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Our Disastrous Evacuation from Torres del Paine National Park

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“What’s a more romantic way to spend Valentine’s Day than getting blown off the top of a mountain?” I shouted over the gusts of wind that sent sleet pelting into our cheeks.

I was only kidding…or was I?

It was mid-February and we were about halfway through a 75-mile hike through the backcountry of Torres del Paine National Park, known as the O Trek. Much like its shorter sister hike, the W Trek, the O is a campsite-to-campsite trek that circumnavigates the entirety of Torres del Paine, taking hikers into some of the park’s most remote areas.

The perfect adventure…or the perfect disaster.

But wait! I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. Not all of our time on the O Trek was a nightmarish experience. Actually, the majority of it was quite incredible! Let’s rewind a bit and go back to the start: how we ended up there in the first place.

Before we begin, I want to talk about travel insurance. For all of my adventures abroad, I use and strongly recommend World Nomads. I love using them every single time I travel because they protect me from disastrous situations such as this one. I know many people opt to not buy travel insurance before they go on a trip like this, but I’m here to tell you that it’s absolutely worth the money. World Nomads saved my life once and they helped us out in this situation, too .

Why were we in Torres del Paine National Park in the first place?

My boyfriend, Rafael, and I decided that 2019 would be the year of our first multi-day hike together. We’d been together nearly 6 years when we decided to plan and embark on the O Trek. Raf had never done a multi-day hike before in his entire life, and I’d only done a handful, so this would be his first and my longest trek thus far.

To be honest, I was a little cocky going into this hike. I’d completed the W Trek on my own a few years before, and while it was tough, I was able to finish the entire ~40 mile trek without any major hiccups.

Trekking the W was easily one of my favorite trips and experiences in the whole world. I loved the feeling of getting up in the morning to the sounds of the park, packing up, and walking past some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes in literally the entire world, with no cell service or connection to the outside world. And, because I loved it so much, I vowed as I left Torres del Paine with tears stinging my eyes that I’d come back one day to do the O Trek.

This was that trek.

We booked all of our campsites months in advance, got Rafael all of the necessary hiking and camping gear, and made our arrangements to hike the O in the middle of February, which was still squarely in the high season for trekking in Torres del Paine.

When I visited before in November, the weather was nothing short of ideal, with sunny days and a light breeze the entire time. I figured, since we were planning on going during the high season, the weather could only be better.

In our few days in Argentine Patagonia before we went to Torres del Paine, the weather was absolutely perfect, with the peak of Fitz Roy uncovered the entire time we saw it. Unheard of, according to locals.

So, when we arrived in Chile fully packed up and ready to go, we thought our good luck would continue. 

Days 1-3: Sunshine and blue skies…with a few little warning signs

In the beginning of our trek, it did. When we arrived in Torres del Paine, we started hiking in partly cloudy conditions, the park’s jagged rock formations fully visible as our bus pulled into the parking lot.

Rafael and I looked at each other, totally giddy and thrilled to be hiking in the most beautiful place in the world, in the best weather ever. Whatever fears and preconceived notions we had before were wiped away with the rays of the summer sun and the breezy, cool air.

While the hikes were tough and the distances were long, Raf and I got off to a fairly strong start on the trek. 

However, the first night was our first brush with disaster. We set up our tent at Seron campsite, cooked dinner, and went to bed in the cool, mild temperatures. The next morning, when we were putting on our shoes, we noticed some walnuts in the toe areas of each of our shoes…on separate sides of the tent.

Mice.

Confused, we searched the area for signs of our shoe culprits. Soon enough, we found the source: mice had eaten a hole through Raf’s backpack and ripped into our factory sealed walnut bag, stealing several and spilling the rest all over the inside of his bag.

Brand new $330 hiking backpack – 0. Mice – 1.

But where did the mice go? When we woke up, we heard what sounded like pig squeals all around us. Raf got up to use the bathroom in the morning before I woke up. I was woken up to him yelling “condors!” in an excited voice.

Sure enough, there were dozens of them all around the campsite. They looked like the largest birds we had ever seen. They were about knee-high in height and had fluffy, scraggly fur all over. Kind of terrifying, but kind of…cute?

The Condors kept pecking their beaks and running around the bushes. We concluded that we had these fluffy guys to thank for not waking up to a pack of mice inside our boots.

Mice – 0. Condors – 1.

It was a minor hiccup, but one that hit us hard because it happened on the very first day. Some of our fellow hikers – a couple with an 8-month old baby, in fact – lent us some duct tape so Raf could patch his bag. (Crystal, Rob, and baby Shiloh…wherever you are, THANK YOU.)

Aside from that, we had a wonderful and breathtaking first 4 days. We trekked some long trails across the backside of Torres del Paine, admiring the gorgeous mountain peaks, alpine lakes and rivers, and a herd of horses that was grazing nearby. It didn’t rain on our first few days, and we started to make friends with our fellow hikers who were staying at the same campsites.

At the end of Day 3, we got to bed early. The next day, in which the path crossed the highest point on the trail, was said to be one of the most difficult days on the entire trek. We went to bed hoping for sunshine, but in our heads, we had this sinking feeling that things would start to turn sour…

Day 4: The least romantic Valentine’s Day in the book

The fateful day started with an early rise: we were up before the sunrise and dutifully went to check the trail conditions with the ranger station before starting our day. Unfortunately, no one was home. We waited around with some of the other hikers to see if any park officials would show up, but after a while, we decided to continue. 

The first hour of the trail was a grueling climb through a muddy forest. We’re talking sink-your-boots-completely-in-the-ground kind of mud. There was a constant drizzle that soon had all our clothes damp. Despite this, we trekked at a steady pace and kept up with the experienced “baby couple,” as we came to all them. After a while, we reached a clearing where a deceptive trail maker claimed we had gone almost half of the way. If only

The annoying drizzle had turned into a light pour. By the time we cleared the treeline, we donned our rain gear and many other hikers had put on rain covers over their backpacks. For another hour, we trekked through an uphill rocky moraine. The wind had picked up considerably at this point and there were a couple of gusts that had us leaning forward on our trekking poles unable to move. Raf seemed to be enjoying himself, for whatever reason. At multiple points, he exclaimed “This is fun!” as we crossed the moraine. 

Eventually, as we got higher in elevation, the rain turned into pelting bullets of ice. The baby couple seemed to get a shot of adrenaline at that point and they sped off ahead of us. They eventually disappeared over an edge above us in the distance. It felt like we were never going to reach the pass, as every hill we climbed and every corner we turned revealed more of the trail. 

By this point, Raf and I were absolutely miserable. His smile was gone and he kept a grimace on his face. We had to brace ourselves against the wind every couple of minutes. At one point we saw a rain cover fly off the backpack of a hiker in front of us. 

Then we reached the pass.

I don’t think words can do justice to the experience we had up there. So I’ll post this video here instead.

The rest of the hike down was rainy, muddy, and tiring. We got to our campsite at Paso and spent the rest of the evening sharing survival stories of our recent trek over the pass with the other disheveled campers.

Day 5-6: The wrath of the rain gods…

We wearily woke up the next day and packed up in the rain. Our next stop was Refugio Grey, where we had booked a one night stay inside the refuge so we could enjoy an actual soft bed. Thank goodness we did. The hike on this day was pretty mild, save for a few steep sections of uphill trekking. The rain from the previous day continued, but we were rewarded with a gorgeous rainbow and stunning views of Glacier Grey.

When we got to Refugio Grey the sun had actually popped out of the clouds and we had a few hours of respite from the rain. We celebrated our recent accomplishment by splurging on a meal and wine at the restaurant in the refugio. 

After a comfortable sleep in a soft bunk bed (and a heavenly hot shower), we set out on day 6 towards Paine Grande, our next destination. Despite our sunny afternoon the day before, it seemed that the rain gods had a different plan for us. The 4 hour hike was marked by an overcast sky and dropping temperatures. By the time we got to Paine Grande, the temperature was hovering a little above freezing and it started raining. 

Our misfortune worsened. Rafael lost his packing cube containing his socks somewhere in the refuge, so he only had two pairs of wet socks available for the rest of the trail. Our backpacks were drenched.  We woke up the next day to a puddle of water near our feet. The tent had a leak! Thinking things could not get any worse, we packed up our stuff and started the next day.

Day 7: Our untimely evacuation

The next leg of our hike was supposed to take us to campsite Italiano, a primitive site with a drop toilet and no showers. Admittedly, we were a bit spoiled from the previous refuge and campsite, but we were not looking forward to another rainy night in a tent. We reluctantly started hiking.

The rain that day was constant and unrelenting. Everything was soaked. Somehow, even with our rain jackets and waterproof boots, we were both completely drenched. The hike was miserable. 

After 2 hours on the trail we ran into some of our fellow hikers from the days before. They were heading the wrong way. We stopped and chatted. They told us that the trail forward was closed because of massive floods in the area. Our next campsite was apparently on the verge of being flooded. Reluctantly, we made a decision to turn around and head back to Paine Grande.

When we got to the campsite, we learned from park rangers that some parts of the park became completely inaccessible. They recommended that we leave the park as the forecast called for even more rain and lower temperatures. Since the only way out at that point was by catamaran, one friendly park ranger warned us to line up early to ensure we get a spot on a boat out that same day.

Feeling defeated, Raf and I lined up on a rocky trail leading to the dock a full two hours before the next boat. The rain did not stop and we endured the freezing cold with another hundred disgruntled hikers. I can safely say this was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. As the next boat came and dropped off new visitors into the park, we all made snide remarks like “Welcome to paradise!” and laughed at the surprised faces of these newcomers. Luckily, we were able to secure a seat on the boat and made some friends over our shared misery.

As the catamaran pulled out across the lake, we felt drained and exhausted. Despite all the obstacles we overcame, Torres del Paine decided it had enough of us. It sent us away.

But we haven’t given up. We learned a lot from this disastrous memorable experience and we feel like much better, more experienced hikers and adventurers for it.

So…what did we learn from our experience in Torres del Paine?

Let me start off my saying that I’d still highly recommend doing the O Trek or the W Trek if you’re interested in doing it. I didn’t share this story to make you feel like Torres del Paine is dangerous or hostile for hikers, I shared it simply to say: sh*t happens.

First of all, you’ll probably be a lot luckier than we were with the weather. As you can probably tell from this story, we’re unlucky AF, and this trek just wasn’t meant to be this time. And even if you aren’t luckier than we were, Torres del Paine is fairly well-equipped to shelter and help hikers in this same kind of situation.

We fully intend on going back to Torres del Paine again so Raf can see the parts of the park he missed the first time around, and you shouldn’t let this story deter you from doing it as well!

Second of all, this could happen anywhere. We’ve seen floods in Houston, and even in the desert in New Mexico. I’ve also gone to Torres del Paine for five days without feeling a drop of rain.

It’s definitely one of those situations where it’s a much more positive memory in retrospect.

As for us, the evacuation experience is now a household joke. You had a bad day today? At least you’re not getting slapped in the face on a mountain pass. You got a parking ticket? At least you’re not sitting on an overcrowded catamaran with 200 stinky hikers.

All jokes aside, we are thankful we didn’t get stranded, thankful we had reliable travel insurance, and thankful that we had the foresight to get ourselves out of a dangerous situation. Now the only question is…where will we be going for our next big hike?!


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Have you ever had a terrifying outdoor travel situation of your own? Have you ever gotten stuck in a remote place during a storm? We’d love to hear your stories…share them below!

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Kay is a full-time media professional located in Washington DC who takes every spare day of time to travel the world. In the last year alone, she's visited over 10 different countries and taken a dozen short trips in between. You can typically find her wandering the streets of a city, taking ridiculous self portraits, or hiking a mountain somewhere. Connect with Kay: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

1 Comment

  1. Oh no! Glad you guys are ok and can see the positives of the trip. For your next big hike… come hike the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland, Canada! Over 300km of connected trails right along the coast of the North Atlantic Ocean.

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