60km 3.5 days
Tracing a 60km route between colossal glaciers and turquoise lakes the W-circuit takes it name from the shape of it’s route. The popular, well-marked trail leads through the Torres del Paine national park, A UNESCO world Biosphere reserve named after the formidable granite range which dominates the region. It is recommended to plan 4-5 days to tackle the hike with days ranging from 5-10 hours dependent on fitness & ability. The challenge in the route is brought through Patagonia’s notoriously harsh and unpredictable weather.
Living and working in Puerto Natales; the gateway community to the national park it was only a matter of time before I and my two fellow kayak guides Dan & Gary set out to explore the famous ‘W.’ With a burst of spontaneous motivation fuelled by a good forecast we decided to leave with just an evenings notice. Deciding to hike from east to west we planned to hike hard and far to make use of the sparse free campsites between the pricey Refugios, we would also detour an extra 18km south at the end of the route to avoid a costly ferry.
Waking at 6.30am we grabbed our packs, cheered over beer for breakfast and set off to the park.
DAY 1: HOSTERIA LAS TORRES TO CAMPAMENTO TORRES
Eager to escape from a three hour bus journey we clambered from air conditioned seats into a small shuttle crammed with rucksacks. Bouncing down a dusty road we gazed out at three mighty towers piercing upward into a cloudless sky; the Torres del Paine. It was 11am by the time we set off and the sun blazed down on our backs beneath heavy rucksacks. Bounding over narrow swing bridges we left the bustle of camp to clamber upward along a wide trail, we hoped to reach camp before sunset. Behind us the mountains gave way to gentle rolling plains of spiky Calafate bushes and gnarled beech woodland which interspersed with vivid blue glacial lakes faded into the distance in surreal beauty. Although surely freezing cold the lakes beckoned invitingly from our distant hillside perch. As he hiked we started taking bets on our altitude which was marked on regular way posts. Before long we arrived at the top of the coll. Our horizon was now dominated by the towering snowy face of Monte Almirante Neito, an impossibly steep slope which regularly thundered with spectacular avalanches, stopping in the sun to devour a minimalist lunch of tuna on crackers we watched mighty Andean Condors swooping along the river below us. Despite their 2m wingspan they were dwarfed into insignificance by the vast mountains behind, far below their flight we could see tiny figures wandering the trail toward the distant camp to which we aimed.
Topping up our water bottles in crystal clear stream water we relished the cool purity of our ‘Sweet waters.’ Our trail had descended from the parched hillside into refreshingly cool woodland. Walking in dappled sunlight we caught tantalising glimpses of the Torres emerging behind a distant ridge line, which after two hours of gentle meandering now towered just 40 minutes clamber above our camp. Joining three South African girls; Cay, Nicole & MJ we set out onto a steep climb through a rocky scree field. Conversation and view gazing slowed our pace to match the slope as we left the forest and edged toward the lip of the corrie. I was eagerly excited to reach the top and absorb the view.
Hopping between colossal boulders I scrambled into the next horizon. We were lucky, for the towers which are so regularly enveloped in cloud stood uncovered in one of the most evocative vistas I have ever seen. Behind a field of cold grey boulders stretched a crystal blue lake, half filled with ice drew the water drew the eye to the remains of a glacier clinging to a tremendous stone bowl. Like totems above the valley three fingers of perfect granite towered into the sky behind wisps of etherial mist which drifted to and fro in the strong winds above. Lingering at the waters edge to soak in the sun and the view I decided upon my first Patagonian wild swim. With a gasp of breath and a quick leap I was enjoying the refreshing bite of chilled water around now tingling skin. A quick width of the lake and back later I was drying out on the rocks with a beaming grin and lobster red skin.
Returning to camp for a meagre dinner of soup and pasta we realised in our last minute planning fuelled on perhaps one two many beers that we had vastly under-packed our food allowance. Laughing about the situation and our pitiful rations we decided the next few days would become our ‘pre-season diet.
As the light grew dark at the end of the day I left the others in camp and returned alone up the 40 minute climb to watch the sunset. In the last light of the sun I was spurred by a desire to watch the last pastel colours fade from the clouds into the night. Reaching the lake just as the final rays of light crept down the southern face I sat amongst the rock in total awe for only the distant whisper of wind on the face crept into a total silence. I was utterly alone with a selfish glee knowing I was the only one to relish the scene that evening. Lost in time I stayed long after dark to watch stars glint one by one from the evening glow, I returned to camp by the light of my head-torch. We would return together before the dawn rose.
DAY 2: TORRES DEL PAINE TO CAMPAMENTO ITALIANO & VALLEY FRANCAIS
Plumes of misty breath puffed through the narrow beam of my head-torch on the trail ahead. It was 5am, the horizon glowed orange with a soft pastel promise of a clear sunrise. Dan Gary and I hiked with an eager purpose to warm up and reach the lake before first light.
Arriving before any other hiker we lingered at the lip of the bowl to gaze back and forth between a dazzling sunrise to the east and the slow creep of intense blazing light descending down the granite walls. Not a breath of wind crept across the scene, in silence we soaked in the view. Switching to a remote control I allowed myself to escape from the lens of the camera to both shoot and yet enjoy the experience first hand.
Watching the towers fade from gold to a warm yellow in the reflection of the lake we welcomed the arrival of fellow early bird hikers who slowly grew in number to share the magical spectacle. Tempted to wait in the shadow of the mountains until the sun graced us with warmth we had to tear away and back to camp; our plan was to hike fast to the next free campsite: Campamento Italiano.
Leaving camp we returned back along the Valley Ascencio to cut along the hillside toward Lago Nordenskjold. Named after the norwegian explorer made famous for enduring an entire Antarctic winter abandoned without hope of rescue beneath an upturned dingy, with his crew he survived by burning and eating seal and penguins. Far from the Antarctic freeze the vivid blue enticed a swim.
The trail wound down through parched grassland before skirting the waters edge between wind battered woodland and rocky outcrop. To one side was the water, to our north was a massif of granite spires and impossible walls. Traveling from east to west meant that around every turn a new surprise awaited in the form of razor sharp ridge lines and precarious glaciers far above. Tracing the edges of the lakes we arrived into the valley Francais and set camp beneath a tall Beech wood. We had hiked for 8 hours and were tired and hungry, but our day wasn’t over. With a quick snack we rallied a last spurt of energy for a 3 hour return hike uphill into the isolated Valley Britanico. Clambering past a tremendous waterfall which thundered down the valley between a hanging glacier and the Cuernos towers to each side. Regularly shouts of ‘quick look!’ echoed before the thunder of colossal avalanches down the distant face. The long and arduous tramp on empty stomachs was rewarded with a short but spectacular view of the valley, we were surrounded by an impregnable fortress of sheer rock walls and pristine spires; every angle inspired awe.
DAY 3: CAMPAMENTO ITALIANO TO CAMPAMENTO LAS CARETAS VIA GREY GLACIER
Waking at first light we huddled in the camp shelter and brewed morning coffee & porridge, we would need all the energy we could muster to tackle a 40km day. Our aim was to hike the last stretch of the W before turning south to include a bonus tail to leave the park. It would add a further 12km to an already 28km long day.
Passing through swathes of burnt woodland toward Refugio Paine Grande; the enormity of the accidental blaze started in 2008 still lingered. The warped remains of charred trees still stood above a slowly recovering undergrowth, it was a stark reminder of the parks rule #1 DO NOT LIGHT FIRES!
Arriving at the bustling Refugio Paine Grande we topped up water and waved hola to the wardens before leaving a city of tents back to the wilderness. We opted to carry our full packs despite having to backtrack later in the day, this would allow us the option to camp at the glacier should we feel too tired to continue.
Rising at a continual pace we huffed our way to an excellent vantage over the impressive Lago Grey. Beneath a bleak shrouding of cloud the lake was dotted with jewel like icebergs from an as yet out of sight glacier ahead. Reaching the crest of the hill after an hour and a half we emerged upon a specacular vista of endless ice stretching into a warm glow of sunlit haze and distant mountains, to our side shattered pinnacled ridges drifted in and out of the mist high above the face of Cerro Paine Grande. Under the weight of my pack and too little food I was starting to feel exhausted by the time we arrived at the waters edge, sat in the rain we savoured our small lunches and a swig of whisky in-front of gigantic blue icebergs. We still had a long way to go.
Rising back over a steep incline we were delighted to watch the clouds clear to be replaced with hot sunshine. Seemingly warming new energy back into our spirits we made quick progress on our return to Refugio Paine Grande arriving in the early evening. Having hiked 28km we decided on a whim to press on a further 12 and avoid the bustling camp; what extra effort it would take us would be rewarded in fine views back to the park and a short stroll to finish our route the following morning. To our delight after a short undulating stretch the trail soon joined endless flat grassland; the floodplain of the wide Rio Grey. Under a sky dotted with spectacular lenticular clouds and an atmospheric cloudy massif behind us we put heads down and drove on in a determined rhythm. At 7pm we collapsed into a grassy campsite in the company of two other hikers, shattered stiff and sore we quickly made dinner before lazing in the sun to watch the evening draw to a close; a final night in the spacious tent I wandered when I would return to catch a next view of the towers. Dan as had been the norm all trip opted to sleep under the stars with a bivy bag.
DAY 4: CAMPAMENTO LAS CARETAS TO CONAF ADMINISTRATION
Waking early we packed camp and set off at a gentle pace, we had just 6km to hike to reach the end of our journey. The sun warmed our backs as we tramped along the grassy floodplains of the Rio Grande toward the small community: Conaf. Occasional Guanao (The Chilean equivalent of a Llama) grazed lazily as we passed, they seemed to neither register nor care of our presence in the shadow of the Torres which now dominated the horizon. Our walk was short and with hours to spare we took plenty of time lingering to enjoy the view, beckoning Guanacos or chasing Kaiken geese along the trail. With a final celebratory whisky at the Administration office we stretched out on a mown lawn and ate the last rations saved in our packs. Looking back at the towers I gazed on with excitement for the next time I would return to their presence would be behind paddles in the cockpit of my kayak. In the meantime we would collapse on the bus, eat a well earned dinner and return full circle with a beer.