The W trek – the good, the bad & the really really bad

*NOTE: I’ve had super poor internet for days and haven’t been able to upload most of the picture (not even a couple), but the post was ready so I will go ahead and publish it anyway, hopefully adding in some photos late

[Warning, this is going to be a long one!]

I will start by saying that my feelings on the W are split completely down the middle: half loved it and half hated it. Upon completion I hardly feel like the superwoman who can conquer the world, given the disappointment of not being able to reach the base of the towers. The trek was further plagued by bad weather, poor track maintenance and piss-poor service at the overpriced refugios which somewhat mar the whole W experience. That said, I can hardly complain about the setting; hundreds of kilometres of track winding through majestic landscapes without a hint of civilisation in sight. It is fairly unparalleled in its variety; from jagged peaks towering over glaciers, windswept forests and massive plateaus, right through turquoise alpine lakes dotted everywhere and freshwater streams meandering down the valleys from the mountains, offering a fresh water supply everywhere you go. I loved how accessible the national park is but how quickly you enter the wilderness, fully surrounded by nature. I love that the trails are so easy to follow that even I can’t get lost, so you can simply appreciate your surroundings and be. And lastly, there is nothing quite as satisfying as enjoying a beer at the end of a long day of trekking, watching the sunset and seeing the mountains cast huge shadows over the valley.  Hence it is a shame that mother nature conspired against us somewhat and the corporations running the infrastructure in the park are all corrupt money grabbing bastards who don’t give a shit about you (yes you Fantasticosur and Vertice). But c’est la vie. I hope you enjoy my account of the epic adventure and my attempts at vlogging as much as I enjoyed making them. I apologise in advance for any poor quality and the sound distortion from the wind!

Day 1: Travel to Paine Grande, up to Refugio Grey & back again

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Everything started so well. Beautiful weather greeted us in the park and the sun accompanied me for the entire walk, bathing the valley in its golden rays. The wind was pretty strong and occasionally buffeted you a few feet sideways, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. Luckily there were as many secluded parts as exposed, so the wind was a fairly minor obstacle.

As I hiked up the valley I soon left the wind-stripped and creepily twisted trees behind and was afforded beautiful panoramic views of Glacier Grey, which crept closer the further I hiked up the path. I went beyond refugio grey as I’d heard that just further up the path there was a cool suspension bridge, and the extra hour did not disappoint. I’ll leave the photos and video to show you more.

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Apart from that there isn’t much more to say; it was a very long but very satisfying day and I hoped the rest of the trek would be equally rewarding. Oh how wrong I was!

Day 2: Paine Grande to Italiano camp, short trip up to Frances viewpoint & back down, then across to Cuernos, but abandoning the trek at Frances (4km earlier than Cuernos) due to the weather.

Again, the day started pretty well and I was full of optimism. It was going to be a long day, depending how far I was going to hike up the valley, but I estimated over 20km with a fair amount of elevation (c 800m).

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It was a fairly easy and pleasant walk to Italianio, and the rain started just before I reached the camp. Still nothing too heavy so I wasn’t too worried. I had a quick tea and biscuit break in Italiano, dumped my big backpack and started up the trail to the Britanico viewpoint. The path was fairly rocky and there were a couple of precarious river crossings set my heart racing jumping across the stones. But I felt that as everyone else had clearly made it across I could too. On the way I met quite a few people coming down who advised caution, as the wind and rain was very heavy at the viewpoint and the visibility was pretty poor. Still I pushed on and got to the first viewpoint after about an hour of uphill and was greeted by said wind and rain. I didn’t linger too long, just enough to take the requisite picture and even entertained the idea of carrying on for a few nanoseconds until I dismissed it for madness. The Britanico viewpoint was another 4 km further, it was raining in earnest now and the path was very exposed to the gale force winds. So I made the sensible decision and turned back. That’s when everything changed.

Mother nature turned her full wrath upon park, unleashing a relentless torrent of heavy rain, picked up by the swirling wind and battering you from all sides. The landscape had turned dark and bleak and ominous, with no sign of a break. The already precarious river had swelled by a foot in the space of an hour, making the crossing nigh on impossible. The same stone I had used earlier were now under water, but I could just about use them while only going about ankle deep in the water for a few steps. I quickly made it down back to Italiano, still in one piece albeit now pretty wet. That time allowed me to devise a cunning plan(given there were no dry/closed shelters in Italiano): I’d make my way to the Frances camp/shelter half an hour down the road to rest and dry out before pushing on to Cuernos, my final destination and stop for the day. What followed was the worst hour of my life.

It had now rained for so long that my waterproof clothes were sodden, the rest of my clothes were wet and it was starting to get really cold. I was painfully aware of how dangerous the situation was becoming: I was getting too cold and fast running out of energy, the downpour was making the tails treacherously slippery and I could scare determine where the paths led. Still the rain continued. By this point the paths had become rivers, puddles had turned into lakes and solid ground had turned into muddy swamps. I passed one collapsed bridge and one stream that had washed away the logs used to cross. I could just about navigate them without getting too submerged in the water, but that was a small mercy. And still the rain continued. Then it got worse as I hit a stream which had no visible way to cross. About 5 foot wide and 2 feet deep I looked in vain for a safe way to get across it, but the bank rose steeply on the left and fell steeply to the right. Shit. No alternative but to walk through and brace myself against the current. I waded through to over my knees, my boots fast filling with arctic water as I tried to keep upright through the current. A few hair raising moments later I’d made it safely across without falling in, but with that the last shred of heat I had was gone. I was now close to breakdown; I was completely alone, dangerously wet and had no idea where I was. It had been over 30 minutes since I left Italiano, I had seen nobody on the trail and had no clue if I was even on the right track. An eternity passed in the next 30 minutes as I trudged slowly onwards, gathering every ounce of willpower to put one foot in front of the other and pray to the gods to deposit me safely in Frances. I finally arrived a shivering wreck, teetering on the edge of a total meltdown. I shut the door of the cabin and almost burst into tears, half in shock and half relieved that this ordeal was nearly over.

This had been no joke, and probably one of the most dangerous and miserable experiences of my life. It seemed like everything had conspired against me and I seriously doubted my ability to carry on…
But sitting here now writing this I’m reminded of the adage “This too shall pass”. You may hit rock bottom and you may reach the end of your limits, but’s it not a feeling that stays. Now I feel like a phoenix, risen from the ashes, having to hit the lows to fully appreciate the highs, which often come from the most unexpected of places. This took the shape of 5 strangers in this case, thrown together through our shared ordeal and determined to pull us all through. Dry clothes were donated to me after everything got wet, I patched up the multiple cuts and grazes acquired on the trail and the rain was braved multiple times to procure wood and wine for us all. Faith in humanity restored. A few hours later the fire burned, clothes horses had been fashioned out of anything and everything we could find, bottles of wine had been consumed and we were back in good cheer.  One of my darkest hours turned into one of the best bonding experiences of my life; thanks to these 5 strangers. It Just goes to show that the light is often brightest from the darkest of places.

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Day 3Frances to Chileno

Hands down my favourite day. While the day started with snow (oh yes, as if rain wasn’t bad enough) it was only a very light flurry and cleared up pretty soon. Just before midday the skies cleared and we were left with a stunning day across the most amazing landscapes. Hopefully the photos and videos give you some idea of what it was like but I just walked along in utter amazement at the scenery in front of me. The paths twisted and turned revealing different scenery at every step and spoiling us for views: lakes, forests, plains, mountains, waterfalls and valleys all contributed to the epic landscape.

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We arrived at the lodge in good time where we would chill for the afternoon/evening before heading to bed early to get up for the sunrise at the Towers.

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Day 4 – Chileno to Puerto Natales

Well, what can I say?  This video pretty much sums up my last day:

From going to bed full of excitement and hope for the last day to having to abandon the trek at the very last moment was a bitter pill to swallow. But none of the lodges 40 guests attempted the hike up to the towers as the trail was way too treacherous and the visibility was zero. Reluctantly we all packed and set off for the valley where the bust would be waiting to take us back to Puerto Natales. What a disappointment; the grand finale awaiting us after a demanding 3 day trek was a complete flop. I couldn’t help but feel completely bummed out at the situation and once again cursing my back luck. It’s one of life’s things I guess, but I’m still annoyed about it.

All in all Patagonia hasn’t been the dream I imagined it to be: I didn’t get to see the Fitzroy, I didn’t get to see the Torres del Paine and my ferry to Puerto Montt, the one I travelled specifically to Puerto Natales to catch, was cancelled. I can draw but one conclusion: get me the hell out of Patagonia.

I’m off to seek better weather and warmer climates. Peace out

xxx

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