“The tragedy of this life is not that it ends so soon but that we wait so long to begin it.”
The cinnamon whiskey is hot as it’s sweetness hits my throat and coats my belly. It makes me feel good and warms me up. Although the inside of our paper-thin ultralight tent is like a sauna inside, I’ve been freezing all day. I lay back and hear the murmured whispers of other people around us. Backpackers are rolling into camp, setting up their room for the night. The wind is hard, and it’s whipping the thin material of our tent vestibules, making it hard to rest. The sun is still high. Today, thank God, was an easy hiking day. I need to sleep. Only a day prior, I had been fever-ridden, sleeping restlessly in a hostel in Puerto Natales, Chile piled four-high with sheepskins for warmth. I lay back wondering if it was smart to start this journey. It was risky. I had considered staying back in Puerto Natales and sending G on his way, but I had to give it a shot, knowing that once we started, there was no turning back. No search and rescue, no way off of the O except finishing it in its entirety. That’s the stubbornness in me.
When I had woken up this morning, the fever had broke. I still felt like death when we boarded the bus in Puerto Natales that took us to the ranger station of Torres Del Paine in Laguna Amarga. This is a two-hour trip, so I slept on the bus and prayed that this sickness would leave me. There was too much planning, logistics, and heart that had gone into this trek — one of the hardest travel plans we’ve EVER made.
We climb out of the bus with 60 other backpackers, check-in, and start our day. It’s slow, my chest incredibly congested, my nose stuffed. Even on a good, healthy day, I knew this journey would have some difficulty. I second guess my decision to start. What if I literally cannot make it? I have to! We are carrying everything we need for the next eight days on our backs, and even though we are accustomed to this and have packed light, my pack feels heavy. I am so congested. My breathing incredibly labored.
The mostly flat/rolling terrain and 13-kilometer hike was a blessing on this first day out of Laguna Amarga. I was still star-struck with the whole idea of us being in Patagonia. Pata-freaking-gonia, I kept thinking. It’s one of those trips we’ve talked about and dreamed about for years. Now I’m sick and miserable and fighting each step to get to our first camp.
As I lay back in our tiny Big Agnes tent, I think, “there’s no turning back now.”
We are at Serón.
Logistically speaking, this trip was outrageous! We didn’t want to go with a guide, a team, a mule train…you get my point, so I was left to the booking arrangements. There are three players in Patagonia; Fantastico Sur, Vertice Patagonia, and CONAF. These are the three places you will go to for booking all camps and refugios. We had decided to hike both the W and the O circuit; The “O” includes the “W” trail, with the addition of the backside, or northern section of the mountain to make it a long loop, – 130 kilometers. A max of 80 people are allowed onto the backside O a day. It’s undoubtedly a more challenging trail, and it’s also without refugios, but it’s all worth it when, as you finish climbing John Garner Pass, you get an unprecedented view of the icecap Glacier Grey.
The booking process was maddening. Very strict dates are required, and none of these agencies work together. Not to mention they ALL hold different camps and refugios on different parts of the trek, and not in order. CONAF being the government-held camps does not even open for registration until much later in the year, so as we booked Fantastico and Vertice camps in August for our February trip, we could not book CONAF until sometime around November. The spots fill quickly, so as you can imagine, by the time CONAF rolled online for reservations, the dates we had booked through the other two agencies didn’t work out into the CONAF schedule. The day we landed in Santiago, Chile, we didn’t have a full camp itinerary, and let me tell you, as you walk into each camp, they check your reservations, along with your passport and the PDI slip. If you are off by a day, you will be asked to go back.
Campsites are arranged like this:
Vertice Patagonia – Campsites: Dickson, Los Perros, Grey and Paine Grande
Fantasticosur – Campsites: Serón, Los Cuernos, El Chileano, Central and Frances
CONAF – Free Campsites: Italiano, Paso and Torres Ranger Station & Camping
After arriving in Santiago, Chile and spending a day and night we flew down to Punta Arenas and stayed at a great hostel. I was chilly as we took a walk around town, and we were amused that our weather app showed that we were in the “Antarctic Zone” as it is the southern-most city before Antarctica. We wandered down by the water; The Straight of Magellan, for a while and headed back to our hostel and to bed early as we had a bus to catch at daybreak.
Thankfully we had three days to spend in Puerta Natales before heading onto the O. I was incredibly sick and we still did not have our reservations for camp. After going back and forth between the offices of Vertice and Fantastico, waiting in line and jostling dates we thought we had them all together, but after further review I had missed a camp, shifting a date, and had to start all over with new dates. I was down for the count at this point, in bed, shivering with the worst flu ever. My poor NON-Spanish speaking husband had to go back to these offices with new dates. By the grace of the Holy God, he was able to “pictionary” his way through. They made some calls for him and BOOM, he came back with our itinerary…..to leave in the morning!
Seron Camp is a basic camp. It’s a grassy field with two picnic-style tables that have a tarp for wind cover. You have to cook in these designated tarp areas only at every site. I barely remember being at Seron, to be honest. I slept and went into the hut to cook dehydrated soup with our MSR stove one time. I loved hearing and seeing all of the friendly faces and different nationalities and languages of the people we would be spending the next 8-9 days alongside. Once you start the O-circuit, and because they limit the number of people on the trail, these become your leap-frogging trail friends.
The following day, we broke camp early and headed out to Dickenson Camp. The views were unbelievable, and we kept finding ourselves stopping every chance we got to take it all in! It’s a steep climb and steep downhill coming into Dickenson. Today was 19 kilometers; It’s one of the most beautiful camps on the O. Once you arrive and check-in, you can find a spot for your tent anywhere you want. We shrugged out of our packs and wandered around. We saw a fox scampering along the treeline. We set our tent so that in the morning, as we unzipped to make coffee, we would have a perfect view of the soaring mountains and glaciers. Dickenson has a great set up for cooking. A little cabin-like shelter, with electricity — also, hot showers and bathrooms and even a small area where they sell snacks. We bought Pringles and chocolate here.
After pitching our tent, we showered and laid in the hot sun, waiting to see who and when the others would roll into camp. It was at this camp that we met “the two traveling nurses” who were from the States, working at different locations in the States until they save enough for their next great adventure. They travel on their earnings for a few months, return to the US, work for a few months only to repeat the process over and over. We loved swapping stories about the places we’ve all been in common and the enjoyment of different cultures, cuisines and our unquenchable wanderlust.
We also met “One Pole and the Goodr Girls”, a group consisting of a guy and two women traveling together. One Pole lost one of his trekking poles along the first leg of the trip and came into camp with one…deeming him “One Pole” The women he was with both wore my favorite brand of athletic glasses; Goodr and have friends who work for the company, thus-The Goodr Girls.
There was also an Argentinean father and two sons, two Chilean buddies traveling together, and a pair of Aussies (a father and son) who we cooked and had dinner with at Dickenson. We’ve never laughed so hard in our lives as we did with these two and their quirky personalities. Still, some of the moments we laugh about the most from this trip come from these two.