Trekking the 'W' Trail in Torres Del Paine

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November 2nd 2008
Published: November 5th 2008
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Day 118: Saturday 25th October - Day 1 of the 'W' (The Torres)

Its an early start today to get to Torres Del Paine national park, a two hour bus ride from Puerto Natales. We leave Puerto Natales at 7.30am, arriving at the park at around 10am. On the journey we bump into old friends. First, a few stops after we get on, Oscar gets on. He's left Tasha behind in the hotel and is going to do a day hike to the towers. Then when we stop at a cafe halfway into the journey we meet Marika & France, who are on a day tour of the park. Its like an unplanned reunion of the Navimag posse as the six of us pose for photos together. On the final section of the journey, we are presented with a view of the national park in all its glory, and now I understand why its rated as one of the best 10 places to trek on the planet. I'm excited, and have been looking forward to this pretty much throughout my travels through South America. Also on the final section of the journey we pass hundreds of Huanacos, a relative of the Llama, although I can't manage to get a decent picture of one to complete the set of the four Soth American members of the camel family (Llama, Alpaca, Vicuna & Huanaco).

On arrival at the park we have to register with the park rangers and pay the entrance fee. The weather forecast for the 4 days makes good reading....13/16/17/12 degrees respectively, no rain and 30 mile hour winds - surely we can't be this lucky at this time of year?? After a few last adjustments myself, Luke and Oscar set off walking the 7.5km trail to the start of the 'W'. Arturo opts for the bus instead, but myself and Luke vow we'll make a trekker of hime by the end of the 4 days! The 'W' trail is one of two main trails around the park, the other being the full circuit, which at this time of the year is closed. The trekking season only started in October, and we're on the shoulder season at the moment, which is good as there aren't too many visitors to the park at this time of the year. Despite its remote location, Torres Del Paine receives 200,000 visitors each year. The 'W' circuit is so named because the trek is shaped like a 'W' on the map, with each leg of the 'W' representing a valley to be hiked up. The 'W' trail is around 80km long, and takes 4 days to complete. First though we must walk to the start of the trail, which takes the 3 of us an hour and a half and is an easy start to the trek being on flat ground. We are treated to views of the Torres (towers in English) on this section which is what the park takes its name from. The goal of today is to trek up to the viewpoint to see them up close, but even from this far away they are amazing, granite spires soaring up towards the sky.

At noon we start the trail proper, Arturo has pressed ahead and we'll catch up with him at the refugio. It takes an hour and a half to walk up the valley, climbing from 200m altitude to 600m by the time we reach Chileno refugio where we are staying the night. We have lunch, and drop our big rucksacks off, swapping them for our daypacks for the rest of the day. El Chileno looks up towards the valley and in the early afternoon sun the towers look spectacular. Arturo and Oscar start off before me and Luke (Arturo is concerned about his pace and Oscar is short of time having to be back down by 7pm to catch the bus). Luke has hurt his knee on the climb up to the refugio, aggravating an old injury so I offer him my walking poles to help him. The two of us set off at 3pm, walking through forest to the Torres campsite where I wait for Luke to catch up and admire the views of the mountains up the valley. Just after we leave the Torres campsite we bump into Oscar coming down and say our goodbyes before continuing for around 45 minutes up a steep scree slope to the viewpoint. This proves to be the hardest part of the trek, as we climb up to 1050 metres altitude from around 700 metres and there is no trail to follow. Luke is really struggling at this point, but soldiers on reaching the top shortly after me, two hours after leaving the refugio.

Whilst waiting for Luke I manage to drop my camera case down a crevasse whilst taking pictures of the towers. I can't reach it so I'll have to wait until Luke arrives to 'spear' it with my walking poles. Messing around trying to retrieve the case I can't appreciate the stunning site of the towers, granite spires which climb from the viewpoint at 1000 metres to a peak of 2800 metres in no time. They are almost vertical, and I've never seen mountains like the 3 towers. The Torres del Paine mountain range is not part of the Andes, instead it is the newest mountain range in the world, a mere baby at only 12 million years old! At the foot of the towers is a glacier and a lake, no doubt formed through glacial process. It all adds to an amazing sight, which when the clouds clear from the top of the peaks makes a brilliant picture. Whilst admiring the view and waiting for Luke I have only two problems to solve, my camera case and where is Arturo??

Once Luke arrives I manage to 'spear' my camera case and retrieve it, the first of 3 items I manage to lose and retrieve whilst in the park (more on that later). Sometime later Arturo joins us - he managed to climb up the wrong slope!! We stay at the viewpoint for an hour until it starts snowing. This is more like the weather I expected in southern Patagonia, but today we've been lucky its been sunny and clear skies all day until this point, and not that windy. It takes the three of us two hours to get back to Chileno refugio, which we reach in the fading daylight at ten past eight. The food in Chileno refugio is great and if it maintains this quality it will justify the full board that I've booked at each of the refugios. The refugio is also more comfortable than the two I remember from Ecuador when climbing volcano avenue. Retire to bed after a few beers with a weary body but happy after a great day's walk having covered 21km of stunning terrain.

Day 119: Sunday 26th October - Day 2 of the 'W' (Lake Nordenskjold)

Today will be the easiest day of the trek. Although we are hiking with our full packs we have only 16km to cover, most of it downhill or relatively flat as we descend from 600m to the next refugio at 200m altitude. Because of this, we get a late start, only leaving Chileno refugio at 10.15am. The weather is good again, a clear, sunny day but very windy until we get down out of the valley. In the strong winds I manage to lose my waterproof backpack cover which blows off my bag. Search the mountainside for it for a few minutes but it's like searching for a needle in a haystack. With these winds it will be long gone or so I think. Ten minutes later Luke finds it. Its come to a rest literally a metre from the trail, a one in a hundred chance and means its the second item I've manged to lose and retrieve in the park - what luck!

After descending the valley we walk alongside Lake Nordenskjold for the rest of the day. The lake is an amazing aquamarine blue in the sun. Stop to admire the view of the lake whilst waiting for Arturo & Luke to catch up.....the second simply breathtaking view in two days. After waiting half an hour with no sign of them I decide to head on and then see them in the distance, they've taken another route and passed me. After walking for a further hour we have packed lunches which the refugio has prepared, stopping for an hour in a sheltered spot beside the lake. Just before lunch, we'd seen condors circling overhead, so we have lunch with the odd glance skyward to see if we're being watched. After lunch I surge on ahead as the terrain undulates between 200-300m altitude beside the lake. Once in a while I stop for a photo oppurtunity, otherwise its full speed ahead apart from when I bump into Jan!! I can't believe it when I see him, plus the two Swiss girls in tow. He tells us of how he spent the first night slepping on the back of the pick up truck in the freezing cold and how they've nearly run out of camping gas!! Brilliant!! This guy makes me laugh with his stories everytime!!

Arrive at Los Cuernos refugio (horns in english - named after the peaks that tower above it which resemble horns apparently) at 4pm. Taking the stops out of the equation its been an easy day, only 4 hours of actual walking. Los Cuernos refugio is in another great location. It looks out onto the lake, and it is dwarfed by the Horns which rise up to 2400m almost vertically behind the refugio. Because you are walking so close to the base of the peaks and also the cloud cover near the peaks, I don't get the best view of them unfortunately. The refugio is similar to Chileno, cozy and I devour the last of my provisions I bought in Puerto Natales whilst I wait for Arturo & Luke who make it about an hour later. Luke's knee is still bothering him unfortunately and both he and Arturo aren't sure if they will go up the French Valley tomorrow. Enjoy another good meal, a few beers, challenge Arturo to a few games of chess and get talking to an English couple who are sharing our dorm.

Day 120: Monday 27th October - Day 3 of the 'W' (The French Valley)

Its raining when I awake, which isn't a good sign for the longest day of the trek - 27km in total. Thankfully by the time I get away at 8.45am its cleared up and its once again a fine, clear day beside the lake. I'm walking alone today as Arturo and Luke are giving the French Valley a miss and are just going to walk through to the next refugio. It takes me an hour and a half to reach the Italian campsite (its name, not because its full of Italians!). The walk is over undulating ground, slightly up hill to the campsite which is 350 metres. It is however beside Lake Nordenskjold which again looks beautiful in the morning sun.

In the Italian campsite I have the option to leave my pack behind, but decide against it - its not that heavy anyway. Leaving the Italian campsite I take a wrong turn and must spend 15 minutes trying to find the trail through bracken and rotten trees. In finding the trail I twist my knee on a rotten tree! When I rejoin the trail I start climbing the French Valley with a group from Holland/Switzerland/Austria & the US. The first site we pass is glacier Frances. Its has a blue twinge to it and despite visibility not being great, you can hear the sound of and see avalanches every now and again. After an initial steep climb, the valley levels off somewhat. Once I reach the gentler climb I leave the rest of the group behind and continue up the valley through the forest towards the British campsite. The forest offers protection against the worsening weather, its windy, drizzly and visibility up the valley is poor. I pass a guy from the Navimag ferry which has been a recurring theme on the trek as I near the campsite.

I reach the British campsite at 12.30pm, two hours after leaving the Italian campsite. I stop for a snack in the campsite, talking to an Aussie who we'd met walking on the first day - he's been camping overnight in the campsite. From the British campsite its a short walk up to the viewpoint near the top of the valley. I'm at 950 metres altitude now and its snowing up here and visibility is very poor, which is a shame as I can't appreciate what I'm sure are the stunning views down and up the valley of the mountains and glaciers on either side. Decend 100 metres back to the British campsite and stop for lunch before heading back down the valley. Despite a sore knee, it takes me slightly less time to get down, and at 3.30pm I'm back in the Italian campsite. From here the map says its only two hours to refugio Paine Grande where I'm staying tonight. As I've been consistently walking faster than the suggested times on the conservative map I'm expecting to be there at 5pm - not bad for a near 20 mile walk today.

The walk along to Paine Grande Lodge is indeed on the easiest ground - almost flat - but it proves to be a lot longer than expected. Initially through forest, the terrain then turns to scrub as I pass the univiting Lake Skottsberg. After walking for an hour it starts raining quite heavily but I hold off putting the waterproofs on straightaway as I'm expecting to be at the refuge soon. Twenty minutes later, wet and with the refuge nowhere to be seen I finally put my waterproofs on only for it to clear up almost straightaway! For the final twenty minutes walk I can see Lake Pehoe, which is a similar colour to Lake Nordenskjold - a beautiful aquamarine blue. Its the best site of the day by far, but I'm sure thats because of the bad weather up the valley.

I reach the refuge at 5.45pm and after a welcome hot shower join Arturo & Luke in the bar taking advantage of the two for one offer on pisco sours. Paine Grande Lodge is probably the nicest of the refuges. It looks out on to Lake Pehoe and the Paine Grande mountains behind. It feels like it should be a five star hotel in some ways not a refuge where we are paying 41000 pesos for full board (40 pounds). The only downside in my opinion is that the meals aren't quite up to the standard of the previous two refuges, but the surroundings make up for this. I feel that I've met the challenge of the 'W' having completed the toughest day, but with a sore knee I'm taking nothing for granted.

Day 121: Tuesday 28th October - Day 4 of the 'W' (Glacier Grey)

Wake up looking out on the beautiful waters of Lake I dreaming or is this for real?! What a view, the Lake looks even better than yesterday in the morning sun. After breakfast leave the refuge with the other two at 9.45am. Its very windy outside, the windiest day so far, more like the weather I expected in Southern Patagonia. Today is not going to be to bad though, we've left the big backpacks behind as we are returning to the refuge after walking up Grey valley to see the glacier. I soon leave Luke & Arturo behind as they are walking slower (Luke is still struggling with his knee and Arturo is also going to take it easier). I'm going to walk up to the second viewpoint which is a 22km round trip whereas the other two are only going to cover half this distance.

I reach the first viewpoint at 11.30am its extremely windy at the highest point on the day's hike at 400 metres. I almost get blown over at one point (two Dutch girls did!)......the famous Patagonian winds have finally appeared. Glacier Grey looks amazing even from about 5km away. It must be 5km wide at the front, maybe 30 metres high and as to its length who knows? Its certainly goes back as far as the eye can see, and it goes off the map so it must be at least 20km long. Don't spend too long admiring the view due to the wind and continue on to the second viewpoint, through forest, reaching it at 1.15pm. On the way up pass a Canadian/American couple from the Navimag called Audrey & Ken who say that a third viewpoint which I had been thinking of walking up to isn't accessible due to avalanche risk so that's the decision made on that one.

The second viewpoint must be still a full kilometre from the front of the glacier and you can only see a kilometre of the front of the glacier rather than the whole front that you can see from the first viewpoint. Nevertheless, it still looks huge, and is stunning. Its hard to appreciate the size of this huge, blue tinged block of ice. After a few minutes taking pictures and taking it all in, turn back towards refugio Grey where I am hoping to eat my packed lunch in the warmth. No such luck however, despite being run by the same company that the refuge I'm staying at, they won't entertain me being there and are extremely unfriendly. End up eating lunch outside with Tanya, a Swiss Girl and an Austrian, whose name I now forget.

Start walking back down the valley at just before 2pm, reaching the bottom three hours later. Its slightly downhill on the way back - descending from 300 metres to 200 metres. Its tough going though as my knee is bearing up worse going downhill than it was up. Nearly have a heart attack when the Austrain guy slaps me on my back when he catches me up. I was listening to my I-Pod so don't hear him coming and I think I'm being attacked by a puma initially! Raise my walking stick aloft to salute the guys sat up in the bar when I reach the refugio....I've finished the 'W'. My body is a bit battered but that doesn't stop me climbing the stairs to the bar (albeit gingerly) to enjoy a couple of Pisco Sours in celebration of completing the trek.

Arturo leaves the lodge at 6.30pm to get the boat back to Pudeto and then connect to a bus to take him back to Puerto Natales. He's got some things to sort out hence his rush to get back to civilisation but we'll see him tomorrow. Myself and Luke stay at the Lodge enjoying the surroundings and chilling out for the rest of the evening.

Day 122: Wednesday 29th October - One last day in the national park

Have a lazy morning waiting around the refuge for the catamaran to come at 12.30pm. It takes 30 minutes to cross Lake Pehoe to Pudeto. Luke is going to take the bus back to Puerto Natales at 1.30pm, but I decide due to the favourable weather to spend a last few hours in the park and catch the later bus at 7pm. There's nothing really back in Puerto Natales and as long as I get back there tonight there are no issues. Walk up to the waterfall and rapids which run down from the higher Lake Nordenskjold to Lake Pehoe. From the waterfalls walk a further hour to a viewpoint on Lake Nordenskjold where you can appreciate Los Cuernos (The Horns). Sat on the opposite side of the lake to where the 'W' trail runs, its only now I can fully appreciate the beauty of the horns. Granite spires of rock rising up to 2500 metres from the Lake almost vertically - they are breathtaking. I think this view is only just behind that of the Torres, but only just. Its definitely been well worth the diversion and the extra 9km walk I do today. I stay at the viewpoint an hour taking it all in, there is nobody around, just me and this natural wonder.

I walk back from the viewpoint at 4pm, enjoying the best weather of the 5 days....the sun is really warm. Indeed when I get back to Pudeto at 5pm I sunbathe for two hours....watching out on to Lake Pehoe reflecting on a superb 5 days spent in the park. I'm even treated to condors circling overhead while I wait for the bus to turn up. I catch the bus back to Puerto Natales at 7pm, arriving back around 10pm. Leaving the park I once more see Huanaco's but again can't get that elusive photo of them. Back in Puerto Natales I can't find Arturo and Luke so end up eating on my own. I'm more tired than hungry after covering 95km (60 miles) in 5 days so when Arturo rings the hostel sometime after 11pm I'm getting ready to haul my weary muscles into bed rather than join the two of them and Jan in the bar.

Trekking in Torres Del Paine with Luke & Arturo has undoubtedly been one of the best experiences of my travels. It rightfully deserves its reputation as one of the ultimate treks in the world. We've also been exceptionally lucky with the weather, sunny every day bar one, and only one day of strong winds. For me, its been right up there with the Galapagos Islands & the Inca Trail + Machu Picchu as the best experiences of the trip. Torres Del Paine also brings the curtain down on my time in Chile. Alongside Easter Island it has been the stand out experience....both places being in my top 5 of South America. However, the rest of Chile hasn't been anywhere near as good. Thats not to say I haven't enjoyed it as of course I have, but Chile is sterile, almost European in comparison to the other countries I've visited. The people whilst not unfriendly don't appear to have been as friendly as those I've met in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia & Argentina. Apart from Torres Del Paine & Easter Island, Valparaiso and stargazing in San Pedro deserve a mention. Speaking of San Pedro, I can't believe how much the terrain and weather have changed over the course of my 3000km journey through this country, from outer worldly deserts in the North to lush forests in the centre and the the mountains and harsh climate of Patagonia in the south.

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23rd July 2009

Torres Del Paine W Trail
This is a great blog. We are planning to do this hilke this coming October and since you did the hike around the same time, it is great to read about the weather conditions. How did you go about doing the reservations at the Refugios?? Thanks!

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