Fastpacking the O Circuit in Torres Del Paine, Patagonia
Torres Del Paine National Park, a wilderness sanctuary nestled within the heart of Chilean Patagonia, which boasts rugged mountains, towering granite spires, vast glaciers and crystal clear lakes. The park offers a network of well-maintained hiking trails including the famous W trek and O circuit, which attract hikers and trekkers from around the world. In March of 2023, we attempted to fastpack both routes over five nights during the last week before the O circuit closed for the winter and we'd end up facing not only strong winds and heavy rain, but even snow as the seasons changed right before our eyes. Join us on our journey and prepare to be captivated by the beauty and resilience of nature in this remote corner of the world. Located in the southernmost region of Chile, Torres Del Paine National Park covers an area of approximately 1,800 square kilometers.
The park is centered around the Paine Grande Massif, which is the focal point for both the W and O circuit. On the W, trekkers hike up the Ascencio Valley, the French Valley or Valle Frances, and to the terminus of Grey Glacier, which typically takes 4 to 6 days, by far the most popular option. The O circuit, also known as the big circuit, encircles the entire park, providing a more comprehensive and varied experience.
It's much more remote and more challenging, but also less crowded, thanks in part to the fact that trekkers can only travel in a counterclockwise direction. It can take up to 10 days for the entire circuit, but we'd be aiming to do it in five nights, which is the minimum the park's booking system would allow for. We hopped on a bus from nearby Puerto Natales for the 2-hour drive to the park entrance. This was actually our second time visiting the park since we'd been here the week prior for a day hike up the Ascencio Valley while hosting an 8-day group tour of the region.
Once we arrived, we headed to the nearby camping area so that we can settle in and prepare to begin our journey through the park the following morning. We've arrived at Torres Central, at Central, which is near the main entrance to the park. The weather did unfortunately turn a few minutes ago, the clouds rolled in, hopefully it's just a shower, the wind picked up for a bit there, but it seems to be dying down now. And we're just getting set up in our tent here. We rented a premium tent tonight which comes with a big mattress pad and sleeping bags, this is one of those rooftop tents that's made to go on the top of a car. They look brand new actually, I'm assuming these are new for this season, definitely the most expensive of the camping options.
You can also pitch your own tent, that's by far the cheapest, or in between that you can rent one of these cheaper tents that comes pre set up as well. The most expensive option is by far to stay in the refuge and there you can rent either a private room or stay in one of the bunks, but we're going to save that for tomorrow night. But we did pay for full board, meaning we have all the meals which we're going to go take inside the refuge. So dinner tonight, breakfast in the morning and a packed lunch to go. So lots of options depending on your budget and we will show you the refuge tomorrow night.
But for now let's check out this tent. Hi Hi! Cozy up there? Really cozy up here yeah, it's warm, it's dry. Starting from Torres Central, near the southeastern entrance of the park, for our first day on the trail we'd travel through a valley along the eastern side of the massif, skipping the first fully serviced campsite until we reached Refugio Dickson, on the banks of Dickson Lake, a distance of roughly 32km with just under 1,000 meters of elevation gain.
All set? Almost, just took off the puffy, it's a bit cool. So we are on our way, day one. We're going to go basically as far as the park will let us today, about 32 km out to Dickson, to the refuge where we'll spend the night. It's a beautiful day, completely blue skies, we'll see if this holds up throughout the week.
Probably not. It's still a little bit cool this morning, but I think as soon as that sun hits us it's going to be quite warm. Yesterday was super warm in the afternoon when we arrived so we're starting out a little bit cold here in terms of our layering, of course we've got lots of spare clothes in our packs, so here we go! So we're running through this river valley here and it seems to be quite protected from the wind. So far there's been a ton of water sources to filter, although they actually say that you don't need to filter the water here in this region, comes right off the glacier, but you never know what might have curled up and died in the water. What do you think so far? So easy! I think we're saving the hardest for last, we're just easing into it today. Yeah Our approach on this is similar to what we did on the tour du mont blanc in terms of gear and pacing, although there's significantly less elevation change on this route, but basically means jogging the flats, running the downs, but hiking pretty much all the ups.
And here we'll have three big climbs, the first being in two days up through the pass, which is going to be super windy, we could have some snow, and then two more big climbs as we head up each of the valleys towards the end on the W trail. So we've reached the next campsite at about 14 km, we're about 2 hours in, this one we can skip fortunately 'cause that would make for a pretty short day. We are going to stop here for a quick bite, maybe half of our packed lunches and then continue on our way to Dickson. What's in the pack launch? So we got a chicken and vegetable sandwich, that's actually really good, a green apple, a protein bar, a little chocolate bar and some uh, like a nut mix. Pretty good.
This looks like our first real climb today. I think we're going to stop here and finish our lunch. Look at this glacier. Just a few kilometers to go here and we were just noticing that we are pretty much now on the other side of the towers, Las Torres, you can see them poking through over that ridge right there. We've arrived. Stunning! What a setting.
Yeah! Cubo Cubo, that's us. So we have two beds in a private room, very cozy, and there are hot showers, dinner at 6:00, breakfast at 7, 7:30? 7: a.m. 7: a.m. Let's see what the bunks look like here; it's pretty close quarters. Day one was a success, the weather was perfect. We've checked in here in our private room at Dickson Refugio, we had a hot shower, we're going to go have a beer now.
I was pretty impressed with the trail today, the views kept getting better and better every time we kind of went over a pass we were surprised and greeted with a new view of a glacier or a lake and the wind, pretty much non-existent today, although I just talked to a couple here who actually turned back. They attempted to make it over the pass yesterday, the wind was so bad that they were clutching onto big boulders to try not to blow away, so they actually came back and they're going to head back the opposite direction to Central and bail on the hike. And I talked to some people last night over dinner who had just come back from finishing the W trail and they said the wind was really bad there as well, they were getting blown over, a couple of them actually had some scrapes and bruises as a result. So we'll see tomorrow, it's another easy day, we're going to do a little bit of climbing and then basically prepare to get up early the next day to get through the pass, hopefully before the wind picks up. Day two would be the shortest at only 12 km with 560m of elevation gain, as we travel to Los Perros campsite, where the park required that we stop for the night. How did you sleep? Not very well, there's a lot of noise in here.
Okay so here's what we got in our lunch today, um some kind of veggie wrap, little tobleron, quinoa bar, some snacks and sort of a knockoff Gatorade powder. Okay day two and today's a short one, we have to stop at the next campsite at Los Perros because they want us to get an extra early start going up Garner Pass the next morning. So what is this 9, 10km, we're actually not sure.
Actually the sign says 12. The sign here says 12, we had read nine before, so let's hope it's 12 at least, yeah let's hope it's 12, there's also a little side hike we might be able to do up to a glacier, depending on the weather as well once we get there. This part of the trail is feeling very coastal. For our friends back home this is a lot like the Sunshine Coast Trail actually.
Sounds like Woody Woodpecker. Little viewpoint up here. We got a big what, 200 meters? 200m climb haha This is gorgeous! It's like The Land Before Time. A lot of these bridges have seen better days. They really came out of nowhere hey! I expected like a slow moving train, they just came running! We figured those are the horses re-stocking Los Perros, where we're going, coming from Dickson where we just were. Dickson gets restocked via boat, there's a boat that comes up the river and yesterday was apparently the shift change, the weekly shift change for the rangers, so presumably they resupply at the same time and it looks like they just ran the supplies up to Los Perros this morning as well.
We've left the cover of the canopy so the hard shells are on. Look at this glacier up here. I think on a clear day we'd have a pretty nice view up there. Yeah, wait for the next glacier here. Yeah, oh well maybe tomorrow.
Well we knew the nice weather wouldn't last forever, but this is pretty cool. All right let's get out of this rain. Camp Perros. So check in isn't until 1:00 o'clock, so we've got a couple of hours to kill, that's something we didn't really consider, but in the meantime we're setting up camp here on the balcony to get some shelter from the rain.
It's a bomb proof tent, it's actually pretty insulating, which is good news 'cause it's windy and cold over here, so it came with two comfy sleeping pads and we have our own sleeping bags, but I think I'm still going to be cold 'cause it's only a zero degrees. So we just rented one of their big heavy duty sleeping bags as well, for extra warmth for tonight. And our running clothes are pretty wet from today, but I think what we've decided to do is tomorrow we're just going to wear all our base layers and our waterproof gear ,which is dry at the moment, for heading up through the pass 'cause that was our plan anyway, to pretty much put on all of our warm layers and then when we get to the next refuge at Grey, we have a room rented again, so we'll be able to dry all of our stuff out tomorrow, 'cause I think trying to dry our stuff out in this tent, in this environment is probably futile. So we're hiking back to the glacier here to see if we can get a better look now that it's clearing up a little bit, wouldn't say it's exactly blue skies, but we've got some blue patches. I think everyone else has arrived by now, this is pretty much the roughly 70 people that would have been at Dickson where we just came from, at this point everybody is on the same itinerary so we're also going to see all of the same roughly 70 people tomorrow when we make it through the pass to Grey.
How is it? First time we have rice, this is nice. On day three, we'd get an early start for John Garner pass, which is considered the crux of the route. Winds can be especially strong here in the afternoon, but on a clear day it also comes with the reward of incredible views of Grey Glacier and the surrounding peaks.
We'd then continue traversing alongside the glacier to Refugio Grey, where we'd stop for the night, a distance of 17km with 1,800m of elevation gain. 7 a.m. on the dot. So camp got active at about 5:15 this morning, we had breakfast at 6:00, the trail technically closes at 7:00, that's checkout time and they want everybody to leave camp, but as you can see back there, some people leave a little bit later, but the goal is to get over the pass before the wind really picks up in the afternoon. Not sure if you can hear it but it's already quite heavy right now, but in the afternoon gusts can get up to like 100km per hour, it's no joke so yeah, we're going to push on through and try to get through before the wind and the rain really picks up. All right let's go.
This trail is not in the best shape and it's pretty muddy so uh it's kind of slow going right now, but looking around we can already see some fresh snow on the peaks around us and I think we're going to have a really nice sunrise as well, so it should all be worth it. The wind's picking up. So it's a little icy, crampons definitely wouldn't hurt. Is that it just up there? So there's an eerie calm all of a sudden, it's like being in the eye of a storm as we approach this final push here to the top of the pass, but uh I have a feeling that the second we hit the ridge up here we're going to feel the full brunt of it coming over from the other side of the pass. There's no wind here! Whoa! Oh my god! Wooo! Grey Glacier! This is incredible, no wind at all.
There's no wind at all up here! Patagonia is known for its wind and this is supposed to be one of the windiest places on this route, the wind comes right off of Grey Glacier here, straight up the pass and there is none. This is incredible, and the sunrise this morning, we could not have asked for a better day. I'm gonna fall over.
Wooo! There's the wind! These are definitely puma paws! Oh yeah, that's a big cat for sure, makes you wonder if he's up there somewhere watching us. So many of them, big cat. So we're just hiking back up to the pass, because the light looks beautiful up there on those peaks. We caught the sun cresting over the glacier now, but we want to go back and see what it looks like in the valley behind us and this will have the added benefit of warming us back up before we start descending, because we'll probably be pretty cool on the dark side of the pass. Wow! Absolutely nowhere else in the world I'd rather be, hey babe? Yeah! Okay so we're descending now pretty steeply, pretty sharply to Grey Refugio, we're back into this beautiful Fall foliage, it really does feel like the leaves are turning right before our eyes. 5 minute break to eat lunch? Wow! The southern Patagonian icefield, one of the largest icefields outside of Antarctica and Greenland, is located west of the park and feeds the park's glaciers, including Grey Glacier which is the largest glacier in the park at 6km wide and covering an area of approximately 270 square kilometers.
Oh my god! Oh, what do you think? That bridge is a bit scary. That bridge was pretty scary, I got a pretty nasty gust of wind when I was right out in the middle of it, think we' got two more of those too. What makes Grey Glacier particularly captivating is its stunning blue ice, a result of the glacier's extreme density which absorbs all colors of light except blue. Like many glaciers worldwide it's being affected by climate change, serving as a stark reminder of the impact of global warming on glacial landscapes. You see this whole section we've been hiking through here is burned out, it's growing back quickly but there's definitely still scars and this was from a wildfire that was started by some tourists a few years ago, um, there's no fires allowed in the park and 'cause fires do start they spread really quickly because of the wind, and the wind makes them very difficult to put out as well, and that was the case here this one burned for quite a while.
They don't get much lightning here so there aren't many fires naturally, so when they do start they can spread really quickly. Oh my god, this one's even higher! That was exciting. This looks to be our third and final bridge for the day just right up here. Oh it's a ladder! Luxury compared to where we just came from! After checking in we hiked to a nearby viewpoint overlooking Grey Glacier's terminus, where icebergs float in the turquoise water of Grey Lake. Today was more than we could have asked for when it came to the weather. I think we were hoping we'd get a break in the rain, but we ended up with probably the best weather you could ask for in Patagonia, a lot of sunshine, blue skies the whole day.
The trail was a little more technical I think than we anticipated, so the day did take a little bit longer, fortunately we had a big buffer of course uh, we figured we'd do it in four or five and it took us six and a half, call it six if you deduct some of the back and forth we did for video and photos. Yeah we thought that the worst of it would be going up and over the pass and that we'd be in the clear afterwards, but the trail actually stays like pretty difficult the whole way. Like it's up and down and it's rooty and muddy and uh lots of like big steps and in some places you're also like really near the edge so if you're carrying like a big pack it'd be maybe even a little bit sketchy if it was muddy. Yeah I think with a big pack it would be quite difficult, but even with a light pack it's not quite as runnable as we maybe anticipated it would be. So we're all checked in here at the Grey Refugio, we have a shared room with two other women, so we're in one one of the bunks. We've had hot showers, there's a kitchen and a bar inside, we're going to have dinner here in about a half an hour at 6p.m.
Feels pretty luxurious compared to last night's at Los Perros. If you had an extra day you can even rent kayaks here and this is all because there's a boat that comes here, so there are tourists coming for the day and of course it's the start of the W trail so we're back with the crowds, pretty much back in civilization. How is it guys, compared to last night? No comparison, this is a feast! Yeah! Day four would be our biggest day as we attempted to do the first half of the W, continuing past Refugio Paine Grande, before climbing to a viewpoint at the end of the French Valley or Valley Frances, which is said to offer breathtaking panoramic views.
We'd then retrace our steps all the way back to Paine Grande where we'd stop for the night, a total distance of 39km with almost 2300m of elevation gain. Day four! Day four. We've got our box lunches ready to go, the weather, we'll see, could be a mixed bag today. Yeah And we've got a long day. We're going to try to push the mileage a bit today and see how much we can pack in, so here we go. Already too hot? Yeah Yeah same.
It's hard to regulate your temperature on this on this route. You'll heat up but then the wind picks up and you get really cold again, so the shell tends to come on and off quite a bit throughout the day. Definitely noticeably busier now that we're on the W compared to the back side of the O. Want to stop here? Yeah My hero! Let's get out of here! what's that? Let's get out of here! Okay let's go! Little gusty. Well it's definitely getting busier, we've probably passed 40 people in the last 2 minutes.
Yeah that's it. This is Paine Grande just up here, that took a little less than two hours to cover just over uh 10 kilometers, which isn't bad considering we did 600m of climbing. This is our home for the night but uh, it's only 10: a.m.,
so we're going to press on and go check out Mirador Britanico, which is going to be a big climb up to a nice viewpoint and we'll be back here tonight. Look at the color of that water! That is incredible. That's from the glacial till reflecting the sunlight.
Patagonia is known for its strong and unpredictable winds and Torres Del Paine is no exception, which is host to a variety of unique plant species adapted to the harsh Patagonian environment. Alright so we are at Camp Italiano, we made quick work of that, an hour 20 maybe from Paine Grande, so that's pretty good. We're going to have a quick lunch and then start the climb to Mirador Britanico, which is 5.5km, all uphill by the look of it. Okay so we had a quick bite and now we're heading up the valley, the weather looks like it might be okay, I think it'll be peekaboo views, but it could be worse. We were expecting rain most of the day today so I think we should be happy with what we have.
I'm very happy with what we have! Well that was only about the halfway point, we've got 3km to go and about half the climbing still. We're getting back into those beautiful fall colors here. We keep heading deeper up into this valley but it's hard to believe that the view could get any better. Last little push. Well it's time to head back. We're hoping to get back to the refuge by about 5:30p.m. in advance of dinner at 6:00,
to give ourselves a little bit of a buffer, so we don't have a lot of time to spare. So we arrived here at Refugio Paine Grande pretty much at 5:30 on the dot, we had hot showers and then went for dinner at 6:00, which was a huge buffet with some actual vegetables, um we had a glass of wine and uh now we're just settling in, relaxing and preparing for another big day tomorrow as we make our way over to Chileno and hopefully up to the base as well. Leaving Refugio Paine Grande we'd now retrace our steps from the day before, this time skipping the Valley Frances along the bottom of the W trek and up the Ascencio Valley to Refugio Chileno, around 25km with almost 1,400m of elevation gain. How did you sleep? So so. One of our roommates was snoring.
Lunches for today, for later. Okay so it's day five and I think our luck with the weather has pretty much run out, but for now we'll plan to stop at Chileno, and if it does clear up then we'll consider pressing on to the base. I'm really glad we did this yesterday, Yeah 'Cause today we cannot see anything at all, would have been a shame. These trails have turned into a creek bed so I think we're just going to commit and get our shoes wet at this point. So we're back at the junction for Refugio Italiano, where we went up the valley yesterday, so we're back onto some new trails.
We're into some pretty slow moving terrain here, it's quite technical, it's obviously super muddy and uh, it did show on the map a really high time estimate for this next couple kilometer leg and we couldn't figure out why, but now we know. No offense to whoever built these trails, but these are not what I would consider well-built trails. I think we've been spoiled by the good folks back at home at the North Shore Mountain Bike Association, world class trail builders, they use techniques like grade reversals, otherwise they just become creek beds like this. Bit of a viewpoint here.
You having fun? Sort of. Yeah, we're not cold, that's the main thing, so just like playing outside in the mud. We're back down at water level, the rain is only getting worse, it's getting much harder actually, especially now that we're out in the open, wind is a little bit stronger out here as well. I think we're going to probably stop at camp maybe have a snack and I think Audrée's going to put her waterproof pants on. It's a shame 'cause this section of trail would be absolutely stunning on a sunny day. Oh wow! I think up there.
This river is no joke, it's really moving, we're already pretty wet so it's not going to make a huge difference, but obviously got to think about safety as well. We decided to camp out here at Cuernos for a little bit to warm up and dry off, have some warm coffee and eat some of our lunch. We've got 12km left to Chileno, where we're going to stop for the night. We spent a good hour in the refuge and not only did we dry out most of our clothing, but we managed to wait out the rain. Look at that view! Look at those condors up there! Yeah, this feels like a new day, but honestly this refugio here at Los Cuernos was a saving grace. yeah Now we have what, two and a half, maybe three hours to go to Chileno.
All right let's do it. So I can see our ridge way up there, and that's basically the main trail up past Chileno to Mirador Las Torres, which is a very busy trail. It's probably the busiest trail in the entire park and that's because there are buses that come to Central to drop off tourists to do it as a day hike. In fact that's the hike that we did with our group uh just last week, so as they say, you're not in traffic, you are traffic, and last week we were those tourists, but fortunately for today it'll just be for a few kilometers until we get to Chileno, and then tomorrow morning we'll be getting a very early start to do the sunrise hike, which means we should have the trail mostly to ourselves. Torres Del Paine was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978 in recognition of its unique ecosystems and biodiversity. It's home to a wide range
of wildlife including guanacos, foxes and numerous bird species. It's considered one of the best places in South America to spot pumas in the wild. Our cozy home for the night.
I'm definitely looking forward to a beer. The parks conservation efforts aim to strike a balance between preserving its pristine landscapes and wildlife while still allowing responsible and sustainable access for visitors to appreciate and enjoy its natural beauty. Our final day on the trail would be a short one, but with an extra early start as we attempt to reach Base Las Torres for sunrise, the viewpoint at the base of three distinctive granite spires from which the park derives its name.
We'd then run back down the valley to the park entrance, a total of 16km with a little over 800m of elevation gain. Hi there, thank you. Well it's our final day on the trail, we got up early this morning, about 5:15 so we could hit the trail by 6:00 a.m. and it was quite cool this morning, fresh snow on the ground, but we warmed up pretty quick.
I think we pulled off our puffy jackets after about 10 minutes and we are making our way up to the base of Las Torres for sunrise, so hopefully we can get there in time and of course fingers crossed for a clear morning. It's noticeably colder up here, yeah, now that we're out in the wind a little bit eh. I'm going to have to put my my shell back on here. Oh we're almost there. What do you think? Yeah it's going to be gorgeous! The sun's just coming up and the towers are already looking kind of pink. So we have made it, it took an hour and 25 minutes, that includes about 5 minutes of faffing about with layers and taking photos, looks like we're the second group here, there's one more more group just up there on the rocks, nobody down at the lake yet.
There is a pink hue just kissing the towers at the moment. Okay so we're all cozy here in our sleeping bags, I've got two different time lapses set up with the GoPros, um there's still just a couple of people down at the lake and a few more up on the ridge, but unfortunately the clouds are starting to roll in, but you know what, we've already got a great view this this morning so I think it's been worth it. Yeah totally worth it.
Well another successful adventure in the books and hopefully a film that will inspire some of you to pursue a similar adventure. We're now just waiting for our bus here to head back to Puerto Natales, Chile, and tomorrow we'll continue on to El Calafate in Argentina, before heading back to Buenos Aires and eventually to our home in Vancouver, Canada, so our adventure isn't over quite yet. Our supporting channel members can learn about all of the logistics, including our gear, how we booked the refuges and the costs.
To become a member, click the ''join'' button from within a web browser. And to see more from the week that we spent traveling around Patagonia while hosting a group with Trova Trip prior to this adventure, watch the first episode of my 2023 Training Diaries. You'll see the first hike that we did up to Base Las Torres, as well as footage of Mount Fitzroy in Argentina, Perito Moreno Glacier and more.