Story & photos by Jim DeLillo
Can a 60-year old hike the Patagonian W-Circuit?
The short answer is yes. I did it. Let me tell you though, it was challenging. This circuit trip was beautiful, remote, and as difficult as a thru-hike.
I traveled twenty-four hours from the United State, I thought I could go no farther South in the world but I did. I continued on a plane for two more hours and then I rode in a van five hours back North. There is no direct route to the middle of nowhere. But, I am here, and it is worth it. To put it in perspective, I am only one and a half hours by air to Antarctica. Patagonia straddles Argentina and Chile. My destination is Torres Del Paine and Cerro Paine Grande, in the Cordillera Paine, a small mountain group in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia.
I spent my first night at Hotel Las Torres. Comfortable and clean, while not five stars by Michelin standards, it is an oasis of pseudo-luxury in this remote wilderness. From here on, I’ll carry what I need on my back. I am thankful for the two porters in my group that carry my excess. Their contribution to my comfort increases as they take more of my belongings as the trip wears on. It is a five-day hike, and we prepare for four seasons of weather. Thankfully the food is provided at each of the refugios and water is abundant along the trail. That means much less to carry.
The major considerations for me when hiking are heat, hydration, pack-weight, and pace. Usually in that order. Heat can suck the motivation and life-blood right out of me. Fortunately, the days were mild, if not somewhat cloudy and damp making it ideal hiking weather for me. Hydration was not a problem on this trek.
Pack-weight was mitigated by the use of porters. That only leaves pace. My guides and trail mates accommodated me with a couple of strategies. The first, of course, was to let me go at my pace. That required one guide to be my buddy while the others forged ahead. At times, one of the other hikers would straggle back, as well. I usually arrived about an hour behind the group. The other strategy was for me to start about an hour earlier. This was effective when we had a time constraint like a boat departure.
The terrain was relatively flat. I am used to hiking in the Catskills and Adirondacks at a similar elevation. The profile was much gentler as we circumnavigated the higher slopes. In the instances where the grade or elevation increased significantly to the higher lookouts I opted to stay behind. Not due to the absolute distance or elevation gain, but because of my slower pace, and the round-trip timing. Since it was partially cloudy I did not miss much of the view and I still got to see and hear the small avalanches off the sides slopes of the mountains.
The W-Circuit is so named because of the shape it transcribes around the base of Paine Grande. We arrived in the shadows of Los Cuernos "The Horns" for dinner. A pair of multi-colored spires dominated the vertical view. The refugio here had a series of individual cabins situated on the lower slopes. Each cabin had two beds and a very efficient wood stove, which came in handy.
Dinners were always hearty and started with crudités, salami, and cheese, with mandatory Pisco Sours. Pisco is the native colorless or yellowish-to-amber colored brandy produced by distilling grape wine into high-proof spirits. An after-dinner dip in the hot tub eased my sore muscles. I slept comfortably in the wood-stove heated cabin.
I was up at dawn capturing photos of the fleeting alpenglow on Los Cuernos. All along we were treated to views of lakes and glaciers, and of course, the Paine Massif itself; as we meandered, serpentine around its base. Waterfalls and constant streams dripping off the glacial slopes provided abundant clear, clean water for drinking. Refilling our Nalgene bottles at will kept us well-hydrated throughout the journey.
We were comfortably ensconced indoors against the chilly nights. The refugios hosted 4-person bunk rooms, but since we were there early in the season, we slept one or two to a room.
A special treat was added to our trip...kayaking around the base of Glacier Grey. Slipping into a kayak is relatively easy, getting out, not so much. We pushed off in tandem kayaks into Lago Grey. Within minutes, we were gliding right up to the cobalt blue icebergs. A soft swish-swish accompanied out paddling as we headed for the base of the glacier. As we neared, the guide shouted warnings to keep our distance. With our paddling stopped, we could hear the creaking and groaning of the massive ice filed. All of a sudden we heard a loud crash. We turned to look just in time to see a small explosion of ice and water at the far edge of the glacier. Close enough to get the adrenaline going, far enough away to be safe. We never even got to feel the wave it produced.
Our return journey started with a ferry boat reached by Zodiac. The captain expertly guided the boat in and around icebergs, close enough to touch...which we did. Much to the delight of kids and adults alike. The shapes were other-worldly, the color surreal, and the fog along the coastline separated us even more from reality.
As we moved down the lake, the skies cleared and we welcomed the views of the mountain again. Our guides pointed out wild cows impossibly grazing on the steep slopes. After another short hike and a van ride we were back Hotel Las Torres.
Fifty miles and five days later I was well exhausted but the trip was too short.
Map of the W-Circuit – We started and ended at Hotel Las Torres.
My tour was arranged Fantastico Sur
If you go…
Reservations: firstname.lastname@example.org / W trek Programs: email@example.com
US Departure to Santiago, Chile LAN Airlines
Estimated RT airfare from NY is approximate $1,000
Spend a night in Puerto Varas
Transfer from Santiago, Chile to Puerto Natales, Chile
Can be arranged through Fantastico Sur on LAN Airlines
Fantastico Sur Programs
Option 1: SELF – GUIDED Program (Without Guide), Without Meals
Option 2: SELF – GUIDED Program (Without Guide), MEALS Included
Option 3: GUIDED Program, MEALS Included
Total length of the circuit: 5 days / 4 nights.
Total Distance: 71 Km.