Patagonian Classic: Trekking the ‘W’ in Torres del Paine

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By Michael Lanza

We march upward through innumerable switchbacks on the steep and dusty last mile of trail to the Torres del Paine. Small stands of Patagonia’s ubiquitous, twisted lenga trees cling to an otherwise barren mountainside of dirt and rock, earth overturned by glaciers and continually rubbed raw by the abrasive wind.

The whitewater roar of the Rio Ascencio fades as it slips away below us, replaced by the moan of gusts that grow stronger and colder as Jeff and I climb higher. In these last days of the austral summer, we’re suited up as if for winter in warm hats, gloves, and waterproof-breathable jackets over fleece.

Nearly six miles from the trailhead, we clamber onto boulders as big as refrigerators and look up. Three sheer-walled granite thumbs jut 5,000 feet straight up above an emerald glacial lake. Dark, gray clouds swirl around them, streaming off the summits as if the peaks are blowing smoke. They hint at gales up there that might make the wind blasting us seem calm.

These towers in the heart of southern Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park—which lend the park its name—look intimately familiar from the many pictures I’ve seen. And yet, they are kind of surreal, too massive to really comprehend their scale.

Suddenly, and very much without my consent, I am weightless and moving.

The abrupt, powerful gust releases me a moment later, several steps from where I was standing. I somehow managed to stay on my feet hopping across boulders as the bullying air gave me a very rough shove. Jeff and I exchange looks that say “whoa!” and laugh out loud. We’ve now been formally introduced to the infamous Patagonian wind. It will knock us around many more times in the days ahead.

 

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My Boise friend Jeff Wilhelm and I have come to southern Chile in the second half of March to hike in what is undoubtedly one of the most prized trekking destinations in the world: Torres del Paine National Park. From here, we’ll fly to the very tip of South America to set out on the southernmost trek in the world, the Dientes Circuit.

In a sense, though, Torres del Paine is merely where we ended up. We really came here in pursuit of something bigger and more slippery: the reality behind a legend.

The region called Patagonia has earned a cache among adventurers that’s rivaled by very few places on the planet. It’s an ultimate aspiration for trekkers all over the world. We refer to it like a one-name celebrity. And saying “I want to go to Patagonia” is like saying you want to hike the Rocky Mountains—it’s rather vague.

Being nebulous is acceptable when you’re dreaming big. But there comes a time to fulfill the dream, and that means sticking a pin on the map and poking holes in all of your preconceived notions.

You could say that, perhaps like every other international trekker here, we’ve come to discover the actual meaning of the word “Patagonia.” As is usually the case when you finally visit a place, we’ll find that Patagonia is more complicated, difficult, and rewarding than we imagined.

Not to mention quite breezy.

 


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Jeff Wilhelm standing below the Torres del Paine.

By its broadest definition, Patagonia sprawls over nearly 400,000 square miles (about one million square kilometers) of southern Chile and Argentina—almost as large as California and Montana combined, with a population comparable to Houston. The name Patagonia conjures visions of severely vertical stone monoliths thousands of feet tall, peaks that resemble sharp, dangerous kitchen implements stood on end. And in Torres del Paine, we see those peaks. But like most foreign visitors, we were surprised to discover that much of the region is a flat, treeless pampas.

In the five-hour drive from the small city of Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine, we see almost no manmade structures save for barbed-wire strung between stick fence posts, and hardly another person until we’re stopped in a two-lane highway because gauchos are leading a herd of sheep across the road. When the sun briefly pierces the armor of the hurrying clouds, the grassland’s subtle greens and browns seem to glow. The sudden spray of sunlight lends the landscape and sky a depth that magnifies the sense of vast emptiness. You can understand why the American outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled to here, believing the world could never catch up with them.

 


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Torres del Paine towers.

Torres del Paine towers.

Most trekkers bound for Patagonia end up in one or both of two parks, each the Yosemite of its respective nation: Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park, home of the famed Mount Fitz Roy, or here in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, south of Los Glaciares.

The first group of tourists to visit Torres del Paine included the British writer and feminist Lady Florence Dixie, a big-game hunter who brought a jaguar home from Patagonia to keep as a pet. She introduced the wider world to the three now-iconic towers, describing them in her 1880 book Across Patagonia. In 1959, Chile established it as Parque Nacional de Turismo Lago Grey—Grey Lake National Tourism Park—and then changed the name in 1970 to Torres del Paine. In 1978, it became a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

Jeff and I came here hankering to hike the 65-mile (104.5k) Paine Circuit around the Cordillera del Paine; thinking like backpackers, we liked the aesthetic completeness of it. But upon learning that the weather on the north side of the mountains was so bad lately that part of the trail may be flooded and impassable, and we wouldn’t see a thing, we opted for the increasingly popular trek known simply as the “W.” Roughly 31 miles (50k), depending on variations, the “W” sticks to the south side of the mountains, which often have better weather, and takes in some of the park’s finest scenery: the Torres del Paine, the French Valley, and Grey Glacier and Lago Grey, or Grey Lake.

There aren’t many places in the world—and certainly few this remote—with as much of an international feel as this park. In the line of perhaps two dozen trekkers waiting to enter the tiny permit office at Torres del Paine, we stood with other Americans, Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, Germans, Spaniards, Israelis, and other foreigners. I’m reminded of Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit or Switzerland’s Bernese Alps: Talking with other trekkers, you can forget for a moment what country you’re in. And I laughed seeing a bumper sticker from a favorite New England ski area in the window of the Refugio Chileno hut: “Mad River Glen—Ski It If You Can.”

But once out on the trail, there’s no forgetting where you are.

 

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Lago Nordenskjold and the peaks of Torres del Paine National Park.

On our second morning in Torres del Paine, with several dozen other foreigners, we take a one-hour catamaran ferry ride across one of the park’s big lakes, Lago Pehoe. Most of the passengers crowd onto the open upper deck, aiming cameras and phones at the unreal, serrated skyline of peaks above the lake. The ferry drops us at the Paine Grande Lodge, which opened in recent years on Pehoe’s shore with bunkrooms for 100 guests, a dining room, bar, hot showers, and even a couple of computers with Internet service.

From the lodge, which actually sits, like the lake, just a few hundred feet above sea level, we look out on jagged peaks that rise to about 9,000 feet. It’s some of the starkest relief I’ve seen anywhere in the world—like looking at Yosemite Valley stacked atop one of the deep valleys of Glacier National Park.

By afternoon, Jeff and I start the seven-mile hike on the Grey Trail to the Refugio Grey hut.

The trail ascends a rocky canyon and bounces along a low ridge a few hundred feet above the seven-mile-long, crooked finger of Lago Grey. Icebergs float in the white-capped water, piling up in a cove on the downwind shore. Ahead of us, the face of the Grey Glacier rises above the lake’s north end. Thousands of feet overhead, lenticular clouds hover like UFOs over sheer granite pinnacles that sport a gleaming sheen of ice.

 

Above Lago Grey.

Above Lago Grey.

Just like yesterday, rain and fleeting moments of sunshine trade places frequently, but the wind doesn’t take a break. Again, we’re hiking in pants, rain shells over fleece, warm hats and gloves. I have to remind myself that there are a couple days still left in summer. Occasional gusts spin us around, as if someone as big as the Hagrid character in the Harry Potter books were grabbing our packs from behind and shaking us.

Where the trail drops off the ridge, we walk through denser woods of somewhat taller trees all leaning in the same direction, away from the constant onslaught of air. It looks like the amusement-park funhouse version of a forest. Moss carpets virtually everything. Waterfalls plunge over cliffs.

Looking over our surroundings, Jeff says, “I feel like a hobbit.”

 

We reach Refugio Grey by late afternoon. A fairly new wood hut on the shore of Lago Grey, it sleeps 30 people in several bunkrooms. Some trekkers camped outside in rain-soaked tents are hanging out in the dining room, buying their meals in here. Jeff and I drop our packs on a couple of bunks and hit the dining room for dinner. Prepared by a crew whose median age is, I’d guess, below the minimum for drinking legally, the food is nothing special, but there’s plenty of it.

Later, besides the usual noise of people coming and going in a hut bunkroom, the wind buffets the building walls all night long—thumping, whistling, and moaning like a haunted house in a B-movie thriller. Locals tell us the wind sometimes tops 120 miles (200k) per hour. Hounding us day and night, it starts to feel like a wild animal stalking us.

On top of that, the hut’s young Chilean staff parties late downstairs, talking and laughing over Bob Marley blaring from a boom box; breakfast will come later than scheduled tomorrow morning. I quickly learn to sleep with earplugs in these huts.

 

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The Grey Glacier in Torres del Paine National Park.

A rumble of thunder rises over the background noise of the wind on our third morning. Although the persistent heavy overcast again spits on our efforts as we hike uphill from Refugio Grey, the thunder we heard didn’t come from the sky. Minutes later, Jeff and I step onto a rocky overlook a few hundred feet above the snout of the Grey Glacier. Below us, a slowly widening ring of small bergs floats in the lake, shrapnel from a massive chunk of the glacier that just calved off with that booming sound.

We’ve left the hut carrying only some clothes—most of which, of course, we’re wearing—plus water and food to hike about six miles along the stretch of the Paine Circuit above the Grey Glacier. Heading north toward Paso John Garner, we won’t go as far as the 4,032-foot (1,229-meter) pass. By midday, we plan to turn around. We’ll collect the rest of our gear at Refugio Grey and hike the seven miles back to the Paine Grande Lodge by early evening.

A bit more than two miles from the hut, not far beyond a few wet tents in the backcountry camping area called Campamento Los Guardas, we leave the tilting forest behind. The trail traverses a glacier-scoured mountainside of bedrock and loose turf. Inch-high mosses and other tiny plants cover the ground in a painter’s palette of colors. The occasional stunted, gnarled lenga springs from the thin soil, its branches “flagged,” or all pointed downwind as if each tree were cowering from this malevolent air stream.

The French Valley.

The French Valley.

The Grey Glacier sweeps out below us, spanning two miles across to snowy mountains. It reaches much deeper into the mountains than the far edge we can see melting away into clouds and fog. This river of ice meanders 17 miles down from the 6,500-square-mile Campo de Hielo Sur, or Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second-largest ice cap on Earth outside the poles and one of two massive ice caps of the Patagonian Andes.

Much of the glacier displays a scarred surface of narrow crevasses separating fins of dirt-stained, blue-white ice. It resembles hundreds of thousands of thick potato chips standing on end. As we walk the trail, gaping in awe at the glacier, the wind pours over us like a frigid waterfall; we pull shell hoods up to partly shield our cheeks from the wind’s sharp raking. When we remove any article of clothing for any reason, whether a glove or jacket, we never set it down on the ground—it would be gone instantly, en route to Argentina. Twice the trail crosses deep, wide, boulder-strewn gorges, where we climb down and up hundred-foot-tall steel ladders anchored by thick cables to crumbling earthen walls.

Hours later, after a full day of raw showers, bullying gusts, and scenery we didn’t want to leave, we’re walking toward the glowing lights of Paine Grande Lodge just after dark. Inside, we eagerly hit the bar for beers, toasting the fact that we just celebrated Jeff’s birthday by covering 19 miles of Patagonian ground. It was one of the most amazing days of hiking I’ve ever had.

 

A close-up of the Grey Glacier in Torres del Paine National Park.

One last damp, impressively windy day greets us on our final morning in Torres del Paine. Jeff and I start out early to dayhike from the Paine Grande Lodge to the French Valley and back, planning to return in time to catch the late-afternoon ferry across Lago Pehoe.

The rain falls lightly at first, then steadily. After a while, the overcast separates and the sun dodges and fakes around clouds, giving the impression the sky might actually clear. Anywhere else, sunshine suddenly blasting from a splash of blue sky is merely a welcome change. Here, it’s like a precious gift. It grabs your attention, makes you forget whatever you were talking about and look around in disbelief.

But within minutes, the weather shifts again. It morphs from blue sky to a downpour to sunshine again and then yet another rain squall—all within the space of 15 minutes. My jacket hood snapping in the wind sounds like an automatic rifle.

But as we ascend the French Valley, the clouds lift enough to let us see why this is one of the park’s scenic highlights. A large glacier tumbles off the cliffs on our left. Waterfalls and roaring whitewater cascades plunge down the valley walls. Enormous granite towers with names that translate to Shark’s Fin, The Sword, The Blade, and Cathedral Mountain peek in and out of the misty, drifting overcast.

 

And, of course, the wind stalks us all day, hurling pellets of rain—it’s starting to give us the impression we’re not welcome. I wonder what it must be like earlier in summer, when locals say it’s even windier. I’m reminded of our first day in the park, when that big gust had sent me stumbling over boulders below the Torres del Paine. That evening, the manager of the yurts where we stayed had said to us, without a trace of irony: “Nice day today. Not too windy.”

Tomorrow, in the car on the highway heading back to Punta Arenas, gusts will frequently push the vehicle across the median strip—making me glad there’s very little traffic out here. But our driver, a woman in her thirties who works for a shuttle service and grew up here, will wave her hand nonchalantly and tell us in her halting English, “I have much ’sperience driving in wind. This is nothing.”

This much we’ve learned about the real Patagonia: The tales about the wind are not exaggerated. We also discovered that, while the multitudes of foreign trekkers in Torres del Paine can make it feel like a name on a list with a checkmark beside it, the mountains, lakes, and glaciers exceed expectations, no matter how many pictures you’ve seen of them. The experience of trekking here is wet, cold, and exhausting, and will stay with you long after you’ve returned to your warm home.

 


Click here for The Big Outside Trip Planner: Trekking the ‘W’ in Torres del Paine National Park

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See all of my stories about Torres del Paine National Park and about trekking in Patagonia. Also, you can combine a trek in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park with the much more rugged and rarely hiked Dientes Circuit—it’s a one-hour, 15-minute flight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams.

 

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8 Responses to Patagonian Classic: Trekking the ‘W’ in Torres del Paine

  1. Fred Chan   |  March 11, 2015 at 5:47 am

    We just returned from TdP (late Feb 2015) and would like to report some recent changes in CONAF regulations. Camp Brittanico in the Valle Francais is now closed, probably permanently. More importantly, to camp at Camp Torres, a reservation is required. This is not commonly known or reported in guidebooks or any website. The reservation can be made at Laguna Amarga or Camp Italiano only. We were almost turned back by the rangers until they took sympathy for our wives and let us camp in the “barrio”. Fortunately, Camp Torres was not crowded that night. And make sure you take a good tent. We have a high end lightweight tent that got flattened (literally!) 3 times when we camped at Paine Grande.

    • MichaelALanza   |  March 17, 2015 at 9:08 am

      Thanks for that useful update and the advice, Fred. Very helpful for other readers.

  2. robertarmstrong   |  January 16, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    Regarding shoes – do good trail shoes suffice for the W route or do you really need full fledged hiking boots? We’re planning on staying in the refugios so our packs should be pretty light and I assumed my salomons would be adequate and that the comfort and weight would make them the better choice. Thanks!

    • michaellanza   |  January 18, 2015 at 5:38 pm

      Hi Robert, the W can be a very wet hike, and while lightweight shoes may provide adequate support for you, if that’s what you’re used to hiking in, you may find the persistent rain and wet trailside vegetation soaking through your shoes (even if they have a waterproof-breathable membrane). If you’re fine with wet feet, or wear waterproof socks, then that’s not an issue for you.

  3. Rick   |  November 29, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    This is great and thanks for sharing. How difficult would you rate the “W” trek for a beginner? I will be going with 5 other friends and want to make sure I have enough time to finish it safely.

    Also what type of rain paints would suffice? Do you recommend something like GoreTex or a water resistant pant. We plan to go in Jan/Feb.

    Thx

    • michaellanza   |  November 30, 2014 at 9:40 am

      Hi Rick, I think you’d find the “W” trek moderately difficult if you follow the itinerary I lay out above, and probably easier than the complete circuit around the mountains (although I didn’t do the latter). There are climbs and descents that are moderately steep and sustained, but also sections that ascend and descend gradually. The hike up the Rio Ascencio to the Torres del Paine towers is gradual until the final mile, which climbs steeply through switchbacks. The French Valley is similarly gentle at first, then grows a bit steeper. The trail beyond Refugio Grey gets strenuous, but also is one of the more exciting and scenic legs of the “W.”

      I wore soft-shell pants that block some wind and repel water, with waterproof gaiters, a system I prefer because I tend to overheat in waterproof-breathable rain pants (like Gore-Tex); plus, the on-and-off rain and drizzle of Patagonia gives those pants a chance to dry out (as you hike). But someone who gets cold easily may prefer rain pants, in part to help trap more heat and block the wind better, because the wind is almost constant. More than that, prepare for chilly conditions made more difficult by strong winds. I’m accustomed to hiking and backpacking in northerly continental U.S. mountains, and I found that late summer and early fall in Patagonia (when I was there, the equivalent of mid- to late September in the Northern Hemisphere) felt like October in northern New England or the Pacific Northwest.

  4. Sebastian   |  September 12, 2014 at 2:55 am

    Wonderfull insight! can you please tell me in which season you went to torres del paine? and which clothing you took there and considered enough so i dont overpack? i wont be having too much space in my pack and im trying to decide when would be best to go, thanks!

    • michaellanza   |  September 13, 2014 at 6:52 am

      Hi Sebastian, we visited Torres del Paine at the very end of the austral summer, in the second half of March. As my story mentions above, I recommend a warm hat and gloves and good, waterproof-breathable jacket, boots, and gaiters. I would bring layers for temperatures that could be comfortably cool, but also below freezing, or often just above freezing with a lot of wind and rain.

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