Trembling legs, sore knees, cold hands, uphills, downhills, lakes, forests, rivers, rocky beaches, cabins, tents, snow, rain, sunshine.... we literally had it all, a mix of all types of landscape and weather in the span of 4 days on the W Circuit trek. Most of all though, we had the most beautiful views that any of us had ever seen. A group of five young, open-minded, adventurous Gringos set out on the W Circuit on October 20th not knowing the beauty that would be encountered. Our group consisted of my good friends from San Diego Mike Cando and BJ Whittle who now both live in Buenos Aires, my brother Dana, our friend Eric who worked with Dana in Aspen, and myself. We had all seen the pictures and heard stories from other trekkers of the nice views that Torres del Paine provided, however we all approached it with few expectations and a genuine happiness for escaping the city and being in the outdoors. The W circuit is roughly 80km long and provides a mix of rugged and easy terrain, it was very dynamic and always changing.
Our first day, we set out from Puerto Natales at 7am and arrived by bus to the Catamaran dock at 10:30am. We had time to spare before catching the noon ferry ride across Lago Pehoe to the western part of the W, Camp Pehoe, our first campsite. So we killed the time waiting for the ferry by going to see Salta Grande, a beautiful waterfall that makes for some good picture opportunities. Our optimism was carrying us high as we kept saying "How does it get better than this?" We had no clue what lied ahead. After the 3o minute ferry ride across Lago Pehoe we quickly dropped off all of our bags and set out on the 11km trek up the left arm of the W to see Glacier Gray, the first glacier most of us had seen in person. We set out on the trek at 1pm with a full tank of energy and curiosity.
It took us nearly 3.5 hours to reach the glacier through the 11km up-down trail. Shedding layers and putting layers back on every 20 to 30 minutes would set the tone for the next couple days as the weather changes so rapidly, remaining comfortable was a task not to be overlooked. Stuffing our mouths with coca leaves also got us through the 22km round trip on the first afternoon, coca leaves are a great source of natural energy and are used whether you're an Andean trekker or a coffee shop fanatic in Peru. After seeing Glacier Gray from a distance we went down by the lake to touch the chunks of glacier that had broken off just for the claim to fame of touching a glacier. Our trek back to camp took us just under 3 hours since it was more downhill. Even so, it was a good sample of what trekking was all about. Arriving back at camp at 7pm that night, I was completely taxed and struggled just walking to the bathroom. BJ was battling his own leg cramps as he made the mistake of lying down before stretching. Twenty two kilometers, roughly 13 miles for you yankees, in 6 hours absolutely wiped us all out. We then shared a small pasta dinner, took a few swigs of whiskey to battle the cold and went for cover in the sleeping bags around 10pm. Day 1 was in the books and we were exhausted, yet satisfied to be camping under the Antarctic air in such a beautiful place.
We rose at 6:15am on the second day in time to see a beautiful sunrise in our campsite. We each had 3 hard-boiled eggs and some dried fruit to get the engine running for a solid 28km trek that lied ahead of us. It was 7am when we started our slow pace on the trek. It would take a good 30 minutes to get the blood going and overcome the sore legs in order to develop a solid pace. We arrived to Camp Italiano, base of the middle arm of the W, Valle Frances. We left our heavy bags and equipment there at the camp. Valle Frances is known to have crazy weather so we weren't too sure how far we'd go. We ascended the valley and saw our first major wildlife, what we like to call the devil deer, because its' antlers looked like devil horns. We were able to get within 10 meters of it to snap a couple pictures before it disappeared across the river. The weather was very cooperative so we continued. It was a pretty steady uphill and it was putting the legs through more exhaustion. We got high enough to where we could see some of the towers (torres) through the trees, so we continued until we could find an opening to snap some pictures and get a good view. We ended up going all the way to the lookout, mirador.
Bienvenidos a Valle Frances
Bienvenidos a Valle Frances
Two and half hours later, we arrived at the mirador around noon and all we could say was WOW!! This was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen, the prettiest valley any of us had ever been in. We were surrounded by the rock cliffs 270 degrees around us until the opening of the valley where we could see the turquoise lake in the distance. There are no words to describe what we felt at the mirador in Valle Frances. A nice lady from Israel, Tulie, joined us at the mirador and graciously offered us some tea, which hit the spot. We ended up spending two hours at the mirador admiring the beauty around us, consuming some yummy tea, oranges, granola bars and chocolate. I had never experience such a feeling of being surrounded by overwhelming beauty. I left my broken pair of sunglasses there at the mirador to essentially keep an eye on Valle Frances for me. BJ summed it up best by saying leaving Valle Frances was like that dreadful feeling of breaking up with a beautiful girlfriend, so hard to do but we had to carry on.
We left the mirador and began our descent back to Camp Italiano at 2pm and arrived in a speedy 90 minutes where we re-collected our luggage and I was one glove short. I think some animal came in and stole my other glove when we were gone, either way I hope it was put to good use wherever it ended up. On our way to Camp Los Cuernos, where we would stay, we found a rocky beach where we would end up laying for a half hour, it felt so good to be lateral after all that trekking. Then we finished off the rest of the 28km with a short 2km trek to the camp where we were reserved to rent tents. The Camp messed up our reservation and ran out of tents so, fortunately for us, we were able to stay in the lodge for the same price. We were looking forward to camping until that night a major storm came through, we then knew everything was working out in our favor.
Our departure was delayed on day 3 due to the crazy storm that was still spitting snow at 7am when we were going to start trekking. Instead we waited for a bit and let nature take its course. We began the day 3 trek at 10am after a very yummy breakfast served by the Camp Los Cuernos kitchen staff. We trekked through snow, rain and sunshine on this day and really took a slower pace to rest our legs a bit, even though most of this day was uphill it was only a 15km trek as opposed to the mid 20k treks on the previous two days. We even found time to play a little hacky sack on a windy point overlooking the beautiful Lago (lake) Nordenskojl which is the most turquoise water. We arrived at our next Camp, Camp Chileno, at 4pm. We were just able to see the front of the towers at sunset from this camp, it provided quite a view for dinnertime. We were due for an early betime yet once again since we had planned to awake our final day at 4:30am to go see the towers for sunrise. Many trekkers of the W Circuit claim they don't have the energy on the 4th day to rise early and make the two hour uphill trek to the end of the trail to see the towers at sunrise. It was our goal full on to see the towers at sunrise, it would cap off the trek perfectly. After a yummy pasta dinner and two pisco sours as a nightcap, we dozed off around 10pm.
4:45am came very quickly and we all contemplated staying in our warm sleeping bags, but we knew full and well that we can sleep when we die and this was our one opportunity to see the towers at sunrise. After a quick tea-time with Tulie, our Israeli friend, in the lodge we mustered the energy to commence our final ascent of the trek to the end of the trail with headlamps and all. The morning was very calm and we felt we were the only people on earth awake. Ninety minutes later we arrived to the end of the trail and had the closest view of the towers. We couldn't quite see the top as they were dipping into the morning clouds but even so, they were impressive and it felt as we reached the end of the world. We all embraced and congratulated each other on completing the 80k in 3.5 days and of course had another cup of tea with Tulie. Something about drinking warm tea on a cold peak, it tastes ten times better than it tastes at the dinner table. The sun peaked over the mountains and clouds to the east for a short 15 minutes before disappearing for the whole day as a storm rolled in for the rest of the day. The luck we had on this trip was unbelievable, everything worked out perfectly. A pair of Brazilian guys were ascending to the end of the trail as we were on our way down, later they informed us that they missed the sun and could barely see the towers, thus waking up at the butt crack of down was worth it afterall.80km, 3.5 days and we made it
We made our way back down the right arm of the W in several hours in time to catch the bus back to Puerto Natales. A great sense of accomplishment filled us all and we all felt somewhat changed in our own right. My 29 year old brother summed it up greatly by saying "I've been around the sun 29 times and nothing compares to 4 days on the W Circuit." I couldn't have summed it up better. We experience a little bit of everything but in the end it all worked out so perfectly which may make this a boring blog post. Exciting blog postings include about how one overcame adversity and what he/she learned from it. This is a blog post of a group of people feeling so much freedom in one of the most beautiful places on earth and overcoming the daily stress on the legs, knees and ankles. All of our physical pain never led to complaining, we were all too consumed into the beauty around us, it was sensory overload to the fullest. I'll always remember the feeling we experienced in Valle Frances, tea time with Tulie, shedding layers only to put the jacket back on 5 minutes later, the taste of coca leaves pumping energy to the legs, breathing in fresh Antarctic air, drinking fresh spring water from the rivers, waking up at 6am to eat cold hard-boiled eggs watching the beginning of a day, rest breaks consuming peanuts and chocolate and the list goes on. It was all about those small details that made up the trek. It's great to be in nature because we kind of revert to animal instincts, all you really think about is how to stay warm and how to keep your energy level up. There were no thoughts of regular societal worries, the economy, jobs, politics, etc. My mind was fully concentrated on the sensory overload and what I needed to do to have more energy or keep warm, it is very liberating. All in all, it was the best 4 days of my life!End of the trail
A special thanks to my brother, Mike, BJ and Eric for experiencing it with me!