During my semester abroad in Vina del Mar, Chile, a good friend suggested hiking the W circuit in Torres del Paine National Park in the pristine Patagonia. We had a couple weeks to make plans and ended up flying south the week before our finals week to squeeze in this last adventure before our semester was over.
A little more hurried than either of us desired but it made things a little more exciting. Neither of us really had proper gear for this trip. My backpack didn’t even have a frame and I have a hard time remembering if my footwear was anything more then supportive tennis shoes.
We went through a checklist and thought up the things we thought were necessary and the things we thought we could live with out. Our bank accounts weren’t exactly overflowing after months of exploring the various landscapes Chile has to offer as well as all of those evenings exploring the local nightlife of piscolas (literally pisco and coca cola) and terremotos (a dangerously delicious combination of wine and ice cream that makes for the meanest hangovers ever).
Hiking poles, nah. Sleeping mat, nah. Cooking stove, eh, we’ll just eat cold food. Pint of whiskey for the night sleeping by the glacier, yes. Oh, and the guide for a final project we had, yeah, we should bring that too.
After flying and bussing to Patagonia, and making our way to Puerto Natales, we settled into Erratic Rock Hostel, the last stop-off for hikers about to venture into Patagonia. With a little more advice from the very outgoing Oregon born owner and an evening of chatting our expectations with fellow hikers, we made our last trip to the grocery store, packed our bags one last time, and attempted to rest before our early start the next morning.
A lovely breakfast spread was laid out in the morning by the owner and you could just feel the excitement as about a dozen or so hikers were strapping their boots and packs, attempting some last moments of comfort by the fireplace or just stuffing their faces with reserve calories. It was pretty awesome, but I did remember some nervous feelings when I thought about the gear I was using particularly compared to some of the fancy hiking and camping gear that filled the room. What I would have given to have just had the Osprey Aura Pack that I have now.
A few different modes of transportation later, including the last one being a boat trip to the trailhead and we were saddling ourselves up with our packs to feel their weight for the majority of the next four days.
Additionally, we had planned to lengthen our trip by hiking an extra half a mile the first night to land at a free camping site. We were fresh though that first day, so the extra hiking didn’t seem like a big deal.
Day 1, we started at the trailhead fresh and full of energy. I remember thinking from the first day how glad I was that we didn’t have to hike in all of our water. The water in the streams were suitable to drink because it came directly from the glaciers. So every time we crossed over water, we’d refill. What a treat, to just drink from a river.
We hiked 6 hours hiking ~15km, and that first night, we passed the paid campsite where there were a dozen or so people setting up camp in the last bit of daylight. By the time we made it to our site, Los Guardas, darkness had fallen and we fumbled around as the temperature dropped and crawled into our tent falling asleep practically immediately.
Day 2, that next morning we woke up feeling ready for Patagonia. We put together breakfast and made our way to the cliffside to dine with Glacier Grey. There was no coffee or bacon or anything hot at all but it was simply humbling to be sitting in view of this massive glacier of around 270²km.
The trail was called the ‘W’ circuit because it was literally shaped like a ‘W.’ So, after breakfast, we hiked right back down where we had come from to loop over to the base of the second stem of the trail to the Campamento Italiano. We spent about 8 hours hiking the ~18km on day 2.
Day 3, we left our gear at the campsite and hiked the French Valley (the second stem of the ‘W’) and back down to gather our gear and continue on to Los Cuernos. This day was a great break from the surrounding days being weighted down by our gear to enjoy the beauty of Patagonia a little more freely. And we saw a small avalanche!
We spent another 8 hours hiking the ~22km on this day until we settled into our tents that night. Oh, so this campsite was interesting. There was a lodge there in addition to the campgrounds for those who really desire a five star meal and fine wine amidst a hiking trip in Patagonia…
I remember thinking how amazing a flushing toilet and sink would be. I walked in and was immediately directed right back out the door. The receptionist didn’t even give me a chance to try to make up a room number. And fair enough, I looked like I’d been roughing it for days unlike the people in this lodge. They may as well have been glowing. Most of the wall in the dining area was glass so the guests could take in the gorgeous views of Patagonia outside the walls. Or so those of us covered in dirt and sore from head to tea could see in to the hilarious image of comfort and overflowing glasses of wine from time to time. My hiking partner and I decided to feast too. The cheap whiskey and nutella was definitely flowing that night.
Day 4, we left for the towers for our last day of hiking. Most people do this hike in five days and will sometimes schedule being at the towers for sunrise. We were on a time crunch so day 4 was it for us. Only 4 hours hiking that day under 10km.
This last day was maybe my favorite. Not because it was the last day and I was absolutely exhausted and craving a cold beer and hot food like no other, but because it felt like a fairytale. I remember it was so warm and the hike through the meadows were amazing.
We relaxed at the pick up spot for a couple hours for the bus that would take us back to Puerto Natales and reflected on the past few days. That was the longest hike I’d ever been on, and it definitely taught me a few good lessons about my self and my abilities as a human.