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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
UPDATE: December 31, 2011: Apparently we were lucky to do this trek when we did it… unfortunately this last week a careless camper (surprise, surprise – an Israeli, of course) tried to start a campfire (which is forbidden) and ended up starting a wildfire that has burned tens of thousands of acres on the front side of the range. All the trekkers have been evacuated, and hundreds of firefighters are fighting the blaze, which is not yet under control. Tragic… http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/317068