Our time in South America was filled with hiking adventures, but most of them were day hikes. Besides the Salkantay Trek to Macchu Pichu, the 5 days we spent on the W Circuit of Torres del Paine was the only other multi-day hike we did. And unlike any of our other hikes – either on this trip or before it – it was one we decided to do completely on our own. No porters, no refugios, no nothing – everything we needed was going to be carried on our backs.
We knew this would be a challenge. Patagonia in general and Torres del Paine in specific are notorious for quick-changing weather and winds that will knock you off your feet. That wasn't going to stop us, though – we were determined to see the hike through. And as stubborn as we both get, well, it wasn't going to happen any other way.
Pre-trek preparations in Puerto Natales were easy. We didn't have any of the proper hiking gear, but between our awesome hostel – Backpackers Kaweskar – and the gear shop at Erratic Rock, it was easy to get our kits ready. We rented backpacks, a tent, a stove, hiking poles, sleeping bags, mats, the works. We also walked up and down Av. Manuel Baquedano buying whatever food we could before heading to supermarket Unimarc at the end of the street to get the last few items. We spent the afternoon and evening before our departure packing and repacking and getting everything ready to go as best we could.
After a sleepy bus ride and a quick boat ride, we started on the west side of the W and spent the first day hiking up to Refugio Grey. The moment we got off the boat, we were introduced to just how strong the wind is and we thought to ourselves: Did we make a huge mistake? Are we ready for this? Without much of an option, we began the uphill walk to the hut. The morning clouds gave way to afternoon sun and we started to take off layers. When we reached the first point where you can see Glacier Grey, the wind was so strong that we could barely hold the camera steady to get a proper photograph. We pushed on to camp at Grey and set up our tent before heading off to find a better view of the glacier with our new-found friend The Wind by our sides.
That night was the worst night of the trek. The weather got worse and the winds got stronger. I found it nearly impossible to sleep – the winds were so strong, it felt like the tent was being ripped apart with every gust. The next morning in the cooking room, everyone from camp looked half-dead and shared stories about how little sleep they got. With the wind still whipping outside, the omens did not look good for the day.
And the omens were right.
Despite some initial sun, clouds soon blocked out the sky and started spitting water on us as we made our way back down the same path we followed up the day before. The wind chased us everywhere we went, gusting at exactly the moment we were least prepared for it. Our hiking poles became our best friends: they were often the difference between staying upright or getting to know the bushes on the side of the path more intimately. Each of us slipped at some point during the day, landing squarely on our behinds, but neither of us were any the worse for it (save for our pride, of course).
Once we reached the point where the boat had deposited us the day before, we turned away from the lake to make our way to the camp at the base of the French Valley. Like much of the trail, the path was easy to follow and well marked, but this was definitely the hardest part of the day. Zig-zagging through brush-covered ground and forests burnt by the fire from 2011/2, there was little protection from the full force of the wind as it blew us form side to side and lashed our faces with water pulled off the surface of the nearby lake. Still uncertain of our balance with the unaccustomed packs on our back, it made for very slow going with frequent breaks.
Needless to say, the going was tough and our spirits were down the whole day. By the time we reached camp, we were ready to call it a day and go straight to bed, but forced ourselves to eat dinner – bagged, dry beef ravioli with instant tomato soup as a sauce. A meager meal to be certain, it tasted like heaven to us. That joy was to be short lived however, as while washing our dishes – as if we hadn't had enough wind that day – I was knocked off balance by a strong gust and planted my right foot squarely in the middle of a freezing cold river. It was the icing on top of a cupcake from hell – if this was how the whole trek would be, I wasn't sure I could make it the whole way.
Thankfully, luck was on our side and we woke up the next morning to bright, sunny, near-cloudless skies. As we marched our way up the French Valley, our moods couldn't have been better. Even when we lost the path and ended up 300 meters up a rock scree before realizing it, we were thrilled that the weather was awesome and the winds were absent. When we reached the top, we had unparalleled views of the entire valley, including the glaciers to the west and the back sides of the Torres to the east. We understood perfectly then the advice someone had provided in town: the weather will make or break your experience. As terrible as our day had been the day before, this day was every bit as incredible.
The weather for the rest of that day and the following one was just as agreeable as our morning in the French Valley, providing amazing vistas and lofting our spirits as we ventured nearer the eponymous Torres. After leaving the French Valley, the trail narrowed somewhat as we crossed into the private property surrounding Refugio Los Cuernos, but it remained easy to follow. The easy, mostly-downhill stroll to the next campsite sent our spirits higher as we joked about the day before and enjoyed the gorgeous scenery, even seeing a nest with a small, off-white egg still inside. We spent the evening joking with our newly-made Israeli friend and enjoying the warmth of the eating area.
The next day was an uphill climb to reach the final campsite at the base of the Torres. A fairly easy climb at the beginning, it became quite steep once we reached the end of the valley. Having come this far, though, a few inclines weren't getting in the way of reaching that camp, especially not after the uphills we faced on the Salkantay trek. So we plodded along the well-marked path through brushland and beautiful forests on the hottest day of our trek and reached camp a full two hours before the time guidelines said we would. We took the afternoon to rest as much as we could before the 4 AM wake up call that awaited us on our final day.
The next morning, with our headlamps on, we followed the string of lights up the very steep, very rocky path that brought us to the lake at the base of the towers. We found what little shelter we could from the freezing wind, tucked ourselves into the sleeping bags we'd brought with us, and savored the victory that was ours. We had made it all this way, all on our own, in one of the least hospitable places in South America. The pride we felt, mixed with the physical exhaustion of the climb to get there, lent a euphoric feeling to our shivering bones as we watched the sun creep over the towers.
Neither of us will forget this trek, not if we tried as hard as we could. We did it all on our own. No one will ever take that away from us.
We stayed at Backpackers Kaweskar and would highly recommend it. The beds are ridiculously comfortable with real, thick duvets, breakfast is delicious and includes Nutella and peanut butter with the usual spreads, and Omar – the owner – is an incredible wealth of knowledge about the hike and rents out solid, quality gear. Seriously, stay there.
For food, we stuck with oatmeal for breakfast and then snacked throughout the day before dinner. Snacks included trail mix, energy bars, and tortillas filled with peanut butter. Dinners included pasta, instant mashed potatoes, dried ravioli, and dried risotto. We used packages of soup to add flavor to the pasta by adding less water than instructed to get nice sauces. The only other things we brought were sandwiches of ham and cheese and apples on the first day because we knew they'd be eaten quickly. We saw some hikers carrying lots of fresh vegetables and fruits with them, which is fine if you have the space/don't mind the weight, but we tried to go as light as possible.
You can hike the W in two directions, starting either in the west (as we did) or in the east (with the Torres on day 1 or 2). When we got to the park, when we looked towards the towers, all we saw was clouds, so we went to the west hoping it would be better by the time we got there. Also, Omar at Backpackers Kaweskar (pronounced ka-wesh-car) advised us the wind is more likely to be at your back if you start from the west.
The 3 PM information sessions at Erratic Rock hostel are a great way to get acquainted with the hike and learn about the administrative details behind it, such as how much the entrance ticket is and how much campsites at the refugios cost (which you'll end up at for 2 of the 4 nights if you follow the classic W path). It's also a great place to meet other people doing the hike, especially for you solo travelers out there. Also, if you can't find peanut butter in any of the stores in town, the owner of Erratic Rock makes it himself. Bring a jar and he'll fill it up for 3000 pesos.