Trekking the 'W': Girl vs Camping...

Trip Start Oct 05, 2012
Trip End Apr 01, 2013

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Flag of Chile  , Patagonia,
Saturday, January 26, 2013

After an early morning start and a sad farewell to Ushuaia, I found myself on another bus, my first in 2 weeks!! I was on my way to Puerto Natales in Chile, and the duration of the journey was only 15 hours. I say 'only' because this was to be a relatively short journey by Patagonian standards, and indeed by South American. It shows how conditioned I have become - if someone told me to take a 15 hour journey from London, involving 2 buses and a ferry, I'm fairly sure I would tell them where to go!!

To be honest, the journey passed relatively quickly. I had expected the scenery to be stunning, a continuation of the snow-capped mountains around Ushuaia. I turned out to be wrong as the majority of the first bus journey was across seemingly never ending flat plains. I was still catching up on lost Antarctican sleep and all intentions I had of completing blog entries and photo editing went by the way as I succumbed to my tiredness... The highlight was crossing the Strait of Magellan - the waterway separating mainland South America from Tierra del Fuego - where I managed to spy a dolphin swimming in the wake of the ferry!! Another 2 hours, followed by a change of bus in Punta Arenas and a further 3 hours and we finally arrived into Puerto Natales. Like I said before, this was an easy journey...!!

I had been on the bus with Bridget, a fellow Antarctican cruiser who was met in Puerto Natales by Jano, a friend of hers who she knew from a previous trek through the nearby Torres del Paine National Park. After finding our hostels, it was off for a late dinner of the best pizza I have had in the last 4 months - something I never expected to hear myself say. Mesitra Grande: if you're in Puerto Natales - go!! You wont be disappointed by their wood-fired pizza...

Luckily for me, Jano was willing to share his tips for visiting Torres del Paine, which - like most others who visit Puerto Natales - was my main reason for diverting into Chile at this point in my trip. He talked me through what is known as the 'W' circuit as it's easy enough to do on your own and is a much shorter trek than the full circuit around the entire park. It is so called because it comprises a 'W' shaped route encompassing 3 of the principal attractions in the park - through the Valle Ascencio to the foot of the actual Torres del Paine (Towers of Pain), up through the Valle del Francés walking in the shadow of the Glaciar de Francés, and finally along Lago Grey to the face of Glaciar Grey. And as if these aren't enough to attract people, the rest of the time is spent enjoying snow capped mountains, glaciers and walking along the edges of blue-green lakes and across glacier streams. The circuit generally takes 4 days, just the right amount of time I had before I needed to move on to my next Patagonian destination...and so I was convinced!!

There was then the small matter of where I would sleep during the 4 days. Because of the popularity of the trek at this time of year, the refugios in the park need to be booked well in advance and are also very expensive - apx. $50/night without food - therefore making it (almost) a no brainer to choose the much less expensive camping option. Yes, the girl who's last experience of camping and trekking was Duke of Edinburgh expeditions at school (many years ago!!) of which my fondest memories relate to eating condensed milk straight from a tin and sliding down wet Scottish mountains in bivvy bags rather than the joy of being at one with nature...!! Never one to refuse a challenge, or indeed a 'different' experience I was quite excited about setting off with just a tent and spending some quality time without any form of luxury or electronic device (my beloved iPad included!!). Yes, slightly crazy I know...

Next day was 'preparation' day. I definitely wasn't equipped for camping, but luckily the town is used to wannabe trekkers/campers like myself and it was easy enough to hire a tent, sleeping bag, mat and rucksack cover. I drew the line at carrying cooking equipment - I didn't want to be in charge of a gas cannister so opted for dried and ready-to-eat food as a much simpler method of feeding myself during the 4 days. Bus ticket bought, rucksack unpacked and then repacked with only the essentials and I was ready to go!!

Day 1
Bright and early the next morning I was picked up from my hostel by the bus, and after a few more pick-ups we were heading north towards Torres del Paine National Park. It looked like the weather forecast was accurate - sunshine, but with quite a chilly wind. The journey to the park took about 2 hours. I was going to start from the east of the 'W' so was dropped off by the bus at the first stop - Laguna Amarga. After paying my park entrance fee, I headed off on the first 7.5km section towards Las Torres. 15 minutes later I found myself face down on the trail...clumsy here at tripped over a hidden rock and been unable to save myself due to the extra weight of my backpack. My entire weight came down on my left shoulder and knee...ouch, and from which I still bear the bruises and pain 5 days later. Picking myself up, I set off a whole lot more carefully than I had done previously...

About 1.5hours later I arrived at the camping ground, found myself a spot and attempted my first solo tent erection. This is one of the things that had been worrying me, especially given the likliehood of strong winds. Thankfully though, the tent was as easy to put up as the guy had promised me and even my dead left shoulder didn't stop me getting it set-up relatively quickly. A quick bite to eat for lunch and I set off on the next section minus my backpack...

This was easily the steepest section of the circuit, taking you from Las Torres up the Valle de Ascencio along the Rio Ascencio and finally ending at the Base de las Torres - a lagoon set at the base of the 3 giant granite towers after which the park is named. The scenery changed throughout the route, taking you from windswept mountain sides overlooked by snow covered rocky outcrops, through beech forests, by rivers, along granite chipped footpaths and finally, over a huge expanse of granite boulders for the steep ascent to the actual base. It did feel at times like I was caught up in a scene from Lord of the Rings, and half expected Gollum to pop up from behind a rock as I made my way up!! The view was well worth it - the sun made an appearance as I got there, which illuminated the greeny waters of the lagoon. I'd have stayed for a while longer had the wind not been so strong I almost got blown off a rock and into the water whilst trying to take photographs!!

I started the descent, but at a much slower pace as had got to the base in only 3 hours - much less than the suggested 4.5 hours. Finally, those weeks of huffing and puffing at high altitudes had paid off!! I really enjoyed the walk down as could spend a bit more time in the beech forest areas, and also was lucky enough to see a male and a female woodpecker pecking away at the trunk of a tree. No pumas though...

I was happily exhausted arriving back into camp, and especially relieved to see my tent was still up and hadn't blown away!! It was all I could do to make myself some dinner - that is, if you can call opening packets 'making' dinner - and then an early night...

Day 2
An easy section of the circuit, therefore a fairly slow start to the day meant I didn't leave Las Torres until around 10am. I only had about 11km to walk until the next camping site at Los Cuernos. The route along the edge of Lago Nordernskjöld was fairly easy, even with my backpack. I arrived just under 4 hours later and was luckily one of the first there to claim my camping spot. This was a completely different campsite to the previous one as was mostly in the forest. I found myself a nice sheltered spot, set up camp and then headed into the Refugio for a well-earned drink, albeit only a coke!! I have to say it really was nice in there - very warm, clean toilets and benches to sit at. Oh how the other half live...I guess I could have been one of them, but maybe another time!!

I couldn't hide out in the Refugio for ever and made my way back to my tent for another dinner of bread, tuna, cheese and some chocolate. I then spent the rest of the evening in my tent, listening to music and enjoying the changing patterns on the side of my tent as the sun came through the tree foliage. Simple, but nice...

Day 3
I hadn't slept too well the previous night, loud roars and rumbles had disturbed me on and off and in my hazy half-asleep state I had decided that these were avalanches about to take out the campsite. In a slightly more lucid state when I emerged from my tent in the morning, I realised they were actually the sound of my neighbours moving on their airbed...lucky people!!

I knew I had a long day ahead so wanted to get a fairly early start. The first section was to Italiano, another camping site but one which is currently closed because there is a problem with the toilets. I was therefore surprised (and annoyed!!) to see people camping there - this would have been a much better location for me and would have meant the third day didn't have to be quite as long... This aside, the rangers are happy to let people leave their packs at the hut so they can hike up the Valle del Francés burden-free, which I duly did.

The hike takes you up the eastern side of the Rio Francés, with a constantly changing view of the Glaciar Francés to the west. The end destination is the Mirador Británico, which gives you an amazing view of the Glaciar and also of the lakes and mountains to the south. Luckily for me the weather was amazingly sunny, and I found myself a great little spot shaped like a reclining bed and rested before starting the descent. I'd also managed to do this in a shorter time than anticipated, so once again could head back in a more relaxed manner.

Arriving back at Italiano, I was relieved to be able to find my backpack amidst the hundreds which had been left since I'd departed. I still had another section to do before I reached my camping ground for the evening, hence only stopped for a short period before heading off again. This was by far the easiest section of the whole trek - mostly flat, so even after 6 hours of hiking it wasn't too bad wearing the dreaded backpack.

My final destination was Paine Grande, on the banks of Lago Pehoé, where I arrived just before 5pm. I had started to feel the wind on the latter half of this section, and by the time I had paid my camping fee it was blowing pretty strongly across what was a very open campsite. I selected a spot and started trying to erect my tent...I say trying because it really was a battle. I managed to get the frame up and secure it with my backpack inside, but I really struggled with the top sheet and pegging the guy ropes. It took quite a while, but somehow I managed to secure it enough for me to think it might not blow away. I was a little scared to leave it though just in case, and spent the rest of the evening anchoring it with my body weight - there was no way it was going anywhere with me inside it!! As the sun went down, the campsite started to fill up and the wind dropped. There was a lot of spanish singing and music to listen to as I drifted off to sleep...

Day 4
My last night in the tent was pretty terrible. Even though the sleeping bag was apparently good for temperatures as low as -10, I was still cold even when wearing leggings, 2 pairs of socks, a thermal top and vest, and finally a fleece... There was part of me that really wanted just to pack up and wait the 4 hours for the catamaran service out. But no, being stubborn I packed the tent away and set off to complete the final section - the western side of the 'W' along the edge of Lago Grey and to the face of Glaciar Grey.

It was a beautiful morning, cold but the sun was shining and reflected beautifully in the lakes. It only took me 2 hours or so to reach the Mirador overlooking Glaciar Grey, and I took some time there to enjoy the view over the lake and watch as it changed with the rising sun. I think technically the 'W' officially finishes at Refugio Grey, which I didn't reach but to be honest I don't really care!! It was time to head back to Paine Grande and say goodbye to Torres del Paine...

After a short wait at the camping site, the catamaran finally appeared to take many of us similarly weary and sore looking people back to the other side of Lago Pehoe to connect with the buses back to Puerto Natales. 2.5 hours later and I was dropped off back at my hostel. 5 mins later I was in the shower, and not too much longer after this I had returned the camping equipment and was tucking into a very well deserved pizza at Mesitra Grande

And that's it...I survived it and enjoyed it. The landscapes were stunning, and it was a welcome change being away from all electronic and technical devices for a few days. But, I'd be lying if I said I didn't REALLY enjoy being in a bed, having a proper shower and wearing clean, normal clothes when I got back!!

PS. Just heard that the last catamaran service out of Paine Grande is stuck tonight due to the strength of the wind, so many of those waiting to leavewill have to stay another night. Oh. My. pleased this didn't happen to me...!!
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MA on

Another splendido blog, can't wait to see them all in the book. How's the shoulder now? xxxxxxxxxxx

dishy on

Oh 4 a 'Thermorest'!! Snow nearly all gone so 2 late 4 the panorama shot. The trek looks fab, of course if I had cum out 4 the trek I wud have been many weeks late with ure changed itin!!

curlsandtales on

Shoulder is OK thanks ma!! Can move it almost fully now, I very nearly used the along just for effect. And because I hope to actually never have to use it properly!!
I had an 'eggshell' thermorest which was good but by the 3rd night not really doing the job... If you had been coming out I wouldn't have changed my itinerary of course!! Just did it because I could, and actually the weather is amazing at the moment ;-) Says I as I enjoy a cold beer watching the sunset at 9.30pm!!

Pigwig on

Very brave Fooft, pitching a tent alone and at night!
The lakes look incredible
I've caught up with your journey now, bring on the next leg!!

curlsandtales on

Good girl guide that I am ;-). Just a shame no campfire with marshmallows!! Xx

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