The W Trek (well, almost…)
The Torres del Paine national park is one of the most well known parks in Patagonia. Situated close to the southern tip of Chile, on the edge of the Andes, it is a beautiful place with stunning granite peaks, lakes, glaciers and unpredictable extreme weather. There are two main trekking routes here, the Circuit which is approximately a nine day loop around the Cordillera del Paine and then there is the more popular W trek, a four or five day trail in the shape of a W. The W trail can be done as a camping trek or it is possible to stay in refugios the whole way while the Circuit, at least while off the W route, is camping only. Access to the treks is via Puerto Natales which is easily accessible by air via Punta Arenas, bus from El Calafate and Ushuaia in Argentina or Ferry from Puerto Williams or Puerto Montt.
My original intention was to trek the full circuit but given I was in the shoulder season (March 2014) and the weather was particularly average I decided to only do a four day trek of the W.
Day 1 – Puerto Natales to Paine Grande and Refugio Grey
The trip out to the Torres del Paine nations park started with a 7:30am two hour bus ride from the main bus terminal on Puerto Natales. The first stop is the ranger station at Laguna Amarga to pay the park fee, get the park map and agree to the rules of the park. You can then either begin the W trail there (this is also the place most people begin the Circuit) or jump back on the bus and continue on. The next stop is Cafeteria Pudeto where a catamaran powers across Lago Pehoe to Refugio y Campamento Paine Grande which is another popular starting point for the W trail and is where we started.
It is a half hour boat ride across the lake which gets you to Paine Grande at around 12:30pm. Given we were looking to complete the trail in four days we had a bit of a tight schedule today so we quickly set up camp, partially sheltered from the strong winds at the base of a small hill, and then headed off to Refugio Grey. The weather was a bit patchy but at times we saw the sun and some blue skies, the wind however was relentless and incredibly strong, at times the gust were enough to push you over if you didn’t have solid footing.
The trail climbed steadily from Paine Grande through a valley and up to Lago Grey. From there it is was up and down for a while until the first mirador from which you can see Glacier Grey. At this point the wind was insane, you could lean into the wind and it was strong enough to hold you up and keep you from falling down. After the mirador it was a steady decent with some ups and downs for about an hour all the way to Refugio y Campamento Grey. We pushed on another 15mins to the next mirador which gives you a nice frontal view of the glacier. About another hour on you can climb to a lookout above the glacier but we didn’t have enough time to make it.
On the way back the weather was clearing but the wind was still constant and although it was now behind us the strong gusts often pushed us forward and it was easy to lose your footing on the loose rocks. We pushed back to camp pretty hard and made the return journey in about five hours. Despite the poor weather it was a nice walk with views of the glacier, snow capped mountains, lakes and icebergs.
That evening the wind picked up to about 90km/h and was constantly battering the tent. At times we weren’t sure if the tent would hold but after a couple of hours the tent was still firmly in place so I finally managed to drift off to sleep. In the morning we awoke and the tent was still in tact however a packet of chocolate biscuits that I had bought from the Refugio and left sitting on top of my back in the front section of the tent had been completely eaten, every last crumb, by mice. Fortunately the mice didn’t chew through my tent like they did to the couple in the next tent over.
Day Two – Paine Grande to Cuernos
After a crazy night in the tent with little sleep we were on our way by about 9am. The wind had died down but the clouds had set in and so to had the rain. Our first stop would be Campamento Italiano, it was an easy hike there, almost totally flat, we just had to put up with the wind and the endless drizzle. The trail essentially went around the lake although only sometimes did we cross close to, or on the shore.
After about two hours of walking we arrived at Italiano very wet and cold. From here the intention was to head up the middle of the W, the French valley, however the clouds were set in low and we heard that the rivers were rising and were difficult to cross and that the ranger would be closing the trail in a couple of hours so we weren’t able to complete that section. We stopped for some lunch and then pushed on towards Refugio y Campamento Cuernos.
It took anther two hours to reach Curenos along another fairly flat trail. This section was now quite muddy and boggy given the rain and the creeks had begun to swell so crossing them left us with very wet boots. The final crossing was however the worst and it took us about 15 mins of walking up and down the bank to find a safe place to cross. At the point we choose to cross we had to throw our bags across and then jump from a boulder across to the other side. This was all a bit of fun and despite being totally soaked and cold we ended the day of walking on a bit of a high.
After we set up the camp were were able to rest inside the warm refugio and dry out our boots and wet clothes in front of the furnace. Our sleep was much better than the night before and although we could hear the strong winds howling above, the tent was only occasionally hit by gusts of wind. A Dutch group weren’t so lucky and their camping spot was not protected from the wind and they spent the night holding their tent in place and ended up with three bent tent poles.
Day 3 – Cuernos to Campamento Torres
We awoke in the morning to a clear sky with the local peaks clearly visible above the refugio. The weather was a welcome change from the previous day and after some breakfast we were on our way again by about 9am.
It was a fairly flat trail that continued to follow the lake until the turnoff to Refugio Chileano where the trail headed up the valley and the main ascent started. The trail then climbed almost all the way to Chileano before it flattened out again. The views across the lake and then up and down the valley on the ascent up were great and the weather continued to be sunny and clear with little wind.
After Refugio y Campamento Chileano (which had already closed for the season) the trail was fairly flat for around 15 minutes and then headed up for about 30 minutes to Campamento Torres. We stopped in at Campamento Torres to drop our bags off as this is where we would camp for the night. After a short break we continued the climb up to the mirador.
This final section of the trail, from Campamento Torres all the way to Mirador Base del los Torres, is the steppest part of the entire W trail that we completed. It is pretty much straight up and largely through open rocky terrain. This section did get a quite windy in parts but it also offered great views.
It was about a 30 – 45 minute hike to the mirador from which you are treated to a stunning view across the lake and the Torres needles. We were fortunate with the weather and the granite spires were mostly clear, there were clouds behind and at some points a light cloud would float through but the view was fantastic. While at the top we also got a very light sprinkle of snow. After taking in the view for some time we headed back down to set up camp and cook dinner. The intention was to return for sunrise the next morning which is suppose to be unmissable.
Day 4 – Torres to Puerto Natales
We woke just before 7am to get ready to head up for the sunrise. The sky looked clear and I could see stars still out so it was a good sign. We got into our trekking gear and packed some breakfast and warm clothes into our backpacks and headed up the trail. It took thirty minutes to get to the top and there were no clouds insight. We found a nice sheltered spot behind some rocks and waited patiently for the first rays of sun to hit the top of the peaks. We waited for this to happen for some time but those orange, yellow and golden rays that we had been promised never came… Although our view of the sky was clear to the west, in the east there were clouds blocking the direct sunlight so although we had a beautiful blue sky behind the mountains we didn’t get the sunrise we had hoped for. Despite this the view was fantastic and even better than the day before, we stayed up the top for breakfast and ended up spending two and half hours taking in the surrounds.
After taking countless photos we headed back down to camp, packed up and headed out. It was then an easy hike, mostly down, all the way to Hotel Las Torres which took us about two hours. It was then an easy connection from there on a mini bus back to ranger station at Laguna Amarga where we shared a celebratory beer with the some friends we had made along the way. It was then back onto the bus at 2:30pm for the ride back to Puerto Natales.
That evening the four of us met again at Pizzeria Mesita Grande for delicious pizza and beer. The next day I would then travel by the Navimag ferry to Puerto Montt.