Isla Navarino, the self described end of the world, seems about as good a place as any other to start this blog. Navarino hangs just south of Tierra del Fuego Island, about a hundred km to the north of Cape Horn. This is the almost mythical land of Fitzroy and the HMS Beagle, the place where a young Charles Darwin first knew the Americas and began his questioning. The names here are Dutch, English, Portugeese and Spanish to honor the people, who by any reasonable account would have to be called insane, who first came to this part of the world. So here I am, far less adventurous, out for a backpack; safe, if not dry, on solid ground.
Our first day starts late, a pattern which will hold for most of this trip. I celebrate 37 years today, Sunday the 13th, and somehow stumbled into celebrating last night. We arrived early on Saturday, catching the big plane from Punta Arenas at the crack of dawn. The sense of tsunami driven panic which had dominated Chilean television the day before was no longer in evidence, despite the early morning evacuation advisories. The airport in Puerto Williams sits across a lagoon from the town, so once our bags were collected we decided to set out walking the dirt road into town. Luckily a local picked us up off the road before we had walked for ten minutes, because the road traveled a good 4 km inland before turning towards the town we could see just 100m across the water. Checked into the hostel, both of us immediately took a very necessary 4 hour nap. Once up and about we set about the now familiar preparations for a week long backpack; topping off the food supply, starting to figure out post trip transport, buying stove gas and dealing with impassive officials. That work finished up quickly we wander around the small port town. The day was wet and grey; the temperature hovered around 6 deg celsius, but the wet felt much colder. Ryan entertained himself taking great photos of fishing boats, crab pots and the charcoal sky.
Eventually we wandered down to the yacht harbor and the floating club we had read about, Micalvi. Ignoring the signs that deny access to all but Navy and Yachtistas we board the old supply boat. The inside offered everything we had hoped for as far as ambiance: old couches, burnished wood, nautical flags from the world over. The bar at the far end of the boat seemed closed, but a large chilean man and a woman with tightly curled dyed blond hair were busily arranging bottles and boxes. Ryan, undeterred, stepped up and ordered two beers. The bartender seemed confused at first but promptly produced two Cerveza Australes, no less than the Special Edition Torres del Paine Lager, a favorite of ours. Meanwhile I was attempting to start a conversation with a tall man who had set up a very interesting box camera in the corner of the large room. I noticed he spoke perfect English, so I immediately addressed him in English. Through thick horned rimmed glasses his intense eyes though focused on me looked past me. He answered my inquiry shortly and returned to his work checking light levels around the bar, asking the bartender if there were any more lights available. So we sat down, back a bit from the scene – the bartender moving his bulk about the bar preparing for the night, his female assistant or manager busily lighting the fire and hanging a flat screen television all at once, and the nervously focused photographer pondering exposure times and trying to get the bartender to pose for a bit. “Two minute exposure” the photographer said, trying in vain to get the bartender to pay him attention. All at once he turned his focus back to us. He needed test subjects for his photo and seeing how the bar was empty besides the two of us, one of us would do. Ryan jumped right up. Why not? Vil, the photographer, arranged the scene. Ryan was required to remove his cheery red down jacket in favor of a more subdued faded yellow t-shirt and leer sadly over the top of his beer bottle. Admirably drawing upon long ago drama club skills, Ryan held the pose for the required two minutes. I was next. Two minutes is a long time. My eyes watering, my feet aching to reach for a support just beyond my short legs, I barely held it together. Meanwhile, another character entered the bar. While Ryan and the bartender (finally done with his chores which it turned out had been motivated by a tsunami warning evacuation of anything valuable in the bar) posed for a final shot, I struck up a conversation with the man. This was Atilo, captan of a 12m sailboat that Vil had chartered. In between the posing and preparations for shots Ryan and I had learned that Vil was a photographer doing a series of photos on the native people of Navarino, the Yaghan. Originally from Finland, living in Stockhom, he had become enamored with Tierra del Fuego on a visit a year before. A gallery in Paris had commissioned this project. Part of his process would be to take a voyage around Cape Horn and through the channels that were these sea faring people’s homes before the arrival of Europeans in the area. Atilo, an Argentine from Ushuaia was the man he had contracted to guide him through these waters. We talked about work (his cousins worked in construction in Miami) and his boat as well as their upcoming trip.
Atilo had come to the bar with a purpose – dinner was waiting at a pub up in town and he had come to retrieve Vil. As Vil wrapped up his equipment, he continued to chat with Ryan and I. Offhand he proposed that we join him on the trip around the Cape. We both took it as more of a joke than anything else, but decided to tag along for dinner just in case the invitation turned out to be for real. The four of us walked up the road into town, the night now cold but drier. The group talked easily. Coming around a corner we stepped into the only lighted building on the small town square, Angelus Irish Pub. We had already been to this fine establishment earlier in the day for lunch and were surprised to be back. The place was inviting, the owner Loreto greeted Atilo warmly and us kindly. That afternoon she had told us that this would be her last day of business, she was closing shop. Definitely a pity, she ran a great place. Thin, a weathered face that seemed to alternate between a worldly woman’s and a young girl’s, and wavy strawberry red blonde hair, she is a host comfortable and easy. Because the shop was closing and we hadn’t made previous arrangements, the food selection was limited. While Atilo, Vil and his two shipmates devoured grapefruit pink slabs of salmon, Ryan and I settled for chicken and rice. A little wood stove in the corner kept the small pub warm and as we ate the windows began to steam up. We ordered a round of beers and then another. Vil began to admire the ambiance and started thinking about a shot. The stained and lacquered plywood benches and tables, the clear wood wainscoting, single pane glass windows stained grey by sea air, snapshots of Loreto and her husband at the Cape, old bottles and the occasional obligatory shamrock. The three of us spoke in English as Atilo and the crew bantered with Loreto and her helper, a serious woman with a healthy head of black curly hair. The place quickly took on all the aspects that I imagine a good Irish wake would have. Loreto pulled out a bottle of quality pisco, a chilean spirit similar to grappa, and everybody’s glasses were filled. An infectious smile never left her face. Her waitress vacillated between tears and playfully flirting with the crew. Vil, after several glasses of pisco, reiterated his invitation to join the cruise. We didn’t hesitate to accept and Vil stepped away to discuss things with the captan. I have to admit, although incredibly excited about the opportunity to sail around the Horn through some of the most volatile waters in the world, I was also very nervous. I’ve never even been on a sailboat, and here we were talking about getting on a 12m boat and going out on the open ocean. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Because the boat was traveling through fiercely contested international waters, he informed us, a mountain of paperwork was required and it was to late to add us on the the ship’s register. Everybody was a bit disappointed, but nonetheless we continued to enjoy the closing night of Angelus. Loreto closed down the bar at midnight, but not before making me blow out a birthday candle and stuffing two beers each in our pockets. All in all an incredible evening, meeting and talking with interesting people and having an amazing time.
So now we’re walking. It’s about 1p and although confident we can make the 8 or 9 kilometers to our first camp, we feel the pressure of the late start. We quickly bolster our food supply with four healthy sized empanadas from the local panaderia and set out from the town square, back on the road towards the airport. There are no paved roads on the island, the road leading west out of town is hard packed gravel. We quickly ascend past the neat rows of white sided naval housing out into the Lenga forest. Five minutes into our walk we come to a small shrine to Our Lady in a triangle shaped clearing. Most of the tiny settlement feels very much like an outpost, a Chilean colony far away from Chile itself, but this small spot is all at once more organic. A large new green sign advertises access to El Sendero Chile, so we take the smaller road to the left away from the harbor and airport towards Cerrro Bandera. The hill itself quickly disappears as we ascend into the forest. Another couple of minutes and we find ourselves at another Y in the road. Ryan remembers correctly to bear right. We walk along the road for another ten minutes, heading south and up. A large creek joins the road on our right. Finally we arrive at a small reservoir, the trailhead. Three paths head out from behind a map sign. We follow the trail closest to the water, marked with blue and red arrows. The way through the thick trees is small but well tread. Soon the red and blue ways diverge and we head away from the stream up the slope following the red spots spray painted on the trees. At first the steep way is easy to follow. Then the path disappears and becomes steeper. We move slowly from red marked tree to red marked tree. By the time we reach the tree line, about twenty minutes in, we give up entirely on the markings, knowing we just have to make it to the top and then get our bearings. We break through a line of bushes and emerge on a steep 45 deg slope covered with a maze of sandy paths and dense grass and tight green ground cover. We push up the slope, spotting a cairn just below the ridge.
Drop the heavy packs and out with the empanadas. Both of us more than a bit sweaty and winded after gaining the 570m ridge, we take a nice long break. The dreary weather of the day before is nowhere to be seen. The views are amazing, the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego and the Andes Fenguinos to one side and at our backs the island and the Dientes the Navarino looking dreamlike with a dusting of fresh snow, pale blue at the horizon brightens to a bright stony blue above us, and the clouds light and friendly drift by. The Navy has planted a little flagpole and a huge, now ragged, flag on the end of the ridge, Cerro Bandera, so we ham it up with the flag and take a couple of pictures. We treat ourselves to two of the empanadas de carne picada. Super good stuff, though they contain a dangerous surprise – a tasty black olive mixed in with the meat, pit and all. All cooled off, and fed, we strap the packs back on and turn towards the island’s interior.
There is not anything here that could be called an established trail. We find ourselves walking alternately on spongy patches of greenery and sandy rocky slopes, one eye on the terrain and the other looking out for stone pile route markers. The walking is easy and quick. A couple of horses graze on the slopes just a few meters away from us, one raises its head to follow us as we pass. We follow the low ridge just above the treeline for the rest of afternoon. As the slope gets steeper the ridge rises higher above us and the vegetation gives way to scree fields and the path becomes more established. We step carefully along narrow pathways in the gravel. Down into steep washes at times reaching for handholds and climbing up small rock sections. A little past halfway the night of drinking catches up with me. As I try to pull myself up a steep section a vicious cramp seizes my thigh. We take a couple of minutes, I pound a half a liter of water and we’re back at it. Below us in the valley a spectacular landscape is spreading out. A thousand greens and browns, luscious burnt reds mix with silver blue toned lakes, stepping back from the coast towards the snow capped black mountains. Finally we round a corner below a large outcropping of sand colored stone and see the Laguna del Salto below us. The 100 meter descent is quick, hopping small boulders and sliding down small sections of scree, gravity doing the work. After a half an hour survey we pick a campsite just above the lakeshore and set about making camp. A round of maté, little fire, little food and we both in the bags reading. A good day, a solid 4 hours of hiking over some difficult terrain and plenty of light when we arrived at camp.
Morning comes slowly. At eleven am, still comfortable in the tent, Ryan makes a welcome suggestion. We decide to take a day and hang around the lake. Between the two of us we manage to do an amazing amount of nothing. Maté is passed. We circle the lake and scramble up a dark rock hill that sits a 100m above the lake. Rain threatens for most of the day, we occasionally put on the rain jackets. Ryan finds an amazing black rock face rising 20m, pock marked and streaked with veins of rose and tan. We pretend to climb, testing handholds in the old rock. A fire is built after a struggle with wet kindling, and we drink some more maté. We polish off the empanadas and some sausages early in the afternoon and warm up some miso soup in the evening. Close as you’re gonna get to wholly perfectly accomplishing nothing at all.
So already falling into a comfortable pattern, we’re up and out of the tent the next morning at the reasonable hour of eleven. It is grey and wet. Couple cups of coffee, a half a Clif bar and camp is rolled up and into the bags, still feeling a bit heavy. Today we ascend a series of passes, eventually arriving on the southern side of the Dientes. Our trail leaves the lake just to the west of the waterfall that gives the lake its name. We slip and slide our way up a rocky muddy steep section, 100m above the lake traversing back eastward into a wide rocky drainage. Once again the path disappears and we are relying on markers to guide us. Either the grey ceiling has dropped or we have climbed into it, because we walk in a thick mist, visibility around 30m. The landscape is dominated by boulders and talus. Steel green lichens flower on red washed brown rock proudly displaying salty birthmarks, shadows of peaks lurk behind the fog. The drainage widens and through the fog we make out a line of cairns leading up a moraine. The crest takes us up out of the center of the wide valley towards our right. A steep section of scrambling up medium size stones followed by traverse under then up and around a rock face and we are in the Paso Australia. Dropping down the southwestern side of the pass we encounter a inclined snowfield about 20m across. We can see traces of footprints leading across the snow. After taking a half dozen steps on the hardpacked snow, I turn back and we opt to go up and around. The quality of the snow is not good, hardpack covered with a thin layer of fresh already going slush in the relatively warm wet air. With the heavy packs a small slip would mean a quick ride 30m down the slope and a quicker stop in a rock field. Up in the heart of the Dientes range now, we know that the black snow capped teeth rise all around us. We side hill southwesterly, dropping a bit, rising a bit towards the next pass, below us a lake in the mist. About a half an hour later we are up on Paso de los Dientes, looking almost directly west into the thick air. Again the path traverses the slope, this time to the southeast. A large lake comes up at us as we descend. Finally we get a reprieve from the rock we have been walking on. The fog is still heavy but it stays up a bit. Everything is wet, the quite and the fog making the walk more than a bit otherworldly. We skirt the lake, then follow an outlet south. Coming to a cairn with a yellow and red painted marker we pause to pull out a map and the GPS. After a moment of indecision, we realize we’re at a crossroads and cut west to rejoin our trail. Following a small creek upwards, green bushes crowding the water in the rocky, shallow valley, we reach another medium sized lake. On the way we come across another group of hikers, two Germans, a Chilean and a stray dog that had followed them in from town. We fall in with them for a bit, but with our quicker pace we leave them behind in a few minutes. Just past Lago Escondido we find our campsite on a rise above the lake’s outlet. Another five hour day of hiking is over. No campfire today, we get the maté going and talk a bit to the group we saw earlier when they come through looking for a campsite. We eat and then we’re in the tent early to dry off and read before trying to sleep.
A combination of the evening tea ritual, short hikes and habit have made early sleep impossible. Most nights involve a good amount of reading and counting imaginary leaping guanacos. Inevitably this leads to the late leisurely start. This morning in between waking and half dreams I hear the other group, who had chosen a site closer to the lake, pass by. It is at least two hours later before we’re up and stumbling towards morning coffee. Nonetheless we are confidently placing bets on when we will pass them on the trail. The ceiling this morning is a bit higher and we are treated to a bit of scenery we missed the day before. Above the lake to the north looms a rock tower, and down the valley to the south we can see Lago Windhound and the southern shore of the island beyond a soaking jumble of forests and ponds. The bulk of the Dientes themselves are still lost in the cloud cover. The trail takes us west-south-west around a small bluff and through a series of wind beaten miniature Lenga forests. The fog has lifted quite a bit and we can see the day’s first climb ahead of us, Paso El Condor. We plot a direct course to the pass through a maze of moraines, losing and regaining the trail a half a dozen times before we emerge on the final incline, an easy scramble up heavy scree. Unceremoniously, we reach the southernmost point on our journey. Ryan picks up a couple of rocks to commemorate the spot and we have a quick snack. Here the path takes a sharp right hand turn and we sidehill for a while, walking on a packed trail of sharply broken fist sized stones. The ample valley below us shows the clear handiwork of the ancient glaciers; bald hills, scraped clean and round, a maze of ridges built of boulders and gravel, an illogical distribution of lakes, some deep in the valley, others hanging high. The clouds have lifted high. We can see the shape of them now, the huge towers going white to grey to black. Patches of blue interrupt and define the cumulus drifting southeasterly. Down below red granite bulkheads thrust up from the valley floor at angles parallel to the high red dusty mountains behind. The trail tumbles down the slope, our steps quickly picking their way through the debris.
Paso Guerico is a red earth and stone headwall, less than a hundred meters in elevation, that runs between the Dientes range and an unnamed ridge. At the bottom of our descent we pass the other group and quickly lose sight of our pass. We pick our way through the lakes, immediately l osing any sign of a trail but generally maintaining a trajectory towards where we think the pass is. Finally coming over a rise we see the pass and a large white spot painted on a boulder about halfway up marking the path through the trees. Climbing up and over the red earth, fighting our way through brush we reach the top and a view of Laguna Hermosa, the start of the northern drainage. Cerro Ciem, an impressive horn, leans over the next lake down the valley, Lago Martillo. We pick a somewhat developed campsite on the eastern shore of the lake. I build a fire ring while Ryan sets up the tent. The sky is clear now. We quickly start up the easiest fire of the trip, using dry grass and driftwood. Just after we throw the first large dry tangled root on the fire, the stray dog wanders into our camp. We see the other party on the trail heading up the bluff behind us. The dog sniffs us and our bags; realizing she won’t be fed she scampers back to her people. This place quickly becomes our favorite campsite. Sunset illuminates Ciem, revealing burning gold streaks in the tall black tower. We see stars for the first time and an almost full moon hangs low in the sky behind the bluff, just out of sight expect for a brilliant aurora. Dead roots that have sat baking all summer burn quickly over a scorching white gold red yellow bed of coals. Confident because of the short work we’ve made of the previous days nights, we stay up late constantly rearranging the logs on the fire trying to burn it all down.
We wake up to overcast skies. Again we’re on the trail sometime between twelve and one. The trail heads up and over the bluff at the lakeshore cutting off the peninsula that gives the lake its name. In just a few minutes we are past the lake, slopping through swampy paths. Last night’s clear skies are giving way to high grey clouds. Ryan correctly identifies our pass, a nondescript swale a ways down the valley high on the mountains to left. This side of the divide is almost identical to the other side of Paso Guerico. Lakes, ponds and moraine arrange themselves in haphazard fashion. We’ve seen the work of beavers, a non-native invasive animal, from the very start of our hike. They have completely overrun Guerico, destroying streams and carrying away whole hillsides of brush and small trees. Somehow we navigate the tangle of lakes, brush and beaver dams and arrive at a waypoint directing us up the slope. Here we encounter probably the worst section of trail on the hike. We go straight up, through a steady drizzle and thick brush, grabbing branches to pull ourselves up plus 50 deg mud and open sections of slippery rock. After a thirty minute struggle we break the tree line. Easy going from here. We follow a small stream punctuated by clear cascades up to a break in the slope. Suddenly we are on an immense high plain, gradually rising to the horizon. No vegetation at all, wind whips across the wide pass. Hunkered down behind a large boulder, we eat lunch, dried chorizo español and queso chileno with a bit of Trader Joe’s cranberry heavy trail mix. We continue on this gently upward sloping high plain for at least 500m before the rocky horizon takes a shape. Otherworldly, the pass seems as though a giant knife had cut long parabolas in the high plain, leaving sharp rubble cornices looming 400m above Lago Guanaco below. I approach the edge cautiously, wind gusting strong, looking for the markers to lead us down the cliff. That morning at the lake I had read the trail description. The wording was very explicit regarding Paso Virginia. The bajada had been described as VERY STEEP (in red and caps)and the winds as capable of knocking you off your feet.
These words are rattling in my head as I see the painted red arrow and look down towards the lake. The view is incredible, the wind has swept the the clouds into big high white puffs. The lake ensconced in a steep valley drops to forest, then the Beagle channel. We start down, the wind blowing just enough to make me nervous. The trail here is barely wider than one of my boots, just a line of sand pushed down the slope. The exposure is intense, the trail traverses for a good 100m before heading down a comfortable scree ski. I hear Ryan close behind me and tell myself to move quickly and safely. A couple of sections are washed out and require some very careful steps and solid pole plants. Soon we’re sliding down the scree, enjoying the ride and thankful to be off the traverse. The walk around the lake is easy and quick. We pass our friends at the foot of the lake. It has started to rain a bit. We pass up a campsite at the head of the lake with beautiful views of the pass and the channel but no shelter from the wind and rain. Continuing down, following the outlet we come to a wide meadow crisscrossed with streams and ponds carved into the browning grasses. We find a sheltered spot at the end of this meadow, up a rise in the trees. Dropping our packs here, we wander around trying to find a better spot, eventually settling on the one where our packs are. Though the day was probably the most challenging of the hike, we still find ourselves in camp with plenty of daylight. Too wet for a campfire, the rain comes down in varying degrees of intensity all evening. At one point Ryan notices a rare view, a double rainbow cutting across the sky over the Beagle channel. Resolved to be up early the next day and very much needing to dry out, we’re in the tent before sunset.
The next morning, somehow exceeding our own expectations, we are up and on trail by 8:30. I suck down a caffeine infused Clif shot. Down through a steep section of forest, we arrive at another meadow. The channel opens up even more below us. Following use trails down the stream through tall grasses and boggy flats, we come to a thick section of chest high brush. We push through the bushes for a good ten minutes before breaking into the forest and finding our faithful red marker painted on a tree. I’ve set a goal to be back in town by noon in order to try and catch a five pm ferry, so I push the pace. The trail down through the forest is somewhat established. Downed trees, some as large as a meter in diameter, constantly force us off the trail. The gnarled mossy lenga and skinny birch forest is thick. As we descend by the creek the drainage narrows, walls rise around us, we are in a canyon. The well shaded ravine is wet and muddy and we move slower than expected. More than once my feet slip out from under me, and I’m on the ground. Nonetheless, within a half hour we find ourselves scaling up the steep sides of the creek and coming out into a sunny grassy slope. We weave through the pasture, cow patties are everywhere. Down through small groves and across a swampy bog, no trail whatsoever here, just heading towards the water. The coast road appears from behind a row of trees. The walk into town on the hard packed gravel is fast and easy. On the 9km way in one car and a couple of bicycles pass us going the opposite direction. In town just a couple of minutes after twelve we get the last two tickets for the ferry. That evening, as we bounce across the channel in the eight passenger zodiac, a Comoran playfully keeps pace with the boat for a bit. Its wings dipping just above the wave tips, long neck cutting the air effortlessly, a perfect escort off Navarino.