The Dragon’s Backbone: Torres del Paine & The “W” Trek

by Emma. Cliquez ici pour la version de Damien, en FrançaisClick here for photos of there.

It started with a rented mess kit, sleeping bags, a tent, a map and some huasos. It ended with pisco and la cueca. In between fell some freezing nights, ice-slicked paths, doubts, darkness, dawns and puma tracks.

Huasos (Chilean cowboys!)

Huasos (Chilean cowboys!)

Day 1 – a 5-hour trek to Paine Grande

An obligatory sign-in with the park ranger and we’re on our way. Backpacks swaying with our foot falls, Paul, Damien and I make our way through golden vales to Paine Grande, our first campsite, a pleasant five hours away. The sun is shining and the mountains shimmer, snow-capped in the distance.

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We set up camp as darkness begins to fall. We are trekking off-season and the refugio at Paine Grande is still closed. There is no electricity or running water and I prepare our dinner over our gas camp-stove in the darkness of the kitchen with the laughing shadowy forms of fellow campers. It’s getting cold as we make our way to our tent, our headlamps lighting a quavering white path before us. 1am comes and goes, 2am, 3am. It is freezing! At 4am, I lean over to check to see whether the unmoving Damien is still breathing – he is. I desperately wonder what I’ve gotten myself in to. I don’t think I’ve ever been this cold in my life! Finally, it’s 7am and there is no sign of dawn. I rustle about getting ready to trek again, walking will help. Our tent has frozen during the night, there are ice crystals on my clothes and the nearby stream is solid. Three more nights to go!

A frosted tent

A frosted tent

Day 2 – 7-hour round trek to Lago Grey. A further 2-hours 30 mins to Campamento Italiano

We huddle around the camp stove waiting for our powdered milk mixture to boil. The warm muesli is ambrosia (seriously!) and we set off early in the direction of Glacier Grey – the first arm of our W. It’s difficult going through the ice, snow and glacial scree. We scrabble to the viewpoint overlooking Lago Grey, her still, serene icebergs and the blunt snout of the huge Glacier Grey.

Lago Grey

Lago Grey

We trek back to Paine Grande to collect our gear and continue to our next campsite, Campamento Italiano. Access to this campsite is just beyond a creaking wood and rope bridge strung across a white, tumbling river. The toilets are housed in strangely sweet stilt-legged chalets and there is an open-sided hut for cooking. That night I discard the wear-less-to-be-warmer sleepingbag theory (I’m looking at you, Christian) and I pile on pretty much everything in my backpack – two pairs of hiking socks, a pair of thermal leggings, hiking trousers, a long-sleeved thermal top, a vest-top, 4 t-shirts, 2 fleeces, a snood, a hat, a scarf and a pair of mittens. It’s only slightly better!

Tengo frío!

Day 3 – 5-hour round trek in Valle del Francés, onward to Campamento Los Cuernos

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Officially closed due to snow, our hike through beautiful Valle del Francés becomes my favourite day on the W trek. The lake below us is an opaque green and from our secure vantage point, we watch mesmorised as avalanches thunder down the mountain face before us onto the still glacier.

We trek back down to our camp, slowly. The path has refrozen and Damien leads the way wielding a rock to break up the ice a little. Ah chivalry! In Campamento Los Cuernos, the refugio is open! They have a fire and beer! We nestle in there for the evening wiggling our toes in the heat of the stove and sharing a giant bottle of beer. When it’s time we reluctantly head back to our tent on its little stilted platform.

Campamento Los Cuernos

Campamento Los Cuernos

Day 4 – 5 hour trek to Campamento Chileano

The next day is grey and the scenery, though beautiful, is unchanging. Campamento Chileano clings to the side of a snow covered hill. In the rough shelter masquerading as a kitchen, we meet Tom and Alex, bearded, clad in flannel shirts and actually whittling! Whittling! Friendship is assured when these two huge, laughing lumberjacks (not their real jobs!) share their hot chocolate with us. On a cloud of warm, chocolate happiness, we all go to bed that night with plans for a 6am break for the Base de Los Torres.

Last stop - Campamento Chileno (closed)

Last stop – Campamento Chileno (closed)

Day 5 – Base de las Torres del Paine

Départ matinal à la lampe frontale

Trekking by lamplight

6am arrives pitch-black. Fresh puma tracks dot the camp’s snowy perimeter. One headlamp has given up its ghost, the other lights a shaky path in the forest ahead of us. The ground is slick and treacherous with ice. Forced to abandon the trail, we cling to roots, branches and trunks as we haul ourselves up the first slope. The boys have climbed ahead and, in their wake, have left a trail of jackets and hats hanging from branches – a bizarre woodland striptease. The forest soon gives way to a mountain side pathway and we break into a trot, conscious in the gloaming of the approaching dawn.

Gloaming

Gloaming

We can see the sky beginning to lighten beyond the peaks. A quick conference and a split is agreed so that Damien, depressingly much faster than I, can race ahead, assured of catching the short moments of the pink dawn light on the Torres. I’m alone. The snow is up past my knees and I’m determined not to miss the dawn. For some really weird reason, Dale Winton is running a countdown commentary in my head game-show style – awful! A single line of footprints leads my way across an otherwise bare mountain slope. Here the snow is fresh and powder-like. The beauty is incredible and all the more so now that I only have myself to keep up with. It’s completely silent. A wooden arrow points the way to the view-point and the snow gives way to boulders. I clamber over them and see Damien perched on an erratic rock just ahead of me. I make the viewpoint just on time to enjoy the final rays of dawn warming the peaks.

Sunrise on the Torres del Paine

Sunrise on the Torres del Paine

The lake is frozen, the ice feet thick. The Torres are magnificent. The climb absolutely worth it.

Mission accomplie!

Mission accomplie!

Piscola & La Cueca

We arrive down from the trek to find the village of Puerto Natales in the midst of the Fiestas Patrias, the Chilean Independence Day celebrations, commonly know as El Dieciocho. The streets are festooned (for that’s the only word) in red, white and blue bunting and flags. Freshly showered and feeling vaguely human again, we feast on a lamb asado and drink glasses of ruby Casillero del Diablo in the wonderful, cantine-style restaurant of La Picada de Don Carlitos.

Asado de Cordero - I've become exuberantly carnivorous over here - karmic balance to be rectified in Asia!

Asado de Cordero – I’ve become exuberantly carnivorous over here – karmic balance to be rectified in Asia!

We head on to meet Alex and Tom in Baguales bar where we find everybody feeling festive and quaffing glasses of Terremoto (a surprisingly lovely cocktail of Pipeño – a type of sweet fermented wine – with pineapple ice-cream). Delighted with having finished the W and feeling pretty festive ourselves, the five of us make our way to the local dance. When the doors open and I see the local gymnasium bedecked in bunting and streamers, I just know it’s going to be a special night.

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In between sets at the local dance

The band is on fire and the dance-floor is packed. Young and old, the whole town is here. It’s like being at a family wedding. There is a stand by the bleachers near the basketball hoop selling piscola and only piscola – the Chilean drink of choice. It’s a high ball cocktail of pisco and coca cola – lethal! The music is strange to us but irresistible…or that might be the piscola! Quietly bopping on the corner of the dance floor, we’re soon surrounded by a circle of locals. Measuring about a foot taller than everybody else in there, inconspicuous we are not! Taking one look at my clumping lack of co-ordination, a crowd of girls decide to take me in hand and attempt to teach me to dance. Futile!! The night whirls by in fits of laughter and botched Spanish.

The band

The band – and what a band!

Suddenly, everybody is dancing la cueca, the Chilean national dance -a parody of the courting ritual between a rooster and a hen. Feet are stamping, hands are clapping and handkerchiefs whirling. Tom and I bounce out of our seats. Far from the sinuous, intimidating movements of the tango, the cueca just looks like fun! Somebody offers me a handkerchief to whirl and we’re off giving it our sorry best. Damien kindly videoed the entire spectacle – it will never see the light of day!

Before we know it, we’re being invited to an after party and it’s 6am. Again!

Les images floues de nos mémoires floues...

Les images floues de nos mémoires floues…

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