Our initial hiking plan for Torres del Paine National Park was to complete a week-long, counter-clockwise loop around the main mountains of the park, a route referred to as “the circuit” or “the O route.”
Because of my earlier ankle injury we had to rethink what we would do. Reservations are required for all campgrounds throughout the park (no backcountry camping allowed) and we would not be able to adjust any of our reserved dates because campgrounds were full and Sean had a flight to catch at the end of the week. We decided to opt for completing just the last four days and three nights of the trail, a common variation referred to as “the W” route. This would buy us a few more rest days but still allow for a decent backpacking trek. Logistics were more complicated, but we could make it work and still see plenty of highlights of the park.
Day -1: Monday, February 6
We drove from our campsite at the southern Serrano entrance of the park to the Las Torres area for a day hike and to scope out the area as logistical prep for the next day. Alastair and Sean hiked up the Ascencio Valley to the Torres lookout, which is the eastern prong of the “W.” I took the same trail but went a slower pace and didn’t go all the way to the top as a precaution to avoid an ankle re-injury. It had been feeling perfectly fine and I wanted to keep it that way.
I made it to the Chileno camping area, just over half-way, before heading back down. Although I didn’t get to the lookout, the views along this section of the trail are still gorgeous. One of my favorite views was looking up through the steep valley with the river meandering along the valley floor and the trail mirroring the river as it cut through the valley hillside.
Day 1: Tuesday, February 7
The first day of our backpacking trip corresponded with the first day of a cold for both me and Alastair. Despite our fatigue and sore throats, we had an early morning start to make sure our new set of logistics would work. Our initial plan for the circuit route meant parking the van at the trailhead where we would both start and end our hike, at the southeast portion of the loop. Easy peasy. However, since we were now starting the hike at the half-way point, things got more complicated.
Upon entering the park at the south entrance, we drove north to a catamaran dock where Alastair dropped off me and Sean. Alastair continued driving north to a parking lot near the trailhead where we would end our hike and where the van could be (presumably) safely left for multiple days. He then hopped on a shuttle and rode back south to meet up with me and Sean at the catamaran dock. There are only a couple catamaran sailings in the morning but thankfully we were all together and waiting in line to catch the 11:00 sailing (which was the last one for several more hours).
The 30-minute catamaran journey took us westward across Lago Pehoe and landed at the Paine Grande camping area where we had reservations for the night. We set up camp and had lunch, then Alastair and I passed out in the tent while Sean went hiking up to the Grey Glacier lookout (which was the trail we would have been coming from had we done the full loop; it is also the western prong of the “W”). Getting through the night was a long ordeal due to stuffy congestion, headaches, and noisy neighbors. We also had quite heavy rains but thankfully everything was dried out by morning.
Day 2: Wednesday, February 8
Alastair and I were both feeling rough on account of our full-blown colds but had to keep moving along the trail. A saving grace was that the only requirement was to hike from camp to camp without doing any side trips as originally planned. This meant I only had to haul my body and my backpack five miles from Paine Grande to Italiano Camp. The terrain was easy with minimal ups and downs, and I felt better than expected once I began to sweat out my cold.
After we got to camp and had food, we decided to go for a side trip after all. The three of us started up the French Valley (the middle prong of the “W”) toward the Británico lookout (which Alastair was determined to get to). I told the guys to go ahead while I went my own pace for as far as my body would allow. Within 30 minutes of heavy mouth-breathing and slow, labored steps my body said “Uncle” and I headed back to camp (where I immediately laid down and fell asleep).
Alastair and Sean made it back to camp a couple hours later. We enjoyed dinner from a bag and had an early night, although it was another restless evening of cold symptoms. Neighboring campers were much quieter, however, and the nearby river helped to drown out any other noises.
Day 3: Thursday, February 9
This was our easiest day yet, thank goodness! Only three miles separated us from our next camping site at Los Cuernos. Plus, there weren’t options for side trips (i.e., additional mileage) along this part of the trail. AND when Alastair made the reservation for this place their camp sites were all full so we stayed in the refugio and got to sleep in a bed! I’m all in favor of camping in a tent, but when I’m fighting a cold and haven’t slept well for the last couple nights I will gladly give my left arm for comforting ammenities.
Our room had 8 beds (one double bunk bed and two triple bunk beds thanks to vaulted ceilings) of questionable integrity. I called dibs on the bottom bunk because it felt like too much work to climb into the middle or top bunks. This decision, however, was regretted as soon as I witnessed the extent of which the boards of Alastair’s bunk would bow and creak above me every time he moved. It didn’t help matters when Alastair and Sean began discussing the lack of redundancy in the framing of the bunk beds (“man, if one of these boards snapped the whole thing would go, wouldn’t it?”). Thanks, guys.
Day 4: Friday, February 10
After a much better night’s sleep, we got an early start for our last day of hiking. This was the longest section of required miles and had the most elevation gain of all the days, but still proved to be a very do-able trail. We hiked about 7.5 miles in total and had the trail to ourselves for the first half of it. We only began seeing others when we were within a couple miles of the trailhead, which is a tourist hub and where many people begin day hikes or their own version of backpacking trips around the Circuit and/or “W” routes.
We made good time (better than I expected) getting to the trailhead and enjoyed a temperature that was warmer than usual. It was the first morning since arriving in Patagonia that I started the day in a t-shirt rather than my customary t-shirt, long-sleeve wool shirt, and puffy jacket combo. There were a couple spurts of tiny rain drops but, as with the previous days, it never developed into anything. All in all, we had good weather throughout the hike.
From the trailhead, we rode a shuttle to the parking lot where Alastair had left the van several days before. It had collected a little extra dust, but was otherwise just as he had left it. After four days of backpacking, we all got cozy in the front seat of the van for the drive down to Puerto Natales and I, for one, thanked my lucky stars for the convenient timing of having a stuffy nose.