The Torres del Paine Circuit, Patagonia


Formerly colefeet
Feb 7, 2012
So these trips reports are old, and hence have very small images as they were uploaded on very shaky south american dialup internet at the time, but we don't have a lot on BCP from South America so I will throw up a couple of my favorites as my birthday present to BCP to stop lurking. please keep in mind i was younger and a newer backpacker when i wrote these, as well as traveling the world for the first time on my own, so be gentle in your words and thoughts while reading. Enjoy!!

Hiking the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine Circuit in Chile. 2007.

So for the last seven days, from March 5 to March 11, I was hiking in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. It was gorgeous, breathtaking, and I got a sunburn from the beautiful weather. Here is an update: I will try to keep it as short as I can, but I had so much fun!

March 4: Geert and I went to a hostel called Erratic Rock where they gave a talk about the park and the different courses you can take (really only 2) to get around. One is called the ¨W¨ and is, as it is named, a hike that follows a W shaped path. The other is a complete circuit that joins the start and end of the W together with a long path through the less visited section of the park. The W is a five or so day hike and the compete trail is around 8 days. The guys from the hostel gave us tips on which grocery store to find dried fruit, pita bread, etc. in and we took off to prepare ourselves. It took us until well into the evening to get all of our things together, and while Geert knew he wanted to do the W hike I was still debating on the longer route. The people at our hostel who had just returned from the park had had terrible weather, 7 to 8 straight days of rain and snow, and one group even was not able to complete the circuit because of such deep snow and mud on the highest section of the trail, called ¨El Paso¨ (the John Garner pass). I decided that I would figure out which route I wanted to take in the morning once we got to the park and saw the weather.

March 5: Geert and I caught the 7:30 bus to the park along with Victor and Tim, the Peruvian and American guys who were camped in the backyard of the hostel. They had very little time and were going to cover as much of the W as they could in 3 days, 2 nights. The bus ride to the park was 2 hours, but once we were in the park we saw many guanaco (look like alpacas/llamas), and some rheas (big ostrich like birds) and has nice views of the mountains. We took a catamaran ride across Lago Pehoe to the starting point of our trek and got our first real views of the park:





Once we landed on the other side of the lake we took off from Refugio Pehoe in our separate directions. It promptly began to rain, causing a flurry of plastic and raincoats to appear. This is a picture of Tim, me, Victor and Geert all leaving from Pehoe. Geert was headed northwest towards glacier ray, I was headed northeast towards Campamento Italiano, and Tim and Victor would head for an hour in Geert´s direction, then back towards Italiano for the evening. Yes, Tim was hiking in shorts (it was so cold!) and yes, that piece of plastic on his shoulders was his rain cover.


As I headed towards Campamento Italiano you could see the bad weather headed in:


So I got out my poncho and put it on over me, my backpack, and my rain suit. It promptly blew over my head and was left hanging off my neck, inside out, in front of me. I took it off and stuffed it into a side pocket of my backpack and never put it on again. You don’t mess with Patagonian winds I guess. The rain really only lasted for about an hour, however, and my two hour hike to Italiano was very pleasant and gave good views of the mountain. Below: a nice view from the path:



Above: a view from the path looking back at the stunning color of Lago Pehoe. Below, another view from the path:


I reached Campamento Italiano and dropped off my tent and the bulk of my gear and headed immediately up the middle fork of the W towards Campamento Brittanico, into the Valle del Frances. On my way the views of the Frances glacier were fantastic. There were a TON of people all over the place, leading to my decision to hike the trail ¨alone¨, in other words not directly with someone but surrounded by people, kind of like traveling ¨alone¨. My favorite person I met was a guy in his late 50´s probably, coming down the mountain dressed in the appropriate alpine pants and sporty jacket and trekking poles of the trekking European. I used all of my Spanish and asked him how he was doing.. I will never know what he said, as the flurry of language that followed was too much for me to handle, but it began with ¨oh, regular (rag-ooh-layr)", and was finished with much rump-shaking form side to side and bobbing of his head. I think he was saying he was having difficulty navigating the rocks, but I was way too distracted by the trekking poles, pants, and rump-shaking to even try and comprehend. I laughed my way up the rest of the trail looking at things like this:




You could keep going futher into the mountains, but I met a couple -a polish guy named Piotr and a girl from Alaska named Naomi- who had gone a bit further ahead and said that the path just kept going and looked as if it was meant for alpinists. It was getting late anyways by this time so we headed down the mountain, stopping for a moment to chat with a group of French climbers who were staying at Campamento Britanico and trying to establish a new route up one of the peaks (the squarish one with the pointy top, two pictures above, I believe it is called Cuerno Principal). Anyways, Naomi, Piotr and I headed down the mountain, chatting about science, research, and school and other geeky things as they were also grad students. They had both been working in Antarctica until a couple weeks ago, and were now just traveling.

These are some of the views from the trail as the sun was getting lower in the sky... stunning!




We ended up running out of light on our way down to camp but were able to navigate through the rocks and down what as supposed to be a path but was really just a general direction marked every now and then, seemingly at random, with an orange dot to let you know you were headed in the right direction. My introduction to Chilean paths. The stars and moon, however, were gorgeous on our way back and we didn’t even need our headlamps at all, as the rocks reflected the light of the sky very well. It was wonderful and I hated to go to bed, but it was cold.

I barely slept that night for the temperature. It was FREEZING, and nothing I had kept me warm. When I finally was able to get up in the morning the guy in the tent next to me went to pick his formerly damp towel up off of a bush where he had laid it the night before. It retained the frozen shape of the bush as he pulled it free of the branches. Like I said, it was COLD. In fact, it was so cold I decided to forego my easterly direction of the circuit and instead head back west towards the first leg of the W and just do the short hike. I was not set up for that cold of weather. But that day, the 6 of March, would prove to be much, much better. I headed with Naomi and Piotr (who five days previous had needed to turn back at the pass as they could not get through all of the snow with Naomi's footwear) back towards Lago Pehoe and it was gorgeous out, sunny and warm. We ended up running into Geert who was headed back down the first leg of the W and towards the second ( the once into Valle del Frances that we had done the previous evening), so we had a nice lunch with the four of us and another Spanish guy at the refugio.

As the weather was so nice I left the group and headed up the first leg of the W towards glacier Grey so that I could watch the sun set over the glacier. The whole hike was views over the mountains and lakes and finally, the glacier:


That is the glacier you can see to the left of the mountain above the lake in the picture below:


I made it 18.6 kilometers that day before I was too tired at Campamento Grey to continue. I watched the sun set on the mountains and climbed into my sleeping bag. This is what I wrote that night: “after last night’s bitter cold I decided to pull out all the stops tonight: all my clothes are on, a hot water bottle is at my feet, I tied the extra space in the bottom of my sleeping bag off, I pulled out my emergency blanket and slept on that as well. I should sleep well tonight. I didn’t have to melt snow to make my dinner tonight, so that in itself was warmer. The hiking in this park is easy in the fact that there are no bears, you don’t have to worry about anything trying to eat you so you can keep your food in your tent. I’ve ended up with a nice system, where I can just stick my stove out of my door, and get my water boiling for hot water bottles, oatmeal, dinner, etc. without ever having to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. Yes!”

March 7 was cold in the morning as well, and when I got up I wondered why in the world I was doing this. My fingers were so numb I could barely get my tent apart, but I shoved it in my pack, sucked down my oatmeal and headed out. I talked myself in and out of quitting the stupid hike about 500 times between there and the 4 kilometers to the next campsite. By that time, however, the day was again gorgeous and sunny so I decided to head on to the next campsite after that, another 6 kilometers.

Below: me being cold, sunset on the mountains at Glacier Grey camp



It was between Grey and Los Guardas campsites that I found out more about Chilean trails, and decided that the hikes Geert and I had done in Ushuaia had been a good idea, getting my nerve up for sections of the trail between the two campsites looked like this:


Yes, that is a ladder going up the side of a ravine. Not fun without a pack or trekking poles, and one would think impossible with them, but apparently not because loads of people do this path. Sheesh... Here is me on a nice viewpoint along the path, standing above the glacier:


The higher I went the more above the glacier I got and it was amazing, so white and blue you couldn’t stand to look at it. The pictures didn't turn out nearly as impressive as the real thing, the light was just too blinding:


The pic above is the glacier - probably still another 200 meters below me. It was huge and the surface was all full of cracks; huge chunks would calve off into the lake below periodically (I didn’t get to see that, but you can see icebergs floating in the lake in the pic of me and the lake above).


I got to the campsite before the pass and it was still early in the day, gorgeous and warm. I talked with a few people who had come through the pass already, and a few others on the trail. I decided to have a go at it. I can only blame ignorance of the metric system for what I attempted to do (and actually did, for that matter) but if I would have realized how far and how hard it was I may have thought twice. That day, the third, I went a total of 22 kilometers, and gained 1150 meters and lost another 650 after I got through the pass. As I said if I would have known what that was in feet, I probably would have thought better of my actions. It was a horribly hard trail, with sections so steep they had ropes set up so you could pull yourself along with them, but everybody made it and the weather had been so warm all of the snow was melted and gone. In fact, I ended up with a bad sunburn that I got through my long sleeve shirt (which now, is a nice tan on my arms!)


Above is the view from the glacier side of the pass, below is the view from the opposite side. Note the lack of snow, and the easy to hike on flat rocks at the top. What luck I had!


The worst part was actually the end, when I was very tired and just wanted to get to camp. The mud started. It was horrible, horrible mud, even by Willowbrooke standards. It was though a tree-filled swamp, and the path was just everywhere full of floundering footsteps of poor trapped hikers trying to reach dry ground where none was to be had. I will say, that after 22 kilometer and so many meters gained and lost I was not in the mood to wallow though knee deep mud for half an hour and ended up quite upset, as you couldn’t see a path, couldn’t see an end to the mud, and any dry patches were usually occupied by trees bearing a rather sharp kind of thorn. I managed it though, but was not happy. The kicker was the river that separated me from the campsite when I finally made it though the mud. The "bridge" was a classic Chilean one, which means a log or two loosely nailed together with a metal rope suspended above it. I view these bridges as people traps. I paced up and down the river like a trapped cat for ten minutes, trying to figure out a way around this. There was none. I finally tried to cross the river just holding on to the rope and in the water, but the water was just a little too deep to be able to do this. I finally gave up and just used the rickety logs and made it, but just barely. My picture of the log bridge (which I went back to take the next day as I was too tired, upset and annoyed with at the time to do, did not turn out very well). I pretty much fell exhausted into my sleeping bag that night and slept until 11 the next morning.

March 8, my fourth day, I spent drying out my wet and muddy boots and socks (inside and out, and washing my pants that were muddy to the knee. I didn’t leave until 2pm for the next camp, Dickson. The hike to Dickson was easy in comparison to the day before, only 9km and 400 m gained and 100 lost, so I was happier for that. plus, the views were nice:



There was a waterfall by the river above and I sat at it for a long while and ate my snacks and watched the water. It was beautiful. I ended up at Dickson, one of the most gorgeous places I have ever seen. The camp itself is in a valley surrounded by mountains. A path through the trees (with the waterfall, etc.) leads to it, and you come out of the trees to find yourself surrounded by mountains, lakes, and horses, with glaciers and peaks in the distance everywhere you look. If I could live anywhere I would live here. The horses just run around the campground, and I was awakened the next morning by two grazing outside of my tent. I would have loved to have ridden there. The horses must be amazing because they follow the same paths that the people do, which are not easy. The picture below is from the next day, taken as I hiked away from the camp up the side of a hill. You can just make out the buildings of the refugio and small barn in the bottom corner of the picture, next to the lake. So gorgeous!!!!! You can see the glacier in the background as well, and it was still an eye-piercing white even from so far away (this is another glacier, not Glacier Grey from before).



Above: another view of the valley that camp Dickson was in, just to the east of the campsite. By the way, the mosquitoes were the worst I have ever seen. They would carry you away if you weren't careful. Big huge ones that swarmed your head. I wore my rain suit the whole time I was outside of my tent, with my hat on under that. And bug repellant. And swatting. Much swatting. Also, I saw a Dutch guy freak out at the mosquitoes. As horrible as it was, it was funny to watch him stumbling around screaming in Dutch, swinging his arms wildly and achieving nothing against the swarms. They really made you feel like doing that, though... they were that terrible....



My hike on March 9 from Dickson (with the horses) to Cuernos was beautiful. It was mostly though valley, like in the picture above, with wonderful views of Dickson as I went up gently. It took me a little over 6 hours to hike the 19 kms. from Dickson to Cuernos.


Above: view of the path following along a lake. Below: one of the parrots that live in the trees. This was my favorite day, I think, such a gentle hike and such wonderful weather it was unbelievable, especially since so many people the week before me had had so much rain.


Below is me after topping a hill and having a nice view of the lakes and valleys on the other side, almost to Cuernos camp.


The mosquitoes at Cuernos were just as bad as at Dickson, so I pretty much just ate dinner and slept for the night. I talked with a few German guys for a little while, but the bugs kept any conversation from lasting too long. The thing about these mosquitoes though- I walked around with out my shoes on and they never bothered my feet. They just wanted your head.... vicious, huge, bloodsucking bugs.... ahhhh!

March 10 - finally figured out that if I left my tent fly attached to my tent I could just pull my poles out and have my whole tent packed in less than 1 minute, including pulling stakes. Even the German guy commented on how fast I was ready and gone in the morning. I was proud of myself. My hike on the 10th, my 6th day of hiking, was a 16 km climb to the Las Torres campground, where the next morning I would climb in the dark up a boulder field with many other lunatics to see the sun rise on the Torres, the rocks that give the park its name, if the weather was good. Below: me on a break overlooking a valley.


I made it the 700 m of altitude gain in the rain to the Torres campground with only one stop at the Chileno's refugio when the steady rain that produced beautiful rainbows turned to a downpour. Again the Chilean trails proved their worth, as I was forced to use ropes and everything else to navigate the "trail". I made it to camp though and turned in early as to get to the rocks by sunrise you had to wake at 5:30AM.

Got up march 11 to the sound of rain, but when I looked out of my tent I saw little headlamp flashes over camp so knew that others were headed up to the Torres. I followed a French couple and a pair of British guys for 45 minutes straight up what later I was to find out looked like this (remember, we were in the dark with only our headlamps at this point):


If you can see the little red dots on the upper left hand side those are people on their way back down after watching the sunrise. This part was… interesting. We sat in the dark, in the vicious wind and bitter cold, oh, and the hail, don´t forget the hail, for about half an hour before things started to brighten a bit. We were wondering what if the faint pink glow was all we would get until bam! the light really hit the rocks:


Above: halfway there. Below: the full effect!


The actual show lasted only a few short minutes, before the full light of day hit the rocks and they turned back to their normal, grey selves, see the picture below:


We were very, very lucky to have this, as many people make the trip in the morning only to be disappointed by cloud covered that hides the rocks and makes the red glow impossible. The hike back down the mountain was nicer than the day before, as there was no rain and the sun warmed things up. The wind, however, was so strong it almost knocked me over quite a few times. I felt bad for the people headed up the mountain, as the wind was at my back on the way down.


Above: view on the way down. It started raining quite hard by the time I reached the bottom of the path, and I just made it to the main hotel/refugio where the bus would pick us up to take us back to Puerto Natales before it started to pour again. My luck really held out through this whole trip. It took from noon until around 4:30 to finally make it back to the hostel. There I met a lovely set of people who had finished hiking the day before and were making a huge dinner. I lucked out to have dinner cooked for me by a German guy, and shared it with a couple from Spain, a guy from Japan, a guy from France, and another couple from Slovakia... and here they are:


It was the perfect end to a perfect hike. Even with the cold and mosquitoes, I still can't believe my luck with the weather, the sunrise, and everything else. Tomorrow I have a bus to El Calafate, where I will try to go glacier trekking on the Perito Moreno glacier, but for now I am tired of typing. So much for keeping this short! Hope you enjoy the pics as much as I enjoyed taking them!

In case you are wondering my totals for the hike were: 7 days, 73 miles, 10,825ft lost in altitude and 10,170 meters gained in altitude. That is a LOT of hiking up and down! My knees are killing me, but I am so thankful I brought my trekking poles! They are life savers!
Thanks for sharing Colfeet! We had a great time hiking the circuit a few years ago. Agreed, Dickson was a magical spot. Great sunrise shots.
thank you for this. a lot actually. i've looked at this area, and others before, but the descriptions you get here (BCP), both text and picture, are so much more intimate than any thing else that you find. so thanks.

also, the figures you sited at the very end, one elevation is in feet, the other in meters. i wondered if one of those was an error.
Jen, Crazy jealous if this one. Patagonia is my #1 want for a far away travel.

Thanks for posting, looks amazing.
Jen, Crazy jealous if this one. Patagonia is my #1 want for a far away travel.

Thanks for posting, looks amazing.


I have seen a bunch of Patagonia TR's lately. This one takes the cake :) Thanks for sharing! I hope to see it someday in person.
thank you for this. a lot actually. i've looked at this area, and others before, but the descriptions you get here (BCP), both text and picture, are so much more intimate than any thing else that you find. so thanks.

also, the figures you sited at the very end, one elevation is in feet, the other in meters. i wondered if one of those was an error.
oh, yeah, i converted them to feet but apparently forgot to switch the labels as well as the numbers... oopsies. Thanks for the nice feedbakc everyone!!!!!!
Wow! Epic trip! Great report. Very impressive scenery. Those sunrise pictures are incredible.
Thanks for a great TR. Just by luck I got to do this 2 years ago and echo that it's a true bucket list. Went on to Calafate Argentina (great) and Ushuaia too. Very unique part of the world. Great wildlife and scenery. Weather changes radically minute to minute.
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