Let me be straight with you, I simply cannot remember the last time I was so excited to go for a hike. But let me assure you, this is no ordinary hike. To many, this is ‘the hike of hikes’. Allow me to Introduce ‘The W Trek’ at Torres Del Paine – A challenging, rewarding and unforgettable trek through forests, mountains and glaciers in Patagonia.
The park sits at the Southern end of the Andes – not too far away from the tip of Southern South America. In short, I’m a long, long way from home. It felt like it as well. As I’ve said in previous posts, home has never felt far away. Not the case here though. You cannot go much further until you are at the end of the world.
Declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1978, Torres Del Paine is internationally recognised as one of the most beautiful, unique and uncontaminated places on Earth. The name Torres del Paine is Spanish for “Towers of Paine” – “Paine” being the old indigenous name for the colour blue. The towers refer to 3 striking rock towers that define the park. Such is its status, the towers are present on 1000 Chilean Peso notes. A sign of national heritage. A national wonder. A landmark.
April/May is Autumn down in this part of the world, winter is fast approaching. After all this time away, my time to face and brave the cold had come. Long story short, it’s the low season, the temperature drops below freezing and as a result, hoards of other hikers and camping enthusiasts hold off until summer. In my mind, there is no better time to come and trek at Torres. This time of year involves certain hardships for sure, but you pay less and practically have the place to yourself. That definitely ticks a few boxes.
Regarding the trek itself, around 60km of ground is covered in 5 days. My accommodation involved putting my trust in an old rented tent. Hmm. Pretty trusting you might say, especially when temperatures reached the lows of -4. Because of the weather conditions, which are notorious for being very unpredictable (you can experience all seasons in a single day) It’s not widely recommended that people complete the trek solo – so obviously this is what I decided to do.
Similar to most things in life, preparation was vital. Ensuring that I had enough clothing, the correct type of clothing such as waterproofs took a bit of time to organise. The most cost effective way to prepare is to rent the appropriate equipment. Easy peasy. When you start a journey in Cuba, in the Caribbean, a thick coat, gloves and a woolly hat are not at the forefront of your mind. Trust me on that one. You should have seen the looks I was receiving when packing my bag the night before the trek. My stuff was sprawled all over my bed and amongst a rather large pile of gear, my £30 snorkel and mask from Big Wednesday embodied the summit of a snow capped mountain. They were so perched perfectly it genuinely appeared as though they were to be the first item in my rucksack! Fellow travellers couldn’t take their eyes of my scuba gear. I could sense their thoughts in the same way you enjoy and laugh at Mark and Jez’s internal thinking and speaking process in Peep Show. “Look at this clown.” “Is he going to go for a swim in one of the lakes?”, “Who is this guy?” These words were written in the form of several facial expressions in the dorm room. As one would expect, I felt compelled to say something, “I’m not taking them, obviously” I quipped to one traveller whilst pointing at the snorkel. Heads nod, eyes rolled. Austin Powers fans, it was just like International Man of Mystery with the ‘Swedish made penis enlarger’ – “Really it’s not mine…”
My first sight of the park was a spectacular one. One where I honestly thought there was a small chance that I wouldn’t see a better view in the coming week. I mean, take a look at this.
Below is a map I’ve stolen from Google (https://besthike.com/s-america/patagonian-andes/paine-circuit/) that gives you an idea of my itinerary which was as follows:
Day 1 – Paine Grande to Glacier Grey
Day 2 – Glacier Grey to Camp Italiano
Day 3 – Italiano to Los Cuernos
Day 4 – Los Cuernos to Torres Base
Day 5 – Sunrise at the Towers, to Las Torres
In truth, the entire experience is too difficult to express into words – but here goes. My first glimmer and taste of Patagonia unveiled the most astonishing scenery I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. By no means am I a religious man, but goodness me, you do wonder if there is such a god when you see land like this. It leaves you speechless. Fang-white mountains rear into the sky and tower over you, oceans of forest with every colour on the spectrum drown you, and the insidious cerulean lakes surround you. Many times you hear the rumble of waves of snow trundle down the hillsides. It’s similar to a sonic boom. Loud and sudden enough to raise your awareness, but not enough to put you on red alert.
Mountainous scenery will always be the most remarkable and beautiful to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love a tropical paradise or whatnot, but it doesn’t have the same effect as rugged, mountainous landscape. Perhaps it’s been instilled in me from a young age as I’ve been lucky enough to have had a father who’s been a keen skier, who first took me to the Alps when I was 9. I guess reaching mountain views in general are more inaccessible than tropical paradise. In order to endure the luxury of such heaven touching pieces of land, in most cases it involves a longer drive, a more turbulent flight, or in my case here, burning hundreds of calories and taking thousands of steps. It’s always this way in life. Things are better when you fight and work for them. It’s just the way it is. Risk/reward if you like. This hike and I’m sure other areas of Patagonia are no different.
Glacier Grey was quite a sight. Getting my nerd on, but glaciers are something I’ve always been somewhat interested in. It wasn’t just because of the cool visual mapping tools I used for Geography at school and college – I guess the natural process of excess snow accumulation in relation to the moving body of ice and the evolving structures are just “cool” to me. The size of these natural structures cannot be ignored. Grey Glacier is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s second largest contiguous ice field outside of the poles. Stretching across the Andes between Argentina and Chile, this 16,800 square km mass of ice feeds dozens of glaciers in Patagonia. Unbelievably, Glacier Grey is a relatively small glacier. Just to be crystal clear, by small I mean it’s only 270 square kilometres. Only 270! Mental right? Apparently there’s a shortage of water in the world. You find yourself standing in awe and thinking, “umm how?”
Over the 5 days, the weather was flawless. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Icy and frosty early starts turned into misty, mysterious mornings which in turn evolved into the clearest of days. The clarity enhanced your vision. Horizons become hundreds of miles, not dozens. The apex of the mountain tops were drenched in piercing sunlight. The only precipitation came in form of thousands of golden autumn leaves elegantly falling from the exceptionally gorgeous woodlands. To quote The Stranglers – Golden Brown, texture like sun.
Speaking of sun, when blessed with luminous clear skies all day long, the inevitable happens and it sets for the day, bringing a close to witnessing nature’s wonders. However, when clear skies remain, an encore arrives as evening sets in – the stars. I found myself blown away. Never in my life have I seen night skies like these. When I was a little boy, I remember getting those glow in the dark plastic stars that you stick to the ceiling. Back then you didn’t think about the stars deeply – you just found it cool. Space. The planets. You know? I used to love gazing up at that ceiling – I remember it fondly. I’ve never forgotten it. These night skies are in the same ‘I won’t forget’ category, but are in a different league altogether. In a word; overwhelming. Imagine a black sheet or veil with a million pin holes in it or thousands of pieces of glitter sprinkled over sheets of paper. My neck still aches as a result of my eyes being fixated on the dazzling event in the sky. Incredible.
The climax of trek is without question the Towers of Paine. The 3 towers having been shaped over millions of years by the movement of ancient glaciers. Reaching that point acted as a piece of personal significance to me. This time last year whilst at work, In the city of London, I found myself reading an article my company had published which contained Torres Del Paine, specifically a wonderful photo of the towers. At the time, I felt confused within my working life and thought of how special it would be it to be the one taking the photo of the towers behind the lake. Reaching the Towers of Paine for real provided a rush of genuine satisfaction as I always thought it was so far away. Too far away. Almost unreachable. Man it felt incredibly good to get there. I feel very fortunate and it was a nice reminder confirming I made the correct choices in getting this far.
Despite the fact I set off solo, I was pleased to have met other nutters who were craving the same adventure as I was. A little team was assembled and I now find myself travelling the rest of Patagonia with Rui and Judith; from Portugal and Germany respectfully. Although in the grand schemes of things you find yourself barely knowing these people – in some cases it’s the birth of wonderful and fruitful friendships, other times it’s not, however, in either case, the fact you have experienced something so pure and special is truly sacred and it binds you with these people forever. I remember hiking the Great Wall of China with guys I met in Shanghai. Neils from Denmark and Leon from Germany. I haven’t seen those guys in 3 years, but friends we are. Every year, around the month we hiked the wall back in 2013, messages are sent, jokes re-told and memories cherished. My experience at Torres Del Paine is no different and is one I’ll be truly grateful for, for the rest of my life.