Hiking the “O” in Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia

Hiking over pass
Coming over Paso John Gardner towards Grey Glacier

Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile, is one of the world’s most beautiful places.

The landscape is stunning: jagged mountains, seemingly endless glaciers surrounded by crystal blue lakes, snowy mountain passes with Andean condors flying overhead, and green mossy forests straight out of a scene from The Lord of the Rings.

condor 3
It was very exciting for me to spend time photographing the Andean Condor, the largest flying bird in the world.

During our time in the park, my friends and I continually redefined our vision of paradise. Comments like, “Wow, this is my dream place” were quickly replaced with “Oh, wait, THIS is my dream place,” followed by, “No no, THIS is my dream place.”

Torres del Paine is so breathtaking that it pushed the boundaries of what we imagined to be possible, not only in nature but also in our own lives.

It inspired us to dream bigger, feel stronger, and become more at peace with the choices that we have made that led us to such a special place at this point in our lives.

The “O” Circuit, the longer, more difficult of the two popular treks in Torres del Paine, was both physically and mentally challenging.

Our packs never seemed to feel lighter, despite dropping food weight as we progressed. At the end of each day, my legs were exhausted, my blisters were juicier, and I often felt like I would not have been able to take one more step. However, I enjoyed the physical challenge because it helped clear my mind,, and was a welcome opportunity for personal growth reflection.

Focussing on my  physical pain helped me to let go of silly stresses:

Did I do the right thing turning down a teaching job at a school I liked?

Should I be investing energy into a relationship that is in many ways unrealistic?

Am I being too selfish and entitled to make time and space for writing in my life, when it probably will never translate into a full-time career?

Am I being irresponsible by taking time off to travel when so many BIG LIFE questions are up in the air and I have deadlines for my PhD that I’m falling behind on… and I don’t even have a permanent job?

Shan Grey Glacier
In front of Grey Glacier near Los Perros campsite

Being on the trail helped me focus on the present, and reminded me to just let life unfold as it’s meant to, without worrying too much about what the future will look like.

The choices I have made thus far brought me to Patagonia, so I must be doing something right, even though it sometimes feels like I’m far behind from where many of my friends, who have stable careers, marriages, and families, are.

Planning Tips for Hiking the “O”

Jill
Hiking through wildflowers towards Las Torres, the towers for which Torres del Paine is named

Hiking Patagonia’s “O” Circuit requires an extensive amount of planning, research, and advance decision-making…which is hard to do when you’ve never traveled to a place before. (Most of this was done for me by my friends Jill and Katelyn–thanks ladies!)

Hopefully, the following will help future trekkers with the trip prep needed to have an amazing experience in the mountains.

Make Reservations BEFORE You Go & Book Early

One of the most important things that you will need to do before you even think about heading to Torres del Paine is to make reservations.

I can’t emphasize this enough. MAKE RESERVATIONS.

It is essential to have reservations at each campsite before you start your trek. Fortunately, the friends I traveled with are currently living and working in Colombia, so were in contact with colleagues who had already done the hike and knew that they had to make reservations well in advance.

Being more of a spontaneous traveler, I could easily have seen myself arriving in Chile without having made any reservations in the park at all.

Unfortunately, camp sites book up very quickly. We saw several hikers being turned back by park rangers at various points on the trail because they didn’t have reservations for upcoming campsites.

My friends made reservations in October for our trip in January and some campsites were already booked. This required them to modify our itinerary based on availability of campsites.

When making reservations, you also need to decide whether you are going to sleep in tents that you bring yourself, tents that are already set up on platforms at the sites, or in refugios.

It is not mandatory to hike with a guide in Torres del Paine, but it is a great option for travellers with less backcountry experience, for those interested in learning more about the landscape, and for additional safety.

My friends and I opted to carry our own gear, including our tent, camping equipment, food, clothing stove, etc in backpacks and organize the trip ourselves without a guide. This is definitely the cheapest option and since trails are so well-marked for the most part, it was fairly safe.

We camped in a 3-person tent which we had rented in Puerto Natales for 5 of the nights and stayed in hostel-style rooms with bunk-beds in ski-lodge-esque refugios for two nights.

Our packs were quite heavy (especially mine–I definitely need to invest in a lighter sleeping bag!) and it rained a lot, so it was a nice splurge to sleep in beds a couple of nights. This was quite a bit more expensive, though, so staying in refugios every night wasn’t really in our budget.

If we were to do the hike again, we would consider reserving tents at campsites to avoid having to carry our tent throughout the trek as this was not much more expensive and would help to reduce the weight in our packs.

Choosing “The O” vs. “The W”

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For more info, check out this Torres del Paine Map

Before you book your accommodation at campsites, you need to decide on your route.

There are two main treks in Torres del Paine National Park. The “W” is shorter (76km) and much more popular. The trail follows a “W” letter shape taking tourists to spectacular miradors (look-out points) to see views of the French Valley, Grey Glacier, and the infamous towers, Las Torres, after which the park is named. It takes between 4-6 days to hike the W depending on weather conditions and how long you want to spend at each site.

We opted to hike the Paine Massif or “Big Circuit,” the “O,” which is a longer and more challenging route of 110km that takes between 8-10 days to complete.

It is less busy and more remote, which was more appealing for my friends and I as we were craving a physical challenge and an opportunity to be fully immersed in the wilderness.

coming over pass
The “O” has some challenging sections like Paso John Gardner

To complete the “O”, hikers follow a counter-clockwise loop around the backside of the mountains before hiking the entire “W” route.

We hiked the “O” in 8 days, since we were more limited with vacation time and planned to travel to Valparaíso and Santiago afterwards.

In hindsight, we would plan to do it in 9 or 10 days to allow for a recovery day (perhaps at Grey Campsite where we could opt to kayak or hike with a guide onto Grey Glacier). Also, the views at the miradors are very weather dependent, and more time could increase chances of being able to see the French Valley or the Torres on a sunny day.

Where We Camped on the “O”

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My friends made reservations for our trek (December 31-January 6) in October and several campsites that we wanted to stay at were ALREADY SOLD OUT. Therefore, we had to modify our itinerary slightly to adjust for the campsites that we were able to book.

This was our itinerary for hiking the “O” in Torres del Paine.

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 How to Book Your Campsite

Camping Los Perros
Camping between the tree as Los Perros

There isn’t a central reservation system for Torres del Paine, so if you are planning the trip yourself, you need to make reservations at campsites run by one of the three companies below.

As previously mentioned, my awesome friends made the reservations for this trip. They expressed having had some difficulty/frustration with the reservation process. Many people we met on the trail also said they had some problems communicating with some of the campsites and securing their reservations.

Everyone agreed on the importance of BOOKING EARLY. 

Dickson
We celebrated New Year’s Eve amidst the stunning scenery of Refugio Dickson

Fantastico Sur:

Fantástico Sur is a family business that has refugion, cabin, and campsite accommodation located along the W Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park.

Each Refugio has a restaurant, which offers breakfast, lunch, dinner, beverages and boxed lunch options to carry while hiking. It’s also possible to rent camp equipment such as sleeping bags, insulation mats and tents.

Camping seron
Seron was the first campsite we stayed at.

Vertice

Vertice provides accommodation as well as guided tour packages along both the “O” and “W” trails. They offer shelters at Paine Grande, Grey, and Dickson, and campsites at Paine Grande, Grey, Dickson, and Los Perros.

grey refugio
Refugio Grey feels like a ski lodged nestled into the mountains

Conaf

The National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) is a private law entity under the Ministry of Agriculture whose main task is to administer Chile’s forestry policy and promote the development of the sector.

The online reservation system http://www.parquetorresdelpaine.cl/en/ is for the free campsites authorized by CONAF: Las Carretas, Italiano, Paso, and Torres.

Paso campsite
Paso was the simplest campsite we stayed at.

How to Get to Torres del Paine National Park

Torres del Paine

I traveled from Toronto to Puerto Natales all in one day because I was meeting friends who were already in Southern Argentina and we wanted to get started on the hike as soon as possible since we were limited by our vacation time.

While I did end up making it to Puerto Natales as planned, it was quite stressful as my original flight was delayed and I missed my connections. This being said, I would recommend spending a night, or even a couple of days in Santiago, instead of trying to do it all in one journey.

1. Flight from Santiago–> Punta Arenas

Puffins Punta Arenas
We weren’t organized enough to take a trip to see the penguins on Isla Magdalena, but we saw a lot of puffins and cormorants in the harbour in Punta Arenas!

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I flew Air Canada direct from Toronto to Santiago (10 hours) and booked a separate ticket through Sky Airlines to Punta Arenas. There is also an airport in Puerto Natales, which is closer to Patagonia (saves the 3.5 hr bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales) but flights were much more expensive than our Sky Airline flight option to Punta Arenas.

Sky Airlines is a low-cost Chilean airlines that operates domestically in Chile as well as to a few international cities in South America.

Unfortunately, my flight from Toronto was delayed by more than 2 hours so I had already missed my Sky Airlines flight by the time I picked up my luggage.

Since I basically just didn’t show up for my flight, I anticipated having to buy a new ticket out of pocket, but luckily the Sky Airlines agent allowed me to get on the next flight without any hassle (which saved me at least $250 US, possibly more if I would have had to stay in a hotel).

On the return trip, my friends and I spent a night in Punta Arenas. It’s a gritty, seaside town and the entry point to Antarctica.

I’d recommend spending a whole day there and take a trip to Isla Magdalena where you can see penguins in the wild. I had hoped to do this but we didn’t plan enough in advance and weren’t able to make time for it (it requires at least a half-day).

2. Bus Punta Arenas–> Puerto Natales

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 2.18.11 PM As mentioned above, there is also an airport in Puerto Natales, but prices were substantially more expensive and less frequent than flying to Punta Arenas and taking the bus to Puerto Natales.

The bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales is 8, 000 CLP and takes 3.5 hours.

I reserved my ticket in advance through Bus Sur. Busses leave about every 1.5-2 hours between 7am-9pm.

I had planned to take the 9pm bus, the last one of the night, which was tight given my flight change. Luckily the travel Gods were on my side, and everything worked out.

As my ticket said that the bus leaves from “Terminal Bus-Sur” in Punta Arenas, I took a 25 min taxi ride from the airport to the bus terminal (10 000 CLP) to catch the bus. It turned out that the bus stopped at the airport after leaving the terminal…so I could have saved myself time, money and stress by staying at the airport. Oh well. I was happy to have made the last bus of the night, meaning I would arrive to Puerto Natales late that evening as planned.

3. Taxi Puerto Natales Bus Terminal–> Yagan House Hostel

Yagan House.jpg
Yagan House Hostel was a great place to stay in Puerto Natales pre/post Torres del Paine

When I arrived at the Puerto Natales Bus Terminal at 12:15am, I took a taxi to Yagan House Hostel, which cost 1, 500 CLP and took less than 5 minutes.

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Despite missed flights, I arrived in Puerto Natales on time!

Jill and Katelyn were relieved that I arrived safely in Punta Natales and on time. Jill had received a few panicky “Not gonna make it to Puerto Natales!!!” when I was dealing with missed flights and tight connections, so they had thought they might not be seeing me until sometime the next day. We shared a bottle of Chilean wine (the first of many during the trip!) and made a plan for a busy day of trip prep.

4. Bus Puerto Natales–> Torres del Paine

From October to April, several bus companies perform regular daily trips from the bus terminal in Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine.

The bus costs $ 7500 Chilean Pesos. It takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes to travel by bus from Puerto Natales to Laguna Amarga (where you have to pay $21 000 Chilean Pesos as a foreign tourist to enter the park).

From there you can take connections to the Pudeto catamaran at Lake Pehoe or transfer to Base Torres (which is where we started the O. Tickets cost $ 3000 Chilean Pesos).

Information about routes and fares is available directly from the companies offering transportation of passengers.

Buses JB : Departs from Puerto Natales at 7:30am and 2:30pm

Buses Gomez: Departs from Puerto Natales at 7:20am and 2:30pm

Buses Maria José: Departs from Puerto Natales at 7:30am and 2:30pm

Return to Puerto Natales

The regular buses from Torres del Paine National Park to Puerto Natales have 2 schedules, and it is possible to take them from three different places of the park, Administration Office, Pudeto and Laguna Amarga Gate.

Schedule 1:
1:00pm Administration Office
1:30pm Pudeto
2:30pm Laguna Amarga.
4:30pm Arrival to Puerto Natales

Schedule 2:
6:30 pm Administration Office
7:00pm Pudeto
7:45pm Laguna Amarga.
10:00 horas pm Arrival to Puerto Natales

Trip Prep Day in Puerto Natales

Puerto Natales

It took us an entire day to do last minute trip prep like renting equipment and buying food for the trail.

I would highly recommend planning to spent at least one full day in Puerto Natales to do this.

While we met a couple on the trail who had arrived in Puerto Natales in the morning, and only spent two hours getting last minute packing before getting on the 2:30pm bus to the park, they said that it was very rushed and stressful. (They had also brought freeze-dried with them from the UK so didn’t need to get much in terms of groceries).

Also, many stores are closed in the early afternoon (1:30-4:00pm) for siesta, so we ended up taking a lunch break to coincide with the few hours in the afternoon where we wouldn’t have been able to do any shopping anyways.

Make a Pit Stop to Frutos Secos!

frutos secos 1.jpgIn the morning, we went to the grocery store to get snacks, coffee, and lunch items for the trail.

I had brought freeze-dried backpacker dinners that I purchased at Mountain Equipment CO-OP for our meals. However, I discovered that you could buy these same meals at most gear stores in Puerto Natales for about the same price that I paid for the meals in Canada.

Then we made a trip to Frutos Secos, which was definitely a highlight of the trip for one of my friends.

Frutos Secos is a tiny dried food shop in Puerto Natales where you can buy snacks like dried pineapple, apple slices, blue berries, craisins, raisins, etc, chocolate covered coffee beans, nuts, trail mix, spices, and freeze-dried meal packages. These treats certainly added some much needed flavour and variety to our daily breakfasts of oatmeal and provided us with sweet and salty snacks at the end of a long day on the trail.

Go to the “Three O’Clock Talk” at Erratic Rock Hostel

Erratic Rock Hostel.jpg

Erratic Rock hostel offers free Torres del Paine trekking seminars daily at 11am and 3pm.

We found the guide’s seminar to be helpful, informative, and entertaining and gave us a thorough and informative overview of crucial details that better prepared us for the trek. He talked about everything from getting to the park, equipment and food prep, hiking times, what to bring and what not to bring, weather, terrain information, permits, camping, and gave us a chance to ask questions.

The guide was obviously very experienced in Torres del Paine and had some fantastic advice for making sure we had a positive experience in the park. He was also hilarious and taught me some important tips like:

  • Don’t wear a rain poncho unless you want to become a “flying tortilla”
  • The mice in Torres del Paine speak English and have generations of experience in tourism (ie. don’t leave crumbs in tent).
  • Don’t trust a stone when crossing rivers. Instead, get your feet wet!
  • Avoid doing the “Gortex Dance” by keeping your rain jacket in your backpack while hiking. You will get too hot hiking in Gortex and will get wet anyways.
  • You can drink the water from the lakes and streams in Torres del Paine and at all campsites.
  • Bring your passport and make sure you have reservations. Rangers will be checking passports and reservation receipts.
  • Mosquitos are bad at Seron and Dickson (They actually weren’t too bad).
  • Leave early from Perros to Paso because Paso John Gardner closes at 11am. It takes 1 hour 40 min to get to the pass.
  • When there are high winds, lean into the mountain!
  • You can leave your pack (at your own risk) at the Ranger’s station at Italiano to climb to miradors in the French Valley without a heavy pack
  • There are very difficult sections of the trail where you will ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” but it will be worth it in the end!

You can rent gear at Erratic Rock Hostel as well and don’t need to make reservations to do this.

Clothing Essentials

Day 1 hiking
Day 1: In our “Wet Uniforms”, hiking clothes that can/will get wet

Once we rented all of our equipment and purchased all of our food (and some wine!) for the trail, we went back to Yagan House Hostel and packed our bags. In terms of clothing, it is important to stay light, and avoid packing things you don’t need.

Here’s what you do need: a ‘wet uniform’ and a ‘dry uniform.’

Wet Uniform:

  • Rain gear (not poncho)
  • Hiking pants (track pant, yoga pant, lightweight cargo/hiking pant)
  • Base Layer hiking shirt (dry fit longsleeve or t-shirt that wicks away sweat)
  • Thermal/fleece layer for hiking
  • Wool socks (2 pairs)
  • Hiking boots
  • Optional: hiking gloves
Day 3
Wet Uniform–Day 3
Katelyn and Jill hiking
Wet uniform Day 4 with Thermal Layer
Shan wet uniform
Wet Uniform Day 5 with Thermal Layer

Dry Uniform

  • Base Layer: Long underwear top & pants, preferably Merino wool
  • Thermal layer: fleece/down jacket
  • Outer layer: rain gear
  • Wool socks (2 pairs)
  • Dry shoes (running shoes, Crocs, outdoor slippers, etc)
  • Warm hat/toque/headband
  • Mitts
Jill Dry Uniform
Jill in her dry uniform on Day 1
Dry uniform 2
Dry Uniform Day 3
Cooking in dry uniform
Day 1–Jill and Katelyn cooking in their dry uniforms inside a cooking tent.

Other important items:

  • Passport: You are required to show your passport at the Rangers Station at each campsite
  • Sunglasses
  • Flashlight/headlamp
  • Waterbottle/Nalgene
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug repellent
  • Camera
  • Chargers: there are places to charge phones/cameras at many of the campsites
  • Book/journal
  • Underwear (some would argue that this is optional LOL)
  • Toilet Paper
  • Camping towel
  • Biodegradable shampoo/soap (there are several places to shower along the trail)
  • Hiking Poles (I didn’t bring these and my kneed regretted it on the steep descents)
  • Ziploc bags/dry sack/garbage bags
  • Lighter
  • Cash/credit card (You can buy food/booze/supplies at refugios)
TRIPOD
I enjoy photography so opted to bring my DSLR camera and tripod even though they added a lot of extra weight to my pack

Camping Essentials

tent
We rented the yellow 3-person tent from Puerto Natales. Another option is to book tents that are already set up on platforms at each campsite (orange tent at right) to avoid having to carry your tent on the trail!

We traveled during the Christmas holidays, which is high season in Patagonia due to it being summer there, and didn’t make any rental reservations in advance. We had no problems renting all the gear we needed, although we had some difficulty tracking down a three-person tent (most places rent one or two-person tents).

I would suggest renting as much as you can while you are there in order to travel a little lighter.

I brought my MSR Whisperlite camping stove, empty MSR fuel bottles and pot, spoon, mug, and bowl for cooking with me from Canada. Since it was so cheap and easy to rent gear in Puerto Natales, I would leave the stove behind the next time around and rent one there. It was also somewhat tricky to find the white gas (Benezina Blanca) that my stove requires (we found it in a hardware store).

We each brought our own sleeping bags and sleeping pads, which I would do again since I prefer sleeping in “my own bed” than in a sleeping bag previously used by someone I don’t know.

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These are the prices in Chilean pesos for equipment rental at Erratic Rock.

There were many other places to rent gear in Puerto Natales (such as Yagan House where we stayed) with equivalent prices.

I had packed my dry clothing in a dry sack and sleeping bag in a waterproof compression sack that I brought from Canada.

These items were key as it rains a lot in Patagonia and your gear is bound to get wet. That being said, put any dry items like journal, maps, books, camera, phone, into Ziploc bags and line your pack with a garbage bags. My friends and I also had waterproof rain covers for our packs which we found to be helpful in keeping our gear dry. It can get very windy in Torres del Paine so it is important to secure the rain covers to your pack so that they don’t blow away in high winds.

Gear I Didn’t Need

packing up

Before I went to Torres del Paine, I had this vision of it being very remote and wild, like a previous camping trip I had taken in Alaska.

While Torres del Paine is remote and feels wild in some sections (especially along the “O”), there is actually quite a lot of amenities and camping infrastructure that I hadn’t anticipated. There is even an option to pay to use Wifi at many of the refugios, especially along the W (although I was happy to take a break from cyberspace).

Here are some of the unnecessary items that I packed:

Lots of Extra/Emergency Food

If you aren’t on a budget, you don’t need to pack much food to hike in Torres del Paine. The refugios sell hot meals, as well as beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages (much more expensive than what you could bring yourself though). You can even buy packed lunches to take with you on the trail.

NOTE: On the “O” it isn’t always an option to buy food. Some of the campsites are a little more basic (like Los Perros and Paso).

Poop Shovel

I hadn’t realized that there would be bathrooms with flush toilets at each campsite (the simplest at Los Perros being a drain hole in the ground) and even hot water for showering at the refugios.

Water Filtration Supplies

You can also drink the water at each of the campsites and don’t need to filter the water from the streams. I put water filtration tablets in my water for the first couple of days on the trail, but stopped once I realized that the water was safe to drink and tasted great.

Bathing Suit

I had packed my bathing suit thinking that I might take a quick swim at some point to freshen up. However, the lakes contain icebergs and glacial water and I was often cold on the trail due to wind and rain. There are hot showers along the trail so if you want to get clean, you don’t need to freeze in order to do it.

Wilderness Wisdom

Shan Hiking over pass

Peace & Inspiration

I feel very grateful that I was able to take the time to travel to Patagonia and hike the “O” in Torres del Paine National Park with my friends.

The trail inspired reflection, calm, and future travel plans, and helped us feel at peace with the choices we have made that have enabled us to embark on such an amazing adventure.

Shan Torres del Paine
We woke up at 4:45am to complete the 8 hour return hike to Mirador Las Torres in order to catch the 2:30 pm bus.

The Importance of Taking Time Off

I made what felt like an irresponsible decision to take unpaid weeks off work to travel to Chile (and later Ecuador).

I don’t have much money or a permanent job: shouldn’t I be working towards more stability and certainty in my life, rather than gallivanting around the globe?

Wasn’t it time to buckle down, grow up, and start taking life more seriously?

time
Viaja. El dinero se recupera, el tiempo nada.

At one of the ranger’s check-in stations, there was a sign that translated to “Travel. Money can be recuperated, time cannot.”

This quotation helped me feel more at peace with my decisions to take time off, despite the social pressures in North America to work, work, work and never give ourselves a break.

While it is a privilege to live in a country and work at a job where I am paid fairly, which enables me to have some disposable income to travel, I returned home feeling proud & grateful that I gave myself some time off, rather than irresponsible.

My trip to Torres del Paine has made me stronger, and has helped me to gain a greater sense of clarity on my personal and professional goals.

When I went back to Toronto, I realized that nothing was lost professionally by taking time off. I jumped right back into work as I left it, and actually, my bank account is not suffering as much I had anticipated.

Live at Your Own Pace

shan hikingSometimes on the trail my friends and I felt frustrated that we were hiking much slower than the recommended hiking times.

We thought that we were pretty fit and would be ABOVE the average hiking speeds. But we were also stopping a lot to take photos of the scenery (especially me!) and took breaks to have some deep conversations that were inspired by the sense of peace that the wilderness had instilled in us.

We decided that it didn’t matter what speed we were hiking at, as long as we got to our intended destination eventually.

In Patagonia in January the sun doesn’t set until close to 10pm, so there is really no rush to get to the campsites early. This helped me to realize that, like hiking, life doesn’t need to happen at anyone else’s speed but your own. I guess my pace is the right pace if it works for me…even if it means that I haven’t started making dinner when everyone else is washing their dishes.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post about my daily reflections and more wilderness wisdom that the “O” inspired for me.

If you have more specific questions about the hiking in Torres del Paine, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Inspiring Women Series: A Conversation with Heather Cheeseman

Sarah & Robert - June 19, 2010

“It is only YOU who gets to make the choices about your own time and what you do…and you need to make the time for what DOES matter. It’s okay that that may not be what everyone else says matters…”

After growing up in Burlington, Ontario, Heather Cheeseman completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Queen’s University. In the fall of her fourth year, she was recruited by the international tax, audit, and advisory services firm, KPMG, and became a Partner in KPMG’s Canadian Mining practice by the age of 32.

Over the course of her career, Heather has visited over fifteen mine sites on six continents, and has significant experience providing internal and external assurance and other services to companies at all stages in the mining life cycle. Although she’s experienced tremendous career success, Heather still struggles with a sense of “impostor syndrome” in the workplace.

“No matter what success you reach or no matter what you do, you always think that someone else is going to figure out that you’re really not that good at what you’re doing.” 

During her undergrad, Heather also met her husband, Dave, while they were both working in their hometown of Burlington for the summer. As Dave attended Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Heather and Dave maintained a long-distance relationship for a few years before eventually moving to Toronto where they both currently live and work.

“I think the thing with love…a big part of it is seeing beyond all the good stuff and seeing them for who they really are and accepting that…and knowing you’re not perfect and they’re probably not perfect, but accepting that about them… and being there through it…

…The good stuff’s easy.”

Despite her busy schedule as Partner for KPMG, Heather has learned to balance her personal and professional lives and make room for other things that are important to her, like spending time with her family and friends, traveling, drinking wine, and going to the gym.

“There’s always more work to do if you want to do it….so it can be A LOT if you forget about what else is going on in your life.”

It has taken her several years to establish boundaries at work but Heather believes that letting go of “work that doesn’t actually need to get done” so that she can put herself first has actually helped her to perform better at work. It has also improved her relationships, as she has learned to invest her time and energy into the people who matter the most to her.

The Inspiring Women Series is a podcast dedicated to sharing the stories of the many women who have inspired me in my life or who have inspired the lives of others. You can subscribe to the Inspiring Women Series podcast in the iTunes Store and can listen to my conversation with Heather below.

What does it means to be “strong”?

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Eva & I team teaching Body Pump 99!

As a part-time fitness instructor, it’s my job to motivate participants to become stronger. Don’t give up. Keep going, stay strong. I cheer them on with cheezy one-liners and upbeat music, and I try to inspire them to challenge themselves physically by lifting heavy weights and pushing my body to the limit.

Physical strength has always been important to me. It’s enabled me to take on physical challenges, like a 24-day backpacking expedition in the Alaskan wilderness and cycling in Italy and Spain which have taught me discipline, resilience, and the power of positivity.

But lately, especially as I’m trying to figure out how to balance pursuing my passions and paying the bills, I’ve been wondering what I really mean when I’m encouraging people (and myself!) to be strong?

In North America, we tend to glorify independence, invincibility, fearlessness, and perfectionism. So in the past, I believed that “strong” people were fiercely independent, and void of vulnerability or imperfection. This definition of strength guided the way I lived, worked, and loved.

I rarely asked for help. I didn’t take care of myself enough. I prioritized my independence and career over some of the the relationships I valued most. I strived for perfectionism, and was overly hard on myself and the people I loved when I/they didn’t meet my unrealistically high expectations. When I played rugby, I taped up a sprained ankle to play in a championship game while my teammate played with a hairline fracture in her elbow, even though these choices put our bodies at risk for long-term chronic injuries.

Through some recent experiences teaching, writing & traveling, I’ve learned that being strong means something quite different than I had originally believed it to be. Here’s what “being strong” involves for me now.

Vulnerability

The work of Dr. Brené Brown has also really challenged my perception of strength. As a self-professed “recovering perfectionist,” Brown’s research reveals that instead of being a sign of strength, that perfectionism is rooted in fear. Fear of not being enough. Fear of unworthiness. Fear of disconnection.

Her books, particularly Daring Greatly, have made me realize that vulnerability is not weakness. Rather, strength lies in embracing our vulnerabilities and having the courage to be imperfect. If you aren’t familiar with her work, I encourage you to check out this TED Talk.

Learning to embrace vulnerability has helped me to gain a better sense of self-worth and self-acceptance. It has made me a better teacher because when I allow myself to take risks and make mistakes, it gives my students permission to do the same, providing them with greater learning opportunities both in and out of the classroom.

In addition, it’s allowed me to develop deeper, more meaningful relationships. When I’m able to find the courage to speak and act from the heart, my friends and family members are more likely to engage in the relationship honestly themselves.

Humility

After living and working as a teacher in the Arctic, where society is centred around the community and not the individual, I learned that being strong doesn’t necessarily mean being able to do everything on your own. Instead, it’s having the humility to accept our limitations as individuals and ask for help and/or support from others when needed.

In the Arctic, the communities are small and isolated (in Pond Inlet, where I lived, there were only 1500 people) and resources are scarce, so people depend on each other for survival. Instead of admiring my independence, many of the local people felt like it was really sad that I would want to live so far away from my family. I couldn’t do many of the things, like running and cross-country skiing on my own because of safety concerns with extreme cold and polar bears, so I had to ask people to help me do these things. I depended on co-workers to help me understand the local culture and way of life and build relationships so that I could be accepted by community members.

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I was a ‘teacher’ on this school land trip, BUT students were definitely teaching me!

Even though it’s still really hard for me to ask for help, I no longer see it as weakness. Living in the north taught me that relationships can make us stronger and that we gain strength through connection.

Faith

In addition to accepting help and embracing vulnerability, for me, strength also involves faith: faith in myself, faith in others, faith in the universe. It’s about trusting my intuition, letting go of the need to control everything all of the time, or having all of the answers right away. Connected to faith is resilience: getting back up when I’ve been knocked down, despite the obstacles that get in the way.

While writing my first novel, I struggled daily with self-doubt. Who am I to think I can write a novel? Will I even finish it? Will my book ever get published? Will anyone read it? Is it terrible?

There were days when the doubt was so crippling that I couldn’t even type a word. I’d go for a walk, clear my head, meet a friend, go get groceries, work at the gym, do ANYTHING else to avoid writing…because if I AVOIDED writing and never actually wrote the book, then I would never have to confront the fact that it might not get published, might be terrible, might humiliate me. But then the desire to write the book would eventually outweigh the doubt and I’d give myself a little pep-talk and continue writing.

I finished writing the book. It isn’t published…not yet anyways. But through the process, I learned how much I love the act of writing itself. Regardless of whether or not this particular book gets published, I have faith that one day, I will write a book that will.

Forgiveness

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Mandela’s cell on Robben Island

In August 2015, I traveled to South Africa for my friends’ wedding and did a day trip to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was a prisoner for 18 of his 27 years in prison.

The experience was incredibly powerful, as tours were led by a former inmate who spoke about his time in prison and the oppressive system of apartheid that he had been fighting against. The guide spoke a lot about forgiveness and reconciliation, and how he had chosen to forgive his oppressors for the harm they had caused him and his country.

After apartheid was abolished in 1994, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established as a method of restorative justice where both victims and perpetrators of violence could give statements about their experience, and perpetrators could request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. The guide emphasized how the path of forgiveness as opposed to punishment or revenge, was necessary for his country to heal and move forward.

At the time, I was grappling with how to forgive a friend who I felt betrayed by. This small personal conflict was so insignificant compared to what the prisoners at Robben Island had suffered, so I felt inspired to take the path of forgiveness in my personal life. Yet it wasn’t easy at all and I couldn’t even begin to imagine the strength it took South Africans to choose to forgive on the political scale.

I went back and forth about whether forgiveness was strength or weakness. Was I letting my friend off the hook by forgiving? Did forgiveness mean I would be risking more pain in the future? How would I benefit from forgiving?

After reading Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu’s, The Book of Forgiving (a life-changing read),  I realized that true healing requires forgiveness. It takes a lot of strength to let go of the desire for revenge and retribution, but forgiving provides an opportunity for growth for all parties involved.

*

Now when I say, “stay strong” in my fitness classes, I’m trying to send a message (at least as a reminder to myself!) that strength is  grounded in self-care, love and compassion. This means being okay with taking “off days” and allowing injuries time to heal. It means I’m not obsessing about numbers on the scale or my body fat percentage, but rather am learning to be vulnerable and accept my body’s imperfections.

Being strong doesn’t mean being invincible and independent and macho and fearless and perfect. It’s about looking inside ourselves and opening ourselves up so that we can grow, follow our hearts, connect with each other, and heal.

LASIK Eye Surgery in Colombia

Eye Surgery.jpg

“You are perfect candidate.” Dr. Echeverri smiles. “We can schedule the surgery for two weeks.”

“Ella necesita usar las gafas durante las próximas dos semanas. Voy a examinar sus ojos el miércoles y ella puede tener la cirugía el viernes …”

The doctor starts speaking in Spanish to my school’s nurse, Maria Teresa, who has accompanied me to the appointment.

“You need to wear your glasses for two weeks. No contact lenses. Then you will need to see the doctor on Wednesday for an eye examination and your surgery will be on Friday,” she tells me.

Dr. Echeverri looks at me. “¿Tienes preguntas?”

“Any questions?” Maria Teresa translates.

“¿Cuánto tiempo…uh…no trabajo?…uh…no ejercicio?” I put my hands into fists do the running man action.

Again Dr. Echeverri smiles warmly, appreciating my efforts to speak in Spanish.

“Ummm…Friday, surgery, no trabajo. No work.” He replies. Yes, he can speak some English!

“One week, no exercise. One month, no swimming. Two months, no…ummm…deportes de contacto…” He looks at Maria Teresa for help.

“No contact sports for two months,” she tells me firmly.

*

I’ve always been curious about the possibility of getting LASIK eye surgery, but as a young Canadian struggling to build my career, pay off student loans, and scrape together the funds for world travel, it’s never been a budget priority.

“Maybe I’ll get LASIK when I’m a 30-year old professional and actually have savings,” I told my 25 year-old self. (LOL! #stillbroke)

But shortly after I moved to Colombia to teach at an international school, I learned that several of my American and Canadian co-workers had LASIK–IN COLOMBIA–and all had positive results. PLUS, at about 1, 700, 000.00 Colombian pesos (a little less than $750 CAD), it was much, much cheaper to have the surgery here as compared to in Canada or the US.

So I did a bit of research. Instead of being risky and “third-world” as I’d imagined, nearly everything I read, and people I talked to, convinced me that LASIK in Colombia consisted of high-quality doctors, cutting edge technology, and excellent patient care and treatment.Turns out, a Colombian doctor, Jose Barraquer, actually pioneered the earliest forms of the surgery in Bogota in the 1960s.

*

eyes

 

Two months later***, I’m at an ophthalmology office where a nurse is putting drops in my eyes to dilate my pupils for a pre-operative eye exam. This is an appointment that is usually scheduled a few days before the surgery so that the doctor can measure the refractive error, curvature of the eye, and thickness of the corneas, in order to create a map of the eye(s) prior to LASIK surgery.

My friend, Katie, is filling out some paperwork in Spanish for me, and answering the nurse’s questions about my demographic information for me, as at the time, my Spanish wasn’t good enough for me to answer myself. (Thanks Katie!)

After the drops set for about half an hour, an optometrist gestures me to put my chin and forehead against a metal device and look through a set of lenses. It takes him about five minutes to take the necessary photos of my eyes and measurements of my corneas in order for the doctor to get the final clearance for the surgery.

***(Unfortunately, I had to push back the appointment because I was attacked by a dog, and had to have two surgeries on my leg to debride the infection. Due to the potential risk of further infection, the doctor advised against putting my eyes in a vulnerable position and recommended waiting until the dog bite wound healed. This meant wearing my old, scratched glasses for two months instead of two weeks. While I could have gone back to wearing contacts for the time up until two weeks before the surgery, I decided to stick to the glasses to be safe. Contact lenses can distort the shape of your cornea, which could lead to inaccurate measurements and a poor surgical outcome.)

*

“Your vision will be perfect.”

Dr. Echeverri examines the results of the pre-operative exam. Using the measurement photos of my eye, he explains to me that the surgery will involve using a laser to create a flap in my cornea. He will then fold back the flap, remove a pre-determined amount of corneal tissue, and then lay the flap back in place. The whole procedure will take less than 15 minutes.

“No pain,” he reminds me.

*

At 9:30am on Friday, two days later, I meet my friend, Chrissie, in front of the building where the surgery is scheduled. Thankfully, she offered to go with me to the surgery, as I’m required to have a friend or family member take me home afterwards. Since my family is all back in Canada, so I am very grateful that Chrissie gave up her time to take care of me. She also had the surgery before with the same doctor, so understands my current state of anxiety.

“Ready?”

“I guess,” I say honestly. “I was getting a little panicked at the gym this morning. I kinda just decided that I wanted the surgery and hadn’t let myself think about what it would be like until now. I’m freaking out a bit.”

“It’s better than you think,” she tells me.

We go upstairs to the Ophthamology Office and are greeted by a friendly receptionist who asks me to sign some release forms (in Spanish) and pay the money I owe for the surgery. I give her about 800 000.00 pesos in cash and then take out my credit card to pay for the remainder (I had been told I could put half on card).

The receptionist shakes her head and tells me that the debit machine isn’t working. She says I could come back Monday to pay if I had to, but it would be better if I could go to a debit machine at the mall next door. Fortunately, I had been paid a few days earlier so have enough money in my account.

*

Fifteen minutes later, Chrissie and I return to the office with the cash in hand. Almost immediately, a nurse asks me to follow her into another room, helps me put my purse and shoes in a locker, and hands me a blue hospital gown. I wait awkwardly for a few minutes for her to leave.

She doesn’t.

Maybe Canadians are a little more modest when it comes to undressing in front of people.

I start taking off my clothes and the nurse immediately waves her hands no-no-no then helps me put the robe overtop of my clothes.

Oops.

Next, I’m led to a room where two other patients are lying on reclined leather chairs. There’s relaxing music playing and if one of the patients hadn’t been wearing little white plastic cones over his eyes, I would have guessed they were at a spa awaiting a pedicure.

I watch another nurse put drops into the other patient’s eyes. Then she gestures to me to sit in the vacant chair. I sit in the chair and join the “eye surgery assembly line.”

After I recline and try my best to relax, the nurse puts drops in my eyes as well.

“¿Alguien lavar los ojos?” I hear a nurse nearby say.

“¿Shannon?”

¿SHANNON?” ¿Alguien lavar los ojos?”

“No entiendo.” I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.

I freak out a bit, realizing that much of my Spanish comprehension comes from being able to read facial expressions and body language.

“Umm…she wants….uh…to know if someone has washed your eyes yet,” the guy sitting beside me with the cones on his eyes translates for me.

“Oh, no. No one has washed my eyes.”

*

I’m wheeled into a surgical room on a stretcher and put underneath a machine with a bright light that makes me feel like I’m at the dentist.

Dr. Echeverri greets me and then tapes my left eye shut.

“Now look at the red light….uh..very important,” he says as he positions my right eye under the laser. 

“Abierto. Abierto.”

He puts some more drops in my eyes which I presume is the anaesthetic. Then he uses a device to clamp my eyelid open. I’m still starting at the red light, which is hard to avoid looking at now that I can’t blink. I can’t feel anything as Dr. Echeverri uses a tool to mark the spot where the flap will be created on the cornea.

“A little…pressure,” he warns and as he places a suction ring on top of my eye to prevent eye movements.

“Now very important. Look at the red light. There will be…uh…twenty seconds of laser. The light will be a little…uh…blurry.”

I can feel someone–one of the nurses?–hold my hand, which makes me feel more at ease. I keep staring at the red light. It’s okay, be calm, Shan. I give myself a pep-talk and try to think of my family at the cottage and of my upcoming summer travels to help me relax. You wanted to do this, it’s okay. You won’t have to wear glasses and that’s so awesome. 

CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK. The red light becomes black and blurry, the way things would look after staring directly at the sun for too long. I can smell a slight burning smell. Then the red light looks more clear then it did before.

“Perfect. Keep staring at the red light.”

I can see a tool scraping my eye and my vision becomes a bit blurry, like someone has applied Polysporin directly to my eyeball.

He tells me to open and close my eye several times. Every time I open my eye the red light seems more clear than before.

“Everything was perfect.” I can hear Dr. Echeverri’s calm, soothing voice.

Then he tapes my right eye shut.

*

I’m back in the assembly line (that feels like a spa waiting room), sitting on a reclined leather chair. Now I’m the one with the plastic cones on my eyes, while two others are being prepped for surgery.

My eyes are tearing up a lot, partly because of all the drops that the nurses are putting into my eyes, and partly in reaction to having been recently “lasered.”But I feel no pain. I’m surprised that I can see.

Before the surgery, I had imagined having a day or two of total darkness, where I’d be in a state of uncertainty of whether the surgery worked, and whether I’d ever be able to see again. But this is not the case. I know my vision is perfect. I feel so lucky. No more glasses for me!

*

Less than an hour after the surgery, the nurse takes me into a room where Dr. Echeverri examines my eyes. I’m surprised when he asks me to open my eyes and look through a similar apparatus that had been used to examine my eyes in the pre-operative exam.

“I thought that I wasn’t allowed to open my eyes.”

“You are allowed to open your eyes to go to the bathroom and eat.” I hear Chrissie’s voice. So the next few days will not be lived in total darkness as I’d imagined.

“Ok, everything is perfect.” Dr. Echeverri reassures me with his soothing, caring voice.

Tears are running down my face from all of the drops that the nurses have put in, so I wipe them off my right cheek and then go to wipe my eye. Then I freeze, realizing that I’m about to rub an eye that had undergone a major surgery less than an hour earlier.

Dr. Echeverri looks at me in disbelief.

“That is forbidden,” he says calmly, yet sternly. “Your cornea might detach. Very dangerous.”

I feel so stupid.

He gives Chrissie instructions in Spanish which she writes down for my friends, Katie and Jill, who will be taking care of me on the weekend (thanks ladies!!). I have to put drops in my eyes every hour for the next few days, and then use them as needed for the next year (which, six weeks after the surgery, has been a couple times a day).

I’m not allowed to look at screens or read all weekend, so no cell phone, computer, or book, for the next three days, and am not allowed to exercise for one week. I have to wear sunglasses inside for a little over a week and can’t go swimming for at least a month. I’m allowed to shower but have to keep my eyes closed.

And no rubbing my eyes. EVER.

I will have to go back to see Dr. Echeverri in two days and then a couple more times in the next few weeks to make sure my recovery is advancing as expected. But I can go to work on Monday for my students’ graduation, and other than some slight discomfort, I should feel no pain.

Medicine is amazing.

*

One of the gifts of travel is that it broadens your perspective and helps you see the world through a clearer lens.

Well, living in Colombia has given me better than 20/20 vision.

Literally.