Hiking the W, Torres del Paine

24 – 28 November, 2011

I lived in Nevada for around nine years; I thought the wind lived there too. I was wrong. Nevada may house his younger second cousin, but Southern Patagonia is the home of wind. Seasons change here with such regularity that you cannot possibly predict the weather. In Torres del Paine National Park, torrential winds flirted with rain, clouds played hide and seek with steep mountains and sometimes, mixed with sun that beats down without any ozone protection, snow would fall.

The path of the ‘W’, a popular backpacking route that normally takes four to five days, walks you past unreal turquoise lakes, giant columns of rock, glaciers and streams. Condors flank the top edges of peaks, occasionally swooping down low and coming into plain sight. Streams flow from glacial melt and are pure. We dipped our cups in the running water and drank deeply, cold, fresh, no need for a filter. This is one of very few places on our dangerously taxed planet where one can drink the water nature provides, it is a gift.

I met up with my German friend in Puerto Natales the night before we started our trek. The next morning, after a bus to the park and a catamaran ride across Lago Pehoe we came to Mountain Lodge Paine Grande and the beginning of our trek. The lodge is a modern, very fancy, very expensive attraction in the middle of paradise. We set up our tents in the campground next to it and around 1:30 started out on a 7 ½ hour hike to Grey glacier and back. The hike started out mellow and proceeded to be a bit more challenging towards the end, though not terribly so. It was raining and windy the whole way so the mountains were obscured, but it only served to illustrate that which was right in front of us. Lovely spring wildflowers, Embothrium shrubs blooming scarlet fire, and a lake dotted with icebergs.

Somehow, without falling and about 4 hours into the hike I injured my knee. Later detective work has me fairly certain it is a torn meniscus. I slowly made my way down from the glacier; at the end the pain was pretty strong. After dinner I crawled into my tent wondering if I had to leave the next day and come back to try the hike another time. That night, the rain came stronger than the wind. Sleep was evasive; rain pounded the tent and with daylight still was not letting up. There were intervals when the rain would subside a bit, but the weather dance saw that as a cue to gust strong winds in its place. I surveyed my tent in the morning light only to see that it was raining on the inside. I have a fantastic Marmot one person tent (courtesy of one of my very favorite people), with the only drawback being the fly doesn’t come down all the way on one of the sides. I had positioned that side away from the onslaught of weather when I set it up, but there is no direction of weather in Patagonia. Rain comes in sideways, from all directions, carried on the back of wind that rules the land. I packed up quickly, running my gear under a shelter. My hiking companion woke up and we ate breakfast. During the meal the weather worsened, and we decided that since this was to be the longest day of the trek, we’d really like to see it. My knee was pretty painful, so a day of rest seemed like a great idea. The tent went back up, this time with plastic trash bags tied to it. I dried it out and spent most of the day sleeping, listening to the weather and letting my mind wander.

The second night was again sleepless and incredible. I lay in my tent listening to a growing roar high in the mountains. It would build and build and then suddenly WHOOSH! The wind would fly down into the valley and smack my tent with an incredible force, the sides slapping me in the face. Then there would be calm for a few moments, the building again, and again the pounding. I kept imagining the wind as a giant bowling ball and my tent one of the pins.

The next day the weather had improved, mountains came into view for the first time and my knee seemed tolerable. I swallowed an Aleve, packed up and headed out. The scenery was amazing, words can’t do it justice. I continued to move really slowly as the pain increased throughout the day, but I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. It became a kind of meditation, which walking usually is. The total appreciation of the beauty surrounding me far outweighed the discomfort, and the need to take it super slow allowed me time to soak in my surroundings. I feel like I didn’t miss a thing along the way. I skipped the middle prong of the W to Valle Frances aside from a short bit of it, I knew I was already pushing the limits of my joint, so I headed to the next camp at Los Cuernos while my friend ran up to the mirador (lookout). This day brought sunshine and only a light breeze, perfect hiking weather. The cuernos which the park is known for came into view above, giant stone sentries overseeing the valley below.

At camping Los Cuernos that night I met a couple from Oregon. He had torn his meniscus before leaving for the trip, we compared notes over a bottle of wine (yeah, wine…backpacking in TDP is only bare bones by choice) and determined I have the same problem. The next day we hiked together, his wife and my friend taking off at normal speed. It was a fantastic day with beautiful weather and great conversation. I will add a separate story at some point about this guy…he is pretty cool. Our stop for the final night of the journey was Chilleno campground. It’s a beautiful spot in the bottom of a steep valley with a river running through the middle of it. That night I made friends with some of the porteros who I had been seeing along the trail (or should I say, who had been lapping me along the trail!). They are a great group of guys working as free-lance porters, carrying the belongings this time of a group of Japanese tourists who were all doing the hike and ranged in age from early sixties to early seventies!

The next morning, our last in the park, my friend woke me as became his habit, by banging on my tent and saying ‘VAMANOS’! To which I always reply in ‘Okay okay’ in an exaggerated fake-annoyed voice, followed by a laugh. It was dark, the idea was to hike to the mirador and watch the sun paint morning colors on the cuernos. He had hiked it the day before while I slowly plodded along the trail with my other handicapped friend. We started out, this being the steepest and most difficult stretch of the trail. We hadn’t eaten anything so I hadn’t taken any pain medication, and very close to the beginning of the hike I couldn’t tolerate it anymore. I consoled myself with the fact that the mountains were shrouded in dark clouds, and we likely wouldn’t see much anyway, and somewhat reluctantly headed back to camp. We had breakfast and rested up a bit, and then, armed with Aleve and a knee brace lent to me by one of my new portero friends, we descended to the valley and our bus back to Puerto Natales. I am resolved to do this hike again, in its entirety, before I leave this country. For now, rest and healing, and on to the next adventure.

Torres del Paine
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About stephwithoutborders

I decided to sell (almost) everything I own and buy a plane ticket to South America. This is all about why and how, and what happens next.
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2 Responses to Hiking the W, Torres del Paine

  1. Steph, I don't know if you remember me but we were in the Hostal Fitz Roy together in Punta Arenas (I am the artist who was on his way to paint in Torres del Paine). I enjoyed reading your post about hiking the W. If you want to see some of the paintings I did while I was in the park, they are now on my website: davidgrossmann.com. I have also included descriptions of my experiences along with the paintings, and on my "News" page I wrote a brief overview of some of my impressions from my time in the park.I hope that you are doing well and may your adventures be filled with beauty.

  2. Hi David, Yes I do remember you! Thanks for stopping by and reading a bit. I checked out your website, the pictures are lovely. Good job battling the elements to paint. Good luck to you, I hope you find more incredible places to wander off to with your brushes!

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