Chile: The W Trek

We didn’t have to go far from Argentina to find cooked eggs for breakfast. After 16 hours in transit and a much needed rest, the offer of scrambled eggs was like waking up to find the beautiful dream isn’t over. Mike and I had arrived in Chile with a day to complete any final preparations before we started the W Trek. In reality, our adventure was only beginning. The single storey buildings on a grid gives Puerto Natales the appearance of an old Western town, or somewhere in the Australian outback. A place on the frontier. From the water we could see the mountains again, a teaser of where we would soon find ourselves. We wandered about the town, ticking off the tasks; rent a stove, get another water bottle, buy hiking snacks. I’d found a sandwich bar that was highly recommended for lunch so we dropped in. It was a big deal for the staff in Masay when Mike ordered the Masay sandwich. It’s big they told him, but how big could it be? True to their word, it was big. Bigger than my head. Like four burgers with the lot big. Mike managed to demolish half of it and took the other half away to have for dinner.

Puerto Natales

I had a restless night. Knowing we had to be up early to catch the bus. Once we left Puerto Natales that was it. There was no turning back. Was it going to be ok? Rolling over, I moved away from my doubts and towards excitement which didn’t exactly help. I managed to squeeze in a few hours rest, if not the deep sleep I’d hoped for. We got to the bus stop and I realised I had made a mistake. Another one. Noticing a pattern? We needed to catch the catamaran but our ticket was only as far as the main entrance. My internet search couldn’t confirm whether the bus we needed was for Laguna Amarga or Pudeto. I gambled the wrong way and went for Laguna Amarga. You expect the catamaran to leave from the place that references water in it’s name. I tried to ask if we would be ok to stay on the bus. Bus-Sur were incredibly relaxed about our ticket, so long as we had one. Once on the bus my head cleared. It was all excitement now. After a slow week of stop starting across Patagonia we were on our way to the main event. We arrived at the park in thick fog, we could see almost nothing. We watched the safety video and paid our entrance fee. As we left the ticket office our bus began pulling away. I started running with Sam, who we would befriend along the trail, trying to get the drivers attention as our bags were still on board. We should still have been on board as well. Mike was more confident. The bus stopped. The driver was moving further into the carpark. We got back on the bus, relieved. The drive to Pudeto took us above the clouds and the mountains started to emerge. Colossal walls of rock and ice. Hard to remember if I’ve ever felt so small. The bus went down to the lakeside and the mountains disappeared again. It was like the curtain at a theatre, keeping the stages of our next five days hidden.

Starting the W Trek

Sunscreen on, hats out, we marched into the valley that would lead us to our first stop; Camp Grey. The first few kilometres are always the same to me now. Get used to the weight, the work, the climb. You can’t stop until you get there. There is no turning back. It’s always one foot in front of the other. Behind us the mountains were pyramids of rock and ice mummified in cloud. They followed us out of the valley where the clouds began to lift. We were on the edge of Laguna Grey and our route turned towards the end of the lake. We passed our first fast moving, clear, cold stream and did what all those who walk in glacier country must do. We filled up our water bottles. There are few things on the trail as good as mountain fresh water. We walked between the mountains and the lake, cruising along the well-trodden path. As we approached Glacier Grey and the Southern Patagonian icefield I couldn’t stop the wows falling out of my mouth. Mike looked and me and asked “what? You don’t have this where you come from?” We turned a corner, our backs to the ice and when I turned back I went through all the wows again. Our feet carried us in to Camp Grey where we found competition for pitches already high. We were here at the end of the season so I dread to think how busy it would be in the height of summer. We found flat ground and pitched for the night. There was still plenty of day left so I suggested to Mike that we carry on beyond the camp. To go and see the suspension bridges that cross some of the gorges. Mike is a lot more relaxed about things than I am. I want to run off ahead, see all the things, squeeze in as much as possible. I’ve found that I’m often moving too fast, I can’t maintain the pace. I quickly learned to stay behind Mike, to let him control the speed. Take it slow and go further. We retired to the camp kitchen for the evening to boil water, rehydrate our meals and meet our fellow hikers. The talk that evening was around food. Which particular flavour of dried calories do you have? You could distinguish the North Americans from the British by whether they were eating Mountain House or Firepot.

Dawn in Torres Del Paine

In the dawn light I spent a few minutes watching the colours change on the mountains. In the clouds, already spinning on the first thermals a pair of condors soared. At least I assumed they were condors. I’ve willed pigeons into falcons before so I had doubts. We dropped our tents, packed our gear and loaded up to walk back the way we came. The forest along Lago Grey is burned out. The white shells of trees with charred insides reminding me of the Shere Khan fight scene at the end of The Jungle Book. Not so long ago someone had stepped off the trail here to lighten the load and set fire to their toilet paper rather than carry it out. 150 square kilometres of Torres Del Paine National Park burned. There are signs everywhere reminding you to take it with you, take it all with you.

Glacier Grey & Lago Grey

When we arrived in Paine Grande, Mike stopped at what he deemed an appropriate place to pitch for the night. Neither of us paid much attention to the tents that had already blown inside out. It was only after I’d got my tent onto the poles and the fly started to behave like a kite that I decided to try and find more shelter. It was almost impossible to find any real protection unless you had arrived at the site two days early. We both managed to get our tents up and moved into the kitchen shelter to stay out of the wind. We got window seats so we could enjoy the view and watch the wind smash into the tents. We hoped we would be able to pack them away the next morning without them taking off.

Big Agnes Before the Storm

Inside my tent I hoped it would last the night. The wind circled like wolves. I could hear it rush down the valley, hitting the first rows of tents before it rolled into mine. The wind carried grit, dust and sand inside until I was resting on a small beach. I watched the poles bend and flex, hoping they had what it takes. Every loud sound had me checking the pegs, the fly, the poles. Had something come apart? Was this the beginning of the end. This was only the second night. I needed to get through another two after this. The wind came around again, pushing the roof of the tent down on top of me. I have experienced this once before on a camping trip with my family in the New Forest many years ago. I awoke to find a storm had flattened my tent with me stuck inside it. I cried out for help, hoping that my Mum and Dad in their van next to me would be able to pull me out. They blame the thickness of the van walls, I blame the quantity of alcohol they had consumed that night. A family friend heard me and helped me out and woke my parents up and I spent the rest of the night in the van. The roof of my current tent quickly sprang back up. I was starting to feel confident. It was built for this sort of thing. We were going to get through this. We didn’t. The next snap was the pole, the next sound was the sharpened end of the now snapped pole ripping through the fly. Game over. I got out and over to Mike’s tent. Thankful that he had both a two-man tent and the willingness to share for the remainder of the trek. We just had to hope his tent would last the night. It did. I had previously thought the W in W Trek represented the shape of the route, I’m now inclined to believe it stands for windiest. In the morning we heard tales of tents blowing away, collapsing. I added my story to the list and we would later find fame or infamy on the trail as the UK and Canadian couple who lost a tent.

Canadian for Scale

Our route that morning was easy. We followed the gentle trail through the low hills along the shore of Lago Skottsberg. A tour group were ahead of us at a river crossing. The sign advised only one person could cross at a time. The guide suggested that it used to be two but there was an accident a few years ago. The uneven planks wobbled underfoot. I was glad to be on the other side. At the Italiano Campsite we arrived to find a graveyard of backpacks. This is where people left their gear before heading up into the Frances Valley, the meeting point of the two Vs that form the W. It definitely stands for wind.

The Jagged Edge of Los Cuernos

Mike and I carried on to Frances Campsite where we would be spending the night. For some reason I thought this made more sense. In hindsight it didn’t. Oh well. Back we went to Italiano and up we went into the valley. This was unquestionably the toughest terrain so far. We were pulling ourselves up rocky ledges. The branches lining the trail rubbed smooth by the constant use as handrails. The uneven ground and constant climb took it out of us. I was glad we hadn’t had to carry our packs up here as well. We made it to the Frances lookout. As the Frances Glacier came into view we heard the distant rumble of thunder. It wasn’t thunder. A huge chunk of ice dropped off one of the rocky shelves, setting off a small avalanche. We decided this was as far as we would be able to go. There was still plenty of trail ahead of us and neither of us were keen on pushing harder than necessary. We sat in the sun, watching the mountain and the ice. It was like a giant 2p coin pusher. You hoped that the ice would fall again, setting off a chain reaction of falls. We saw five or six small slides. I say small, from the distance we were at they looked small. Up close I imagine the chunks of ice were closer to the size of a large family car. Mike told me afterwards he thought he’d heard thunder in the night at Camp Grey. which he thought was weird as when he’d got up in the night it had been clear. The mountains were alive, constantly moving, always changing. 

Chris & Mike At the Frances Mirrador

One of the things I was interested in when planning this trip was how to put up a tent on a wooden platform. Camp Frances nestles in a forest on the hillside. Flat ground is at a premium so the platforms provide a level pitch. The simple solution is to nail your tent down, or in Mike’s case you rely on the weight inside it to keep it down. We had arrived back at Frances as the hot water was being switched on for the showers. We made the most of being there early before the queue got too long or the water ran out. After glacier fresh drinking water, a hot shower is the second best thing on the trail. Avalanches continued in the night. I would wake in the night having elbowed the wooden platform each as I rolled over. At least it was a flat surface and there was no wind to worry about.

Cuernos Del Paine

The best view of the sunrise the next morning was from the septic tank beyond the men’s toilets. We passed through the Cuernos camp ground. As was now routine we passed our new trail friends and later on they passed us. Going West to East we were following each other along the trail. See you later, see you tomorrow, see you somewhere else in South America. We walked along the beaches that lined the Lago Nordenskjol. Every day had felt different, from valleys to forests, to glaciers and lakes. On this day we passed around the front of the Cuernos del Paine. For me, these peaks are what lead me here. The photographs online are from across the lake looking back at the jagged edge attacking the sky, the stripe of pale granite beneath the summit. Had it been clear when we arrived we might have seen them from the catamaran. We stopped briefly to chat with a couple of friends, they were heading to the Central Refugio and were going to try and make sunrise at the Torres. We were lucky, having booked well in advance we’d got all the camp ground we hoped for. Minutes after letting them pass us, they came back. Remember we had lost a tent, we must have a spare pitch. We told them we’d meet them at Chilenos and give them my platform for the night. They marched on pleased that they’d get a few more hours sleep. We were pleased that my minor disaster was about to deliver something good to somebody else. As we continued along along the trail there was a tally chart in the soil next to the only sign we had seen reminding you to carry your trash out that specifically referred to toilet paper. Perhaps this was a measure of those who had stopped here to make a deposit. We rolled up and down hills before finally veering away up and into another valley. Down below we could see Chilenos camp ground. Our home for the final night on the trail. After we’d checked in we were presented with a Toblerone as a thank you for having more space than we needed. You might think a chocolate bar for a tent was a poor deal, little do you know my friends.

Torres Del Paine

There was plenty of discussion around what time to head off to make the sunrise at the Torres Del Paine. Sunrise was due at 7:30ish. Mike and I settled on a 4:30 start. We fumbled around in the dark, grabbing our packs. Overjoyed to find the kitchen open I filled up my thermos with hot water. We came out of the trees to find a perfectly clear night. Had the moon been full we might not have needed our headlamps. We were first out and for a while may have been the only people on the trail. The fitter, faster trekkers caught up with us and soon we could see flashes of light on the trail ahead. The sky grey, the mountains black. We climbed higher and higher until we left the trees behind and were onto the scree. The towers appeared with only a whisper of cloud hanging around the peaks. We arrived at the glacial lake with time to spare. We scrambled over the rocks, setting off small slides below us. Shouts would go up to warn those below. We settled down, poured a coffee and got out our Toblerone. Breakfast of champions. We had done it. The towers began grey, rock on a sky that was becoming less black and more blue. As the sun reached the peaks they turned pink. Candy floss clouds floating away. I sat there telling myself to remember this moment over and over again. Trying to drink it all in. It was a near perfect morning. Around me I could hear the voices of our trail friends, everyone who had made it here to watch this. Together. Munching on a Toblerone, drinking a coffee, watching one of the greatest shows on Earth. For a few moments it feels like that’s all there is. And it is enough.

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