I don’t know anybody who has an interest in hiking or trekking and hasn’t heard of the W-Trek at Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Even before I came to South America I had heard of it from friends who claimed it to be one of their highlights. To complete the five day trek was likened to being initiated into adulthood. For the more adventurous souls, they could also tackle “the circuit” which takes a gruelling nine days to complete along the backside of the peaks and is exposed to much more brutal conditions.
All W-Trek adventures start with the planning and preparation from the town of Puerto Natales, approximately 100km south of the Torres del Paine National Park. Normally one would turn up a few days prior to starting, however I ended up arriving 5 days earlier to give my knee a rest which I injured in El Chalten. The plan was to meet up with Sebastian, a Dutch fella I had met in Bolivia and we’d do the trek together.
After a couple of days of careful observation, I noticed the unique thing about this beautiful part of the world versus the rest of South America is that when people arrive, they go into a self preservation mode. Their mindset and priorities here for the same reason and there was a sense of trepidation amongst most people there, as though they were mildly psyched out by what lay ahead.
Puerto Natales was one of the only places on this trip where I had pre booked my accommodation. I booked at The Erratic Rock based on friends recommendations and it turned out to be one of the best places I had stayed at, but not in terms of facilities or luxuries. It was comfortable and the people there made you feel at home. Also I had the chance to meet some pretty cool folk there ranging from their early twenties to into their sixties with their own stories and reasons for coming to take to Torres del Paine.
Each day at Base Camp, the rental store next door, they hold free briefing sessions for everybody who was in town to trek Torres del Paine. Nobody else in town really does this and they’ve pretty much have this niche cornered now. I went to this the afternoon I arrived so I could meet some fellow trekkers although I wasn’t going to do the trek until at least a few days later.
A few days later, my Dutch friend arrived and we attended the briefing which would be the second time for me. At the session, you can ask anything you want, but mainly they take you through the standard route along the W, what to pack, what to wear, where to stay etc. You can read my summary HERE. After the briefing I hired all my gear and tried my hand at setting up my tent. Now this was the first time in a long time that I had to put up a tent and Puerto Natales is quite the windy place so it made for an interesting site with me chasing a tent around being blown around in the park opposite Base Camp.
Overall, the W-Circuit takes four night and five days to complete. It is possible to complete in 4 days however you need to go at a lightning pace. It’s called the W-Trek because of the W Shape of the route. The suggested route and also the most popular from the briefing was from West to East, primarily because it starts off easy and climaxes with the Torres del Paine, also called the Towers on the final morning.
Day One – Going back to front
After paying the entry fee into the park, we’re all herded into the a tiny room where we watch a propaganda like video on the importance of not smoking or creating fire in unauthorised areas. In 2011 a backpacker was burning toilet paper despite the numerous signs and warnings with widespread disastrous effects resulting in huge areas in the western side of the W were affected.
When we exited the building, you could see the granite towers in the distance. From what I had heard, it’s rare to get a day as clear as this and after seeing Tony and Gilkey, a couple who my Dutch friend had met his way to Puerto Natales, who were going to start from the eastern side, I decided to tag along.
From the base of the Eastern side of the trail where the mini bus drops us off, it’s a 2 hour trek to the first refugio, Chileano. It’s probably the most difficult trek as it’s the combination of the distance and the steepness. At first it was fine with my fresh legs but after an hour we’re going at a slower pace but our spirits are pretty high still.
The scenery is spectacular with the mountain range and the towers on the left and then a valley and river on the right, constantly reminding me to not to lose me balance. When the terrain starts to flatten out, there is evidence that despite how beautiful this place is, she can be equally dangerous with evidence of several landslides along the trail.
By the time we reach Chileano for a rest, my knee injury flared up again. With the help of walking poles though, they’re able to take off some pressure from the hills and I battle on. The terrain from here until our campsite, Campamento Torres is fairly flat (rolling hills) easier than the first half with plenty of trees to offer shade and protection.
When we finally reach Campamento Torres and we set up the tents fairly easily by the stream. The best part about the streams here is that you can drink from them and it’s one of the best tasting water I’ve had on this trip. After going to places where it’s not safe to drink from the tap, this feels like paradise. We decide to hike up to the Torres after we set up the tents to see them in the afternoon sun. Usually trekkers reach this point in the late afternoon and then hike up very early to see them in the morning to catch the morning rays illuminate the towers in an orange tint, however we thought we’d get up there in the afternoon as we had plenty of light remaining as well as in the morning.
The distance to the towers from camp wasn’t that far. The only problem was that it was steep…and there were plenty of tall steps so by now I was thanking myself for getting poles. There was a few inches of snow the previous evening so the trees and shrubs lining the creeks and streams along the path were still covered in snow. Quite surreal seeing we’re sweating and charging on up the hill in t-shirts.
As challenging as it can be along the hike, people are always smiling and saying ‘hola’ to each other. We got chatting to a few people passing by and it turns out, you’ll see those people over and over again either on the trails or at the camp/refugio sites over the week.
When we arrived, there were only a few people around which was a benefit of arriving later in the afternoon. The setting sun had already started to paint the granite towers and surrounding landscape orange whilst the areas on the lake was shaded and cool blue which offered a beautiful contrast. Some of the boulders by the lake were still warm so laid down and watched the sun set in a direction that across and in between the towers. Simply beautiful. I may have also dozed off for a while too.
Day two – Going Solo
I decided not to see the morning sunrise at the towers again, just to give the knee a rest. Instead I was packed and ready to go fairly early. I decided to go at it alone as I wanted to take it easy for the 16km it would require to get to Cuernos, the next refugio. I also didn’t want to hold up anybody so I said my goodbyes to Tony and Gilkey and that we’d catch up at camp. After a few minutes, I was settled into my own groove and I was enjoying it immensely. I was going at my own comfortable pace, stopping for photos whenever I wanted to.
In contrast to the views yesterday where the main views were the mountains, the views today were of the lakes and lenticular clouds that looked as though they were vacuums about to suck up anything in their path. There was not a breath of wind and it was slightly overcast to start the day off. While the lakes were looking quite dramatic with flowering Chilean Firetrees lining the trails along the way, I was getting those warm and fuzzy feelings as well as a lot of photo opportunities.
For the first 8km the old knee was holding up pretty well then I could feel it tightening up after a rest stop. That was when I had to tackle a few steeper hills that would eventually test me. A couple of times I just sat on the side of the trail, thinking there’s no turning back now, because there is nowhere to turn back to. The only upside was that there was no such thing as a bad view here so whenever I stopped, there was always something to look at whilst pondering on the past 7 months and how I managed to travel from Mexico all the way down to Chile.
Once I hit the 10km mark, everything just felt like the same. Not in terms of the scenery but it felt like the walk was never going to end and wasn’t going to become easier. Then all of a sudden I saw some lodges, a hot tub and immediately I knew I had arrived to refugio Cuernos. This place was my favourite of all refugios in the park. I wasn’t too big but it was comfortable enough to make it feel like a nice place to rest for the evening. I had intentions of camping but given the condition of my knee, I asked if they had any spare beds and they did so I took up that offer.
Day Three: Rainbows and thank God for walking poles
When I woke up, there was already quite a bit of wind and I could hear some rain, although when I went outside it was quite warm and there were no rain clouds in site. The wind seemed to keep getting stronger and while we were preparing breakfast in the dining ‘shed’ it felt as though the tin roof was about to be dislodged from the building.
With a belly full of fried chorizo and tomato soup, I headed off solo again. The knee was feeling pretty good and I’m powering along at a pretty fast pace. Refugio Cuernos is actually quite sheltered from the elements compared to the other refugios so by the time I came out of the maze like exit to the trail by Lake Nordenskjold, I was copping the full brunt of the conditions.
Now I knew where the rain was coming from. The wind was actually blowing a cloud of water off the surface of the lake and dumping it onto anything in its path. It was an incredible site to see what was a silky smooth lake yesterday, now transformed into what looked like an ocean swell with a fierce looking mist, propelling towards me. I could count down the seconds until I got wet with every burst of mist.
My goal was to get to the free campsite Italiano, dump my main pack and hike up through the French Valley. On the way there, the trials are noticeably narrower. It was as though somebody came through with a turf digger and cut a ditch out the width of the small lawn mower and made it the trail which caused some difficulty walking along it actually.
On any normal day it would be fine but with a strong cross wind, you feet are continually crossing over with the possibility of tripping over yourself. Luckily I had my walking poles to act as support. Before I left for the trek, everybody was advised that the one thing they should defintely bring were walking poles. Now I know why. As daggy as they look, they actually served a purpose here with both the wind as well as on hills for me.
Here’s a video of the rainbow and the wind to prove it was real and how windy it was
When I reached Campamento Italiano, there was a closed sign indicating that the trail through the French Valley had been closed. A few days ago it was closed because of snow but this time it was due to the wind. A bit disappointing as it would now be called the U trek, but he did tell me that it was still possible to head up halfway to the look out to see Glacier de Frances. I dumped my main pack and hiked up with my camera and water bottle along quit a scenic route through the woods and along the river that is fed by the glacier.
After 10 minutes, the trail turns into large boulders that require some mountaineering skills, and half an hour later, my knee wasn’t having a part of it and the winds at this elevation were indeed epic and dangerous for this one legged bandit so I headed back after resting and getting some photos.
My original plan was to camp at Italiano but there was plenty of daylight left. I had only hiked 10km that morning and it would be another 8km to Paine Grande Lodge so I thought what the hell and continued the hike after a short break and snack on chorizo, cheese and crackers.
Compared to the lush green and blossoming flora of the first two days, the trail between Camp Italiano and Paine Grande is noticeably different, with the effects of the fire that ripped through in 2011 clearly visible. Although most of the smaller shrub had recovered, the taller trees were still charred and lifeless.
There were a couple of steep hills to navigate and by now, I could feel a pain twitch behind my left knee. It seems that my left knee was about to pack it in as it was providing the bulk of the support for my already knackered right knee.
Crossing the bridge from Campamento Italiano towards Paine Grande
At the halfway mark for the day, the trail wound its way uphill to a more exposed area with about 3km to go to Paine Grande. This resulted in experiencing wind gusts of over 100km/h. There were a few people coming in the opposite direction without walking poles who were struggling and I saw a little child being thrown into the side of the hill by the wind. At this point, I was feeling quite alive and giddy with excitement that I finally got to experience what Patagonia is known for. I can tell you though, seeing Paine Grande lodge was a huge sense of relief; much so that I ended up splurging US$22 on dinner there that night and enjoying some cask wine.
Day Four – Like being in a hurricane
The wind was still howling when I woke up early to catch the early morning sunrise over Lake Pehoe, followed by some delicious (not) chicken soup with the leftover salami. I figured that it would be possible to get to the last stop at Glacier Grey and back, a total of 22km in 6 or so hours and then catch the last ferry to the bus back into town.
It’s an easier trek, seeing that I could leave my main pack at the lodge as I’d have to go back in the same direction to the ferry to pick it up. So with a daypack packed with warmer clothe, water and the remains of trail mix to snack on, I head off around 8am.
Just like the latter part of the day prior, the trail was quite severely affected by the fires. It’s quite eerie and fairytale like walking through a forest of black trees everywhere with nothing but a few shrubs growing around. Along Lago Grey, you could see giant ice bergs floating in the water that had broken off from the main glacier. Huge they were and they were scattered everywhere. I was making good pace and for some reason I was ploughing through the leftover nuts and chocolate that I had. My the second hour I had pretty much eaten a few breakfast bars and a block of chocolate and a few hundred grams of nuts.
The dodgey knees kicked in again shortly after which slowed me down considerably. Whilst I was having a break and finishing off the last of the food I ran into a couple of British ladies who had gotten up at 4am so that they could do the same trail but get back earlier in order to get the earlier ferry. They said that the wind was pretty strong and had gotten stronger the last hour. I didn’t think much of it as I thought yesterdays winds were pretty strong.
By the time I hobbled to the lookout, I was blown away (literally) at how strong it was. My beanie was blown off my head and I had never experienced wind as severe as this. I imagine this would be the closest to experiencing driving a Formula 1 racing car without a helmet on.
After a couple of minutes admiring the force of nature and the the glacier, I made the decision to turn back. By now I was feeling like a crippled man who could barely walk and decided to head back to catch the earlier ferry.
Torres del Paine is an incredible place that left a huge impression on me. The walk itself isn’t difficult but what nature can throw at you from rain and snow, to bone chilling temperatures and hurricane force winds – it made me appreciate this more than ever. I didn’t have the urge to do the complete circuit like some people which takes 9 days in total. However I can understand that this is a challenge that many people of all ages and fitness levels come to take on and also to enjoy at varying levels whether it be camping or staying in lodges.
It’s a slick operation they run there in Torres del Paine. Whoever is in charge of the marketing should be applauded as people come here from all over the world to trek it. At times I thought there were too many there as the camp sites and especially the refugios were quite busy in the evenings and it wasn’t even peak season yet.
If you had to ask me if it was my favourite place in Patagonia, I’d have to say no and that crown would have to be given to El Chalten. Of the two, El Chalten is still relatively untouched still and that you’re not forced to pay the incredibly expensive costs to enter the park or to hire equipment. All you need is and a sense of adventure.
If you want to find out more on how to prepare for trekking in Torres del Paine, click HERE.