Trip Reports: The W Trek - Torres Del Paine, Chile - December 2011

Last week we spent 10 days hiking the popular “W” Circuit in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. These spectacular mountains rise abruptly 3000 vertical meters (almost 10,000 feet) above a series of huge turquoise lakes. Although the finest views of the range are actually seen from further away across the lakes (like this), the W Circuit offers the opportunities to experience the three main valleys and highlights within the range: the Glaciar Grey, the Valle Frances, and Las Torres lake. Although most people hike this route in about 5 days or so, we took 10 days so that we could spend extra time in each valley along the way.

Chile, Glacier Grey, South America, Torres del Paine, glacier, photo

Glaciar Grey

Glaciar Grey, Torres del Paine, Chile

We started the trek by taking a ferry across Lago Grey to Refugio Grey, and hiking to Campamento Los Guardas, a campsite set in a beautiful lenga forest, with a spectacular mirador (lookout point) directly above the snout of Glaciar Grey, a huge glacier that flows out from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second largest extrapolar extent of ice in the world.

Glaciar Grey, Torres del Paine, Chile, panorama, sunset, photo

Enjoying a panoramic view of Glaciar Grey at sunset.

Glaciar Grey, Torres del Paine, Chile, rainbow, photo

Glacia Grey Rainbow

A small rainbow appears above the snout of Glaciar Grey at sunrise. 

Torres del Paine, moon, Chile, moonrise, photo

Cuernos Moonrise

A nearly full moon rises behind Cuerno Principal (2600m) - December. 

Torres del Paine, moon, Chile, photo

Cuernos Moon

Moon over Torres del Paine - December. 

Paine Grande, Torres del Paine, Chile, Rio Frances, Patagonia, photo

Paine Grande and Rio Frances

Cerro Paine Grande rises an incredible 2800 vertical meters (9186 ft) above the Rio Frances here!

We then hiked around the massive Cerro Paine Grande up to Valle Frances, the second destination of the trek. This is one of the most unique mountain cirques in the world – a broad basin ringed by sheer needle peaks. It’s the kind of place that no photo can do justice to; you just have to be there to tilt your head back and spin around to see all those teeth surrounding you. Awesome!

Cerro Catedral, moonlight, Torres del Paine, Chile, Valle Frances, photo

Catedral Moonlight

A long exposure reveals moonrise light on Cerro Catedral, in Valle Frances in the center of the Torres del Paine range.

Chile, South America, Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Valle Frances, tent, photo

Valle Frances campsite

During the trek you must camp in the large designated campgrounds, usually situated in the beautiful but gloomy lenga forests which provide good shelter from the strong winds that whip around most of the time. Most of these campsites are thoroughly used and abused by the thousands of trekkers that pass through, and the forests around the camps are littered with toilet paper and associated organic matter. It’s a shame that the whopping $30 USD park entrance fee that each of the thousands upon thousands of visitors must pay is apparently not quite enough to maintain a couple decent outhouses.

Chile, South America, Torres del Paine, Patagonia, hiking, Valle Ascencio, photo

Hiking up Valle Ascencio

Photographing these huge peaks requires a bit of luck with the ever-changing weather and light conditions; unfortunately luck was not on my side for the entire first week of the trek, despite my most relentless efforts. Finally, during our stay in the third and final valley I got some sweet moonlight photos of the Torres spires reflecting in the lake during an unusually calm spell.

Las Torres, Torres del Paine, Chile, moonlight, photo

Las Torres Moonlight

Las Torres reflect in the moonlight on a rare calm night.  From left to right, the three spires are Torre Sur De Agostini (2850m), Torre Central (2800m), and Torre Norte Monzino (2600m).

Chile, South America, Torres del Paine, Las Torres, Torre Sur De Agostini, Patagonia, photo

Las Torres Overlook 1

From left to right, the three spires are Torre Sur De Agostini (2850m), Torre Central (2800m), and Torre Norte Monzino (2600m). To get a sense of massive scale of these peaks, consider that the lake sits at an elevation of about 850m, meaning that these peaks here rise a sheer 2000m (~6500 ft) above the lake!

Las Torres, Torres del Paine, Chile, moonlight, photo

Las Torres Lunar Light

The rising moon casts a band of light on Las Torres.  The camera's long exposure reveals far more light than the human eye could see in person. 

Tomorrow we take the bus to El Chaltén, where we’ll spend a week or so in the Fitz Roy range, the other famous Patagonian mountain range. I’ve always liked that place a lot, and am excited to return one more time!