A couple hundred thousand people visit Torres del Paine each year, and the majority of those who have come to hike end up doing a route called "the W," due to its shape (see the map below).
Most people do the W in four nights. A common route involves, first, taking a catamaran across Lago Pehoe (not shown on the map above) to Paine Grande at the bottom left. From there, you hike up the left side, alongside Lago Grey, and spend the first night at Refugio Grey, Campamento Los Guardas, or Campamento Paso. On the second day, you come back down the left side and camp at Campamento Italiano, which sets you up to spend the third day exploring Valle de Francés without a pack and then moving on to Campamento Los Cuernos, You then go along the bottom of the W and up the right side to spend your final night at Campamento Torres, and then exit back down by Hosteria Las Torrres on the right side of the map on your final day.
I had originally planned for five nights in the park, which would have given me an extra day to camp outside of the W with views of the full massif, but my itinerary was reduced to three nights due to the previously mentioned passport disaster. Fortunately, that still left me with enough time to do an abbreviated W, combining the first two days into 1 with a few small adjustments.
After a bus ride from Puerto Natales to the park and a catamaran ride across Lago Pehoe, I started up the left side of the W toward Refugio Grey. About half way to the refugio, the trail reaches a mirador (viewpoint) from which you can see the glacier, which periodically calves small, bright teal icebergs into Lago Grey. That day, though, clouds were covering most of the glacier and the wind was whipping along the lake, so I didn't stay long. I snapped a few pictures at the mirador and turned around. Given the weather, I wasn't too disappointed to have missed my originally-planned night at Campamento Los Guardas.
I returned to where I had started and then worked my way along the bottom of the W to Campamento Italiano, where I turned up into Valle Francés. The trail became steeper here, and I was feeling pretty exhausted near the end of a 14-mile day with a full pack, but I made it up to Campamento Británico at the top of the middle leg of the W. Valle Francés ends in a cirque, and a short walk from the camp gets you to a mirador where you can see about 270 degrees of granite peaks, but it was cloudy and cold, so I elected to save it for the morning. However, even with the clouds and from just outside of the camp, I was treated to a spectacular sunset as the clouds intermittently opened to reveal peaks and pieces of the sky were illuminated with magenta light.
Normally camping is a great time to catch up on sleep, as there's not much to do once the sun sets. But Torres del Paine is so far south that the sun doesn't set until about 10:15 pm and rises again at 5:15 am. If you're trying to catch both sunrise and sunset, that doesn't leave a whole lot of time for sleep. I started day two by waking up early to light snow, but hiked up to the mirador for sunrise anyways. I walked, as I later discovered, right past the mirador on a trail that got more and more faint until it disappeared altogether high above the camp. Even with lots of clouds and a limited sunrise, the view from up high was impressive, and I found a nice spot to make oatmeal and coffee while I enjoyed the scenery. It was cold up there, though, and water froze at the bottom of my bowl after finishing with breakfast. So much for summer.
After getting down and breaking camp, I headed back down Valle Francés and the along the bottom of the W to Campamento Los Cuernos. The route passes right below the Cuernos (horns), one of the two most photographed parts of the park. About 12.5 million years ago, magma entered a horizontal zone of weakness in the mudstone, lifting the formation and then cooling to form granite. The result of this granitic intrusion, light granite walls with dark mudstone tips, is quite distinctive, even on a cloudy day.
I arrived at Campamento Los Cuernos in the early afternoon, and promptly set up my tent and took a nap. It's a good thing it was a short day of hiking, because the previous day left me exhausted.
Again, I woke up early for the sunrise, and this time was rewarded with a few breaks in the clouds, which let some light through to illuminate the Cuernos in yellow light. After packing up camp, I headed along the side of Lago Nordenskjold and then cut up the right side of the W, gaining some elevation up into Valle Ascensio. I had left early, so I ended up at Campamento Torres in the early afternoon with plenty of time for a nap. Afterwards, I walked up to Campamento Japonés, the climbing camp, which was abandoned. I wanted to continue up to Valle del Silencio, but figured it wouldn't be a good idea, as it's likely that nobody else would be there for a while if anything were to go wrong. Something to save for next time.
Campamento Torres is below the famous Torres that give the park its name. You can see the top of these granite spires from down below, but there's a half-hour walk up to a mirador that gives a full view. This is the other view, besides the Cuernos, that you're likely to see in pictures from the park. I headed up for sunset, but as before, the clouds got in the way. However, I was the only person up in front of the huge granite walls coming in and out of swirling clouds, and it was a special experience to just sit there and watch.
If you're really lucky, and you get up early enough, you might get a chance to see the rising sun catching the east-facing Torres, turning them a glowing red for about ten minutes. I wasn't that lucky, but it's another reason to go back someday. I had set my alarm for 4 am, to give me ample time to get up to the mirador for sunrise, but the wind picked up overnight and drowned out the noise of my watch alarm. I did wake up on my own half an hour later, and managed to make it up to the mirador in time, but the weather didn't cooperate. I made oatmeal and coffee up there, and laid out my sleeping pad and bag to sit and watch for a bit as snow fell and clouds swirled.
I headed back down, packed up camp, and hiked out to Hosteria Las Torres, from which I walked out a road to meet the bus that would take me back to Puerto Natales.
All in all, it was an excellent trip, and I don't feel that I missed a whole lot with my abbreviated W. Even though I would have liked some perfect sunrises or sunsets, I think I was pretty lucky with weather overall, as apparently some people come to the park and get a week of rain. Hopefully someday I'll be back, maybe next time to do the Circuit, a week-long loop that is the other popular route in the park.