Hiking The ‘W’!
After visiting Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina, our next stop was Torres Del Paine National Park when we crossed the border into Chile.
The famous ‘W’, a 4 day/ 3 night trek through part of the National Park, is named so as the route on the map takes the shape of the letter ‘W’. The main attraction is the Paine massif, a mountain system independent of the Andes mountain range in Patagonia. In the highest part it is made up of sedimentary rock, with granite at the base. For over 12 million years it has been molded by glaciers and completely dominates the landscape.
Hiking from west to east, the final section of the ‘W’ is the greatest spectacle, reaching the base of Torres Del Paine (Towers of Paine). Determined hikers make the final ascent in time for sunrise, as if on a pilgrimage. They are rewarded with a magnificent view of the peaks as they are lit up one by one and change colour as the sun intensifies. What adds to the beauty of the scene is their wonderful reflections in the Laguna Torres below. It’s considered a world class hike and has been on Wayne’s bucket list for some time.
So despite the unpredictable weather of Patagonia, with our boots, backpacks, sleeping gear and food supplies, not forgetting cameras, we set off to complete the 70km trek, and of course make our own sunrise pilgrimage to the base of the famous Torres. Along the way, there are many other attractions including azure lakes, trails that meander through lush forests, roaring rivers that you have to cross on rickety bridges and a big radiant blue glacier. We got to see all this and more. Read on to see a selection of photographs from the trek and find out how we fared on our longest multi-day hike to date.
Day 1 – Paine Grande to Glacier Grey
After entering the National Park (fee 18,000 Chilean pesos each) and camping the previous night with the truck at ‘Area de Acampar Lago Pehoe’, on Day 1 we set off at 9.00am heading for the catamaran to take us across Lago Pehoe to the start of the trail.
The ferry left promptly at 9.30am and cost 12,000 Chilean pesos each for one way. After a 30 minute journey across the lake we arrived at Paine Grande Refugio & Campsite where we had pre-booked a tent pitch for 4,800 Chilean pesos per person. As the first day’s hike alongside Lago Grey to the glacier was a return journey, we set up our tent ready for when we got back, and set off…
The first day’s walk was a 22km round trip that took approximately 7 hours. Walking alongside Lago Grey we had beautiful views of the lake, and going beyond Refugio Grey where we stopped for a hot drink, there is a great viewpoint overlooking the right-hand side of Glacier Grey.
Heading back the same route, we returned to the campsite around 6pm where we made full use of the enclosed cook shelter to warm up and prepare dinner out of the incessant wind. Our first night’s specialty was beef flavoured Raman noodles. We drained the stock from the noodles and had this as a starter, perfect as beef soup! Then we added a chilli & tomato sauce to the noodles to spice them up a bit. Perfect for warming us through! A quick pot wash, then with our bellies full we headed for the comfort of our sleeping bags.
It was a really windy night in the tent as the Paine Grande campsite is very exposed, but we managed to get a little sleep before waking at 7am ready for Day 2.
Day 2 – Paine Grande to Valle del Frances
After a hearty bowl of good old-fashioned ‘Ready Brek’ to start our second day of hiking, we got prepared with our thermal layers and waterproofs and set off. The first section involved a 7.6km/ 2 & a half hour trudge up the valley in wind and rain from Paine Grande to Campamento Italiano, a free campsite for overnight hikers. We reached the camp by midday where we set up the tent, dried out a bit and stopped for lunch.
We then set off to complete the middle section of the ‘W’ heading a further 7.5km scrambling over boulder fields and hiking mostly uphill to Valle del Frances, where near the top there is a clearing of trees for panoramic views of the snow capped mountains all around. Going up and returning back down to the camp took a further 6 hours.
Returning back to Campamento Italiano, we found it busy with hikers wanting to get in the cook shelter to prepare dinner. You never quite know what to expect when a campsite is free so we were pleased that it had pit toilets and a nearby stream where we could access drinking water. Our menu for that evening was bread rolls with cream cheese and spinach soup, followed by hot chocolates. Apart from the bread rolls, to keep it light-weight and so that it would last, our selection of hiking food was basically packet stuff that you added hot water to. Needless to say, we could still eat a horse and went to sleep that night dreaming of the next parilla we would devour back in town.
Day 3 – Campamento Italiano to Campamento Torres
Day 3 was the day we were dreading as it was the longest of all 4 days, approximately 25km one way as we wanted to push on to reach Campamento Torres, the closest campsite to the Torres viewpoint. We thought reaching that particular campsite would make it a little easier for the final ascent planned for the following morning. Another plus point about the Torres campsite is that it is another free camp for overnight hikers.
Day 3 was absolutely glorious. We couldn’t have wished for better weather. The sun was shining, and bathed everything in wonderful colour. The walk was less strenuous allowing us more time to appreciate the stunning views of Lago Nordernskjold. It was like walking along a beach with turquoise waves gently lapping at the shore; the water was still icy cold however and no chance for swimming.
As we neared the end of the lake we strolled through grassy meadows and saw bushes bursting with red coloured flowers, not to mention the mountains peeking out from the clouds behind us. A giant rocky outcrop was the perfect place to stop and have lunch to take in the panoramic views.
This segment of the trail for us was actually the most memorable and despite not having a shower for 3 days, Day 3 was our favourite day of the trek!
After a pit-stop at Campamento Chileno for a couple of energy providing ‘Snicker’ bars, we continued on the trail along the river, finally reaching Campamento Torres by 6pm. Whilst here, we caught up with some others from the Odyssey group, who like us, were hiking the ‘W’ and hoping to get to the Torres viewpoint for sunrise.
It was a race to pitch the tent, cook and eat dinner (chicken soup tonight), get washed up, and get some sleep as the alarm was set for our 3.30am wake-up call.
Day 4 – Campamento Torres to Base de las Torres
We set off at 4am with our head torches lit for a further 45 minute trek from Campamento Torres to the Base de las Torres viewpoint. It was a steep ascent and proved a little difficult in the dark zig-zagging uphill and scrambling over boulders, but we continued on to reach the viewpoint before sunrise, hoping for as good weather as the previous day and the opportunity to capture some epic photographs.
The guidebooks say that making the pilgrimage for sunrise allows you to beat the crowds as most people head up there between 8am and 4pm. However all of the 50 people or so who were also pitched at Campamento Torres had obviously read the same thing, so it was to be an ‘en masse’ sunrise gathering. As the sun finally rose over the valley, striking each mountain in turn with it’s golden rays, the mountains themselves changed colour moving through a spectrum of intense golds, oranges and reds. All of this witnessed by groups of expectant hikers, sat nestled amongst the boulders, watching in silence and complete awe, rewarded perfectly for their efforts in reaching the viewpoint. And this included us.
Reuniting With Ithaca & Returning To Camp
After nearly a couple of hours at the viewpoint photographing the Torres in all their glory, both in the sunlight and the beautiful reflections in the lake below, we headed back down to Campamento Torres to enjoy a well earned breakfast and pack up the tent. From there we joined some fellow members of the Odyssey group to walk back down the trail.
It was around a 2 hour walk back to base camp with the truck, descending most of the way. We had a rejuvenated spring in our step, with thoughts of a shower, a beer (or two) and a hearty meal waiting for us back at the proper campsite.
We were all smiles as we had achieved our first multi-day hike from our bucket list, and despite the cold and the wind, (and the blisters after walking 70km), we felt great!