Visiting Torres del Paine has been on my bucket list for many, many years. I don’t exactly know when or how I became fascinated with it, but for me, Torres del Paine was a non-negotiable as we thought about spending time in South America, so I couldn’t wait for our trek to begin. We didn’t quite have enough time to commit to doing the 7-9 day Circuit, which takes you around the backside of the park, and we figured 5 days would be plenty for us, so we chose the W, a 55km trek through the highlights. We learned that there are many ways to plan your time in the park, but we chose a 5-day trek, going from west to east. Based on the distribution of the camps along the route, we thought that choosing this route made the most sense for the following reasons:
- the first day of hiking would be the shortest, making it an easy first day for us to carry our packs the shortest distance when they were at their heaviest, full of all our food for the next 5 days;
- hiking towards the east, we would have the best view of the Torres as we came closer and closer, rather than having our backs to the towers the entire time;
- the last push up to the towers, featuring some pretty dramatic altitude gains, would be tackled on the last full day of hiking, when we had eaten most of our food and our packs would be at their lightest; and
- setting out on the first day it seemed like the weather was pretty bad, which meant the towers would probably be fogged in if we started on the east side and tried to see them right away.
It turns out that we were basically wrong about everything, mostly about the weather. But, we’ve now learned that in Patagonia, the weather has a mind of its own. Most of the rangers we spoke to on the trail wouldn’t even talk about the weather – they had signs that said “Don’t even ask”. The only thing predictable about the weather in Patagonia is that it’s unpredictable. Day One: We were up bright and early to jump in the car with Don Pepe. We arrived at the bus station after a few stops to pick up other backpackers – the place was a total madhouse.
Everyone was pushing to get on buses. We ended up getting pushed to a slightly later bus which, of course, made me nervous that it would have ripple effects on our entire trek, but it turned out just fine. Like most buses in South America, ours was comfortable but packed; nearly everyone slept the entire two hour trip. The bus arrived at the entrance and one of the rangers climbed aboard to give basic information about the entrance process, which stops the bus would make, and the rules of the park, which were repeated to us many, many times afterwards. Everyone fills out a registration form, which is stamped once when you purchase your tickets, then a second time when you receive your map and a printed copy of the rules. Then, everyone is required to watch a safety video, again reiterating the rules of the park, and finally you’re allowed back to the buses to find one leading you to your next destination. The entrance process is perhaps the best-organized system we’ve experienced in South America. They’ve obviously figured out how to deal with the millions of visitors that flock to the park each year.
Since we were doing a west-to-east W trek, we climbed back on a bus headed for Lago Pehoe where we would then catch a catamaran across the lake to the starting point of our trek. Arriving at the catamaran dock, we were shocked by the wind. We’ve certainly experienced our share of wind thus far, but suddenly, being out in the middle of it all, we were unsure of how the next five days might unfold. We’d heard horror stories of tent poles snapping in the strong winds and backpackers spending their entire trek dealing with broken tents and no rain protection. At this point, we were even wondering if the catamaran would be able to cross the lake in this weather.
Apparently, this weather was nothing unusual as no one seemed all that flustered by the gusts that nearly knocked people over. The Erratic Rock talk had recommended waiting until the end to board the catamaran since all the backpacks are piled on top of each other as you board – meaning those who board first and up being last off, and leaving with a completely squished pack. We were glad that we didn’t heed this advice because by the time we were on and situated, we noticed that those who had waited to board didn’t make it on. The boat was full and the next scheduled departure wasn’t for several more hours which would have put us way behind schedule. We were glad that we had kept our lunch with us after seeing all the packs thrown on top of each other, both of ours buried somewhere at the bottom of the pile. Although we felt a bit silly slicing open an avocado and making up a nice sandwich while everyone else watched, we felt like we had played it right. And although we were crossing a lake which later would appear so still and flat that the surrounding land seemed to be floating, on the day of our crossing it seemed like a rough ocean, the wind-generated waves crashing over and over against the windows. We were the last ones off the boat after spending a few minutes adjusting and tightening every strap and compartment. Disembarking, we walked past a long line of people waiting to board, standing in the wind and rain, generally looking miserable. Suddenly I wasn’t so sure about what we were about to do. Nearly everyone walked off the catamaran and straight into the Paine Grande lodge, trying to escape the wind and rain that seemed to be picking up strength with each passing moment.
I knew that if I went inside the lodge I would never leave, so we glanced at the happy people inside and then turned towards the trail.
Literally 10 steps into our hike, it started hailing, which perhaps we should have taken as a sign of some sort, but we trudged on. And from there, the wind and the rain really never stopped.
The first leg of our journey we planned to hike from Paine Grande to Refugio Grey where we had reserved a campsite for the evening. The 11km hike, according to the map, should have taken 3.5 hours. For us, it was more like a 5 hour ordeal. The wind and rain were so strong we made so much less progress than anticipated. At one point I was so cold that I couldn’t open my pack to get my gloves out. Once Wolf pulled them out for me, my fingers were still so frozen that he had to put them on for me. Glacier Grey sits at the end of the valley we hiked, and although the scenery was quite beautiful, the wind blowing off the glacier was bone chilling, especially once we were drenched by the rain, and the gloomy skies never quite gave way to sunshine.
We arrived at Refugio Grey freezing cold and soaking wet. The hike had been much more challenging for us than we had anticipated, especially the sections of sheer, wet rock we scrambled down at the end. But walking into Refugio Grey the sun finally broke through the clouds for a sunny end to the day. We had gone so slowly that we felt like the last to make it to camp, and hurried to set up our tent in one of the few decent spaces remaining.
Before allowing ourselves to relax for the evening, we pushed on a bit further to the Glacier Grey lookout point.
don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the sight of massive glaciers dropping down into a turquoise lake, and Glacier Grey was no exception.
The huge jagged icebergs floating in the foreground, with a massive glacier and snow-covered peaks in the background made for a dramatic end to a challenging but rewarding day.
We watched geese waddling around with their chicks and marveled at the deep blue hues when the sun peeked out long enough to seemingly light up the icebergs from the inside.
We were very excited to get a warm shower where I felt my toes finally thawing out. Cooking dinner we sat with several really nice people and were happy to chat with new friends in a warm, dry place while sipping on a well-deserved box of wine :) Day Two: Our second day we had big plans – we would hike back the same 11km to Paine Grande, and then continue east another 7.6km to reach our next campsite, Campamento Italiano. The map told us to allow 5.5 hours for the entire day, but based on our slow pace the prior day, we might need quite a bit more time. We got as early a start as possible and headed back through the windy valley. Thankfully, the new day had brought sunshine and a bit less rain, making for a much more enjoyable experience.
We even enjoyed a nice break where we fed a few fearless little birds our crumbs.
Quite a bit of our hike was through the area that had burned a few years back, and the charred trees were sad to see.
Breaking for lunch in the lodge at Paine Grande we escaped the wind for a few minutes and gave our backs a rest before setting out again for the next leg towards Italiano.
And even though the winds had hardly subsided, the rain had mostly been replaced by sunshine which made all the difference, even as we watched the wind whip the water up from Lago Nordenskjold and turn it into a wall of spray as we approached.
The prior day had been so mentally taxing with the cold and the rain, that our second day felt easy in comparison and we felt lucky as we made our way slowly across streams, over hills, getting closer and closer to the peaks of Paine Grande and Los Cuernos.
The last river crossing before Campamento Italiano had a pretty precarious suspension bridge – only one person allowed at a time.
Crossing over safely, we stumbled into camp, where the ranger sign confirmed that we weren’t total wimps – the 90km/hr winds were nothing to scoff at. I was amazed at how packed the campsite was – a free campsite, smack in the middle of the W trek, it certainly gets its fair share of visitors. We seemed to have picked up the pace a bit, but the day had still taken longer than we expected. We pitched our tent and spent another evening devouring calories and chatting with new friends about what the next day would hold. Day Three: The best part about waking up on Day Three was knowing that for half of the day, we would be pack-free. We planned to hike up the middle section of the W to the furthest point in Valle Frances, then return to Campamento Italiano to break camp, and continue on to Refugio Cuernos where we would spend our third night. In all we would hike 11 kms which, according to the map, should take us 5 hours. Knowing it would likely take us longer, we got an early start and walked out of camp, happy to be carrying only a day pack.
We had high expectation for view in the valley, which our Erratic Rock lecturer had raved about. We certainly weren’t disappointed by the views on the way up, with glaciers on one side and views back down at a turquoise lake behind us.
And the varied landscape, from a rocky canyon, to dense ridge-top forests, to thick woods, was surprisingly varied on the way up.
Unfortunately, the fog and clouds never quite lifted to give us the 360 view we had hoped for when we reached the summit.
It was raining when we arrived so, after enjoying the view for a few minutes we made our way down a bit further for a nice lunch break.
We picked our way slowly down the mountain, where we found the crowds had grown after our early start, and we realized all the smart people had stopped at the first viewpoint, realizing with all the clouds up top, they wouldn’t be gaining much in terms of a view.
Back at camp we rested as long as possible before breaking down the tent and packing back up to head further east. Here, at the official halfway point of our 5-day adventure, we were certainly tired, but feeling pretty great about the day and everything to come.
The hike to Cuernos kept getting better. Running into a few friends on the trail throughout the day, we all chatted about feeling accomplished and, again, lucky that the afternoon had turned sunny and beautiful once again. We stopped for a nice break on a gorgeous rocky beach….
And then pushed on for the last few kilometers to Cuernos. Here, we were happy we had made a reservation as those who hadn’t reserved a platform in advance may not have ended up with prime options. We took one of the last remaining reserved sites and again treated ourselves to amazing hot showers.
Feeling brand new and energized, we lounged on the deck with new friends, telling stories about our days and, for the first time, sitting in t-shirts and soaking up sunshine.
We decided in advance to treat ourselves to dinner at Cuernos, and we drank wine on the patio until dinner was served, and then lingered with Lisa and Mike over glasses of wine until after sunset. Afterwards we ran into Erica and Evan who we had met our first night and stood outside chatting with them until we realized it was way past our bedtime. The evening felt very special – we had made it to our third evening, we had lounged on a sunny deck, we had made new friends who wanted to linger over dinner chatting with us, and we had more good stuff coming the next day.
I woke up in a panic on the fourth day – I had slept so well with earplugs in all night that waking up to light outside I assumed I had missed my alarm and we’d lost our chance at an early start. One quick time check later we were fine, and I was happy to be so well rested. We stealthily made breakfast in the main dining room since the cooking shelter area was closed and locked for some strange reason, and were packed and ready for an early start.
We headed out anticipating a strenuous day ahead – we would hike 20.5km to Campamento Torres, our final campsite on the W. Over the day we would gain close to 1000 meters in elevation and the map said we would need 7.5 hours to finish. The first half of the day was quiet and sunny and beautiful.
The landscape had changed again, now with wide sweeping plains, and rolling foothills.
Pretty quickly though, it became a steady uphill slog.
And once our trail joined up with the main trail to the Towers used by all the day hikers, it was suddenly crowded at every turn.
We climbed and climbed, stopping for water at most streams. Eventually I lost steam and felt like it was all I could do to put one foot in front of another. Finally we arrived at Campamiento Torres.
Mike and Lisa had already set up camp and had decided to push on for another hour or so to make it up to the Torres that evening. We had all planned to camp the night and then hike the last hour up to the Torres before dawn so that we could watch the sunrise at the peak; we’d all heard the scene was breathtaking with the towers glowing orange in the sunrise. But, someone had told Lisa and Mike that there was a chance of snow tomorrow. The weather had started getting worse already and they didn’t want to risk climbing up tomorrow morning only to find everything clouded in. Even though we were exhausted we decided to do the same. We dropped out packs, set up our tent, refueled briefly, and then set out to push the last few kilometers, climbing up to the summit.
On the way up, the clouds rolled in quicker than we could climb, and about halfway up, we asked a couple coming down if they could even see the towers. They said that they had started climbing down because the clouds had rolled in and you couldn’t see anything anymore. We were deflated. We stood for a while debating what to do. Do we give our exhausted bodies a break, give up now, and save our energy for the next morning, hoping the sun comes out? Or do we push on now, knowing that we’re likely to reach the peak and not be able to see anything. Eventually I decided that we had come this far, not just over the course of the long day we’d had, but over the course of our W trek, and in planning our trip to the area, and in arriving in South America… we had come this far, on so many levels, and I wasn’t about to give up now. We pushed on and finally reached the summit, climbed up a few rocks where we thought we could find a view and there, in front of us, we saw the famously turquoise lake… with the three Torres stuck squarely behind the clouds.
We sat on the rocks for a long time and, eventually, the clouds parted and the entire seen came alive with all three Torres visible.
It started to snow lightly, and the wind picked up whipping at our backs, and we certainly didn’t have the blue-sky view we had expected, but I couldn’t have been happier.
As we were hiking that day, Wolf and I had both admitted that we had been thinking about what a good team we are together, and how much we appreciate each other as partners. That’s been true of our hike on the W, but also throughout our trip to South America as we’ve dealt with daily challenges together, nearly always successfully :) And now I sat in front of the Torres, marveling at how lucky I am. I was sitting there with a man I loved, who not only had helped me finally make it to this place that I had dreamed of visiting, but also wanted to marry me, make room for me in his world, and build a life together. And in that moment, just a few days into the New Year, it seemed that our trek on the W may be the perfect lens through which to view the coming year. Wolf and I plan to get married, move back to Berlin, and start a life together; plans that we’ve dreamed about together. And like our trip on the W, we’ve done some careful research and planning ahead of time and tried to go about things responsibly, but we also have high expectations for the coming journey together. Like our experience on the W, I realized that I should fully expect that the Universe will put us in our place – things will most certainly be both more challenging but also more rewarding than we expect. Sitting there together at the base of Torres del Paine, watching snow flurries dance in the wind, I felt grateful. And lucky. And excited for the future. And it all resulted in a few happy tears.
At some point it got too cold to be emotional any longer, even for me :) So we slowly picked our way down the mountain, back to camp. We celebrated that night, chatting with Evan and Erica, Lisa and Mike, and new friends Natalie and Raph.
As far as I was concerned, our trip had been a success. We had seen the towers, we had finished the toughest stretch, and we had found people to celebrate everything with. We fell asleep that night with a plan to set the alarm so that we would wake up before dawn, and we would evaluate the weather at that point and decide if it made sense to climb back up to the Torres for sunrise… I’m sure you can see where this is going. Day Five: Needless to say, we did NOT climb up to the Torres for sunrise. All night we heard wind and rain and what sounded a lot like snow. So when we woke up to our alarm at 3:45am and we were both shivering with cold, we decided we were happy with the view we’d had the day before, and didn’t want to end our trip with a frozen, slippery climb to what we assumed would be a clouded in viewpoint.
So a few hours later while we were cooking breakfast, we polled the others. A few had gotten out of bed in the dead of the night, only to find a blizzard at the peak and a cloud-covered summit. Most said they had stayed, hoping for the clouds to clear, but eventually left when it became too cold and never got to see the legendary orange glow on the towers.
We were SO happy with our decision to completely wimp out. While we made breakfast, it started to snow at camp as well, and by the time we had packed up and starting walking it was a full on snow storm. Bundled up and with fresh legs, we had a lot of fun picking our way through the forest and the occasional clearing where the snow and wind would swirl around us.
We were in high spirits for the trip down the mountain, taking our time to enjoy the last few hours on the remaining 9km of an awesome trek, enjoying less snow and more sunshine with every step.
We reached the bottom and celebrated with the last of our food, picnicking on the steps of the main lodge with Lisa, Mike, Natalie and Raph while waiting for the shuttle that eventually took us back to the main entrance and our bus back to Puerto Natales.
That evening we took warm showers, we made some warm soup, and we enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment, exhausted and happy that our W trek had been surprising and challenging, and ultimately incredibly rewarding.
Reflections on the W:
We’ve decided that we need to start giving back. We take a lot of information from people we met, and various online resources we’ve relied heavily on, but thus far we haven’t contributed much. That changes now, and going forward we’ll try to provide more helpful info about places to stay, or activities we loved, or where to buy peanut butter or get free wifi. In general, we’ll try to do more to contribute more to the experience of other travelers. So, for anyone planning a similar trek, we put together a list of tips and things we learned, some from the Erratic Rock presentation we went to, some from our experience on the trail. Whether you’re hiking the W, the Circuit, or the Q, hopefully you’ll find something helpful for your trek:
- Bothering with a rain cover for your backpack is ridiculous (whoops – I purchased one just a few days before we left). Your rain cover will either turn into a parachute behind you or you’ll spend your hike chasing it down after the wind tears it off your back. Instead, take a huge trash bag and line the inside of your bag with it. Then take another huge trash bag and wrap your sleeping bag in it. Repeat with tent or sleeping pad as needed. This is cheap, and easy, and honestly the best idea ever. We did this and it may have been the single best thing we did to prepare.
- Pack two sets of clothes. One set should be “wet clothes” that you’ll hike in every day (base layer, long sleeve top and bottoms, a fleece or other warmth layer, and a rain jacket or waterproof shell). Mentally prepare that these clothes may be wet and/or smelly every day, but know that you’ll just get them wet and smelly again as soon as you start hiking, so who cares. The other set should be your “dry clothes” (base layer, comfortable tops and bottoms, warm jacket). This set is sacred and is only to be used once you’ve set up camp and you’re done for the day. Never change into your dry clothes in a moment of weakness when you get cold on the trail. You will regret it. Warm, dry clothes are like heaven at the end of a long day of hiking with a huge pack on your back.
- Each set of clothes goes in a gallon-size Ziploc bag. This way, when you’re pulling stuff out of your bag in the mud, you’re all good if you need to drop everything on the ground.
- The same goes for everything else in your backpack. Group similar items and everything goes in a Ziploc. This kept our packs organized and kept things dry and clean and easy to access when we were tired and couldn’t think straight at the end of a long day.
- Mentally commit to having wet feet for most of the hike. Between rain and puddles and mud, it’s bound to happen. Preparing yourself for that reality is paramount.
- Eat all the time. We found a great little store in Puerto Natales that sold all kinds of nuts and dried fruits and we made a ton of trail mix that we stashed in pockets and bags so it was easily accessible for nibbling at each break or even while walking. We all get hangry (hungry-angry), especially when we’re pushing our endurance limits and we’re cold and tired. Do everyone a favor and eat a lot. Calories actually don’t count when you’re backpacking.
- Drink every time you see a stream. The water is clean and doesn’t need to be filtered which is awesome because you don’t have to carry or treat a bunch of water in order to stay hydrated. You seem to cross a stream at least every ½ hour or so – we tried to fill up at every opportunity since there are some stretches where it’s a bit further between water sources.
- Pack in adult beverages or bite the bullet and pay for the expense beers/wine at the Refugios. Either way, celebrate your successes by toasting with new friends. We packed in some wine and ended up buying more at one of the Refugios on the trail. Finishing our planned hike every day felt like a huge accomplishment and we were excited to toast to our achievement in the evenings. Heavy but worth it.
- Say hi to everyone on the trail and talk to interesting people. We loved meeting new people, hearing about their adventures, and commiserating about the hike. Plus, it makes the whole place feel like one big community.
- Be super careful with boiling water. The park burned a few years back and now the rules about cooking are very strict. No open fires are allowed whatsoever, and cooking using a stove is only allowed in special cooking shelters set up at each camp. The only issue with this is there are lots of people who all want to eat breakfast and dinner at the same time, which doesn’t allow you much elbow room to deal with your already precarious backpacking stove. We watched a lot of people knock over pots full of boiling water; one poor girl had to pack out early because a boiling water accident left her with serious burns and blisters all over her legs.
- Don’t wait to board the catamaran last. This was one point were we disagreed with Erratic Rock. Yes, everyone’s backpacks are piled on top of each other so everyone’s pack gets squished. But it doesn’t matter when you get off the boat and if we had waited to board last there wouldn’t have been space on the boat – the last people in line didn’t make it on ours. We aren’t sure whether we would have been able to keep the schedule we had planned after arriving on a boat several hours later, so we were glad that we decided not to care about a squished pack (just make sure that all your fragile things, for us it was bread and avocados, get the royal treatment and are held in your lap instead of at the bottom of the backpack pile).
- When you get on the catamaran, make sure you have your wallet and your lunch with you. You pay for your tickets on the boat, and it would be literally impossible to retrieve your wallet from underneath the massive pile of packs. We were also glad we had lunch on the boat so that we were ready to go start walking when we reached the other end.
- We made reservations at each of the two of the pay campgrounds on our route (Grey and Cuernos) and we were glad we did. I don’t think it’s totally necessary, but at Refugio Cuernos, which seems to be very popular given its key location along the trail, we were thankful that we had a platform to camp on when others we knew who hadn’t made a reservation were left camping in somewhat muddy or cramped corners. We’d also heard stories of people being turned away when campgrounds reached capacity, although it does seems like in those situations, you’ll always find somewhere to camp nearby. For me, it was mentally helpful to know that we had pre-paid for camping on certain nights which helped me push on when I wanted to stop and spend another night somewhere that might have been easier or more convenient. That said, reservations seem hard to come by in the high season – we booked a couple of weeks in advance and ended up having to change our plans a bit to accommodate availability.
- Plan ahead when it comes to food. We cooked three nights out of four and planned for one dinner (booked in advance since reservations are strongly suggested in the high season) at Refugio Cuernos. The Refugios do have small kiosks that sell food, but it’s unpredictable what will be available, and in general, it seems like the responsible thing to do to plan ahead. We met people that bought all their food at kiosks along the way since they didn’t want to carry any, so I guess it’s possible to do it this way, but I don’t think I’d recommend it. The dinner we ate at Cuernos was good, although Wolf said he could have eaten double, so maybe make sure you bring a little extra something.
- When you get to the Torres, don’t wait to see them. Everyone tells you to wait for sunrise, or try it at sunset, or wait around until the sun comes out. Most of us don’t have the luxury of waiting for perfect conditions, so I would say don’t wait around for the right time of day. Check it out as soon as possible, and try again later if you don’t have luck the first time around. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t see them because the entire park is amazingly beautiful, but it’s a nice bonus if you’re able to also catch the towers during a clear moment.
- Pack light. Pack light. Pack light.