A Patagonian love story

A Patagonian love story

A day or two before arriving in Patagonia I started looking at reviews of the “W” circuit hike that is one of the star attractions of the region. It’s a 70km hike with two 1km high viewpoints to reach, that we were planning to complete over 5 days (and 4 nights staying in well tended hostels, or refugios), so getting some advice from those before us seemed prudent at the least!

One review stood out to me: “Completing this trek was one of the best experiences of my life”, said Helen from Minnesota. As much as I do it myself, I do tend to roll my eyes at hyperbole — sure Torres del Paine is world-class beautiful, and I know how far people travel from around the world to walk the “W” and the “O” circuits, but… of a life?

A 3D render of our path through Torres del Paine from Google Earth.
This is the route we walked, from right to left. You can see why it's called the "W"! (I forgot to turn on the tracking for the first half hour of day 3!)

Well, my Minnesotan friend, how right you were! Not only was every moment of the hike eye-wateringly beautiful but also, at the practically divine peak of Mirador Base las Torres, Yvette proposed to me! “Adventure awaits, mi amor”, the engraving in the compass said, as the needle swung to point directly at her, “and I would love you to be part of all my adventures to come… Will you marry me?”

Any of you who’ve hung out with us will know there was only ever going to be one answer to that question, but saying “yes” in such a majestic space was even more a privilege and joy.

That first day was beautiful even before the summit — neither the spitting rain (nor Yvette’s nerves, it seems) could stop our ear-to-ear grins. The final rock-scramble to the top was definitely a tricky one (my IT-bands are still complaining), but that moment where the three towers rose above the eerie other-worldly terrain still glows within me.

Day 1, from left to right: Yvette at the river at Refugio Chileno; that same river coming down the valley towards the "Windy Pass"; the two of us looking very happy with ourselves as a newly engaged couple at the Mirador Base las Torres; one of the many waterfalls that refreshed us enough to make the hike; our surprisingly excellent dinner at Refugio Central.

With such a momentous first summit you might think that we barely noticed the rest of our 5 day hike, but Torres del Paine continued to show us its most beautiful side. The weather only improved and, on the second day alone, gave us bird-filled hikes along pebbly beaches, long (and very well maintained) rope and plank bridges across raging snowmelt rivers, and wonderful refugios (hostel refuges) filled with surprisingly good food, reasonably priced beer, and the most lovely hikers from around the globe. (We learned a great Israeli card game called “Yaniv”, taught to us by new Dutch friends — the kind of combination you’ll only get while backpacking!)

Days 2 & 3, from left to right: Yvette hiking the pleasantly wandering path to Refugio Cuernos; the beautiful glacial lakeside views nearing Refugio Cuernos; Yvette donning my 'marmalade' down jacket as we cool down (with a beer) post-hike at Cuernos; the rather unstable long and rocky downward route from Cuernos onwards; the two of us waving a fond good-riddance to Miradors Frances and Británico (on the right of the valley)

Day three was a little more challenging for me, especially after my mistake of not stretching down on day 1 with all the celebrations! The 1km high Mirador Británico (the British viewpoint, hilariously just a little higher up the path from the Mirador Frances) was rather daunting — that 1,042m climb, the rock-scrabble down, and the 8km onward hike put a very long day between us and our next refugio beer…

We made it most of the way to the Mirador Frances, but at the point my knees were causing stops every 5 minutes, Yvette—travelling on a French passport—proudly proclaimed that “this spot looks very French to me”, which was all the excuse I needed!

Days 4 & 5, from left to right: Post-hike beers at Refugio Paine Grande preparing for the final stages; fields of beautiful orchids hidden from the wind on the Western fork of the "W"; early morning near Refugio Grey, the two of us (and a tiny moon) on the chilly glacial beach at our North-most point; the unexpectedly hot final hike, we'd left as much baggage as possible at Paine Grande, time for improvised hats; finito! Cuernos spearing the sky behind Yvette, who grins at the thought of a celebratory beer hunt.

The journey to Refugio Grey, the last of our hiking pit-stops, was as beautiful as the refuge was comfortable. Whole hillsides of fuscia orchids, brazen Chimango Caracara and other wonderful wildlife preening just off the path, with the enormous glacier always poised at the end of the Lake Grey — it made the 30º sun and 65km/h winds enjoyable, not just worth tolerating!

The view from Mirador Grey out towards Refugio Grey and the glacier, which is part of a single 1,495km² icefield that spans most of Southern Chile and Argentina.

Wow, I’ve rambled on almost longer than our hike! Suffice to say that you should immediately plan your trip to Patagonia’s beautiful Torres del Paine, it’s the hike of a lifetime even if you don’t have a wonderful human craftily planning its next thrilling chapter.

Your new bride-and-groom-to-be!