Passionate Patagonia: Hiking the "W" Trek in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

One of the top five treks of my lifetime.

By: Rob Feakins
July 11, 2016

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It is 4 am. I am standing in a blizzard, 60 mph winds driving snowflakes up my nostrils, shivering. It is 25 degrees, and I am dressed merely in a t-shirt, pants and hiking boots and to make matters worse, I can’t find my tent.

As I approach what I think is my tent I whisper, “Andrew?” A gruff voice responds, “NOT Andrew. “

It was our first night in Patagonia and being 59 years old, I had to get up to pee. 

Unfortunately, I had not paid attention to what color our tent was when we set it up with our guide. As I stared bleakly into the blinding flakes, I realized there were only a mere 60 tents to choose from in our campground. Can you get hypothermia going to the bathroom in the middle of the night I wonder?

I was in the Paine Grande Campground, hunkered down with my good friend from high school, Andrew. For many Paine Grande Campground is the first stop on the glorious W Trek in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.

Two things had already struck me that first day. Just how absolutely stunning the landscape is. And two, just how fierce the infamous Patagonia weather can be.

Hiking up to Grey’s Glacier we had experienced 90 mph gusts that knocked you down if you didn’t lean into them.

Patagonia has mountains and fjords as far as the eye can see.

The rawness of this country can be attributed to several things. The inaccessibility of the land, the landscape, lack of people, lack of development and, yes, the weather.

To get there from where I lived in Connecticut, I had to fly overnight from New York to Santiago, then take a four hour flight to Punta Arenas and then take a three hour bus ride (where all you see are sheep ranches, pampas and mountains peeking in the distance) to Puerto Natales. 15 hours of travel time alone. Even then you still aren’t in Torres del Paine National Park. I think this is why the region thankfully isn’t developed yet.

The day after our bus arrived at the bus terminal in Puerto Natales opposite the town’s jail (I would suggest the mayor move one of the two to enhance tourism), we took a scenic boat ride, past penguins, waterfalls and glaciers towards the park. On the boat, we got our first glimpse of the famous towers.

It’s important to note here: that the W trek typically takes four days of hiking not including travel. Our trek with Southern Explorations was designed so we climbed to the famous towers last. Looking back on it, I think this is the best itinerary. Otherwise, instead of taking a boat up the fjord towards the park, one would drive and begin at the other end near Paine Campground and hike to the towers the first day. By saving the hike to the towers for the last day, we were in effect saving the best for last. 

After getting off the boat in Bernardo O’Higgins Park, we hiked up to see magnificent Serrano Glacier. If you’ve ever doubted climate change, this will certainly change your mind as you hike past marker after marker designating where the terminus of the glacier used to be.

We then suited up in storm weather gear for a thrilling zodiac boat ride up the Serrano River to enter Torres del Paine National Park.

After a night camped by the Serrano River, we took a boat the next morning across Lake Pehoe in high winds. We were supposed to take a boat to Grey Glacier but it was cancelled due to high waves from the fierce winds that blew across the lake... a not so subtle hint of the weather to come.

This was to be our first leg of the W Trek, hiking towards Grey Glacier. At Grey Glacier overlook, we were blasted by 90 mile an hour winds. Which literally knocked you down if you didn’t lean into the wind. After going to the glacier, we then hiked back down and camped in Paine Grande Campground.

This campground is the big jumping off point for the W Trek and other treks so it is the most crowded. And this was where I got lost at 4 in the morning.

Peeking out of our tent the next morning, we awoke to see the sunrise exploding over Lake Pehoe. It is one of the most stunning sunrises I have ever witnessed. There was a light covering of snow around us and a good dusting of snow on the Paine Massif above us.

We hiked beneath the Paine Massif that morning towards the French Valley.

Winds hitting scenic Lake Nordenskjold sent water plumes hurtling up 80 feet in the air. While the sky was clear, it was another hint of the weather to come.

Hiking up into dramatic French Valley we were forced to turn back down as horizontal rain and sleet forced the park service to close the northern overlook.

Our “trail” was now a foot deep torrent. And we ended the day, cold, wet and tired at Refugio Cuernos. The refugios are a Patagonia tradition. They are buildings where you can buy meals, warm yourself by potbelly stoves and if necessary rent a shared bunk room (ala a hostel) with the bathroom down the hall. Some refugios also rent cabins.

We warmed up, ate dinner that night in the refugio, listened to wild tales of Patagonia from our guide Alejandro and stumbled wearily back out to our tent.

The next day started out cold and snowy, but the view of the mountains above the refugio was indescribably dramatic. Moody, snow-dusted peaks peaked out of the storm clouds.

Within a couple of hours, the sun had come back out, and the day brightened as we sat by the lake looking in awe at Mount Almirante Nieto.

Because of the wind and proximity to the coast, the air in Patagonia is the freshest I have ever breathed. To me, fresher than even Nepal. Photographs taken there are some of the crispest I have ever seen. There is no haze, no air pollution. And the trails are pristine. Our guide, Alejandro would stop to pick up the smallest gum wrapper. Clearly litter is something the Chilean culture doesn’t tolerate.

Towards the end of the day the peak of Cerro Paine beckoned, and we trudged into Camp Torres, our campground for the last night. The Las Torres Refugio is by far the nicest. And some choose to camp here because of that even though it means a longer hike the next day up to the Towers. There is a refugio closer to the towers, Chilenos, up in the mountains below the Towers. But after the weather of the previous days, it was nice to feel the warmth and hospitality of the Las Torres Refugio.

The next morning we woke up to another wonderful sunrise and hiked beneath Patagonia’s famous lenticular clouds past Cerro Paine. The hike from the base in Camp Torres can take anywhere from three to four hours depending upon weather. As we hiked up that morning we noticed some horses dwarfed by the mountains above. 

As we got within an hour of the towers we were climbing in close to half a foot of freshly fallen snow. It was slippery but simply stunning.

Alejandro led us to a ledge slightly above the lake at the Towers for some unique photographs. 

I found the Towers (which is what the park is named after) breath-taking, but the view back across the valley (which showed a storm quickly approaching) was equally awe-inspiring.

After some celebratory shots and back slaps, we hurriedly trudged back down from the towers before the storm hit and our legs wobbled into Camp Torres. It had been an absolutely wonderful trip. 

We had wanted a dose of adventure and Torres del Paine over-delivered. As we drove out of the Park we took photograph after photograph of the Towers as they grew smaller in the distance.

I have found that is sometimes best to look back upon trips (years later) after doing a few more trips and seeing how they linger.

Patagonia is simply stunning. Clean, fresh, raw, rugged and a hundred other adjectives that can’t capture a marvelous wind swept landscape of seemingly endless mountains. 

It whispers for one to return. 

I hope I return to passionate Patagonia many more times in my lifetime, I whisper back.     

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Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.