Patagonia Trek: Nine Days in Torres del Paine National Park


For nine days we walked around the Torres del Paine circuit in Chilean Patagonia, moving through wind, rain, snow, and sun, cold, heat, pain, and fatigue. Our trials were rewarded with some of the grandest vistas I’ve ever seen, and an inner stillness that is the same as the grand presence of the mountains themselves. But before our first evening, a mishap would stall our adventure.

Image from Michael Abbot via Flickr.

And there would be many more mishaps to come.

Although many mishaps occured during our trip, our food preparation was perfect. We bought most of it in La Paz, Bolivia.

Prelude: Administration to Las Carretas, 2 hours

We were shocked by the wind as we started our walk from the bus, up the so-called “tail” of the Q circuit approaching the park. But the flat walk through scrub was easy and pleasant, and the camp serene beside a chartreuse-colored glacier-fed river. We staked our tent, and a gust of wind knocked it down with a crack.

The base of the peg that attached to the tent pole Y was completely split. We tried duct tape, the wire from a key ring, and a little glow stick I had hanging from my pack to repair it, but nothing worked. We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the sunshine and joking about what the tent looked like.

A half-inflated bouncy castle. A discarded basketball in a weedy lot. A dirty, wadded-up T-shirt. A crumpled Cheetos bag. A failed souffle. A traffic cone run over by an 18-wheeler. A pumpkin three months after Halloween. An orange Skittle someone had stepped on. A giant orange pile of shit.

Our tent got jacked up the first night, and we had to hike out to repair it.

Next day we hiked out, got on the bus back to town, exchanged tent poles, and checked back into a hostel to try again the next day.

Day 1 – Paine Grande to Italiano, 2.5 hours

The wind blew terrifically on our second attempt to enter the park. On the catamaran ride nearly no one came to the upper deck, and Aaron had to hold on to me as I snapped photos. After we docked the hike was easy to our crowded campsite, which was next to a roaring river and overlooked by a glacier. The wind howled in the treetops. We found a little spot in the cooking area to boil water, and ate outside the lean-to to give space to the other campers. We watched diving ducks climb their way up the cascades.

Day 2 – Frances Valley, 3 hours; Italiano to Los Cuernos, 2.5 hours

We rose late and left our tent up to climb into Frances Valley. A steady drizzle didn’t dampen our spirits or slow us, but obscured our views beyond the glacier on our left across the gorge. As we got higher the rain turned to snow. We reached the last overlook and final tree cover and came to where the trail got rocky and steep. We were now exposed to the wind and the snow blew in and pierced us, trying to throw us off the ridge. Stupidly, I’d left my gloves at camp, and could no longer feel my fingers. Worse, we could no longer see the trail. We had to turn back.

We packed up. The rest of the walk was blustery with intermittent rain. Only a few campsites were left when we arrived at Los Cuernos. It was Christmas Eve. The cooking hut was full of campers drinking boxed wine and cooking. We found a site next to a water main. As I showered, Aaron idly kicked a stick next to the pipe, which turned out to be a plug, and it sprayed him in the face as he struggled to plug it back up.

The sky cleared as sunset lingered over the rolling hills that fell into the lake beyond.

Day 3 – Los Cuernos to Torres Camp, 7 hours

We woke late again on Christmas morning, and soon after we set out the rain started.

It didn’t matter how fast we walked. The cold crept in. Our packs were heavier with water. Most of the hike was through stunted, scraggly forest. We stopped just once to eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with fumbling, shivering fingers. We were soaked through.

The trail started to ascend, and we were grateful to finally reach the snow line. The ascent kept us warm. We could see nothing around us but thick snow falling. It was beautiful and peaceful. We finally reached refugio Chileno and plowed resolutely on, passing by the warmth of its fireplace without looking at it.

Soon I started to lose heart. Aaron laughed at the beauty of our snowy Christmas in the forest, and I wanted to cry. I was exhausted, drenched, cold, and my pack hurt my shoulders and hips after hours of walking. It was a miserable Christmas.

We finally arrived at a beautiful and nearly empty camp (because hikers who were smarter than us stayed back at Chileno, I presume). I could barely get my fingers to cooperate to set up our tent, and I trembled uncontrollably to pull off my soaking clothes and put on dry clothes and get in my sleeping bag. We had to rest and warm up an hour before getting out to make dinner. But the evening we enjoyed the peaceful beauty of our Christmas camp, sipping tea and watching the snow.

Unlike folks at home, we enjoyed a white Christmas.

Day 4 – Torres Camp to Seron, 9 hours

Overnight, the continually falling snow piled on the trees overhead, dropping suddenly with a crash on our tent every 30 minutes or so. At 4 I rose to check for visible stars, seeking a sign to attempt the famous sunrise lookout. Clouds.

We went back to sleep until 9. Another late start. Aaron and I agreed that we were the worst hikers.

(Later we talked to people who did attempt the sunrise lookout, who said the snow was so thick they couldn’t find the trail, so they gave up and turned around.)

When we set out the clouds were still thick. So was the slush. It was so slippery that I fell backward onto my pack, giggling, my arms and legs flailing like a turtle unable to get up.

Once we passed Chileno the clouds broke and the hills stretched out endlessly before us, dusted with snow like powdered sugar.

The sun broke and we could finally see where we had hiked the day before – on top of the world.

The previous day we’d been climbing in clouds. Now we could see the endless land flowing outward. Our boots and clothes and packs dried in the sun as we descended jubilantly. We passed the last entrance to the so-called popular W portion of the trail, and with that left the crowded part of the park. We walked through muddy horse trails until we reached endless fields of wildflowers flanked by snow-capped mountains.

We walked through endless wildflower meadows flanked by snow-capped mountains.

After a few hours the trail stretched on and on. The sun sank lower and lower, with no sign of camp ahead. Our feet started hurting really badly. We slowed, and arrived at camp just as the sun disappeared behind the hills. The camp was exquisitely beautiful and peaceful. Sleep came easily.

Day 5 – Seron to Dickson, 7 hours

We rose at 5 as a pink morning broke over the hills hugging fields of daisy.

The camp cook beckoned me into the kitchen and fed me oatmeal and coffee and rolls and jam, and Aaron eggs and cheese, all for free. He seemed drunk but I was so grateful that after days of bad weather, we wouldn’t have to wash a pot.

Our tent and sleeping bags finally got dry in the morning sun and we took a leisurely three hours to break camp. Now in the quieter part of the park, we encountered a guanaco, a llama-like animal, on the trail. We climbed up to ridges overlooking lakes, and walked through peaceful woods.

We walked along stunning lakes with the mountains ever-present.

We wore old, well broken-in boots, but days of nonstop walking took their toll, and the last few hours of the walk were painful.

At one point we passed a young German couple laughing in a stream, and we glimpsed their naked shoulders, and I was jealous of their carefree skinny dipping.

But the pain had its purpose. My Buddhist training has taught me not to run from or ignore pain, but to give it the attention given to pleasure and beauty. I watched every step, and watched my thoughts as I went on. I definitely wanted the walk to end, but underneath the pain was stillness, and joy grew.

I watched the trail move in every moment, from rocks and scrub to mud, to dirt laced with roots and moss, and across streams. The entire trek was unspeakably beautiful, from the tiny snowflakes melting at my feet, to the grand climatic vista at the end. Little flowers danced as I passed. As I focused my attention on my feet, the pain actually lessened, and I felt so happy.

I felt so peaceful.

A last ascent gave us jaw-dropping views of our camp, lake, mountains, and glacier. Campers plied us with blister advice and plasters. I disinfected a needle, coated some thread with antibiotic solution, and pulled the thread through the blisters, covering them with gauze, and covering my feet with duct tape.

The feet repair took a long time. Then we watched the slow onset of night at the lake, skipping stones toward the glacier.

Night darkened the glacier lake slowly, and we skipped stones.

Day 6 – Dickson to Los Perros, 5 hours

The morning was rainy and the trail short, so we figured we needed no early start, and slept in. Everyone else had the same idea and no one set out before 11.

We were pleased that our feet felt much better. The trail climbed up a hill through woods to another glacier lookout. A drizzle threatened, then retreated, and the woods were filled with tiny wild orchids, lichen-covered trees, mosses, mushrooms, and streams. We climbed higher, face to face with another glacier slowly filling a lake with little icebergs.

We came back to the lake to taste a chunk of iceberg and got to watch an avalanche, captured here.

A fire was going at the camp’s indoor cooking area. Our feet felt so good after the relatively short walk that we went back out to the glacier, braving rain to eat a piece of ice out of the lake.

Day 7 – Los Perros to Grey, 12 hours

The name of the morning was mud. A moderately steep descent was full of what I like to call mud fucks, stretches of trail so muddy that there was no getting around them. The mud fucks gave way to snow, and then steep climbs over rocks. For three hours we rose higher and higher. Aaron’s knee felt a little sore so we kept a nice, slow pace to the great climax of our journey.

El Paso.

At Los Perros the ranger gave a forecast of sunny weather, “But there’s always wind on the pass.”

Aaron took care of his knees, using sticks to support his ascent to the pass.

The bowl of the pass scooped a blue sky, and its rim touched the clouds.

It took three hours to reach the rim of the pass.

After three hours of ascending, we made it to the top, marked by a cairn and a staff wrapped in prayer flags, and the astonishing unfurling of an endless glacier crowned by snow-capped peaks.

A staff wrapped in prayer flags marked the climax of the pass, as the glacier stretched endlessly beyond.

The air was completely still as we gazed on the vista.

All the hard work and pain was more than worth the grand beauty we were witnessing. We were overjoyed. It was nothing I’ve ever seen before, nothing I can describe, nothing these photos could capture. We were also blessed with stillness.

All our hard work was rewarded with a complete lack of wind.

I wish I were a better photographer, but none of my images captures the breathtaking beauty of the Grey glacier.

The descent was steeper than the ascent, and much harder. I felt very sorry for hikers who were coming up on this side of the pass. Aaron went down very carefully and slowly behind me.

The trail plummeted down the mountainside into more mud fucks in the forest, more sharp descents, a treacherous river gorge crossing, and two suspension bridges that were honestly terrifying. It was a true adventure.

We’d set out at 8 and arrived at El Paso ranger station and camp at 2. We had to decide whether to take an extra day in the park and camp now, or press on to Grey and leave the next day.

We had some coffee to consider it.

Aaron’s knee felt okay, so we kept going, and the trail was the hardest we’d walked in that park. Yet by 8 that night we limped into camp – back on the busy side of the park, but definitively, no longer the worst hikers there. Perhaps the most beat up.

Day 8 – Grey to Paine Grande, 3.5 hours

The shortest day in a week felt the most endless in the thick of high season. We won our prize, a moment of presence on the pass without a gust of wind to break the stillness. Now the wind picked up again, and we disappeared in the crowds.

We left the park stronger and as better hikers, and it left us in awe.

We got back on the catamaran. The top deck was packed this time. The sun shone gloriously, the wind behaved, and people snapped pictures of the iconic mountains as the boat sped through the unreal turquoise lake. We couldn’t wait to eat and rest, but we could just as easily have stayed.


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