The W Trek Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
The ‘W’ is one of South Americas most famous treks. Its located in Chilean Patagonia within the Torres del Paine national park. Its named the ‘W’ because basically the route you take represents the shape of a W. It takes the average person 5 days but is possible in 4 days for the super human. You can choose to camp or stay in one of the many luxurious refugios (lodges) along the route. You have the option of carrying and cooking all your own food or eating in the refugios. The final option is whether you hike from west to east or east to west. There are various glaciers, mountains and stunning lakes to see along the way. The trek is approximately 55km (34miles) long.
I had visited Torres del Paine 3 years previous on a 2 week tour of Patagonia with Gap Adventures. We spent 3 days in the park visiting the most famous of sites. I had left wanting more and decided that hiking the ‘W’ would be added to my bucket list.
I booked return flights to Punta Arenas from Puerto Montt which gave me 2 weeks in Patagonia. This would give me time to hopefully find some fellow hikers, get organised and wait for a period of decent weather. The weather in Patagonia is ridiculously unpredictable. They say you can get all 4 seasons in 1 day, and the wind is relentless and erratic. Sadly I did n’t meet any cool travelers and the weather forecast for the next 2 weeks was n’t good at all.
So I decided to bite the bullet and go solo no matter what the weather. Before I left for the park I attended the extremely informative free talk at the Erratic Rock hostel. Most of the information was common sense, such as ‘don’t pose for photos on the cliff edge in strong winds’ but I did find the rest really useful. This would be my first ever solo multi day trek and even my first solo camping experience. I was looking forward to the physical and mental challenge of surviving on my own for 5 days. Admittedly the trek is by nowhere near the hardest trek in the world to do by your own. Clearly marked trails, informative signs and well equipped camp sites make it possible for the novice adventurer like me.
My next task was to search frantically through the internet for ‘W packing lists’ as I did not have a clue on what and how much food to pack. The most common choices were soup and pasta. This made sense as packet soups are light and pasta is filling. Plenty of high energy snacks such as Snickers bars were also recommended.
I had already decided I would hike from West to east. Although the route in the opposite direction was touted as more scenic, I was told that on the west to east route I would have the wind on my back rather than my face. And this appealed to me greatly.
What I packed:-
I would need a total of 13 meals. My breakfast for the first day was sorted at the hostel and my dinner for day 5 would be back in the comfort of Puerto Natales. I would n’t need any water as the water in the park is drinkable and some of the purest and freshest in the world.
- 5 x Snickers
- 4 x Cereal Bars
- 1 x packet of cookies
- 12 x Tea bags
- 1 x Packet of Spaghetti
- 1 x bag of chopped noodles
- 1 x Packet of Salami
- 1 x Packet of Ham
- 4 x Bread rolls
- 1 x Packet of Cheese slices
- 1 x Pre made sandwich (Ham/cheese/ketchup)
- 4 x meat stock cubes
- 4 x Fruit flavor powder for water
- 4 x Big Packets of instant soup
- 4 x Packets of small instant soup
- 1 x bag of trail mix (Salted peanuts/roasted peanuts/raisins/chocolate drops)
I hired all my camping equipment from my hostel.
- 1 x One man tent
- 1 x Four season sleeping bag
- 1 x roll matt
- 1 x Small gas canister
- 1 x camping stove
- 1 x cooking set (Pan/spoon/water bottle)
- 2 x Walking Poles
- 1 x Hiking trousers
- 1 x Water proof trousers
- 1 x Water proof jacket
- 1 x Micro fleece
- 1 x Long sleeve base layer
- 1 x Hiking Pullover
- 4 x Hiking socks
- 3 x Underwear
- 2 x Tee-shirts
- 1 x Pair of Hiking trainers
- 1 x Beenie hat
- 1 x Sunglasses
- 1 x Head Buff
- 1 x Pair of water proof mountain gloves
- 1 x Pair of light weight gloves
Total Pack Weight: 14Kg
- 1 x Cup of Soup
- 1 x Cup of Tea
- 3 x cookies
- 1 x Cereal bar
- 1 x Pre made sandwich (1st day)
- 1 x Ham/Salami & Cheese Sandwich
- 1 x Snicker
- 1 x Big packet of Soup/Stock cube/Spaghetti/Ham/Salami
- 1 x Cup of Tea
- 3 x Cookies
I would take regular snack and water breaks through out the day. I would snack on my trail mix that I had concocted myself. To make a change from water I would add the flavored powder every now and then.
It was an early start (06.30) to take advantage of the amazing breakfast at the hostel before the 07.30 bus to the national park. The bus was full, everyone was fresh and in high spirits even if it was raining. It would take just over 2 hours to reach the park from Puerto Natales. Once everyone had paid their admittance to the park, we all had to watch a video on the rules and regulations of the park. This is because in 2011 a tourist nearly destroyed half the park by burning his shit rags and starting a huge fire.
Once all the formalities had been completed it was back on the bus to catch the catamaran across lake Pehoe to the starting point of the trek, Refugio Pain Grande. This was our first taste of the famous Patagonian wind. Strong gusts were tearing up the water of the lake causing the boat to bop up and down violently. The gusts would catch you by surprise and cause you to loose balance.
Once the catamaran arrived at Paine Grande it was straight on to the trail. Today I would hike to Refugio Grey which was 11km and would take approximately 3.5 hours. As soon as I started it started raining but at least I was sheltered from the wind by the valley and trees. The trail gradually got steeper until I reached the top of the ridge. The wind was brutal knocking me off balance and taking my breath away. I forgot about the wind and the rain briefly when I spotted a fairly decent sized iceburg gently floating on the lake to my left. This was only briefly as I was nearly knocked off my feet to the rocky ground by the latest gust. Luckily the trail leveled out and eventually descended to the safety of the forest below. It was peaceful amongst the trees and even the distant howl of the wind in the mountains above was calming.
I finally made it to Camp Grey at around 4.30pm and quickly set up my tent. It does n’t get dark until about 10.30 this far south so I had a lot of time to kill before it was time for bed. All the refugios have camping facilities such as decent toilets and showers and even a cooking room. Campers are also allowed to use the refugio bar and restaurant if desired. For tonight I was going to cook myself. My meal of choice would be Instant Tomato soup with spaghetti and a snickers bar for desert. I would like to say I enjoyed it, but I would be lying. After dinner I hiked the 10 minute trail to see the Grey glacier. The visibility was n’t great but it was still pretty cool to see the glacier and the many icebergs in the lake. I arrived back at camp and it was still light so I decided to take advantage of the warmth of the cozy bar and ordered a small bottle of red wine. This did exactly what I had hoped for. It got me a little drunk and resulted in me getting a half decent nights sleep. It was damn cold though even with my -5c rated sleeping bag.
I was up, had eaten and was packed up ready to leave by 9.30. Today I would have to trek back on the same trail I had come on yesterday and then join the trail towards the French valley and camp Italiano. During my last visit to the park 3 years previous I had actually hiked this part of the trail and up into the French valley, so I was n’t to bothered by the poor visibility. The trail was much wetter and boggier than I remembered though, and even with my best efforts of avoiding the mud, my shoes were still covered.
Camp Italiano was the first of the free campsites and had very basic facilities. There would me no comfy sofas and red wine tonight! I arrived at around 5pm and started the routine of setting up camp and cooking dinner. The camp was on the side of the valley and I found what I considered the only flat space available. Tonight it was Mushroom soup and pasta! No sooner had I finished eating the heavens opened. The camp site was situated in the forest so I had hoped the trees would shield us from the worst of the rain. How wrong was I. In fact it worked in the opposite away. Sure the worst of the rain was stopped but the bigger, heavier drips leaking down from the leaves of the trees created havoc on my tent. I feared the worst. There was n’t much to do at the camp site and in fact I was quite bored so I was tucked up in bed by 8.30pm. Tonight I decided to sleep in my fleece to beat the cold.
I dropped off to sleep fairly quickly and was woken shortly after by a drip of water on my head. I hoped this was just condensation created from my own breathing. These drips would sporadically wake me through the night until at around 3.30 I noticed my sleeping bag was fairly wet. On closer inspection I noticed in fact my pillow was quite wet. It was time for the head torch. To my horror I found a pond sized amount of water in the base of my tent. My worst nightmare had come true. My sleeping bag was soaked, my pillow soaked and my fleece, the only warm item of clothing I had also soaked. Luckily my camera and Iphone had survived the flood.
The reality had hit, my trek was over. With nothing dry to sleep in or warm to wear it would be impossible to carry on another night. The only positive I could find from the whole situation was that I had already seen most of the remaining parts of the trail.
The first section of the trail was new for me as I had n’t walked it last time. It was going to be a long trek to the end of the trail where the bus back to Puerto Natales left from. I think about 18 km in total. I set off early just before 9. The day started of misty, but the sun gradually burnt it off. Ironically today turned out to be a beautiful day. Glorious sunshine lit up the turquoise lake and finally the mountains all around were visible. There might have been a chance I could dry out most of my gear in the beaming sun, but I had a long walk ahead and could n’t afford to take the chance in case I missed the bus.
I had hoped to stop at refugio Cuernos 2.5 hours into the hike for coffee. But unfortunately the restaurant was closed. It was a quick snack and drink break then back on the trail to climb out of the valley. The huge amount of rainfall was evident as parts of the trail were flooded and like a quagmire. By this time I was n’t to bothered about keeping my shoes clean and dry so most of the time I walked straight through it. The views across the lake were stunning and the reflection of the mountains and clouds were beautiful. Although I was disappointed to be ending my trek, I was happy and really enjoying this part of the hike. It was tough though. The heat of the sun caused another problem and the trail was steep in places. I still can’t decide what is harder. Going up or going down?
Because I had left early and had changed the itinerary of the trek, there were times when I did n’t see anyone for an hour or more. It was pure bliss, so peaceful. I felt like I was the only person in the whole park at times.
The cloud was teasingly disappearing to reveal the Cuernos del Paine mountains, some of the most dramatic peaks in the whole park and they were right above my head. Now I could see what all the fuss was about. I passed various waterfalls and river crossings giving me the chance to re fill my water bottle. I even bumped into my friend and guide last time I was in the park. He was leading a group of 10 Koreans the opposite direction and was n’t impressed with their lack of willingness to follow his orders. “The last time” he said shaking his head as he left.
I finally I reached Hotel Torres, the end of the trail at around 16.30. It was a tough day and I had been walking nearly 7.5 hours and my body was starting to ache. I brought a much needed beer and waited in the sun for the 19.30 bus back to Puerto Natales. I was feeling disappointed that I could n’t finish the trail, but also glad to be heading back to a warm bed and a shower. The bus back had a totally different atmosphere. Everyone was quiet, knackered and stunk really bad. It smelt like a bus on the way back from a music festival.
Overall it was still a great experience and I would like to try another solo camping hike and some point. I had an awesome 3rd day with amazing weather and stunning views but I was done with Patagonia. For now at least.
Has anyone else had a bad camping/hiking experience? Maybe your tent leaked, was blown away or a bear ate all your food.