Trekking (1 day of) the W Circuit

Our third and final adventure in Patagonia was a one day trek to the base of the eponymous towers of the Torres Del Paine.

The generally accepted way to travel through Torres del Paine is to hike the W circuit, a 4 day/55 km trip. We had decided against this for a variety of reasons, amongst them that it was the low season and winter and thus all the refugios along the trail were closed, and also that trekking for 4 days sounded like death.

During the trip I felt a little concerned that we were cheating, that we were just driving around and not really experiencing Patagonia de verdad. To balance this, we decided to do a one day trek which consisted of driving to the park, a four hour walk to the base of the towers, four hours back, and coming home.

It was a lot harder than we expected.

After the first hour of slogging uphill through the mud, we were exhausted and Jess was concerned she might throw up. But I got so stubborn about it. I knew how much I would regret not doing it and not pushing myself to go as far as I could. After some mini-crises and rest breaks, we managed to keep going and it definitely got easier in parts.

The landscape kept changing throughout the walk. We started by climbing up a muddy hill, using our (rented) hiking sticks to pull ourselves up. At this point the view was not good enough to justify the difficulty, and even on the way back we were surprised by how difficult the mud on this hill was in comparison to the huge mountains. Next was a nice flat path through a valley, which was easy to walk and had awesome views, although we were dangerously close to the edge. Then we were climbing up and down rocky paths, across makeshift bridges, through forests, up rivers, through snow, and across ice.

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Some of it was crazy beautiful. There were amazing mountain views, frozen waterfalls, and streams where it looked totally frozen but you could hear the water running underneath. After about four hours of walking and towards the top it started to snow (so faintly that I thought I was hallucinating) and the tiny flakes sparkled in the sunshine.

Some of it was hell. We were super slow on the way up, so we ended by ourselves for hours because everyone else started off with a lot more enthusiasm. The more tired I got, the more aware I became that we could slip and fall to our deaths at any point and we wouldn’t know what to do. I had imagined a nice hike up a nice hill, with clearly marked paths and totally safe. It wasn’t quite like that. We lost the path multiple times and I nearly slipped off the edge of the valley at one (particularly terrifying) point.

For me, the ice was the worst part. I’ve always hated that feeling of slipping on ice, even when I’m safe on a footpath it still scares the hell out of me. We were trekking through Patagonia in August – most things were closed because no one encourages trekking at this time. A lot of the trek involves walking across or literally climbing up through streams and using them as the path. I don’t know how effective that is in summer, but in winter they’re frozen over and completely ice. The path you’re trying to follow is just a stream of ice. It’s so slippery and hiking sticks aren’t so effective at gripping onto ice, so you’re just sliding. Trying to climb up a stream as though the scarce rocks are stairs when it’s all a slippery surface scared the crap out of me.

Ultimately, the ice is why we didn’t make it to the top. Throughout the whole way there I kept refusing to turn around, insistent that we couldn’t get so close to the end and not make it all the way. However, we ended up stopping approximately 15 minutes from the base of the towers. The last part was completely ice and snow, twisting and turning up the mountain where a real slip could send you falling way too far down. We were exhausted and sore and very aware that we needed to repeat the entire experience all over again just to get home. To suffer through 15 minutes of that ice, just to see the towers and turn around again (and to try to walk down the ice, which scared me even more) just did not seem worth it. We’d seen the towers before, getting closer didn’t seem worth our lives.

Everyone in the group asked us why we didn’t just do the last part, but honestly I felt no regret. I’d been so insistent on finishing, on not giving up or backing down and disappointing myself. But I did the absolute maximum that I could do, and then another 5 hours of descent. The view from where we stopped, in the snow amongst all the mountains, whatever distance high, was incredible.

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I am so proud of us for doing as much as we did and not giving up. It sucked and we were exhausted and sore and scared and unconvinced of our own abilities, but we did it anyway.

Feel the fear and do it anyway.

(As a post-script: everyone else manages to W Circuit perfectly fine. Partially winter sucks, partially we just suck at trekking. Jess spent a lot of the day yelling “WHY DOES ANYONE EVER ENJOY DOING THIS”. I can’t wait to hear about everyone else’s adventures in Torres del Paine over summer.)

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