24 de Mayo
[train from Tigre, Buenos Aires]
The ‘W’ Trek, Torres Del Paine
[the ‘W’ is a popular trekking route in Patagonia that follows the lines of a W. One can start east to west, west to east and it’s less challenging than the full circuit ‘O’ trek which takes around 10 days. One can complete the ‘W’ trek in around 5 days. The best part is one does not have to carry all their belongings into each point of the ‘W’ but rather leave them behind at a campsite at the bottom. Depending on how far you climb into each of the points, the trek is between 75 to 90 kilometers/47 to 56 miles in total.]
Ryan and I figured out we averaged about 18km/11mi a day.
[Tuesday, May 5th ]
Day 1: Waking before dawn, Ryan and I excitedly scrambled our last few things together and headed downstairs for one last filling breakfast. Stuffing our faces we chatted with the Yonnes [yawn-a’s] about our plan for the next five days. The Yonnes, a German guy named Yon happened to meet a French guy named Yonnes, chose to tackle the ‘W’ trek together and also decided to start the same day as us. [Sorry if I butchered the spelling of your names, but couldn’t bear to leave you out of our adventure!]
Because autumn had begun, the high season over, not many backpackers were keen to hike Torres Del Paine. Most restaurants, hostels, hotels, and more close up in the cold season given the lack of business. This of course includes tour operators and bus companies leaving only one expensive option. The night before we discovered our hostel owner had offered to drive the Yonnes to the starting point at a cheaper rate. We thought it was best to tag along. By 7:30am we were off. The drive took around two hours and it was awe-inspiring. Once the sun rose [around 9am] we were entering the National Park. Guanacos [Patagonia’s wild alpacas] galloped across the roads as the sun lit up the famous mountain peaks in a fiery red. We jumped out at a lake viewpoint to snap a few photos, even our driver pulled out his camera phone. The moon still high in the sky hanging above the Towers [Las Torres/Towers, in which the park is named after, are three jagged rocky peaks at 2800m tall] and the rush of what lies ahead kicked in. All four of us had chose to complete the ‘W’ trek backwards [as Ryan and I always do every trek] from west to east because of the unpredictable weather. Knowing this first day would be clear and sunny we would easily be able to view the towers close up. On cloudy days they are impossible to see. He drove us in, we paid the entrance fee and we were handed a map and a quick rundown of what refugios [rustic shelters which offered overpriced food and drinks, dormitories/private rooms, camping sites, and information] would still be open. In these cold winter months most campgrounds and refugios shut down, which means free camping for us, but no chance of hot showers, running water, and toilets.
Graciously our driver dropped us off at the first campground saving us a 90min walk on a gravel road. The Yonnes decided to hike up and set up camp a third of the way into the first line of the ‘W,’ but Ryan and I stayed put. Las Torres campgrounds stretched out for a few kilometers and it was empty minus two tents. We set up camp and downed the rest of our instant coffee and set off for our first hike. People informed us this leg’s terrain is the toughest, yet the end reward made it all worthwhile. With the sun on our back and the autumn colors engulfing the valley, we happily trudged on taking in the impressive views. We filled our water bottles up from the stream and we couldn’t believe our eyes. The water was blue. We drank it and we couldn’t believe how absolutely delicious it tasted. Glacier water. Freezing and fresh unlike any H20 we’ve tasted. And for the rest of the trek it would be the same. Always somewhere nearby to fill up on free, untainted aqua from wonderful Mother Earth. Farther ahead we became thankful for selecting our home for the night. The path quickly turned into an icy climb with frosted mud everywhere. After an hour or so in we caught up with Yonnes who had to move quite slow given the conditions. Climbing higher and higher the trees displayed the always favorite fall trends. Golden yellows, fire-bright oranges, and scarlet reds shone across the valley making us thankful for mother nature.
We walked on and after three hours we neared the top. This part of the path gets tricky. The well marked walkway weaves around a half-frozen river causing us to duck under trees, through brush, and allows for many slips. Once we cleared this stint, it turns into a steep climb on loose gravel [my least favorite terrain] then it winds through large boulders in an odd way. The markers continued to send us in opposite directions of the towers and after thirty minutes we finally arrived at the viewpoint. A small emerald-colored lake sits below the Torres del Paine and I immediately imagined a lochness monster or mermaid to live here. We had the granite pillars to ourselves and sat on a large boulder near the water and breathed in our first accomplishment of the trek. The most popular time to visit this spot is at dawn when the sun splays reds and pinks that make the towers glow like fire. We would not get to see this but still enjoyed the view and loved listening to the glaciers crackle near by. On the way down we passed the Yonnes and made plans to see them the following night. We raced back down praying to beat the sun with dinner on our minds.
Just in time for a sunset cup of tea we then crawled in the tent and cooked soup followed by pineapple rice. After a few swigs of Jim Bean we climbed into bed hoping for a good night’s sleep. Sometime near 1am we both woke up to a glowing light from outside. We unzipped the door and as bright as the sun, the luminous moon staring at us at a crazy low height in the sky. It was the brightest yellow moon, I’ve ever seen and I wish the picture below could do it justice. Shockingly stunning.
Back to bed for an unfortunate sleep. Every hour I’d wake from a dead arm or a cold breeze and at some point I noticed the sky lighting up. I was terribly cold and cursing the shit summer tent we rented when Ryan got up to start tea. He unzipped the fly and said, “Holy fuck.” I slowly peaked my head out and saw why. Jack Frost graced us with his presence and to make it worse we had left our hiking boots under the fly rather than zipped inside the tent. [Later we learned the temperature sank to -7C/20F that evening]
We slowly packed up and after shoveling down some oatmeal, day two began. I whimpered and whined like a four year old as my frozen boots numbed my toes and prayed for the exercise to warm me up. This day was somewhat uneventful. We had a 6-7 hour trek to our next campsite and we carried all our belongings. Unfortunately clouds hovered low most of the day, yet every once in a while they would part revealing epic mountain peaks.
We stopped for a late lunch at Refugio Cuernos that was surprisingly was open [we were told everything on this side of the park was closed]. For 5,000/per person we could set up our tent and access hot water; we chose to move on. Our goal was to spend next to nothing on the five days which would be easy since we barely had 10,000 pesos between us. Passing a couple we learned rats [for some reason travelers kept saying rats rather than mice] scurried around Campamento Italia and recommended hanging our food in the trees. A few kilometers before our destination we stumbled upon Campamento Frances. Confused because it was not on the map, we snuck around deciding if it’d be a better choice than the “rat” infested grounds. After seeing new trees ripped out of the ground and a few construction spots, we realized it was a work-in progress refugio and we chose to take advantage of the newly built wooden platforms for campers. We set up and I stretched out my sore limbs on the platform across as we cooked up some tomato rice soup. That night we ended up finishing the bottle of bourbon and dozed off quickly.
[Earl Grey enjoying his dinner]
At some point we awoke to sounds of thunder. I prayed with all my heart for no rain. Not a chance this tent would stay dry, but thankfully it never came. As the night inched into the morning, it became increasingly colder. Just before dawn I began crying out of frustration. I had barely slept, my entire body shook as I twisted and turned on the uncomfortable wood. Sometime around sunrise we discovered not frost, but this morning mother nature blanketed the forest floor with a white winterland. After another slow attempt to get out of my sleeping bag and after loads of complaining we headed off to el Valle de Francés. Ryan happy as a clam [why are clams happy?] strode through the snow giddy with joy. Once I shut up and joined him, I realized how foolish I sounded. This was one of those “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” situations. OPEN YOUR EYES. BE PRESENT. Ryan had dropped his iPhone in the freezing river while washing our pot that morning and didn’t realize for 10 minutes and went back to the spot and it sat barely functioning. He didn’t mind [in the end after a day in uncooked rice it came back to life]. And then I remembered how fortunate we were to see such a serene sight. The perfect white snow, the silent forest, and I couldn’t help but smile as I heard the snow crunch under my feet sending my mind to Chicago winters.
We arrived at Camp Italia, dropped our packs under shelter and began our ascend into the middle ‘l’ of the ‘W’. A favorite for most, this valley is full of rivers, enormous mountain peaks with glaciers below, and a dense woodland crawling with old man’s beard moss and green parrot-like birds. Because of the frigid temperatures the night before, the first 20 minutes consisted of a slippery ice climb through rocks and rivers, yet the more we climbed the more breathtaking views exposed themselves. The forest glittered from the snowfall and we fell in love with it all. To our left the mountain roared sending small avalanches tumbling down the glacier and it was then we realized it wasn’t thunder we heard the night before, but the glacier moving causing this grand sound. About two hours in we got lost in the clouds. Not literally but the mountains had disappeared and we could only hear the glacier crackling away. In a large open patch we decided to have a little fun with the iPhone’s panorama feature [see below].
We climbed to the farthest point before hitting the closed portion the trail and soon on a Lion King sized rock to share our second accomplishment with a few others. Sadly the photo below is the best view we had because of the clouds, but it didn’t matter. Two hours later we were back at the camp, and sped off for our next home.
Open fires are extremely illegal in this vast park and on this part of the walk we saw why. In 2011 an Israeli guy started a fire and the famous strong Patagonian winds quickly lit up the surrounding forest destroying over 40,000 acres of old woodlands, animals, and burned several park structures. The badly burnt dead trees were a pity to see and unfortunately this guy got off with a fine and a ban from the country. Needless to say the locals in this region aren’t too fond with his home country. [for some reason I can’t find a photo of the sadness, but here’s one from the interweb that shows the damage]
After two more hours of walking just around dusk, we reached Lago Pehoé where Mountain Lodge Paine Grande welcomed us with warmth and smiles. This refugio stayed open all year long regardless how few visitors frequented it. In the normal season [Nov-Apr] the kitchen served warm [expensive] meals, hosted up to 50-80 in dorms and private rooms and sounded more like a party summer camp than a stopover on a strenuous hike. At this time of the year only a few staff remained and sometimes charged its camping guests. We luckily stayed for two nights without paying the 4,000/per person fee. Trying to continue our tranquil, undisturbed journey we set up camp far away from the others in a tiny ditch with the mountains ready to greet us in the morning. Inside the lodge we had access to the bathrooms, showers, and even the large, industrial kitchen. It felt like cheating. It was weird to have electricity and people to socialize with and we felt as if it was ruining the true experience. We found everyone sitting in a room in the far off corner and quickly found out why. A sauna-like warming hut was a heavenly escape from the harsh conditions and the wood fireplace was surrounded by boots, socks, and more. Again, it felt like cheating. Ryan angrily left almost as soon as he sat down exclaiming it was unbearably hot and he refused to accept the social norms this place provided on our rugged adventure. Not long after we returned to our little home in the tent and drifted off to sleep.
Our alarm was set to ring around 8am in order to get a jumpstart on an eight hour day, yet [I’m assuming due to the cold] I woke up to light peaking through the tent. Crap.The sun up meant it was past 9am and we had slept in. We hurriedly cooked breakfast in the kitchen and set off for our final ‘l’ to Glacier Grey. With achy knees and sore backs we trudged on seeking the grandiose prehistoric ice structure. Not too long in we came to Lago Grey where small blue icebergs scattered across the water. As we walked along we saw more and more and finally in the distance Glacier Grey appeared. Its vastness is indescribable. The glacier stretched as far as the eye could see. We carried on inching closer and closer to the slow moving mass. The trail was difficult at points. Down steep rock faces, through muddy forests, and winded for hours until we reached Refugio Grey. We had a short break and happened to run in to the Yonnes. It started drizzling but we moved on quickly to get as close as possible to the glacier.
Words cannot describe the hues of blues it displayed. From a deep indigo to a electric blue and many more in between, we sat in awe and we wished for more time. If completing the full ‘O’ circuit, we could get as close to touching the glacier, but unfortunately we did not have the light hours to spare. We found massive rocks to climb on and sat watching the impressive ice formation. For both of us it was a first and another huge accomplishment. We waved g’bye and headed back down to our campsite. A long, treacherous four hour hike down we chatted proudly about the success of our trek and how sadly it went so quick.
That night we graciously took advantage of the refugio. After a big meal [see below] we sipped on beers and shared cheap rum with a few other hikers in the warming room. Two Australian girls had the entire place laughing. From day one [they started the same day as us in the same direction] they had started their trek in the wrong direction. After three to six kilometers they would cross a sign and realize they set off in the wrong direction. EVERY SINGLE DAY they made the same mistake. How? I have no idea. The trail is clearly marked and the map makes it even simpler. They made fun of themselves and couldn’t be happier to chat and make new friends. That night we went to bed later than usual; happy, proud and dreaming of a grand, celebratory meal in Puerto Natales.
[last dinner at the Lodge]
Day 5 we woke up with a clear view of the mountains in front of us, made a quick breakfast, and slowly packed up for one last time. The Yonnes and ourselves took off around 10am with an easy, flat five hour walk ahead of us. That day the sun shone unlike any other day. With the ‘W’ behind us we kept turning our heads around to soak in the last breathtaking views. Lago Pehoé glowed turquoise amongst the mountains and we captured some of the best photos of the trek.
The superb weather almost made this our favorite day. We strolled through tall grass and happily shared the past few days. Towards the end we got hungry. We had little left to munch on and at one point we were far ahead of the Yonnes, we decided to make our last packet of soup. Not a bad spot for lunch eh?
Thirty minutes later we saw the owner’s red truck parked along the road. WE DID IT! WE SURVIVED 5 DAYS IN PATAGONIA! The feeling that rushed over me was unlike anything I’ve felt before and it was shared between all four of us. Completely, utterly exhausted, sore, hungry, but accomplished and overjoyed we climbed into the truck and watched the park shrink in the distance. One last stop to snap the picture of the four of us with one final spectacular view, we all drifted off into a happy sleep. We checked back into the W Circuit hostel excited for our first shower in five days and an actual bed to sleep on. That night we all toasted with delicious wood-oven pizza and craft beer.
I’m not going to lie, I cried once, complained a lot due to the cold, but I am ever so grateful my body and mind could experience such a thing. I would not have survived those tough, freezing mornings without Ryan and I’m ever so grateful. I look forward to returning to Torres Del Paine and completing the full ‘O’ circuit whilst carrying everything on my back. Experiences like these will never be forgotten. They make me a stronger, better person and shake me from the complicated lives most of us live. If you ever get the chance, get to Patagonia. The Chilean or Argentinean side. Go. Trek. Carry all your food, camping gear, and experience the land like you’ve never before. I’ll leave you with one quote that reminds me to get to nature when possible and will end this ever-so long post by John Muir.
WILDNESS IS A NECESSITY
I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to the news.
all my love and more,