December 5 2022

Day 5, Refugio Grey to Campamento Paine Grande

How wonderful it was to wake up in a warm dry bunk bed and be able to fall out of it, rather than having to hunt for yesterday’s underwear stuffed into a makeshift pillow, push damp clothes into a sleeping bag to warm for a few minutes before dressing horizontally, pulling on boots, then finally, crashing out on all fours through a dripping tent door, getting sodden in the process, before arriving at a fully upright position in whatever wind and weather the morning had brought!

It was also wonderful to have been able to shower inside, in a room with radiators, and space, and hooks to hang things on, not worrying about dropping precious dry clothes onto an icy cold muddy floor.

Before taking off we dropped our packs in a locker room and walked back up the way to grab some photos in the relatively better weather. On returning to the refugio, we discovered that we were not the only ones to have dropped bags that morning. We spent best part of the next hour excavating our 4 packs and then carefully returning the hundreds of others to the very small room. Shortly after we had finished a very angry woman started hurling the bags out again. We watched her for a while, and then took off.

The path followed the valley down, rising and falling to cross streams, eventually climbing to a fantastic mirador where a number of people had stopped on a rocky promontory. A massive gust of wind, set them flying for hats, gloves, hiking poles. A pack cover filled like a balloon, ripped off a backpack and disappeared over the glacial lake. Our plan to stop here for lunch was soon revised. We finally escaped the wind when we came down into a deep, tree-lined ravine. Lunch was cheese and tortillas, not my favourite, but I was beginning to feel unwell.

At every refuge there is an elaborate check-in procedure. Not only must you produce your booking information and National Park Pass, you must also hand over your passport and PDI, a flimsy piece of paper which you receive when you enter the country. These latter two items are then copied, who knows what for. After this, if you are dining in, you are asked if you have any dietary requirements. We got quite good at saying ‘Andy y Ona son vegetarianos, Kris come de todo, Miranda come de todo pero no puede comer nada con huevos’. The previous evening I asked a member of staff three times to confirm the meal was egg free. Three times I was told it was. It wasn’t. For the next two days I suffered the consequences, although I did very much enjoy the offending vanilla desert at the time.

Even though it was me with the cramps, it was Andy who took the fall and came crashing down backpack and all, on a fair weather dry day. He just put one foot wrong. Fortunately, he was soon upright again and little damage was done. But good it happened on this day and not the previous

Paine Grande is the largest of the camps. It sits between Lago Grey and lago Pehoe and has a boat connection to Refugio Pudeto, where there is a road. As a result it gets many visitors. The best bit about it, is the view, but otherwise it was the least favoured of all our stopping places. That evening soon after we moved in, a mass of kids arrived. They kept us up most of the night. I don’t think anyone realises that you can hear everything through a tent wall. That’s everything! I was envious that these kids from Santiago, were able to have such an exciting school trip. I remember a day trip to Boulogne when I was at school, most of it spent on a coach. That’s about as exotic as it got!

Bag locker at Refugio Grey
Our path is in there, somewhere
A valley full of dead trees. They burnt in a fire some years back. Recovery is slow but sure
A quick pic before we had to retreat from the Patagonian wind!
Paine Grande
The campsite with a view

December 4th 2022

Day 4 Los Perros to Refugio Grey

Where to start?

This was a short walking day, only 9.3 miles (15km) but it took us 9 hours and 20 minutes. We moved at a rate of less than 1 mile per hour. The conditions were that bad.

Early, the day started early. All hikers had been told they had to be off by 7:00. It had been a cold night with snow. Our tent was was pitched in a slight dip, straight on the ground rather than on a platform. We rented mattresses to keep us from near death or worst still, drowning.

It was one of those nights when you were not going to escape the desperation to pee. All the tents were huddled together under trees, so peeing just outside the tent was not really an option. The loo in the shelter was too far away with trip hazards aplenty from tree roots to tent guys, not to mention the snow and mud, so what to do? In the end I chose my blue cup! It became my wee blue cup after that!

We left the camp at 6:00. Most others in our cohort had left before us, but there were one or two stragglers. The path was treacherous from the get go. Steep, muddy, riddled with streams, slippery tangled tree roots, snow, blustery winds which smashed into you on the scree slopes between the relative protection of the trees. Once above the tree line it was a matter of turning your back to the wind, legs wide and firmly planting your hiking poles, 4 points of contact with the ground, until the gust passed.

Once into the vast expanse of the upper valley, we decided to move forward in tight convoy, stopping together for each white out. The snow got deep, the foot prints of those ahead, soon vanished. The path was marked by red poles and it became very important to catch site of the next before leaving the last. None of us had expected conditions quite like this.

I had to stop to put on an extra layer, so we all had to stop. In the lee of a boulder I got my back pack off, opened it, pulled out my hooded top, handed it to Andy. It flapped in the wind and quickly got snow covered. I shut my bag, took off my anorak, handed that to Andy. Quickly I put the top on, zipped it up, grabbed my anorak, got that on and got the pack on my back. I found myself apologising to the others for the stop. There was no talk of turning back. On we moved. Heads down. Later a quick stop to drink and eat handfuls of nuts and dried fruit. We reached the pass, stopped briefly for photos and gingerly started down.

The snow rendered the landscape uniform, our feet disappeared under it, sometimes knee deep, this was dangerous, potential bone crushing, ankle twisting, knee dislocating territory. What if….?? There was no protection here, no way to shelter an injured person and keep warm while waiting for rescue. Both Ona and Kris had Satellite emergency devices but quite how a rescue would be initiated or executed and how long it would take were unknown. We kept going. I felt I could trust my body and hoped the others could trust theirs.

My thin gloves froze solid. I wondered what frostbite might feel like and how many fingers I could afford to lose. My hands could no longer grip my hiking poles. I forced another stop. We huddled together against the wind like emperor penguins, Kris produced another pair of gloves, Ona some hand warmers. It was a battle to get the cellophane wrappers off the warmers then and activate the heat giving chemicals. With help, I forced my numb hands into the dry gloves, stuffed the warmer sachets inside, and then somehow got my frozen gloves over the top. The relief from the biting cold was near instant.

Dwarf trees started to emerge, we were soon back in forest, it was a little warmer but not enough to rest for long. The path became crazy steep, giant boulders, massive roots, muddy, slippery and in places exposed. Andy was not happy, vertigo messing with his mind. We worried about the other walkers. The Russian American girls were wearing shoes, not boots. How would they manage in these conditions? We were aware of a few people who were walking solo. Where were they now?

We began to get views of the massive Glacier Grey, a welcome distraction. Sometime after, and rather dazed, we arrived at the Paso Shelter. There, we found around 10 walkers standing at a high bench brewing hot drinks. We were greeted with cheers! These people had worried about us just as we had worried about them. They, on account of our age (we were definitely the oldest on the trail), and we on account of their youth!

Next on the list of distractions, but not welcomed by Andy, was a series of long and bouncy suspension bridges, slung across dramatic deep ravines. This really is the stuff of nightmares for someone who suffers vertigo. He decided to be the first to cross, not wait for any discussion or pep talk, but just to get it over with as fast as he could, and he did! From one bridge, it was possible to see straight up the sheer rock wall of the Torres, but this was not a good place to stop and take a photo.

Further on we began to encounter groups of walkers, coming up the valley, towards us, day trippers from Refugio Grey. We were muddy, wet, heavily laden, slow moving. They were clean, fresh, being steered by guides. The ‘O’ can only be followed in an anti-clockwise direction to enable walkers to cross the John Gardiner pass in the early morning when the wind, apparently, possibly, sometimes, occasionally, might be somewhat less, than later in the day. Most people follow the ‘W’, or parts of it, routes that avoid the John Gardiner altogether, and for good reason.

Ona heading up valley towards Paso John Gardiner
Miranda and Andy in the upper valley as conditions got worse.
Andy charging over one of the suspension bridges
Ona enjoying another of the bridges!
The snout of Glacier Grey, but still a long long way to go!
Finally reconnecting with the cohort at Refugio Grey. Everyone made it over safely, those on their own, teaming up with others, a great achievement one and all! Two sets of newly weds (one who had lost his ring), three British lads, Tom, Sam, and Kyle from Birmingham, Connie and Melissa from near La Junta, Connor, the runner with a new hip from Newcastle and last but not least the Russian-American girls. Andy and Ona were showering at the time!

December 3rd 2022

Day 3, Camp Dickson to Los Perros

The weather was variable but the the temperature was on a downward spiral. Los Perros, is the highest and most remote campsite on the ‘O’ circuit. We had been told that a pit toilet and cold shower would be provide but no meals. A tent would be available, but we would need to put it up and collapse it before we left. We had been led to believe that this camp was very basic with not even a shelter to cook in.

After Los Perros comes the John Gardiner Pass, famous for its extreme wind blowing straight off Chile’s vast southern ice sheet. An early departure from the camp is essential as the wind gets even more fierce later in the day.

With all this in mind we set off, braced for a cold damp night and a pre dawn departure the following morning. It was not a huge distance from Dickson to Los Perros and we did not want to arrive too early, only to sit out in the cold, so we set off late and took our time. It was a lovely path through thick forest.

Soon after we left the camp two horses came up the path behind us. On one was a Gaucho, a beret on his head, on the other, you guessed, a freezer! Why on earth would anyone transport a freezer up this path unless they were taking it to the Los Perros Camp? And if this were the case, surely there had to be power up there, and potentially a shelter with lights! Perhaps the camp would be more hospitable than we anticipated.

We had odd moments of sunshine and great views of the Catedral and Cota peaks. A fabulous bog, but too small for a seed snipe according to Andy. There were a number of bridges in varying states of disrepair and we stopped by one for lunch. Soon after, we heard the characteristic tok tok noise of a Magellanic Carpentario, a large woodpecker, the males are dressed up with a bright red head and yellow eye, the females with black head topped with a tuft of feathers, red around the beak and also, an intense yellow eye. Andy picked up a couple of sticks and started to beat out the double rhythm on a tree trunk. Soon, not one, but three birds were in the trees around us, inquisitive things that they are.

We continued up, into a section of dead forest, the trunks silver and smooth. We scrambled beside a stream and then onto the ridge of a terminal moraine. In front of us, the Los Perros Glacier, literally pouring down the mountainside. In the distance, off to our right, we The got our first site of the John Gardiner Pass, which at that moment looked rather innocuous. Not long after we arrived at the camp. Yes it was cold and damp, snowing in fact, a gentle but constant fall. But, the tents were pitched, walkers were congregating in the large communal kitchen, camp cookers were ablaze on the benches, warming everyone through and weary walkers were spinning yarns of their days exploits!

Seedsnipeless bog
Glacier Los Perros
Yay the sun came out for our selfie!

December 2nd 2022

Day 2 Camp Seron to Camp Dickson

A damp start to the day, clouds low with drizzle. We packed up, breakfasted in the refuge, collected lunch bags, and set off in waterproofs. The walkers soon spread out along the narrow path following the silent river. Rising up a steep rock outcrop where we experienced two or three massive gusts of wind, we cross into the valley of the Rio Paine, with views of the lago by the same name. Ahead the weather looked bleak. Leaving the lago behind, the valley broadened out, with lovely reed beds and pools. We passed three British lads, Sam, Thomas, and Kyle from Birmingham bringing up the rear. Sam was lying across the path with his head in a small stream. We stopped for lunch and they leapfrogged ahead of us again. The path entered beech forest and we climbed to a mirador overlooking largo Dickson and the camp immediately below.

That evening we found ourselves sitting with Connie and Melissa, mother and daughter. They were German but living and working on a sheep farm, close to La Junta just off the Careterra Austral. They had inherited the farm from a great uncle and decided to make a go of it. Melissa, the youngest child was at University in Europe but was back for the Christmas holiday.

A note for walkers

It turns out that the refuges bake their own bread, sell burgers and pizzas, all manner of snacks, provide shampoo in the showers, and for the most part loo roll! Some even had sun cream freely available. It would have been good to have known all this up front and saved us carrying additional weight on our backs. We carried kilos of nuts and dried fruit, chocolate, snacks for the route, essential when the going gets tough. We had opted to eat evening meals and breakfasts in all refuges where possible (7 out of 8, no meals are available at Camp Peros) and buy 4 packed lunches (sold for an eye watering 30USD, and carry 5 of our own (tortillas and cheese, tomatoes, avocado, apple while they lasted, supplemented with reconstituted freeze dried ‘salads’. However, we could have easily prepared a sandwich or two from the very generous refuge breakfasts or even have bought pizza which at 10 USD were much better value, and carried that for lunch.

Leaving camp Seron along the upper Valley Encantado
Ponds along the Rio Paine
An American Kestrel hovering over a reed bed, black necked swans, upland geese other and usual suspects in the valley.
A lovely winding board walk to cross bog at the the head of the Paine valley
Looking down on Camp Dickson in the peninsula at the centre of the picture, Embothrium Coccineum, long petalled red flowers in the foreground and new snow on the mountains behind.
The following morning, a little patch of blue sky but more snowfall visible above the camp
Kris on lago Dickson

December 1st 2022

Torres del Paine National Park hiking trails, refuges and campsites. The ‘O’ circuit is labelled in red, the ‘W’ in yellow

It arrived, the much anticipated date, the day we were starting the epic ‘O’ circuit of the Torres del Paine. The name says it all, (learning to pronounce it was another matter). In the months leading to our departure from home, we upped our exercise, he rowing and me running, and we added a weekly ‘personal training’ session to be sure to be able to complete this mountain circumnavigation injury free. Never have I been so glad to have given so much time to lifting, squatting, lunging, pushing and pulling. But the preparation fully paid off.

There was chaos at the entry to the Torres del Paine National Park. Hikers and day trippers poured off coaches from Puerto Natales. For all the complexity in the booking system, there was little information on what to do, where to go, how much to pay, what to expect.

At the Welcome centre, whilst Andy left a message for Gerado, who was due to deliver our repaired camper, left behind at El Calafate, (Argentina) I went in search of the water bottle that had got lost in the scramble for the bus. Fortunately, I found it on a counter along with someone else’s box of small pink pills. I asked around the groups gathered outside if anyone might have dropped their medication. “Probably birth control’ said a young women with dreads and piercings. ‘ Ah yes’ I responded, ‘not critical then’. ‘No’, she agreed, ‘but this sure is a cool place to conceive’!

We set off, not quite sure of the route but soon found the way. After a few steps Andy informed us, in true tour leader style, that the ‘zonas de recouperaciones’ were for habitat recovery, not ours.

The route to camp Seron was gentle, a lovely path through forest, along the bank of the aptly named Rio Ecantado. We were warmly greeted at the camp. There were only 12 walkers dining in that evening, the others were cooking in a shelter outside. On our table were two women, in front of them a bottle of wine which they immediately offered to share with us. They were Russians, living in America, with no desire to return. Thirty somethings, mothers, married to Russians met in the US. They were fresh, beautifully poised and turned out. One was in clothes that coordinated head to toe, pinks purples, mauves. They were on their 5th day of the circuit, having started at Paine Grande. That day they had walked two stages, starting from camp Chileno at 3:00 in the morning, hiking up to the Torres for sunrise, then all the way down to the Central Sector and on to Camp Seron. A mammoth hike. You must be totally exhausted’ I exclaimed. Think Villanelle, from Killing Eve, ‘ I feel totally rested’ the coordinated one replied. She took a long slow breath, her eyes closed for a second or two. ‘I have no worries. Children (three, under 7) are with father.’

The evening meal was excellent, each plate carefully constructed – a tower of gratin potato, roasted veg, crowned with a fillet of chicken finished with a crispy ‘leaf’ of Parmesan.

Working out what not to take!
The Torres from the bus
Valley Encantado with two mujeres encantadores!
A bright yellow tent at camp Seron to have some fun in!
A cold night, I slept in all my warm clothes but look, clean knickers!