Torres Del Paine, The W Trek:
Whilst I was in South America towards the end of last year, I met a wide variety of people who were in the region for various different reasons. Some for partying, some for the sheer challenge of it, and a new breed of backpacker who I’d never come across before – trekkers. Initially I was not one of these outdoorsy type people, I was up for a challenge but realised very quickly that I was not equipped for one, hence much to everyone’s entertainment turning up to climb a 3,200m tall volcano in Guatemala with converse low-tops and skinny jeans. As the trip went on, I got more gear, got physically fitter, and more of an appetite for the outdoors. When it was time for me to leave in December, my biggest regret was not having the time to go an explore Patagonia properly, and in particular the fascinating Torres Del Paine National Park. This year however, I was much more prepared and the famed ‘W’ trek was one of my main reasons for visiting South America at all. Here are a few words on how it all went, and some tips for good measure.
Laguna Amarga to Lago Grey, plus suspension bridges (21km approx)
Difficulty level – 6/10
Camping cost: 6,000 Pesos
A beautiful walk to kick off the W Trek. First of all the Catamaran ride across the lake to Paine Grande is breathtaking. The water is bright turquoise, and as you advance across the water snow capped mountains appear to emerge from behind the boat. From Paine Grande, and after a few bag adjustments if you’re a rubbish prepper like me, there is a short hike uphill to a couple of lookout points across the first part of Lago Grey until you reach the Mirador itself – where you get your first glimpse of the Grey Glacier. From there, you walk around another 2 hours mostly downhill through some quite steep banks of rocks and dirt, and onto the refugio. The temptation is to stop and chill after your first double digit walk, but a mere 5km away is a big old creaking suspension bridge which sits at around 300 metres above the ground, with fantastic views out across the Glacier from up high. Camping at the foot of a mountain certainly feels pretty good, even if a bit exposed to the elements. One of the colder nights we had in the park.
Lago Grey to Camping Italiano (17km approx)
Difficulty level – 6/10
Camping cost: FREE
An early (ish) start, depending on whether you’d decided to include wine or not in your pack, which we obviously did. We set off around 10am to head back on ourselves, through a downhill path we covered the day before which was now a steep uphill scramble in places. The walk takes you back along the coast which hugs the edges of Lago Grey, via some pretty windy and precarious cliff edges on the way. Walking back on yourself can be a little soul destroying, especially with a 15kg backpack, so it was very much a case of heads down and push on. Thankfully, once you get back to Paine Grande, the scenery and gentle rolling landscape makes the next leg of the journey much more enjoyable. As you approach the campsite and the area towards the hanging Glacier, it’s almost like you’re entering a different section of the park. With a small increase in incline, the air gets a bit thinner and the temperature a little colder. Eventually you reach a gushing river of icy cold water, which is being fed straight from the snow covered mountain-top. The 2nd one you pass and bridge you cross, leads you right into Campamento Italiano. Facilities there are basic, and the long drop toilets a bit questionable (think Glastonbury on day 5) but the site itself is located in a dense hillside forest and has a certain charm.
Camping Italiano to Refugio Los Cuernos, plus Lago Britannico (20km approx)
Difficulty level – 7/10
Camping cost: 7,500 Pesos
Things got a little bit out of hand for us on night no.2. Remember that wine I said we had? A litre each to be precise. Well, note the word ‘had’ in that last sentence. We collectively decided it would be a great idea to drink it all that night to lighten our load a little, that and the rum we’d also packed. A fun night, but made for my first experience of trekking with a hangover, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. Before we made our way to the next campsite, and to ensure we did the full ‘W’ trail, we set off to the Lago Britannico look out point and towards the hanging glacier. Most of this was uphill across a rocky hill which straddles the fast flowing river. To say I was struggling would be an understatement. The first lookout point brings you face to face with the Glacier which hangs off the side of the mountain, and you can see mini avalanches happening on a regular basis. A further 4km through a forested area and you reach a mostly upwards climb to a 2nd lookout point, a stunning 360 degree vista surrounded by mountain ranges and looking out into the valley below. After a lunch break we set off again back to camp, to collect our packs and head down to the next Refugio – Los Cuernos. The walk there is pretty easy going and coastal, passing various beaches and coves along the way. Once you arrive, you are greeted by small hoards of tourists drinking cocktails on the veranda. If you’re lucky enough to find a space in the small, rock strewn campsite then you can make use of the Refugio facilities: which include a bar, showers and a hot tub which is nestled right at the top of the site.
Refugio Los Cuernos to Los Torres Camping (21km approx)
Difficulty level – 7/10
Camping cost: FREE
The bar was a temptation too much for us, cue more Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, plus a few visits to the Hot Tub. Day 4’s walk was a bit of a beast too, 11km to kick off followed by a lengthy and mostly uphill walk to Las Torres campsite, just a mere 45 minutes away from the 3 towers themselves and the only place to stay if you want to guarantee being there for sunrise. The path starts off with some tough uphill drags, but is quickly followed up with some beautiful coastal cliff edges, and then into expansive fields that look very much like you’ve just been transported to the Scottish highlands. Some of these rapid changes in scenery and terrain are what makes the TDP National Park so unique. After an extended and particularly scenic lunch break , we powered on in an upwards direction through a section which felt like a series of English green lanes on a steep slope. These windy flower lined inclines, which seemed to go on forever given how shattered we all were already, eventually led us to a stony cliff face overlooking a vast gauge down below us in the valley. From this point it was mainly plain sailing through to Chileano, the next Refugio on the route and a much needed respite from some strenuous uphill hiking. This wasn’t the end however, and as tempting as this place was to set up shop our campsite for the evening was at the foot of the famous torres, another 4km away from there. Once there we cooked up whatever food we had left in our packs and got an early night, in preparation for a 3.30am start in order to catch the famous TDP sunrise.
Los Torres Camping to Hotel Las Torres, plus Torres Del Paine (14km approx)
Difficulty level – 6/10
Layers on, head torch attached, and sleeping bag in tow, it was time for the 45 minute hike up to the top of the Torres Del Paine viewpoint to see the towers in all their glory and before all of the day trippers catch up. A mostly upward clamber in the dark to the base was – for someone as unfit as me – pretty tough, but I knew it’d all be worth it in the end. The final stretch was more of a rock climb than a case of following a well set out path. Infact one guy in front of us decided to just go straight up and over rather than around, not an option I fancied too much. Safe to say, all that went before was utterly worth it when you got to the top. Watching the tips of the three towers slowly yet suddenly glow a brilliant red hue as the sunrise starts to come over from behind the mountain tops we’d since left behind was a surreal experience. The reflective lake that sits below creates something of an optical illusion too, adding an almost dimension defying depth to the whole place. It’s a sight that has to be seen to be believed, and not one my words can really do justice. We left around 1hr 30mins later and set off to pack up camp and head to Las Torres Hotel for our pickup to go back to Puerto Natales.
Day 1 – Through to Lago Grey…
On day 1, you walk from the Catamaran drop off point at Paine Grande all the way through to Lago Grey, to camp at the refugio there. Depending on what time you arrive in the park, try and actually camp at Paine Grande campsite rather than Refugio Grey. This will save you coming back on yourself a full 11km with all of your camping gear the following day. Instead, take a daypack with you and walk to the Glacier and suspension bridges on Day 1 and come back that evening.
I won’t write out a packing list as such because each to their own and all that, but the trek is not a walk in the park (irony claxon). Pack as lightly as possible, with just the essentials such as warm/waterproof clothes, sleeping bag, tent, food, and cooking equipment. Anything aside from this is merely a luxury. Such as litres of wine, for example…
Food, glorious food
There were 7 of us altogether doing the trek , so meal time became quite a hectic experience on most days. The two staples which saw us through were pasta and lentils – good, filling food that isn’t too heavy. Cup a soups are also a god send, as they can fill out any kind of sauce and add some serious flavour to most dishes. If you want fruit and veg, avocados and onions seem to last a surprisingly long time in packs and take up little room, sachets of tomato pasta sauce do this trick too. To add some easy fibre to meals look no further than seeds, you can add a selection of these to most ‘one pot’ dinners. Also Tuna, a great meal or snack at any time of day, even for Breakfast if you like.
Breakfast of Champions
No, not wine. Buy some large bags of cereal, plus lots of milk powder. Before you set off distribute both these ingredients these out into small sealable bags, one for each morning you’ll be out there. Then simply add water, and your breakfast is ready to go.
Most of the streams and rivers around the park are fed directly from the glaciers and mountains above, so make sure you take a refillable bottle and just fill up wherever you see running water. Try and avoid the lakes though perhaps.
Fancy an Irish Coffee in the morning whilst watching sunrise over the towers? Get yourself a thermos flask and brew up at the camp before heading up. You’re welcome.