I’ve got the whole next day to prepare for one of the centerpieces of my trip: the W trek in Torres del Paine National Park, which is good because I have a few issues to nail down. My biggest problem is that while I was able to book lodging in refugios for the first three nights of the trek, the final refugio that I need is apparently closed. It looks like I’ll need to camp out on the last night of the trek, but I’d like to avoid carrying a sleeping bag, mat, and tent with me. I go to the refugios’ office in town to see if I can reserve camping gear while in the park, and take it from the third refugio to the fourth and then back to the office, but they’re not on board. I rent my gear through my hostel, and make room for it by locking up most of my non-essential gear in a locker for the duration of my trek.
Also, my hiking shoes are starting to fall apart, and although quality shoes are available for purchase in town, I don’t want to break in a new pair on the W, so I find a guy in town to glue them together as best he can.
I also attend the daily briefing over coffee at the Erratic Rock hostel, which I highly recommend if you are planning on doing the W trek, as they cover the terrain in-depth, especially with a view to recent and upcoming weather. It’s a big help when trying to decide when to figure out when you need to set out every day.
On the day that I’m to begin the trek, I wake up to clear skies in Puerto Natales. It’s another early start for me to catch the bus to the park. The late sunrise means we’re treated to pink clouds over distant mountains as the bus makes its only pit stop at a town called Cerro Castillo. After an hour and a half journey, we’re dropped off at the main guardhouse of Torres del Paine National Park. Fires set by trekkers have damaged huge parts of the park over the years, and as a result we’re shown warning videos and we all have to sign agreements not to set fires in the park. From the guardhouse, a smaller bus takes us along the park roads to the catamaran landing on Lake Pehoe.
While we can see that good weather holds up outside the park, the mountains through which the W trek runs are wreathed in fog. Some of the best panoramic views of the Torres range come on the bus ride from the park entrance to the catamaran dock, and on the catamaran ride itself, but due to the fog, we’re mostly deprived of these views.
There’s a little time at the catamaran landing to eat a quick lunch and maybe trot over to the nearby waterfall to take some pictures, but there’s not a lot of time as there is only one catamaran and it leaves at noon. I make the short hike over and take some photos. A couple from my bus is just walking up to the waterfall as I’m leaving, and I can’t imagine that they are on the same timetable everyone else is – I end up assuming they must be headed to some other trail in the park. I board the catamaran and it takes off, and when we’re about 50 meters off shore I see these clowns slowly jogging back towards the dock. Amazingly the catamaran turns around and picks them up.
By the time we land at Paine Grande, it’s raining and windy. Some people wait it out but I change into waterproof pants and head north. I won’t really appreciate until the next day, when I return by the same path in better weather, how miserable conditions actually are. At the moment I’m just thrilled to be in the park, and even in bad conditions the landscape is stunning and constantly changing. I start out in a green and yellow valley which rises through higher grasses and passes by a dark mountain lake before emerging to overlook the vast glacial Lake Grey and the massive namesake glacier at its far end. To my right the granite mass of Paine Grande towers over me. But trees are rare. A massive forest fire, started by a hiker, decimated the area a few years prior.
Everything is going fairly well and I’m warm enough that I take my gloves off for a bit, which turns out to be a disaster when I realize I’ve dropped them. Fortunately there are a lot of people on the path at this time, since I left the refugio before many of the others, so I’m able to ask about my gloves as I backtrack, and it sounds like people have seen them. By the time I recover both I’ve been backtracking for more than 20 minutes, so all told this fuck-up puts me almost an hour behind schedule. I’ll be lucky to reach Refugio Grey before dark.
The path is not particularly steep at any point but there are a lot of muddy parts and a lot of rocky parts. It’s not a terribly difficult hike but I am carrying a lot of weight, and there’s a couple of points where I feel twinges in my hamstrings when I try to take too big a step up a rocky incline. The weather holds off for the most part, but there are showers that come through briefly, and the wind is constant, if not overpowering.
When I finally catch sight of Refugio Grey at the end of my path I feel like I’ve reached Rivendell. And in fact it is the last homely house for a long way if you’re doing the full circuit. Beyond Grey, there are no refugios before the imposing Paso John Gardner, and for some way beyond it. Given my time constraints and the weather, I’m not going that way, the full circuit as it would add several days to my journey, and be far more strenuous than anything on the W trek. This is the leftmost point on the W.
Refugio Grey is comfortable and spacious, and the nicest of the four refugios I’ll be staying at. There’s plenty of space to dry wet clothes in front of stoves (although I singe a wool sock that accidentally comes in contact with the stove pipe). The bar is well stocked and pisco sours are on special – this is my first chance to try one of Chile’s national cocktails, and it does not disappoint. People are gathering in the common area, and after a excellent dinner I challenge an Irish guy in a game of chess. Unlike my disastrous attempt in Bocas del Toro, I play a flawless game and checkmate my opponent (who had beaten three other people in a row) within 15 moves.
The rooms aren’t even close to full and it’s easy to find space in front of the stoves to dry my wet clothes, although I find out the hard way that the stove pipe is much hotter than the actual stove, and singe one of my 4 SmartWool socks. There’s even showers and the water isn’t too horrifyingly freezing. It’s been a long day and there’s absolutely no problem falling asleep.