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TR: Patagonia-Torres del Paine O Circuit

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TR: Patagonia-Torres del Paine O Circuit

Postby mcgenes » Sat Apr 08, 2017 11:13 am

Disclaimer: I am not a photographer, but you can see some of my pics here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B6Vmx ... 2NuRXdVX3c

My buddy and I made plans last fall to do the Torres del Paine (TdP) Circuit (“O” as opposed to the shorter “W”). The trip started a little bumpy with a major flight delay. We were supposed to leave Los Angeles, CA for Santiago, Chile in the evening on February 23rd, but we finally left around 2:30pm the next day. LATAM put us up at the Hyatt and fed us dinner and breakfast at the hotel. It was a nice hotel, too. Thanks to my buddy's negotiation skills, we were able to hustle onto an earlier connecting flight to Punta Arenas and get back on our original schedule. Instead of staying the night in Punta Arenas as originally planned, we immediately proceeded to Puerto Natales via bus.

Puerto Natales is the gateway town for the Torres del Paine national park. We stayed at Hostel Patagonico, a funky old house converted into a hostel. We had a private room, and the accommodations were comfortable. Lots of people here from many different places, all doing the Paine in one form or another.

2/26/2017: The next morning, we caught a bus to the park. There are several bus lines to choose from, most of them having very similar schedules and rates. Most offer an open return trip, which is great for backpackers.

The scenery began to unfold on the 2.5 hour bus ride from Puerto Natales to the park. We traveled a two-lane road that was fairly well maintained. Much of the trip went through preserves, so the land was mainly open and unpopulated. We could see mountains and glaciers soon after leaving PN, but the TdP was far beyond these. We had our first glimpse of the spectacular TdP spires as we neared the park. Along the way, we saw guanaco (llamas), rabbits, nandue (look like ostriches), and plenty of other birds. The guanaco are free-range and easily hop the fences that separate farmland from the preserves, and cross the road. The bus drivers seemed to know their habits and easily avoided them.

We arrived at the Laguna Amarga entrance and ranger station mid-morning. There were seven or eight buses that arrived about the same time. The passengers all had to line up at the ranger station to get permits here, even those traveling further into the park to start the W. At the ranger station, we filled out some paperwork and each received a small piece of paper with an official stamp, our trekking permits. We were instructed to write our passport numbers on the back. This turned out to be an excellent idea, since we had to write our passport numbers at every ranger station on the route and it was easier to refer to the permit than to pull out the passport each time. We did have to show passports at all the campgrounds and refuges.

This year, the park required advance reservations for camping/accommodations. Rumor has it there was a public health incident last year at one of the campgrounds. The sewage system was overrun by the population and apparently overflowed. Brown water ran through camp and several campers became sick. The camps were still pretty highly populated on our trip, even with the reservation system, and we went near the end of the season! Interestingly, we were asked at only one ranger station to provide proof of reservations before proceeding, at Coiron. The rangers here turn people back if they do not have reservations. It still seems a precarious system when weather can cause a delay in making it over the John Gardner pass, which is in the middle of the trek.

Before leaving the Laguna Amarga ranger station, trekkers have to watch a video about being responsible stewards. This was introduced after the big fire in 2011. Leave no trace camping is also covered. In general, the park was pretty clean, but there were still some pockets of toilet paper just like we see in the Sierras.

After being processed at Laguna Amarga, we shuttled to Las Torres. At Los Torres, there are hostels, camping, eco camping, and a glamorous hotel (like the Awhanee). We hit the trail to the Torres campground after lunch. The map issued by the park has only trekking times listed, but there are many park signs showing route kilometers. The park signs turned out to be pretty accurate, and my Apple Health app was essentially consistent.

We hiked 10km up a river valley to the Torres campground. Nearly all of the rivers in the park are glacier blue - very beautiful.

All of the camps on the Circuit have a ranger station. I felt a bit sorry for this ranger because Torres is under a dense tree canopy and therefore very dark and damp. All of the campgrounds also have a cooking shelter, what we would call a palapa (3 sides and a roof). Campers are required to do all cooking in the shelters - another measure instituted after the 2011 fire. It is a good place to meet fellow campers, and we met people from Germany, London, France, China, Korea, and Chile. Communicating was interesting, usually a mix of English, Spanish and hand gestures. Total distance = 10km

2/27/2017: All the campers had the same goal: ascend to the Torres del Paine “lookout” to see the rosy sunrise shine on the Paine. The Paine are tall rock spires. It was quite a climb - about 1200’ in less than a mile. Unfortunately, we hit a gloomy day, but it was still beautiful.

We hiked back to camp and packed up, then headed back to the Torres camping/hotel zone. We stayed in a refuge that night, which is essentially an upscale hostel. Typical bunkbed setup, but this one came with down bedding. Total distance =12.5km

2/28/2017: We officially started the “O” or Circuit. The trek goes counterclockwise, circumnavigating the park. Everyone takes the same path; cross-country trekking and dispersed camping are not allowed. We hiked initially through rolling hills, and then across the Rio Paine valley. Camp Seron lies a safe distance from the river, and is situated on a large pasture. There is a small refuge there, and some hard-sided domes with bunkbeds. The rest of the area is open to tent camping. Tents may be rented or you can set your own. We brought ours along, but my friend typically rented to avoid having to carry a wet tent. We had some of the typical Patagonia high winds after setting up camp, but they mellowed by nightfall. I had purchased dinner and breakfast, which were served in the refuge, right in the kitchen. It was wonderfully cozy, and I got to meet more of my fellow campers. I was happy to see beer and wine could be purchased at nearly every placed we slept. There were two groups in camp with us, and they became our trekking cohort. The larger group was a paid tour with about 15 tourists, 2 guides, and 5-7 porters. The tourists were from all over — Canada, UK, Australia, and the US. The support crew and guides were all Chileans. Two of the porters were women! The porters would leave well after all of the trekkers each day and invariably pass us all before reaching the next destination, despite carrying the equivalent of two full backpacks on most days-I would estimate 40-50 pounds. The second group (about 8 people) was from Pennsylvania, an accomplished group of AT hikers in their 60s.

The camp chef served two seatings that night to about 30 people total. We had a smooth soup of garbanzo and pumpkin, followed by baked salmon and rice pilaf. When we arrived at camp, we could smell bread baking, and boy was it good! A simple country pan, but very satisfying.

As I left the kitchen (refuge) after dinner, I was struck by the number of tents packed into the camp. There must have been at least 50. They turned the generator off at about 10pm, and camp remained quiet all night. Total distance = 12.5km

3/1/2017: It rained a bit overnight, so my friend had made a wise choice by renting a tent. After breakfast (eggs, toast, fruit, bread), we hit the trail. The day was gray, as were most of our days in Patagonia. We hiked up a hill and then along the hillside above Paine Lake. There were great views, but it was breezy and rainy throughout the day. About mid-way along the route, we came to the Coiron ranger station, where we had to show our reservations and sign the log book before proceeding. By this time it was pouring rain. As we left Coiron, the trail began a very long and slow descent. This is where the mud began in earnest. Patagonia is famous for its mud. After a good rain, large puddles form in the trail that are surrounded by mud bogs. All of us had mud tracks up to our knees on the insides of our legs. One becomes weary of picking a solid route through the mud or around it.

Finally, the trail ascended slightly to a small vista where you can see the next destination: Dickson Camp and refuge. It sits in a large pasture near the Rio Paine, which flows into the aforementioned Paine Lake. It’s a pastoral scene, with a log cabin refuge. This is where we stayed and it was wonderfully comfortable. There was a log-burning stove, a small living room, and two big picnic tables where meals were served. The chef here works out of a very small kitchen, which is mostly taken up by a huge gas range. He was quite a character, too. Dinner consisted of a beef roast served over mashed potatoes. Definitely comfort food, but it was a long and mostly cold day, so very welcome. The refuge had bunkbeds again, but with a simple covering. You use your own sleeping bag here. Total distance = 18.5km.

3/2/2017: This was a short hiking day, so there was a lot of socializing on the trail. We saw three different glaciers and a lot of interesting plants.

We hiked mostly through forest, and had more mud. It rained lightly off and on throughout the day. This would be a good time to talk about the bridges we encountered along the trail. They were all hand-hewn and rustic. Most of them appeared to wash out every winter and then get replaced before the next hiking season begins. On this day, we encountered a bridge adorned with yellow “peligro” (danger) tape. “No tocar” was written with a sharpie on the railings. Neither of us knew what that meant, and it wasn’t a good place to attempt a river crossing. Fortunately, one of the local guides came by and proceeded across the bridge without a word. We safely followed, but all of the bridges looked risky. Many even had missing planks. Turns out “no tocar” means “don’t touch,” as in “don’t use the handrails.”

We arrived in Camp Los Perros mid-afternoon. Rain was threatening, so I set up my tent pronto. There is not much to recommend Los Perros, which is named after two dogs that drowned there at some point in history. It is near a small river, but hidden in the trees (dark, damp). The cooking shelter is much larger here and totally enclosed. There is no refuge (or chef-cooked meals). There must have been 150 people in the cooking shelter during the dinner hour. It was packed, and the rafters were all adorned with wet clothes set out to dry (although the stove was out of commission). The mood was cheerful. The large group tour could not buy meals here, so the porters carried all the food and cooking utensils for dinner and breakfast. The next day we would trek over the infamous John Gardner Pass. Weather is tricky up there. Total distance = 9km.

3/3/2017: It rained overnight and continued into the morning. I packed up a wet tent and had breakfast in the big shelter. Everyone was purposefully heading out early to cross the pass before any winds could kick up. The pass is notoriously windy, but we had very little wind throughout our entire trip. We set out behind the two groups. The trail was filled with mud bogs, and we had to tightrope across half-submerged logs in many places to avoid sinking well past our boot tops into quagmires. Slow going. After about 4km, the trail emerges from the forest and turns toward the pass. At this point, it becomes a steeper ascent. Unfortunately, the rain turned to snow as we ascended and it was soon white-out conditions. The way is marked with orange poles and many big boulders are painted orange. I can see why - it was still difficult to stay on the “trail” once it was covered in snow. I finally settled into the brown tracks of those before me, which were icy and wet, but still manageable.

My friend kept falling back, farther and farther. She was being very cautious in the snow/ice. It was too cold to stop for more than a couple of minutes, and I was totally drenched in sweat and condensation. I started a routine of walking until I couldn’t see my friend, walking back to her and making sure she was okay, and then proceeding. The third time I turned back, I could tell she was getting nervous about the trail conditions. I also noted we were making very slow progress after three hours. At this rate, it would take another six hours to cross the summit and get down the other side. Some of the porters began to pass us at this point, and my friend offered to pay them to accompany her so I could go ahead. None took up the offer, so we turned back. The ranger sweeps the trail each day, and we met him on our way back to camp. He said “this is nothing to a Chilean!” We arrived back at camp totally drenched. The rangers let us into their cabin to dry out at the stove for awhile, then we rented a tent and hunkered down. It rained all afternoon and was a generally boring day. Total distance = 9km

3/4-3/6/2017: The next day was glorious and clear. I began to get excited about heading over the pass. Unfortunately, my friend's knee had swelled up and was painful. So, we retraced our steps, having to tell our story many times along the trail since we were headed opposite to everyone else. It sucked.

3/7/2017: We learned our bus passes would give us passage to Pudeto, so we went there and took the catamaran across Pehoe Lake to Paine Grande. There is a big and pretty fancy refuge here. We did a day hike toward Grey Refuge to see the Grey Glacier. After hiking for 3 hours, I didn’t see much of it, but got a glimpse. I was tired (especially of the continual rain) and turned around. My buddy proceeded and got some good shots of the glacier. We went back on the catamaran and caught our bus back to Laguna Amarga. On the way back, we saw a puma! It was casually walking about 20 meters from the bus. Total distance = 13km

3/8/2017: It POURED all night. The rivers in the park were running very high the next morning. We went to the Torres refuge and learned sections of the W and O were both closed, along with the route to view the Torres. The park was essentially closed, and new arrivals were being held in Puerto Natales. The Chileans said it was an early winter. This was essentially our last day in the park. It rained most of the day, so we visited the fancy hotel, which also had a nature exhibit. We had breakfast/tea there and returned to the Torres refuge and hunkered down. You couldn’t even see the mountains - they were totally obscured by low clouds. The tap water was brown.

3/9/2017: We left the park and stayed again at El Patagonico in Puerto Natales. Went souvenir shopping, but didn’t find anything really to buy. Ate pizza and saw some folks from the trail.

3/10/2017: We arrived at the bus station in Punta Arenas before noon. It turned out to be quite a hike to our hostel, but it was worth it. Hostel Entre Vientos is on the water, and we saw porpoises and lots of sea birds from our lovely A-frame living room. It was truly a great place. We toured the town and went to a craft fair. We also rubbed Magellan’s toe, just in case going to Antarctica was a good thing.

I wanted to experience some local cuisine, so I made a reservation at La Marmita, which I found on Yelp. I took a taxi (very cheap) and ran into folks from the trail at the restaurant — the same ones we saw at the pizza place in PN. We decided to eat together. I had lamb tagine, and an amazing Pisco sour cocktail. It was a lovely meal.

3/11/2017: In the morning, a woman on the hostel staff made breakfast. We got to talking in our halting way, and she showed us a picture her daughter had just texted from TdP…of the mountains in Las Torres, with a rosy sunrise glow and a crystal clear blue sky behind. Just our luck. :angry:
Marnie



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Re: TR: Patagonia-Torres del Paine O Circuit

Postby Wandering Daisy » Sun Apr 09, 2017 8:47 am

So does everyone go in from the Chile side? What about going in from Argentina?

Sorry about having to turn back, but it sounded like you still had a good time.
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Re: TR: Patagonia-Torres del Paine O Circuit

Postby mcgenes » Sun Apr 09, 2017 9:39 am

Hi WD,
There are two entrances, both on the Chile side. I don't think you can enter the area from Argentina. I should have noted the breathtaking views over El Chalten from the airplane. It looks amazing.
It was definitely a worthwhile adventure!
Marnie
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Re: TR: Patagonia-Torres del Paine O Circuit

Postby wildhiker » Wed Apr 12, 2017 11:06 pm

WD asked about the Argentinian side. There is a separate hiking area around Monte Fitz Roy in Argentina. It's only about 50 air miles northeast from Torres del Paine, but about 300 miles by road (takes all day). Fitz Roy has better weather than Torres del Paine, because the weather generally comes from the west, so Fitz Roy is in the "rain shadow" (but it still get plenty of rain). There is an enormous ice cap covering the Andes between the two places. The Fitz Roy area (accessed from the town El Chalten) doesn't have any long treks like Torres del Paine, but has equally impressive granite spires. We hiked and backpacked in both areas in December 2014/January 2015 with mostly good weather. Still, as a California kid, I liked Fitz Roy better because it was definitely sunnier :-).
-Phil
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Re: TR: Patagonia-Torres del Paine O Circuit

Postby Wandering Daisy » Thu Apr 13, 2017 7:33 am

WIldhiker- did you drive a rental car or take a bus to go from one side to the other?
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Re: TR: Patagonia-Torres del Paine O Circuit

Postby hiac » Thu Apr 13, 2017 6:21 pm

Nice report.
how is the crowd if there is only?
what's the ranking of this trail in your list?
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Re: TR: Patagonia-Torres del Paine O Circuit

Postby wildhiker » Sun Apr 16, 2017 11:15 pm

WD asked about our transport from Torres del Paine to Fitz Roy. There were three of us (self, wife, and adult daughter), so we rented a car for our adventures in El Calafate in Argentina. Not cheap! An older small car was about $90 per day. And we got that price by using the Avis Argentina web site to reserve - using the main websites of the big rental companies gave higher prices. I used Google translate to get the English equivalent of the Spanish language Avis Argentina site and then used it side-by-side with the real site as I filled out my reservation; my daughter, who is fluent in Spanish, helped me with some of the more esoteric language that didn't translate well.
There is bus service all over that area - you just have to allow a bit more time than driving yourself. We also liked the flexibility of the rental car.
-Phil
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