We made it! Yesterday afternoon we arrived back in Puerto Natales after a successful 5 day / 4 night expedition along the famous W Trek in Torres del Paine National Park, although for us it was very much a lowercase rather than an uppercase W for reasons I will explain later. In any case there are many different ways to hike the W so, for reference, here is the version we did:
Day 1: Paine Grande – Grey (11km)
After renting our gear (tent, sleeping bags, mats, walking poles and cooking equipment) and stocking up on food in Puerto Natales the night before we got the 7am bus into the park and then waited for the catamaran to take us across Lake Pehoé to our starting point at Paine Grande. There is only one vessel and we didn’t make it onto the first ride, so after queuing for an extra hour (during which time I reached the pivotal plot twist in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch) it was already lunchtime before we could start our first hike.
As you can see from the map, in terms of making a nice W shape the first day’s hike is actually completely redundant since we just walked back the next day. Still, based on the distance and altitude we both expected that the first two days would be our easiest. We were totally wrong. The first day especially was the hardest. Partly this was environmental – some parts of this route are seriously windy, and there’s a fair amount of uphill and downhill sections – but mostly it was on us. Starting later in the day is definitely worse but I also wore too many layers, didn’t strap my bag up properly and had not yet settled into the walking. We were also way slower than the guide time of three and a half hours, which wasn’t a problem in itself but was worrying given the subsequent trips we had to make.
The worst part was when Randi tripped and fell forwards onto a rocky downhill path, which left a cut on her forehead but thankfully no serious damage. We’re grateful to the helpful group of French hikers behind us who stopped to offer aid and checked for concussion before moving on! Serious public service announcement though: when we rented the walking poles, the woman at Erratic Rock warned us not to use the wrist straps. We followed her advice, and Randi was able to throw off the poles when falling. If she hadn’t been able to she could easily have broken her wrist and wouldn’t have been able to shield her head. So please follow the advice and ignore the wrist straps on walking poles!
Suffice to say, we were both extremely glad to reach Refugio Grey, put up our tent, take a hot shower and cook our first dinner using the little foldout burner which looked eerily like a robotic spider from a Doctor Who episode.
We also dutifully followed the camp’s rules and left all our food tied up in a bag and dangling from a tree overnight, even though I was pretty convinced that we would wake up the next morning to find five days worth of food spread all over the campsite. Spoiler alert: we didn’t! And so after a long day we had a recuperating and relatively comfortable night’s sleep in our tent, which joyfully didn’t blow away either.
Day 2: Grey – Paine Grande (11km)
I’ve deliberately focused on the worst parts about the first day’s hike so I would have something to write about here 😉 and I do, because the journey between Grey and Paine Grande offers amazing views of Glacier Grey! As we set out in the morning I wasn’t sure if knowing the route in advance would make things easier or harder but we did much better the second time around (only half an hour slower than the guide time) with no falling over and happier spirits overall.
Some of this might have to do with the delicious breakfast of porridge and calafate jam, topped off by tea and even some milk which was donated to us by a kind (but very unhappy) Australian woman. “The Australian woman” became a bit of a talisman for us, actually, as she kept popping up at various points along the route and complaining bitterly to Randi about what a miserable time she was having. Any of our problems seemed very mild in comparison.
We arrived at Paine Grande, struggled to put up our tent (not because it was hard but because it looked wrong, which we eventually decided was the wind’s fault) and then copied everyone else by placing large rocks over the stakes just in case. After dinner we also bought more eggs to hard boil, having very much appreciated this snacking suggestion from a Canadian back in our hostel in El Calafate. Thanks for the great idea!
Day 3: Paine Grande – Mirador Francés – Francés (13.5km)
By the third day we were really hitting our stride and by this point onwards we either met or exceeded the guide times for the routes. After walking to Campamento Italiano (this is the basic campsite run by the park itself, which is free but does not come with any fancy frivolities like flushing toilets or showers) we left our bags and walking poles and headed uphill on the way to the Británico lookout.
This is where the ‘lowercase W’ comes in, because we didn’t get anywhere close to Británico… in fact, we almost turned back before reaching any great sights at all – which would have been a real shame – but luckily someone who was coming back down saw our tired faces and volunteered the information that Mirador Francés was only five minutes away. (In fact, he even called it ‘the main viewpoint’ which makes me feel a lot better.) And so we reached this checkpoint and declared victory, leaving Británico as a reason to come back to Torres del Paine at some point in the future.
As well as feeling that we had rescued success from the jaws of failure I also enjoyed Mirador Francés because it turned out that the couple we stopped and asked to take our photo were from Nottingham but the woman was originally from Willesden! Normally this would be the very lowest rung on this type of conversion (“Where are you from?” “London” “Where in London?” “North West London” “Where in North West London?” “Willesden”) but I was delighted to be able to go one deeper with the never-before-uttered “Where in Willesden?!”, although then she responded with “not the Green!” so we didn’t quite get to street level. Even so – standing at the top (OK, the middle) of a mountain in Chile – I felt an instant bond with this woman from Willesden and hope very much that she and her partner made it down in time for their boat.
After making it down again we only had a short 2km walk on to the Francés campsite (yes, this one does have showers – rather nice ones) and set up our tent on a wooden platform. I acknowledge that the hills might make platforms necessary in this area but our tent didn’t really have enough ropes to tie down so we ended up with a rather sad-looking tent. We shrugged this off by purchasing two cans of Austral lager (it’s really good) and then cooking our pasta on the edge of the platform. This was the only place where we were allowed to actually cook outside (which was nice) although it was also the only place where we accidentally dumped our entire dinner onto the ground while trying to strain the water. Wah-wah. The very good news was that we had a backup rice packet ready to go which ended up tasting even better with our sauce and tuna. It was still a true moment of failure but I was just glad we hadn’t burnt the tent down.
At Francés we were sheltered from the wind, and the thunder-like noises which rumbled on intermittently in the background were actually just the avalanches which go on all the time. But that night, as I was lying in my sleeping bag reading the very last chapter of The Goldfinch, I heard the pitter-patter sound against fabric of our first rainfall.
Day 4: Francés – Chileno (18km)
Happily, we awoke in the morning to find that although it was still raining our tent had kept everything relatively dry and after breakfast we set off early for our longest walk of the trip. Back at our prep talk at Erratic Rock we had been advised not to faff around too much with coats and waterproof trousers and bag covers and the like and just embrace getting wet, so in this spirit I decided (for the first time) to start hiking in only my t-shirt and kept it that way despite the rain. I can’t be sure whether this would have been a good decision if we had been seriously drenched but as it happened the rain stayed relatively light before disappearing completely by the afternoon, never to be seen again. And wearing only one layer definitely felt better and added a good psychological incentive not to stop too much in case I felt cold.
For whatever reason we completed this journey faster than expected and what was supposed to be the hardest day ended up feeling the easiest. The terrain was also flatter, the path more secluded and with less wind we could hear each other well enough to start playing word games to pass the time. We reached Chileno, checked-in to our dormitory – despite booking well in advance, this refugio had already run out of camping spaces by the time we planned the trip – and I celebrated with the priciest but nicest Fanta I’ve ever had. I don’t care if that sounds anti-climactic: you weren’t there, you didn’t drink this Fanta. It was amazing. Things got even more luxurious at dinner as you’re not allowed fire at Chileno, so instead of eating sad and cold food we paid for a hot dinner and I had a very tasty beef sandwich/burger thing. I’m not completely sure if the reason it tasted so good was because we didn’t have to cook it ourselves but I don’t think that’s (completely) true.
Day 5: Chileno – Mirador base de las Torres – Hotel las Torres (13.8km)
Apart from not reaching the Británico viewpoint the only other canonical part of the W trek which “you have to do” (but we absolutely did not do) was wake up at some ungodly hour and scramble up a rocky cliff edge for several hours in pitch black in order to see las Torres at sunrise.
Instead we left at 7am and saw the park’s eponymous towers by daylight and they were quite beautiful enough, thank you very much. Don’t believe everything you read on travel blogs, kids.
We did feel a bit pushed for time on the last day because we wanted to catch the 2pm shuttle bus out of the park rather than waiting for the later one at 7pm. So we set off back down from las Torres at a determined pace, stopping quickly for lunch and final repacking at Chileno before continuing all the way down to the hotel and welcome centre at the eastern entrance to the park. Thankfully it became clear that we were decently ahead of schedule and although my knee was hurting from the steep descent I was mostly just feeling very, very glad that we had never had to walk this path in the other direction. Sure, we must have covered the same altitude on the previous day, but our route had never felt like a nasty uphill slog.
Since we had been going downhill we weren’t even particularly wiped out by the time we reached the welcome centre, paid for the shuttle bus and rode back into Puerto Natales. But we did feel a sense of accomplishment – we’d completed the W trek, and enjoyed it! We got back into town with enough time to return all of our rented equipment, check back into the Airbnb where we had left the rest of our stuff and then celebrate with drinks, pizza and dessert pizza. Also, we could throw out stuff into bins again! When you have to carry everything on your back it is really annoying not to be able to throw away rubbish. Yes yes, I understand why. I’m just saying that bins are an under-appreciated part of civilisation.
Although the W Trek was my first multi-day unguided trek I had felt pretty ready for it given that I’d already done most of the constituent parts over the years (hiking, camping, getting used to sleeping bags) and had even accumulated most of the equipment to do it comfortably. In fact, special shout-outs are due to Tash for a microfibre towel, Jesús for the waterproof bag and Randi’s mum Beth for my hiking shoes – all of these gifts over the years really came together on this trek!
There’s very little that I would change if I were doing it again. The biggest thing I’ve learnt is probably to buckle and tighten all of the straps on my backpack, even the fiddly little side ones which seem superfluous. And also that earlier start times really do make a big difference. I was a little bit worried about my back because it had started hurting in the week leading up to the trek, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that so many different body parts started to hurt over the course of the W – one day my shoulders, the next an ankle – that by the end I had completely forgotten about my back and could enjoy a real anthology collection of aches.
For anyone still reading (and I expect even Randi’s parents – who apparently take turns reading our blogs out loud – have given up by now) I have two more important notes about the W. The first is that some of the signage is just flat-out wrong. It’s really odd, because the whole thing is generally very well-organised, the trails are very popular and busy and you’re given a decent map to use on the way in. But then some of the engraved wooden signs state utterly wrong distances or have landmarks in the wrong place, to the extent that someone has made corrections with a ballpoint pen. Dear CONAF: maybe you should fix this?
The second thing is that when walking for this many hours you are bound to get a jingle stuck in your head, so choose wisely. Mine was la vida es más fácil from Chile’s Unimarc supermarket, which can be heard here in a cheesy 80s ad but is still played at regular intervals in-store and is really quite delightful. If Jewel in Chicago played a theme tune which was even half as good as this I would never have complained about them.
Tomorrow we get back on a bus to Argentina and thinking about this made me realise that Chile – even accounting for the interruption to visit El Calafate in Argentina last week – is probably now third after the UK and the US in my list of countries by longest consecutive stay. (Non-consecutively I think France is probably third, but I’d have to check some things with my mum on that one.) So farewell, Chile! It’s been a lot of fun.