Becky: “Who just decides to do the W trek?”
Mike: “We do, apparently.”
Let’s back this story up. It took us 5 days to hike and it might take 5 hours to read about it. Settle in.
What Are You Talking About?
All the way back in early January when we were looking into various Patagonian adventures we came across the famous W Trek in Torres del Paine national park in southern Chile. The trek is called the “W” because the path of the trek looks like the letter “w”.*
* There are two longer options called the O Circuit and the Q Circuit, but we don’t be talking much about those. They require between 10-13 days to complete and more stones than we have.
The photos and stories about the 4 night/5 day trek were spectacular and we were very intrigued…until we looked at the prices. Since we had never camped on our own we immediately ignored the cheapest option of carrying all of the food and (rented) gear needed to complete the trek and looked at the prices for guided tours and/or staying at refugios (basic housing with facilities…like a very basic woodsy hostel). Both were outside of our budget, so we decided to take a day tour of Torres del Paine by bus followed by a day hike to the summit to see the park’s namesake: 3 towers (torres).
Later in January we arrived in Puerto Natales, Chile and immediately went to Patagonia Adventures to book our bus tour for Sunday. There, we found out that Torres del Paine’s entry fee (18,000 pesos/roughly $36 each) is valid for up to three days as long as you get your ticket stamped, which would save us the trouble of paying the fee twice as we planned on returning for the day hike the day after our bus tour. We also bought our bus ticket to the park (15,000 pesos/roughly $30 each for a round trip fare) for Monday, when we planned on doing our hike.
Great, So How Did You Decide to Try the W?
When we got back to our hostel, we started chatting with other travelers, all of whom were either returning from their W, O, or Q Treks or about to leave for them. A few of the people we talked to had little or no camping experience, rented all of their gear, and were telling us either how much they enjoyed their experience or how nervous they were for how it would go. This intrigued us. A couple more experienced hikers told us that the W would be a great introductory multi-day camping trek because of how populated the trail is and how helpful all the rangers are. This intrigued us more – enough to decide that we would be attending the next afternoon’s daily 3 p.m. free explanatory talk at Erratic Rock Hostel/Bar/Gear Rental Company. All of this happened on a Friday, and we planned on attending the talk on Saturday.
By Saturday at noon, we had significantly warmed up to the idea thanks to to very helpful travelers from San Diego who had just returned from their trek. We should note at this point that of the 5 people we talked to seriously, only 1 had successfully completed the W. There is an option to cut off the last day and night and, for various reasons (cold, hurt, tired of camping, etc.), most of the people took this option. For reasons we are still unclear on, this didn’t dampen our enthusiasm.
By the time we went to the talk at 3 we had already made up a grocery list and a list of gear that we would need to rent from Erratic Rock. After the talk, we pulled the trigger and rented our gear: a tiny 2-person tent, sleeping bags, mats, gloves (it gets cold, windy and rainy), a cooking kit, and one set of hiking poles. Afterward, we ran around town buying all our food for our hike: pasta, canned tuna, eggs for hard boiling, trail mix, instant oatmeal, peanut butter and the like. More about our packing list can be found [here].
So You Cancelled the Bus Tour, Right?
Actually, no. By the time we made up our minds, it was too late. Lucky for us the tour took us to places that the W doesn’t visit, so we got to see some different scenery. The weather on the tour didn’t do much to encourage us, though. It was overcast, rainy, and incredibly windy. And beautiful. Torres del Paine really needs its own language because all of it is so beautiful that it becomes hard to differentiate. Lucky for us we had a camera handy:
When we returned to Puerto Natales we picked up all of our gear and got a quick tutorial from one of Erratic Rock’s extremely helpful staff on how to set up our tent. We even got to practice in the park across the street:
Having passed that test, all we had to do was pack up our gear and get ready for our bus at 7:30 a.m. to Torres del Paine.
Torres del Paine (TdP) Trek: Day 1 (11 km/4 hrs)
Our trek did not start well. We showed up for our hostel’s breakfast (one of the main reasons we chose this hostel was its reputedly good breakfast) when it was supposed to start, but nobody was there. Annoying, but no big deal. The big problem came when we discovered that the room containing our lockers was locked. We still had all of our electronics and some clothes that we were counting on locking in the hostel during our trek and had no way to lock them. Having no other choice, we waited. We waited until the time we were planning on leaving for our bus. Then we waited some more. About 2 minutes before we had to leave or risk missing our bus, the owner woke up. We threw all of our stuff in our lockers while Rip van Winkle scolded us for having two lockers despite the fact that we are pretty obviously two people (some kind of marriage penalty?). After he threatened to charge us for the second locker and Mike impolitely refused to pay for it, we raced out the door into a cold and rainy morning. To paraphrase Animal House, hungry, wet, and angry is no way to start a trek.
On the recommendation of several blogs, our friends at our hostel, and the Erratic Rock talk, we chose to head from west to east, so we had to take a ferry (12,000 pesos/roughly $24 each for a one-way ticket) to our starting point at Paine (meaning “blue” in the indigenous language) Grande. Once we landed, we put on our packs and headed for our first campsite at Refugio/Camping Grey.
The hike itself was just average by Patagonia’s high standards because of the foul weather and the clouds obscuring the mountains. Still, we got to see Glacier Grey and some other prettiness along the way:
The most noteworthy part of the first day’s hike was the first round of the epic fight between the muddy trail and our tennis shoes. We decided to use our shoes rather than rent hiking boots on the sage advice of two hardcore trekkers from Seattle. Our shoes won round 1, but the mud would eventually fight back. When we got to Camping Grey (4,000 pesos/roughly $8 per person) we found a sheltered spot under a tree away from the wind-swept flat area and set up our sad little tent.
After cooking dinner, we settled down for bed while the sun was still very much still up. Thanks extremely long days at 51 degrees south latitude! We also tucked in our good luck charm and the third member of our hiking team: a Chilean good luck pig (called a chanchito or, to us, Piggy). Here he is staying warm:
TdP Trek: Day 2 (18km/6.5 hrs)
There is a significant amount of backtracking involved with the W Trek as we found out right away on Day 2 when we did the same 11 km/4 hour hike we did yesterday. We didn’t complain, though, because the weather was outstanding: sunny and much warmer. We got to see a lot of what we had missed the previous day due to the cloudiness.
When our rerun was over, we turned toward our next destination: Campamento Italiano (free!).
The hike to Italiano was beautiful and gave us our first taste of the mountains we would be looking at for the next two days.
We also hit some serious mud on our hike. It definitely won round 2, which didn’t make Anna terribly happy.
The last couple hours of the hike weren’t so rosy, either. We had our first two injuries of the hike. Mike took a header into a bush (more funny than painful) and Anna’s ankle bent unpleasantly (not funny at all). Thanks to Mike’s chronically awful ankles, we came prepared with an industrial-strength ankle brace! We also encountered some sad walks through burned-out woods. The park has been victimized by several negligent tourists who started destructive fires that have damaged the park severely.
That night we chatted with a very friendly park ranger named Luis who brought us hot chocolate and practiced his English while we practiced our Spanish. Then we set up for dinner: a fine meal of pasta with tuna!
While getting to sleep we heard what we thought was thunder and figured we were in for a nighttime storm. As it turns out we were hearing the sound of parts of a mountain glacier breaking off and crashing down the mountain.
TdP Trek: Day 3 (17 km/7 hrs)
We were wrong about the thunder but sadly right about the rain. It rained all night, leaving us with a muddy tent, wet sleeping bags, and foul moods.
Breakfast and coffee perked us up a bit, but we were fully revived by the sun and cloudless sky. If there was one day when we wanted good weather, this was it. We packed a lunch and little else in a day pack, left our big packs in our tent and set out for the French Valley.
On our way we ran into Becky who we had met a few days earlier at Erratic Rock’s bar, Base Camp, and who we hiked with all day. As of this writing she is still in the park attempting to be the first solo female hiker to complete the full Q Trek (according to a guide). It was also during this hike that we had the exchange this post began with. The hike itself was moderately tough but much more comfortable without our heavy packs. It was also one of the most beautiful hikes imaginable.
After returning to camp we packed up our muddy tent and hiked about 2.5 hours to our next campsite: Los Cuernos (6,000 pesos/roughly $12 each). Our dogs were barking during this stretch and Anna’s ankle was throbbing. Once there we set up camp on a platform and headed to the cooking and shower area where we took full advantage of the hot showers. We also ate with Becky and two more friends we made on the trail, Sasha and Mikey.
That night we talked about whether we were going to push through or hike out of the park. On Day 4 you have about 2.5 hours of hiking before you reach a pass where you can either head north toward the towers (torres) that give the park its name or out to the bus pickup. Both of us were tired, Anna was hobbled, and we were frustrated by our still wet gear so we seriously considered hiking out. In the end, though, we decided to push through.
TdP Trek: Day 4 (21 km/5.5 hrs)
We raced through this hike. No idea what possessed us, but something did. There wasn’t much in the way of new or beautiful scenery so we just put our heads down and walked. When we got to Camping Las Torres (free!) we were rewarded with plenty of time to rest, play cards, and review our map.
Dinner was kind of a bust as we ran out of gas and had to eat half-cooked rice. Not pleasant. We tucked in early because Day 5 begins with a 4:30 a.m. hike up to Mirador Las Torres to watch the sun rise. We made plans to meet Becky, Sasha, and Mikey the following morning and went to bed at about 8:30.
TdP Trek: Day 5 (10.5 km/4.5 hrs)
4 a.m. came very early, especially when you don’t sleep much because it is so effing cold (it felt well below freezing). We scrambled to our meeting point just a little after 4:30 and caravaned up to the mirador through intermittent snow flurries. The morning’s hike was pretty tough, especially since Mike didn’t have a headlamp. Thank goodness we made friends – there is no way this hike (rock scramble and uneven terrain) would have been possible without their helpful headlamps. We lucked out again with the weather: cold but clear. We heard that most people don’t get to see all three towers, but as you can see, we sure could:
We spent as much time as we could tolerate at the mirador before the gale-force freezing wind forced us to retreat. Once back in camp we took down our sad little tent for the last time and hiked the mostly downhill end of our trek very slowly. At about 11 we reached Hotel Torres where we waited for our 2 p.m. bus (2500 pesos/roughly $5 each for a one-way fare) and toasted the finish line!
We could not have hoped for a better experience. The W Trek was challenging (67 km total), adventurous, and beautiful. We got spectacularly lucky with the weather. Most importantly, we managed to enjoy the experience and each other despite being nowhere near our comfort zone for most of a week. Less than a week after deciding to do the W we went back to the bar where we made our decision with our chests puffed out a bit for our celebratory pizza and beer.