Rainy cold mist is blowing in your face, but these are the perfect conditions to reach into your pack for your camera. Dawn’s golden mist offers the kind of elusive light that made Ansel Adams a legend, but arguably you have a grander landscape to work with. It’s nearly impossible to do it artistic justice, but you must try to capture a moment you will always remember.
You’re in Southern Patagonia’s Torres Del Paine National Park at the Torres Mirador capping a five day hike on the W circuit. It’s among the few places in the world where photos only hint at what it’s like being there.
The W is a 100 kilometer energizing five day trek that Tusker does in a relatively relaxed five days. Some companies do it in three, but that’s madness. How can you rush this? You will want time to savor from many angles the iconic three horned towers within the Cordillera Paine massif that loom above you throughout the trek.
The towers are only part of the picture. Glacially carved huge lakes spread below the snowy peaks as the trail slithers in and out; up and down a W shaped labyrinth. This bounty is shaped by the Paine massif’s powerful forces of wind and water flow.
Torres Del Paine is now firmly on the trek world’s bucket list chase, but is also a place to surrender some ego. Thank the Chilean government for protecting this special place and also Tusker for offering this trip.
The Grand Compromise
Tusker’s treks in early March and early November are unlike our other trips to Kilimanjaro, Nepal and Mongolia. Those trips are more linear in that they go to a fixed destination i.e. Kilimanjaro’s summit, Everest Base Camp or Altai Tavn Bogd National Park. While these are hardly straight line treks they essentially ascend and descend. The W Circuit is a roller coaster walkabout with as many ups as downs but all below 4,000 feet.
In a sense the W circuit is a grand compromise made because you are near the tip of South America where weather and geology make peak bagging achievable only for truly gifted mountaineers. Since 2011 Cerro Paine Grande at 9,462 feet has been considered the highest point, but has only been summited three times since first breached in 1956.
Settling for the W Circuit is still a life achievement. It will tax you physically, but the rewards are worth the long journey south especially if you love mountains, watery landscapes, big weather and other-worldly wildlife.
“This trip comes with a low physical cost. Altitude is not the issue, the challenge is the distances, “said Andrew Springsteel, Tusker’s South American guide. “The longest segment is getting to French Valley and it’s an eight to ten hour hike. There are several other segments that will take seven to eight hours.”
W details, comparisons
There are three major treks in the park, the W, O and Q routes. All have their pros and cons, but the W is the most popular and achievable. The O and Q circuits are at least two days longer venturing into the far northern reaches of the park. More challenging, they require bagging John Garner Pass, a 3,000 foot elevation gain. The pass is sometimes closed because of high winds and low visibility.
When Andrew was planning Tusker’s Patagonia trek, he took all that into consideration and after exploring the park opted for the W, but in the shoulder seasons. December to February is peak season when the W route is jammed with day hikers, back packers and backcountry tours. Campsites and refugios are maxed and you just can’t show without reservations for any accommodation. Traveling in November and March the park is less crowded and Andrew opted to do the W in a counterclockwise West to East direction to enhance the wilderness feel.
Day One—Grey Lake and a whiskey shot
The counterclockwise W circuit begins at Grey Lake where a catamaran will take up to two hours to put you at the northern end of this 10 mile glacially fed lake. You will immediately be humbled by the visual contrasts. Chunks of blue ice float on the dull grey water surrounded by the lush lower montane forests and the upper grey walls of the Paine massif. Be glad you’re not in a kayak whose hardy pilots battle wind induced swells heading toward the river of ice that is the Grey Glacier.
The Grey Glacier is less grey than a bluish-white army advancing into the 1,500 foot deep lake. Some boat captains offer passengers whiskey over glacial ice, it’s a Torres Del Paine tradition and you may want to partake in this chilling celebration. Hell, you’ve arrived and it’s worth celebrating your determination to venture to the southern end of the world to be dazzled by its natural clean living rewards.
After getting settled into Grey Lake Refugio, a three hour ice hike will help shake any cobwebs that have settled into your legs after the boat rides earlier in the day. Your Chilean guide has done the ice hike many times and will instruct you on how to hike on ice.
The Grey Lake Refugio is one of the original shelters in the park and perhaps the most basic. It provides a chance to eat, sleep, shower and perhaps most importantly a warm sanctuary from the notorious Patagonia wind. Don’t be surprised if you meet friendly other trekkers from around the world. Some may be ending the circuit here and should have good intel on what the journey ahead is like.
Day Two/Three—French Valley foray
There are many highlights on the five day W Circuit but the two days getting to and spending in the French Valley are among the most sublime. That being said it’s also the most rigorous stretch of the trek, but anything this spectacular doesn’t come easy.
Of all the legs on Tusker trips the hike from Grey Lake to the French Valley’s Domes Refugio is among the longest. It’s a 20 kilometer trek that will take a full day. The trail goes along Grey Lake through condor country so keep your head up for a view of these winged giants who nest in the mountain crags above you.
You continue to head south, and after reaching the top of Lake Pehoe after 11 kilometers take off your pack off to enjoy the lake views. This is where you turn east toward the French Valley. Passing Laguna Scottsberg which would be a huge lake anywhere else, but here just a watery afterthought, you are in the home stretch. After passing the entrance to the French Valley you are now on the shores of Lake Nordenskjold and in a half hour you’re happy to put your feet up at French Domes Refugio, one of the most modern and attractive refugios in the park. This is home for two nights and be thankful you can drop your gear and travel light the next day up French Valley.
The climb up French Valley is both heaven and hell. First the good news. Perhaps no other hike on the Tusker itinerary is as continuously beautiful as this. Every turn of the trail offers special views—a full gushing river and streams, waterfalls, glaciers spilling out of mountains and the thunderous crackling of ice calving from the glaciers. On the March trip, you will see huge chunks of ice falling and seconds later hear the thunder march across the valley.
The bad news—if you have creaky knees this hike can be a challenge. Photographer Dominic Urbano said the upper reaches of French Valley is not just steep, but rocky that requires climbing over rock on the upside and a jarring descent on the downside. Awkward landings off of large rocks can be tough on your joints. Stair master training is not going to get you through this.
“If you want to prep for French Valley I would recommend you add stepping onto and off the tailgate of a truck on to hard pavement for several days,” he writes in his travel blog. Dominic was sorry he brought heavy camera gear on this leg of the W circuit.
The reward at the end of the French Valley is a boulder scramble with views of the big cirque containing French Valley glacier and the Paine Massif above. Magnifique! Head downhill after your seven hours in the French Valley. Attend to your feet and knees, have a warm dinner and savor one of the most spectacular days you have ever had on the trail.
Day Four: Along Lake Nordenskjold
Otto Nordenskjold was a Swedish mineralogist and explorer who discovered the lake later named after him early in the 20thcentury. His death cheating exploits in Antarctica and Alaska are legendary, but ironically he was killed by a bus walking down a street in Sweden at 59.
While walking along Lake Nordenskjold be cognizant of the pioneering explorers who came before you and be grateful you are part of that explorer’s club who ventured forward despite all the naysayers who tried to keep you tethered to a “normal life.”
This is just a 14 kilometer day that will keep you on your feet another seven hours as you hike the length of this long lake that sits under the Paine massif. Atop Cuernos Pass you will have lunch with a killer view of the lake below and the mountains above. Follow the footbridge over the Arriero River to the Las Torres Refugio. Have a Pisco Sour at happy hour followed by an early dinner because tomorrow comes very soon.
Day Five: Mirador magic or not?
To climb to the Las Torres Mirador to catch sunrise is not required and some opt to sleep in. To do it requires a 3 a.m. start and it’s a walk in the cold and dark. There is a 50 percent chance you could reach the lookout and clouds could obscure the view. You would be foolish not to do it.
“This is a tough hike for those who like the physical challenge. If you get the views it’s icing on the cake, but after French Valley it’s actually the double icing, “says Andrew who has experienced both and says the March trip offers less capricious weather for this double icing treat.
To see the sunrise with the Paine towers above you is almost as dramatic as being atop Kilimanjaro. It’s an iconic moment where you’re wrapped in a granite cathedral of godly wilderness that many who venture to TDP miss. Many poke their head out of the refugio in the dark, feel some rain and pain from the previous four days and go back to their sleeping bag.
For those who push upwards the rewards are many. Often the weather clears as you ascend and your optimistic glass half full approach to life pays off.