Standing 2844m high, in sheer rock glory, are the Cordillera towers of Torres del Paine. Over Almirante Neito mountain is Frances valley, where dense forest is crowned by mountains and glaciers avalanche in full force down the rock face. At the bottom lie Great Lakes, Nordenskjol and Pehoe. The final valley is filled by glacier grey, blindingly blue and white, and start of what is 16,800km2 of ice. These natural wonders makes up the Torres del Paine National Park, voted the fifth most beautiful place in the world by National Geographic. Its W trek is one of the best things I’ve ever done, something that will be forever special.
The next part of this post is the full W Trek. Read on for all the ups and downs of the hike, or skip to the bottom for some info on getting there and booking things…
Hiking West to East, the boat brings you into Paine Grande campsite. From here, the first days hike is 11km to Camp grey. The flat grass slowly turns into a wood, which then becomes steep rock. The climb is hard, especially on fresh legs, but you’re soon rewarded with mirror lakes, mountains and an occasional ice-burg! Keep ploughing on and the first stunning view reaches you at Lago Grey lookout. Ahead of you is Glacier Grey, a mass of ice that’s dangerous and beautiful at the same time. Glacier Grey is 6km wide, 270km2 and riddles with great crevasses. What makes it even more special is the ice field behind it, which is the third largest in the world, after Antarctica and Greenland. It’s the remnants of the last ice age, miraculously preserved by Patagonia’s unique insane climate. Further on, is camp grey and your bed for the night. Completely optional but more than worth it is the short walk to the mirador behind camp. Enjoy the view you’ve just earnt from the rocks or bundle down to the water to try extremely year old ice! Two suspension bridges further up will provide a closer look from above the ice, but there’s time for that in the morning. For now, it’s time for dinner and making friends with your fellow crazies -as I now thought I was for agreeing to do this. Shiver round a tiny flame waiting for your dusty instant pasta to turn into some kind of food. Boots off, lights out, day one is done.
Day two is relatively easy, you’re now at the top tip of the w so it’s 11km back down to Paine Grande (3050m). Sore legs ease up and you know the route so it’s easy walking. The walk shouldn’t take the whole day either, giving you the option of the suspension bridges or a long lie in, depending on how much sleep you got in your five star accommodation.
Day three is a biggie, as one way or another you have to get round to the next valley. It’s a comfortable 7.6km round Paine Grande mountain, and to Frances valley. At the bottom sits camp Italiano, and just around the corner camp Frances. From here you can leave you bag -thank f*ck for that- and walk up the valley to either Frances lookout or Britanico lookout. The walk is a five hour round trip, up boulders, through the forest, across streams and up the final sheer dusty rock to the top. You set off feeling so light and bouncy without your bag, you’re full of energy and excited by the promise of to die for views. It starts hard, but it’s okay, you’ve got this. Then you slow to a steady rhythm, how far is it again? A wall of rock and dirt hits you and it takes all your energy to slide yourself up it, and suddenly there’s Paine Grande. You’re at mirador Frances. Around about now you’ve earned your crappy days lunch; a peanut butter sandwich that’s just about recognisable, and so much smaller than you’d remembered. But it doesn’t matter because the view in front of you is stunning. It’s the other side from Camp Paine Grande, and here you see the shadowy ice and the black rock. Look out for a glacier avalanche, you’ll hear it too.
Back into the forest for the stretch to Mirador Britanico. The forest is pretty and the walk flattens out here. Eyes on the orange markers, because the path gets a little hazy. One duo were lost of over an hour because they missed the track turning. People are coming the other way now, a sure sign you’re nearly there, ‘keep going’ they say, big smiles. The last fifteen metres is vertical. Dig your nails into the dirt, slide your knee over the rock, pull!!! aand you’ve made it. An amphitheater of mountains dance in the light, snow covers dozens of peaks, each range different in colour and shape, and the forest swims below, flowing down the valley to the lakes at the bottom. Worth every step. The descent is a retrace of your steps, but after sight like that, you don’t mind. It’s tough and long, but take snacks, keep to the orange markers and your legs will find their way. At the bottom, we grabbed out backpacks, suddenly tired, and did the last stint to Camp Frances. Priorities are tent, food and sleep, so you can climb into the sleeping bag warm from your instant noodles and sleep like you’ve never slept before. 42km down, 35 to go.
Despite the three days behind you, your legs are feeling okay and you find yourself shifting the tent onto your back, ready for another day. From the bottom of Frances valley round to the next valley depends on which campsite you’re booked into and how fast you walk. From Camp Frances, to Camp Torres is around 24km, which we’d worked out to be 10 hours. Add on a lunch stop, exhaustion and some buffer time and that makes twelve hours. In reality, it only took seven. If you want to see the sunrise, Camp Torres is your only option. The morning walk, at first in the dark and then in the early sun, is beautiful. The path dips low by the lake and the cold air is refreshing. Take advantage of the energy from those oh so delicious oats (and if you’re feeling fancy, powdered milk) as well as the cool air to get a decent distance covered. From the lake, where smoke caresses the water, up the hills of small birds and yellowing bushes and round to the first checkpoint is relatively easy. Steep climbs are short and the ground is sturdy. Quick stop for lunch and you’re on your way up the valley. The valley is of course picturesque, in a true v shape of rock, forest and river. It’s all so pretty and all going so well, whats all the fuss about? Energy fades as you start to relax, you’re nearly there, right? Another hour passes and the heat is really beating down on you now. By this point, your corpse of a body is moving at the pace of an old donkey. Is that a tent? No, you’re dreaming. It’s suddenly scorching and the backpack is so heavy. Your shoulders are burning, blisters are multiplying, you’ve got a headache too. Then, finally, high up the mountain, you reach Camp Torres. This is your base for the night, and for the walk to the towers.
At seven thirty in the morning, you’re stood at the crest of the hill looking at the towers of Torres del Paine, dark pink on a starry indigo sky. It is a wonder that is heart stoppingly beautiful, so much so that I cried. The day before, like madmen, we did the final 45min, 0.75km hike to the top. You don’t need to do this but it means that at 5:15, when the alarm goes off, you know what you’re in for and in the pitch black, you know the route through the rock. Now, you can enjoy what you’ve struggled all this way for. Set yourselves up on a rock and get out your snacks, layering up for the wait. Watch as the sky lightens, and as the towers turn from pink to grey then glow red in the sun. It’s majestic and momentous, all the better knowing you’ve done so much to be there.
Getting It Together
The remoteness of Patagonia is what makes it beautiful, but also what makes is difficult. For the moment, there’s limited space on the W trek and slapdash bookings are expensive and complicated. Knowing we were going, we flew down from Santiago to Puntas Arenas for a bargain £36. From there we bussed to Puerto Natales, the base camp from the W trek (day trips are possible too, and the massive O or Q trails). You can hire everything from town, and the hostels are fully aware that you need the softest fluffiest beds and warm cosy rooms before & after you hit the great outdoors.
Erratic rock has a talk everyday at 3pm. Even if you know what you’re doing (we are clueless) it’s worth going. They’ll tell you the just of the national parks rules, entry fees and timings as well as give you tips on staying dry, what to pack and how to make the oh so coveted sunrise.
As I mentioned before, bookings can be a problem down here. Watch out for places like camp Cuernos, which’ll charge you £50-£75 for a nights food (I’ve heard it was pretty grim too). If you want to make the sunrise, you’ll need to be at Torres campground (the free one) the night before. While I’m on free campgrounds, they book up fast so try to do those asap too. If you don’t book, you’ll be bedding down with the pumas (or more importantly, the mice!).
In short, the earlier you book, the more background reading you do, the more prepared you’ll be and the trek will be so much smoother, so much less stressful than it could be.