Hiking the W Trek at the start of winter in Patagonia

Trekking season in Torres del Paine runs from October to April. At the start of May in 2018 we began the W Trek independently, when staff from the park lodges were heading home for winter.

On the bus ride to Torres del Paine, Mark was sound asleep next to me as I watched snow slamming into the bus window. With fingers crossed I sat and hoped for the best that the weather prediction was correct, and snow would stop and the sun would shine after 9am.

Day 1 – Bus from Puerto Natales to Paine Grande, Hike to Refugio Grey (11km)

We eat breakfast at the hostel and get picked up by a taxi at 7:15am to drive to the bus station. The bus leaves the terminal at 7:30am, and it starts snowing just as we leave Puerto Natales.

At the first stop we pay the park entry fee, fill out a form and get a copy of the park map. On our way to Pudeto, the bus stops at a lookout across from Cuernos campsite where we are almost knocked over by the wind.

A bit windy on our way to start the hike

To start the hike at Glacier Grey, we get off the bus at the second stop (Pudeto) to catch the catamaran.

Snow is still falling as we make our way to the boat. We catch the 11am catamaran for a 30 minute trip, which is eerily quiet onboard – everyone seems to be deep in thought about what lies ahead.

Boarding the catamaran at Lago Pehoe

When we arrive at Paine Grande we start the hike up to Glacier Grey, an 11km hike which we’re told should take approximately 3-4 hours with about 200m elevation gain. The first time we strap up our 15-20kg packs, we look at each other with dread – what have we done?!

That first few kilometres we’re quiet, barely saying a word. The wind is whipping us and cold rain pelts down on our wet weather gear.

We find the least windy spot possible to sit down for lunch and eat a very satisfying sandwich with salami, a squeeze of not mayo (great sauce option that doesn’t need refrigerating) and slice of cheese.

We continue hiking and stop at a lookout just 5km from Paine Grande, where we literally lean into the wind. We’re feeling more positive now, making jokes and singing songs as we make our way to the first campsite.

We descend a rocky path beside a stream that leads to a flat winding pathway beside Lago Grey.

We reach Refugio Grey at 5pm and begin setting up our tent in a large clearing, which I imagine is packed during trekking season. The cooking area is thankfully still open on the final night of hiking season, so we take refuge inside to boil water for a hot chocolate where we meet other hikers who have chosen to enter the park at this time of year.

Camping at Refugio Grey

For dinner we eat chicken powdered soup and rice, and sip on ginger and honey tea before going to bed. We leave our backpacks inside the Refugio Grey eating area and keep absolutely nothing with us inside the tent to prevent mice from trying to get inside – which we’re told by a group of hikers is very common on the W Trek.

Day 2 – Hike from Grey Campsite to Italiano Ranger Station (18km)

On day two of the W Trek we know we have a lot of hiking ahead – 18km to hike from Grey Campsite to Italiano Ranger Station. 

Our alarm goes off at 7am and we go inside the Refugio to eat breakfast. Our new Canadian friends tell us about the Huemul circuit in El Chalten which has climbing and rope traverses.

After breakfast we take a quick walk without our packs to the Glacier Grey lookout (just 850m from camp). It is cold, quiet and not a lick of wind can be felt  – the total opposite to what we’d experienced on day one.

Glacier Gray in the morning.
The Patagonian ice shelf is the third largest frozen body of fresh water in the world.

Before leaving Puerto Natales, Guillermo from Rental Natales recommended we hike part of the way to Camp Paso (part of the O Trek) to see a large suspension bridge, but we choose not to. We return to camp and start the hike back to Paine Grande.

We see a large bushy tailed fox as we repack our bags, and we’re feeling glad we didn’t keep any food in the tent overnight. As the shape of the W Trek suggests, on day two you backtrack the hike you did on day one, but this time we’re able to take it all in with better weather than the day before.

We reach Grande at 3:00pm and stop to eat lunch. We leave at 4pm for the (supposed) 2.5hr, 7.6km hike to Italiano campsite… Which takes us a little longer than expected.

Hiking from Grey Campsite to Italiano

The walk to Italiano winds past a beautiful, still, reflective lake.

Stunning scenery as we walk to Italiano.

In late Autumn/early winter the trees are yellow, red and orange. On the hike to Italiano there are lots of board-walks and the trail is much smoother than walking from Grey to Grande.

We watch as the last light of day slips off the Paine horns and finally reach Italiano at 7:00pm.

For dinner we cook asparagus soup and rice. We rig up a complex mouse-proof contraption for the food bag, which leaves our backpacks hanging from overhead in a sheltered hut.

That night we hear avalanches tumbling down the Frances Valley.

Day 3 – Hike from Italiano Ranger Station to Los Cuernos (10km)

On day three we are hiking from Italiano Ranger Station to Los Cuernos (10km).

We wake up at 7am to see our bags still dangling from the tree. Inside the hut we find our food bag has a tiny hole in the bottom of it, where a mouse has climbed down the wire and into the bag, exiting out the bottom. Thankfully, none of the food inside the bag been infiltrated by vermin.

We start hiking to Britanico lookout up in the Frances Valley at 9:30am without our packs. On the way we see avalanches tumble down Cerro Trono Blanco (2,197m). We reach the lookout at 11:30am where we stop for morning tea.

A rock scramble up the Frances Valley track.

We get back to camp at 1pm and eat lunch, then start the hike to Cuernos Campsite which is only 5km away, and should take just two hours (according to the internet).

We stop to rest on the rocky shore of the lake before getting to Cuernos. On the next stretch of the hike we skate over frozen water along the path, relying heavily on our trekking poles to make sure we don’t fall over.

After 3 hours of hiking we reach Cuernos just after 6pm. As we find our wooden platform to set up camp, in the distance on the lake I can see a boat leaving Cuernos, probably taking the park staff back home for the season. We’re well and truly alone now.

We cook dinner on the platform where our tent is set up, and watch with our head torches as mice scurry around us.

Eating our delicious meal of rice and soup at Cuernos.

Day 4 – Hike from Los Cuernos to Central (19km)

We get up up at 7:30am to a little bit of rain and lots of cloud cover, but the clouds mean it isn’t as cold. After breakfast, we leave camp around 9am and fill our water bottles in the stream (we use water purifying tablets).

When we stop for a rest and some sultanas, we see condors flying above us.

We saw condors as we sat here for a quick rest.

At midday we stop for lunch near a river after hiking 6km, leaving just 5.3km to go until we reached Las Torres.

Stopping for lunch on the way to Las Torres.

Rainfall means we had to navigate a few muddy sections across fallen trees carefully placed by hikers before us.

Heavy rain struck on day 4.

We make it to Las Torres hotel at 3pm, and continue to the Central campsite where we find a platform to set up our tent.

Eating dinner under the shelter of the bathroom, it’s corn soup and rice on the menu.

I see some mouse poop, and go on a hunt through our tent to make sure it isn’t trying to snag a free nights accommodation.

Day 5 – Hike from Central to the base of Torres del Paine (22km-return)

On the final day, we leave our large packs and camping gear behind at Central for the hike to the base of Torres del Paine (22km-return).

We have to be back in time to catch our pre-booked transfer back to Puerto Natales at the pre-arranged time of 5pm.

We leave the tent at Central and start the 9.7km walk to the towers at 9:15am. After hiking just one hour it starts snowing.

We stop to read about Florence Dixie, who was the first tourist in Patagonia and named the Towers “Cleopatra’s Needles”.

After a soggy hike through the trees, we begin to scramble up rocks, slipping on frozen rivers, navigating the path until we suddenly reach compact, slippery snow.

That final trail to the lake is treacherous, and I make the wise decision to turn around and not chance it.

We get back to Central at 3:45pm, pack up for the last time and quickly boil up some water for a hot chocolate.

We walk to the welcome centre in time for our 5pm transfer. As we’re walking a van drives past with the tour company, W Circuito, on it. The instinctively driver pulls over for us (we’re the only other people in the park) and we hop in. The other hikers in the van tell us they had fallen over on the ice while on the final approach to Mirrador las Torres, including the tour guide.

We get back to Puerto Natales at 7pm and drop our rental gear to Rental Natales before having a celebratory dinner at Metista Grande.

Trip notes

  • We hired our tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats and gloves for the 5 day/4 night W Trek from Rental Natales, and received plenty of helpful advice from Guillermo while we were there
  • We pre-booked our bus to Torres del Paine via Bus Gomez
  • The park entry fee was $21,000CLP
  • The catamaran to Paine Grande cost us $18,000CLP per person one way – we had to book one way because it’s the end of the season
  • We pre-booked our transfer back to Puerto Natales through W Circuito, a trekking company we found while walking around town. They were willing to set up an agreed time (of 5pm) to leave room for us in the van back to town.
  • When we stayed at Vinnhaus back in 2018 it was a hostel, but judging by their website it is now a boutique hotel. I can’t personally recommend any other hostels because we didn’t see many other travellers while we were there at the start of winter. Search HostelWorld for accommodation with good reviews.

All prices are based on our trip in 2018. This post contains some affiliate links.

Any questions or need help booking your trip? Drop a comment below! I’d be happy to help.

February 13, 2024

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