Before the sky had even begun to change colors, Barbara and I found ourselves scurrying up the trail. With just a small load of water , snacks, and extra clothes in my bag, we followed the beginning of the trail by headlamp. As we climbed up the Valle Frances (French Valley), the stunning mountains ang glaciers above us began to emerge through the trees. The sky was the darkest blue you have ever seen, with bright stars flickering in the distance past the dark outline of massive peaks. Getting up this early meant we had the whole valley to ourselves.
As the sun rose, we were treated to another amazing light show, not unlike the morning before. Gorgous gold and orange hues bounced off the hanging glaciers and rocky mountains. We kept pushing up the hill. We had an ambitious itinerary for the day- up and down the French Valley (about 12km or 7.5 miles), then another 11.5 miles over to Refugio Grand Paine and up to Refugio Grey, for a grand total of 19 miles for the day. We made fairly good time, especially once we could turn off the headlamps. The rocky trail was a bit hard to sort out in the dark.
We arrived at the now closed Campemento Britanico by 8:30 and to the summit of the mirador (lookout) just above the camp within 20 minutes. The views were amazing. This massive valley is surrounded with steep, sharp peaks with sheer walls that are reminiscent of California’s Yosemite Valley. Every which way we looked there was an impressive mountain. The light of the slowly rising sun kept changing and giving us more and more to smile at.
After we scraped our jaws off the floor, we headed back down the hill. The campsite is situated in some dense trees, and was still quite cold, even at 1030. We quickly tore down camp and hightailed it for a sunnier spot a 20 minutes down the trail. The hike to Refugio Grand Paine was fairly easy, a mellow section of trail with rolling hills. The views behind us of the Los Cuenos Mountains (the big peak to the East of campsite the night before) were spectacular.
Tearing into Grand Paine Refugio at just a touch past 1, we made a pit stop for water and calories. It always seems to be this part of the day that we struggle with. The last third of the miles- doesn’t seem to matter how long the day is- those are the miles that seem to be the hardest to earn. That said, this trail didnt dissappoint when it came to views. After a fairly sustained uphill through some unique forest, we were treated to a beautiful view of Lago (lake) Grey. In the distance, huge chunks of blue glacier ice floated by. Around another bend, we were shocked by the massivness of Grey Glacier- 1.5 miles wide by 17 miles long!
Grey Refugio was the first paid campsite that we stayed at. The perks that come with paying $16 for a campsite included ´hot´showers. Barbara didnt care to indulge citing the cold weather, but I figured after 3 days of being in the woods I had to give it a shot. Barbara was right. The hot was not so hot, but maybe lukewarm… but at least I didnt smell quite so bad.
The next morning we tore out of the camp before the sun had come over the horizon. Grey clouds loomed overhead. Our goal was to cover the 19ish miles over John Gardener Pass to Lake Dickson Refugio. John Gardener Pass is the hardest part of the entire Circuit Route- it´s notoriously steep and windy. With our 3 day old weather report predicting poor weather on this day, we set out in a race against the clouds.
Over and through crazy landslide-y ditches we made our way to Paso Campamento. These ditches had crazy metal ladders to get in and out of them. Another one had a fun 50 foot high swinging bridge going across it. The entire time, we had the massive Grey Glacier on our left. Into Paso Camp for a snack and drink, we were informed by a helpful park ranger that we still had 2200 feet to climb before the pass (we already came up 1000 feet). He giggled when he said it was steep. We soon found out why.
That trail went straight up! I am not sure I have walked a more sustained climb. But Barbara and I just kept a steady clip, and put one foot in front (above) the other.
Nearing the tree line, the wind really started to whip and blow, trying to knock us off our feet. Trudging up the false summits, we had to stop to soak in the view of the glacier below. I told Barbara to take a look over her shoulder- there was an awesome rainbow blasting across the valley. It was quite a sight for sore eyes.
We gained the ridge and rounded the top, finally heading downhill for the first time of the day. We decided to postpone lunch until we hit tree line, as the wind was still lashing us (although a bit less than on the west side of the pass). We hustled down the hill, trying not to roll our ankles on the baseball-to-melon sized stones that made up the ´trail´. After our lunch pit stop, we headed into the trees. The trail in this section was maddenly muddy. We were able to mostly keep our feet on the logs, but the trail is super braided and poorly maintained through here.
About an hour outside of Dickson Refugio, it started to sprinkle. Not enough to really get us wet in the beginning, but just enough to be annoying. We carried on until the plants we wet enough to get us wet. We pulled out our rain jackets and draped them over our head and packs like a cape. This was enough to keep us fairly dry for the slog into Dickson.
We rolled into the refugio hungry and a bit tired. Long day. As the rain picked up a bit, we asked the guy running the refugio where the cooking shelter was. He looked at us with a blank stare.
¨There is no shelter.¨
¨What? Where should we cook?¨
He pointed to a picnic table in the rain.
Every other campsite had a shelter for us to cook in (even the free ones), and of course the one time that we need shelter, they dont have one. Tired and hungry, we were a bit grumpy about paying $16 for a patch of grass in the rain with no cooking shelter. We stowed our packs on the covered patio outside the refugio and took cover inside to make up a cream cheese and tortilla wrap. The refugio hosts were nice enough not to bother us while we stuffed our faces.
With a bit of food in our bellies, we started to feel a bit more human. The rain eased off and we set up our tent under just the lightest of drizzle. The refugio host let us know we could cook on the covered porch. As we cooked we talked with a couple of Isreali guys who were hiking in the other direction. They said that the new forcast had rain coming in strong in the morning. Ugh.
We finished off dinner and hung out inside the refugio for a while, soaking up the warmth of the woodstove and drying out a bit. I enjoyed a tasty $5 beer in celebration of being almost done with the Circuit. We chatted up a lovely Irish couple who had hiked all the 18 miles that we planned to do in the morning. They said we should have no problem.
There are two buses that leave from the trailhead and head back to Puerto Natales each day 230 and 730. The 230 bus puts you back in town at around 445, the 730 not until nearly 10pm. You better believe we wanted to catch the 230 bus.
We set the alarm for 530, and went to sleep hoping for no rain in the morning.
Beep beep…..beep beep.
Thank goodness that was all we heard in the morning. No rain, and our tent was even dry from all the wind we had overnight.
We wolfed down our breakfast, packed up and broke down camp in under 30 minutes. It was still pitch dark. We had about 18 miles to walk before 230, or we would have to wait until 730 for the bus. We headed up the trail, once again under the light of our headlamps. We wandered through grassy fields as the stars faded and the sky got lighter. We lucked out with another incredible morning.
The sun rose behind a big mountain, warming the rest of the valley up before us. We finally got to feel the sunshine on our faces as we came around the top of the last significant climb of our trip, about an hour from Seron Campamento. The light was amazing and I couldnt put down the camera. We waved goodbye to the big mountains, and began our walk through the lower grasslands on our way to the Laguna Amarga trailhead.
According to our map, it appeared we had just 10km (6 miles) to cover to our finish. However I think that is an evil misprint, as the distance seemed to be more like 13km. We were getting tired, our feet were barking and we were ready to finish. This part of the trail, while it had awesome views of the whole mountain range, really seemed to drag on. We made it to the finish right around 130. 7.5 hours for right around 20 miles. Whew!
We caught our bus with plenty of time and checked into our hostel. Time In peeling off my socks, i found out why my feet were hurting… just a little blister!
Showers, food, obligatory beer(s). Patagonia backpacking trip- CHECK! Life is good.
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