The worst part about sleeping in dorm rooms? All the snoring. In a six-person dorm you’re almost guaranteed to have at least two heavy snorers. And I didn’t pack ear plugs. By the time morning rolled around I was usually very eager to hit the trail.
The next leg of the W trek would be a long one. My day started with a two-hour hike to Campamento Italiano, where I temporarily stashed my big pack to lighten my load for the five-hour round trip to Mirador Britanico, the top-middle point of the W.
On my way back through Campamento Italiano I retrieved my pack and continued another hour or so to Domos Frances, the refugio I’d booked for the night. I was seriously beat from the long hike, but what incredible views.
At Domo Frances the young front desk guy, Matthias, continually sang along to dated pop songs playing from an equally dated stereo system. “You know this song?” Matthias asked as I sat down at dinner.
“Nope, sorry,” I said, shaking my head.
Matthias looked confused and disappointed. “It’s by Simply Red,” he said solemnly. “I’m surprised you don’t know it. It’s very popular in your country.”
The next morning my feet and back protested when I shouldered my pack, but all things considered I was holding up OK. About six more hours of hiking took me to Refugio Torre Central, where I’d spend my final two nights in the park. Just before getting to Torre Central I passed Hosteria Las Torres, bringing back happy memories from my previous visit.
Torre Central was as nice a refugio as Paine Grande, with the added bonus of having a view of the very tops of the Torres del Paine, the steep granite pillars that give the park its name. That night at dinner the refugio staff dressed up in costumes and face paint, reminding me that it was Halloween.
To complete the W trek I had only one more hike, to Mirador Las Torres, right at the base of the towers. I’d already been to the mirador once before, five years ago, in the middle of the day. This time I wanted to be there for sunrise, when – if the weather is just right – the first light hitting the tops of the towers is magical. But it’s a big “if.” The weather forecast called for cloudy skies the next morning, with a chance of being clearer the following day.
So I had a decision to make. Go the next morning or wait a day? Getting to the mirador from Torre Central would take about four hours of uphill hiking, which meant that to arrive before dawn I’d need to leave the comfort of my warm hotel room at 2am and venture out alone into the cold, windy darkness. It wasn’t something I wanted to do twice.
It was a tough call, but ultimately I couldn’t make myself wait. Patagonian weather is notoriously difficult to predict, and it was easy to imagine looking out the lodge window at sunrise the next morning only to see perfect light hitting the peaks. Mostly though I was just eager to get up there. So I set my alarm for 1:45am, warned the others in my dorm room that I’d be sneaking out in the middle of the night, and tried to fall asleep as early as possible.
Anxious about the hike, I slept poorly and woke up a few minutes before my alarm went off. As quietly as possible I gathered up my gear and headed out. It wasn’t as cold as I expected, and my headlamp made it easy to see the trail. But it was an eerie feeling to be walking alone in the middle of the night. The bulk of the Paine massif loomed as a dark presence next to me.
I studied the sky for clues to the upcoming sunrise. There were lots of clouds, but the stars shone through brightly in a few areas. It looked like there might be some openings on the eastern horizon.
At about 3:15am I reached Refugio Chileno, the only shelter in the area. All the lights were off and nothing stirred. Taking a quick break, I sat outside on a bench next to the main dining hall and grabbed a drink from my backpack. A few minutes later I thought I heard something, and as I turned to look the beam of my headlamp caught a strange object darting out from behind the corner of the building. It was pale orange with little pointed bumps, almost like a conch shell. What the hell?
Startled, I stood up warily and moved so I could see around the corner. Crouching against the other side of the wall were five young Chileans who suddenly burst out laughing. It was the refugio staff – all of them about college-aged – still up celebrating Halloween. One of them was wearing a horned monster mask, and they’d done their best to give me a Halloween heart attack.
“We scare you!” yelled the closest one when he finally stopped laughing.
“You really did!” I agreed, launching the group into another round of laughter.
Once they settled down they were thoughtful enough to ask if I wanted to warm up inside with a cup of coffee, but I worried that if I got comfortable it would be tough to start back up. So I congratulated the group again and moved on. “Did that really just happen?” I wondered.
I arrived at Mirador Las Torres well before sunrise. Frigid air blew relentlessly, and I took shelter behind a bus-sized boulder as I waited for dawn. As early as I’d arrived – too early – other hikers started showing up five minutes later.
Conditions didn’t look good. The tops of the towers vanished into low clouds, and the eastern horizon was almost completely blocked. Frustrating! Sunrise came and went with just one small break in the gray. For a few brief minutes a delicate beam of early morning light slipped past the clouds and struck the massive rock wall just to the right of the towers. It was a very cool sight in person but didn’t make for much of a photo.
I wasn’t sure if it was snowing or if the wind was just blowing already-fallen snow back into the air. At one point a particularly strong gust knocked over my tripod and sent my camera crashing into the rocks. Thankfully the lens hood – which cracked – took the brunt of the impact. The camera and lens survived. I wasn’t as lucky later, however, when a section of my tripod spun off and blew completely away. Patagonia is tough on gear.
Shivering from the ruthless wind and losing hope of any more sunlight, I turned around and hiked back to Torre Central. It felt great to complete the W, and I remembered my vow to Mother Nature that if I had good sunrise light for Los Cuernos I wouldn’t complain about the weather the rest of my time in the park. Still, I couldn’t shake my disappointment at being washed out that morning.
It raised a new dilemma. Should I try again tomorrow? The forecast for the next morning was more optimistic, and – while my feet, legs and back were all sore and suffering from a variety of minor ailments – there was nothing physical that would prevent me from going again. Cate, an American soon-to-be law student I kept crossing paths with on the trail, tried to talk some sense into me. “You’re going again, right?”
But the prospect of waking up crazy early to climb uphill in the dark again was daunting. That night I had a whole dorm room to myself for the first time, which raised the tantalizing possibility of eight hours of snore-less sleep. The kicker, though, was the thought of dragging myself all the way back up to the mirador only to strike out a second time. What a brutal gut punch that would be. I decided not to risk it.
Which was a terrible mistake, of course. At dawn the next morning I looked out my window and saw beautiful golden light hitting the tops of the towers. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t just sucked it up and gone back. Missing a perfect sunrise like that was a far worse gut punch than the one I’d hoped to avoid. It was undeniably a major fail, but, on the bright side, the lesson was painful enough that it should sink in and do some good later.
Overall my time in the park was incredible. The W trek fully lived up to the hype. And if I ever return there are at least three things I’ll be sure to do: bring ear plugs, hire the Puma Tracker, and try again to catch sunrise at Mirador Las Torres.