The Big “O”: Torres del Paine Circuit Part I

After a full breakfast, our 7:45am bus to Parque Nacional de Torres arrived promptly at our door.  We were a bit foggy, but managed to nap almost the entire 2 hour ride.  Upon arrival at the park, we were briefed on some rules and regulations, directions of where to go and notifications on which campgrounds were currently closed due to fires.   After signing a declaration that we would respect nature, not pee, smoke or cook on the trails, or light fires anywhere, we paid our 20,000 peso park fee and hopped the short internal park shuttle to our trail-head.  After looking closely at the map we received at the park gate to confirm our days’ route, we jumped off the shuttle, slung our packs on at Hosteria Las Torres and began our journey heading North.  Our plan was to trek and camp the entire circuit in 8 days and 7 nights, counter-clockwise.  Using this approach, the backside of the park is covered first, then after 4 days, it links up with the popular “W”.

Day 1 – Hosteria del Torres to Campamento Seron –  9km/ 4hours

The entrance to the park built the anticipation with rolling hills turning into steeper peaks, and surrounding lakes.   It was far more exciting than our first day on the trail.  Our backs were turned to the entrance to the park, leaving the Torres behind us (without sneaking a peak).  The route to our first camp-site, Campamento Seron, was meant to be an easy walk for our starting day. Going the other direction (clock-wise), we would have hit one of the steepest climbs in the entire park, on our first day, with 100% of the weight in our packs.  ASIDE:  packs get lighter by the day as you consume food.  We made a wise choice.  Though the trail was uneventful, and if we hadn’t managed to chat most of the way with each other, it could possibly have been a total bore.  The steep peaks nearly disappeared behind us, rolling hills appeared in the distance and the remnants of a 2005 forest fire, that destroyed 155 km2 of the park, surrounded us.  Our elevation gain was minimal, which was a good introduction to carrying our packs for long distances.   Other than figuring out a way to cross a bridge-less river without getting wet, the highlight was being with each other.  Our conversation steered towards our list  of things we were looking forward to over the next 8 days.  Included for both of us were getting back in shape, just being outside, and seeing spectacular scenery.   Topping the list was the chance to disconnect from everything, opening the opportunity to reconnect with each other.  Although it may seem weird, because we spend 24-7 together, it’s quite easy to get involved in the people and places around and totally forget to get down and dirty into deep, important conversation with each other.  This was a good opportunity for that.

Trail day 1

We arrived at Seron just shy of the posted trail time of 4 hours.  In the scheme of things, 4 hours is not a lot, but we arrived with sore feet and tired bodies – an indication of our poor fitness level and a bit of a wake-up call as this was meant to be our easiest day.   The campsite was very basic with outdoor toilets, a wood covered shelter for cooking and showers with limited hot water.  After small talk with some other hikers on the same route, Laura and “the Germans”, our first task was to set up our tent.  This is where the biggest challenge of the day was.  We were tired, hungry and cranky; a winning combination to snowball the frustrations we were having with set-up.  The wind had picked up significantly since our day started, and was getting worse by the minute.  The campsite was situated perfectly in a valley, making us the only obstacle for the blasts of wind coming off of the mountains.  It was relentless.   We had a couple of issues;  first, the 2 pieces of plastic we had bought were not big enough to act as a fly over our entire tent, and two, the wind was so strong, our little one pole tent was getting a good beating.  We finally figured it out, tied the tent to couple of trees to hold it up in the wind, and fed the rope through the plastic to hold it on in case of rain.  It wasn’t perfect, but we figured it that if at any time through the night we needed to, we would b-line it for the empty rental tent right beside us. This was our lesson for not testing our gear before we started.   It was also an interesting test in newly-wed communication.  We ate like camels that night, wanting to build our reserves for the anticipated long Day 2, with a big plate of tortellini (we opted to eat the only pasta we brought, as it was the heaviest thing in our packs).  After that, we were ready for sleep.  No shower.  We crawled into the tent, at what seemed like the same moment the wind decided to unleash its total fury.  The gusts pushed the side of the tent against us and threatened to blow our rain cover completely off. Yay.

The first night of sleeping in a tent, on a thin foam mat can be rough in the best of circumstances.  That night, the wind showed us who was boss.  By 1 am, after small naps placed intermittently between shifts in position and the beginnings of rain sprinkling overhead, Dale made the call; “I’m moving to the tent next door, you coming?”  We bear hugged our sleeping bags and mats and ran, naked, in the dark to the tent next door.  We left our bags and tent stranded to deal with the wind on their own.  The rental tent wasn’t much better at handling the wind, but at least we had space.  Somewhere close to dawn, I managed to fall asleep for a couple of hours.

Day 2 – Seron to Dickson – 19km/ 6.5 hours

A gentle sun illuminated the new day and we were the last ones to wake up in the morning.  Over oatmeal with dried strawberries and coffee, we learned that no one had gotten any sleep.  We would all head out onto the posted 6.5 hr Day 2 trail, without proper rest.  Just as we were about to hit the trail, we noticed a weight scale, placed strategically for us to weigh our bags.  We knew we had packed light, but were surprised when Dale weighed in at 13kg, and myself at 14kg. Our new American friend Laura weighed in at 21kg.  We were carrying 60% of the weight of most other hikers.  We were either incredibly smart, or incredibly stupid.

With the previous night’s suffering forgotten, we headed out, with gentle climbs and descents, gradually gaining elevation.  As the trail began to turn west, we were re-visited by the wind.  Under normal weather conditions, this part of the trail wouldn’t present much difficulty, apart from a few quick climbs.  On this day, with winds gusting to 100km/hr, we weren’t so lucky.  As we passed over lakes, not only could we feel the strength of the wind’s force, but we could see it as it picked up water from one side of the lake and carried it to the opposite shore.  As we climbed our largest ascent of the day, approximately 2 hours in, the wind lashed liberally against us.  Its power slowed us to a very careful snail’s pace, as we were forced to use our poles for support.  We took one step forward and the wind pushed us back a half step.  At one point, I turned to see Dale running the other way.  A gust had caught under his sunglasses, taking them into flight down the path we had just covered.   He recovered them and caught up. 

The wind, before the pass.

Gusts of wind crossing the lake below

Then, we hit “the pass.”  This part of the trail, with a large lake below, split into two peaks; the one we had just climbed, and one we were about to traverse across.  There was no protection.  We thought we had already passed through the worst of it, we were wrong.  The wind sped along the lake, 200 meters below, like The Rocket Richard over fresh ice.  Up the nearly sheer drop, it skinned the mountainside like a razor, towards us, and then, almost as if to say “respect me, bitch”, it swirled into the pass targeting the bulls eye on our faces.

We got low, and slowly faced the wind current head-on.  After being lifted off my feet and thrown into a thorn bush, we looked for some cover.  Dale managed to take a few steps off-trail and take shelter behind a large boulder.  I wasn’t so lucky.  I got low, almost crawling, but the wind was so strong that it took a hold of me with each movement.  I was frozen in place.  Tears were running down my face – mostly from the wind but partly from an intense fear in me that began to surface.  I couldn’t go forward.

Yelling at each other over the whistles in our ears, we decided to turn back and find shelter.  We turned to see Laura, accompanied by the Swiss couple, Marco and Laetitia.  We passed on the message that we couldn’t make it through.  After attempting themselves, they turned to join us in our return to cover from the elements.  We managed to tuck ourselves in a gulley behind a few trees, remove our packs and make a game plan.  Dale, Marco and I attempted without our packs.  Though it was easier when the wind wasn’t catching the pack, it still seemed impossible.   We gathered again, discussing our options over a snack.  The moment became decisive; we could either turn back to Seron for the night, admitting defeat, or tackle the pass in a close group.  Our decision to go forward was not entirely wise.  However, we hadn’t seen anyone else turn back, which meant it was possible.

The five of us huddled together and moved as a unit.  Marco lead, Dale picked up the tail.  When we hit the strongest point of wind, Marco moved a bit too quickly and separated himself and Laetitia from the rest of us.  This put Laura in the lead, and Dale behind me.  Noticing that Laura with her larger and heavier pack, couldn’t hold her position, Dale passed by me, got low, took Laura’s arm and lead our threesome.  Still struggling to stand, the sharp wind cut our faces like a knife, I pushed into Laura from behind and we moved forward as a team.  We only had to cover 400m and we would be through the worst of it.   Take one step.  Move one pole.  Move the other pole, take another step.   In this way, watching both our footing and the almost straight drop below, we clawed our way through.  We began down the opposite side of the pass, feeling like we could accomplish anything.

The rest of the trail exposed glaciers and jagged peaks in the distance, but the pass was our excitement for the day.   After the trembles from adrenaline wore off, Dale and I continued the remaining 4 hours of the trail in silence; sort of a practice of walking meditation.  Daydreams took me soaring away periodically, then I would regroup and focus on the rhythm of walking.  Finally, after six hours, we descended the last few hundred meters in a flash, as if there were no weight on our backs at all.  We had arrived at Dickson.

View from the trail, before Dickson

Sheltered by trees and mountains, we had protection from the wind and set up camp in a flash.  Feeling self-satisfied we devoured every morsel of an over-sized meal of rice and lentils.  Despite the ferocious mosquitoes, that night, we tucked into our tent, closed our eyes and gave up our pain to the night.

Dusk at Dickson

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6 thoughts on “The Big “O”: Torres del Paine Circuit Part I

  1. Hi, Interesting account! Can I ask: Do the camp sites close during low season, as you seemed to have gone late. Seron for instance lists itself as closing mid March! Thanks!

    • Hi Dave! I do believe most of the backside campsites close during the winter months mid April – around October. Even in the summer months the weather can change drastically there from one moment to the next. My suggestion would be to contact the park directly online (http://www.torresdelpaine.com/ingles/secciones/08/contacto.asp) and they can let you know what is open and also what the conditions are like. Our post came after we had trekked. We went mid-March.

      • Hi A&D,
        Thanks for that. I ended up phoning the offices in PN, and they tell me that the camp sites at C. Seron (fairly critical) and R. Chileno are ‘closed’ from mid March 2013, though we can still camp unsupported: no hot water, store etc.. That’s fine, so we also will trek mid March! Your photos help alot – looking forward to it!
        Dave

      • Hi Dave! Good to know and thanks for sharing the info. It’s nice to have the hot water option available.. though we opted not to use it. The store, however will make your refreshments after hiking all day be the best you’ve ever had! Enjoy.

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