The Circuit hike: Torres del Paine

Trip Start Oct 17, 2012
Trip End Mar 27, 2013

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Flag of Chile  , Patagonia,
Sunday, December 2, 2012

We start the journey in a unique order as we are given the opportunity to do the French Valley while volunteering. Below describes our adventure day by day, step by step:

Day 1-2
Hotel Las Torres - Refugio los Cuernos - Campamento Italiano - French Valley - Return to Los Cuernos
Total distance: 37k (11k / 4hrs to Cuernos day one; 26k / 7hrs French Valley day two)
While volunteering, we tried to involve ourselves in trail maintenance as much as possible. We were focussing on the trail from Hotel las Torres (our volunteer base) to Refugio Cuernos. At the end of our volunteering term, we were to hike to Cuernos, fixing the trail along the way, stay two nights, fixing the trail the second day and then we were finished with the program on the third day so we could either hike back to base camp or continue on with our trek. The hike to Cuernos was sprinkled with stops along the way as we fixed trail markers and diverted streams. We were very familiar with this part of the trek as we had been working on it the last few weeks and the day before, Lydia had done the entire trail to Cuernos and back noting what needed to be done. It was more or less easy, since we knew what to expect and took many breaks. Of course there were several hills we found challenging, but all and all we did quite well and were greeted with a not-so-tasty meal of meat and potatoes at the refugio.
Happily, we finished fixing the trail that first day on our way to camp so we took the second day to hike in to the french valley and back. This was an eye opener. We were so familiar with the Cuernos trail, it was easy in a sense, but we hadn't hiked the remainder of the trek. The morning started out a bit chilly. We had a breakfast of tea, toast, butter and jam
and packed just one of our rucksacks with the absolute bare minimum: snacks, water bottle, soft shells. The path starts out featuring the granite spire formations dubbed cuernos, or horns, to our right and snowy mountains to our left. The trail has a few uphills that make you pant a bit but finally seeing new landscape makes every care disappear. We go from forests of nire bushes/trees, to a field giving us a major visual of epic snowfall, to some more of the rock andean desert bit that we are so used to on the hotel las torres to refugio cuernos trail. We get to campamento Italliano in excellent time. Immediately afterward, the sky changes back to clouds and a drizzle, not so motivating as we start our ascent up to the french valley.
The french valley follows an angry looking river on oneside, with snow covered mountains behind it, and more granite spires, on the other. Going away from Campmento Italiano, it is entirely uphill. The path starts out covered in Nire forest, a welcome protection from the bit of rain we are getting. All is fine, its raining but not too bad and the uphill isnt too strenuous until the tree line ends and we face an intense uphill slope consisting solely of rocks and boulders. Not only is this new terrain for our feet but it visually a bit scary (if just one boulder moved, an entire avalanche of rocks would follow) and we have zero rain cover. About ten minutes in to this rock field Kendra begins to question whether we should turn around and attempt the Valley another day.... when its not raining. The rain has increases from a drizzle to a steady stream of water. Neither of us have water proof pants so we are only relying on our softshells to keep us cozy. Lydia is determined to continue the hike, knowing that, in Patagonia the weather constantly shifts, she is optimistically thinking a shift in weather will occur as it had earlier in the morning. After the rock field we get in to forest once again. The forest is magical and looks like a scene from a movie. The only trees here are the nire and the linga, both northfagus and seemingly the same tree. They have long, moss covered trunks and twisted branches, very mystic especially when they are in a monoculture setting. We stop for a quick lunch of granola bars and chocolate under a tree. After the forest we continue the climb up the valley with mountains to our left covered in snow as tall as a three story building and to our right, jaw dropping granite spires. The last bit is climbing up a scramble of rocks and then we happily mount a boulder at the end of the trail overlooking the valley, river, mountains, and lake in the distance. Kendra plays Jimi Hendrix "Voodoo Child" before we climb back down.

Coming back we try to pick up the pace as the rain continues to increase. The valley seems to go quickly, going downhill this time and before we know it, we are in campamento italiano. We have most definitely become tired at this point. Our knees start acting up again and our comfort level has significantly decreased having been in the rain for hours now. Moral is low, especially for Lydia, whose optimismIc hopes of clear weather never panned out. Pace decreased and and we started getting cold, wet and cold. The good thing about this return hike was that we knew where we were going since we were just retracing our steps from earlier today which created a level of comfort. It also created annoyance as we were going much slower and we knew how much further we had. Alas we are almost at camp and we have to pass thru a river. In the morning, we had no trouble jumping from rock to rock to cross, however, it has been rainging nearly the entire day and every rock has a huge stream running over it. It takes us at least 15 min walking up and downstream to decide what part is the safest to cross. We make it, but it certainly was scary - a bridge is definitely needed. We return to camp and immediately strip off our wet clothes and attempt to warm and dry ourselves. Dinner of lasagna from the refugio is lovely but doesn't completely satisfy after our hardwork that day. Both of us are so exhausted we can barely speak to the other volunteers we were with. Finally it is bed time and we crash out.
The next morning we are able to take a free boat from the refugio back to the hotel. Afterwards, all of the volunteers are treated to a relaxing tour of the park via van and given by a ranger and we then have lunch at the rangers house. Once the tour is over, we are dropped off for a second boat delivering us to Refugio Paine Grande where we stay the night to start the remaining of our hike the next day.

Day 3
Refugio Paine Grande - Refugio Gray - Campamento Los Guardas- Campamento Los Perros
Total Distance: 21k / 5.5hrs
The wind in this camp is intense. All night it felt and sounded as if our tent was caving in or the rain fly was going to rip open; ahhh, Patagonia. We wake up to make a yummy breakfast of oatmeal and tea and pack up camp. At this point we have decided that we will hike all the way to Campamento Los Perros today, passing over two others. Once we are there, we will speak to the rangers and fellow hikers who are headed the opposite direction as us to see how John Gardner Pass is and then decide whether to continue doing the Circuit or to only hike the W trail. As mentioned previously, the entire Circuit trek has only recently been opened due to too much snow and maintenance needed on the trails along the Difficult rated section of the trail called the John Gardner Pass.

Our hike starts our with wretched winds. Partially due to the valley we are hiking through but I would reason to guess they are also due to the lack of trees. In 2011, a group of backpackers hiking the trails opted to burn their trash instead of taking it with them. The fire started getting a bit out of control and a nearby ranger came running to see what was going on. Due to the winds of Patagonia, fires are not permitted in the park. If you need to cook, you may only do so with a camp stove in the shelters provided at the camps and refugios. Knowing that this was a mistake, when the group saw the ranger, they ran, afraid of getting in trouble. At this point, the one ranger by himself could not put out the fire and it raged for a solid month, destroying a massive chunk of the park. Had the hikers stayed and helped put out their flames, the entire fire could have been avoided, and they got caught anyway. The section we are walkig on now is one of the many parts that was destroyed due to this fire and trees or bushes breaking down the wind are few and far between. Walking through this area is so incredibly sad, it is like a forest graveyard. It is also amazing, however as signs of life are already coming back in the forms of grasses and even some bud on trees that otherwise just look like charcoal. Mother Nature is just fabulous.

We start out with a good pace but Lydia's shoulder starts bothering her. This could be an issue down the road. We get to Refugio Gray in excellent time and drop our packs for a lunch and bathroom break. At this point we learn that some people hiking are finished for the day and they stop at a Gray. Nice for them, but we arent even half way. After a sufficient break, we head on the path again and spot the most amazing woodpecker! It was huge and had the brightest red covering its entire head - just beautiful. After the woodpecker came views of Glacier Gray. The sight of a glacier is just jaw dropping. It is beyond massive covering multiple moutaims, with streaks of vibrant blue throughout. Neither of us having seen a glacier before, we took a break to take it all in. The remainder of our hike today would showcase this glacier now and again. Today's hike feels like a great deal of uphills and our legs begin to get tired. We get to some tricky spots where one has to go up and down ladders in order to cross through. Right after we pass throh Campamento Guardas(closed at the time) a cute, rounded owl appears and take our mind off the pain for a minute. The last hour or so of the hike is exhausting, despite being in much better shape than when we orignally came to the park. Finally, we reach Campamento Los Perros after questioning ourselves multiple times.
This is a nice camp and, being run by CONAF, it is free. While preparing dinner we meet a group of hree who are bicycling across South America (and we thouht we werd cool). They had just crossed through the Jihn Gardner Pass and assured us there were trails in the snow from others hiking and that it wasnt difficult, after all, they complteded itin 2hrs when it should have taken 6. From another account we hear it isnt so bad and we dontmeed water prrof pants. The rangers express here ismuch snow but dont seemed alarmed that we are planning the hike. We decide that so long as we wake up wihout rain, we will attempt the pass and thus, hike the Circuit. Early to bed for what is sure to be a grueling day manana.

Day 4
Campamento Los Perros - Campamento Paso aka John Gardner Pass
Total Distance: 12k / 5hrs
With Perfect blue skies when we wake up, we are set to hike John Gardner Pass. Our plan is to hike the pass, rest at Campamento Paso and then continue to Refugio Dickson. After breakfast, we start out with an immediate down-hill followed an immediate and extremely strenuous up-mountain. Along the uphill we pass several other groups of hikers going downhill and between gasps for air we chat with a few of them. Most declare the pass to be tough but nothing to turn away from. One couple tries to say we shouldnt even bother without gators or waterproof shoe gaurds. This worries us, and after about a 40 minute climb of our most difficult uphill yet we get to the tree clearing and are a bit startled at the amount of snow on the ground. Its a lot, and there is definitely no obvious trail from multiple hikers passing through. We pause for a snack and Lydia wraps her feet and calves with plastic bags as Kendra adds a layer of water proof pants. We start up the first field of snow at a steep incline. We aim to go as fast as possible to get this over with. Though both of us have been backpacking a hand full of times, neither of us have experience with hiking in the snow. The footing is strange and its that much more difficult. The snow is easily a few feet deep and on occassion it caves in underneath you a bit. This brings snow and ice in your shoes makig for an uncomfortable chill. We get to the peak of the mountain and turn around to see glacier gray once again. This time there is no sign of he lake, just glacier as far as the eye can see. Amazing.
The wind picks up a lot as we are now at the top of one mountain but in a wind channek between two more; we start to go down another snow field. Things start to be a bit uncomfortable. At this time, we are the only ones going our directiom and it seems that we have passed the last of those heading the opposite way. Markers are covered in snow so we are lucky when we see a few in the distance. Even footprints from earlier today dont look fresh as the wind has blown some snow over them. We get past the second snow field. Going downhill in this much snow is most definitely faster but its at this point we realize that we are in at least ten feet of snow. We see the tops of trees coming out and in the near distance we can see that we will be walking on top of a massive river. This is now scary. There are no markers to speak of and the foot prints that are barely there go in at least 5 Different directions. We go down as fast as we can trying to avoid what may be small streams beneath our feet and lydia drops. Her entire right leg has collapsed in the snow and it's not coming out. It takes both of us go dig her out. Once out we come to a 4th icefield where we are walking on tops of trees. Its also clear that we are crossing over a river at one point that is at least two meters wide and moving fast below a questionable layer of ice and snow. Its so uncomfortable to know that the snow is melting from underneath you. Its anyones guess as to where the snow is solid and where it may cave in. Kendra falls and her foot gets stuck for an instant. We really want to get out of here but we have no idea where to go. We wander around and finally see a marker that doesnt really help us. We have to jump from breaking block of snow to broken block of snow and from stone to stone to cross this river, that at this far down the mountain, has picked up a lot of force. After an hour of being lost in this nightmare with no signs of life, we see a second marker. Thank goodness!
We are now in pits of mud with still no obvious path, no footprints to follow (or at least none that make sense) and no more markers. As we wander through puddles of mud, jumping form rock to rock to pile of grass all we can do is just hope we are going in the correct direction. Every ten mintutes or so we see a marker. At this point we have learned that we are niw doig the hike the opposite way as pretty much everybody else has ever done it. Of course, we chose the more difficult direction. Because of this, whatever genius that repainted the markers this year obviously went the direction as most people and he didnt bother to paint the opposite side of the tree so that people going our way have a clear marker. We are relying on hopes that we will see a faint shred of orange paint from years past on a little tree. We also start looking behind us every so often for markers going the oher way so that we ay least know we are on the rit track. This is infuriating. We have now gone from frightened to disgusted at this joke of a park service. The ground becomes a bit more solid and there are areas between trees that seem to be paths. We begin to calm down a bit until we come upon a river. The path seems to be crossing the river, however there is not a bridge, only a piece of rope hanging three feet over a waist deep river. I guess we are now sipposed to be from the circus and tightrope across this thing? We play with different ways of crossing the river and eventually come to leaning a sappling tree across and walking over it. This works out fine (tho probably not for the tree) and we reach campamento has taken us 6hours to do what is supposed to be 4. We sit down in the shelter and debate whther we should continue on. We are a bit tired but mostly mentally exhausted from being frightened and lost. We talk with an older couple (Going the opposite way as us of course) about how long it takes to get to the next site. They claim 5 hrs which is longer than the map says but we take it in to consideration and decide to stop for the day and relax. We set up camp and have a lovely dinner of dehydrated meals from campmor that were bought at the evil walmart back in the states. Blek.

Day 5
Campamento Paso - Refugio Dickson - Campamento Seron
Total Distance: 28k / 7hrs
Mac and Cheese for breakfast starts the day off right. We also get hold of a new water bottle and pair of socks that some campers left behind on the free shelfs. Which, since we had a water bottle stolen and a pair of socks gone missing in the laundry, the happenings make us feel good.... what goes around comes around. The beginning of the hike is in beautiful forest with especially tall and large trees with hardly any brush underneath. Not many hills, but we can definitely feel our bodies getting tired from the last couple days. We go at a quick pace though as this is our longest day at about 20k. One large uphill and we see a beautiful view of glacier Dickson. This makes us feel as though we must be close but we are wrong. What we think is 30 minutes more is more like an hour and a half.
After walking through yet another type of forest, with small, thin moss covered trees, we head down hill and eventually find ourselves in a large meadow and at Refugio Dickson. We are ahead of schedule, per usual, and since it has been raining nearly all morning we stop in to the refugio to chat, take our packs off, eat some crackers and warm up. We are the only people there besides the two employees. Both men are very friendly and talkitive. The youngest keeps trying to get us to stay the night here which is really tempting as this turns out to be the nicest refugio in the whole park. They thank us for our volunteer services and even bake fresh bread with cheese and butter. Plus, there is a fox hanging out by the house that is beautiful. Normally, all that would swoon us over but as people coming the opposite direction start hiking in for he night, we realize we need to move on to keep to our schedule. As we leave they mention that a hand full of people have seen pumas already this year and that we should be careful and that when we arrive at the next camp, we should have the ranger radio over, letting them know we are OK.
A strenuous uphill starts off part 2 of the days hike and a part of us wishes we would have just stayed. The next bit of terrain is fields of grass followed by extremely rocky terrain with no trees and prickly bushes from time to time. It all looks like puma territory to us. Eventually, we are hiking on a narrow path on the side of the mountain. This feels like forever, we are tired and its the same type of landscape as we were working for the last 15 days so it is not so interesting. In addition, Kendra is now spooked about a puma attacking us. The up hills keep coming and then the wind. The wind in patagonia is wicked. It feels as if someone is behind you pushing your pack from one side to the other, trying to throw you off this narrow mountain pass. We come across a pond and have a small break as we watch how he wind is making the most curious shapes in the water. It looks like its tiedye with rings. Amazing. Huffing and puffing we go. The day is getting late and the sun is definitely going down. It is a bit worrisome that we are not at camp yet, pumas or not, we should not have hung out at the refugio so long.

Finally arriving to camp, in yet another type of ecosystem wih fields for cows along a calm river. At this camp (being in the private property) we are able to stay for free. In addition to this, the wonderful employee keeping Campamento Serron offers us a delicious dinner. We are especially grateful as we had run out of food thinking there would be a small provisions market at this camp (like at all the others) but there wasnt. The meal is good and the comoany is very friendly but we are far too tired to even try to make conversation. We excuse ourselves and head to bed.

Day 6 and 7
Campamento Seron - Hotel Los Torres / AMA volunteer camp - Refugio Chilleno - Campamento Los Torres - Refugio Chilleno - Hotel Las Torres / AMA Volunteer camp
Total distance: aprox 17k / 5hrs day one; aprox 8k / 3hrs
As we wake up, we set a goal to complete the first half of our hike by 1:30. This way, we will be able to sneak in a free lunch at the hotel employee restaurant. We set off, our bodies drained from the previous days but upbeat as we are almost finished with the trek. The trail is more or less a road from cattle having been hearded back and forth for years. The scenery is still beautiful as we follow a river to our left and the towers to our right. Unfortunately, however, this is by far the hottest day we have expeirienced so far. Especially considering we were in snow fall 2 days prior. We are sweating like crazy and after about an hour on trail we, once again, get lost. All signs of trail markers and a path vanish. We spend about an hour wandering on various cow paths hoping they lead us to the trail before we finally get back on track. At this point we debate wheher we even want to finish he hike and go to the towers today or if we should just leave the park once we get back to the hotel. Anyway, Kendra had already done the hike up to Chileno when she was repairing a bridge up there. To make matters worse, it is now clear that we will be missing free lunch. Our moral is low, but we know we are close to the hotel, so we are doing OK. Then, just as Lydia was questioning where they were, we walk in to a massive heard of cattle. Silly as it sounds, this was scary. They were all over our path and the closer we got to them they would stare us down, face us and kinda puff up as if they would charge. Now all logic is telling us that these are docile creatures, but these ladies were seriously threatened by us and we were by them. For the next fourty minutes we tip toed around cows our hearts pounding as each one of them looked at us like it wanted to run us down. We even came across a bull and bolted he other way. Alas, we are back in camp amd completely fed up from being lost and evil cattle. We decide to just chill out for a few hours, calm down and decide whther we will do the towers or not. After a couple hours we decide we will be disapointed if we don't accomplish the trail this park is named after. We pack provisions, lighten our pack to the bare minimum (we shared a mattress for one this night) and head out.
The days jeat has notcooled and, unluckily for us, the path to Cuernos is straiht up a hill of dirt amd rock. Kendra gets a burst of enerynd practically runs dowm anyone in her way as lydia grumbkes behind attempting to keep up. We then come to a crazy scary cliff like path on a very windy section of the trail. In fact, we later learned hat a couple o f hikers fell amd died off he part a few days before. Terrifying. Arriving at cuernos, we adjust our packs and continue onward anxious to be finished for the day. Some undulating hills in forest cover is welcome. It's a steap up hill climb the whole way and is supposed to takevthree hours, but in less that two hours we arrive at camp. This camp is packed. Though it could be a bit uneasy at times, it was so nice walking the back part of the circuit because we hardly saw other people. Las Torres, being run by CONAF is a free camp, that and the fact that it is at the base of the towers makes this the most popular camp. By the time we get there, practically every site is taken and there is a group of obnoxious boys from the States that are so drunk, half of them can't even walk straight. REALLY? Is that why you came out to nature? To get sloshed? So embarassing. We make dinner and go straight to bed as we plan on waking up by 4am to hike to the towers and enjoy sunrise over these massive granite spires. As mentioned before, we had tried to see sunrise over these towers multiple times during our time volunteering. It never panned out as either our boss didn't want us to or the weather looked too cloudy to be able to see it. Well, as luck would have it, we wake up around 6am to the sun shining on us, mildly annoyed that we didn't wake to our alarm. All is fine though and we leave camp to go check out the towers anyway. After an exhausting hour long hike up hill above the tree line and through boulders, we get to the base. They really are special. We sit and reflect on our trip and do some picture taking then its back down to pack up our camp and get back to the hotel area. We are planning on catching the bus out of the park today. We hike as quickly as possible as we still need to pack our belongings and make the bus at 2pm. In the end Kendra ends up running down the last hill to start packing while Lydia hikes as quickly as she can. We say our goodbyes to some of the volunteers and are off to Puerto Natales. We are so proud of our work there throughout volunteering and the hike. We relearned how well we work together. Plus, we have really gotten to know the park as our home for the last three weeks and though it has been trying most of the time, this only makes the experience that much more special.

"If there is no struggle, there can be no progress." - Fredrick Douglas
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