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Nine lessons learned from trekking the ‘W’ circuit in Torres del Paine

Posted by on December 21, 2011
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Of all the places we wanted to visit on this trip, Patagonia was the one place with the most vague itinerary. We knew we wanted to go, but to do what, when and for how long were all questions marks.

But Torres del Paine, the 242,242 hectare-size national park near Puerto Natales, Chile was a destination that constantly popped up in backpacker conversations. After Google-imaging the heck out of the place, we were convinced we had to go there, too. Turquoise-colored lakes, snow-capped mountains, brilliantly vivid wild flowers…yes please!

(Our own pics:)

But how exactly to attack this park was the question. There aren’t really guided tours, so camping (and carrying all your equipment) was the only way to do it. Since we had no camping skills — save for my trip to the Outback when someone else set up my tent and Eaman’s trip to Wisconsin when he didn’t pack enough warm clothes — we thought a few day trips would suffice…until we were told the park was two hours from Puerto Natales and doesn’t suit day trips. Then we thought, OK, we’ll do a few days but stay in refugios (rustic hostels) along the way…until we found out they’d be almost $100/night each. Later we thought maybe one night of camping to get a feel for it… until we talked to the guys working at our hostel.

They mapped out the famous ‘W’ trek as if there were no other option. It would be more than 80 km of hiking, camping every night and fending for ourselves without a guide.

It’s funny because there was never a moment when Eaman and I thought, “Hmm, should we do this?” We just went for it. And that’s how we ended up going on a five day/four day trek through Torres del Paine.

The path we took is certainly well worn, but even though you see other hikers, you’re often on your own. Its course takes the shape of — you guessed it — a ‘W’, with uphill, downhill, rocky terrain and magnificent scenery. But this trip was about way more than a series of beautiful paths.
This was a full-on camping trip (with rented equipment).

The days weren’t over until we pitched our tent, cooked our food, cleaned our pots, got water from the stream for the next day and hung our food so mice couldn’t get to it. This was the real deal.

Our home for four nights:

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I would think that means a lot considering I’ve run two marathons as well. There were times I felt stronger than a bear, times when I wanted to cry and times when I wondered why the heck I signed up for this damn thing. It taught me a lot about myself and a lot about life. Here, nine lessons I picked up during our five days of fun:

1. I will never, ever, in a millions years be OK with going to the bathroom outside or having dirt under my fingernails. Call me a priss, but both so fully and completely gross me out. Yes, I had to go to the bathroom in the wilderness during this trek, but I’m trying to block it out of my memory. As for the fingernails, it’s just a pet peeve.

2. Camping is the ultimate relationship test. I think all couples should go on a trek like this before committing for the long haul. Most of the time, we were practically giddy thinking of how happy we were to do this together. But there were times — like when we got lost for two hours or when we had to pack up our tent in the freezing rain — that really tested our patience and involved long portions of hiking without speaking to each other. And to top it off, you see your mate at his/her dirtiest and shabbiest while camping. No hiding. Lucky for us, we passed the test.

Beginning of the trek:

End of the trek, still happy:

3. Anger is the best motivation. On day 3, when we got lost for that aforementioned two hours, we were angry. We felt stupid and frustrated for losing our way and wanted redemption. So on day 4, we completed an 8-hour portion of the course in 6 hours. We were beasts on those uphills!

4. A piece of chocolate goes a long way. Chocolate, or any treat for that matter, should be a mandatory part of your packing list. It gives you that extra boost when you’re feeling low and energy-zapped. I think the chocolate donuts — they’re like candy, not real donuts — we purchased at the Los Cuernos campsite played a small part in the speediness of day 4.

5. I don’t love camping. I feel like people automatically write you off as a wuss for a statement like that, but that’s not fair. You can’t be built for everything in life, right? This trip has been a good way to figure out exactly what makes me tick. What I now know is I don’t hate camping; it’s just not my kind of thing. I have a huge problem with germs, I detest spiders, and I hate the idea of finishing a good workout only to fill myself up with sodium-filled instant pasta. And in the case of hiking the W, I was so cold at night in the tent, I wanted to cry. That being said, camping does make you appreciate little things like hot showers and good food. But just so we’re clear, I love hiking. I could hike for 8, 9, maybe 10 hours a day and be fulfilled. I’d just like to come home, shower and eat a healthy meal after. (FYI Eaman took to camping much better than me and really likes it.)

6. Always prepare for rain. Before the trek, a rental shop worker told me the weather would be beautiful and not to bother renting waterproof pants. I trusted him. Why would he lie if he could’ve made a quick buck? Well, it rained the last day and that hike uphill in my yoga pants to the final viewpoint of the torres (towers) was pretty miserable. Lucky for me, I was still half-asleep at that early morning hour that it didn’t hit me that much.

7. Bring ankle boots for a strenuous hike like this. In our low-cut hiking shoes, our poor ankles were going every which way. It slowed us down quite a bit on the slippery downhills.

8. Walking sticks are a godsend. Not only did they alleviate stress on our joints and help us maintan a rhythm, they also gave us a nice upper body workout. Get two; they’re a must!

9. It’s really refreshing not to look at yourself in the mirror for a few days. I had no idea what a mess I was and the only way I had the slightest clue of my personal filth was thanks to a facial wipe I used on day 3… and it wasn’t pretty. But who cared? All us campers were dirty, but in a way, it was a badge of pride.

Check out a few more snaps from the hike:

Someone’s funny work:

You can refill your Nalgene straight from the stream:

I will never eat ramen noodles or instant pasta again:

Breaking to take off our hiking shoes and stretch our feet was a highlight:

The color of the water, totally un-Photoshopped here, was more blue than the waters of the Caribbean:

Drinking mate on day 4 when we got to our campsite early:

We hoped to get up in time to catch the sunrise at the towers on day 5 — a one hour hike uphill from our campsite — but clouds and rain made an early wakeup call pointless since we wouldn’t be able to see the towers. Instead, we got up a little later (at 5:30 am) and saw whatever we could. Sure, it was hailing, snowing and raining in every direction, and we couldn’t see the top of the towers, but we caught an incredible double rainbow. Very Skittles-esque.

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31 Responses to Nine lessons learned from trekking the ‘W’ circuit in Torres del Paine

  1. Shy

    Ok call me the biggest sap in the world, but your pictures were so beautiful it practically made me tear (Ahh! Too much emotion for 10 am!!). Love this post and how real you were about it…and man, this place seems surreal!!

    • Eaman & Archana

      Aww, Shy, you’re so sweet. The scenery was breathtaking. Pretty sure TDP is the most beautiful place i’ve ever been!

  2. Ashish

    number 2 is hilarious!

  3. Afsoon

    AMAZING!!!!!! I’m so proud of you guys!!

    • Eaman & Archana

      Thanks, Afsoon! It was such a challenge. It sort of feels like a weird dream looking back at the pics!

  4. Pratt

    Gorgeous pics!!! Sounds like camping was an amazing adventure! Sending big hugs and lots of love to you both! <3

  5. Craig

    Now hold on a second. Such a well crafted critique of the camping experience that is so one-sided can not go unchallenged! As someone who loves camping and who has spent months at a time backpacking and living in a tent, I think some of your points need a little further discussion. Specifically…

    1. Outdoor bathrooms are the greatest! Granted I am a boy and that makes number 1 much easier, but even for number 2, there is nothing quite like that search for the perfect soft leaf or river rock that has been worn smooth to make the wipe so enjoyable! In the right parts of the world, the right type of pine cones can even be a delight to use. If my local neighborhood watch wasn’t so attentive, I would be practicing this art here at home on a regular basis. Think of all the water I would be saving!

    2. Camping is a good relationship test, but shopping at the mall is the ULTIMATE relationship test. Getting lost on a hiking trail is nothing compared to getting lost inside one of those big, scary department stores that seem to have no exits and where the only section that he seems to be able to find is the big screen TV department while she decides it is important to try on every color and every size of every dress at the store. And all the while, you have to smell all that perfume that the cosmetic ladies are spraying everywhere! Give me the solitude and fresh air of the hiking trail any day!

    3. Nice job! 8 hours of hiking done in 6 hours! Next time we go shopping I will try to take care of things so efficiently like that!

    4. Yes. Mmmm, chocolate! Other trail treats that you should investigate include freeze dried ice cream and Tang. Both were developed by NASA for astronauts! The ice cream was to eat and the Tang was so they could drink their urine in order to conserve precious water. Delicious.

    5. Germs? Spiders? Cold? Hunger? What is not to love here?

    6 through 8. Right on! Sounds like you learned a lot and are ready to do a longer trip next time.

    9. Isn’t it great to not care what a mess you were for those days when you didn’t look in a mirror? And with that beautiful Caribbean blue water, why didn’t you just dive in for a swim and a bath? The Caribbean is warm, so I am sure you would have been comfortable in that water. Besides, if it was too cold, you could have just kept your mittens on!

    Hope Pratt and I can join you on your next trek! What if we all took 6 weeks to hike the John Muir Trail together? Nice pine cones around there.

    • Eaman & Archana

      Valid points on all. Nicely done, Craig. Regarding the bathroom situation, I find #2 easier to do than #1, but now you’ve got me thinking about that awful memory and I’m trying to block it out!! As far as John Muir, it’s on. Or, let’s find a similar trek in Hawaii. Easy peasy, right?

  6. Raj

    You guys did it !!!! We are proud of you !!!!.The pictures are amazing.!!!!!!!!

  7. Adam Tuttle

    Great post! cool pics!

  8. Mina

    Hello Eaman and Archana joon I love all the pictures they are just beautifull you two are brave I am proud of you I enjoyed reading about your camping it was like I was there nice job Archana joon take care of each other have fun. By the way I don’t like camping too.

  9. avni

    LOVE the pictures, and LOVE those hats. gimme. stay safe. email is coming. love / miss.

  10. Jini

    Somehow I missed this one. I think THIS is my favorite post, even though it makes me feel every ounce of the office drone I am..

    This is so impressive, Arch. I’ve never gone camping and don’t know if I ever will; you are far more adventuresome than me. I’m with you on hiking (at least in theory; I’ve never done an 8-hour hike, but I do like it in general).

    Congrats on a successful trip, and continued good wishes for the travels ahead! See you very soon, whee!

    • Eaman & Archana

      Thanks! It was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. So hard to get through, but the payoff was amazing.

      Looking forward to telling you more in person SOON!!

  11. Bethany ~ twoOregonians

    Well done! You two rock for making it through the journey with smiling faces at the end : ) I’ve been dreaming of Patagonia for a long time, and I’m a little anxious about how our plans will pan out. I’ve felt the same way: it’s remained vague on the itinerary, but it’s a top destination. We’ll see how the two of us end up deciding to visit the parks and spend our time… Thanks so much for sharing your story and pictures. I thoroughly enjoyed them : )

    • Eaman & Archana

      Thank you! I was probably smiling at the end because I knew a hot shower and bed were awaiting me :)

  12. Marian D.

    First of all, I’m a huge compassion and love for everyone person. Having said that, I’m beyond happy for you that you discovered you hate camping. I did the circuit in Late January just as it all opened again after the fire- all 65 miles in 6 nights carrying my house and food ALONE. I was the oldest person on the trail ( 57)and did this because my last three experiences – 5 days IN the grand canyon, 5 days in the maze district of Utah and a bike trip down the coast of California with camp hardy acquaintances were marred by not knowing the subtle MUST HAVES of life for my companions. Therefore my wonderful mirror neurons were entertained with whines and frowns and irritations that marred my pristine opportunity to just experience it without judgment of mother nature’s demands on us from camp pal. I had none of that traveling alone in Torres. I froze, I got lost and was found wandering a boulder field by a world class climber, mosquitos ate me alive near Campo Dickson, I got soaked without rain pants and had to wait out a storm while watching condors. Left a gold bracelet for love at the top of the Gardner pass souvenir cairn in deep gratitude for Mother Nature’s whimsy and wildness. I LOVE having dirt under my nails and didn’t comb my hair for an entire week. I hiked way past the marked trail high above the tree line and loved the terror of the wind knocking me off my feet and having to slide down the mountain to safety. As far as #1 and #2 in the wild go. uh, it’s just nature, we make pee and poop and can learn from cats in the wild. i don’t get it?-actually I do, people are just different and we’re wired differently and should all follow our bliss. BTW: There are 295 bacteria for every cool square inch of toilet. 25% of computer keyboards are health hazards and there are over 200,000 microbes on paper money. Can’t imagine what the outback stats are. Please don’t tell me! Viva the camping experience! Thanks for the beautiful pictures and heart felt confession. All the best to you and your lovely friend.

    • Archana

      Wow, Marian! You’ve done some amazing treks. And I have so much respect for you for doing TDP on your own. Not sure I could’ve survived it by myself! Thanks for reading :)

  13. Jeffrey


    Found your post when checking out W treks (organized). As a veteran of many nights of camping, now subscribe to the mantra that days of continual hiking and camping don’t necessarily make for a good combination. I am now a convert to the refugio concept…hike all day,then a hot shower and cooked meal is the way to go. And if you are in the Alps, within minutes of taking off your pack, a cold beer or glass of wine awaits. Not a shabby way to go. There is something like this in South America but it appears to be a more costly option.

    We New Yorkers aren’t well known for wilderness adventures. As you probably experienced, roughing it is a small studio with a mattress on the floor and 8 blocks from a local stop; trekking is walking from East Side to West instead of crawling through traffic on a cross town bus. And for that reason alone, REI opened a big store in SOHO. Great post and I look forward to hearing about your next adventure

    • Archana

      Good to know I have a fellow hiker-lover, camp-disliker in you Jeffrey. I agree that most New Yorkers aren’t hard-wired for wilderness adventures. And even though we’re living in California now, I still haven’t really warmed up to the idea! If we had the funds, I think we would’ve tried the refugios in South America. That said, we did have a pretty cool, raw experience. Thanks for reading!

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