W Trek, Torres del Paine, Chile

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Written by Lucie

Mark and Lucie recently (February-March 2018) did the ‘little W Trek’ in Chile’s Torres del Paine national park (‘torres’ meaning towers in Spanish and paine – pronounced PIE-nay – meaning blue in the native indigenous language).

The trek is a very popular, roughly W-shaped set of paths that offers day walks and overnighters, up to the full Circuit or O Trek (approximately one week). The base of the W is one track that runs along the edges of a couple of lakes, with three arms that need to be done as return side trips.

Jon and Vanessa did the easternmost arm about a year before (see J&V’s Torres del Paine account). We had a little more time and cranked out the ‘little W’ – walking easterly along the base path and completing the full eastern arm plus most of the other two arms.

Day one

Torres Centro to Base Las Torres, return, ~19km and ~1000m climb
Under an amazing red sunrise we caught a 7:30am bus from Puerto Natales to the Torres del Paine national park. The bus journey was dusty, along mostly unsealed roads, but the scenery was lovely.

Entry to the park at Laguna Armaga was a bit disorganised – several buses arrive at the same time and there’s a massive queue to pay and watch a video about the park rules. Fortunately, we had prepaid park entry so skipped the queue and just watched the video. Then, we hopped (fought – it was a free for all) onto a shuttle bus to the eastern end of the W trek.

The start of our hike. Note the incline.

Our hike started with a short walk to a split in the path where we took the north west route up toward the Base Las Torres. We walked along Rio Ascencio, which was a very steep, long uphill path with no switchbacks to make it easier. The path was dust and gravel (from the crumbling mountains) and quite slippery on the steep incline, plus there was a very strong headwind (it’s always windy here), which meant that we got a lot of grit in the face and had to fight that bit harder. This is the most popular walk in the park so there were lots of people.

We stopped halfway up the hill to eat lunch with a lovely view of the lake below us. A while further along, the path started to level off and travelled quite high above the river, between the two hillsides. This section was even more windy, to the point that it was hard to walk or even stay upright. There was a great view of a mountain glacier though, and the density of people had greatly reduced. We dropped down to the river, crossed over and went past Refugio Chileno. Then, the path wound its way through some trees, crossed the river again and worked its way up to Campamento Torres. At this point, it was steep uphill again, this time taking huge steps up a bouldery mountain side, with small streams running down the path.

At Mirador Base Las Torres we layered up against the increased wind (how did it keep getting *more* windy?!) and sat on a big rock to have a snack while gazing at the view. The towers of rock are very impressive, especially with their dramatic colour change part way down. The lake at the base was a cloudy, greeny-blue and glaciers hung from the rocks.

Mark at Base Las Torres.

We turned around as the clouds started to gather and walked the long, steep route back in light rain. We were glad to reach the wind shelter of the trees, and very glad to find the campsite (it was a bit confusing) when we finally reached the bottom. We got in our tent and decided not to leave, enjoyed delicious sandwiches (healthy food when you’re active is sooo good) and went to sleep early.

Day two

Torres Centro to Mirador Frances to Campamento Frances, ~28km
After an awesome sleep we hit the ground running, retracing our steps the the split in the base, this time heading west along the lake. At this point we saw a puma on the hillside and stopped to watch it rest in the grass and then climb up to a rocky ridge!

We weren’t close enough to get a photo of the puma with a phone, but here is what we were walking along.

The track was very quiet today and was a lovely, undulating walk along varied terrains and crossing rivers and streams – either by rock hopping or over bridges. We saw birds of prey and hares, and had views of the lakes, Las Torres, and more snowy and glacier covered mountains, some with a fresh dusting of snow. There was a full, bright rainbow and as the wind whipped up spray across the lakes the whole surface of the lake was a swirling rainbow too. Our delicious lunch was accompanied by a gorgeous lake view.

One of the many bridges.
This was a really great track.

After lunch, the path dropped down to a pebble beach – look out for the tape in the trees, rather than wooden stakes. The path cut back inland about halfway along, but joined the beach again further along. All the while, the views of the right hand side kept changing and delighting us.

A section of beach.
Awesome views to the north.

We arrived at Refugio Cuernos but kept going to Campamento Frances (which took a surprisingly long time because of inclines and declines). We dropped our packs and raced on to get to Mirador Frances, because we were told that the path for this side arm closed at 4pm to ensure everyone could return before dark. We practically ran to Campamento Italiano and the start of the side arm. It was just after 4pm but we Team Steamrollered and made great progress, making up the lost time.

Views of the glacier goodness.

The path followed a massive river upstream and has fantastic glacier views. At 5:15pm we made it to the viewpoint we’d aimed for and basked in the view: huge, raging river coming from the base of an imposing rocky peak covered with galciers and with another big glacier at the base, covered with ice calved off from higher up and debris. The wind was stealing the glacial runoffs and turning them into clouds. To the other side was the back of Las Torres, Corre Catedral, more rocky, snowy, glacier covered peaks were further in the distance and behind us the path dropped down to the lake that we had come from. Even with the puma in the morning, this view was the highlight of the day. Eventually we dragged ourselves away and returned to Campamento Frances.

The glacier covered mountain.
The back of Las Torres.

Day three

Campamento Frances to Mirador Lago Grey to Refugio Paine Grande, ~23km
We woke up after another great sleep to the sound of birds flying through the trees around the campsite and a bit of drizzle on the tent. We left camp just before 9am and set out, again, towards Campamento Italiano and the awesome glacier covered mountain. It was a nice walk and this time there was a spectacular double rainbow across the sky – from the lake to the glaciers.

Part of the rainbow + glacier view.

We crossed over the raging river at Campamento Italiano and the track led us over gently undulating ground. We walked along narrow muddy paths through trees, over open rocky ground, and through a big section of burnt, white woods, which was reminiscent of the burnt snow gums in Victorian Alpine country. At this point the rain set in and the sky was grey.

Burnt trees on the trail.

By noon we were approaching Refugio Paine Grande and the ‘end’ of the lake. We used the camping dining room to shelter from the persistent but light rain while we made and ate another delicious lunch. Then, we retraced our steps a couple of hundred metres to the turn off for the last part of our W, up towards Refugio Grey. The path went gradually but consistently uphill between two hills. It was still raining but the walk was pleasant. After a bit more uphill we came to a lookout at Lago de los Platos. As normal, it was very windy. The path went along the edge of the lake and at the next view we realised we were getting closer to the glacier because there were some very bright blue bergy bits (small icebergs) in the lake. We moved way from the lake and went through a small wooded area that was covered with foxgloves.

Bergy bits in the lake.

After the trees disappeared the wind hit us with full force, and it was still raining, cold rain. We put our heads down on pushed on uphill. Fortunately, it wasn’t much further to Mirador Lago Grey. Under the overcast sky the lake and glacier lived up to the name ‘Grey’, but with hints of iceberg blue and it was still great. There were a few outcrops for the best views and photo opportunities, assuming you could stand up against the wind.

Mark at Glacier Grey.

At this point we turned back – it is possible to walk about 5km further to get to Refugio Grey, but someone we spoke to on the path said that the refugio is in a wooded area so you don’t get any views unless you go further again anyway! The way back was uneventful, although we stopped for a while to watch two condors flying above us.

Back at the lake, we were just in time for the penultimate catamaran across the lake. The journey took about half an hour and we briefly stood out on top to look at the views, but it was very cold, a bit wet and the clouds were obscuring the views so we went inside and spoke to people. At Pudeto, on the other side of the lake, we had time for a delicious bowl of tomato soup in the tiny cafe and then got a bus back to Puerto Natales.

Trip tips

  • Pay for park entrance in advance at the bus station in Puerto Natales to save time. Plus you can pay by card at the bus station.
  • Only cash is accepted in the park.
  • Book several months in advance or you will be very limited in terms of dates, locations and accommodation options. Alternatively, book nothing and arrive at the campsites after 8pm with your own gear.
  • There are several options for accommodation and food: camp with your own stuff, camp and rent the campsite’s stuff (good quality), or sleep in a refugio. Refugios are very expensive. You can have all or some meals provided, or buy very basic groceries (e.g. pasta and pasta sauce) at the refugios – also rather expensive.
  • Prices (and the numbers of people) drop from March 1.
  • There is water everywhere. On a hot day you are fine carrying just 1 litre and refilling each time you cross a stream.
  • Be ready for a lot of wind. It can be cold, make walking difficult, blow your belongings away and blow gravel in your face. Plan accordingly and tie everything down (especially pack covers).
  • The Base Las Torres path is very steep and the ground is uneven, hiking poles would be useful.
  • The path often separates into two or more tracks. It doesn’t matter which one you pick, they all come back together quite quickly.
  • Official estimations for distances are a bit off, but the suggested timings are a good guide.

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