Hiking the "O" Torres del Paine Part II
Torres del Paine is known as the 8th wonder of the world because of its natural beauty, exotic landscapes, and abundant flora and fauna. The land is shaped by ice, water, geology, and the strong Patagonian winds that constantly batter the Andes mountains. The winds also transform clouds into strange and interesting formations like the famous "flying saucer" clouds that are often spotted in the skies. We were getting an upclose education in the all of the beauty of the park during our multi-day trek across the back country.
During dinner, our new hiking friends were commenting about the amazing sights that we had all seen and also talking about our big hike in the morning. The map showed that the next portion of the trail was Paso John Gardener, the most difficult trek in Torres del Paine park. It was made even more difficult for us because we weren't able to reserve a campsite at Paso, immediately at the bottom of the pass. That meant that after the six hour hike up and over the pass we had another five hour hike to our next campsite, Grey Lodge. I didn’t want to think about the long downhill ahead of us. With my bad knees, going uphill is much easier for me than going downhill. But, I could get through almost anything knowing that we had booked a room and full board at the Grey lodge. A night indoors, out of the wind, with a bottle of wine was all of the motivation I needed!
The camp at Perros wasn’t very crowded. There are checkpoints along the back portion of the "O" and only hikers with campsite reservations are allowed to proceed. There is also a check in procedure at each campsite and it looked like we were some of the last to arrive in camp.
We wanted to set our tent up away from most of the young hikers who would talk and socialize late into the night. We preferred our sleep. We hopped across a little stream and there was only one other tent set-up about fifty yards away. It was our friend Ted, from San Francisco. We began searching for a flat, high, dry spot to pitch the tent. Ol didn’t like the sites that I picked. I pointed out that the site he wanted was under a dead tree that could fall on us during the night.
I was so tired, after walking around in circles for fifteen minutes that I left it up to Ol to pick a spot. He finally found a site he liked and I sat on a log and started unloading our backpacks in order to get dinner started. Tonight, we would have soup, slices of parmesan cheese, and salami on rosemary and sea salt crackers. We would have tea and hot chocolate to drink. I gathered up our stove, cups, and food, and headed to the building reserved for cooking.
The tables and benches were full of young and hungry hikers with Ramen noodles and other cheap and easy hiking foods. They looked at my flavorful ingredients with envy. Some of the eager hikers who had arrived in camp much earlier than us were already playing cards and drinking beer. After hearing a story about a camping stove exploding and injuring a hiker, I didn’t want to be near anyone else’s stove. I found a table in the corner and started preparing dinner.
After dinner, we called it an early night and crawled into the tent. Just as I was zipping up the tent flap, I looked up and noticed that we were beneath the one big tree that I had been trying to avoid! After walking in circles looking for a campsite, Ol ended up under the one dead tree that I had pointed out in the beginning! Ol said that he was too tired to move. "That tree has been standing there for over fifty years, I'm sure that it will be fine for another eight hours" he tried to reassure me.
I could hear the sound of the wind like a freight train through the trees and after a few sleepless hours I was convinced that we would be crushed to death under the dead rotten tree. Ol offered to get up and move the tent when I wouldn't let him sleep. I thought that it was sweet when he said that if we were crushed in our sleep that he would die happy, even though I knew he only said it to get me to be quiet.
According to the rules at the campsite, we were supposed to leave for the pass no later than 7 a.m. Unfortunately, we are not early morning hikers and by the time we had breakfast and packed up, we were the last to leave. However, we did notice that one other tent was still occupied. It was the young couple we had befriended, but we knew that they only had a six hour hike as they were lucky to be camping at Paso, the campsite at the bottom of the pass that we were unable to reserve.
The trail started climbing immediately upon leaving the campground. It looked like a fairly easy trail, and I was happy to see that we were hiking in the woods, sheltered from the high winds and any potential bad weather. If the trail continued like this, I would be fine.
Unfortunately, after about five minutes, we were ankle deep in mud with downed trees across our path. The only way to avoid the water and mud was to hop from roots to rocks. The footing was bad and I was worried about my knees.
After an hour, we finally climbed out of the muck and were treated to stunning views of glaciers and waterfalls. As we climbed higher, the tree canopy disappeared and the trail turned into rocks, gravel, and boulders. I was thankful for the sunny weather, the light winds, and the rocky trail!
We were surprised that we were able to pass a few groups of hikers, not bad for the old Americans. It was a long hike up and we were rewarded with amazing views. Even though it was past noon, the weather looked like it was holding for us.
When we reached the top of the pass, my breath was taken away. We could see Glacier Grey, which is part of one of the largest ice fields in the world. It is the same ice field that runs through Los Glaciers National Park in Argentina and several other national parks in Chile. We felt like we were on top of the world!
As far as the eye could see was a river of ice. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is between Chile and Argentina and is the world’s second largest contiguous ice field outside the polar regions. It is the bigger of two remnant parts of the Pantagonian Ice Sheet which covered all of southern Chile during the last ice age.
We plan to hike the northern section of this ice field in a few weeks, but I doubt that we will will have a view like this.
The glacier ice looked like top of a vast meringue pie, with ripples extending to the horizon. This was one of the most spectacular views that I had ever seen. I felt privileged to be able to make this four day journey to this incredible place. I realize that many people will never have the opportunity to see something this spectacular.
Ol's photos are incredible, but a camera can't catch the grandeur of this landscape. I was mesmerized as the light struck the ice at different angles and the clouds passed overhead. Now I knew why this section of the hike took our friend Medi twelve hours to complete.
The temperature on this side of the pass was significantly colder. The descent from the pass was steep and rocky as we went in and out of the tree canopy. I was thankful that there was no wind.
We walked into camp Paso around 1:30 p.m. I was starving. We set up our stove and made some soup. We also finished the last of our cheese and peanut butter. We ate quickly, knowing that we still had a six hour hike ahead.
As we ate, we met a woman from Argentina who was hiking alone. We had seen her earlier in the day on the pass. As we were coming down the pass, we notified her that her backpack was flipped open. Ol tried to close it for her but It was too heavy and she had to take it off in order to close it! We laughed as we noticed a teapot hanging from the back of her pack. She would really have to love tea in order to carry a teapot up and down mountains for over a week.
During lunch we learned that she was a thirty-nine year old grandmother and an avid hiker. She eagerly told us about her plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA. We shared our stories about hiking the John Muir Trail.
She was fit and strong, and had to be in order to carry that heavy backpack. Ol and I laughed as she poured a cup of tea from her teapot. I wanted to feel how heavy her backpack actually was. I tried to pick it up and couldn’t (and that was with the tea pot and stove on the table)! I let her lift my backpack. She laughed and couldn't believe how light it was. She finished lunch before us and we laughed again as she hiked away with her teapot hanging from her pack. It reminded us of Reese Witherspoon in the movie "Wild."
Just as we were packing up from lunch, another group we had passed earlier in the day walked into the camp. One young girl was carrying a backpack that was too heavy, and she was crying. We had noticed that she was struggling as we passed her.
We learned that she was hiking with her brother, cousins, and friends. The rest of her hiking partners began to take items out of her pack and loaded them onto theirs.
After seeing that, I would worry about her all day. I knew that we still had six hours ahead of us, and a map showed that three suspension bridges were directly ahead of us.
Ol and I left camp to begin the long trek. For some reason, maybe because of the illustrated maps on the wall, I thought that we would have five or six hours of downhill hiking. It turned out that we would spend the rest of the afternoon going down, only to hike back up again.
The trail was in pretty good shape, but again we became acquainted with the strong Patagonian winds. As we walked along the edge of the mountain cliff, the wind picked up. I looked down and there was nothing between us and a rocky bottom far below.
Twice, I was blown into thorn bushes along the side of the mountain. Despite the thorns in my hand, I was happy that I was blown into the side of the mountain instead of the other direction!
I was scared and went back to the strategy of holding onto the back of Ol’s hiking pole or belt loop. A few wind gusts had me seriously scared. We learned later that all the ferries and the boats in the park were closed that day, because wind gusts were over 100 kmh.
I was so tired that I had completely forgotten about the big suspension bridges that I had worried about for days. That is until I saw the first one. I looked at the long bridge and began to shake. I was thankful that the bridge looked new, but I was frozen when I saw that it swinging in the wind.
The thorns in my arm reminded me of the strength of the wind. I knew that my backpack was like a sail catching wind and I was worried about being blown off the bridge that was hanging fifty meters above the gorge.
When we arrived at the bridge we found our new Argentine friend with the teapot waiting at the bridge. It looked as though she was waiting for someone to either give her some moral support or simply to be there when she fell. She crossed first, with no problems. Then it was our turn. Ol took my poles and told me to follow him. Before I could think about it, I was holding the ropes and walking across the swinging wooden structure.
All I can remember is putting one foot in front of the other as we made our way to the middle of the bridge. Then, I could hear it before I felt it. The wind began to pick up and we were hit with a strong Patagonian gust. I stopped and braced. It was hard to hold on to the rope railings as the gales blew against me and my backpack.
Ol was too far ahead of me and I began panic. The only thing that kept me moving forward was a group of young Chileans who had gathered behind me and were cheering me on. I waited for the wind to subside, crossed myself, and kept putting one foot in front of the other until I had reached the other side. One down and two more to go.
After the bridge, the trail descended. The glacier was still to our right as we walked in and out of ancient forests with moss covered walls and giant boulders. It was peaceful and serene and the lush scenery calmed me after the high wire act on the bridge.
Soon, we arrived at the second bridge. This time I wanted Ol behind me so that he couldn't get too far ahead. The second bridge was easier, but the wind once again tested my nerves. This time, when I was paused in order to hold on for dear life, I took the time to appreciate the roaring waterfall and river gorge that I was straddling.
I also took the time appreciate the engineering feat of the bridge as I could see the remnants of the old wooden ladders that were used to climb the rock walls just a few short years ago. prior to this bridge, the only way to cross the gorge was to climb down and up these wooden ladders anchored to the cliffs!
I crossed the bridge fairly quickly but was surprised to find that I now had to scale a ladder down from the bridge. I turned around slowly and inched my way down. I was so happy to be across the bridge that I didn’t mind the twenty foot descent.
Soon, Ol was across and he was also surprised by the ladder. His hands were full as he was carrying my poles and his. I still don't know how he is able to cross a swinging bridge without holding on for his life. He didn’t even bother turning around to make his way down the bridge ladder.
We walked a short distance after crossing the bridge and spotted a teapot in the middle of the trail. It was the teapot that belonged to our Argentinan friend who apparently didn't realize that she had lost it. Ol started laughing when he picked it up. It wasn’t aluminum or titanium, but a heavy steel teapot! I joined in the laughter when I tried to find a clip big enough to hang it on Ol’s bag so that he could carry it to her at our next stop.
I had to chuckle as I followed the swinging teapot for the next few hours. So much for losing the weight of our extra food. Ol was now carrying someone else's teapot! Who even brings a teapot on a hiking trip? Does anyone really need a teapot when all you need for tea is hot water?!
We caught up to our Argentine friend at the third bridge. She was so excited when Ol turned to show her the teapot. To his surprise, she didn't take the teapot but instead asked if he could carry it to camp for her. He smiled and said that he would if he could have a cup of tea when we made it to Grey Lodge at the end of the day.
We approached the third bridge, and to my surprise it was the easiest to cross. Maybe it was because I was so tired that I no longer cared if I fell to my death. When we reached the other side, a park ranger was waiting there with a radio. He asked how many hikers were behind us.
Though we were the last to leave camp that morning, we had about six hikers behind us. It gave me some comfort to know that park rangers were monitoring us. If I did fall off of a bridge and nearly kill myself, at least I would have to lie there for days waiting for a slow death!
The rest of the hike was relatively easy compared to our morning slog through the mud and our steep descent from the pass. The trail became wider and was nicely maintained. There were small uphills and downhills through the ancient forests and clearings full of wild flowers. We were treated to views of icebergs and the indescribable blue lake of Glacier Grey.
When we saw the lodge we were ecstatic. We were especially happy to be passing the checking in at the lodge and not the tent reserved for campers. The campsites were beautiful, but the modern lodge beckoned us with the promise of three hot meals, showers, and a warm bed.
As we entered the lodge, we saw many of our friends out on the porch. There were high fives and congratulations on surviving the long day. As soon as we entered the reception area, we could hear the chatter and laughter of people enjoying the restaurant and bar.
We had arrived in time for happy hour and the lodge was a mix of sightseers who had arrived by ferry and the hardcore hikers who had trekked for days to get here. While I checked us in, Ol was already getting drinks and making friends.
When Ol brought me a drink, I immediately felt renewed! That is until the receptionist asked me to follow her to our room. That is whenI saw the small flight of stairs I had to climb. After eleven hours of hiking and actually climbing a mountain, I had to climb stairs to our room!
The hallway was neatly lined with hiking boots and poles outside each room. She showed us the shared showers and bathrooms. But, when she opened the door to our room, Ol and I were a little surprised. There were two sets of bunk beds! We would be sharing a room with complete strangers. There are no private rooms at the lodge and everyone shares a room and sleeps in a bunk bed. I was too tired to care.
As I stretched out on a bottom bunk, this soon became the most wonderful bed in the world. I "gave" Ol top bunk. He pushed me over and removed his boots. We decided we had better get in the showers before we got too relaxed.
After showers and clean clothes, we joined our friends in the bar. We ordered a bottle of wine and then moved to a large table in the dining room. We spent the evening sharing pictures and war stories. Just as I was telling everyone about the teapot, our Argentinian friend joined us. Soon she was laughing with the rest of us, as Ol asked for his cup of tea.
It seems that all of the “old people” were the last to leave the bar. We made our way to our room and tried to be quiet. We still had not met our roommates and had no idea who they were but they were already in there bunk beds sound asleep. I'm pretty sure that I woke them with my giggles as I watched Ol climbing the ladder to his top bunk.
I was surprised that we were awake and up at 7:00 am. When we awoke, our bunkmates were already gone. They must have had an early hike planned. This made it much easier to get dressed and plan our hike. Our next stop was an easy four and a half hour hike to the Lodge at Paine Grande. We had planned another night indoors with meals and wine. I could get used to this kind of hiking!
When I got out of bed, I regretted not stretching more. My torn meniscus on my left knee and tight IT bands made it difficult to walk. My knees were worn out. I immediately regretted not heeding our friend Medi’s advice to stay an extra day at Grey Lodge. My body needed a day with no hiking. On the trail, we call that a "zero" day.
It was probably because I was so tired, but I couldn't believe how well I slept. I didn't hear any wind, sirens, or barking dogs. It was just what I needed. For the first time, I began to miss the peace and quiet of our farmhouse.
As we went down to the dining room for breakfast, I saw the rain. It was poring. It looked like we were going to have to hike in a downpour. Medi had worked us that we would be getting very wet. I dreaded the long slog through the cold and the mud, constantly worrying that all of our clothes and sleeping gear would be soaked. We ate breakfast and moved to the leather couches in the corner of the lodge. We visited with some of the people we had met the night before.
Checkout at the lodge was 9:30 and we brought our backpacks to the lobby. Other hikers were putting on rain gear and heading out into the storm. Ol and I decided that since we had a fairly short hike, we could wait to see if the weather might change. We had ordered a sack lunch for this segment but we asked if we could just eat lunch in the lodge instead. If the rain didn't stop after we had eaten lunch, we too would begin the slog in the rain.
As we ate lunch, the rain began to subside. Maybe our luck would hold after all and we wouldn't have to hike in our rain gear. However, we had to leave pretty soon as we didn’t want to miss check-in and happy hour at the next lodge.
Now that we were on the “W” circuit of the hike, the trail was much busier. Rain soaked hikers were starting to arrive from the direction of Paine Grande Lodge. They all looked wind burned and wet.
I again suited up in my blueberry rain outfit. I couldn’t decide on how many layers to wear as it was cold out, but I knew that I would warm up quickly. I didn’t want to have to stop to remove rain gear a few minutes after starting the hike. After getting dressed and stretching, I ventured outside.
As soon as we stepped outside and onto the trail, the rain stopped. Five minutes after we left the lodge, the sun was shining and we were treated to another beautiful rainbow. I couldn't believe our luck!
The hike to Paine Grande was beautiful and uneventful.The wind was at our back and I felt like I could run. We were again treated to stunning views of mountains and glaciers. Other than dodging a few mud puddles at the beginning, the trail was in perfect condition. Apparently, the Park puts all of its assets into the “W” sections of the trail as these are the most popular hikes.
The two uphill sections that we were warned about weren’t even noticeable. After the previous day's hike, the trail practically felt flat. I could walk normally and stretch my sore muscles.
We were surprised that we only saw a handful of hikers. Apparently, most hikers did not wait out the storm and instead braved the cold rain. After seeing the sunny afternoon, I'm sure they wished that they had waited. It was a shame that they also missed the stunning views. Again, the weather at Torres del Paine changes quickly.
We actually arrived at Paine Grande Lodge in less than four hours despite Ol stopping to take so many photos. We discovered that each part of the park is different, but that all of it is beautiful.
When we arrived at the lodge, we were surprised at its size. We had no idea what the accommodations would be like. After we checked in, we found that we were now sharing a room with four other hikers. Again, all complete strangers sleeping together in a small dormitory style bedroom lined with bunk beds. As we passed through the common areas, wet clothes and boots were in front of the fires on drying racks. This lodge had a very different feel from Grey Lodge the previous night. The food was served cafeteria style and the bar was larger and more lively.
We quickly made new friends, a couple from Holland. We ended up enjoying a bottle of wine before dinner and another bottle after. We laughed heartily and shared stories. Camaraderie came quickly. They were two of the most fascinating people we have met on our journey and we plan on meeting up with them again as they were interested in Mississippi and music and we invited them to come explore the Blues Highway.
It may have been the wine or it could have been another night inside but I was getting soft. I found myself doubting that we would make it up at 6 a.m. to complete the last segment of our hike. We would have to leave by 6 a.m. in order to complete the ten hour hike in time to catch the last ferry and bus back to Puerto Natales. From Puerto Natales we would catch a bus to Punta Arenas and get on the ferry to Puerto Williams, the southern most town in the world. I did not want to miss that boat. The ferry ride was over thirty hours long and it was basically a lottery system to get a ticket.
The next morning we awoke at 7:00 a.m. to an empty room. All of our bunk mates, who again we never met, were long gone. Ol asked me what I wanted to do. We could still technically make the hike, but we would have to hurry. My head said yes, but my knees said no. In the end, we decided to skip the final hike and instead catch the Ferry to our meeting point with the bus. We couldn't chance missing the bus to Punta Arenas.
We made it back to Puerto Natales, checked into our hostel, got our bags that they held for us, cleaned up, and headed out to get something to eat. I ordered the sea bass and Ol ordered the King Crab pizza he had been fixating on since we were last in town. Over dinner we texted the kids to let them know that we were back in civilization and safe. We also told them that in the future they will be receiving a trip to Torres del Paine as a gift. What we neglected to tell them is that we will be joining them, so that we can complete the final segment of our "O" hike. I have a feeling that the Torres will be calling us back to this unforgettable land. As the great naturalist John Muir once said, "the mountains are calling and I must go."