Walking the W in Torres del Paine pt.1 – The tail
The yellow grass rustles in the wind. It moves around with waving motions – first one direction, then the other. It lets itself being swept around without putting up any resistance. The strong sun is shining down on us from a blue, cloud-dotted, sky. The mighty mountains of the Cordillera del Paine shoot up in the distance. It looks beautiful, it looks serene, and it is. But the wind is howling around us, the strong Patagonian breath makes my hands unsteady when I take up my camera to take a picture, it grabs and stirs my pants, my jacket, my heavy backpack, it makes it harder to walk. It’s not cold, but I put on my hood, tightens it to make sure the wind doesn’t blow it right off again. All I can hear is the wind, the howling, the rustling. We walk in a single line on the narrow path towards the mountains, but even if we had been walking side by side we wouldn’t have been able to speak to each other. All the words would have been absorbed instantly by the wind.
I had seen pictures of the Torres before I started travelling. It was one of those places I just had to go, to see, to walk. And suddenly (after some 15 travel hours from Ushuaia, including a border crossing) I was in Puerto Natales, the gateway to the national park of Torres del Paine. I was going to do this.
I rented a tent, a (heavy) sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, a stove and pot from my hostel. I bought pasta, oatmeal and instant, freeze dried, mashed potatoes – and avocadoes, I had to have avocadoes, something fresh, my one little luxury. It would be the first multiday hike in my life were I was going to carry everything I needed myself. Food and camping stuff, everything. When I have done multiday hikes in Norway I have stayed in cabins, I have eaten in the cabins and only had to bring my clothes, camera and sleeping liner with me. When I did the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu in Peru a couple of years ago everything was transported with horses. This time on the other hand I would have to rely on me and me only.
I emptied my main backpack and filled it with only essentials: the camping stuff, one pair of clothes for walking and one pair for camping, my cameras, an extra lens. I portioned my food in zip lock bags – one for each meal – and left the excess in the kitchen drawers for others to enjoy. I even – with a very heavy heart – left my clown make-up kit with the rest of my leftovers in the hostel lockers. Still, when I hanged my backpack on to the hook scale in the hostel, the needle just wouldn’t go below 16kg. But there was nothing more I could manage without, nothing else I could get rid of (I just had to have those avocadoes, and of course I needed both my cameras…!) so 16kg it was. It would have to do.
As I reach the top of a little hill I can finally see lake Pehoé and I get a completely unobstructed view of the Cordillera del Paine range for the first time since we started trekking. It’s beautiful, it’s magnificent, it’s amazing. The lake, dotted with small little islands. The mountains. The rolling hills. The sky. The clouds. It’s hard to explain that feeling when you just get completely overwhelmed by nature, when you just have to stop in your tracks, take it all in. Soak it all up. I don’t know why, but for some reason, this view – of the mountains, with the lake in front and burned trees sprinkled in the foreground – ended up being my favorite in the whole park.
Shortly after we reach a little forest, or what used to be a forest. There are no leafs on the trees around us. Bare, black branches are stretching towards the sky – a reminiscent of the big fire that roared a mere year ago. A fire that was started by some hiker being uncareful with his gas stove. The sight is sad. Sad because of all that was destroyed and sad because I find the sight hauntingly beautiful.
Which route to take
I had been playing with the thought of walking the whole circuit, spending some 8 days or so in the park, walking on the backside of the Cordillera del Paine range where it less crowded, less people. Overcome the John Gardner pass and get a great view of the Grey glacier, maybe catch a glimpse of the mighty Southern Patagonian ice fields. The thought of carrying food for so many days put me off it though, and then there were my blisters. I’d gotten some pretty severe blisters on my heels when walking in the mountains near Ushuaia with my new hiking boots that were just starting to heal properly and I’d probably get new ones in Torres. No need to make it worse than necessary.
So in the end I decided on the classic and popuar W – plus a little part called the tail, starting down at the administration and going up to Lake Pehoe and Paine Grande, the ending or starting point for most people doing the W. I’d start with the tail in the afternoon on my first day, just walk a couple of hours, camp at a free campsite, finish the tail, and then walk the W from east to west after that. That way I’d save money, not having to take the catamaran over lake Pehoe and I’d get a nice entrance to the park, walking towards the mountain.
I started out with a Dutch guy from the hostel, but by the end of the first day we were a group of five. The Dutch guy, an American guy, a French guy, a guy from Santiago, Chile and then there was me. We kept together the whole time (as in we would more or less walk independently on the trails and maybe meet up a few times during the hike, if not at least at the camp). We would spend five nights, four full days, and two half days in the park. We would walk over 80 km and see a lot of great mountain views. We would eat crappy food and drink fresh glacial water. And we would have the most amazing time!