Just like the last three mornings in Torres del Paine, it’s dark when I wake up. I quickly turn on my headlamp, put my contacts in, and check the inside of my tent. There’s no evidence of mice (thank God). It’s cold, but I quickly force myself to change into my hiking clothes and open the tent so I can brush my teeth in the brisk, fresh air outside. A quick survey of my body reminds me that my legs, my arms, my back, my entire body is so sore. As challenging as it was yesterday evening, it will be even harder in the dark as everyone at camp will be hiking up. I grab the essentials that I tossed into my mesh tent bag and zip the tent closed. Time to hurry; I refuse to miss the sunrise at Las Torres.
Trekking in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile was always more of a pipe dream than a real plan as I backpacked through South America. It would be fun to do, but I always thought it would be too difficult for me. I’m a walking disaster; there was no way I’d be able to do this without getting hurt. And also if I didn’t have a travel partner, there was no way in hell I’d trek it on my own. Right?
Then I ended up staring at a trail in Torres del Paine with a backpack weighing about 20 kg (44 lbs) ready to trek the “W”, alone. Umm…what?
But let me rewind a bit to my preparation for the trek in Puerto Natales, Chile.
Torres del Paine Prep
There’s a lot to know before trekking in Torres del Paine. I optimistically attended the information session at the Base Camp bar next to my hostel, Erratic Rock to find out everything I needed to know for the trek and see if any solo travelers wanted a trekking buddy. At the end of her talk, the speaker at the information session asked if anyone was looking for a partner. I nervously raised my hand and smiled awkwardly at the others seated around me.
No one else raised their hand.
While the thought of trekking in Torres del Paine without a partner scared the crap out of me at first, it turned into the best blessing in disguise. My first thought was that I was definitely going to cry at some point on this trek. I wasn’t going to have a go-to person for support physically to carry camping gear and emotionally to get me through the hard parts. And maybe the worst part: I was going to have to fend for myself if mice invaded my tent looking for food and apparently the mice were running rampant at the camps earlier in the week. I obsessed over the mice issue. You can’t blame a girl after having mice in my apartment in NYC years ago! I thought hiking Volcán Acatenango and camping for one night was difficult; it paled in comparison to camping in Torres del Paine for 5 days alone.
I didn’t even know how to set up my tent when I rented it. I breathed a deep sigh of relief when Ruth from the rental shop came out to help me. If she thought I was an idiot – and rightfully so although I assured her I wasn’t – she didn’t say it as she helped me assemble the tent. Just three days later I was assembling and disassembling the tent in record time. I realized that cold weather will make me do anything quicker than normal.
I was a ball of nerves when it was go-time to leave for the bus to Torres del Paine, but broke out into a huge smile when I recognized a few familiar faces. Elena from Germany, Andy from the US, and I met on an 18-hour bus ride between Bariloche and El Chaltén, Argentina. They were splitting the camping gear and food and we were planning on trekking in the same direction: west to east on the trails that the “W” trek composed of. I wasn’t going to be totally alone.
Although busloads of us got off at Torres del Paine, we didn’t have guides and there was no “right” way to do things. Before boarding the next bus to the western part of the park, I took a photo of the back of Las Torres. Seeing Las Torres for sunrise was going to be the crowning achievement at the end of the trek. If there’s anything I learned in Patagonia it’s that the weather can change in an instant; blue skies were never promised.
Day 1: Paine Grande to Grey
Distance: 11km (6.8 miles)
I started the trek in at the Paine Grande refugio (refuge, or hostel). The next 4.5 hours would take me to the Grey shelter where I’d be setting up camp near Glacier Grey. I couldn’t believe my luck with the weather; once I started to break a sweat I had stripped down to just my t-shirt! Carrying all the trekking gear kept me warm enough that I didn’t have to wear my long-sleeved layers. Elena, Andy, and I walked together for the most part on the first day and chatted. We’d be doing a lot of that over the course of the trek. There was nothing to do but talk about anything and everything.
Within a few hours, we caught our first glimpse of Glacier Grey. The sun bounced off it like it was a mirror shining in the distance. We needed to see it up close, though. With tents successfully assembled at camp, we walked towards a better mirador (lookout) for Glacier Grey. I was quite sore and exhausted after my first day of hiking. I was still getting used to the weight of my pack and learning how to use the trekking poles to my advantage. Seeing Glacier Grey had me beaming with pride, though. I’d conquered day 1 and I hadn’t yet shed a tear.
The campers all assembled in the “kitchen” of the refugio where we were allowed to cook and use the sink. It was so crowded that the windows were foggy with condensation and it was so much hotter inside than outside. Groups of friends and strangers sat and talked over bowls of pasta, soup, and couscous. I made pasta with tuna and dried mushrooms with a cream sauce made from a soup packet – something I’d probably never combine on a regular day for dinner. It was weird but rewarding, especially since I’d carried all my good myself, used my own stove and made everything myself. Cooking at home didn’t seem as gratifying as it was at a campsite.
Once dinner was over, Andy, Elena and I sat beside the fire in the refugio. I warmed up my frozen toes for what would be only time for the next two days and we talked more until the refugio closed. Again, that’s all we could do: talk. Not having any outside distractions was kind of awesome, actually.
To say that I was scared my first night in the tent alone would be an understatement. We saw a fox on our way to the tents before going to sleep! I was also nervous about mice – seriously everyone had instilled fear of mice into me back in Puerto Natales. Yeah, there was no way I was going to be able to go to sleep. I brushed my teeth outside, bid Elena and Andy goodnight, and zipped myself inside my humble abode for the night.
I nestled in the cocoon I made with my sleeping bag liner and the sleeping bag I rented. Worrying about hearing mice, I slept with my head inside both the liner and tent. Every now and then I had to readjust to get some fresh air and keep from suffocating. I even slept with my food inside the bag for my sleeping bag, which I then put inside my backpack near my feet so I could kick at it if I heard anything rustling. This was my version of preparation.
I woke up to a dry tent with no mice. Success!
Day 2: Camp Grey to Camp Italiano
Distance: 18.5km (11.5 miles)
As soon as the I packed the camping gear ate my oatmeal, I was off to head back on the trail toward Paine Grande and then onward on the W to the Italiano camp. The nearly four hours it took trek back to Paine Grande was one of the most painful moments of the entire trek.
My left shoulder started hurting me almost immediately. It didn’t take me long to realize I might have pinched a nerve in my left shoulder or arm, rendering it nearly impossible to hold and use a trekking pole. As a lefty, I was really concerned about the limited mobility in my dominant hand. Andy, Elena and I were walking at different paces so I was able to pop in my headphones and try to lift my spirits with music, but I was in a lot of pain. Unfortunately, I had to take more breaks than the first of the day’s kilometers in which we all had to retrace back toward Paine Grande.
I must have been a sorry sight to see because a few different boys on separate occasions offered to switch packs with me or to carry some of my weight so that I wasn’t struggling so much. I kindly refused. If they could carry their own gear, so could I. I wasn’t carrying any more than any other solo trekker. I was determined to trek through the pain, but their kindness still brings a smile to my face.
This part of the trek was also my least favorite because I wasn’t seeing anything new for the first four hours. It was a rough moment for me in the drizzling rain as I my left hand clutched the backpack straps across my chest while my right arm was doing its best to keep my body stable.
I couldn’t have been happier to arrive at the Paine Grande ranger station; only 7.5 km (4.6 miles) more to the Italiano camp. I laid on my back on the wooden deck, drinking in the sun and rain sprinkles on my face. I felt weightless without my pack on.
It was a semi-quick 2 hours and 15 minutes to the Italiano camp. I pushed on alone for the most part with one trekking pole packed away, relying on the pole and my right arm to support me as I made my way down the trail. Luckily I bumped into Andy, who took my mind off the intense pain shooting down my arm with random conversation. When I did mention my arm, I felt tears of frustration sting the corners of my eyes. But I still refused to cry.
Arriving at camp was a huge relief for my arm, but it was almost harder to function as my body slowed down and the cold set into my bones. Italiano was a real camp with no kitchen building or refugio. In fact someone accidentally started a small fire by not paying attention to their stove in the wind shelter! I tried to do everything in hyper speed, especially washing the dishes by the river. The last thing I wanted to do after eating a boring meal of pasta was wash my dishes with icy river water. My fingers could barely move as it was! I think I slept the most this second night because I was so utterly exhausted and sore.
Day 3: Italiano to Británico French Valley Viewpoint
10km roundtrip (6.2 miles)
By 9:40am, Andy, Elena, and I were ready to hike to the Británico lookout. This is where were to see a sweeping view of the French Valley. While some other trekkers earlier in the week experienced rain and snow, on Day 3 the weather was perfect. I knew we’d see the view.
As we made our way toward Británico with our packs back at camp, we heard the rumbling of what sounded like thunderous explosions. I couldn’t believe it until I saw it, but the sounds were those of avalanches on the mountains. Mother Nature was working wonders right before my very eyes. When we hear the rumbling, we’d stop and stare at the mountain, searching for the avalanche amidst the snow and ice. It always looked smaller, but the sound echoed between the mountains.
Despite getting slightly lost, we finally made it to the Británico viewpoint after 2 hours and 40 minutes. The view absolutely took my breath away. I could have sworn it was a painting that came to life right in front of me. We sat in the cold and just stared at the blue sky, powdery snow-covered mountains, and the sea of red fall foliage below us. Just thinking back on this moment makes me feel a lump in my throat like I might cry – it was that stunning. You could pinch me and I still wouldn’t believe this moment was real.
Day 3 cont’d: Italiano to Cuernos Camp
Distance: 5km (3.1 miles), Day Total 15km (9.3 miles)
Two hours later, I was back at camp and packing to head to the Cuernos camp for the third night. The camp was at a refugio. This meant using a real toilet and possibly getting to wash my hands with hot water (I didn’t even bother bringing a towel to shower, although others did). All of these things felt like such luxuries.
It surprised me that I made it to Cuernos in 1 hours and 40 minutes. Highlights on this part of the trek included gorgeous lake views to my right and massive snowy mountains to my left on this relatively flat trail. The only low point was losing my favorite (and only) hat which was so vital to keep me warm at night. It fell from where I’d tied it on my pack, but was luckily returned to me at camp! The camaraderie between trekkers is the best.
I set up camp near some of my trekking mates and spent the rest of the night celebrating the engagement of some French Canadiens over our dinner and boxed wine (which quite good in Chile and Argentina) while more civilized travelers showered. Call me a barbarian, I don’t care! Not showering for 5 days was easy; it was too cold to care. And if I showered I wouldn’t have had any use for the baby wipes I brought (Pro tip? TMI? Whatever).
Day 4: Cuernos Camp to Torres Camp
Distance: 12km (7.5 miles) + 2km Torres Lookout roundtrip (1.2 miles)
I surveyed my surroundings when I awoke around sunrise and noticed my entire tent was covered in frost. If it was the coldest night of the trek so far, I couldn’t tell the difference. When I said good morning to the others, I realized how lucky I was.
Three other tents had mice invasions that night! OK, invasion is a bit dramatic, but other travelers found holes and/or mice in their tents. I was thankful for another mice-free night as I assembled my gear for the last big long haul to Las Torres.
The end was near. At Las Torres, everyone would be planning on their ascent to the base of Las Torres to see the mountain “towers” at sunrise. That one kilometer from the camp to the lookout had the highest elevation gain of the entire trek. It was going to be difficult, but I had my eye on the prize.
What I didn’t plan on was hiking to the base of Las Torres after 6 hours of trekking and setting up camp. I arrived at camp around 3:15pm with hours to kill before it was time to eat and sleep. I’m not exactly a person who likes to do extra trekking just because, but lots of others were making the kilometer trek up to Las Torres. I didn’t want to be haunted by FOMO, so I grabbed my trekking poles and did the same. As challenging as it was during the day, it would be even more difficult in the dark before sunrise.
Day 5: Las Torres Camp to Base of Las Torres Lookout
Distance: 2km roundtrip (1.2 miles)
My last night camping was not as strategically planned as the first three. I’d camped on a decline so I spent the night sliding to the bottom of my tent. I also heard there was a fox lurking around camp. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much but awoke around 6am to prepare to hike to Las Torres again.
Here’s where the thoughts in the introduction to this story came into play. I had to make sure I made it to the top before sunrise.
After clearing the woods, to get to Las Torres I essentially stepped and climbed over boulders. It was like a rock quarry out there. I strategically placed my trekking poles in the nooks and crannies between the rocks, hoisting myself up and over these massive boulders to the base of Las Torres. 45 minutes later at 7:48am I was semi-comfortably freezing my butt off on top of some rocks. I balanced my camera on top of smaller rocks as a makeshift tripod and captured some long exposures before the sun rose.
When the sun finally did make its appearance and shined its fiery light on the towers, it was magic. I felt the overwhelming sense of achievement that I made it to this point – and in one piece – on my own. I was so grateful for the friendship and support of other trekkers, but I ultimately looked after myself on this trek. More than anything, I realized that I could camp alone and take care of myself in the outdoors, within limits. I’d never stepped so much out of my comfort zone than I had with this trek.
I sat by myself in self-reflection eating my last bits of chocolate (yes, at 8am) until the sun fully rose. I think everyone at the base of Las Torres was smiling that morning. Not only had I made it; we’d all made it.
Day 5 cont’d: Las Torres Camp to Las Torres Hotel (bus stop)
Distance: 8km (5 miles)
I tried to make it down to Las Torres camp as fast as possible, learning from the first descent that it was easier on my knees to let the trekking poles do most of the work. I was hurling myself down the mountain to camp at full speed.
Now that I’d seen the towers, I was ready for the very last push to the Las Torres Hotel and bus stop. This time I packed up haphazardly – who cares, I was finished! I didn’t even eat breakfast. I was really ready to get back on the trail, which included backtracking for almost half of the 8km distance. By 10:20am Andy and I set off. While I kind of wanted to finish alone (a solo traveler ego thing I’m sure), I was actually so glad he was there. We’d become such good friends as we covered kilometers of distance and hours of life stories.
2 hours and 20 minutes later after getting slightly lost, we made it to the hotel! We enjoyed a celebratory beer and looked out the window at Las Torres in admiration. It was hard to believe that earlier that morning we were sitting at the base of those mountains.
Returning to civilization was strange. I almost didn’t want to go back. It felt so good to be off the grid and oblivious to what was going on in the rest of the world. It was a relief. I also felt profoundly different after the trek. I’d never completed anything so physically draining like this before. I’m a self-proclaimed bad trekker and don’t love the cold weather. None of that stopped me from completing the W trek.
I really couldn’t believe that I was actually there, that I actually did it, and that the person in my photos is really me. The W trek in Torres del Paine National Park is hands-down one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life. It was the best way to celebrate my 28th birthday. The pain, the cold, the sweat, the dirt, it was all worth it. I will never forget it. A piece of my soul is still entwined in the branches of the trees and sliding down the avalanches on the mountains.