Everyone knows about 'The W' in Torres del Paine. Then thereâ€™s the full Circuit. Starting with The W, then around the backside to Refugio Dickson, up and down over the John Gardner Pass, and back down to Campamento Grey. Fewer folks do The Circuit compared to The W, but for those who do, a feeling of accomplishment is undeniable. It takes 7-10 days (depending on the pace and drive) and circumnavigates the park beautifully. But there is more. There is what is consider to be, by far, the way to claim full bragging rights in Torres del Paine. More than The W. More than the circuit. Ladies and gentlemen, may we present to you â€˜The Q.â€™
Day 1: Leaving from Puerto Natales in the morning, take whatever transportation youâ€™ve arranged to the Administration Center at the south end of the Park. This is where your adventure begins. The Park stretches in front of you like a vast dream. By starting your hike here, you truly feel like youâ€™re walking to Torres del Paine, and not being â€˜shuttledâ€™ in with the masses. (This part of the trek is not quite as impressive if you do it on the way out, because the views lay behind you.) Most trekkers access the park from the Las Torres area and take the catamaran across Lago PehoÃ©. If you take public transportation, you will probably arrive around 1 p.m. Check out the visitorâ€™s center at Administration. At this point, your pack will be at its heaviest, day one of what might be a 10 day trip. Trek for two hours and make camp at the free campsite, Las Carrettas.
Day 2: Starting much earlier than the day before, trek up toward Lago PehoÃ©, approximately four hours, then push on another two hours to the free campsite, Campamento Italiano at the mouth of spectacular Valle Frances.
Day 3: This morning, leave the tent, extra food, sleeping bag and mat behind. Luckily everything is pretty safe in the park, and in general there is no crime in the park, so even though there are no lockers or a place to chain your stuff up, don't worry too much about it. Everyone does it this way, and guides try to promote an 'atmosphere of trust' in the park. Load your backpack with some food, rain gear, camera, and just a few basics, and head up into Valle Frances without all the extra weight. Itâ€™s a steep hike, so traveling light is nice. The valley offers natural lookouts, so even if you donâ€™t make it to the very end of the valley, you will understand what all the hype is about. Keep an eye on the time and head down to the camp again by around 4 p.m. Then pack up your camp and move on to Refugio Los Cuernos. This is good spot to spend night three.
Day 4: Today, haul your loaded pack all the way around and up to the free campsite Las Torres. This will be a long day, approximately 7-9 hours, depending on how fast you walk and how many times you stop. The signs will direct you to Refugio Chileno, but if you hike one hour further, the Las Torres campsite is free, though Chileno is a beautiful spot and itâ€™s tempting to call it a day and camp there. But the following morning youâ€™ll want to wake before dawn to try to see the towers in their breathtaking, red morning glow. The early morning trek to the lookout takes at least 45 minutes from Campamento Las Torres, or an hour and 45 minutes from Chileno, though it can take over two hours if you're trying to get there in the pre-dawn darkness.
Day 5: Wake up this morning around 4:30 a.m. No matter what time of year it is, it's going to be extremely chilly at this hour. Most people wrap themselves up in hats and jackets before heading up the dark trail to the outlook. It only takes minutes before their body tempature shoots through the roof and they start to sweat like true athletes. By the time they get to the mirador, they are a sweaty mess, the body cools down, the wind hits them, and they start to get really cold. They snap a photo or two, then have to head back down to camp to get warm again. This is not the idea. You need to anticipate this problem and hike up the trail without tons of clothes on. On this morning, leave your camp behind. Only bring your packs loaded with the coats youâ€™re not wearing, your sleeping mat, sleeping bag, and breakfast stuff. When you reach the top, all of your sweat will have evaporated. Throw on your warm clothes, put down your sleeping mats (so you donâ€™t have to sit on an ice cold rock), and even crawl into your sleeping bags, to truly enjoy the Towers at dawn, warm and toasty. To top it all off, fire up your stoves and make your morning coffee. Thereâ€™s no better way to enjoy this area. After a couple of hours (long after everyone else has bailed due to cold), you have soaked it all in, and you head back to camp. Pack up and have a nice, downhill trek to the campsite next to Refugio Las Torres. Youâ€™ll arrive to the campsite around 1 p.m. Itâ€™ll seem like there is plenty of time to continue on, but remember you woke that morning at 4:30 a.m. Itâ€™s already been a long day. You close the book on the â€˜W,â€™ repack, reassess, maybe buy some things from the little store near HosterÃa Las Torres to stock up for the back circuit, and call it a day. This is a paid camping area and costs 3.500 Chilean pesos per person.
Day 6: Today, you start the back circuit, ideally early and refreshed, as you have an 8-10 hour trek to Refugio Dickson. When looking at a map, it seems like a huge distance, but the terrain is milder then the â€˜Wâ€™, making it easier to cover a lot of ground fast.
Day 7: Today, you progress to Campamento Perros. There is no refugio here, but you still have to pay for camping. It seems like a short day and people tend to think that they could push on further, though it's not suggested. However, a man once ran the entire â€˜Wâ€™and circuit in 18 hours, so anything is possible. But as a general rule, stopping at Perros for night is the way to go.
Day 8: This is the day of The Pass. The hardest thing about the John Gardner Pass is the wind. The terrain is manageable, and the view from the pass is unmatched. The view of Glacier Grey (and the Patagonian Ice Field on a clear day) is one of the most amazing moments youâ€™ll experience in Patagonia, hands down. When you head down the pass, youâ€™ll have to decide where to camp. There are two free campsite after coming down off the pass. Staying at the the beautiful and free Campamento Guardes is a nice way to shorten the day, and it offers more views of the glacier from above.
Day 9: This could be your final day in the Park. If you hurry, you can make it to the mid-day catamaran at 12:30 p.m. If you just want to enjoy the final day at an easier pace, thereâ€™s a boat at 6:30 p.m. or you can choose to camp a final night. But in either case, you just completed the full â€˜Qâ€™! Congratulations, you are officially on a very small list of Qâ€™ers, and you just earned some serious bragging rights.
If you werenâ€™t an experienced trekker before, you will be experienced when you get out. Baptism by fire, Patagonia style.
*Reprinted with permission from Black Sheep Patagonia