We did it! That’s right, five days and 67.3 kilometers later, I am proud (and very relieved) to say that I completed my first multi-day trek (basically) unharmed.
Hiking the W Trek was the anchor of our South American travels. I had never done a multi-day trek on my own before; the closest I’d come was when we did the Lares Trek to Machu Picchu two years ago, but there we had a guide to lead us and porters to carry our belongings, cook for us, set up tents, etc. But all of the research I did on the W before our travels convinced me that paying for a guide was an unnecessary waste of money, so with a big gulp and the thought of how hard could this possibly be, Dom and I booked our four nights of campsites and assumed we’d figure out the rest. And that’s what we did!
The W Trek is a one-way trail that, shocker, forms the shape of a W through Torres del Paine, one of Patagonia’s most popular national parks. The trek can be completed in four or five days, so given our novice standing and lack of time constraints, we opted for the latter. Definitely the right decision. You can see our exact path in the map below.
I’m honestly struggling to write about the trek right now, not just because of exhaustion (although I’m sure that’s part of it), but also because sitting back in a house with electricity on a comfy couch sheltered from the gusting wind while staring at a computer feels incredibly wrong. Dom and I were walking back from lunch just now, and I literally couldn’t stop blurting out random tunes and jumping up and down (I swear I’m still not the silly one, Catherine and AJ) because I had excess energy from the fuel I had just consumed.
For the last five days I ate more than I’ve ever eaten yet fell asleep the instant my head hit my sleeping bag each night. There’s something so satisfying in the rhythm: wake up to the sunrise; emerge from the tent; light the burner to boil water for tea and porridge; make sandwiches for lunch; break down the tent; pack up your bags; walk. Every day. For five days. Parts of my body were aching that I didn’t even know I had, but with each step I took I both felt stronger and wanted to become stronger. All of this probably either (a) doesn’t make sense (b) is wholly uninteresting or (c) all of the above. So I will stop my rambling introspection now and transition to a daily retelling (with lots of pictures!) of our five days along the W trek.
Day 1: Paine Grande to Refugio Grey
Distance: 11 km
Estimated time: 3.5 hours
Actual time: 4.5 hours
Lessons learned: Wind is real; glaciers are my favorite; you can fall
After setting an alarm for 5am, clambering to the bus station in Puerto Natales, entering the park around 9am and then taking a catamaran at noon, we finally set off on the first leg of our trek at 1:30pm eager to see how our pace lined up with the estimated ones in the official park map. While passing the park ranger at the trail entrance, we tailed a bickering Australian family. “Este es un lugar para disfrutar, no pelear!” The ranger joked to me while shaking his head in disapproval. We agreed. The Australian family didn’t, and I would come to know the mom of that family–hereon out dubbed Australian Woman–all too well over the next five days.
The first day was definitely the hardest, probably for a whole host of reasons, chief among them that the wind was absolutely brutal. Everybody warned us that the weather in Torres del Paine was insane, erratic and, above all, windy. Everybody wasn’t wrong. We were extremely lucky overall with the weather, only encountering light rain one night, but that first day of wind was quite the trekking hazing.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that our first destination was actually a glacier when we crested the hill after our first hour of hiking! I was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the official wooden engraved sign claiming we had already trekked 3.5km at the Glacier Grey viewpoint lied and we had probably only covered about 1.5km. It seems like a rather dangerous thing for parks to have incorrect mile makers…right? Clearly some fellow trekker agreed because he crossed out the markings and made his own, but I don’t fully understand how the park can make such a blatant mistake…
We were already at the estimated trail time when we passed the marker signaling 2km to go. I was a bit skeptical as to whether the marker was accurate, but not too concerned since the sun doesn’t set until 10pm here and it was just past 5pm. That being said, those last 2km were not ideal, full of steep rocky descents along a cliff edge. It got particularly not ideal when I tumbled to the ground for the first (and happy to report only!) time of our trek. A heartfelt thanks to the woman at Erratic Rock who instructed Dom when he picked up our rented walking sticks not to put our wrists through the straps. I would not like to think about how bad my fall would have been if I wasn’t able to drop the sticks and use my hands to brace myself as my head crashed into the ground…
Needless to say, we were quite relieved to arrive at Refugio Grey for our first night of camping! After pitching our tent, I recovered in a wonderfully hot shower before we successfully cooked our first dinner of gnocchi. Although the campsite was incredibly windy, our tent held out the whole night along with the food we hung in the trees! All in all, I was proud of our first day, and hopeful we’d improve over the following four days…
Day 2: Refugio Grey to Paine Grande
Distance: 11 km
Estimated time: 3.5 hours
Actual time: 4 hours
Lessons learned: Hot breakfasts are the best; People think I have a New York accent; Oil is not the same as dish soap
We started day two extremely pleased that our tent was still standing and it only went uphill from there (and then downhill, and then more uphill, more downhill, etc.). While cooking our breakfast porridge (which was delicious, by the way), Australian woman offered us some of her leftover milk which we gratefully accepted in our tea. What I didn’t realize that in return for that milk, I was embarking on a lifelong friendship. I probably exaggerate, but later that morning in the bathroom I heard about how she arrived in tears the night before. “I’m so old! I’ve got to be the oldest one on the trek…and I’m tiny! This wind was blowing me over. And my husband is just too hard on me, he doesn’t understand.” I tried to comfort her while brushing my teeth. “We’ve just all got to be kind to each other, you know?” she said as I nodded in agreement while exiting the bathroom.
Once we were on the trail everything seemed a bit easier than the day before. I relished in the views just as much as the first day, was a bit more careful on my footing and we weren’t tricked by the false signs! We also enjoyed a Spanglish conversation with a young couple from Santiago with whom we played leapfrog during the entire 11km. At first we were pleased we found another set of hikers at our pace, but then we learned it was their last of four days of trekking, hence their slowness. We’ll take whatever we can get 😉
After arriving back at Paine Grande we battled the wind to set up our tent and Dom fortified our shelter with giant rocks. At dinner the Chilean woman next to me inquired if I was from New York. “No, but my dad is,” I replied. “Ahh, that makes sense,” she said. Does it, though?? And Dom (after graciously standing in line for forever to wash up our dishes) complained that the dish soap left everything really oily. I then walked over to the sink to see what soap he used. Yes, you guessed it, it was “aceite vegetal” soap, better known as vegetable oil. Needless to say we did another quick washing.
With the thrashing of the wind our lullaby, I read the first few chapters of Becoming, Michelle Obama’s new memoir, before nodding off to sleep.
Day 3: Paine Grande to Campamento Frances via Mirador Frances
Distance: 13.5 km
Estimated time: 6 hours
Actual time: 6 hours
Lessons learned: Platform camping is weird; Improvised dinners can be the best dinners; Oregon has the most craft breweries per capita
We’re definitely still novices at this whole trekking thing, but day three was when we hit our stride. We were on the trail by 9:30am, an hour earlier than on day two, and we made it to our first juncture, Camp Italiano, right on time at noon.
While stopping to drop our bags off at Campamento Italiano and a quick scarf down of our lunch (avocado and cream cheese pitas were my lifeline these five days), I ran into Australian woman yet again. “You’ve made it!” I congratulated her, thinking it was an innocuous enough comment. Turns out there’s no such thing with her as she began to list her litany of complaints about the free campsite she stayed at the night before. I nodded aggressively in agreement and slowly backed away to find Dom.
We then began our first of two mini day hikes of the trek, theoretically to Mirador Britanico (which was 5.4 km up), but actually to Mirador Frances (a more manageable 2 km up). Hiking without our big packs for these two kilometers was not just a glorious break for my back, but also quite necessary for this bit of the trail. Most of the time I felt like a mountain goat scrambling up boulders and loose rocks, occasionally peering back to make sure Dom was still alive. While it was arduous, the views were definitely worth it. And he was still alive!
After chatting with a couple from Nottingham at the viewpoint (the woman originally from just a couple miles from Dom’s home in London!) we scrambled back down to Campamento Italiano, retrieved our big packs and walked the final two kilometers to Campamento Frances for the night. Luckily we caught a break in the wind that night, as I’m not sure our pathetic attempt at securing our tent on a platform would’ve made it.
We were eager to cook our pasta dinner outdoors after being confined to indoor cooking areas the previous two evenings. That eagerness got the better of us, though, as the pasta slipped through our makeshift strainer (i.e. pot and bowl) and scattered all over the dirt below. Luckily we had packed one extra dinner, a packet of primavera rice, that we decided would go perfectly with our pasta sauce and can of tuna. While the decision was made out of necessity, it was actually our favorite dinner of the trek!
We were interrupted during our nighttime reading by our tent neighbors, a German girl and a guy from Oregon, having a rather amusing conversation. They honestly both sound like totally lovely people, but in the guy’s attempt to answer the girl’s “What are the five best things about Oregon?” question he seemed to get pretty desperate and made us chuckle. “Oregon has the most craft breweries! Well, per capita…”
With that, I decided it was time to stop reading and head to bed as a light rain began to patter on our tent.
Day 4: Campamento Frances to Chileno
Distance: 18 km
Estimated time: 8 hours
Actual time: 7 hours
Lessons learned: We’re actually quite decent at this trekking thing; Refilling water bottles in streams is magical; We’re really nerdy (I guess I already knew this one)
Today we were 100% in our element…with the tiny exception of spilling all of our boiling water before we had a chance to stir the porridge in in the morning. We really were *too* excited to be cooking outdoors!
But with that hiccup out of the way before we even started hiking, we were smooth sailing thereon out. We encountered our only bit of rain this day, but it was light enough where none of our stuff got wet and instead it was rather refreshing.
It seems that the smoother our trekking got, the less there is to report, but I suppose that’s a good thing! We were a bit worried about this day given it was our longest stretch and all of it was required to make it to our next lodging, but we actually marched along really well! We got a confidence boost after completing the first stretch quicker than was listed and I rewarded myself by buying a fresh pack of oreo-type biscuits from the refugio. Those biscuits, along with my pita sandwiches, hard boiled eggs we cleverly prepared on our second night, and water from a stream, fueled me for the remaining five hours.
This was also the first leg of the trek where we resorted to made up games to keep us occupied. One person made up a pattern and then said one word at a time that fit the pattern while the other person guessed words and the pattern-maker said whether they fit or not. Ultimately the guesser tried to guess the pattern (I know that was obvious, but I thought I’d state it anyway). You can tell Dom’s a cool kid when his patterns included “words whose plurals don’t end in the letter s” and “democratic heads of state who were not originally elected”.
We concluded our game during the final uphill trudge to Chileno when we rejoined the main trail that would eventually take us all the way to Las Torres viewpoint on our final day. We arrived at Chileno after seven hours of trekking, excited for a substantial dinner from the refugio’s restaurant as cooking is prohibited at the campsite. Obviously the food was overpriced (as Australian woman complained to me when we were reunited that evening), but given I had basically become a garbage disposal over the past four days I was willing to overlook that fact and enjoy my salmon fajitas.
Day 5: Chileno to Hotel Las Torres via Las Torres Lookout
Distance: 13.8 km
Estimated time: 7 hours
Actual time: 6 hours
Lessons learned: Hiking the W was the best idea
While many people suggest you hike to the Las Torres lookout for sunrise, the concept of hiking in pitch black seems like a terrible concept to me, so we opted out of that suggestion. We therefore set off at 7am for the trek up to the base of the towers, lulled into a false sense of complacency during the first 3km with a rather defined and flat trail.
Complacency was completely kicked over the cliff when we began the final 1.4km ascent through this:
Needless to say, I was incredibly relieved to make it to the base of the towers and equally convinced we made the right decision not to do this hike in the dark. And while the towers were beautiful, I am extremely grateful we decided to do the W trek in its entirety and not just a one-day hike to the towers. The park is so much more than the towers (as I’m sure it’s so much more than the W), and the towers were therefore just another special moment amongst many over these five days.
While never rushing during the downhills–I was not eager to join the rock slide–I cut short my final impromptu conversation with Australian woman on the way back (“Sorry, we’re trying to catch the 2pm shuttle!” I blurted before she could ask another question as we passed each other on the trail) and we made it back to Chileno in time to eat our final pita sandwiches of the trek. We then picked up our packs for the last five kilometers of the W!
While my feet were definitely not feeling great, and Dom’s knees kindly kept my feet company in their misery, we made it to the shuttle bus with 30 minutes to spare! We were back in Puerto Natales by 4:30pm, returned all of our gear, took the longest showers known to man and then feasted like kings at Mesita Grande.
I am so incredibly proud of our trek and am certain this wasn’t our last. Thank you, W trek, for sharing your beauty with me and showing me that I can do this.