Trekking in the Torres del Paine.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Zoe Louise Cronk.


Just like the individuals that take them on, fitness challenges come in all shapes and sizes. The four walls and chrome machines of a clammy gym are a convenient, effective choice for training; but there are a few better ways to challenge your body while exploring some of the most remote corners of the globe. The Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia is just that; an outdoor lover’s playground where the scenery will quite literally take your breath away. This is your chance to escape the everyday and put both mind and body to the test.

Discover the TDP

Recently declared the eighth wonder of the world and voted by National Geographic as among the world's five most beautiful places, Torres del Paine National Park sits at the southernmost tip of Chile just 500km north of Cape Horn – about as far south as you can go before arriving in Antarctica. The exceptional natural terrain makes it a must-see destination, but not all visitors take on treks that bear witness to majestic massifs, dense forests and ice fields. This is a place where every view is impressive and the pristine landscape only becomes more beautiful.

Options Await

While some go for a simple day trip, those seeking something more exploratory have the choice of two main trek routes; each named for the shape that it forms on a map. The most popular is a zig-zagging excursion across the park known as the ‘W’. This 60km journey takes four to five days (hiking up to eight hours per day) and treats you to many of the main highlights including Glacier Grey, Las Torres, Los Cuernos and Valle del Francés.

For the more adventurous, the 120km ‘O’ route awaits. This longer, quieter loop around the mountains of the Cordillera del Paine is a wilderness trek that showcases all the sights of the ‘W’ as well as the back half of the park that few get to see. The ‘O’ average is eight to nine days, but can be customised according the distance you intend to cover each day. Whichever you choose, you’ll be trekking long distances every day while carrying clothing, food, water, tent and sleeping bag on your back.

Challenge Commences

The ever-changing elements are the true taskmasters of these treks. In 10 short minutes you will see more weather changes than you thought possible; from strong winds whipping across the valley to snow falling on your backpack to the heat of the sunshine as it warms your face and dries out your boots. Forget the adage of ‘four seasons in one day’; this is more like four seasons in one hour! And don’t overlook the outfit changes that come with this unpredictability. Be prepared with waterproof layers and sunglasses within easy reach; it could be mere minutes between when you need each one.

Despite the trying nature of these treks, the most difficult sections are conveniently accompanied by the most incredible of views, making the park feels as if it was designed specifically for hikers. The John Gardner Pass, for example, is a steep 1,200m climb followed by an even steeper rocky scramble, one of the most challenging ascents in Torres del Paine. Thankfully, the sprawling ice sheets that lay below, glinting blue and silver in the sunlight, prove to be the perfect distraction, and are a precursor to the mountainous panorama that awaits at the top.

Strong Body, Stronger Mind

As any seasoned hiker will attest, the inclines may be tough but the downward paths can be even more so and must be taken even more slowly at times. Prepare for your legs to feel like jelly and your balance to be a bit unsteady as the weight of your backpack can throw you off-kilter. Walking poles are worthwhile for stability and to give you something to lean on when walking across jagged ground. Once you get into a rhythm of stepping with the poles, the momentum can help you to keep your pace.

There’s no doubt this is an absolute full body workout. Arms and shoulders? Your backpack takes care of those. Core? Holding your body strong and upright is a necessity made more difficult by the wind, uneven terrain and weight of your backpack. Legs? No explanation needed. And don't forget the strength of mind that's required too.

When your clothing is wet, your feet are in a state of walkingboot- induced disrepair and your shoulders ache more than after a hardcore weights session, the mental state required to keep putting one foot in front of the other is something many aren’t prepared for. What keeps you going? The magnificent scenery that has your head swivelling from side to side. Even once you think you’ve taken it all in, there is always another outlook worth stopping for. After a day’s hiking through woodland, emerging from a break in the trees to discover a vibrant blue ice sheet that has been carved from the Grey Glacier, that you continue to admire for the last kilometre of the trek, brings a moment of clarity and gratitude.

Endorphins also come into play here. You know the good feeling you get at the end of a difficult workout? Imagine getting that tenfold because you have summited the Mirador Las Torres, greeted by an utterly spectacular sunrise. Seeing the rocks illuminated in every shade of red, amber and gold imaginable is truly mesmerising. Unique in shape and form, the granite torres (or ‘towers’) from which the park gets its name soar to around 2,000m high and dominate the landscape. Don’t question the early start to get to the top to see the sunrise; you won't be able to look away from this picture-perfect moment.

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A New Paradise

A key thing to keep in mind? Nothing about a week in the TDP is luxurious. This is about getting back to nature, pushing the boundaries of what you can handle and experiencing the best of the region. Campsites will be your home, and a beacon of joy each time you reach the next one. The chance to remove your walking boots and backpack will feel akin to a five-star hotel stay. There is also an unexpected social element; sitting in a refugio with people of various nationalities and cultures who share the same appreciation of their current location. Plus you never know who will have tips for where you’re heading next.

Looking Back

Challenge mind and body and invariably you will come out the other side feeling stronger and with a sense of pride in your achievement. In retrospect, the feelings that threatened to engulf you upon realising an extra 10km walk is required on top of the 18km you had already done because your destination campsite is full, will be a distant and almost comical memory. What will stay with you is the euphoria of getting a sudden break in the cloud at the top of the French Valley and realising you are in an amphitheatre of sheer tectonic power, surrounded by granite peaks ravaged by millennia of ice carving. Or on a less grand scale: when you take that first sip of instant coffee after eight hours of trekking when you were convinced the end would never come. Trust me, it will taste better than any artisan, barista-brewed latte you’ve ever had.

If I had to use one phrase to describe a week in Torres del Paine? Intense, but absolutely worth it. And if that wasn’t reason enough to tackle it, you’ll never take a hot shower and warm bed for granted again.

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Top Tips

- Pack more food than you think you will need. You're walking long distances carrying a heavy backpack and will need fuel for the next day. As any trekker will tell you, carbohydrates and protein are your friend.

- The wooden signs you see around the park are largely inaccurate. Buy a decent map before you set off to ensure you're on the right track.

- Even the best cameras don't do this place justice. Enjoy as much of it as possible in the moment and try not to focus on capturing it through a lens.

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