One of the original bits of inspiration for our trip was the desire to head way, way south to hike the W in Torres Del Paine, in Chilean Patagonia. Unfortunately, the park was closed at the end of a December due to a devastating fire that was set by a careless trekker who chose not to follow the rules, and we feared that we wouldn’t be able to see this rugged bit of nature.
We delayed our journey south for a few weeks, which proved to be a wise decision as more and more of the park was re-opened to the public every week throughout January. Just a few days before we were set to start our trek the entire circuit we intended to hike had officially been opened, though we were cautioned that the most recently opened part (the west side of the classic ‘W’ trek, named for the shape of the route through the mountains) would still be smoky, ashy, and not such a great place to be wandering around in. We decided to play it safe, and shortened our trek to just a ‘U’.
It was the first time that we have been ‘real backpacking’ together, which means carrying all our own gear – tent, sleeping bags and pads, cook stove, and all our food. Patagonia is notorious for wild weather and it’s not uncommon to encounter anything from blistering sunshine to snow or sleet all in the course of a single day. We attempted to balance packing enough layers for all the possible elements, while trying to keep our packs at a reasonable weight.
We had attended the infamous “3 o’clock talk” given at the Erratic Rock hostel, which is where we ended up staying both pre, and post-trek in Puerto Natales, Chile. With their guidance, we diligently separated our food into ziplocks, portioning out each meal for easy access and efficiency. We brought mostly lightweight, carb-rich and sugar loaded food such as oatmeal, noodles with packets of meat sauce, granola, peanuts, and tons of chocolate bars and caramel candies. I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to be eating chocolate every few hours to keep my energy up, and knowing all the while I was definitely burning it all off.
We set out with high hopes and heavy packs, and day one was fairly uneventful. We chose to trek first to the Campemento Cuernos, the traditional middle part of the W. We originally wanted to be able to stay in one of the free sites in the French Valley, but due to the fire the camps were closed so we knew we’d need to stay two nights at Cuernos to accommodate a long 26 kilometer day hike to the valley and back.
The big attraction at Torres del Paine is, well, the Torres. However, we had heard that the French Valley was majestically beautiful, and we were looking forward to spending the whole day exploring the valley. The day started out beautifully and it didn’t take us as long as expected to reach the base of the valley where, unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse.
As we made our way over giant boulders, past glaciers, and wound our way into the forest at the top of the ridge, the weather turned from chilly and drippy to downright freezing with whipping winds and sideways rain and snow.
We made the push to the very top where the last mirador (viewpoint) lay just to say we did, but we weren’t able to see much. By the time we made it back down to camp we were soaked, exhausted, and my feet had multiple blisters.
The next day was another big push, retreating out of the campsite and up towards the towers. We started early and made good time, though we ended up stopping at Campamento Chileno instead of continuing another hour up to the free site at Torres. My feet felt like they were on fire and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to continue standing, let alone hike another 5 kilometers.
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing inside by the fire and debating the merits of waking at 2:30 am to hike the last two and half hours in the dark to see the Torres at sunrise. We ended up deciding to sleep in a bit and start the hike at the more reasonable hour of 7.
The next morning we made it to Torres in great time since we weren’t weighed down with our heavy packs, and we were greeted with clear skies, and only a few other trekkers marveling at the immensity of the stone towers.
On our way down we began to encounter huge groups of hikers on their way up, as well as people on their way down who had stayed at the free Torres campsite and gotten up early to see the towers at dawn. Apparently, there was nothing much to see at dawn as the sky hadn’t yet cleared, so it turns out we’d had the perfect timing – arriving after the sky cleared, but before the bulk of the late-morning crowd appeared. We rushed back to the campsite, packed up all our gear, and started down the mountain, for the last 8 kilometers. My feet screamed at the thought of being back in my hiking boots, so I wore my New Balance barefoot trail runners for the remainder of the day and while I might not recommend them generally for multi-day hiking, they were so much more comfortable for my aching feet.
We arrived to the end of the trail with plenty of time to spare before the shuttle left for Puerto Natales, so we rewarded our tired bodies with huge glasses of beer and some of the most expensive hamburgers we’ve ever eaten. I have to say, after 4 days of oatmeal and ramen noodles with tomato paste, those hamburgers were the most delicious things ever!
After it was all said and done, we had hiked around 60 kilometers in 4 days, consumed something close to a million calories in chocolate and peanuts, and realized that we are more ‘outdoorsey’ than we thought. With the exception of one trip a million years ago when I was in college, we just don’t tend to do these kinds of multi-day outdoor hikes. We weren’t really sure what to expect, and we were both pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed ourselves. Initially we were really disappointed to not be able to do the last part of the ‘W’ trail. The thing is, Torres del Paine isn’t going anywhere, and we can always come back to finish the circuit. In fact, when we come back we plan to do the full 10-day loop, which promises to be even more spectacular than the glimpse we saw in our 4-day version.
Word on the Street
In the interest of not making a blog post into a novel, I’ve made a separate post dedicated to what you might want to know if you’re thinking of doing this hike. Look for it in the next few days!
Until then, check out the slideshow on Flickr!