Blown Away in Torres del Paine

 

Views from the catamaran ferry that took us across  Lago Pehoe to the start of the W circuit in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia

 

From Miami we flew to the bottom tip of South America – Punta Arenas, Chile. It took us nearly 24 hours to get down there, but it was totally worth it especially since we were greeted by two familiar faces, Jenn and Nettie, our good friends from Portland, Oregon. The four of us then hopped on a bus to Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia to trek the famous W Circuit for the next five days.

Nettie, me, and Jenn pumped to start our 5 day trek

The 31 mile W Circuit navigates up and down three mountain valleys forming a “W” shape if viewed on a map. After a scenic catamaran ride to the start of the trail, we hiked seven miles up to our first campsite. The trail to the campsite provided epic views of Lago Grey and icebergs that had calved off of the nearby Grey Glacier.

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Jenn, Nettie, and Dan with Lago Grey in the background

Up close and personal with Grey Glacier

Glacier Grey extending up into the Southern Patagonian Ice Field

The W actually is part of a larger trail system that forms an “O” which can be hiked in 7-11 days. Most trekkers complete the W in four days, but we had the luxury of adding a fifth day which we spent hiking part of the O Circuit.

Glacier Grey is part of the massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field. As we got closer and closer to the glacier we could see large crevasses and panoramic views of the seemingly endless river of ice that extends 17 miles up into the heart of the 6,500 square mile ice field.

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The trail took us across some scarily high and wobbly swing bridges

 

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Jenn braving one of the swing bridges

Trekking near Glacier Grey

These orange globular structures are called Darwin’s fungus (Cyttaria darwinii), named after Charles Darwin who collected it during his voyage on the HMS Beagle in 1832. These parasitic fungi were all over the trees and are actually edible.

Glacier Grey at sunset

On the third day we hiked to the heart of the W and to the base of El Valle Francés. After we set up camp and dropped our gear, we continued hiking up the valley. About two hours from camp the trail opens to an incredible view of multiple hanging glaciers. As we took in the scenery, we watched ice and snow break off of the glaciers and rumble down slope.

Native Patagonian wildflowers

Beech forest in El Valle Francés

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Hanging glaciers in El Valle Francés

Strong winds are notorious on the W circuit. We felt them for the first time in El Valle Francés. They were so strong that at time we could barely walk and I was blown over once.

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Blown away in El Valle Francés

From El Valle Francés we hiked to our next camp at Los Cuernos. The trail to the next site followed the brilliant turquoise-colored Lago Nordenskjöld. The weather was great except for the INTENSE wind!

Lago Nordenskjöld

We spotted a fox on the trail

Breakfast at Los Cuernos

Lago Pehoe

Our hike from Los Cuernos camp to the base of Los Torres may have been our most exhausting day. The biggest motivator for us was the incredible scenery.

On the way to Torres camp

Torres del Paine

We went to bed early with the intent of hiking to see the sun rise over the Torres del Paine (the namesake of the park). Torres del Paine refers to the three distinct granite peaks that jut out of the Paine mountain range.

The alarm went off at 3:30 and as I unzipped the tent, snow blew into my face. I instinctively burrowed back into my sleeping bag. Fortunately I have Dan to remind me that we will probably never have this opportunity again and that weather in Patagonia can often change from snow to sun within ten minutes.

After hiking in the dark, straight up hill, we reached our destination and waited. “Sunrise” came and went and the snow and wind persisted. We all cuddled and Jenn did pushups to keep warm. Needless to say we did not get the ‘typical’ sunrise view of the towers but we did get treated to some glimpses.

“Sunrise” at Torres del Paine. Cold!

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Dan and Nettie cuddling to keep warm

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Jenn trying to keep warm

On the last day we hiked down the valley to catch the bus back to Puerto Natales. We passed many hikers struggling up the trail on their first day with heavy packs. If I wasn’t so tired I would have patted each one on the back and told them it’s worth it, but I figured they would realize this in due time 🙂

Guanacos, a camelid native to South America.

We had a blast on the W Circuit and were excited to continue our Patagonian adventure. From Puerto Natales we crossed the border into Argentina to visit Los Glaciares National Park to partake in some more backpacking!

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