The final chapter of our adventures trekking the circuit in TDP
This is a continuation of my last two posts about trekking the circuit in Torres del Paine. Click here to read part 1 (which is an introduction to the park) and click here to see part 2. Part 3 was the most challenging of the trek but with the greatest challenges, also come the greatest rewards.
Refugio Dickson to Campamento Los Perros
Total km hiked: 8.7 km (5.4 miles)
Time it took us: Just under 4 hours; we stopped and took lots of photos
Terrain: A steep ascent from refugio Dickson followed by a mostly flat, very scenic trail; great trekking this day!
Cost: $7 each for camping. The campground is well spaced and wooded, sites are flat. Sink available for dishwashing; water from tap; cold showers only; small “store” selling beer (!), pasta, sauce, soup, chocolate (!), cookies; great cooking shelter-somewhat enclosed with broken wood and ripped tarps-there is an actual woodburning stove inside tho-great for drying wet clothes and being somewhat warm
Day 4 was one of our favorite days. Surely the easiest and scenic of the days. No sore feet or achy muscles, just great, easy trekking with gorgeous views.
We woke up in a real bed with real heat drifting up from the wood burning stove. I felt a short-lived stab of guilt when I looked outside at the campers shaking their wet tents out while trying to swat mosquitos. We took a little walk down to the beach behind the campsite (you shouldn’t miss going there; Tip: be sure to walk along the left side of the beach for about 20 minutes to get even better views) to get a glimpse of glacier Dickson. Shrouded in mystical-like clouds, this glacier was still one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The glacier literally takes over the whole mountain, spilling down from every which way:
Walking along the beach:
After the walk, we packed up our bags (which were, for the first time, noticeably lighter!) and headed up the sharp ascent out of Dickson towards our next destination, Camp Los Perros. After the first ascent, the trail was mostly flat and afforded us beautiful views of Glacier Dickson behind us. Along the way, we were surrounded by so many beautiful wild orchids like this one:
and other interesting flowers like this one:
I couldn’t get over all the wildflowers growing in this part of the park. When you hike the “W”, you don’t see many different types of flowers. You only see this one-which is really beautiful too:
The day we hiked to Seron and even on the way to Dickson, we were surrounded by fields of daisies as far as your eye could see. And now we were walking among wild orchids and other unique flora. Another benefit of trekking the circuit. We came across a torrential gorge and picturesque waterfall; a perfect place to stop for lunch:
Shortly after that, we arrived at Glacier Los Perros which is located very close to the camp of the same name. Another stunning glacier, this one seemed to hang off the mountain and formed a reflective pool of water for the chunks of ice that would come crashing down:
We neared the camp & got our first peek at Paso John Gardner (1200 m; 4000 ft):
Tonight the plan was to camp at Los Perros and wake up very early the next day to try to cross the pass with good weather. To be honest, I was nervous as all hell when I saw those snowy parts. I just hoped the trail somehow skirted past all of that. For the moment, I was just happy to arrive at Los Perros and I tried not to think about crossing the pass, only about the view that we would be rewarded with.
One of the main benefits to doing the circuit, other than avoiding the crowds and seeing more wild parts of the park, is crossing the pass at John Gardner. I read about it years ago when I first got into trekking. It’s pretty steep and you have to ascend quite a bit (4,000 ft) but it’s all worth it for the views (so I heard). If it’s a clear day, you can see all across Glacier Grey and into the Hielo Sur (Southern Ice Field), which is the largest ice field in the world, outside of Antarctica and Greenland.
We drank a beer at the camp, cooked dinner in the heated shelter where we could make our socks toasty warm and chatted with the other people who were also trekking the circuit. By now, it was the same group of faces; all in all-there were about 20 of us. A group of young Californian boys were ‘totally stoked’ to be doing the trek and were praying for harsh weather conditions; no doubt to have great stories to tell back home. I was praying for clear skies. A group of 6 Brazilian guys (including the whistler) didn’t care either way. The other people were couples-2 Germans, who treated the trek like a walk down the street. And 2 separate young girls who were by themselves (!) which is not recommended (you should always hike a long trek like this with another person).
We bought more chocolate for dessert and had lots of laughs with the other campers. Retiring to bed early seemed sensible though, as the wind started to pick up and we wanted to get an early start the next day because the weather is typically best early in the morning. I lay down that night to sleep, praying for good weather and trying hard not to think of the big snow patches that covered the pass. I hoped my wishes for good weather were greater than the Californian guys wishes for adverse conditions. Here is us on day 4, right before bed:
The wind picked up and howled furiously, waking Laurent & I up throughout the night. I could hear what sounded like ice pelting the tent. I thought of the Californian guys celebrating. My stomach started to feel uneasy as I tried to go back to sleep.
Campamento Los Perros back to Campamento Los Perros
Total km hiked: 10 km total (6.2 miles) (5 km to try to cross the pass and then 5 km back to the camp)
Time it took us: about 5 hours
Terrain: Muddy doesn’t quite describe it. It took us over an hour to get through the mud which sinks up to your calf at times. Sometimes there are rocks to step on to avoid it but mostly you just have to move quickly through it and deal with mud soaked boots and pants. The trail is slightly up and down; this day we only hiked to the last tree line before the pass
Cost: $7 per person back at Camp Los Perros. For more information on the campground, see above
This day was the worst one of the trek. We woke up to the sound of the alarm going off at 5:30 am. The wind was still howling and I was freezing. Stepping out of the tent, I reached up for the zipper and it felt frozen. It was. Ice and snow covered our tent and the campground. I looked up at the sky and was surprised to see it clear. This gave me a shred of hope. We quickly made our coffee and breakfast and we chatted with the Californian boys who were so happy that there was bad weather. I tried my best to not think of all this and concentrate on the hope I had that the weather would be clear.
We started out early enough and the skies remained clear which kept me going. Even the queasy feeling in my stomach began to subside. We had to cross over an hours worth of mud that you couldn’t help but sink calf-deep into. Crossing it was like trying to figure out a great big, annoying puzzle.
Many curses later, we emerged from the forest of mud and as we left the trees behind and entered more open space, the wind started to pick up and howl furiously. We got a clear view of the pass that lie ahead and I could see the first Californian guy who left camp the earliest making his way over the pass. The clouds were moving in fast and as he reached the top, the clouds took over in an instant. It was like someone pulled a curtain of grey over the clear sky. The wind whipped fast and it began to snow. Uneasy doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. I have zero experience trekking over ice and snow but I tried to do my best as we hit our first snowy patches:
It might not look like much from the photo but it was a sheet of ice that had me slipping all over the place. With my backpack attached and the wind blowing snow furiously around me, I almost was knocked over if not saved by my trekking poles. The weather got progressively worse as we approached the last patch of trees before the exposed mountain came into view. I was pretty nervous at this point because the pass was steep and looked icy!
We stopped in the trees to see if the weather would improve. It didn’t. Soon you couldn’t even see the pass. The Germans went over the pass like soldiers. We saw the rest of the Californian guys who were laughing and yelling as they swaggered past us. I stood in the trees freezing with Laurent not knowing what to do. We made a coffee to keep warm while we continued to watch the weather. My gut told me don’t do it. But turning around felt like the biggest defeat. Like giving up! I was torn.
After waiting over an hour, we turned around. As we walked, the snow stopped and the sun peeked out for about 5 minutes and then it returned to blizzard conditions. This happened about 5 more times while we walked and I wasn’t sure if I made the right decision to go back. What if it was worse tomorrow?! We crossed again through all that mud, all the while I felt miserable.
Back at camp and after we set up our tent (again) the sun came out! What did we do?! I really felt awful. Maybe we had made the wrong decision. I remembered how strong my gut told me not to do it and tried to focus on that. I felt defeated, sad and a bit afraid. I lie in the tent with Laurent drinking a beer and playing Yahtzee to try to cheer up a bit. I asked my mom for guidance. I tried to sleep, hoping for the best for the morning. The wind continued to blow. We took no photo of ourselves this day.
Campamento Los Perros to Campamento Paso
Total km hiked: 12 km (7.4 miles)
Time it took us: 6 hours
Terrain: Slight up and down with the worst mud I have ever seen on a trail that takes over an hour to cross (see above); Sharp ascent up the Paso John Gardner-covered with large patches of snow and ice (this was in December only about 2 weeks after the trail opened though); sharp descent down over the pass and continued steeply down to Camp Paso.
Cost: Campamento Paso is free and you know why when you arrive. There is a ‘toilet’ (actually just a hole in the ground); cooking shelter and lots of uneven places to put your tent. We were lucky to arrive early and find a flat spot. The views of glacier Grey nearby are stunning though; water from the river only; no sink
Day 6 was my most rewarding day of the trek because I conquered my fear and finally went up over that pass. It felt so good to accomplish this goal I set for myself years ago and didn’t get to complete. We were rewarded with amazing blue skies, warmth and views into the Southern Ice Field as far as our eyes would let us see. Pushing your mind and your body past your fears though, is the greatest reward ever.
We woke up even earlier than the previous morning. At night we heard the wind howling but this morning we woke up to silence. I didn’t know what to expect when I opened the tent. I was greeted with this:
I was so elated! I thanked my mom and we began our job of packing up and eating breakfast. We set out with big strides and all the while, the sun shone and the sky remained clear. The snow which fell the day before actually worked to our benefit providing some much needed traction over the ice. It made crossing the slippery parts much easier. Even the mud didn’t seem too bad, we had actually gotten better at crossing it!
After making our way through the trees, we saw the pass which looked so pretty thanks to freshly fallen snow:
Here we are ready to cross the pass on day 6:
We were so happy that the sky was so blue and there was no wind! We almost went running for the pass. But that was impossible because even though the weather was great, it was still a huge challenge to climb steeply up the snowy pass. I just went one small step at a time using my trekking poles as support and kicking a patch of snow/ice for my steps with my boots.
Laurent was slightly ahead of me but stopped just before reaching the pass. He turned around, grabbed my hand and together we crossed the top of the pass holding hands. Here is the photo we snapped just before cresting:
And in that moment, I knew we had made the right decision by waiting an extra day. This is what was on the other side-the photos simply do not do it justice:
You could see into the Hielo Sur:
Being so high above a glacier like that afforded me views I have never seen before; it was like looking down at another world:
You could see deep crevices, designs only nature could create, glacial lakes in shades of blue that looked unreal & ancient rock scarred by movement. The best nature has to offer felt like it was sprawled out in front of us stretching infinitely. We felt very small.
We sat up at the top and the moment lasted forever. It’s one of those moments in life that you live for. Where everything is in its right place and it feels like everything you have ever done has led you to be here. I savored the sun and the views and Laurent next to me. While the views were extraordinary, I felt such deep gratification knowing I really pushed myself hard to get there. I remembered in May, when I couldn’t even walk due to a back injury. And here I was, carrying 30 lbs. over a mountain pass. The impossible is always possible. I was so happy to have followed my instincts the day before and wait one more day. Always follow your gut!!
We saw crazy people coming up from the other way (clockwise). I snapped a photo because it can give perspective to how small the people are compared to the landscape. But the photos really do not do any justice to this immense landscape. I had seen tons of photos of this view and nothing compared to seeing it in person. The people to the left really looked like ants marching:
We began the steep descent down. I had read that it was so steep you cannot help but fall and this put me off to doing the circuit, however, if you take your time and go slowly using your trekking poles for support, you can do it. I could definitely feel my knees with each step down but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
Just before reaching Campamento Paso, we had to cross two ravines where there are ladders to help you up & down. I am pretty scared of heights, so this wasn’t exactly my favorite thing to do, especially while wearing a big backpack and having a raging river right below you but I managed it alright:
We arrived at Camp Paso very tired. At this point, I started to feel really gross and this is why most hikers keep going on to Refugio Grey where you can take a hot shower. But my exhaustion weighed out over my desire to be clean (even though the last shower we had was on Day 2…ugh gross).
We made dinner and took a walk to see a close up of Glacier Grey which was very close to the campground and very beautiful:
Glaciers are really worlds of their own, alive and full of movement. I think this is part of my fascination with them. I could stare at this beauty all day.
We collapsed into our tent and into our beds and as bad as I had felt the night before the pass, I felt equal parts elation and satisfaction.
Campamento Paso to Refugio Paine Grande where we took a catamaran back to the entrance to the park
Total km hiked: 21 km (13 miles)
Time it took us: 8 hours
Terrain: Up & down until Refugio Grey followed by an ascent to the mirador (lookout point) for the glacier. After the mirador, it’s mostly downhill all the way to Paine Grande
Cost: We didn’t camp. We decided to take the catamaran back to the entrance of the park where we could catch a bus back to the nearby town of Puerto Natales. Catamaran cost $24 per person. We were back in town for dinner and the sunset. And a hot shower!!
We awoke to no alarm which was heavenly. The skies were overcast and it drizzled slightly. We decided to head back to Puerto Natales so we would hike the 21 km back to where we could catch a boat that would take us to a bus that would take us back to town. We wanted a shower and a good meal! We deserved it!
After hiking for 6 days straight with a backpack, it becomes easier. So the 21 km back seemed almost too easy. But I didn’t mind much. My feet and muscles were still achy from the past days hikes. Even with overcast skies, we could bid a beautiful goodbye to Glacier Grey and her stunning icebergs. Here is the view leaving Camp Paso:
After Refugio Grey (which has been renovated since our last trip here 3 years ago into somewhat of a fancy-type lodge!), you can finally get a view of the face of the glacier:
It has receded way too much we noticed, over the three years. Pretty sad. And we noticed a lot more bigger icebergs than last time:
But you still couldn’t help being awed by it’s beauty:
Here we are, day 7-final day:
The walk back to Paine Grande was a sad one for us. In 2012, a fire was started in the park (there are NO FIRES ALLOWED in the park due to the unpredictability of the weather and especially the wind; you are only permitted to use a campstove to cook food). This is common sense for most hikers and trekkers (high winds-especially hurricane force winds = no fires!) but that’s part of the problem with this park, as it attracts so many people who have never hiked before and don’t respect the nature enough.
The fire destroyed much of the park from Glacier Grey to Paine Grande. We remember the former beauty of this part of the park and to walk through all the charred remains was humbling and sad. Paine Grande used to have all this amazing colored grass everywhere:
And now it’s destroyed by fire:
Very sad. Please, if you are going to go out into nature, carry your freaking garbage out (you cannot believe how many people shove garbage in the toilets or just leave it on the ground!) Your mother isn’t going to pick it up for you nor is the garbage man going to come! And don’t light fires when you aren’t supposed to! And for crissakes, stay on the freaking trail. The trail is there to help protect the surrounding environment from getting destroyed. You are not a pioneer or cool if you are making your own trail. You are destroying moss and lichens that will take thousands of years to grow back! Sorry, just a bit of a rant.
Anyhow, we arrived back to Puerto Natales that evening, had hot showers! and went to the same restaurant we did three years ago, Afrigonia. It’s owned by an African wife and her Chilean husband and they have fused the two cuisines into something close to perfect. It’s expensive but it’s totally worth it!
The pisco sour is divine and so irresistible when served in a penguin cup!
We started with the mango ceviche which was to die for!!
and then moved onto Patagonian lamb that did not disappoint:We drank wine and watched the sunset. It was an exceptional evening and we both felt a satisfaction that you can only get when you challenge yourself outside of your comfort zone. I love being out in nature and seeing extraordinary landscapes but setting a goal and completing it, especially after an injury, is very rewarding. Having a shower after doing without for 6 days was pretty rewarding too!
I feel so lucky to have shared the experience with Laurent. We helped each other out when the other needed it most. There were times when I needed his support to make it through and he was there for me. I truly realized that that’s the most important thing.
Love love love this! What an awesome trip! Thanks for the inspirations!
Really great to read and you are a great writter Joanna .. I had the impression to be with you and Laurent !!! I would love to do it .. because as you said when you overpass your comfort zone .. it is even much nicer !! .. Back home in France… I shall leave soon again !!!
Waitting for the next article … as it was a really interesting book to read ..
Nathalie! So great hearing from you!!!! It was great completing the circuit! So glad that I could make you feel that you were with us. Wish you could have been. Laurent is jealous that you get to eat French food again! (he is missing his home food!). Check out our post on Antarctica too….that was another pushing outside the comfort zone. it’s always so worth it when you do it, even though sometimes you don’t think so at the time 🙂 Thanks for reading and please keep in touch!