The O Circuit (Torres del Paine in Patagonian Chile)
In my twenties, I spent nine days hiking in Denali, and I have done several other multi-day hikes since, including the Great Australian Walk with Dan and Cabe. Until Torres del Paine, I had never done a guided, multi-day hike before.
ChileNativo is the company who has helped me organize all my time from December 8 to February 9, but their specialty was tours of Torres del Paine, run out of their office in Puerto Natales.
The “O” is a 7–9 day hike around Torres del Paine, the crown jewel in the horde of gemstones in Patagonia, named because it’s a circle, as opposed to the “W”, which is in the shape of an F.
No, of course it’s a W. I had chosen the O purely because, just like the Director’s cut of every film I know about, it was longer. I chose well.
A lot of people do the W and the O without guides. The camps actually have a lot of the services you need – you can buy limited snack food at most camprounds, though it is limited and you have to arrange meals before your trip. You can rent tents and a sleeping bag in each location (again good idea to pre-arrange). WIth ChileNativo they arrange all of those things with the two companies that manage the private lands and the park lands. So we hiked without tents (our high quality tents were carried by porters instead of rented from the campgropunds) or food (largely provided by the campgrounds, but provided at a higher level of quality by Chile Nativo on two nights)
If you get the chance to hike in Torres del Paine, wait until you can get a reservation for the O circuit. While the W (which the O includes) is also beautiful, the number of people on the circuit is two to five times higher. The O is busy enough, with a limit of 70 people in each campground.
During the week I mulled over the life of a guide. Brujo (Pablo’s nickname because with his long braid he looks like a wizard) first moved to Southern Chile when he had a job opportunity working with horses, then began to guide, then started doing guiding with horses. His face lit up like I had not seen it when he related the moment he was propositioned to guide in Torres del Paine – to make good money doing something you love, in nature. Chuma, our assistant guide, though normally a tour leader, was the non-stop source of humor during the trip and really tried to help me improve my Spanish. I now know a dirty joke ening in playpus (ornitorrinco) and the word for rustler (cuatrero).
The John Gardner Pass
The O circuit would have been a great week-long trek, but it would not have been an emotional experience without the 24 hours surrounding crossing the John Gardner pass.
On Day 4 of the trek we left Dickson Camp after a night of rain and wind. The trail was wet, though not terribly difficult. In the last 3–4k, we climbed higher, the winds picked up, and the rain began to come down with some force. We arrived in ‘Swampy Camp’, aka Perros Camp, and could completely vouch for this camp. The campground was soaked, though the porters had worked miracles and our tents were pitched in a way that the insides were dry.
We huddled in the common eating area, and once the rain paused, set up things for the night, then joined our guides and porters inside an unheated, private dome area as the temperature dropped. The meal was the second best of the trip, again because it was provided by Chile Nativo (i.e. Had been carried the whole way by porters) and not the campgrounds. Brujo encouraged / forced seconds, insisting that we were going to need all the possible energy tomorrow. It was the first time I was full on the trek.
At the end of dinner, the time of our usual briefing on the next day, Brujo looked at us for several seconds, and broke the news. “Tomorrow, you are going to be miserable.” We would reach the highest elevation of the trip, and hike 24k, climbing first to the pass, descending, then climbing again to then drop back close to sea level. The wind was going to howl. The rain would try and wash us off the slippery paths, Our already tired legs would not want to bear the full weight of the packs.
Instead of a standard sleeping bag, I had brought and ultralight sleeping quilt, lighter because it didn’t even have a zipper. Most nights I managed with the silk sleep sack and the sarong that a girlfriend had given me for the trip, over the top and bottom thermals, and managed not to freeze, though I cannot say I ever woke up warm in the morning. I knew it would likely freeze that night, so I rented a sleeping bag from the campground. I crawled into my rental sleeping bag, which was 8 times bigger and 8 times heavier than my bag, and was toasty warm without even wearning thermals. I slept reasonably well despite pouring rain and giant gusts of wind throughout the nght.
We awoke to the middle of summer in Chile, January 25th, with heavy flakes of snow falling into camp. It was definitely below 0 Celcius, as we ate breakfast in the dome and prepared for the worst.
It was already better with the snow – so much better than the rain of the previous afteroon. The trail was trecherous and slick, and the focus of the group could be felt in the lack of chatter as we began the hike. As we emerged from the forest, we could feel more of the wind, and got our first glimpse of the path.
The path took my breath away, and I’d like to say that the tears in my eyes were entirely due to the wind, but my heart flooded with a feeling of being a part of everything I could see around me. We had a long way to hike to get through the pass, but the scenery was releasing every possible endoprhine into my system, and by the time we came through the pass, I had more than enough of a ‘fix’ to be floating as I looked back down to the lake, and forward to the Grey Glacier.
A week ago I had hiked on the Perito Moreno Glacier. The sheet of ice was and surprisingly even, with a very level surface and even what looked like square corners in parts.
Gray Glacier was violent, a frozen snapshot of an explosion of water rushing from the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields, jagged points of ice jutting upwards, and hundreds of them swooping up and then forward. A massive kiloton wave of water trapped in a phase shift. At the same time, we quietly mourned the 100m of ice that are disappearing each year. The ice fields that feed the glacier are the third largest source of fresh water on Earth, and they are shriking quickly. In 15–20 years, you may not see the glacier from the pass.
The brutal, raging wind had not awoken. The sun shone down on the gorgeous snow. The dusting of snow had turned the mountains into an Ansel Adams masterpiece of black and white.
I did not want to leave. I wanted one more minute, one more hour, one more lifetime of just being there, to pledge fealty to everything I could see.
Thanks to a few degrees of colder weather, we had escaped misery and found esctasy.
A week of being social
Since I had been traveling solo for over a month, I thought a group hike in Torres del Paine would be good for me. So I was happy to find that the group consisted of some very decent human beings, who had the misfortune of having me in their lives for a week.
Last year I read Hyperion, a science fiction book where 10 people are chosen to be pilgrims to witness the opening of a tomb and the arrival of a dreaded killing machine. They do not understand why they are chosen, and so as they trek towards the tombs, each night, one tells their story as they believe it is relevant to why they were chosen for the pilgrimage and what fate awaits them.
Sounds like a great party game to me!
I decided that our group of seven tourists (sadly soon to be six due to Lucy’s bronchitis) should re-enact something similar. Each night a new person would tell us their story, so we’d get to know each other. Angie, a milennial from the Bay Area currently trapped in New York, does not like to talk about feeling or share much person information, so I changed the format to be more of a benevolent interrogation that voluntary exposition.
My turn had come second, and it was actually quite tame. I volunteered a few things, and really enjoyed making Angie uncomfortable when I began pantomiming the list of my kinks.
David, a producer of some amazing documentaries, was the star performance of the week. He shared the three snapshots of his life (meeting his wife, working on a film about Russian cosmonauts that eventually won him an emmy!, and embarrassingly I’ve forgotten the third). David and his son Chris had lost their wife/mother to bowel cancer just six months before, and the day of our hike over the John Gardner pass was her birthday.
While meeting people is not the point or goal of my trip through South America, the experience of getting to know our guides and my fellow trekkers, as well as several hikers outside of our group, was a special part of the week. I may never again get to share a meal or a trail with any of the people in the group, but I am happy I had the chance. And I think if given a lot of money or threatened, they would say the same thing.
On our final day, we said our goodbyes to each other, and to the mountains, lakes, and glaciers that we had left behind. Angie, Chris, David, Diane, and John, thanks for your tolerance.
Next up: Ushuaia, which turns out to be the Southern tip of Argentina and not Chile. Who knew?