Glacier Grey, Torres del Paine

Conquering the W: trekking into the unknown

If someone told 21-year-old me that in ten years’ time I would be hiking over 100kms in four days over difficult terrain in a land not too far from Antarctica with unpredictable and dangerous weather, not to mention the pumas, I would have probably lol’ed and spat my strawpedoed orange reef all over them. But here we are.

We did it. We completed the famous W Trek.

Some of you must be wondering, what is this W Trek? To be fair, it can’t be that famous because I didn’t hear about it until last year either. Anyway, it’s a trek that’s shaped like a W in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. It’s absolutely stunning, but not for the faint-hearted.

This blog isn’t a useful one. It’s more of a humorous take on my experience. If you’re looking for information on how to actually do the trek check out Alex’s blog.

Learning curves

It’s day one of our trek and the bus has just pulled up to the entrance of the national park. Here, we have to get off to sign our lives away in a form and watch a video that contains loads of rules. At the end, the video rather light-heartedly states that failure to follow the rules will almost certainly lead to death. Great. I was already feeling nervous about my ability to do this.
We grab our bags off the coach, Alex immediately breaking his new Camelpak (water dispenser) and having a toddler-style melt down, and head over to the shuttle that takes us to the start of the trek.

The first day is mainly uphill in the rain but it only takes two hours to arrive at Camp Chileno, which is where we are staying the first night. We get checked in and we’re told to put our tent up on plataforma veinte-tres (23) while the guy hands us a bucket of nails and a hammer. That’s a new one, never needed a hammer and nails to pitch a tent before. Only, we didn’t realise that plataforma literally meant a wooden platform jutting out of the side of a very steep hill. A wooden platform that isn’t big enough for our tent. We set to work and do a pretty good job in my opinion, given the circumstances, so we leave the tent and head off to viewpoint number one.

This viewpoint is to the famous torres (towers) after which the park is named, and it takes about three hours to reach it. We’re enjoying ourselves and after a couple of hours we reach a group of people stood about on the trail. The last third of the trail – the bit that goes up to the towers – is closed. Are you joking? We see a few people sneak through the closed barrier and carry on up, so we follow them. After an hour of climbing we make it to the top and discover that we can’t see the towers through the clouds. Fuck’s sake.

At the base of the granite torres

At the base of the granite torres

Anyway, to finish off our first wedding anniversary we’ve booked full board stay at the campsite. We end up having a really fancy three course meal before retiring for a rainy night’s sleep.

Day one stats

Steps walked: 36,798
Floors climbed: 398
Distance walked: 26.43kms

Rivers and streams

It’s day two and we get talking to this Australian couple at breakfast. They are here to try the full circuit (the outer part of the W forms part of an O trek) but they have been told that all of the campsites past the end of the W are closed until mid-November. This includes the one we are due to stay at on our last night, Campamento Paso. Apparently this has just been decided but the authorities that run the campsites haven’t bothered telling people who have bookings. We carry on anyway.

It’s been pissing it down all night so the ground is extremely muddy. Good job we have good hiking boots. Well, it would have been a good job, if the mud was lower than knee height, and if I didn’t fall over into it. All we know as we set off is that the campsite is roughly 6 hours away, according to the map, and a sign soon reassures us that it’s just 11km.

Muddy ground on the trail between campsites

Muddy ground on the trail between campsites

A load of bollocks. We walk through rivers and streams to arrive at another sign two hours later telling us we are still 11km away. Our boots are soaked through and our morale is starting to dip. This is when we start to realise that we can no longer rely on maps and signage, which is especially helpful for our very first self-guided trek. An American couple see us looking despairingly at the sign and they tell us that it’s only two and a half hours away, which isn’t too bad.

Shortly after lunch I find myself needing the toilet, so I wait for a group of people to pass and pick a good spot just off the main path. Alex is keeping lookout while I do my business. As soon as I start Alex shouts ‘STOP STOP STOP’. I pull my pants and trousers up but in the rush haven’t managed to quite finish peeing so I essentially wee myself. Alex had failed to see the couple that were five seconds away from seeing my whole foof. After they pass I go to finish my business but the damage is done. Alex can’t stop laughing.

The sun starts to shine on the turquoise lakes

The sun starts to shine on the turquoise lakes

Another three hours pass and we can’t help but think we must be close. We ask some hikers coming the other way, and they promptly inform us it’s another two hours away. Wait, what?
One hour later, and definitely longer than 11kms from the beginning, we arrive at Campmento Frances. We’ve learned that the map times and distances are unreliable and there is no point asking people coming the other way because you just get varying answers depending on ability. It makes the self-guided nature of this trek more difficult because it’s hard to mentally prepare when you have no idea how far away you are from finishing.

Either way, we chalk it all up to experience, pitch our tent on another plataforma (this time using cable ties, rather ingeniously) and settle in for a good night’s sleep, hoping our boots dry out overnight.

Day two stats

Steps: 40,742
Floors climbed: 239
Distance walked: 27.11kms

Following park rules

We are woken by our alarm at 5.45am, having decided on an early start knowing we can’t completely rely on the maps and signs. We make ourselves a breakfast of porridge and fruits (this time the camp is self-catered), pack up our tent and begin the third day of trekking. After half an hour we arrive at Campamento Italiano. We can leave our bags here to hike up the viewpoint in the Frances Valley. We speak to the ranger about Campamento paso, and he indeed informs us that it’s closed but that we can probably just find space at one of the other campsites.

Pitching tents with cable ties

Pitching tents with cable ties

This subdues our worries about our last night. He asks us where we are hiking to today and we say Mirador Britanico (the viewpoint). The board outside the rangers’ office says that the trail is closed. He tells us that he thinks the river might be dangerously high but is not sure, and decides to let us through, asking us to come back and let him know if we can’t get across. We learn from this that the rangers don’t actually know the condition of the paths. Good one, park rules.

It’s a tough one, and I’m not going to make it after seeing another couple of maps that don’t make sense. Five hours hiking up and down sees us to the beautiful mirador and back. We collect our bags at 3pm and make it to our next campsite, Paine Grande, by 6pm.

It was a hard slog to Paine Grande – day three seems to be the day that is mentally toughest on the hikes we’ve done so far – still, at least I didn’t piss myself today and my hiking boots have *almost* dried out.

Day three stats

Steps: 50,327
Floors climbed: 289
Distance walked: 34.37kms

The finale

It’s the final day and we’re absolutely done in. We’ve managed to book ourselves a second night in Paine Grande because of Paso being closed. This actually works out quite well, because it means we don’t have to pack down the tent and we don’t have to carry our equipment all day. We can simply hike up to the glacier, enjoy the view and hike back. After all, it’s only supposed to be an ‘easy’ 11kms. Isn’t it weird how everything is signposted to be 11kms away?

Even though the hike takes longer than we thought we’re in really high spirits and we complete the last day without any hitches. The ‘easy’ trek turned out to be a lot of ascent and descent and at one of the maps Alex remarks that the person who drew the profile of the landscape was probably asked to do it when drunk.

Day four stats

Steps: 50,703
Floors climbed: 315
Distance walked: 34.53km

All in all, this was the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done, even after theInca Trail and the Colca Canyon, and the mental endurance was tough to boot. I definitely couldn’t have done it without the support from Alex.

Trekking to the Britannico lookout

Trekking to the Britannico lookout

We took enough trail mix (thanks Canadians) to last us two weeks and we managed to not get lost at all. We did miss the camaraderie of being in a big group, but Torres del Paine is the most beautiful place I’ve seen so far and all you needed to pick you up was a quick break and a look at the landscape.

As we spend a few days recovering we’re already planning our next multi-day hike in El Chalten. It looks like this may now become a regular feature, anyone out there care to join us? I promise I’ll be a better wee stop lookout.

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