video briefing on park rules, we set off for Campamento Seròn about 10.30 am, being blown along the blustery riverside of Rio Paine. The peaks of the towers, in the photo above, were in view for the rest of the morning but later disappeared behind the hills only to be glimpsed once more before our final day. It wasn’t a tough days walk but with heavy packs we were ready to pitch the tent and have a siesta mid-afternoon! We’d passed through meadows in their springtime greeness, spotted a hare, saw lots of riverside daisies contrasting nicely with the milky glacial blue of the river and had the weather onside for our first day. Tucked up by 8.30pm (too chilly to stay up longer, even with a hot shower!) we were looking forward to the days ahead but a bit concerned that we weren’t carrying enough food to see us through to Day 4 where we could stock up at a ‘Refugio’.
Day 2 led us up and over a small pass to Lago Paine, along the lakeside and on to Lago Dickson for our next night of camping. The weather was even kinder as we had almost no wind but that brought about another small problem: mozzies! On the go was fine, but as soon as we stopped for a bite to eat, or sun cream or even a rest, the blighters would gather for our blood! Luckily they were like bites at home (rather than bites in Southeast Asia) and the itching would only last for 24 hours (rather than 3 days). Needless to say we pitched the tent faster than ever at Dickson to avoid being eaten alive. Our walk was more challenging mainly because we thought it was a 4.5 hour day, but actually it was a 6 hour hike – we learned to trust the park map more than the Lonely Planet at this point! Much of the time we were in Alpine pasture-like areas with occasional ducks onto tree-ed paths and several stream crossings – some with bridges and some which required a scamper across the stones. The tepid shower at Dickson was most welcome (as was the shampoo someone left behind – we weren’t carrying any soap as food and warm clothes seemed more important!) – it would be another 3 days before another shower opportunity presented itself.
Day 3 took us along woodland paths for most of the day, protecting us from the persistent drizzle, until we popped out in an area of glacial morraine pebble piles and were able to peak over the windblown edge towards Glacier Perros and its windswept lake with little icebergs. We camped in the damp and muddy Campamento Perros where we heard horror stories of ragging torrents, knee deep mud and dangerous river crossings in the days ahead – tomorrow would be the decider as to whether we would need to turn back to safety. As the evening drew on the sky lightened and we headed back to the glacier lake to appreciate a less windy, drizzly view of the glacier – this had two bonuses firstly we had a nice sunset and secondly we snuggled in to our sleeping bags feeling warm for the night.
Day 4 was the big one – the Pass at 1200m and no longer a choice of turning back! Luckily it also hosted the most beautiful, windless blue sky day. The muddy gullies that we’d heard about were already drying out, allowing us to skirt around them, and as we left tree cover behind we had lots of bouldery streams. It was a technical day of walking – negotiating streams, hopping from rock to rock and all the while climbing higher. Despite the hard work my body seemed to be ready for the challenge and this was my favourite day of walking. For the morning we were surrounded by majestic mountain tops, leaving us a smaller sky, while the condition of the path meant I had to think about each footstep (rather than look up and dread the uphill ahead!), then at midday we arrived at the Pass and were rewarded with new, fresh scenery: Glacier Grey and a crown of snowy peaks in every direction in the distance. The glacier is huge with massive crevasses and entrapped glacier blue – breathtakingky beautiful and a great reward for our efforts. Warren didn’t feel quite the same, but with hindsight he was becoming rundown with the onset of D&V. After a 20 minute stop at the top we scampered on down, through drying mud and washed out paths, to our campsite at Paso – a much drier, lighter spot than the previous night. I stayed up until sunset, but Warren had crashed out sometime earlier – hopefully charging his batteries for the next long day.
Day 5 sported a downhill theme, so used a different set of muscles, but presented another change of scenery as we continued parallel to the glacier edge getting occasional glimpses of aqua blue caves until we reached the glacier face where its cliff like edges dropped in to the milky-grey lake. Our challenge today? River crossings! Not because the water was high (2 dry days meant little water to worry about) but because of the huge gullies with steep sandy banks and precarious ladder systems to negotiate down one bank and up the next – somewhat like Go Ape with no safety harness! From the middle of each gully the view left was directly up the mountain side, and the view right dropped away to the glacier edge. Very dramatic and not easy to capture on camera. One if the gullies should have a bridge across it in the next few months – 7 helicopter loads of materials had been dropped in place the day before, but things were not going to plan! The days hike ended at Refugio Grey – an enormous complex of camping and hostel accommodation. We took advantage of the restaurant for lunch and dinner, and had a hot shower. Clean-beans with full tummies – we were happy bunnies (but Warren still had tummy problems!).
Day 6 was a day of lakes – beautiful azure pools surrounded by greens hills and distant snowy peaks. We were pleased with the easy walk to Refugio Paine Grande to stock up on food supplies, but it meant we had truely joined the mass tourism of those walking the “W”. We completed 2 days walking in one day, so that we could take a side walk tomorrow, and pushed on to Campamento Italiano by the evening. The afternon sun was burning hot, so Factor 30 was reapplied and we arrived to the slopes of the campsite by about 6pm.
Day 7 presented another 2-walk day. In the morning we wound our way into the heart of the park along Valle del Francès, then we broke camp and continued along the circuit to Refugio Cuernos for our final night of camping in the park. The valley walk was hard work but gave views across to the calving ‘Glaciar del Francès’ and we rested at Mirador Británico surronded by at least 24 mountain peaks, nestled in the heart of the park. Beautiful but, again, hard to capture in a photo. The afternoon was an easy walk with a few lake headlands to cross but due to the burnt trees had very little shade. The fun part was hearing thunderous crashes as the glacier continued calving in the afternoon heat – very dramatic as the sound rumbled around mountain sides.
Day 8 – the final few miles! After a great nights sleep we were up early and on the path before most campers were awake. The first part of our morning wove around the lakesides before turning left across a rocky desert and our final destination – Hotel Torres del Paine and our bus trip back to Puerto Natales. It was a scorching day, but with a forecast for 10°C hotter tomorrow, we were glad to be leaving the park. This has been a great challenge and it’s great that the weather was on our side and that all our kit held up to the task too. Time to celebrate with a treat of a dinner and a night without a rollmat back in Puerto Natales!