Torres del Paine - The 'W' Hike


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Published: May 16th 2008
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Leaving behind Argentina after almost 2 months (nearly a month longer than intended) was sad to say the least. All the astounding sights and experiences we have had have been truely amazing. But this sadness was tempered by our excitement of what lay ahead.

Torres del Paine, Chile, another country another culture. Our 2nd border crossing passed without incident and was a rather strange mix of serious stern looking guards and a lackadaisical aproach to baggage searching, it consited of opening your back up, peaking inside and closing it again. No exageration. We (mistakenly) managed to smuggle some serious contraband into Chile: garlic and some cheese - woops!

And so we arrived in the sleepy town of Puerto Natales, the gateway to the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, a vast unspoilt wilderness famed for its distinctive peaks, pristine countryside and wildlife, and in particular for the extensive trekking possibilities enabling one to see this majestic scenery, even though it is 103km from the nearest civilization, Puerto Natales.

We had long planned to visit this area of Chile's south and it was like a breath of fresh air to finally be here. We intended to spend some extended time camping in the park and trekking the famous, or should that be infamous 'W' trek, so named because the trail is in the shape of the letter W.

Perhaps it would help if we give you a brief explanation of what this 'W' trek involves. It is undertaken by walking into the park from a drop off point either from the Eastern or Western end of the 'W' area. The whole region is cris-crossed by various trails of varying length and difficulty, split up by very basic camping grounds with zero facilities, this is back to basics time folks, does a bear... Having said that, what makes this area so accessible is that in the summer at these rustic campgrounds there are refugios (lodges) open providing hot showers, meals and warm beds for the intrepid travellers. But thats just the point, it is not summer, it is winter and only ONE of these refugios remains open now. This means that you must carry everything you need on your back, because there is no way of replenishing supplies here, and no place to stay other than your tent.

We have had a burning desire to experience what it is like to truely be in the wilderness, with virtually no people or man-made presence to spoil things and with self reliance at the heart of things. Here in the Torres del Paine we have both found a taste of such an experience.

We managed to take in a free information talk regarding the hikes, given by a couple of American fellows in Puerto Natales, Erratic Rock hostel. It did not provide us with any extra special new information as we had done our research well, but it was reassuring to speak with such knowledgeable people and gave us confidence that our plan was achievable, especially at this time of year. We did pick up some helpful tips on how to deal with the parks pesky rodents, more on this later... So before we left for the mountains we purchased some essential and not so essential items: 4 easy to cook meals for our stove, a magic wind-proof coat for Karen, wooly socks for night time and shiney new flasks to chase away the cold.

We booked our mini-bus ride to the Park's western end in order to start the 'W' left to right. This point is called 'Administracion' and at 7:30am Thursday morning we set off on the initial journey into the unknown.

DAY 1: Aministracion to Refugio Paine Grande: We arrived at the park's eastern access point called Laguna Amarga, where you must pay for entrance, here we encountered our first hiccup, our bus broke down. This required Karen to enter into some heated negotiations with the bus driver and national park ranger who both seemed adamant it was now not possible to take us to the western access point where we had planned to begin. They advised us to turn our excursion around and carry out the 'W' from right to left. This may sound simple enough, but this meant turning our plan on its head which would result in entirely different timings and amounts of walking each day than we had prepared for. Basically we could not complete the full 'W' route this way. We were having none of it and insisted there must be some way to take us to the other end of the park. Eventually, after much discussion the ranger made a simple radio call and soon told us another bus was on its way which we could take to our intended destination. It is the kind of thing we must expect, but with something so simple to accomplish we wondered what all the fuss was about.

The bus that arrived was actually a day tour taking (the lazy) people along the outskirts of the park to take photographs. Every cloud has a silver lining and this meant we managed to see much of the park from a different perspective than would otherwise have been possible. However what it also meant was that we arrived at Administracion very late in the day indeed, 2pm. As the sun starts to set around 5pm and the walk to our first night's campground took 5 hours on paper, we would be cutting things very fine. Nevertheless off we set at an alarming pace given that we were carrying huge and heavy backpacks. The walk in was through open and relatively flat grassland, provided stunning views of the mountains in the distance. But it was also incredibly windy with a strong gale constantly blowing against us. In what seemed like no time at all we arrived at the mid-way point, a camping area called Las Carretas. It was now decision time. It was 3:30pm and the next stage took 3 hours on paper, if we continued we would have to spend some time travelling in the dark, not an attractive prospect. But if we camped here our plans and timings were all shot for the coming days. We set off again, somehow increasing our pace.

Dusk set in around 5pm but we struggled on through the now increasingly hilly landscape. The sun set causing us to slow down considerably to avoid a fall. But as we rounded a bend and started down another hill the lights of Refugio Paine Grande came into view and our spirits lifted, we had made it. 6pm, we had managed to cover the 5 hour walk in around 4 hours. As it was now dark and we were tired we decided to check in to the Refugio rather than put the tent up in the dark, this proved to be a welcome retreat with warm and cosy beds for the night. We wasted little time in getting to bed after a hot shower and a wee dinner of pasta cooked on our stove. Day 1=17.5km

DAY 2: Refugio Paine Grande to Glacier Grey, and back again: We
Danger!Danger!Danger!

Day 2
rose rather later than we had intended, a symptom of our comfortable beds we suppose. After a breakfast of hot porridge we then set up our tent in the Refugio campground to save us having to do this after our walk. We set off around 11am with the sun shinning. The trail led us through a colourful steep sided ravine before rising up and out along side the massive Lago Grey. As we first glimpsed the lake we were also surprised to see many bright blue icebergs floating by. The next few hours were spent heading up many steep rises and then back down the other sides again, all the while with the lake to our left. We crossed over rivers picking our way over the bolders with the fast water rushing past our feet. As the trek progressed it became ever more hilly with rocky scrambles now the order of the day. As we topped one rise we managed our first view of the massive glacier in the distance, and it started to rain. Through the rain we trudged onwards, stopping only to don our waterproof jackets and trow. Finally we arrived at the impressive Glacier Grey's eastern face. It is very different from Perito Moreno but equally as beautiful in its own way. In the bay below us a gigantic iceberg had settled, we could not have imagined getting so close to one so big, which was a real pleasure. As we tired towards the end of the day the sun once again set leaving us travelling in darkness, at least the rain had stopped. We broke out the head torch and picked our way back to our wee tent with a vow never to arrive in the dark again! On paper the trek takes 3.5 hours there and the same back again, and this proved to be exactly correct for us. Day 2=22km

DAY 3: Refugio Paine Grande to Valle Frances, and on to Campamento Los Cuernos: Forcing ourselves to get up out of our sleeping bags to take the tent down was really difficult. However the beautiful view of the mountains at dawn awaiting us outside the tent spurred us on. So after our usual porridgey breakfast we left the only lodge still open behind. With the sun shining, we meandered once again accross rolling grasslands, up and down steep and muddy hills and around the gorgeous Lago Skottsberg to finally arrive at the start of Valle Frances. However, what the guide books don't tell you is that you must cross a precarious rope bridge suspended over the wide and gushing river Frances! While the wire holding the bridge up looked sturdy enough, the planks upon which we tread certainly did not instil any confidence. We stepped carefully over the swaying bridge to reach the other side and the sheltered Campamento Italiano. Here we left our large backpacks to head up into the valley itself. We had heard this valley is often filled with deep snow and that the weather worsens as you go, and with that in mind had never intended to reach its far end. For a start, in order to acomplish this and then get back down and onto Campamento Los Cuernos would have required superhuman effort given the hours of daylight available. So we only ventured up for an hour or so before descending. Still, this provided some stunning views of the Cerro Paine Grande range to our left which was clad in thick snow and ice, and even more glaciers. We also witnessed some exciting avalanches falling down these shear rockfaces with thundering booms ringing out accross the valley. To our right the mighty Cerro Mascara towered above us. Picking up our rucksacks at the bottom we started off once more. This next section took us right down to the shore of the beautiful green Lago Nordenskjold for some peaceful walking along pebble beaches as the grasslands gradually gave way to typical Patagonian brushland. After another 2.5 hours we reached Campamento Los Cuernos in plenty of time with the sun still high above us. Now, as we mentioned before the park has a reputation for its little rodent population, they seem to delight in eating through folks' tents! But our top tip is to set out a feast of food a short distance away from your tent so they have full bellies and don't bother munching holes in your tent! We sprinkled little piles of crackers all around and sure enough, come morning they were all gone and our tent was untouched! Day 3=17.1km

DAY 4:Campamento Los Cuernos to Campamento Torres: This proved to be the most gruelling day of all, but we had expected this. The previous night the temperature had plummeted leaving a covering of frost over everything in the morning. It also meant we had not had much sleep, but once again waking in such spectacular surroundings with a lake below us and huge mountains behind we soon found the get up and go needed to continue! Throughout the day we gradually climbed higher and higher with the impressive Monte Almirante Nieto range to our left and Lago Nordenskjold ever present to our right. The panoramic view stretched for miles around with glorious hills and mountains fading into the horizon as far as the eye could see. To our surprise and delight the sun rose high and bright, sunshine once again beat down upon us for the whole day! After a tough few hours we left the lake behind and joined the trail up into Valle Ascencio which would eventually lead us to our final night camping at Campamento Torres, in the shadow of the magnificent Torres del Paine themselves. The trek was long and took us ever higher but we forced our aching muscles onwards. The valley fell away to our right down sometimes vertical slopes to the raging Rio Ascencio far below, it was a precarious trail and took some steady nerves on occassion. At one stage we reached a shear rock face before us with the wide and churning river now right beside us at the valley floor. There seemed no way to continue without scaling this high wall. But we stepped out onto the rocky black stone with the river flowing fast below us, after a few heart stopping moments we reached the summit. It is times like these that test your resolve and mettle. This moment was the only time throughout the whole 5 days that we were genuinely scared and in fear of our wellbeing. Rockclimbing with heavy rucksacks on is not advisable! But to have come so far and not complete the 'W' was not an option. With our shaken resolve now back intact we carried onwards and found to our relief that there was a sturdy wooden bridge accross to the other side of the river from where we would be able to return on a much easier route the next day! We again arrived in plenty of time setting up camp and cooking a nice rice dinner as the temperature dropped well below zero before nightfall. Brrrrrr! Day 4=20km

DAY 5: Campamento Torres to Laguna Amarga: After another baltic and restless night we awoke to find the entire valley blanketed in deep snow. Getting the tent down was always a chore in the chilly mornings, however this had to be the coldest morning so far. Our hands felt absolutely freezing as we dismantled the frosty poles and ice covered tent. Under normal circumstances you would start off before dawn for a short hour long scramble up rocks to a hanging valley over which the mighty Torres del Paine rise, to catch the sun hitting them. But with the snow and freezing icy conditions above us this seemed a foolhardy venture and we abandoned this bonus trek in favour of simply returning to Laguna Amarga and the finish. Once warmed up with the help of a hot brew from our flask we started the return journey back. After being blessed with some fantastic weather during our journey it was actually a welcome change to trek through a wintery wonderland on our way out of the valley. We could not rest on our laurels, day 5 required just as much effort as the previous 4, we had to reach the end by 2pm for our pick up. The day progressed with a happy but tired mood. With every step our bodies cried out for rest but we wearily arrived at Laguna Amarga in good time with big grins on our faces. We were exhausted but deeply satisfied and proud of ourselves. Day 5=16.5

Looking back we both agree that these 5 days were among the most physically demanding we have ever endured, certainly in recent times. It is not just the distances involved, the difficult terrain or the tight timings and short days, but all these aspects rolled together which made it a tough trek. Throughout the hike and even as we write now snug in the hostel, we are very appreciative of the great weather we had - we had feared much much worse.

Despite the blisters, freezing nights, aching muscles and lack of showers it was totally worth it and very rewarding. We had a fab time and have run out of adjectives and superlatives to do the whole experience justice!

The W: 93km - Conquered!






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Tony ShackletonTony Shackleton
Tony Shackleton

Day 5, the end!


16th May 2008

The 'W' Hike
I am speachless. WELL DONE!!!
16th May 2008

EUREKA!
Well done, you must now be very fit! I am extremely proud of you both. Hey Ants that beard must be keepin you warm! Big Hugs.xxx
18th May 2008

scruffy nephew funky monkey
I love you, when will you come back. One day could I go to that Island with you. from Dillan.xxxxxxxxxx
19th May 2008

the intrepid explorers find out why Torres del Paine is aptly named
Amazing stupendous fantastic awesome I have run out of adjectives to describe your latest adventure. Pictues out of this world writing pretty good too. I am very proud of both of you, but glad to read about it after rather than before. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Lots of love xxxx
20th May 2008

Trek Tastic
The beard is coming on great. I hope that your muscles etc have recovered. 93km in 5 days is certainly something to be proud of. sharing your travels is great fun.
20th May 2008

tWekkin
Sounds like a good trek. Me and Alex were gonna do a 150 km hike across the pyrenees mountains at somepoint. How heavy were your packs... Drop me a mail guys.
26th May 2008

High Steaks
Alright, Looks and sounds like you have been having a fantastic time so far. I can certainly see why you stayed in Argentina for an extra month, it looks a truly amazing place. I'm sooo jealous! At the same time, I have been v.much enjoying getting my kicks vicariously by reading your blog. Keep up the good work (it's a hard life but someone's got to do it). Lots of love. Dougs
27th May 2008

ur hair now
hay you got all hairy lol you both look really well and like your having a great time love ur wee sis

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