Torres del Paine - The W+ Trek (part 1)

Getting There


Torres del Paine is one of the trekker meccas of South America - a magnificently sculpted rock massif rising out of the Patagonian steppe, set in a landscape of lakes and glaciers. At just over 51° latitude, this is seriously south, almost on the tip of the cone of South America.

The economy of Puerto Natales depends on the National Park and the tourists and trekkers who flock here during the warmer months. Still, it is a pleasant and friendly town and we enjoyed a couple of quiet days watching the weather change from sunshine to rainsqualls to gale-force winds to sunshine in a few hours. Trekking here would certainly be interesting!

The incredible setting of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

There are two classic treks in the National Park; the Paine Circuit, an 8 day circumnavigation of the massif and the "W", a 4-5 day track (named for the shape of its course) that takes in the classic features of the southern part of the park and offers the possibility of staying in refugios rather than camping out. In early November, there was no choice for us; snows still blocked the high pass of the Circuit and sections damaged by winter avalanches had not yet been repaired. We checked the weather, reserved our nights at the refugios and set out to do the "W", with an extra day tacked on the beginning to add different landscapes to our exploration of Torres del Paine.

Estancia on the Patagonian steppe

Guanaco taking umbrage

Park entrance and the first glimpse of the Torres

The small bus arrived at our backpackers in the chill of the early morning and soon we were heading northwards in bright sunshine along the gravel road that led past the lonely estancias of the Patagonian steppe with their snowy mountain backdrop. As we neared the Park, herds of guanaco grazed implacably by the roadside.

A land of sheer rock walls and lakes of
many colours

Brilliant colours of Patagonian flora

Paine Grande, Los Cuernos and Los Torres

After almost three hours we reached the park entry station at Laguna Amarga to register and farewell those trekkers who were doing the east-west route on the "W". We also got our first glimpse of the towering Paine massif; our appetites were whet, but only became moreso as we wound our way into the park and the views expanded into an incredible panorama of sheer-faced snow-capped mountains and turquoise lakes.

Looking up to the distant Torres

Glacier-capped top of 3050m Paine Grande

View of Paine Grande and the Salto Grande on Lago Pehoé

The catamaran port at Lago Pehoé

A pair of caiquén (upland geese)

The 2600m Cuernos del Paine

After a brief stop at the eastern end of Lago Pehoé, where others left to take a catamaran to the alternative start for a west-east crossing of the "W" at Refugio Grande Paine, The fair Nello and I continued on by bus to the southern end of the lake. Here lay the Park headquarters and the start of our walk; which we christened the "W+".

Day 1 - Park headquarters to Refugio Paine Grande (17km 100m ascent - 100m descent)

After putting on all our windproof clothing, beanies and packs, we finally got underway at midday. Heading off from the National Park headquarters, we followed the gravel road that headed towards Lago Grey for half a kilometre before turning off onto the walking path that led up to Lago Pehoé.

The weather was brilliant (for Patagonia) - the sun shone and there was only a gentle (by Patagonian standards - i.e. 20-30kph) if icy breeze blowing - as we headed out across the flat grassy steppe. To our right, the still unbelievable forms of the Paine Massif dominated the skyline, while ahead the snowcapped pyramid of 1480m Cerro Donoso rose up above the grassy flats. Above us, a flock of black-faced ibis flew overhead in formation, honking a welcome to us - we were on the track in the Torres de Paine!

Our walk begind in the magnificent Paine National Park

Bandurrias (black-faced ibis) in formation flight

Panorama of the steppe and 1480m Cerro Donoso

Yet another aspect of the Paine massif

Heading out into the Patagonian steppe

Looking back on our path across the flat grasslands

Gradually the track veered more to the northwest, taking us into the face of the wind. The views of the Paine Massif disappeared behind the low ridge which closed in, guiding us to toward the Rio Grey, until we eventually reached its icy grey-green waters.

Cloud hugging the Southern Patagonian Icecap

Looking south over Rio Grey

A gnarled old Nothofagus on the ridgeline

Reaching a point where the the low hills butted up against the river, we left the flat grassland to climb slightly into an area of scattered beech and arrive at Las Carretas campground, a good place for a late lunch. Crested sparrows chattered in the trees and a large bird of prey soared overhead, while the odd butterfly flitted between the yellow flowers of dandelions and stunted calafate. Spring was awakening in Patagonia.

From here, the track followed the river bank, climbing up the low ridge, covered in stunted beech and low shrubs. We reached several points with impressive views, southward over the river toward snow-covered 1600m Cerro Ferrier and northward, where the distant Campo de Hielo Sur hugged a blanket of soft white cloud close to its icy surface.

A bend in Rio Grey with 1600m Cerro Ferrier in the distance

3050m Paine Grande reappears

Chilean firewheel by the river

Ahead, the unmistakable glacier-topped shape of Paine Grande began to reappear and provide the beacon for our path. The track led us down to grassy flats beside the river, then slowly back up the side of the low ridge, where the incredibly jagged Cuernos del Paine now appeared.

Track along the bank of Rio Grey heading toward Cerro Paine Grande

The jagged profile of Los Cuernos del Paine

Beneath the shade of the southern beech trees

When the wind dropped we started to cook, when it rose, it chilled us to the point that we welcomed passing through the shelter of small groves of beech, their new leaves glowing bright green in the sunlight. Eventually the river turned west towards its source in Lago Grey and we left it to push on northwards towards the Paine Massif. As we crossed another grassy flat, the enigmatic form of the Cuernos de Paine, and behind them some of the Torres, appeared again to entice us on.

Heading across the grassy flats toward Cerro Paine Grande

Leaving the flats, we entered a low hilly area of shrubs and dwarfed beech, crossing a saddle to see the magnificently azure waters of Lago Pehoé spread out in front of the Paine Massif - what an incredible panorama. As we descended toward the lake, the aspect of mountain and azure water changed constantly.

The red pinwheels of ciruelilla

Panorama of the Paine Massif and Lago Pehoé

A symphony in blue

Finally we picked our way around the rocky ridge lining the shore, meandering around it in a series of short climbs and descents along a path lined with pink manzanilla berries.

View back over Lago Pehoé

Refugio Paine Grande - home for the next 2 nights

One last crest and we were overlooking the welcome sight of large and modern Refugio Paine Grande on a flat in a cove of the lake beneath the massif. It was good to check in, drop our packs and have a hot shower. Our introduction to trekking in Torres de Paine had been spectacular, but we wondered what price the mountain would extract from us for the brilliant weather. Already, high cloud was beginning to drift across, but weather here is a day to day proposition. We would have to wait till the morning to find out what was in store.

Day 2 - Glacier Grey (22km - 820m ascent - 820m descent)

The sun was shining in through the window when we awoke, but misty cloud veiled the face of the Cuernos and a light dusting of new snow had fallen on the higher peaks overnight. The wind was already blowing the flags out to full stretch - it was an ambiguous start to the day. However, by the time that we finished breakfast and picked up our enormous box-lunch from the refugio, things were looking better (apart from the wind).

The morning mists swirl about Los Cuernos

View up Quebrada de los Vientos

A small tarn at the head of the quebrada

We set off in the sun and soon turned westward to head up the wide rock-lined gully of aptly named Quebrada de los Vientos, filled with low shrubs and pink-toned manzanilla berries. Clouds scudded by between periods of sunshine as we headed up into the face of a 30-40 kph wind; still it was not too cold, especially as we reached the end of the gully and began to climb upwards, entering a rocky habitat of dwarf beech and red fireflowers. The spectacularly deformed layering of the cliffs above, guiding the view toward the mist-shrouded peak of Paine Grande way above us.

At the top of the climb, we crested the rocks to see the beautiful setting of Laguna los Patos, a lake perched on a ridge, surrounded by tan rock walls and dwarfed wind-sheered beech, with small rocky islets in its wind-gusted waters. We followed the shore of the lake around, climbing up to the more exposed ridge for our first glimpses of the huge expanse of Lago Grey way beneath.

View south over Lago Grey

To the south, we could see distant icebergs, glinting blue-white in the sunlight and stacked up in bays where the winds had driven them - it whet the appetite to get to the glacier face and we pressed on, dropping slightly into the shelter of denser forest in the long hollow below the ridge, passing several beech-lined tarns of varying sizes.

Stunted beech at Laguna Los Patos

Stranded icebergs in Lago Grey

A beech-lined tarn

First view of Glacier Grey

Western face of glacier Grey

View from the saddle of the eastern face

Soon we were climbing once again, leaving the hollow and pushing up the next slope to emerge at a wind-blasted ridge sweeping down from Paine Grande and be greeted by our first views of Glacier Grey. What an incredible sight; the sea of ice descending from the huge Campo de Hielo Sur split by an island to form two wide glacial faces, one 3.6km wide and the nearer one 1.2 km wide, over 30m tall in places plunging into the iceberg dotted waters of Lago Grey. The views only got better as we continued across the exposed ridge, before eventually starting a descent down into the protected beech forest below.

Looking south along the shore of Lago Grey

Panorama of Glacier Grey and 2092m Cerro Blanco

Looking back up to the saddle

We followed the track through the calm and peaceful forest. The sun shone and the birds sang, while high above us the gusts were reaching 60 kph, driving cloud across ice field and mountain tops. Patagonia is certainly full of sharp contrasts.

Crossing several small streams, we descended sharply to reach a bridge that crossed a narrow but deep mini-gorge down which rushed Rio Olguin fed from the waterfall of the same name high above. The track then climbed up the rock ribs that separated lake from stream, passing under gnarled old beech trees, before dropping down into the gully between successive rock ribs.

The beauty of ciruelilla

Beech forest on the eastern shore of Lago Grey

The chasm of Rio Olguin

A babbling mountain brook

Lunch in the forest

Reaching the turn off to Grey campground and the Mirador de Grey, we followed the winding track out of the beech forest and on to a rocky headland to reach the mirador; there, across the olive-green waters of Lago Grey, lay the western face of the glacier, deep blue cracks dissecting the ice wall being pushed relentlessly down from above.

A quiet corner of Lago Grey

The eastern face of Glacier Grey from the Mirador

Our first close-up iceberg

The face of Glacier Grey

We found shelter from the icy wind and ate our lunch, quietly waiting - the beauty and power of the glacier were tangible. We waited .... and then it happened - CRACK! The sound reached us as the massive slab of ice that broke from the glacier hit the water with a giant splash. A minute later, the slab resurfaced like a breaching whale to float peacefully on the lake - we had just witnessed the birth of an iceberg.

The incredible blueness of ice

Birth of an iceberg

The amazing colour and shape of the icebergs

Icebergs floating in the bay at Refugio Grey

After an hour at the iceface, the wind was starting to cut through and chill us, so we headed back, first making the short detour down to Grey campground in its pleasant sandy tree-covered setting alongside a bay filled with small icebergs. It was a shame that the albergue was still shut - it would have been nice to stay here!

Mists settle over Lago Grey

Solitary iceberg

Cloud sweeping over the jagged western face of Paine Grande

One last view of Glacier Grey

Waterfall on Rio Olguin

The trip back followed the outward route. However, the mark of a good walk is when you enjoy the return as much as the going - such was the case today. We took more time to head back - the urgency to reach the glacier before the weather turned was no longer there.

Flower-lined path near Refugio Grey

Looking out over Lago Grey

The odd cloud bands and spots of rain swept in, but swept out again and we had time to appreciate different aspects of the track; the shapes and colours of icebergs below, the tranquility of the old beech forest, the beautiful white orchid on the rocky outcrops, the subtle shades of pink of the manzanilla berries and the clusters of brilliant red-orange pinwheels of ciruelilla, the play of sunlight and cloud streaming over the peaks and the quasi-Japanese garden affect of beech-lined tarns in a rock-ribbed setting.

Laguna los Patos

The curious geology of the Paine Massif

With the icy wind pushing at our backs, we crossed the exposed ridge rapidly, feeling for the trekkers loaded with heavy packs to camp at Grey as they struggled into the face of a 60kph gale. Soon we had passed Laguna los Patos and were once again being hurried by the wind at our backs, down the long rock-lined Quebrada de los Vientos to the warmth of Refugio Paine Grande on the shores of Lago Pehoe.

Paine had been kind to us yet again - one more incredible walk in the wild Patagonian wilderness completed! With two days of fine sunny weather, our debt to the mountain was building up.

The wind whips cloud over the crest of Paine Grande at the end of a glorious Patagonian day

Go to Part 2 ....