On the final day of the W, I woke up at 3 AM, left the (relative) warmth of my sleeping bag, and ventured out into the cold black night. If you start hiking early enough, you can reach the Torres del Paine (the rock formations for which the park is named) by sunrise. Not only was the Torres sunrise supposed to be the highlight of the whole W experience, it was also the final test. After the sunrise hike, it was literally all downhill from there. I started up the mountain.
Hiking uphill in the pitch-black darkness is a bleak activity mostly because you can only see two things: the ground directly in front of you and other people's lights. The path up to the Torres is long and winding, with a series of very steep intersecting inclines. This makes the lights of the hikers ahead of you seem impossibly far away. I actually assumed for most of the first two hours that the lights I was seeing were from people doing some other sunrise hike. Lights coming from that high up and far off couldn't possibly coming from people headed to the same final destination I was. It was only when I reached the base of the final incline did I realize that everyone - all the lights - were headed to the Torres and that there was still a long, steep, way to go.
Finally reaching the lookout, I was initially underwhelmed. You basically walk into a bowl of massive boulders and all you can see are hikers braced against the cold. The Torres (literally "towers") are little more than black rocks jutting into a black sky. I wedged myself between two bolders and wondered what all the fuss was about.
- A fellow backpacker trying to keep warm
As the sun slowly starts illuminate the canyon, you can see the little grouping of fellow hikers - the Japanese, the Israelis, the Kiwis, the Germans - all staring expectantly up at the Torres. You're still not entirely sure why everyone raved about this experience.
And then finally, the light comes over the ridge.
The Torres go from a beige-orange to a rich neon red and then, just for a moment, they seem to almost glow like heated metal.
It's an incredible effect that doesn't translate well to photography. Everyone sits watching the colors change before their eyes and, almost as quickly as it began, its over. The rocks that were so recently cartoon-crazy hues turn back to their natural shades of grey and tan. And everyone, thankful to have seen it, hikes back down the mountain.