In which we tackle the 'W' head on... with full packs, wine in a box and sore feet
We survived! The 'W' trek in Torres del Paine was absolutely awesome, if at times awesomely difficult. Three stunning valleys, 72 km (62 of those carrying full packs), three litres of wine, four nights camping in the worlds smallest tent and we're still married. So I'd call that a success. Here's how it went (warning, this post is huge, you might want to get a cup of tea first)...
Day 1: Lago Pehoe to Refugio Grey
Our day started early in Puerto Natales with a bus to the Torres del Paine National Park. Even the drive into the park was beautiful, with huge mountain vistas and herds of guanacos (like alpacas) and nandus (like small ostriches) along the side of the road. After arriving at Laguna Armaga and paying our trekking fees we continued on to the edge of Lake Pehoe where we caught a catamaran across the lake to our starting point next to Refugio Paine Grande.
We had a really beautiful half hour journey across the lake with a catamaran full of trekkers and backpacks, everyone stuffing as much food into their mouths as possible before starting the trek. The highlight of the journey was seeing the first of many avalanches we were to see on our way.
There's a lot of debate over the best direction to trek the W - east to west or west to east - we went for the latter so that we could go to the famous torres the park is named after on the last day rather than the first - an extra incentive to get to day five. After being dropped off on the western edge of the lake, we strapped on our packs and we were off. An 11 km trail leads you up the valley towards Lago Grey and Glacier Grey, our camp for the night. A few years ago a trekker lit a fire which got out of control and burned down whole swathes of the park. So while the grass and flowers seem to be returning, a lot of the first couple of hours was spent walking through burnt forest which is quite sad.
We followed a rocky path for about three hours before coming to the viewpoint over Lago Grey and our first view of the glacier. The lake is full of iceburgs that have been carved off the face of the glacier and we saw amazing ice bridges floating past.
The trail then follows the edge of the lake through a forest. I was really surprised by the very English plant life we saw here, lots of dandelions and clover and even a few daisies. Just like home (oh, apart from the glacier, the avalanches...) After about an hour we arrived at our camp for the night, Refugio y Campamento Grey.
Day 2: Refugio Grey to Campamento Italiano
After a cold night next to the glacier and a bit of wildlife spotting with a close encounter with a red fox, we hit the trail again, retracing our steps for four hours back to Lago Pehoe. We stopped to cook lunch at Refugio Paine Grande which is in a great location... this was our view...
We were heading to Campamento Italiano, a free campsite at the foot of the Valle Frances and part of our trek for day three. The only problem was, Campamento Italiano is currently closed, which means you have to walk on another two and a half hours to the next camp... and then go back two and a half hours the next morning to reach the Valle Frances. An extra five hours with a pack. We'd heard on the trekking grapevine that if you arrived after 7pm you wouldn't be turned away because that would make it too late to reach the next camp. So we decided to chance it, along with a Canadian couple, Ian and Jasmine, we'd met the previous night. So we took a very leisurely lunch and then hiked the two hours to Italiano, a really pretty, open track and probably the easiest stretch of the walk.
We arrived a little bit before seven which resulted in a slightly ridiculous 'hiding' in the woods for half an hour so the ranger at camp didn't spot us and foil our plan. At exactly 7pm the four of us crossed the river into camp and, after a brief telling off we were allowed to stay, on the understanding we'd be out of there by 7am the next morning. The camp is very wooded so we pitched up in the fading light and had a quick dinner (and some vino of course) before bed.
That night we were woken up at 4am (as was everyone else in camp) by a very loud avalanche coming off a nearby mountain. I have to say its a pretty scary noise at 4am, although I'm sure we were perfectly safe.
Day 3: Campamento Italiano to Refugio Los Cuernos
The next morning we left our bags at Italiano and hiked with day packs only (hurrah!) into the Valle Frances. Lots of people cite this as their highlight of the trek and its easy to see why. As you ascend the valley on a rocky track you have snow and glacier covered mountains to your left...
... the incredible peaks of Los Cuernos on your right...
... and a view of the lakes and rolling hills behind you.
Not many places you get three views like that. We didn't go all the way to the top of the valley but walked to the edge of another lake before turning back to camp. All the way along we saw even more avalanches coming off the top and echoing along the valley.
Strapping on our packs again we set off on the trail to Refugio Los Cuernos, again a really beautiful trail which takes you down to Lago Nordernskjold and even includes sections along lakeside beaches.
We finally arrived at Refugio Los Cuernos and made camp overlooking the lake and surrounding mountains. Beautiful.
Day 4: Los Cuernos to Campamento Los Torres
Day four was undoubtedly the most difficult day. 18.5 km with our packs up the steepest part of the trek, on a (for Patagonia) seriously hot day. We really lucked out with the weather and only had ten minutes of rain in five days, pretty much unheard of around here. We'd heard horror stories from other trekkers who'd had to abandon their attempts the week before because of bad weather, so we were very lucky to have five beautiful days. Just a little too hot at times.
One thing we would definitely recommend is almost constant snacking throughout the day to keep your energy levels up. We split our rations for each day into separate bags, each of which we opened with much excitement every morning (will it be pasta or rice today?! we cried). But there were definitely moments where a bar of chocolate or a handful of trail mix made the difference between crying and hiking on! These were our rations for a day on the trail.
The day started with the trail continuing along Lago Nordernskjold before climbing up the valley wall across to the next valley, our destination. For about three hours the trail was steep and completely open, so great views but roasting hot.
The valley itself was really pretty with a rushing glacial river running through it. After about four hours we made it to our lunch stop on the bank of the river at Campamento Chileno.
Then it was onwards and upwards on a forest dirt track for another hour to reach our home for the night, Campamento Los Torres. As you can probably tell by the photo, I was pretty happy to have made it!
This camp was another reason we chose to camp rather than stay in refugios (other than the massive price difference). Only 45 minutes from Los Torres themselves, camping here means you can get up early and hike up for the sunrise, something you can't really do if you're a few hours down the valley. The camp was another forest camp, but this one actually had a toilet. Luxury stuff.
Day 5: Los Torres to Hotel Los Torres
We'd arranged to climb to the Los Torres lookout for sunrise with Ian and Jasmine who we met up with lots of times on the trek. So at 5:15am Ian woke us up (with a cup of coffee - amazing) and by 5:45am we were ready to go. In the pitch black we strapped on our head torches to ascend the rocky trail to Mirador Los Torres. After climbing for 45 minutes we arrived at the viewpoint just as the sun started to appear. Gradually as it rose the torres started to appear out of the darkness, glowing pink as they reflected the sky.
As the sun rose further, the torres really started to shine, just an amazing sight. Huddled on our rock we had the glowing torres in front of us...
... and the most beautiful sunrise behind.
The whole thing only lasts for about 20 minutes but was easily one of the best moments of our whole trip. Look at those happy faces!
All that was left was to climb back down to camp, pack up our stuff and hike back down the valley where we got a bus back to Puerto Natales and the obligatory beer and pizza to celebrate. Totally exhausted but very happy.