Torres del Paine O-Trek

18th – 24th of January 2014

When I planned this trip I didn’t put too much thought into my route, which is how I ended up in Chile for the first time in June/July of 2013. Unfortunately that is the middle of winter so going to Patagonia was out of the question. But after having seen some pictures from fellow travelers, I figured I couldn’t miss it, which is why I added a month of Patagonia into my itinerary between Central America and the Philippines.

From Santiago I flew straight down to Punta Arenas where I met up with Lena, a girl I had had Spanish classes with in university, and who happened to be in the area at the same time.   One of the most famous hikes in Patagonia is the Torres del Paine trek, which we decided to do together.  After buying some gear – including a not-so-stormproof tent which we hoped was going to hold up – we headed to Puerto Natales, where buses for the Torres del Paine National Park leave from. Generally there are two options for hiking the national park:

  • Option 1: The W-trek, which normally requires 4 days/3 nights, and
  • Option 2: The O-Trek, also called ‘the circuit’, which encompasses the W-trek and takes around 8 days/7 nights.

We opted for the full circuit pretty much because we felt like it and thought that if we’re doing it, we might as well do it right. Both of us had basically only done day hikes up until that point – so much for multi-day trekking experience.

Since preparation is key, we went to the “Three o’clock talk” at Basecamp, a bar / gear rental center that does these talks every day at 3 pm so that they don’t get the same questions from newbies like us over and over again. We had already bought our tent in the Zona Franca in Puerto Natales, which is a tax-free zone and a good place to buy your equipment if you prefer that to renting. We had chosen to do so because eight days of equipment rental was going to cost us roughly the same or more than just buying the gear in the first place. Plus, we’d then have the opportunity to sell the gear off afterwards and save some money that way. Fortunately we were also able to borrow some missing gear from other hikers that had returned, and got some other stuff, like gas, for free. The last thing we had to organize for the hike was food. Pretty much anything that doesn’t contain liquid is good because liquids are heavy and not a lot of fun to carry. So there we were with a shopping cart full of oats, milk powder, pasta, various kinds of soup powders and snacks. And rum, that was the only liquid exception we made.

After having packed everything the night before, we took the first bus in the morning into the park. The walk to the bus station with the backpack wasn’t too hard – off to a good start. Once we reached the park and had paid our admission fee (same procedure as in many other countries in Central and South America—foreigners get to pay a little extra: CLP 18.000 / 25,71 €) we headed for the trail. The map showed an alternative path to the first camp which would save us a short shuttle ride to the Hotel Las Torres (from which most people start) while only adding 1/2hr to our hike. Of course, we managed to miss the turnoff, which added another 6.5km to the 14km we already had to cover on our first day. The hike itself, through beautiful fields of flowers and with only one climb, wouldn’t have been too bad if the backpack had not been so damn heavy.

After about 12km, I could feel that something was definitely not right with my feet. In hindsight I’m not able to say whether it was the weight of the backpack or the less-than-ideal cotton socks I was wearing (or a mixture of both) but 0.5km before the Campamento Serón (night 1) it got so bad that I had to take off my shoes and walk the rest barefoot. Needless to say, by that point I was in agony. After taking off my shoes I could see why: I was walking on two things which had once been immaculate feet and now looked like pizza – less than ideal if you’re planning on hiking for seven more days.   Therefore the first order of business was making the backpack lighter by eating a fair amount of the snacks, as well as pretty much anything else that we decided was too heavy to carry. Most importantly, drinking all the rum. Setting up the tent half-drunk was probably the most fun part of day one.

The next morning my feet didn’t look much better, and I came very close to turning back and doing the W after some recovery days. Just walking to the bathroom and back was torture and at the time I really didn’t see how I would be able to do the 19 km hike to the next camp. But giving up after the first day was out of the question because that would’ve meant that Lena had to turn round with me, since we only had one tent (and the humiliation of admitting defeat after only one day might have added a little to that decision). But since every good engineer knows that duct-tape fixes everything (and if it doesn’t, you simply haven’t used enough) I started taping my feet with compresses, toilet paper and a looooot of duct-tape. In hindsight I wish I had taken a picture because it looked absolutely ridiculous but at the time I was focused on somehow making this work. And the fact that at 11:20am we were the last ones to leave camp because the entire procedure had taken so long didn’t exactly help with the stress.

The second day of hiking wasn’t exactly fun because walking normally was impossible. I decided to use the hiking poles as crutches which made things a little better. Along the way we had to pass a hill that was marked on the map with a sign saying “Vientos fuertes”.  This basically means ‘strong winds’, and boy—they weren’t kidding. We knew beforehand that Patagonia gets some crazy weather, but experiencing it first hand is a different story. On the top of the hill the rain was going sideways, and some gusts of wind were so strong that they would bring you to a complete stop. But the real beauty is that the winds in Patagonia don’t know such thing as direction. One second they might be coming from the front and a split second later from the side, almost knocking you off your pizza-feet. Along the way I kept asking myself “Why am I doing this again? Ah right, fun, yeah…”

Eventually we made it down the hill and to Campamento Dickson (night 2). Unfortunately the foot situation hadn’t really improved, but at least it hadn’t gotten any worse. Again we cut down on pack-weight, by giving away some food which we decided we weren’t going to need.

The hike to Campamento Perros (night 3) the following day was a short 13.7km hike, which was definitely beneficial for my feet. Along the way we passed some stunning viewpoints, as well as the beautiful glacier Los Perros. The short day was a welcome rest since the following day we were going to attempt the most strenuous part of the circuit: climbing up the pass and then back down on the other side, skipping Campamento Paso and heading straight for the Campamento Grey (night 4).

Reaching the pass we got our first glimpse of glacier Grey—by far the biggest glacier I have seen to this day.  It’s part of the Southern Ice field, the third largest ice field after Greenland and Antarctica, which stretches north for more than 300 km. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t at its best, but by the time we reached the viewpoint Los Guardas the sky had cleared up a little, and we were rewarded with a beautiful view over the glacier in sunshine.

On the 5th day we were finally on the W-part of the trek, with way more people and therefore a lot of oncoming traffic – about 90 % of people do the W-trek. But on the plus side the weather was finally sunny all day long. The hike to the free campsite Italiano (night 5) included some amazing views over glacier Grey as well as the emerald colored lake Pehoé.

Landscape-wise, the hike through the Valle del Francés and up to the viewpoint Británico was my personal highlight of the entire trek. On the way up through the forest we were already able to hear the thundering sounds of big blocks of ice breaking off the hanging glacier Francés. Unlike a normal glacier, a hanging glacier ends at a cliff, where large chunks of ice break off and plunge normally a couple of hundred meters down into a valley. Once we reached the viewpoint we were rewarded with one of the most amazing panoramic views I have ever seen—and on top of that, we were incredibly fortunate to have unspoiled sunshine all day long.

Our camp for the night was Campamento Los Cuernos (night 6), probably the most beautiful camping ground we had on the trek, mainly due to the stunning view from our campsite and the fantastic cooking/social area.

Day seven was going to be our last full day of hiking, from Campamento Los Cuernos to the free campsite Campamento Torres (night 7). Again we were lucky to enjoy a beautiful day of sunshine and amazing scenery. Initially we had heard a rumor that Campamento Torres would be closed due to sanitary issues which turned out not to be true. Otherwise we would have had to stay at Campamento Chileno, which in turn would have made getting up the next morning for sunrise at the Torres incredibly uncomfortable (3 am rather than 4:15 am).

On our last day, we started our hike up to the Base de Las Torres for the sunrise. On a clear day the rising sun would’ve lit the  up pink and red, but in our case that didn’t really happen due to some clouds. I guess you can’t be lucky with the weather all the time, right? So after waiting two hours for the sun to light up the Torres we gave up hope, enjoyed the beautiful scenery a bit more (while freezing like crazy) and started heading back down to camp. After a quick breakfast we continued our hike to the end point of our trek – the Hotel Las Torres. First order of business: smash two hotdogs and two cokes. Definitely deserved those after covering a total distance of 133,61 km. Interestingly, the map as well as the signs on the trail have a tendency to display shorter distances than what you actually have to cover. At least, that’s what my GPS said at the end of the trek (yes, I know—I’m a geek for tracking our hike).

So, after successfully having completed the O-trek, I can conclude that when going on a multi-day hike it is important to:

  1. Pack as lightly as you can
  2. Pack as lightly as you can

AND last but not least

  1. Pack as lightly as you can!

The trek through the Torres del Paine National Park left me with some of the most amazing impressions of this trip. It included everything from almost admitting defeat after day one to some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen. And, on top of that, the weather was serendipitous.

It was definitely worth spending the extra cash to fly back down to Chile to see this place, and today I shall echo the promise of good old Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll be back!”

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