dominate chile's most legendary trek: torres del paine, the "w"
Hopping off the bus at the Torres Del Paine park entrance, we instantly got sweaty in the sunny Patagonian weather. Putting on our 40-pound packs, I thought to myself, "why did I bring all these warm clothes"? My winter gloves, fleece, insulated jacket, rain shell and long underwear were starting to feel excessively heavy and unnecessary as they sat on my back.
With one hour of warm, sticky trekking down, we came over a sharp ridge and it all changed. We were met with what Patagonia is notorious for: the craziest, most unpredictable, blow-you-backwards wind you can imagine. The sweat turned into dry, cold goose bumps in a matter of minutes.
The first day of the "modified W" trek brings you to Refugio Chileno and a chance to see the famous blue towers of Torres Del Paine shortly thereafter. The path is a 1.5-hour hike straight up a wet, rocky pathway. No switchbacks here. Our rain gear was quickly utilized as the showers started. Soon after, the wind picked up and it was time for a fleece layer. Just as the towers were nearing, there was a full-on wet snow blanketing us. All the layers that I regretted earlier were now on my body and still weren't keeping the shivers away. Welcome to a typical summer’s day in Patagonia.
The usual "W" trek takes three to four days and brings you up though a path shaped for its name. The "modified W" adds a couple days and valleys to make it a whole week worth of views. Since the park is in the middle of nowhere, you have exactly two housing options: stay in a hostel-style room or stay in a tent. Either way, if you are planning a trip, early reservations are crucial. As of 2017, they are greatly limiting the number of people allowed in the park and you MUST have reservations ahead of time to camp or get a hostel bed. We booked our tour through an American company, International Mountain Guides, which arranged everything for us. Lazy, I know. Booking directly is also an option and much cheaper. In certain ways though, it's easier to have the American company make accommodations. Reservations and bookings can quickly get crazy and unorganized. Plus, having an English-speaking guide was pretty convenient. I don't know about you, but our Spanish is of the basic variety.
The Chilean company, Fantastico Sur, runs the majority of the refuges and campsites. For how busy it can get, they run a reasonably smooth operation. The cooked meals are one of the advantages of Fantastico Sur's service. A nice hot salmon fillet with rice after walking 8 hours in the rain is pretty damn nice and a hot shower isn’t too bad either. You also get a basic packed lunch in the morning for the day's trek, including a sandwich, chips and candy bar, which is at least enough to keep your muscle glycogen fresh.
There are endless itinerary options in Torres del Paine. Other options include the longer "O" route or a variation of the two. This one outlines a simple 8-day “modified W” trek that we did.
Day 1- Heading up to the famous towers
If you follow any travel blogs or photographers on Instagram, you've probably seen pictures of the famous towers. The Torres del Paine translates into English as the Towers of the Blue. From the parking lot, these landmarks can be reached in about 3 hours. With the snow coming down and fog blocking our views, we missed out on our selfie moment with this monument seen all over the internet. It was unfortunate, but the landscape was still breathtaking. Afterwards we headed down and slept in tents at Refugio Chileno. Despite booking eight months in advance, we stayed in tents some nights. That’s how quickly things fill up.
Day 2- Drenched in the Ascenscio Valley
Heading into a path behind the Torres, the Ascenscio Valley or Silence Valley is one of the more untouched areas of the park. Scrambling over boulder fields and through forest, we followed a path usually only used by those looking to climb the back side of the granite Los Torres towers. After being rained on all day, we headed back down the four hours to the Torre Central refuge for a New Year’s Eve celebration. The crew at Fantastico Sur put out an amazing buffet spread for New Year's Eve: burritos, grilled meat, salad and a whole dessert table. With it being New Year's Eve, the booze was flowing. The major drink down there is the Pisco Sour, a brandy-based drink that'll get you hammered real quick. The refuge actually ran out of beer so I sweet-talked the bartender to give me a whole pitcher of Pisco Sour. It was all downhill from there.
Day 3- Vomiting all the way across Lake Nordenskjold traverse to Los Cuernos Refuge
After a proper Chilean New Year celebration, we had 4 hours to hike. I was thankful for the flat terrain traversing adjacent to the lake to our next refuge. Despite averaging a solid two puking episodes per hiking hour, the scenery was absolutely amazing. We had the hanging glaciers of Mount Almirante Nieto on our right with the greenish-blue waters of Lake Nordenskjold on our left. Finally ending at Los Cuernos and the most incredible refuge views in the park, it was a relief to sit down and take it all in.
Day 4- Condors overhead in the Forgotten Valley
The Bader Valley, or sometimes called the Forgotten Valley, is another untouched area of the park which requires a permit. Rising granite walls on each side with no real path to lead you, the Bader Valley is unbelievable. The lack of people made this Valley extra special. You might see more condors than people. What’s a condor? Just the largest flying birds in the Western Hemisphere. When their ten foot wingspan flies over you closely, you can feel the velocity.
Day 5- The Crowded French Valley
Traversing a little further west from Los Cuernos, we ascended into the French Valley. Aside from The Towers, the French Valley is the most crowded day on the "W" and for good reason. Rising up right next to the trail is the largest mountain in the park, Paine Grande. Ice blocks frequently calve off the glaciers of Paine Grande and violently roar down into the valley. A bit of a harrowing experience but spectacular nonetheless. Afterwards you descended into the next refuge on the shore of the teal colored Lake Pehoe. After 22 miles of hiking, the longest day, you'll be happy to put your feet up and have a hot meal at Lodge Paine Grande. The company, Vertice, runs this lodge and was the biggest one we stayed in during the trek. Lots of people and limited bathrooms makes for some fun ratios.
Day 6 - Approach to Glacier Grey
Day 6 is a short day, but is definitely not lacking in the scenery department. It's unbelievable how blue the glacier is when you first get within eyeshot. This day you go from Lodge Paine Grande to Refugio Grey, an easy three hour hike that cascades sharply passing many Lupine flower fields on the way to the glacier. Keep your camera out all day for this one.
Day 7- Hanging Bridges and Digging into Glacial Ice
The morning was spent crossing the hanging bridges to the east of Grey Glacier. This path provided aerial views of the blue ice we would soon be tramping on in the afternoon. Getting to the glacier in the afternoon is a bit of a trip. A small boat hauls you to the base of the glacier where you hike up the smooth brown rock of Islatak Island up into the glacier. The company Bigfoot Patagonia is located right next to the glacier and provides all the equipment you’ll need. With crampons fashioned to our feet and ice axe in hand, we headed out across the glacier. This trip was an option to our group and costs an extra $130. Totally worthy of the extra dough, Nothing really beats the feel of blue glacial ice crunching underneath your feet while watching the flowing blue water flow past you.
Day 8- Long trip back to Puerto Natales
We hopped on board the boat, Grey III, and headed back across Lago Grey where our bus was waiting for us to return to Puerto Natales. I slept almost the entire two hour bus ride back to reality, cell phone service, and comfy beds.
Some Pointers You’ll Want to Know
You drink right from the streams. That's right. Every time I filled up my big 2L Camelback it was dipped in a stream. Their water, straight from the source, is very safe to drink and tastes amazing. Everything in the refuges is expensive! A Sprite will cost about $7 USD. A canned beer will cost $11. If you are a drinker I would recommend bringing a little booze to supplement your partying. It would be worth the extra weight to grab a liquor bottle in Puerto Natales before heading into the park. Heck we even considered hiring a porter just to carry beer.
Everything you plan on wearing, you will be carrying on your back. Staying in the refuges is a good idea since you won't have to carry a tent. You can also rent a tent at each individual refuge.
Before you leave home, throw a couple large heavy-duty trash bags in your stuff. You can line your pack with the trash bag and stuff all your things inside the trash bag. Even with a rain cover for your pack, when it starts coming down hard, the cover may not be enough. Wet gear is probably one of the most annoying things that can go wrong.
The Essential Packing List
Rain Gear- The most important thing in Patagonia is rain gear. Make sure its rain gear that works! You'll need a lightweight, waterproof shell as well as pants. Remember, you're gonna have all four seasons down here in just a few days.
Footwear- You won't need any hardcore boots, just some mid-weight boots that are tested on your feet as comfortable. You don't want uncomfortable boots latched to your feet for 8+ hours a day. Also consider some flip-flops for wearing in the showers and around the lodge. Prevent foot fungus. It's gross.
Wool Socks- Cotton is a no-go. I brought three pairs of wool socks, always reserving one pair as my "clean" pair to only wear in the huts at night.
Fleece jacket or pullover- A solid mid-weight layer for when the wind picks up or the temperature drops.
Synthetic t-shirt- I brought 2 of these and usually washed one everyday and wore the other. Once again, cotton is a bad idea unless you want to smell horrible and be wet and cold.
Soft Shell Hiking Pants- Just one pair of comfortable hiking pants. You'll end up wearing these almost everyday.
Athletic or Hiking shorts- Used for sleeping in or if you're lucky enough to have a hot sunny day.
Extra Underwear- Bring 2-3 pairs of these. You can always wash them at the refuges.
Sleeping Bag- Usually a 30F bag or under will do. Just make sure it packs well.
Pack- You'll throw all your stuff in a 40-50L pack. Don't forget your trash bags and rain cover. I guarantee they'll be utilized.
Various Things to Consider
Hats- A ball cap is probably a good idea as well as a beanie to stuff somewhere for the colder days.
Sunblock- My nose and ears got toasted the days I forgot to apply. It may be cloudy, but chance of sunburn is still high.
Trekking Poles- Optional. They do take up space and weight, but are very useful for balance and energy’s sake. For some reason I don't turn my ankles as often when I use poles, which is a plus when you're in the middle of nowhere.
Toiletries- Travel-sized soap, toothpaste, deodorant, etc. Don't forget a microfiber towel unless you prefer the ol’ air-dry method.
Sunglasses- I had my sunglasses on the whole time, even in the rain. They work as goggles for your eyes when the wind is blowing the rain in your face.
Water bottle or Camelback- You won't need a large one, maybe only a 32-40oz bottle. There are plenty of places to fill up.
Snacks- I have to have snacks. If you're like me, you eat every few hours. I brought enough protein bars to ration two per day.
Cell phone- Even though you have no service there, an iPhone works as a camera, a flashlight and an alarm clock. Don't worry, you can charge in the refuges.
Power Converter- Speaking of charging, make sure you bring a Chilean power adapter. Don't forget this!
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