The Paine Circuit hike in Chilean Patagonian is, quite simply, one of the world’s greatest treks. It’s on many top-10 lists, and it lived up to that billing when we hiked it this past January. The whole circuit takes about 8-10 days to complete, and each day brings a new landscape and challenge among the crazy granite spires that ring Torres del Paine National Park. Only about 2% of all visitors to the park do the full circuit (the “O”), which includes the more popular “W” route as well as the back side of the Cordillera del Paine.
(CLICK ON PHOTOS if you want to see them full-size)
Every day on the “O” is spectacular, but Day 3 was, as they say, epic. To start the day, we woke up exhausted at Campamento Los Perros, by far the most unappealing of the campsites along the circuit. Los Perros (“The Dogs”) Camp is situated in a buggy grove of trees, and there is not a shred of grass or softness underfoot. We pitched our tents on hard dirt punctuated by tree roots that were impossible to avoid. There was one cold shower in the equivalent of a refrigerator-sized box with nowhere to hang clothes or towel (so most of us skipped it altogether) and one toilet that became plugged up during the night, leaving us with the option of going in there anyway, or going in the woods where hordes of bugs abounded. The unpleasant facilities, some light rain, the voracious little gnats and mosquitoes, and a relentless Peruvian flutist kept us from getting the rest we would have liked heading into the day I later called my own personal “Fear Factor” show.
We got an early start – up at 5:30 for breakfast and a 7 am departure. The first three hours were a steep ascent through a forest and very muddy swamp that has been known to be almost chest-deep. We were fortunate that the last 48 hours had been fairly dry, so the mud only reached the tops of our boots. After the swamp, the ascent to Los Perros (or John Gardner) Pass was intense but exhilarating. The wind was a gale force as we crossed vast scree fields, snow fields, and long, stony traverses. The rain lashed at our faces and hands and we were all glad for our layers and wind/rain jackets, but many of us could not even stop long enough to put any gloves on.
At right around the 3-hour mark, we approached the pass, where we all experienced the strongest winds we have ever felt; we were sure we would lift off or be knocked down multiple times. I hid behind a small cairn to finally dig out my gloves to cover my near-frozen hands. Going through the pass felt almost impossible and I only managed a few quick photos as the wind threatened to whisk my camera right out of my numb hands. As we went over, we were met by the most spectacular sight – the Grey Glacier spread out 2000 feet below us and a rainbow arcing over the ice from end to end. Worth every wet and frozen step so far.
As we descended through a forested area, the temperature and humidity soared, and we began to unpeel layer after layer as we braced ourselves on the steep and slippery mud incline. Knees aching, we eventually reached the first of our river crossing/ladder segments. Suffice it to say this would not be allowed in lawsuit-happy America!
We came down into a ravine and there before us was a raging waterfall and river, where our guide made the interesting choice to cross at a place where we could not possibly hit enough slippery rocks to avoid plunging into the freezing, fast-moving water. A second guide placed himself in the middle with an outstretched pole, a fellow hiker took up a position on a big, dry rock nearer the other side, and our main guide balanced at the far shore to grab hands and swing everyone onto the rocky shoreline. I still managed to plunk my left boot deep into the water, leaving my socks and boots waterlogged for the next 3-4 hours. (Cleaned off the mud, though!)
From there, we had to immediately mount a makeshift pipe ladder (2 or 3 lashed together) to climb back out of the ravine. Laden with backpacks and poles, we slowly climbed to the top and continued on our merry way, blissfully unaware that yet another, more fear-inducing crossing awaited us. Up and down the woody trails we tripped, now some 6 hours into the trek for today. Eventually, we came to Fear Factor Event #2, a backward climb down one of the long ladders (again, 2-3 ladders long) into a ravine, then a river crossing, then up an even longer, steeper set of ladders.
After the second ravine and a return to plain old walking, we cruised, dipping and climbing for just a few more hours until we rolled into Refugio Grey in a mere 8 ½ hours total, far beating our guide’s 10-12 hour estimate. The Grey campsite felt like a luxury resort, with a sunny meadow for tents and a lodge with heavenly showers and toilets! We showered luxuriously, hung laundry out to dry all over the tent ropes, and drank beers and pisco sours until all memories of “the dogs” disappeared. Then the Peruvian flutist showed up …