When you’re ankle deep in mud, your trekking poles are planted sideways to fight howling winds and you’re 100% drenched from a torrential rainstorm - you start to wonder if a week in Patagonia was really a good decision. And then the sun comes out.
We've just gotten back from hiking 'the W' with our friends Kim and Kyle, who were game to join us along the way, and over the past week we've had quite the epic journey together at the end of the earth.
Day 0: The Prep
We arrived at the small mining town of Puerto Natales to stock up. In the afternoon, we went to a free talk where Rustin, a veteran trekking guide of 12 years in Patagonia, told us all how to survive.
He shared a lot of wise words but these stayed with us the most:
- You will always be wet. The Patagonian ice field (third largest collection of ice in the world) is right next door and it pretty much makes the weather go bananas.
- The weather changes every 15 minutes. Even if it’s bright and sunny now, pretty soon you’re going to be wet. Or blown around. Or snowed on.
- Trekking poles might just save your life. Seriously.
We left the talk, bought an insane amount of plastic bags to protect our clothes from the rain and went to bed.
Day 1: Spirits are high
[0 hours hiking, 1 L boxed wine]
Our first of many early days, we arose at 6 am to board a progressively smaller set of 1970s buses that took us deep into the park.
While many guides suggest starting the trek off strong with a hike that sets you up for a view of Las Torres at dawn, we arrived at our refugio at noon and spent the rest of the day napping on bean bags, drinking boxed Chilean wine.
Day 2: Human snowglobe
[6 hours hiking, 13.5 km, 1.5 L boxed wine]
Today involved a hike up to the main attraction of this region: Las Torres (Towers) themselves. They are three immense, granite spires surrounding a tiny laguna the color of glacier freeze Gatorade at the top of a mountain.
The first half of the day was brilliantly sunny as we began our climb up into the mountains.
During the second half, the terrain shifted to forest and then exposed rock. The sun went away, the air got colder and it started to snow. While we weren’t treated to the view we had climbed for, just the experience of getting up there and enjoying that (cold) moment together was worth it.
So far, the weather had treated us reasonably well. We confidently (read: naively) went to sleep thinking our trip would be an exception to Rustin’s rules.
Day 3: Cabin in the woods
[6.5 hours, 17 km, 2 L boxed wine]
Early in the morning, Patagonia unleashed its first in a series of torrential downpours. Combined with the gusting wind, it was the kind of rain that feels like the big man has it out for you.
We lingered over our instant coffee hoping there would be a break in the storm, but we had places to be, so we set off back down the side of the mountain.
The hike was not easy. We spent hours soaked to the skin carrying heavy packs, but there was a carrot urging us on to our next destination: Stef had splurged for this night and booked us an individual cabaña perched on the mountain side above a lake.
The cabaña came with a pork chop and pasta dinner, which we inhaled, and then spent the rest of the evening sipping boxed wine, attempting to wring out the moisture from our hiking clothes and staring at the stars through our skylight.
Day 4: Spirits are not so high
[7 hours, 17 km, 2 L boxed wine]
In the morning, the winds had died down and we awoke to a gigantic rainbow. Kyle pointed out that the rainbow began in the cloudy valley we were planning to trek to today and we laughed only somewhat nervously. Little did we know that today would be the the toughest we'd seen yet.
If the rain hadn’t already chilled us, the wind would literally pick water up from Lake Nordenskjold below and hurl it at us.
On an ideal day, our hike up the Valle Frances would have granted us a stunning view of the surrounding mountains. However, today we got little more than a glimpse of a nearby glacier and a fistful of hail in the face.
After some forest rangers were kind enough to let us in from the storm, we hurriedly ate our lunches and prepared to set out again for another four hours’ hike. Stef went into a full-on ‘beast mode’ to get the hike over with, and we saw only glimpses of her red pack in the distance until we reached the next refugio.
Slipping and sliding down the rocks, we all had to dig deep that day but at long last we made it to our next destination: Refugio Paine Grande on the shores of Lake Pehoe.
Day 5: Cautiously optimistic
[3 hours, 11 km, 2 L boxed wine]
The last two days of our trek involved a hike up and back to Glacier Grey. After the day we’d had yesterday, we were grateful for the sunny skies and continually evolving views over nearby lakes and mountains.
We arrived at the glacier and celebrated our last night as a group with a pork chop, mashed potatoes and our final round of boxed wine.
Day 6: Back in the land of plenty
[3 hours, 12 km, 750 mL bottled(!) wine]
Our last early day, we got up early to go north and get a closer look at the glacier before heading back down to Lake Pehoe and taking a catamaran back towards civilization.
Considering everything we’d been through with the weather, today was almost comically sunny, showing off the deep and contrasting colors of Patagonia.
After the catamaran we boarded the same Russian doll buses that took us back to the comforts of Puerto Natales, with hot showers and an incredibly understanding laundromat.
I’ve enjoyed some amazing meals in my life so far but salmon ceviche, greek salad, sun-dried tomato ravioli and steak & eggs that Stef & I split at a local restaurant had to have been one of the best, if not the most deserved.
Patagonia was incredible
We didn’t get to see all the postcard-perfect views but every bit of Patagonia was breathtakingly beautiful. There were countless times we fought the urge to unwrap our camera from its double-bagged Ziploc cocoon because we knew that there’d be an even more stunning view just a ridge away.
There were some very challenging days, but overall we left feeling empowered by some hard-earned distance on our shoes, grateful to have experienced such an amazing landscape and inspired to start researching other great hikes.
Tomorrow we leave the rain of Patagonia and head north to one of the highest, driest places on earth: the Atacama Desert.