Until last year, I had never been much of a hiker, unless you count traipsing across urban landscapes. After tackling a few modest day hikes, including the Cares Trail in Spain and Schiehallion in Scotland, I wanted to challenge myself to a multi-day hike and also witness a few spectacular vistas along the way. Enter: Torres del Paine. I was captivated by a photo I saw of this Chilean national park, with its epic glaciers and rugged mountain views, and it wasn’t long before I’d booked myself a trip to South America in early March to see it. I decided to embark on what’s known as the W-Trek, an approximately 80 km trail through the park. I opted to not camp (as I had no desire as a solo hiker to carry all my food and camping gear the entire way), and so paid the premium to stay at refugio, which were essentially hostels that provided food and facilities for us less-than-hardcore hikers.
Day 1 – Paine Grande < > Lago Grey
An early morning bus ride from Puerto Natales kicked off what would be my 4-day journey. I also managed to start things off with a cold. Yes, I thought tackling my first 80 km multi-day hike was going to be a little too easy and wanted to add an extra phlegmy layer of challenge for myself. Oy.
Thankfully, the crumminess of my cold faded away when I first caught sight of mountains in the distance, bathed in early morning sunlight. I was enraptured at the sight, giddy with excitement at the prospect of the epic views that awaited me. It only took a couple hours to reach the park entrance, where busloads of hikers lined up to purchase entrance tickets to the park (thankfully, we were among the first buses to arrive). After watching an informational video about what to not do in the park (e.g., really really don’t light fires), we were on our way. There are 2 directions you can walk the ‘W’ trail, and I decided to take the less common route, starting on the westerly side and walking eastwards towards Torres del Paine. This meant getting dropped off at Pudeto and catching a catamaran across Lago Pehoé, of which there are only a few scheduled crossings throughout the day.
Crowds grew as we waited for the catamaran, and clouds started to darken, threatening rain. We eventually filed on and stowed all of her backpacks and gear up at the front of the boat in a massive, Jenga-like pile. The crossing was about 30 minutes, during which time the rain finally opened up. I was beginning to dread that I’d be battling a cold and rain on the first day of my hike. However, miraculously, it was gloriously sunny when we reached our destination, Refugio Paine Grande. And boy were we treated to an epic welcoming view, with rugged, snow-touched mountains rising behind the lodge. Thrilled at the weather, I hurriedly checked-in and stowed my main pack in my bunk, throwing on my day pack and heading off for the trail along Lago Grey.
There’s nothing quite like the thrill of the first few steps on the trail, particularly one as gorgeous as this. All thoughts of my cold forgotten, I spent much of my time gaping up at Paine Grande, admiring its craggy spires and the way wisps of clouds caressed its jagged edges. The trail itself had its literal ups and downs, and I was soon sweating under the full sun. The wind had also picked up and was a formidable force, especially across open rock faces (I later learned gusts were up to 80 km/hr that day). My goal was to try and get to the second look-out over Glacier Grey and then back to the Refugio Paine Grande for the night, which was likely an ambitious endeavour for my first day out (close to 22 km round trip). About an hour and half into the hike, I caught sight of the massive glacier. I had reached the first lookout, perched atop a rocky cliff accompanied by some eye-watering wind. I crouched down to take my shots for fear of being blown right off the cliff. I loved the relative wildness of the park–no cordoning off of cliff edges, minimal signage and few other hikers on the trail. The clouds were darkening again, evidence of the truly mercurial nature of the weather in this park.
Buoyed by the beauty and vastness of the views, I felt strong enough to continue onwards. Unfortunately, the trail from that point on was a rather steep downhill descent, and I slowly picked my way down rocks and over small streams. The descent was seemingly interminable, and my knees were really starting to object. I kept thinking, “I should keep going…I’ve come this far. It can’t be much farther.” Ultimately, however, common sense prevailed. With all my downhill-going–I would of course have to go back up the big hill in order to get back to the refugio–and my knees in the state that they were, I decided to turn back. I heaved myself back up the rocks and slowly made my way back down the trail. The sun was beginning to set behind the mountains when I eventually caught sight of the refugio. My legs were screaming at me, evidently not pleased at suddenly being thrown into a state of strenuous activity, and I limped my way into the lodge. I ravenously dug into the hot, generously-portioned meal provided by the refugio before resting up for my next big day. Given the state my lower half was in, I wasn’t entirely sure how that was going to happen.
Total distance covered: 21 km, 32 607 steps , 270 floors
Day 2 – Paine Grande -> Los Cuernos
My cold was in full force the next morning, and I gratefully accepted some cold medication from a fellow hiker. After breakfast and collecting my packed lunch, I geared up, pockets filled to the brim with Kleenex, and braced myself for the long hike ahead. This was also going to be the first hike with my full pack, and I ferevently prayed that the ultra lightness that my folks had paid so much for would pay off. My legs were still very sore from my travails the previous day; thus, my mantra became “slow and steady”. As clichéd as it is, I actually kept repeating that to myself. Each step was careful and measured. I am by no means a fast hiker at the best of times, and I didn’t have any interest (or the capacity really) in blitzing down the trail. I happily stood aside to let hikers pass me. I had a vested interest in arriving at my destination at least somewhat functional.
Thankfully, I was treated to beautiful sunshine and a scenic hike that was, mercifully, mostly flat. I was fascinated by the rows of elegant, sculptural birch trees and the whorls of mist being kicked up on the waters of Laguna Scottsberg. I stopped occasionally to admire the view and strip off layers of clothing as I heated up. I often had one earbud in playing music–scoring my hike as if I were the heroine in my own adventure movie. After about 2.5 hours (just over 7.5 km), I came across a bridge into Campamento Italiano and a gasp-worthy view up Rio Frances at Glacier Frances. Pleased that my legs had survived this far, I felt strong enough to try for the Mirador Frances. In talking with the park ranger, he recommended that I actually not go all the way up to Mirador Britannica (which would’ve been 2.5 hours each way) because the winds were so strong (gusts over 100 km/hr) that it might not be safe. I was happy to just take the 2 hour roundtrip to the closer lookout.
I had lightened my load, leaving my full pack at the camp, and scampered up towards Mirador Frances. I’d read that it was a rather steep climb, and I can safely attest to the veracity of that claim. It was a steady uphill climb, over large boulders and across the occasional stream. While I was certainly huffing and puffing, I was drawn ever upwards by the captivating mountain vista ahead of me. The trail continued its ascent through forest, and I hauled myself up by gripping tree trunks. Eventually, I emerged from the forested enclave to bracing winds. I had thought the winds were strong the day before, but this was another level of wind. To reach the mirador (lookout), you had only to briefly cross an open rock face. Easier said than done! I crouched down and turned away from the wind when the gusts were particularly strong. At one point, I huddled behind a larger rock to break the wind. I found a spot to sit and take in the view, nearly 360 degrees of jagged mountain peaks. It wasn’t long before I had had my fill and escaped back into the forest for a reprieve from the wind. I chowed down on some of the sandwich in my provided lunch bag before carefully making my way back down, bracing as best I could to spare my already-unhappy knees.
Having successfully gone up the middle of the ‘W’, I picked up my full pack from the encampment and continued onward to Refugio Los Cuernos, approximately another 3 hours away. It was a pleasant walk through forest and meadow, and I would glance back occasionally to admire the mountains receding into the distance. I discovered I’d had a good stroke of luck when it came to weather because clouds and what looked like rainfall had already begun to envelop the mountains. I looked down onto Lago Nordenskjöld and ever so gradually began to wind my way down the switchback trail to the lake. I will say that while there is occasional signage, it isn’t frequent enough to give you a good sense of how much farther you have to go. I definitely kept thinking that it can’t be long now…it’s probably just around this bend, only to find more trail.
I reached the lake’s edge, at which point I was hiking along the rocky beach itself (which definitely confused me at first as there was no clear trail anymore, but I eventually spotted coloured ribbons on trees marking the way). Very strong winds picked up again, blowing waves of water onto the beach. The trail thankfully diverged from the beach after a time, running closely parallel to the waterfront. I would occasionally duck down behind bushes and trees to ride out wind gusts and sudden onslaughts of spray. At one point, I moved aside for a line of horses carrying supplies between refugios, wistfully staring after them wishing I could commander one for the remainder of my journey.
It wasn’t much longer, however, until I reached my destination for the evening, Refugio Los Cuernos. It almost had the look of a ski chalet, with its log construction and warm, cozy feel. I gratefully dumped my pack in my bunk and made use of the on-site bar and wifi. I was impressed thus far with the quality of the lodgings. I’d been a bit leery after reading numerous forums complaining of the pitiful state of the accommodations. However, I found them to be clean, comfortable, and relatively well-equipped. After 8 hours of hiking, there’s nothing like putting up your feet with a Pisco sour. Dinner was served at communal tables, and I was grateful for the company, meeting a friendly family from the States as well as a gregarious (and generous) Scotsman who shared a bottle of wine with us, who was also kind enough to later get me a hot toddy when he discovered I was sick. I always love swapping stories with random strangers across a dinner table–ephemeral connections that would last likely no longer than an evening but that would carry with you on your journey.
Total distance covered: 19.4 km; 32 163 steps; 519 floors
Day 3 – Los Cuernos -> Chileno
My lucky weather streak had ended during the night, as the refugio was ravaged by high winds and heavy rain. By the time I had packed up and headed out, the clouds had parted and treated me to a wee bit of morning sunshine to start my journey. It was a bit of an uphill climb away from our nearly lakeside encampment. Naturally, as I was trekking up hill, the wind kicked up to its seemingly gale strength, and I literally clung onto trees to avoid being blown over. I continued my upward ascent and enjoyed the picturesque views over the lake, stopping only to change the bandage on a heel blister I’d managed to develop.
Such views would not be for long, as eventually, the rainclouds caught up with me. I pulled on my rain pants and covered my pack with its cover just as the clouds started to open up. For some unfathomable reason, my cold-medicated brain could not seem to get the sides of my rain pants to zip up properly (these were the type that had zippers down the side for, ironically, ease of putting on, particularly when wearing hiking boots). As a result, I ended up walking along for an embarrassing amount of time holding the sides of my pants closed as best as I could. Sheets of rain poured down, and I picked my way down the rocky trail carefully–last thing I needed was a twisted ankle on top of a cold on top of moderately effective rain gear. I eventually stopped long enough to work out my rain pants, dancing around tugging at zippers, much to the bemusement of passing hikers I’m sure, and managed to finally zip them up.
I was ultimately given a reprieve from the steady rain, and I gratefully took a pause to rest and rehydrate. The problem with rain gear, however, is that it’s not terribly breathable, so I was definitely feeling fairly toasty at this point. I took a chance and stripped off my rain pants and jacket and continued along the lake side trail. The rainfall had flooded the rivers and streams, leading to powerful waterfalls and rushing water. I followed the trail down to the bank of a large stream/small river with fast-flowing water that had a small island of rocks in the middle. The other side of it had no bank whatsoever and was really just a steep hill of dirt and loose pebbles. I’d been warned by hikers coming back up the trail that there wasn’t really any good way across at that point (they were off in search of a better crossing). I was surprised that the trail had led here and assumed that this would normally be a trivial crossing, but that the heavy rainfall had given rise to more challenging waters. I looked downstream and saw other hikers attempting to cross, typically knee-deep in water. By chance, two hikers came from the other direction, throwing each other and their packs to one another rather precariously. I leapt my way across to the rocky island but was a bit leery of jumping onto a steep hillside with my pack on (I worried I’d teeter backwards into the water). One of the hikers graciously offered to throw my pack to me. So I mustered up my best grand jeté ballet jump and made the leap from the island to the other side, miraculously keeping my footing. He threw me my backpack, and I carried onwards, grateful that I hadn’t tried the other crossings only to be rewarded with soggy boots for my effort.
After hiking up the embankment, the trail flattened out and became much narrower and less distinct. Clouds furled around the mountains as I picked my way through grassy, and at times mucky, fields. I found myself taking my rain pants on and off, as the rain was being a rather fickle friend and I was over-heating. I eventually gave up and left them off. Far in the distance, I caught sight of what I assumed would be my lodgings and was buoyed to have my destination become tangible. However, after the rain opened up again (and I had not put my rain pants back on in time), I was soon soaking wet and scrambling up some fairly steep hills, going away from the cabins in the distance much to my dismay. Exhausted and soaked, I definitely experienced a few fleeting moments of despair, cursing the heavens and muttering to myself that I really didn’t think I could go much further. I think the challenge was not really having a clear sense of where my ultimate destination was and how much further I had to go. I continued my wet, uphill climb, eventually passing another hiker and finding out I was about 40 minutes away.
I finally crested the hill and peered down into the valley, catching sight of my actual lodgings in the distance, and nearly wept with relief. It was still a long, rainy descent, and my knees expressed their deep discontentment as I limped downhill to Refugio El Chileno. It was actually the shortest of the hikes I’d completed thus far (though the longest stretch that I’d been wearing my full pack), and so I’d made it just a bit after 3 pm. I was definitely not the only waterlogged traveler and spent much of the evening enjoying the backroom’s wood-burning stove where everyone was attempting to dry their things. I did count myself lucky that despite my pants being soaked, my waterproof boots and Goretex jacket had lived up to their name. Unfortunately, the hot water had managed to go out in, apparently, just the shower stall I was using, so my attempts at a warming shower were for naught. In chatting with the staff, I was a bit disheartened to learn that the next day’s forecast was rain. But, after a couple tasty Pisco sours and some truly enjoyable dinner conversation, I tucked into my bunk bed with a bit of optimism for my final day.
Total distance covered: 16.6 km; 26 697 steps; 225 floors
Day 4 – Chileno -> Torres del Paine
One of the most iconic images of the park, and indeed of Patagonia, is the three torres (“towers”) bathed in early morning sunlight, and I was determined to at least try to see it. Thus, it was an early start to my last hiking day, as I snuck out of bed at 4:30 am. I shuffled around in the dark, pulling on 5 layers on top and 3 on the bottom. Sticking my head out the door, I heaved a sigh of relief to see stars winking back at me. What luck, clear skies! Headlamp affixed, I headed off into the darkness. It was an eerie thing to be hiking alone in the dark, something I’d never done before. Moving through an almost black-and-white world, it was haunting but peaceful. I didn’t have time to dilly-dally, as I was aiming to catch first light, so I hiked through the dark forest at a fair clip. I very much appreciated how well-marked things were, with reflective tape to catch the light of headlamps on poles dotting the trail.
I had heard that the big challenge of the hike to the Torres was the last hour or so, as it was purportedly very steep. The trail gradually ascended upwards, and I kept my eye on the sky to watch out for sunrise. After about an hour, I finally reached the climb. I was soon breathing hard, hauling myself up steep inclines and climbing over boulders. At this point, I did start to see other hikers who were similarly crazy in their desire to catch sunrise at the Torres. This could have been a more leisurely hike, but I was definitely pushing myself hard to ensure that I made it in time. I could soon see the tips of the towers in the distance, and invigorated by this sliver of hope, I panted and scampered amongst the boulders. I was half-laughing with relief and joy as I finally crested the last ridge of rocks and caught sight of the Torres. Lit by the morning’s early light, I made my way down to the lake to stake out a spot, as sheltered from the wind as I could. I set up my little tripod and waited, marvelling at my luck for what was truly perfect weather.
After about a half hour, my efforts were finally rewarded with a truly glorious sight: the Torres ablaze in morning sunlight. It’s hard to describe the feeling, after days of hiking, recovering from a cold, and battling fierce winds and rain, to witness such a transcendent moment. But, like many good things, it was ephemeral–gone in a few minutes. I couldn’t loiter for too long, as I did have a bus to catch, so I reluctantly turned away from the zenith of my hike and, along with the rest of the 20 or so crazy early-morning hikers, made my way back down. I braced myself on boulders and trees, amused to see spots on tree trunks worn smooth from many a hiker gripping them. It was fascinating to walk back down the same trail that was now illuminated–a different world suddenly revealed. The forest trails were quiet and serene, essentially deserted but for the few stray hikers that I’d let pass me. I came across my bunkmates on the trail, who I’d shared dinner with the previous night, who seemed genuinely happy to see me again, embracing me for my success at reaching the Torres for sunrise.
In the end, I covered 79.3 km of trail in 4 days. I enjoyed the fact that the trails were not terribly busy (in early March), except for a few spots, and in some cases, almost completely deserted. The landscape, as I’ve been waxing poetic about, was stunning and varied–with glaciers and lakes and forests and rocky screes. Here, a few stray musings about my journey:
- While I was pleased that all my planning worked out, I will say this was one of the more logistically challenging trips I’ve planned. It definitely took a bit of hunting to figure out how to get from A to B and how to time things appropriately, and booking the accommodations in the park was not always easy (sometimes it took 3 weeks for someone to get back to me).
- That being said, I was very happy with the accommodations overall. Staff were always very friendly and helpful, and my fellow hikers all seemed to be a congenial bunch. I didn’t think there’d be WiFi and was pleasantly surprised to have it in the evenings (for a fee).
- If there is one regret I have, it was not bringing trekking poles with me. I have discovered that my knees are janky enough to not be able to handle downhills unaided.