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.
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.
The Torres is a living, breathing postcard. The amount of stunning landscapes you can record is only a function of how many memory cards you're carrying. There are no bad viewpoints.
Throughout the trek, multiple times a day, I found the same general scene repeated: reaching the top of a hill, or the edge of a cliff, or the start of a valley, I'd find another hiker frozen in reflection, quietly resting, pausing to take in the view. If any words were exchanged, they'd only be a minimalist acknowledgement of the beauty we were seeing.
(After a while.)
"Yea, see ya."
(One of us moves on.)
The W can be achingly difficult. The trails are almost never flat, the wind makes you stumble around like a punch drunk boxer, and the tent is never warm enough. By the end of it you've gone through all your chocolate and decent food, your feet are absolutely raw, and you seem to be simultaneously sweaty and cold almost all the time. Every once in a while you start to wonder why you ever left the warmth of the hostel bar, with all its friendly people and hot meals, to come out here and stomp around the wilderness for days on end. Then you look up from the trail to get your bearings and it all seems suddenly worthwhile.
Thankfully, there's no need to carry your own water supply on the W Trek - pristine fresh-water streams intersect paths throughout the park. And this is some of the cleanest, freshest water on the planet. As the photo below shows, you can trace it's direct path from the melting glaciers above, down the mountain, and into your bottle.
A forest in the Valle Ascencio
A fairly common occurrence this time of year, a hiker might be witness to a dozen small-scale avalanches per day in the Torres. The trails however, are a safe distance from the avalanche-prone peaks.
In the Valle del Francés on the 3rd day
A boat on the glacier lake
Walking down for a closer look at Glacier Grey
Strong signage in the Torres
Hiking in Patagonia is an incredible experience. You feel a real sense of isolation in these massive, beautiful environments and that's exhilarating...but can also feel incredibly foreboding. I got a late start and, hiking alone through these landscapes as night fell, I felt very ready to reach camp.
The lakes of the Torres Del Paine seem to come in two colors: the milky teal-gray of the photo above and the brilliant rich navy of the photo below. With no guide to ask, the reasoning behind this distinction bothered me, until I met an experienced Patagonian hiker the first night near Glacier Grey.
The classic blue bodies of water dotting the landscape, while beautiful, are the less interesting of the two. It's the teal lakes that are unique to this and other glacier regions. Where the lake meets a glacier, far below the surface, the glacier is constantly grinding against the bedrock, filling the melting water with tiny pieces of rock. The particles are so small and light they never settle at the bottom of the water and are suspended throughout the lake. It's these floating sediments, the effect of the glacier scraping against the bedrock, that make the water appear cloudy.
4 night, 5 day hike through the stunning Torres Del Paine National Park
50-60 miles depending on route, almost all uphill/downhill
Temperatures ranging from 30 - 45°F, winds 40mph+
All food and equipment must be carried