Day 3: Los Perros – El Paso – Refugio Grey (est. 24 km)
Perhaps the toughest day of hiking in the entire circuit, which is compounded by the distance covered the previous day. Although the lateral distance is much less, the entire 1st half of the day is uphill, and the 2nd half downhill. A picturesque 5AM wakeup did little to ameliorate my aching feet and sore muscles, and the cold breakfast didn’t help either.
With the sun just peeking over the top of the rocks, I began my ascent towards El Paso. A fair warning, provided in other guides regarding the John Gardner Pass: it can be extremely dangerous in poor conditions. The markers are rudimentary at best, either painted rocks or metal poles colored orange – with the mist, wind, and rain common to the park, I imagined it would be difficult to navigate, and there is a very real risk of wandering off the path.
Anyways, for all the tiredness and achiness, my weary legs carried me onwards and upwards towards the pass, amidst a scramble of glacial debris (moraine is the technical term).
This continued for a total climb of roughly 1000 meters in altitude. But my word, was it worth it:
The first sight I see upon reaching the pass is this enormous, gargantuan, glacial field. I literally screamed out loud – it was an expression mixing the joy of reaching the top, the exasperation of my aching legs, and wonder at the vast beauty of nature. It was impossible for my iPhone to capture just how expansive the glacial field is. That is miles upon miles of glacial ice – each of those cracks is likely as high as 3-4 people.
I spent probably half an hour sitting up there taking it all in, before starting the inevitable descent. Although exhausting, it was the pinnacle of a scenic hike: a glacial field and river on the right, through wooded areas and glacial debris, and waterfalls.
Speaking of the waterfalls, there were three bridges to be crossed – each with pretty sheer drops. All of them had signs warning to have no more than 4 occupants at a time, so not very reassuring.
Finally, after that harrowing hiking (not actually, the trails were well worn and never too close to the edge), I got to Refugio Grey. After setting up camp, I ventured out to the Mirador Grey, a view point on a rocky outcrop facing the glacial field. It was about a 10 minute walk, traverse-able without hiking boots, and led to a very scaleable hill. Using a little bit of rock-climbing, I managed to climb down to the closest point to the glacier, as well as a higher viewpoint overlooking the entire glacial flow.
After that it was a hop, skip, and a jump back to camp. Refugio Grey is the first part of the O circuit with real infrastructure, meaning kitchen, lodge, and thankfully, hot shower. So yes, I’ll admit right away that this was somewhat glamorous camping- I had gotten sick of cold bread at that point, and got a pricey hot dinner, but you know what? It was worth it. I even had a nice conversation with a native Chilean, Jaime, who had unfortunately twisted his ankle on the trek. There is (as far as I know), no emergency evac for such hike-ending emergencies, so it was lucky he was close to a main refugio and could take a ferry out of the park.
Settled in under the shade of a mountain at the camp and smelling (mildly) better, I had my first opportunity to relax on the hike. Up to this point I had been on the more grueling portion of the O circuit – the W circuit is much more traveled, has many more people, and well established campgrounds all equipped with hot showers and dining halls. I even stayed up late that night and caught a view of the stars. With no light pollution (a foreign concept to someone living in NYC), I had a clear view of the constellations, even though it still boggles my mind how ancient people managed to connect the dots into actual animals and people. Kudos to the power of their imagination.