Chile - Torres del Paine - Los Cuernos

Torres del Paine National Park

I returned to Chile to hike the world-famous W-Trek in Torres del Paine National Park. The three granite towers that give the park its name are probably the most popular Patagonia photo on Instagram. While granite peaks dominate the landscape of the 1810-sq-km park, it’s also full of glacial lakes, roaring rivers, subpolar forests, and glaciers. Located near the southern end of the inhabited world, Torres del Paine National Park receives fewer than 150,000 annual visitors. In contrast, Grand Canyon National Park admits 5 million visitors annually. Hikers braving Patagonia’s extreme weather see some of the world’s most spectacular mountain scenery from uncrowded trails.

The classic W-Trek is a 4-to-5 day hike on a set of trails resembling the letter “W.” I opted to join a 4-day guided tour. The tour included two guides, tent accommodation at the campsites, and meals at the refugios. The night before starting the trek, we camped inside Torres del Paine National Park at Camping Pehoe. Here I packed my 44-liter backpack with only the gear needed for four days of hiking, including my sleeping bag, sleeping mat, all-season trekking clothes, toiletries, mirrorless camera, water, and snacks. The next day, we started the 62-mile W-Trek.

Day 1: Paine Grande to Grey Glacier and Back

The first trekking day began with a ride on a catamaran across Lago Pehoe. We had a stunning view of Los Cuernos, or “The Horns,” from the deck of the catamaran. After crossing the lake, we stopped briefly at Paine Grande to set up camp. I tossed some of my gear into my tent before we started our 22 km round trip to Grey Glacier.

Chile - Torres del Paine - Paine Grande
Paine Grande Campsite

On group treks, the pace is usually slower than I like. I was pleasantly surprised that Seve, our head guide, was leading us at a fast pace. We quickly arrived at the Grey Lookout, where we had our first good look at Grey Glacier. Immediately upon seeing the glacier, I wished I could go trekking on it. Seve told me that unlike the Perito Moreno Glacier, Grey Glacier is receding because of global warming. After taking photos of the distant glacier, we carried on towards the giant river of ice.

We stopped for lunch near a stream and refilled our water bottles. On the W-Trek, the water is safe to drink from most of the streams without filtering or purification. The weather was beautiful, with bright sunshine and very little wind. Relaxing in the sun was pleasant, but we didn’t rest for long. After finishing lunch, we hurried on to Grey Lodge.

When we arrived at the lodge, Seve informed us that we were too late to continue hiking to the nearby glacier viewpoint. She said that we had to turn around. The glacier lookout point is the top of the “W” in the first leg of the W-Trek–I wasn’t about to turn around without completing the entire trek. I told Seve that I enjoy trail running, and I wanted to run to the viewpoint and catch up with the group. The others also wanted to see Grey Glacier up close, so we picked our pace. We hiked past the Grey Glacier ranger station and hustled to the viewpoint to snap some photos of the glacier. We didn’t stay long before reversing our steps to Paine Grande.

Chile - Torres del Paine - Grey Glacier
Grey Glacier

We were allowed to return to Paine Grande ahead of the guides, so I ran back. I arrived just as the showers opened and scored a position near the front of the line. We had to take off our clothes in an undressing area and wait in the queue naked, which was awkward. The lack of privacy reminded me of showering in my high school locker room. While waiting in line, I heard cursing in a variety of languages as men turned on the shower faucets and blasted themselves with ice-cold spray. While we certainly weren’t roughing it, I wondered if staying at Paine Grande qualified as glamping.

Later in the evening, the cafeteria-style dinner at Paine Grande Lodge also reminded me of high school. Given my age relative to the other hikers, I was a teacher in a high school cafeteria full of students. During dinner, tears were shed by some group members because of the fast pace of the hiking. The guides did their best to lift the spirits of the discouraged hikers, but the remaining days of the trek are more strenuous than the first day. While briefing us on tomorrow’s trek, Seve asked how many of us wanted to hike to Británico Lookout, the top of the middle leg of the “W.” I’m the only one that committed. Some of the group was undecided. The remainder of the group wanted to stop at Italiano Ranger Station, completing a “U” instead of a “W.” We agreed to hike to Italiano Ranger Station together and then split up for the rest of tomorrow’s trek.

Day 2: Paine Grande to the French Valley to Refugio Los Cuernos

The second day started with easy hiking. The trail gently rises and dips around Lago Skottsberg before passing through a burnt forest. An Israeli backpacker accidentally started the forest fire in December of 2011 while burning toilet paper. It has been eight years since the fire, and the forest shows little signs of recovery.

Chile - Torres del Paine - Forest
Burnt Forest

After reaching the Italiano Ranger Station, we split the group. Half the group took a short break before following the trail to Refugio Los Cuernos. Those of us trekking to the Francés Valley lightened our backpacks by removing unneeded items and storing them at the ranger station. We then carried on to the Francés Valley on a steep, uphill path covered with loose stones.

By the time we reached the Francés Lookout point, the weather had turned ugly with strong winds and rain. We were experiencing the force of the Roaring Forties, westerly gales found between the latitudes of 40 and 50 degrees in the Southern Hemisphere. The brutal wind was pelting us with rain and flinging water at us from the river. Most of the group decided to turn back, but I wanted to continue to the Británico Lookout. I wanted to complete the full “W.” Our guide, Christian, was reveling in the extreme weather and was excited to lead a German hiker and me. He pounded his chest and shouted, “This is the real Patagonia!” which we could hardly hear over the howl of the wind.

We continued to the Británico Lookout at a furious pace, hiking a 2-hour distance on the map in only an hour. The low clouds cleared by the time we arrived, so we had an unobscured view of the bowl-shaped valley. The panoramic view from the Británico Lookout was my favorite of the W-Trek. From this spot, we had grandstand views of the peaks surrounding the Francés Valley. I kneeled for a photo on top of the boulders because the wind gusts made it unsafe to stand.

Chile - Torres del Paine - Britanico Lookout
Britanico Lookout

At the same furious pace, we backtracked to the Italiano Ranger Station to retrieve our gear. My feet were on autopilot, carrying me over the loose stones more efficiently than slower, deliberate hiking. Hiking is like tying your shoes; it’s best not to think about it and to let autopilot take over. I continued on autopilot the whole way to Refugio Los Cuernos, stopping only to take photos of Lago Nordenskjöld. We arrived only 30 minutes later than the group who turned around at the Francés Lookout.

The day’s hiking distance was 23.3 km, not much more than the previous day. Regardless, the trek beat the crap out of me. I wasn’t just tired. Hiking in trail running shoes was a poor decision because my feet needed more support. I should have been wearing hiking boots while carrying my fully loaded backpack and balancing on the loose boulders. My feet buckled under the strain, developing plantar fasciitis. Excessive running had caused me to develop plantar fasciitis in the past, so I recognized the minor condition and wasn’t worried about the pain.

After arriving at Refugio Los Cuernos, I relaxed in the warm sunshine with the others and downed a Cerveza Austral Helles Bock. Boy, the beer was good. Everything at Refugio Los Cuernos was good, including the view, bar, restaurant, showers, and tents. In the evening, I played cards and Jenga with the group before retreating to my sleeping bag for a good night’s sleep.

Chile - Torres del Paine - Los Cuernos Campsite
Refugio Los Cuernos and Cerveza Austral

Day 3: Refugio Los Cuernos to Camping Torres Central

The third leg of the W-Trek was easy. While we carried our fully-loaded backpacks for the entire leg, the distance was only 11.6 km over relatively flat terrain. The sun was shining, and the wind was blowing. As we skirted Lago Nordenskjöld, we watched gusts of wind whip across the surface of the lake, producing walls of spray. At times, the freight-train winds felt strong enough to blow us off our feet–we had to sit down and wait for the winds to subside. We reached the Las Torres camping zone after four hours of hiking.

Chile - Torres del Paine - Lago Nordenskjold
Roaring Forties Across Lago Nordenskjold

After checking-in at the campsite, I headed to Refugio Torre Central for a beer. Strangely, the refugio had decided to close their bar on New Year’s Eve. Luckily, the park’s Welcome Center serves Cerveza Austral. After ordering my Helles Bock, I joined a table with a couple of Aussie women. They were staying in Puerto Natales and had completed a day hike to the Las Torres Lookout. It became apparent from our conversation that I was going to be trekking to the iconic Towers alongside a lot of park visitors on New Year’s Day.

Our trekking group partied on New Year’s Eve with champagne and silly games. After drinking too much champagne, I participated in a game where we contorted our bodies to pick up a cardboard box from the ground with our teeth. I dropped out before the finals because I was worried that I would pull a muscle before completing the W-Trek. Honestly, I had no chance of winning anyway–I’m not flexible. I went to sleep shortly after midnight because I wanted to be well-rested for the final day of hiking.

Day 4: Camping Torres Central to Las Torres Lookout and Back

Torres del Paine means “towers of blue.” The Towers, three granite columns set above a blue lake, give the national park its name. The grand finale of the W-Trek is Mirador Las Torres, the lookout point at the base of The Towers. New Year’s Day morning was bitter cold when I left the warmth of my sleeping bag to begin trekking to Las Torres Lookout.

The trek began with steady climbing on a ridge following Rio Asencio. We saw “Windy Pass” signs on the trail, but it wasn’t very windy. Instead, it was cold with occasional snow flurries. Just another summer day in Patagonia! Around halfway through the hike, we stopped at Refugio El Chileno and warmed ourselves with hot chocolate.

Chile - Torres del Paine - Paso de los Vientos
Windy Pass

The final stretch to The Towers was steep and required some scrambling. When we arrived, I was relieved to find that clouds were not obscuring the view. I hopped around the rocky shore of the lake, taking photos of the mighty granite towers until my hands grew numb from the cold. The Towers are an impressive sight, even when set against a backdrop of gray skies. We ate our packed lunches at the viewpoint before starting the downhill trip back to camp.

Chile - Torres del Paine - Mirador Las Torres
Mirador Las Torres

At first, the return trip was slow going. As we were descending, day-trippers from Puerto Natales were ascending the narrow trail. Snow flurries made the trail slippery, contributing further to the traffic jams. After climbing down the steepest section, the crowds dissipated. As I quickly hiked back to camp, I felt a little sad because the W-Trek was coming to an end.

We celebrated the completion of the W-Trek with a few rounds of Cerveza Austral Helles Bock at Refugio Torre Central. The camaraderie of the trekking group was my favorite aspect of the W-Trek. Together, we battled the elements and saw some of the most beautiful landscapes that Mother Nature has to offer. It wasn’t easy, but that’s what attracted us to Patagonia in the first place.