Day 4 W Trek Recap: 11 km (6.8 miles) from Refugio Paine Grande to Refugio Grey
On our fourth day of the W Trek, our luck with beautiful weather ran out. While I woke up early in hopes of catching a glorious red sunrise, I was greeted by dark clouds, wind, and light rain. After the standard breakfast (where we also heard music for the first time in days in the cafeteria!), we packed up to leave by 9:15 am. The hike to Refugio Grey was only 4 hours but after three days of trekking, we were all pretty worn out and 4 hours felt like 8!
The wind didn’t help either—it was so windy that I never looked up the first hour of the walk. All I could do was focus on the pair of boots walking in front of me. I knew if I looked up my hood/cap that I wore underneath would likely fly away as well as the winds were quite forceful. This hike is pretty much uphill to the midway point and then descends on the other side. At this point it was pretty hard to stay motivated and every time I thought we climbed the hardest uphill, there was more to conquer. Unlike the previous days, the minutes ticked by slowly.
There were tricky sections of the hike due to the steepness and the wetness. The coolest part of the trek was seeing Glacier Grey from afar. I didn’t allow myself to look at pictures before this trip and so I was surprised and delighted at the sheer enormity of it in person. The height and the width of this glacier was massive!
The last hour of the hike was a struggle. I felt like Phoebe, from the TV show Friends, when she flails her arms in all different directions when she runs. I was definitely flailing my arms and trekking poles around to steady myself and climb down towards the next refugio. And as soon as I caught sight of a gray roof through the trees, I felt like one of those characters from Lord of the Rings, when they light up at seeing their destination in the distance. I think I practically ran to the lodge in those last 5 minutes of the trek. I felt exhilarated when I arrived as it meant I was finished completing the W Trek! Even though it was physically and at times mentally tough, I did enjoy and appreciate the experience. It was great to disconnect from the world and just focus on what’s going on right in front of you.
We finished the trek at 1 pm but when we arrived, we found out that it may not be over and my heart sank. The W Trek can be done in 4 days (with the 5th day reserved for an optional kayaking tour or glacier hike before taking a boat out back to the south entrance of the park across the lake) but the weather forecast for the next day called for 90 km/hour wind (like 55 mph). If our boat ride out of the park from Refugio Grey got canceled, that meant we would have to hike back to Refugio Paine Grande and try to catch a boat from there. I really did not have the energy to re-do the four hour hike all over again, even though it’s the shortest leg of the trek! Or at least not with my backpack on as my shoulder had started to feel really sore.
After resting at Refugio Grey for a bit, we took a short walk to see Glacier Grey more up close in person. The glacier overlook is about a 15 min, walk from the refugio.
Afterwards the group split up a bit and I decided to go up to the suspension bridge overlooking the glacier. There are two suspension bridges and they’re supposed to be the most ‘exciting’ ones in the park. The first one is about 30-40 minutes away from Refugio Grey while the second one is another 30-45 min. away from the first bridge. The first bridge is soooo Indiana Jones! You have to climb up like you’re climbing a ladder to get on it and only 4 people at a time are allowed on it.
Walking across the bridge is a bit thrilling as well as you’re dangling high over a stream. It was the highlight of the day for me with Glacier Grey serving as a perfect backdrop.
I love how blue the glaciers are here. I’ve seen quite a few (in Alaska, New Zealand, and Iceland) and Patagonian glaciers are the bluest I’ve seen! They’re blue because they’re so compact.
Day 5: Glacier Grey + Boat Ride Out of the Park
It wasn’t until about 11 am the next morning that we found out the 2 pm boat ride was cleared to go. Our group was thrilled! Although the day was mostly clear, the winds were a bit strong but not as crazy as forecasted. Yesterday on our hike to Refugio Grey we had seen a group hike back to Paine Grande as their morning boat was canceled. So I was really happy we didn’t have to do that! Everyone in the group had other travel plans right after the trek so missing a boat was not an option.
Some people on our tour did kayaking while others did the glacier hike. As I’ve hiked on a glacier before in New Zealand, I had no interest in going again, especially since I was so tired and just wanted to relax. My friends that went loved it and enjoyed it though, and they shared that they had to a hike a mile to the glacier before putting on crampons to hike around the glacier. They acknowledged if they had to hike back to Refugio Paine Grande after the ice hike, there was no way they would’ve had the energy to do it (they left for the hike before 9 am and returned just around 1 pm so they didn’t know whether or not they had to hike back yet). The group that went on the kayaking tour ended up not kayaking at all—30 minutes after they attempted to kayak towards the glacier, the operators called it off and had them all head back to shore as the winds were so gusty and they didn’t think it was safe for them. However, they did take everyone out on a boat ride to the glacier instead as an alternative. They enjoyed it but this experience sounds similar to the boat tour they ended up taking with the rest of us at 2 pm!
Since I opted out of these optional activities, I went for a relaxing stroll back to the overlook instead and just sat admiring the gorgeous glacier.
At 1 pm we all headed down to the lake to catch our boat excursion. This boat leaves from the Southern entrance of Torres del Paine and is a sightseeing boat. Many people will take a day trip out to the glacier (and never doing the W Trek) so we were being picked up second as part of the excursion. The boat ride was really nice (they give out strong pisco sours!) and we sailed up pretty close to Glacier Grey, which has THREE not two front-facing sides.
The boat tour was about an hour or so before we headed back to the southern entrance of the park. I was feeling a bit sad this leg of the trip was ending but as soon as we arrived on the other side of the lake, we were greeted by an unexpectedly arduous walk to the parking lot! Basically the winds here in this valley were probably the 90 km/hr (50 mph) winds we expected. And we had to walk across in sand with our backpacks. That 15 min. is seared in my mind as at one point if it wasn’t for my backpack I thought I’d be blown away and I almost lost my cap! Just a last reminder of how fierce the weather can be in this wild, wild place.
We reached the lot at about 4 pm where our private transfer van was waiting for us to take us back to Puerto Natales. I watched the mountains disappear from view as our van took us back to civilization. Every ache, pain, moments of hangriness, and missed hours of sleep was well worth it though.