We clinked beers in front of the refugio’s crackling fireplace just 24 hours ago. Our view of the steppe was broad and brimming with the excitement and possibility that radiates off the world’s most mind-bending scenery. What a difference a day makes.
Now, trudging through the Ascencio Valley, 10 miles into the Patagonian wilderness, a warm fire seems like something from another world. I can barely see a few feet into the storm clouds that whip in from the Southern Ocean.
We’re three couples from three continents, all drawn to this antipodal extreme by the chance to skirt past calving glaciers, Caribbean-blue lakes, and granite massifs. For us, the W trek—a five-day, 50-mile journey through Chile’s famed Torres Del Paine National Park—promises Patagonia on a budget. With a well-marked path and perfectly spaced campgrounds, we don’t need guides, and the whole thing costs only $125 per person.
Despite the fact that we’re experienced backpackers, however, none of us is familiar with the challenges inherent at this latitude. In Patagonia, the spine of the Andes creeps into the sea, creating an unpredictable and sometimes violent clash of seasons and weather.
On day two, we’re standing on that ridge when the clouds dissipate and the sky opens to reveal Los Cuernos, a rock formation that rises over the steppes like the devil’s horns. We may be on a backpacking budget, but here, it’s apparent that the reward is expedition-worthy scenery.
We push on to Los Cuernos, where we camp alongside a handful of others on wooden platforms tucked in a dense lenga beech forest. The next day, we continue into the heart of the W, where the two U’s meet in the French Valley. It offers our first glimpse of the glaciers that nestle between the granite pillars of this iconic park.
The wind picks up and the clouds return when we skirt Lake Skottsberg en route to our meadow camp on Paine Grande. In minutes, the weather goes from summer to winter. Hail shoots horizontally across the sky and safe travel becomes impossible. Unable to budge, or even hear each other’s voices, we huddle together amid a stand of charred trees. As suddenly as the storm came, it’s over. The sky brightens, warming my skin and setting the glacial lake in front of us a shade of cotton-candy blue.
We have two more days of this as we trek to the edge of the Patagonian Ice Field, where we’ll cap our tour with a ferry past Glacier Grey. It will deposit us back at a cozy refugio, where we’ll land with enough battle stories to last a lifetime.
Do it From Santiago, connect to the new airport in Puerto Natales, from which shuttles make the 1.5-hour drive to the trailhead at Refugio Las Torres. Reserve campsites ahead of time (free). After the five-day W trek, catch a boat out at Refugio Grey. Alternatively, you can continue onward to complete the eight-day Paine Circuit. Season October to April