Welcome back! Today we put a wrap on the “O Circuit” of the Torres del Paine. We’ve already spent 6 days and 6 nights making our way around the mountains that frame the centrepiece of this parks’ namesake attraction. In this post, we’ll cover off on the final 3 days of hiking, culminating in our hike up to the visually stunning Torres. These are the majestic granite rock peaks that many dream of when they think of Patagonia. As this was our delayed wedding anniversary, we were looking forward to capturing our anniversary memory photo for the year. Of course, first, we had to get there, and second, we needed some decent weather to snap the memorable picture we were hoping for. The year before, in the Adirondacks, things didn’t go our way, and we struggled through some pretty bad weather up Mount Marcy. How would this year turn out? Read on to find out that, and all the adventures from the final 3 days on the circuit!
Day 7: Italiano to
Frances Las Cuernos
Day 7 of our tour was simultaneously the shortest, as well as likely the least eventful day of our entire circuit. Our entire distance, remarkably, was only about 6km!!! By now, with our packs much less laden down, we knew this distance would take us almost no time to cover. Although that gave us enough time to re-trace our trip up the Frances Valley before setting out, we skipped that. Why? Well, it was another grey, cloudy, wet day. While we were getting used to that by now, it meant views up top would be pretty bad, and hiking 12km just to find that out didn’t appeal. So, with a leisurely breakfast and pack-up, we headed out on the trail. Ironically, our day might have been EVEN shorter, as we had been forced to reserve a site at the next campsite along the way, which was a mere half hour or so down the trail, at the Frances campsite. We really weren’t in the mood to stop there and sit in the rain, so upon arrival, we sought out the registration to negotiate swapping reservations and go to Los Cuernos.
Along our travels, we’d learned that there was, in fact, some flexibility with reservations. Since you never know what might befall you on the trail, there are policies in place about allowing some changes during the hike, provided space is available. Because we were tenting the whole way, this was much easier for us, as there are often reserve camping spots tucked away around main areas. Since we’d just crossed one of the boundaries, we were in an area where the same company operated the next 2 campsites, making this even easier. They radioed ahead (2-way radio is the only lifeline around the loop), and confirmed we’d have a site if we went to Los Cuernos. So it was settled, we’d keep moving. Good thing, seeing as it was just a cold rainy day. Always better to keep hiking on days like that, otherwise, you are just sitting around cold and bored (a bad combination!). With that, we kept slogging along the slick trail for a few more kilometers to get to our rest stop.
Today’s trail was highlighted by essentially a stoll along the large and beautifully blue Lake Nordenskjold. This is yet another glacier-fed lake, and the stunning blue colour is the result of algae on the bottom of it. Either way, it made for a nice counter-point to the grey skies. At one point in our hike, we even had a nice walk along a rocky beach for about 500m or so. Another new type of terrain for us to traverse on the circuit. Before we knew it though, we arrived at Los Cuernos. It wasn’t even lunchtime, so the place was fairly deserted. At the registration desk, we were given a ‘platform number’. Hunh? Turns out, the whole camp is built more or less on sloped rocky terrain, so each site gets its own designated wooden platform. It made for an interesting tent setup, but with all the extra guyline ropes I’d brought, I managed to pitch the tent taught to ensure waterproofness in the rain. Luckily, during setup it wasn’t actually raining, in fact, it was starting to look decidedly like the sun was trying to come out, which was a bonus. BUT, everything was quite wet, and temperatures were still cold in this sheltered area.
By the time we’d eaten lunch in the protected cook area, cleaned up, and showered, it was positively GORGEOUS outside. The sun had fully emerged, and eventually hit our campsite. We even got warm enough to eventually ditch our ever-present campsite down jackets. Deanna lounged on the platform reading on her kindle while I grabbed another vacant platform, unrolled my sleeping pad, and just admired all the views, took pictures (including a nice timelapse), and studied maps. It was an absolutely splendid place to spend an easy ‘down’ day. Good thing too, as I was cooking up a rather ambitious plan / gamble for the next day, and wanted to make sure we were well rested for it. Eventually, the entire camp area filled up, with people arriving throughout the afternoon and into the evening. It was a remarkable transformation. What had been vacant on our arrival was now a bustling hub of activity. We made the best of it, and eventually turned in even as the sky was still light. We’d sort of run out of things to do, and didn’t really feel like hanging out in the lounge / reception area with so many other people, so opted to just read in the tent before turning in.
Day 8: Los Cuernos to Camping
Day 8. This was it. This was THE day. This is what everything had been building up to. The home stretch. The pinnacle. And whatever other superlatives you can think of. However, it wasn’t supposed to be. In fact, it only became that after a series of very lucky breaks! As mentioned, I’d hatched a secret plan the day before while in the sun, but didn’t completely share it with Deanna. I had to wait and see how the day went, and how she felt. To those ends, I got us up pretty early (before the sun fully rose). The rest of Los Cuernos was still sleeping as we had breakfast, broke camp, and headed back out on the trail. The sky looked promising, but non-committal. Things could go either way, as it was still grey, but looked like it might open up later. Time would tell. Our total distance would eventually be over 20km on the day, but at the outset, we were uncertain how we would get to that total. Hunh? How’s that?
Due to the reservation challenges, our booked site for the [final] night was Camping Las Torres, which was essentially the ‘end of the line’ for our circuit. We’d planned to hike there today, camp there, and leave at like 4am the next morning to attempt to get all the way up to Las Torres viewpoints and back in the same day (with no backpacks). It was totally doable, but I didn’t like the way it felt. I preferred the though of completing the circuit having had the backpack on every day for the main hiking. So that’s why I had a revised plan / hope of moving our reservation from Los Torres to a site called Chileno, which is much higher up the mountain, and much closer to our objective. BUT, determining whether we could do it would remain a mystery until we physically hiked UP to Chileno (wayyy up), which was a completely different trail and route than the one to Torres.
And so we found ourselves at a literal crossroads in the trail. One path would lead us on a gentle meander towards Los Torres camping, the other a much steeper goat track up and up to Chileno (about 400m of climbing in 3k). At this point I shared my plan. We were rolling the dice. We may climb all the way up to be told they were full, only to have to head all they way back down to the base. Chileno is a VERY popular site that had been sold out for months, so the risk was big. We were early in the day, so knew we could make it, but would make for a very long day. But on the upside, if we got camping at Chileno, we’d be ideally set up for a sunrise hike to Mirador Las Torres and an easy hike back out to finish our circuit. Deanna was game for the risk, and so we chose the tougher route with the potential payoff. The blue skies poking out from clouds helped make the decision for us too.
The first 4.5 km or so we were on grassy trails only gently meandering and climbing up the slope. This was a very lightly trafficked route. However, eventually we dropped down a little track and re-joined the main trail that headed up to Las Torres. This was the single most visited trail in the entire park, where tons of day hikers come up from the Base of Las Torres and make the trek to the summit and back. So it was wide, dusty, and busy, but the views! They were amazing (as you can see above). We had absolutely perfect conditions, and the temperatures were even starting to go up a bit, making it a downright enjoyable day on our feet, even though it was a steep climb. Again, we laughed a bit to ourselves by the fact that even though we were weighed down and had been trekking for 9 days, we were flying past the hordes of day hikers on their way up. We definitely felt every bit the grizzled trail veterans we were by that point!
Our arrival at Chileno was where things got a bit interesting. Firstly, we discovered that essentially, ALL the sites were pre-booked and had tents already set up for clients by the company. D’oh. I worked my limited Spanish hard, being as friendly and convincing as I could, but it looked like we would be out of luck. We were a bit dejected, trying to decide what to do. The weather looked PERFECT for a summit push, and we wanted to go to the top now, but the issue was that getting up, and back here, then ALL the way to the base of Las Torres would likely not happen. So I continued pleading our case. Eventually, I wore the friendly staff down. We discovered a loophole. There was a problem with their online booking system that day. As a result, the nice fellow ‘pretended’ that we had the proper papers, but that the system just didn’t show our booking. So he had ‘no choice’ but to find a spot for us. As such, he granted us one of the only ‘vacant’ platforms that were on reserve in case of emergencies. It was an amazing gesture and made our day! With that, we rushed to set up our tent and debate our next move.
After setting up camp, we faltered a little bit. We thought we’d go for the summit the next morning, so opted to just go for a short hike partway along the trail that day. After all, the signs all warned that the trail closed at 3pm, and were coming close to that. However, as we hiked, we realized conditions were absolutely PERFECT. Completely cloudless skies and no wind. There my not be another moment as perfect. Morning could be cloudy. After a short discussion, we knew we HAD to make a push, so we literally RAN back to our camp to hastily assemble daypacks for the 9km roundtrip ‘summit’ push in the sun. We technically crossed the trail entrance after it was slated to close. Apparently the shut the trail on the bottom at 3pm, and the next section higher up closes at 4pm. It was about 3km straight up, but I was confident we could make it in under one hour. I had all our gear, but still pushed Deanna a bit out of her comfort zone to make sure we made it. I knew that it would be worth it, and she’d [probably] forgive me 🙂 . Admittedly, the trail wasn’t exactly east either with old wood bridges in some spots, and generally tricky footing, not to mention needing to pass a lot of hikers on their way back from their ‘epic’ day hike.
I kid you not when I say we made it JUST under the wire at the next trail section. The sign clearly said trail closed at 4pm, and you risked getting fined if you were later than that. My watch said 3:51pm. I took a picture as proof, and we continued up. The next section was the toughest of the day, as it was nearly straight up, and all rocks and scrambling. Luckily, the sun was still high in the sky, and shining bright with no clouds to obstruct it. We couldn’t yet see the fabled Torres (they were above and over a ridge), but we were certain they would be amazing. Lots of people coming down, but not many going up at this point. Above, I could see an ‘authority figure’. Yup, a ranger. I had a moment of panic, and prepared my begging speech. When we finally met with him, I was relieved, as he said we were totally fine, as long as we cleared out of the top before 6pm, which is when he would be there to chase stragglers away. PERFECT. We could ease up, and still have lots of time for photos!
In case there was any doubt, but hike was more than worth the effort. Due to the time of day, it was virtually deserted at the top, and the sinking sun was making conditions spectacular up there. As we made our way over the final stretch, we could start seeing the Torres peeking out over the trail as we crested the last part of the trail. And there in front of us it lay. The beautiful lake at the base of the towering granite… towers (you realize Torres just means towers, right?). This was the absolute pinnacle of an amazing day. We’d played all our cards right, and all the pieces had fallen into place to give us the perfect experience for the conclusion of our O Circuit trek. Yes, we’d still have to hike out the next day, but this was the moment we’d dreamed of. Whatever grey days,cold, and rain we’d dealt with in the past week were gone from our memories as we basked in the sun at the base of the Torres.
With lightened hearts and footsteps, we retraced our path back to Chileno for a nice warm supper, and quickly disappearing light as night and the cold descended into our campsite. Luckily, the elevation isn’t that high here in Patagonia, so while it was still chilly, it wasn’t “high mountain” cold. I will say, we slept very soundly that night after all the adventures on the day, but even if the next day was raining, we were completely happy with the way things wrapped up!
Day 9: Chileno to Laguna Amarga
Having been at Las Torres for the end of the day, I was eager to make a repeat trip to the top to witness the sunrise. Deanna, on the other hand, was not as keen. My plan was to basically run up from Chileno to catch the sunrise. I woke up with enough time to get us both going, but Deanna decided to ‘sleep in’ and enjoy some hot coffee. I didn’t dwell long on here decision, and instead packed up some warm clothes and took off at a brisk place, planning on having breakfast at the top. It was pitch black, and very cold. I ran by headlamp up the same steep trails from the day before, anxious to make it up and set up a camera to capture a timelapse of the sunrise if I could. At this point, I had no idea whether it would be clear or not, but the weather seemed to be pretty good. Once at the top, I put on down pants and a down jacket to stay warm as I sat on top of some rocks to await the golden moment when the sun came up to illuminate the torres.
The hike up was well worth it, and I was rewarded with another cloudless sky, and the magical sunrise I had been hoping for. In addition, due to the early start, I once again had the summit more or less to myself. I think there was about a dozen other people there eventually during my time up there. As I headed back to camp, I only passed a few other people on this trail. Apparently, most people we happy to get the views later in the morning once the sun had completely risen.
Once back at Chileno, I rejoined Deanna in the dining hall as she was wrapping up her porridge and morning coffee. I enjoyed a cup of warm mint tea before adjourning to the camp to finish packing everything up for our final trek back out of the park. In our advanced planning, I’d managed to scour the Internet to learn about a bus from Laguna Amarga direct to our next stop at El Calafate that evening. The bus would pick us up at 16h30 at Laguna Amarga, and we’d avoid backtracking to Puerto Natales, which is the ‘normal’ route people take. That meant we had over half a day to hike the 6km down to the bottom, and catch a shuttle bus back to Laguna Amarga, where we’d set off 9 days ago.
As we made our way back down the valley and to the base we were struck by two things. Firstly, the crowds! So many people were making their way uphill. Eventually it dawned on us that it was Saturday! These were in large part just weekend tourists heading up for the views on a beautiful day. The second thing we noticed was just how HOT it was getting this day. In our entire trip, we’d been pretty chilly and grey, so we were not used to the heat as we hiked. While all the hikers we were passing would have great weather and great views, they were denied the unique pleasure of suffering for that view. I will never forget the journey we took before finally getting that great picture, and wouldn’t trade that experience for anything!
After a relatively short period of time, we found ourselves strolling across the grassy fields at the base of the hike. This was the first time we truly witnessed the ‘touristy’ aspect of this area. We’d started our hike at a crossroads near a ranger station 9 days before, avoiding the ‘Central’ Torres area where we found ourselves. There were a couple giant hotels, bit camping areas and even an ‘eco-camping’ zone. Lots of people and even car traffic. It was a bit surreal.
From this area, you could still see the Torres in the distance. Ironically, they looked just as large from down here as when you are right in front of them. We had a couple hours to kill down here now, and took advantage of the warm sun. Layers were peeled, boots and socks shed, all laid in the sun to dry as we wore our poofy boots around this area. Our reward came in the form of giant Patagonia Beers purchased at the tourist shop. They were on special. 2 for a special price. It was the perfect end to a perfect trek. We just sat in the sun soaking up the views while we waited for our shuttle to whisk us off to the next part of our adventures.
I’m happy to tell you all though that this was NOT the end of our Patagonian adventures. In fact we had another 4 full days of exploration before we’d start the long trip home. However, for this next part, we’d cross borders, and also be slightly less nomadic. But you’ll have to wait to hear all about that in future posts. There is plenty more to discover, so I hope you’ll come back!