Day 1: Lago Pehoé to the Grey Glacier
The first leg of the trail is reached by crossing Lago Pehoé, a lake of such vibrant turquoise that people crowd the stern of the catamaran I stand on, paralysed by the awe its surreal hue weaves. Tiny particles of silt, formed from glacial erosion that become suspended in water runoff, cause the lake to appear cloudy and lends it a turquoise colour, which has come to be known as “glacial milk.” Once my meditative downward stare is broken, I finally look up: towering above Lago Pehoé is the Macizo del Paine, the central massif of the park. The massif was originally formed when volcanic magma cooled, turning into granite. As the millennia passed, layers of sediment compressed over the rock and, as immense geological pressure forced the formations upwards, glaciers retreated, carving away the softer sediments and forming the mammoth towers we see today. Although seemingly every geological phenomenon in the park can be explained by science, there is still the unshakable sense that what you are seeing could only possibly be borne out of magic.
After landing on the opposite shore, full of energy and optimism, we set out for the Grey Glacier. The first hour or so of this trail is fairly flat, but as the walk progresses, it fluctuates in elevation along a rocky ridge that contours Lago Grey. This leg should only take about four hours, and about halfway in — if it is not too windy — you can walk out onto a ledge at the Mirador Grey, where you’ll see the glacier looming at the north shore of the lake. The Grey Glacier is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which runs along the southern Andes, between Argentina and Chile. It’s the third largest ice sheet in the world, after Antarctica and Greenland, and during the last glacial period it covered all of southern Chile. While I am perched out on the mirador, marvelling at this thought, a belligerent thrust of wind knocks me down. The unrelenting winds in Patagonia are notoriously dangerous, known to top even 180 km/h. Sadly, according to a local guide, there were five deaths along the W circuit in 2012. If a strong wind picks up at the wrong moment, it can kick you off the mountain.
Early that evening, we reach Refugio Grey and set up our tent on the adjacent campgrounds. Without the burden of our packs, we trail-run 20 minutes north to inspect the glacier up close. This final sprint of endurance is contrasted by the immense stillness and grandeur of the Grey Glacier before us.
Day 2: The Grey Glacier to Lago Pehoé
Having marvelled at our good fortune for a temperate, calm first day, I awake the next morning to a rainstorm. The best advice for anyone trekking the W is to resign yourself to the fact that you will get wet. Even the best waterproof gear won’t save you. Be smart, but don’t stress. Take extra plastic bags to wrap any clothes or electronics inside your pack. We quickly disassemble our tent and wait underneath an enclosure until the rain dies down.
After 20 minutes we forge ahead and, about an hour into our trek, the sun breaks through and alleviates the damp chill, giving us a fresh boost of energy. Hiking back the way we came, towards Lago Pehoé, I notice things I never saw the first time, including waterfalls pouring over cliffs in the distance. From one of the many tributary streams, we stop to refill our canteens. Unlike bottled water, the water in Patagonia is not “purified,” rather, it is pure. That taste of purity is not the absence of flavour, but — and I mean this in earnest — a taste of genuine freshness.
As the sun bears down on us, we stop to strip layers of clothing, and I notice large swathes of dead trees, standing like charred skeletons, littered amongst the otherwise pristine landscape. If a spark is picked up by the horrendous Patagonian wind, thousands of trees burn within minutes. Thanks to huge fires in 1985, 2005, and 2011 — inadvertently caused by tourists — the park office has banned campfires. Cooking is allowed only by way of small camping stoves, which must be shielded from wind by an enclosure.
Just as we make it back to the shores of Lago Pehoé, a dense fog swoops in, obscuring the Macizo del Paine, and it begins to rain once more. We are supposed to continue on to the next campsite, Campamento Italiano, but as it is in the basin of a valley, it will flood. We change plans, hunker down, and instead set up our tent on the shores of Lago Pehoé. It happens to be New Year’s Eve, and so we are joined by a serendipitous grouping of strangers, who have also gathered inside an enclosure at the refugio to escape the wind and the rain.
Day 3: Lago Pehoé to Valle Frances
On our third morning, we awake to more agreeable weather and spend the next few hours hiking to the Italiano campsite with the sun on our backs. While trekking through the park, many travellers may find a hidden treat: calafate berries. A local guide says it’s common lore that “anyone who eats a calafate berry is sure to return to Patagonia” and with a broad, knowing smile, he offers me a palm full of the sweet fruit. After hours of trekking, along a level trail, we near the Italiano campsite. But first, we need to cross the Rio del Francés, a cascading and treacherous river. Only two people can walk on the suspension bridge at a time, so we cross slowly, two-by-two. On the other side of the bridge, I see the campsite, nestled within a forest of massive lenga trees.
Once we drop off our gear and set up camp, we start our ascent into the Valle del Francés, the middle leg of the W. Much of the terrain and flora found in this part of the trail is similar to that of the Pacific Northwest. Trekking poles prove to be pivotal in maintaining balance as we hop from rock to rock, crossing multiple rivers. While you may never quite have to rock scramble, this leg of the trail may be the closest you come to it. You will need to use your hands to hoist yourself over rocks or to maintain balance, while granny-stepping along ledges.
The trail curls along the edge of a massive waterfall which feeds the Rio del Francés, both of which are sourced by the snow-capped mountains lying in wait ahead. This leg of the trail requires the most attention. I am in my trekking groove now, focusing on every step I take. But my trance is interrupted when a fellow trekker exclaims, “Did you hear that?!” We pause and I can hear ice falling from the Paine Grande up ahead. Thankfully we are not in any danger. I sprint through a windy dirt path obstructed by branches and massive stones, until I reach a clearing where I am once again in awe of the beauty of this place. Surrounded by the Paine Grande (3,050m above sea level), with the Cuernos towers on the other side, and an aquamarine lake below, I am insignificant — just a tiny dot amidst a formidable terrain. Standing at this point in the Valle del Francés is like being at the centre of some magnificent cinematic panorama. You are enveloped by a symphony of sounds — the roaring waterfall, the heavy wind and the deep, guttural vibrations which echo around you and that signal an avalanche.
In Patagonia, you are constantly reminded that the earth is alive and, in some instances, it feels as though it might swallow you whole. “Look!” Someone points to an avalanche that I can just barely see. By the time the sound reaches me, it’s already happened. We continue up the mountain to another lookout point, meandering through (what feels like) an enchanted forest, full of mammoth trees with gnarled, twisted branches, and the wind grates against my face. Just then, when I doubt nature has any more wonders to reveal, it begins to snow.
Day 4: Campamento Italiano to Campamento Las Torres
It’s day four of our W trek, and today we cover the most ground in a single day — nearly 27km. Fortunately, it is the most beautiful day we have experienced yet: sunny and warm, with a gentle breeze. Later that evening at camp, I see a sign nailed to the ranger’s cabin: “DO NOT ASK ABOUT THE WEATHER TODAY. THIS IS PATAGONIA. WE DO NOT KNOW.” Along our entire trip we experience rain, snow, and a searing sun, certainly all within the same day, and occasionally within moments of each other. We come to welcome the challenge, even its arbitrariness, and we appreciate the blessing of good weather — however long it lasts.
This leg of the trail will leads us to the base of the Torres del Paine, but first we must walk along Lago Nordenskjöld, around the base of Mount Almirante Nieto, up into Valle Ascencio, and towards campamento Las Torres. This portion of the trek includes every type of terrain: rocky shores, arid land with dust and stones, forests of lenga trees, and vast golden prairies. As we reach the top of an incline, we turn a corner and see the immense Ascencio Valley below. In the distance I spot people, tiny as insects, hiking towards where I am now.
Our local guide looks at me expectantly. “Amazing, no?” He laughs. I stand there in shock. Not only do I see those tiny specs in the distance and think “I still have to get to there,” but I also think of those poor souls in the distance behind me, struggling to make their way to where I am now. We carry on, and two hours later arrive at camp. That evening (although you’d never know it was evening with Patagonia’s 18 hours of sunlight) multiple trekkers huddle together beneath a single enclosure. Physically exhausted, we toast each other with beer and wine, which we’ve carried in our packs for this very moment. We have nearly completed the W, and the last obstacle to conquer — the Torres del Paine — awaits us in the morning.
Day 5: The Torres del Paine
We awake at 4am and begin hiking for an hour in the dark, along a rocky incline. With a few minutes left before dawn breaks over the horizon, I need to make it to the top of this summit where, if I’m lucky, I’ll see one of the most evocative and legendary vistas on earth: the Torres del Paine, at the precise moment that the sun hits the peaks. I see faint hints of rose-gold wash upon the stones before me and I start to move faster. I am literally, racing the sun. Just a few moments after hoisting myself over a behemoth rock, and, as I catch my breath, the sun crosses the horizon sparking a fire of light on the mountain peaks. Sunlight flows down the side of the towers like lava.
This entire trip can be summarised in one word: grandeur, both external and internal. There is, of course, the immensity and majesty of the landscape, but also the shock of my own personal endurance when confronted by capricious weather and the limitations of my own body. In Patagonia, not only am I reminded that the earth is alive, but I too am exhilarated and feel alive.
As I am contemplating this maudlin thought, the sun becomes buried beneath a series of blueberry coloured clouds. A young man, who is sitting on a rock some distance away, approaches me and says something that, were it said by a stranger back home in New York City, might have felt uncomfortable, but here it feels heartening. “Isn’t that something beautiful we just experienced together?” he asks. As frightening as the world is at times, we are privileged to experience the beauty in it, however fleeting it may be.