Monday, January 27, 2014

Trekking the W at Torres del Paine - Part 1

From my very limited research of Patagonia, and from what I had heard from my fellow travelers as I began this journey, I knew that I wanted to see Torres del Paine.  I had heard so much about this being the epitome of natural beauty and representative of the entire region.  However, I had also heard about nice refugios where I could stay the night along the trail - places with warm food and comfortable beds.  What I hadn't realized was that the beds and meals at the refugios are a bit cost prohibitive for someone on a RTW backpacker budget. 

As I began to hear the other side - people walking for miles by themselves carrying tents and sleeping bags and camping stoves and food, encountering heavy winds and rain and blizzards - I began to get nervous, and I wondered if I even really wanted to do this!  While I love hiking, I haven't done much of the actual hiking + camping variety, where you actually carry gear and food.  In fact, I'm kind of a terrible packer for such adventures (remember my music festival incident), and I still remembered the horror of the weight of the rental gear I had carried (briefly, since I hired a porter to carry it the remaining days) on the Inca Trail.  And the thought of hiking all that way by myself didn't sound all that great either.  

Then I met Jimmy, a photographer and travel blogger from Australia, while I was in Bariloche.  He had just returned from Patagonia and was editing his photos.  There was absolutely no way I could pass being able to see the sights that he was showing me.  I had to try it at least!  As I made my way south, I heard from another couple, Nick & Frances (whom I had met while biking in Bariloche), that they were headed to Puerto Natales to do the W in a few days.  I jumped at the opportunity to join them and started moving in that direction.  Along the way, I met Frederick, a Belgian guy from my hostel in El Calafate, who was also interested in joining for the W.  Suddenly I had what would turn out to be a phenomenal trekking partner and an amazing group of four to experience the W with.  Sometimes, things just work out.


Day 0 - Prep


Frederick and I arrived in Puerto Natales just in time to meet Nick & Frances at the daily trek overview at Erratic Rock, one of the local hostels.  I highly recommend attending this information session if you're planning on trekking Torres del Paine - even if you don't follow all of their advice, you can pick up some great tips and meet fellow trekkers.  Once the session had ended, we had only the rest of the afternoon to run around and get gear and food for the next few days.  Having a trekking / camping partner definitely eased the stress I had around carrying everything - rather than carrying everything on my own, we could share the burden (ie, Frederick carried most of it - thank you, Frederick!) instead.

The W is so named because it's shaped..... like a W.  This map includes part of the full circuit, but we basically covered the ground between where Refugio Grey and Base Las Torres is marked, spending each night at the points where you see the red pushpins.


While Erratic Rock does offer rental gear, we got a tip on a hostel a few blocks away (Rent Equipment Victor at Eleuterio Ramirez 540) that had good quality gear, so we decided to check it out.  Here's what we got:

  • One two-man tent.  This place actually had an older and newer version of the tent (for a slight price difference), so we went with the newer version.  Definitely make sure you test out your tent before you rent it - as silly as it looked, we set up our tent in the front "yard" of the hostel.  The hostel owner showed us the odd pole set up, and we were able to get in a good test run without the ridiculous wind we would face on the trail.  Plus we could see that the tent was in great condition and could easily fit two people AND our gear comfortably.
  • Two sleeping bags.  We opted for the colder weather coverage option.
  • Two sleeping mats.  Somehow these were lighter AND far more comfortable than the brick-like pads I slept on on the Inca Trail.
  • One cooking set (burner and pot) and one tank of gas, which was actually plenty for two people for four days cooking lunch & dinner.
  • Two sets of kitchen utensils and bowls.
  • One set of hiking poles.  Frederick opted to go without, but I can't tell you how happy I was to have hiking poles.  They may look a little goofy, but I had learned from the Inca Trail that they're invaluable for stability, especially on the downhills, and they keep the blood from rushing to your hands by having them at your sides all the time.  

We also had to stock up on food for the next few days.  Here's what we loaded our packs with:

  • Pasta.  We brought along a larger pack of noodles (500g, which we split between two days) and a smaller pack of shaped pasta (200g).
  • Dried soups - these were the best little appetizers ever.  Seriously, there's nothing better than a cup of hot soup when it's cold and windy out and you're waiting for pasta to cook.
  • A tiny jar of pesto.  BEST PURCHASE EVER.  Seriously.  This lasted us for two pasta preparations, and the amount of flavor it added was phenomenal.  I've looked for tiny jars of fresh pesto all over South America ever since, and I can't find them.
  • Beef bouillon cubes.  We thought this would be a good idea for pasta flavoring one of the days, and it only sort of worked.  
  • Tiny packets of parmesan cheese.  For the pasta, obviously.
  • Fresh slices of salami and cheese, and fresh bread rolls for lunch.
  • Two fresh yellow peppers, sliced up.  These were intended to be a good on-the-go fresh snack, but mostly wound up being tossed into pasta.  A bit heavy as food items go.
  • Snickers bars.  Lots of them.
  • Peanut Butter M&Ms.  So, I found a giant pack of the fun-size M&Ms that had clearly been shipped to Chile on accident or as part of a Halloween special.  They were phenomenal.  Other best purchase ever.
  • There is a small shop that sells dried fruit and nuts (as well as hats and gloves and assorted things) just down from Erratic Rock, where we stocked up on mixes of raisins and nuts and banana chips and later dumped in a bunch of plain M&Ms for some pretty awesome trail mix.
  • So I forgot about breakfast, somehow.  I would recommend bringing along some oatmeal and dried fruit, but I wound up purchasing breakfast at two of the refugios (not a terrible deal), and just eating a Snickers the other day.  It worked.
  • We also picked up some hot chocolate packets from the freebie bin at our hostel.  A great post-meal treat just before bed.
Note - there's plenty of incredibly clean, fresh glacial water available from any number of rivers along the trail, so there's no need to bring along a bunch of drinking water or even a sterilization kit.  I brought a small water bottle that I refilled frequently along the way. 

While we heard quite a bit about all of the environmental / weather challenges that we could experience along the trail, each day wound up having a bit of a theme...


Day 1 - Wind


Leaving the hostel was a frenetic mess, as we had stayed up way too late the night before packing and repacking our bags, leaving us literally running to the bus station and, as I would discover later, at some point losing my nice Marmot rain jacket in the process.  Ugh.  Sometime during the two hour ride to Torres del Paine National Park, our group of four made the final decision to hike the trail from west to east, so once we paid our park entry and listened to a mandatory video reiterating the need for fire safety, we loaded back onto the bus and continued until the catamaran dock at Lago PehoĆ©.  We were some of the last to board, so after dropping our bags inside, we made our way up above to find a spot to sit in the open air.  The wind that day was intense, causing waves and massive sprays of water as we made our way across the lake.  Sitting up top gave us some great views, but it was definitely an effort in splash avoidance!

Nick & Frances huddled against the wind on the catamaran roof.  The guy in the black got massively drenched by the spray from the lake!


View of some of the towers and bizarre cloud formations from the catamaran.


Upon arriving at Paine Grande - a refugio / campsite located just next to the catamaran drop-off point (one of the nicest - and busiest - in terms of amenities) - Frederick and I immediately set up our tent and dropped our bags inside.  After a bit of lunch, the four of us began to hike up the western part of the W towards Glacier Grey.  Nick & Frances carried their bags, planning to spend the night at Refugio Grey at the top of the W, but I was happy to get a bit of a hiking warmup without the full pack.  We were constantly inundated with wind as we hiked through the valley, towards Laguna Los Patos, a small lake situated high above the glacial lake down below, Lago Grey.  We passed a number of trees that had been burned in a massive fire two years ago - while seeing the destruction from the fire was certainly sad, it was beautiful to see the contrast between the stark black and white remains of the trees and the new growth beneath them, in the form of bushes, grasses, and flowers blanketing the ground in green, red, and purple.  As we made our way past Laguna Los Patos, we could see chunks of glowing blue ice floating in Lago Grey, small icebergs that had been pushed away from the glacier by the wind.

Wind across Laguna Los Patos.

The fire damage left a stark contrast against the new growth.


We eventually reached the mirador (lookout point) for Glacier Grey, with some of the strongest winds I've ever experienced!  We struggled to take some quick photos without getting completely blown off the lookout point, taking in the amazing view of the massive glacier in front of us before continuing down the trail.  Once we re-entered a wooded area, Frederick and I turned back to Paine Grande, while Frances & Nick continued on to Refugio Grey, where they were able to do some extra hiking and get a closer view of the glacier.  Personally, I was pretty happy to get back down the trail to an already-set-up tent, especially after being pummeled with wind and running into some light rain on the way back.  

Attempting not to get blown off the lookout point - Glacier Grey in the background.

Another example of the fire damage surrounded by regrowth.

Lago PehoƩ, near the campsite.


After getting cleaned up (okay, full disclosure:  I didn't shower the entire trek...  I took a packet of baby wipes for daily "tent showers" and some no-rinse camping shampoo that was handy on the second day.  I learned on the Inca Trail that it just wasn't worth the extra weight to carry a towel and shampoo and such, as cold as it was, and as long as my hair is, spending a night with soaking wet hair didn't exactly sound appealing, and given that I was wearing the same set of clothes every day to hike in, baby wipes did the job well enough.  Judge away.), we set up in the cooking area of the refugio for our first camp meal of warm, comforting tomato soup and pasta with pesto and parmesan cheese.  Despite all the wind, we had a beautiful, clear evening, with the soft red glow of sunset fully visible against the mountains in the distance.  We enjoyed the view with a nice, cold beer from the nice, warm interior of the refugio bar, then collapsed into the tent to sleep, ready for a long day of hiking ahead.

Frederick poses with our still-standing tent, despite all the wind.

The pre-sunset glow and relatively clear skies on our first night - view from the campsite.


To be continued...

2 comments:

  1. Torres del Paine must be a magical experience! Such a distinctive mountain scenery and for sure heaven for anyone with a passion for the great outdoors. Would love to go there myself one day when exploring the marvels the continent has to offer...
    The fire damage image is a bit surreal as well, marvellous capture indeed! :)
    Thanks for sharing and all the best!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! It was truly magical - I hope you have the chance to make it there as well!

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