Backpack and Las Torres del Paine in Background

Torres del Paine: How I Hiked the W Trek Alone

Listed number one on my Must-Do-Or-Feel-The-Pain-Later list of things to do in Chile was hiking in Torres del Paine National Park.  Located in the Chilean Patagonia north of Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, the National Park is a natural wonderland of sights and sounds, and is breathtakingly flawless save for the effects of a scattering of burnings occasioned by careless tourists.

Walking to Lake Pehoé Day 1 Torres del Paine
Walking against the wind to Lake Pehoé, Day One

I scooted on down in mid May to hike the “W” trail, feeling dubious as to my ability to withstand the weather I’d been assured would be bitingly cold, but excited to see the splendour so many had told me of.  Six days awaited me, as well as much colour, emotional highs and lows and the best and worst of all of the four seasons…

DAY ONE

Leaving from Puerto Natales at 8.00am, I was simultaneously bolstered and frightened by the lack of people traveling to the park itself, but not planning on hiking the “W”.  Upon hearing that this was just what I was planning to do, comments ranged from:

“Wow, you’re so brave, I’d never hike alone!”

to

“You absolute tool, you know hardly anyone’s hiking now.  What if you sprain an ankle and die by the side of the trail before anyone passes by?”

…which are really the same sentiment, if you think about it.

Regardless, there I was moments later dropped off with two day hikers – a Canadian girl and an Indian guy – ready to walk the 18 kilometres to Refugio Lago Grey against the gale force winds which helpfully pushed us one step back for each two steps forward.  We arrived well enough, although our Indian friend had been rendered a human sauna by the plastic lining created by his disposable waterproofs worn over blue jeans.  He quickly learned from his mistake, and was found whimpering only slightly as he dried out his jeans by the fire that night.

DAY TWO

I absolutely detest paths which require you to return via the exact same trail, and so on Day Two, I decided to leave my pack at the refuge and head off to Glacier Grey with Narcissus from Barcelona and his Taiwanese counterpart Fiona.

Glacier Grey, Torres del Paine
The incredible Glacier Grey

The benefits were two-fold:  Not to lug a pack to Los Guardas campsite and back, therefore, returning one day to sleep another night in the relative comfort of non-heated Refugio Grey, instead of outside with the wind and quickly advancing frost.

The plan was fantastic, but the execution poor…as with 30 kilometres to walk and more than one hill to scramble in the process, our 8am departure time was not nearly sufficient.  Hence, we were found high-tailing it home in winter’s premature darkness of 5.30pm, thankful that city-girl Fiona had an iphone with a torch application.  Even the white blazes were not visible during a new moon.

DAY THREE

Tagging along with Montreal’s Alex – the only other hiker continuing in my direction – we left early the next day for Campamento Italiano.  The morning was crisp and clear and the sun egg-yolk yellow, a clear indication of fabulous weather…at least by normal standards.

However, Day Three would quickly teach us that weather in Las Torres cannot and will not be predicted.  Snow began threatening to fall as we approached the campsite, and after we continued on to complete our afternoon walk to El Valle Francés (one of the most beautiful sites in the park), it was falling with rampant abandon.  Very soon, our bemused contemplation of beautiful snow flakes…

Snowflakes on pebbles
Snow looks so harmless at first…

Snowy mountain and stream

…ended in us crouching under an old shelter while a blizzard-white like sky clouded our entire view of the Valley and the snow fell enthusiastically.  Alex waited there, freezing and vigil-like should the skies clear; while I got the hell out.  I made it back to Campamento Italiano with half an hour until night fell, while Alex, running like a banshee, arrived an hour after sunset (and not unentirely thanks to being able to follow my footprints in the cloudy darkness).

Snowy Valley
Walking to El Valle Francés, before the snow got vicious…

DAY FOUR

This day shall forever remain in my mind as The Day of the Douchey Park Ranger.

Having decided that I simply could not match his Speedy Gonzalez pace, I left Alex and began plodding rather than walking to Campamento Los Cuernos.  My sad plod was due to a flutter in my hip flexor which had been threatening to rain on my parade and had now finally decided to throw a pain party and invite all its friends.

Crossing some of the shortest and easiest terrain of the trail was no mean feat this day, as each step felt like a cheese grater was getting busy with my right hip.  Needless to say, when I finally crawled the 4 kilometres to Los Cuernos, and saw the first and last park rangers stationed at the park during the off season, I would have leapt for joy if I could have.  As it was, I fell in a heap at their door.

Pebbles

Good Cop and Bad Cop – the two rangers – were comically tall and sweet and short and mean looking, respectively.  Good was willing to provide me with a bed or at least a warm place to cook, whereas Bad (sadly also the boss) would have none of that.

Hearing that I needed a day to stretch before continuing, he responded to my request that he radio out for my bus to arrive a day later with a snort and refusal so rude that I am unable to describe it without resorting to expletives.

Bad claimed that he had no radio, and even if he did, did not know the frequency through which to contact the final refuge.  My ability to master the Spanish language was so clouded at this point by pain and anger that I could not muster the strength to suggest that this was a blatant lie:  As how would he himself receive help if he got hurt while stationed out here.  In winter.  In the off-season.  Without phone reception.  Or barely anyone passing?

Thankfully, an afternoon spent stretching, eating the salty pasta broth that I had been calling dinner, and breathing deeply (so as not to spear Bad with a tent peg) was enough to refill my tank for the next day’s work:  Making it to Las Torres themselves.

Camp food: pasta soup
This sad little dish became what I looked forward to most each day.

DAY FIVE

A curious day of abundant energy, Day Five saw me soar past Campamento Chileno where I’d planned on staying the night, and continue right up to Las Torres’ base camp itself.

While the day itself was generally spectacular, some unfortunate discoveries included:

  • Becoming acquainted with the immense amount of mud I needed to cross
  • Noting that a mouse had eaten much of my dark chocolate
  • And that the wildberries I’d picked while rendered lame the day before (you can apparently eat any plants or berries found in the park) had made my dried fruit mix stickily moist and gross…

Wildberries

However all this meant nothing, as I felt as energetic as a colt.

I made it to Campamento Las Torres, and far from having the campsite (and a fresh mischief of mice) to myself, I was soon joined by two Frenchmen and a guy from Tokyo.

Much conversation was shared, and Xavier’s contribution of pisco made the night and tired muscles flow muuuuch more smoothly.

DAY SIX

As well as being a lover of pisco, Xavier was a lover of early mornings; and to that end had volunteered to wake us all up at 6am to hike to Las Torres for the sunrise.

This idea sounded wonderful the night before; ludicrous and possibly slightly mentally unhinged upon beginning walking; and then wonderful again as we watched the day break around us, up there in the mountains.

Las Torres del Paine
Las Torres: The three towers the park takes its name from.

The landscape surrounding the Torres is a mess of huge boulders, perfect for scrambling up and down before picking your way back down the icy slick leading its way to the look out.

And that was it:  After saying goodbye to my final hiking companions (still frolicking happily up and down the rocky slope), I began the 16 kilometre walk through the last leg of the park, and to the bus stop where I’d be taken back to the comfort of flushing toilets and refrigerated cheese in Puerto Natales.

Las Torres del Paine and Guanacos
Depending on how you decide to walk the “W”, this will be the first, or last sight you see.

Some of the most spectacular scenery of the trail awaited me (along with a few guanacos, distant relatives of llamas) and before I knew it, I was back in Puerto Natales, listening to my hosts’ exclamations of surprise that I had survived the cold and relative isolation of the park in May.

The “W” and much longer “O” trails are highly recommended for hikers traveling in the south of Chile.  A backpack, good shoes, food, hardy spirit and several spare camera batteries and you’re off!

GETTING THERE

  • Las Torres del Paine National Park is accessed via transfer from Puerto Natales in the Chilean Patagonia.  Mini buses leave daily from a variety of tour agencies and will cost between $20 000 – $30 000 Chilean pesos return.
  • Camping equipment (tents, sleeping bags, gas stoves, roll up mattresses…even boots and backpacks!) can be rented at Puerto Natales.  Shop around for the best deals.
  • Hiking is recommended between December and February, as the weather is milder and there are many more daylight hours. However, for this reason the park is very full at this time and you must make good time each day in order to arrive before campsites fill up.
  • Camping is only allowed at designated campsites and no fires may be lit (only gas stoves are allowed).
  • The popular “W” trail (which this post is based on) takes an average of 5 days, where as the full “O” will set you back 8 – 9.  The “O” is closed during winter months, as there are no park rangers stationed there for emergencies or information.
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13 thoughts on “Torres del Paine: How I Hiked the W Trek Alone

  1. Wow. Mike and I have a hiking story from a nz trip 15 years ago which I trot out as being my near death experience. It makes me feel like I have some appreciation for what you describe, albeit my version being much tamer and far less intimidating than yours. You must feel incredibly proud to have conquered that treck. Amazing woman. Jules Xxx

  2. Hi Erin,

    How are you doing?
    Your blog looks interesting :). As I dont have a company yet (all my friends are true workaholics), and I am super interested in Patagonia, i was searching in the internet something related to trek alone and found your blog :). I am planning to go for the same trek between 19th April and 4th May, I have to divide it between Atacama and Patagonia. I have a few question,

    1. If Punta Arenas is the closest airport, how do you go to the National Park Base? Or you have walk all the way from Punta Arenas to the National Park, Basically where do i start the trekking from and how to reach the start point.

    2. I am hoping to tag up with people trekking there, like you did, so whats the probability of that?

    3. Do I need to carry heavy winter clothes for this time?

    BTW, this will be my first multi day trekking and I am from India.

    Huggs
    Rakesh.

    1. Hi Rakesh,

      Great to hear you’re planning to hike in Las Torres. It’s really beautiful, as I mentioned, so I think you’ll have a great time.

      Now:
      1. You definitely won’t walk from Punta Arenas! It’s a looooong way 🙂 I got a bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales.

      There, in Puerto Natales, I rented my tent and other camping gear that I wasn’t carrying with me and stayed a couple of nights to buy food, visit tourist agencies and otherwise plan my walk.

      From Puerto Natales, I got a mini bus very early one morning with other travellers – many of whom were only visiting for the day – and was dropped off at the “W” trek with two other hikers.

      These two hikers and I started out together (one was Indian, like you!)

      So – my advice is to make your way to Puerto Natales and, once there, ask around in tourist information/your hostel for how to buy a spot in a bus to make your way to the start point.

      This website may help you:
      http://www.visittorresdelpaine.com/torres-del-paine-w.shtml

      2. I saw a few people every day during my walk (May) and tagged up with a few hikers for a couple of afternoons. However, in my case, people were generally walking in the other direction!

      If you want to hike with people, you could possibly tag up with other travellers staying at your hostel and organise to hike together. Otherwise, you’ll probably find a couple of people staying at your campsite etc, and hike together – it can definitely happen, although at that time of year the campsites and the trek in general are not as busy as in summer!!

      3. I did carry a big puffy jacket (perhaps feather?) cos I was worried about being cold, and layers is definitely the key! Winter clothes don’t have to be heavy, but you should have several layers: undershirt, thermal tops/bottoms, woolen socks (you can easily buy these in Chile), woolen beanie etc. You don’t need ski gear, but you will definitely need layers. When you stop walking, and at night, it gets cold…

      I’ve seen that maximums of 10 degrees and minimums of 0 can be expected in April-June.

      By the way – I bought that puffy jacket in a Chilean “tienda americana” or second hand clothes stores. It cost me less than $10, so those tiendas americanas are definitely a great way to get inexpensive winter clothes…

      Good luck with your planning! I’m sure you’ll have a great time!

      Erin

      1. HI Erin,

        Thanks for the reply, your reply makes it feel more doable!!!

        So I reach Punta Arenas, and I should stay in Punta Arenas or Natales for some days, talk to people/Agencies about the trek and start, say 2 days later… Probably might even get a company.

        Rakesh.

      2. Exactly, if you’re unsure, I would definitely take a couple of days to talk to tour agencies as well as people who work in shops that hire hiking gear. They’re professionals, after all!

        Good luck!

  3. Hi Erin, thanks for this blog, it’s a great read. Right now we have a decision to make between walking the W or heading up to Rio and Flori for the week. We’d be hiking in mid-May so about the same time as yourself. I’m favouring the Patagonia option, but two of my friends are leaning to the Brazil. Do you have any advice here?! Any thoughts would be much appreciated. Cheers, Sean

    1. Hi Sean, Wow, what a decision! They’re two really different types of trip too, so I can see why you and your friends are having a bit of difficulty deciding…

      So, I’ll have to preface by saying that I haven’t been to Rio (major fail, I know!) so I can’t give personal advice there. But I have been to Florianopolis, and loved it. I’m not even a beachy person, so it was a surprise to enjoy the sand and surf – but it seems that Brazilian beaches have a particular magic to them…

      On the other hand, the Patagonia is absolutely spectacular. I was told before I came over that I absolute mustn’t miss it, and I’m really glad I went. I was amazed by the glaciers, snow, colours and just the chance to walk day after day…

      To choose, make sure you consider:
      * The “type” of trip you’re after
      * Time frame (is a week really enough time in each place?)
      * Logistics (will you be taking a huge detour to get to your destination that could be avoided by choosing the other?)
      * Costs
      * Possibility for traveling a section alone?

      In terms of choosing, what sort of trip are you after? Nightlife? Social? Contemplation? Exercise? Nature? Sun? Brazil – particularly Rio – will definitely be more of a social, dancing, partying time away, while in the Patagonia you’ll be wowed by nature (and if you stay a bit of time on either side, will probably eat a loooooooot of roasted lamb, a typical thing to do down there).

      Consider is where you’re coming from. Are you making a big, expensive detour to go to either of those places? Essentially, is either destination way out of your way, and better left for another trip with more time to dedicate there?

      Time. A week split between Rio and Floripa is pushing it, in my opinion. We stayed in Floripa a week easily (there are dozens of gorgeous beaches to see) and in Rio, I have it on good authority that it’s impossible to be bored. On the other hand, a week in and around Las Torres is pretty much perfect…

      What about weather? Are you ok with hiking in a time when you could run into snow? Brazil will clearly be a lot more summery still…

      Cost-wise, you should be pretty much even. The south of Chile is the most expensive part, and my Chilean friends day that the south of Brazil is pretty much the same. Howeverrrrrrrr, Brazil’s going to be really expensive around the World Cup, so I”m not sure if they’ve started ramping up prices in preparation. In May, you should still be ok, but it’s something to think about…

      Finally, if your destination doesn’t “win”, are you ok with going there after/before alone? That way, you’ll get both in 🙂

      Urgh, Sean, I’m not sure I’ve been much help!

      What ever you choose, you’ve got two really great ideas there. And remember, this continent’s not going anywhere, so you can always come back!

      Have a great time!!

  4. Dear Erin,
    Thanks for sharing your experience!
    I’ll be in TdP at the end of April and got a bit sick of people/websites telling me many places will be closed and trekking will be unpleasant due to the weather. It feels great to read your story 🙂

    I’m planning to stay in TdP for 3 to 4 days and to do Perito Moreno and El Chalten (Fitz Roy) afterwords.
    My question to you is about the part northern part of Patagonia: Is El Chalten OK for trekking/visiting in early May? And mostly, should we consider to make our way all up in 1 time to Bariloche (route 40 in argentina) and do the lake district + the beautiful way to Puerto Montt, or should we pass by chilean patagonia (route 7) and pass by Chaiten.
    Considering the weather (early May) and our tight schedule (we have 10 days to do El Chalten and all the way up to Puerto Montt), what would be your advice?
    Thanks in advance for your help,
    Karel

    1. Hey Karel,

      So good to hear you’re planning a Patagonian trip! I’m not sure I can be too much help with the specifics here, as I didn’t visit El Chalten or Chaiten. Major fail on my part!

      But, I was talking with some Chilean friends and they say that they’d recommend going through Argentina. After TdP, I went to Ushuaia and from there to Perito Moreno and up to El Bolson/Bariloche.

      As for hiking, I’m not sure what you’d expect in El Chalten (cold, I imagine!) but I was in Bariloche in May and it was definitely not classic hiking season – but there were still plenty of people doing the same little trek as us to Refugio Frey (and the refuge was full!). For when you’re in Bariloche, I recommend that hike as a quick one day in/one night out stay kinda gig…

      Sorry I couldn’t be more specific! I have to visit those places myself…

      PS: Victoria and Steve from http://www.bridgesandballoons.com, visited El Chalten and I’m pretty sure they had a ball. Check them out, as I know they’ve posted lots of advice and stories about Argentina…

      Have fun!

  5. Hi Erin,

    I’m not sure if you are still replying to comments on this post, but I’m pretty desperate so will try! My boyfriend and I are going to be in Chile for a week from May 10th to 17th, and would LOVE to hike the W trail. I started planning for it super late and it looks like it’s nearly impossible to book any refugios during that time! I’m so confused. Did you only camp or were some refugios open? It seems like you stayed at Refugio Lago Grey, but when I try to book it, it says it’s closed. It would be great if you could help!!!! Thanks.

    Lyla

    1. Hi Lyla,

      I stayed at Refugio Lago Grey the first night, because they wouldn’t let us camp as the park had only recently suffered terrible bushfires and they didn’t want us using our gas stoves. I didn’t book and the place was all but empty, so I walked right in to a room.

      I camped every other night and never had to book or reserve a place, again as there was hardly anyone hiking! There weren’t any other Refugios open while I was there (I did meet some rangers at one – I think Cuernos – but they wouldn’t let me sleep inside as they were cleaning up in preparation for the next high season).

      Essentially, I think camping’s the main option for May hiking, as it’s not the high season and the Refugios tend not to be open…But confirm that with hostels/camping gear rental stores in Puerto Natales to be sure.

      As for planning, I only started planning once I arrived in Puerto Natales, about four days before starting my hike. I rented a tent, sleeping bag, talked to people about the route, booked my transport in, bought food and went for it!

      I think you can still go for it!! (And it’s definitely worth it.) Good luck!!

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