Getting to the famous Patagonia W trek is an adventure in itself. First a Trekker flies into Chile’s capital Santiago. From Santiago you take a plane to Puerto Arenas. You are pretty far south now. Then you take a 3 hour bus ride to Porto Natales and then another 2 hour bus ride to the Torres del Paine national park where you finally start your trek. There is now a faster option that will fly you from Santiago directly to the airport in Porto Natales. But the bus ride adventure is, part of the fun and the tradition, and the isolation a big part of the appeal.
Traditional start to the W trek is at the foot of the Towers of Paine. We stayed overnight at the base of the towers in the Refugio Las Toress (a lovely in park hostel).
The very first morning of the trek starts off with a hike to the base of Torres Del Paine. The lake at the foot of the mountains is a spectacular clear glacial mirror and the towers (they call them north, south and central tower) seem almost close enough to touch. On occasion there may be a climber on the tower although I am told they are pretty hard to see.
The trek from your first Refugio to the base of the mountain is about 4 hours there and 4 hours back. The trail, as everywhere in the park is very well marked but also very crowded. Many people come from outside the park for just one day to see the lake so this is definitely the busiest portion of the trail. If you are the super adventurous type you can camp out close to the mountains in the Campamento Las Torres (reservations must be made in advance) and get to the lake before sunrise. Just a word of warning – you are very far south so sunrise is usually around 4 am. As for myself I made it there around 1 pm and it was just beautiful 🙂
The second day of the W trek took us from Refugio Las Torres to Refugio Los Cuernos. On this portion of the trek you are walking between Lake Nordenskjold (named after the Norwegian explorer who first studied it), and Mount Almirante Nieto. This is an easy day with about 8 hours of trekking over what our guides called “Patagonia Flat” terrain. Not to be confused with international flat, Patagonia Flat can mean anything between 0 degree to 25 degree elevation, but normally it also means there is no sustained trend up or down. After a while it became a joke as in addition to “Patagonia Flat” we also got to experience a “Patagonia Summer” (When it randomly began to snow one morning), and Patagonia gravity (since we were at the South Pole many of us decided that our backpacks were growing heavier by the hour due to our geographic location). In short Patagonia anything means rules no longer apply. And as someone who is not much of a fan of rules I am just fine with that.
Day 3 of the W trek takes you from Refugio Los Cuernos to Refugio Paine Grande. This is a long day since you are hiking the entire middle leg of the W trek. After making our way from Los Cuernos for a few hours with our full backpacks we stopped at campground Italiano and switched to daypack. We were able to leave our big bags at the campground and made our way up up up to the French Valley viewpoint. Some of our group decided to turn back about half way through (it’s a very long way up to French Valley) but those of us who continued were rewarded with a special viewpoint known only to our guide Roberto. After making our way back to camp Italiano we trekked with our full backpacks to Paine Grande for a happy end to a long and lovely day.
On the fourth day of the W trek you walk towards the Grey Lake and Glacier. The glacier is a massive structure of ice that extends as far as the eye can see. The Grey Glacier is so called due to grey color of its sediment, different from most glaciers which are blue.
Approaching this area the temperature drops, the winds pick up. On this day we were lucky with no rain or snow, the winds deceptively calm and sun peaking over the clouds. The weather on this side of the park is notoriously unpredictable, and can be exceedingly dangerous, as I learned the very next day. We would soon discover how incredibly quickly the weather can change and how important it is to be prepared for anything on a mountain.
I have been thinking about it for the past few days. If I knew how hard it was going to be, would I have still gone on that last hike? The only answer I can come up with is “yes.” Although the W trek traditionally ends at the grey glacier and the day before our return back to civilization was intended to be a day of rest, our guides told us there is an option to hike from here to the Paso John Gardner, the tallest mountain in the circuit. They made it clear to us that it would be a long day and that there would be many opportunities to turn around. In the end only four of us opted for the hike – the rest spend several hours canoeing around the grey glacier, it looked like a lovely experience from the pictures.
The first hanging bridge is where many people who only intended to do the W trek turn around, said the guides Gorge and Roberto. A swinging, almost impossibly long structure of wood, it was quite unlikely to fail, I was told. The winds were only mild just then, the sun shining. As I looked at my 3 companions, all three of them experienced mountaineers, none of them wavered. If they weren’t going to turn around neither was I. I stepped on the bridge, maximum of four persons, it said on the sign. It swung under me but held me steady as I walked across.
After about 10 k, at the last camp before the pass camp Gorge shared chocolate and pieces of high sugar nut desert I know as “halva.” He looked at me carefully. “This is where many people turn around,” he said. “It’s almost all uphill from here. If anybody wants to turn around one of us will take you back.” Gorge and Roberto were both studying me. I wavered.
One of my companions, the fastest one, the one we called mountain goat, turned to me. “We have plenty of food, water and experience” she said softly. “You have no injuries. Come with us, if you don’t you’ll regret it.” She was right. A life of opportunities not taken is one I chose to give up long ago up. “I am going” I said. Gorge smiled. “On the mountain money does not matter. Only friends do,” he said.
I considered that as I walked down a long bare cliff, on our way to the final assent. This cliff held trees many moons ago. The trees burned down in a forest fire and in this part of the world it takes them many years to recover. All around me were little cranberry bushes, with more cranberries than I had ever seen in my life. Like little red stars welcoming me to their world.
I thought about the cranberries and the friends that truly matter on the mountain on the long climb up. It was better than counting steps, all one and a half hours worth of steps up up up, beyond the tree line. I did not know then how soon my friends would matter more to me than all the money in the world.
As we finally made it above the tree line, snow began to fall. Wind picked up and I felt the slow shiver of cold creeping in on me. One of my experienced mountaineer companions had been feeling under the weather earlier in the week. “I think I am done” she said. We were only 10 minutes from the top of the pass. But if she was going back so was I, I was proud of what I had accomplished. I thought I was done…
We took some pictures in the still gentle winds and the three of us and Roberto began to make the long trek down. My fourth friend, the one we called E but nicknamed “mountain goat” went on to the pass. We ate lunch in the trees and Gorge and E caught up to us quickly. As we walked down the wind speeded up. Eventually we came upon the open cliff again, the one flooded with cranberries.
And just like that the wind felt strong enough to pick me up off my feet. Snow fell harsh, like being pelted. We were too far from tree cover now, nowhere to hide. Up up up on the rocky cliff and the little red cranberries suddenly look like droplets of blood. Little red deaths. I had never felt so exposed in my life. Gorge’s face, always so genial and smiling changed. My companion, the one who said “I think I am done” was stumbling now. She could not afford to stumble.
I could barely look up.
Go to her I waived at Gorge. He looked from me to her clearly measuring which one of us needed more help. He kept mid distance between two of us for a while.
E, always at the front of every line quietly appeared behind me, just a few steps away. I could see her clearly even though everything else was faded out now. She was watching me carefully. I wanted to take a break but she was behind me and I had to keep walking for her sake as much as my own. Only friends matter up here, I heard Gorge say. I imagined Roberto at the front of the line helping my fourth companion, but I could no longer see him. I could see nothing past a couple of feet.
The snow and wind rang in my ears. One foot in front of the other. We came together we would leave together. These were my friends. We were connected. One more step. And then another one. Cranberries everywhere. Red, white, I can’t look up.
Finally, after an eternity that probably only lasted for 20 minutes we reached the tree line again.
With the trees came blessed quiet. Temperature seemed to go up by 10 degrees, snow appeared gentle again.
The adrenaline did not subside quickly. I was out of danger but all I could see were the next step or two. I can not say my mind shut down exactly but I think it went into a meditative state. It’s only function was to move my body forward. After a few kilometers, our guides relaxed again, chatting away like nothing had happened. But to me this was big. Could I have died? Exposure? What if I tripped and hurt myself or what if someone else did? This was Patagonia. Weather is big and dangerous. We tend to think we have conquered the world but the truth is it only takes a small act of nature to conquer you instead. I had just gone from a master of the world to one who was almost swept away in a storm, like one more snowflake in a field of cranberries
It was a long walk back to the refugio. We did not get back until 8 pm and we had left at 7 that morning. We said little to the rest of the group, too tired to elaborate. Later the story would get bigger and more significant and perhaps more interesting. But right now it was almost bigger than life, and it was enough.
The adrenaline in my head did not drain away until late that night. That night I walked alone. My backpack felt light on my shoulders, like fluffy air. The skies blue and cranberries grew on trees. The burned forest blossomed again, bare branches sprouting green leaf before my eyes.
And I was free.