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.