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To Chile “Isla Navarino” and the “Dientes Circuit 5 Day Trek” February 3, 2007

Posted by Jason in Chile, Patagonia, South America, Travel, trekking.
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 The Dientes Circuit

On the 28th January 2007 we finally left Ushuaia.  We found the place very welcoming and pìcturesque.  Now though we wanted to see the Chilean side of Tierre Del Fuego.

Our aim was to see a bit of Puerto Williams (the most southern town in the world) and to do the Dientes Circuit trek which is billed as the most southerly trek in the world.  There is always a most southern something around these parts!

Our short boat crossing to Isla Navarino was delayed due to bad weather and gale force winds, but we finally made the crossing and were picked up at Puerto Navarino by van and transported the hour and a half to Puerto Williams.

Puerto Williams is an interesting place but difficult if you have a low boredom threshold!

There is very little to do here, and as usual siesta is in full swing most of the day.  This place certainly has an “end of the world” feel to it but the people are friendly.

Puerto Williams “central Plaza”!!

Our most difficult objective here was to find somewhere to have a coffee or beer!  Although they advertise various pubs in the “town”, we only managed to find one that was ever open!  It seemed that all the gringos would end up at “Cafe Angelus” in the central plaza at some point.   

After one night at an extortionately expensive Hostel we started our trek to the Dientes.

The Dientes Circuit 5 Day Trek

Map of The Dientes Circuit Trek

The Dientes (Teeth) of Navarino are the mountains that dominate the Isla Navarino and Puerto Williams.  The trek was billed as a remote trek with route finding difficulties where there is a route but not always a path. Over rough terrain constantly in a mountainous landscape where the weather can be inclement at any time of the year.

We found this all to be true!  We found the trek to be superb, saw no one for the whole trek and had all the wild camping spots to ourselves. We saw amazing scenery and had snow at some point on every day, even the good weather days!!

This has been undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip so far. 

 Day 1 – Puerto Williams to Laguna Del Salto

Monday 29th January 2007

We had a delayed start and got a taxi to the start of the walk at a waterfall and dam.

The weather didn´t look promising, as we started uphill at 1pm with our fully laiden packs through the wooded hillside. The first section of the walk would be an easy path to follow as it goes up to a well frequented lookout on top of the mountain Cerro Bandera.  I felt tired and sluggish today, my knees still creeking from previous exhertions.  Cheryl though was on good form.

It soon began to rain as we put on our waterproofs and headed out of the forest towards the top of the hill.  This hill has an enormous Chilean Flag on top of it, erected to remind the Argentinians who owns this part of Tierre Del Fuego!

The summit of Cerro Bandera

This part of the border between Argentina and Chile is particularly sensitive.  Chilean ships often patrol the Beagle Canal showing their presence to the Argentinians.  Indeed the main purpose of Puerto Williams was originally the Naval Base here.

When we reached the summit the wind was howling and the temperature had dropped significantly.  We headed on a bearing across the hillside towards the valley ahead to make a high traverse across scree to our first camp high up the valley at Laguna Del Salto.

As we continued the rain lashed down.  We soon realised we had made our first navigational error and had to climb steadily uphill as we had traversed too low.

We had to keep above the tree line and avoid a deep ravine in order to avoid bush bashing our way for hours.

There are markers on this walk, notifying the route, however on many sections these are somewhat…..”descreet” as the lonely planet would describe! ie none existant!  They use a french system of marking the route with numbers on cairns and a small map and leaflet to describe the route.  In many places there is no path at all.  Just directional information, route finding can be. . . . . a challenge!  There are no maps of this area available.

We headed across the scree as the rain turned first to slush and then to snow.  A full blown blizzard then took hold as we continued.  The temperature had continued to drop and our hands were freezing.  Being our usually prepared selves our waterproof gloves were at the bottom of the pack!  

Looking across to Laguna Del Salto

The blizzard stopped but the snow continued to fall.  Occasionally we would get breaks in the cloud so we could see up the Valle Robajo which looked beautiful even in this weather and finally we could see our objective, the Laguna del Salto.

Reaching the end of the scree, a scree run ran down to the lake.  Then we found a place to camp next to Lake Salto (480m).  It took us alot longer than we thought and didn´t set up camp until about 6pm.  We hoped for better weather tomorrow.

Day 2 – Laguna Del Salto to Laguna Escondida

Climbing to Paso Primero

The following day we were very tired and started late. . . again!  This would be a recurring theme on this trek.  It was nearly 12.30pm before we started out.  The route went to the side of a stream steeply uphill to the first Pass, Paso Primero (716m).  The view here was excellent.  Fantastic pinnacles of rock ahead of us and snow fields.

Although it was quite cold at least we had not had any rain or snow.  The wind though begins to increase as we climbed higher.

Chez walking beyond Paso Australia across the snow fields

We then made our way up to Paso Australia (797m). . . . and it began to snow. Here we are in the midst of the mountains of Dientes with Laguna Del Paso below and several passes here in close proximity playing havoc with the wind.  The wind is strong and we can see it blowing the snow in various different directions depending on which part of the hillside you are on.

We follow the boulder field across slope of snow around the laguna.  We stop for some lunch here in what we thought was a sheltered spot out of the wind, but the wind changed direction and showered us with snow so we moved on!

Across several snow fields and scrambling across rock we reached the next pass Paso De Los Dientes (765m).  The wind here was unrelenting and at times blew us both over.  It blew me clean off my feet! and Cheryl hurt her wrist making it difficult to use her trekking poles.

We pass 3 more lagunas descending gradually and then head west toward Laguna De Los Dientes.  Turning the corner across this plateau down to the lake proved to be somewhat difficult with the wind now so strong it was difficult to move at all across the rocky terrain.

Chez looking across to the next pass and another climb

After turning west the great Hulk of the Dientes mountains and Cerro Gabriel protected us from the wind and the sun even made a brief appearance! We rounded the next Laguna and our final climb of the day over the next pass to Laguna Escondida. 

Camping at Laguna Escondida

The clouds had shifted away and the sun shone through to greet us at the lake.  At last peace!  We pitched on the shores of the lake on its east side.  It was 7pm when we reached here.  We quickly pitched the tent and made our dinner.  I weighed the tent down with as many rocks as I could find as we had been warned of the severe whirlwinds you can get here! Indeed through the night we had several gusts bending the tent poles a right angles!

Day 3 – Laguna Escondida to Laguna Martillo

Fantastic razor sharp mountains of the Dientes Circuit

Today it was 11.30am  when we started, the earliest yet!  The weather was kinder today with some sunshine and without much wind.  We descended southwards and turned west into a valley and through broken forests .  We could see the next pass ahead of us, Paso Ventarron (696m).  We reached the top of the pass and the view was amazing.  A clear day at last giving us an amazing vista. 360 degree view at the valleys and mountains.  South to the Cape Horn and north to the Dientes Mountains and Cerro Ciem.

With our route clearly visible (for a change!) we traversed the scree and headed down towards the lakes in the valley and the beaver ridden landscape.

Beaver damaged landscape beside the small Lagunas

The North Amercian Beaver has took hold in Isla Navarino in a big way and  devestated certain aspects of the landscape.  Destroying large sections of trees near the lagunas. In some respects giving us a better view! But altering the original landscape.

We reach Paso Guerrico (572m) and pass Laguna Hermosa before descending to the beautiful Laguna Martillo. 

Cosy around the camp fire!!

The weather is calm, the sun is out and the view is wonderful.  Monte Lindenmayer stands proud beside the lake.  We have time to set up camp and have a real fire to sit round and enjoy the evening while cooking our Chorizo sausages!

Again we have the area to ourselves, just us and the Dientes mountains for company.  We have not seen a sole since Cerro bandera.  Wild camping in this beautiful landscape without another sole is a pleasure and a privilege.  Just superb.

Day 4 – Laguna Martillo to Laguna Los Guanacos and the “Paso Virginia”

Camp at Laguna Martillo

We decided to get up early today because it could be a long day route finding.  So we start out at 9am.

The wind is up and we could see the clouds moving “at speed” above us.  But at first the sun is still shining.

Pinnacles above us as we head towards paso Virginia

We head around the Laguna Martillo through woodland and over marsh land.  We soon have trouble though and lose the path for at least half an hour.  We then travel on a bearing over undulating hillsides and around lakes and find the trail again.  The wind now is really picking up.  Today we have to cross the highest pass of the circuit at 859m.  Renowned for its difficulty with the frequency of high winds in this area.  We were not to be dissappointed!

The wind picking up!! As we head up the pass

We start climbing through forest and muddy hillsides up towards the pass in the afternoon.  From the speed at which the clouds were moving it must be “very” windy on top of the pass.  We discussed the climb, and I suggested that by the look of the wind we may have to crawl at the top of the pass!  I think Chez thought I was joking!

We reached the rocks and scree of the hillside above the tree line and now the wind was really hitting us.  Throwing us over and pounding us against the mountainside.  Luckily the terrain was not too difficult here and the wind was behind us.

We continued. . . . the steep mountainside began to level out as we were reaching the high pass.  The pass begins to level out but continues to rise more gradually almost resembling a plateau.  The consequence of this is that the wind has plenty of opportunity to hit with all its force.  A large almost flat area at a high elevation for the wind to act unimpeded.

The wind as we reached the plateau was fierce.  At first though it was quite funny as we let the wind drive us forward, lifting our packs.  Occasional we would be picked up by the wind and dumped unceremoniously to the rocky floor.

We stopped at one point to catch our breath at a small tarn slightly sheltered from the wind.

Then we continued.  The wind got stronger and stronger and now neither of us were laughing! The terain became more uneven and rocky so was difficult to keep our feet with the wind pushing us along.  The wind was knocking us off our feet regularly and each time it was harder to get back up with 20Kg packs.

Eventually we got to a point where Cheryls pack came off and she simply could not get the pack back on! The wind was so fierce, and the effort to crawl without a pack was hard enough.  We then foolishly decided that we would try to carry Cheryl´s pack between us.  We stood up with the pack between us and the wind immediately pushed us forward, and, the pack acting as a sail the wind blew us both off the ground and dumped us down again on the rocks.

I couldn´t see Cheryl or the pack! I couldn´t move because of the wind I was pinned to the floor.  It seemed along time before Cheryl finally appeared trying to walk against the wind to me. 

Luckily we were both bruised but not badly hurt.

We then decided we would try to make it to the top of the pass and over the edge where hopefully we would be sheltered from the wind somewhat and I would come back for Cheryl´s pack.

Our problem now was that we did not want to be blown over the edge of the pass where there is a 300m drop!  We got to the top of the pass and traversed to the east where the wind was a little less strong.  I left Chez with my pack and I went back for hers.

Eventually, I made it back to the pack and made it back to Cheryl.  We were both quite tired by now and were a bit shaken by the strength of the wind.  The problem was that once we were committed to the pass there was little chance of retreating.

Now we scrambled down the scree slopes to the lake below.  The wind subsided for a while.  We expected to be sheltered from the wind but as we descended we realised that the wind was using the bowl shape of the Laguna los Guanacos to create a whirlwind effect blowing from all directions.

As we reached the Laguna shore line we hit more gale force winds coming from different directions.  At one point being again knocked off our feet and my trekking pole being blown 30m up hill!

Camp in the thankfully sheltered area beside Laguna Los Guanacos

Finally we descended past the lake to the trees below and a thankfully sheltered camp site!

We later discovered that Tierre Del Fuego had suffered a familiar occurrence of bad weather on this day, haulting ferrys and causing 25m high waves on the Drake Passage to Antarctica.

Day 5 – Laguna Los Guanacos to Puerto Williams           

The wind had finally died down and the sun was shining once again.

Our final day was only a few hours through forest and Calafate bushes down hill almost all the way to the road head. About a 3 hour walk.

Chez waiting to hitch a lift!

We began the hike up the road back to Puerto Williams hoping for a lift from a vehicle along the way.  We didn´t see a car for 66 minutes!  Infact we saw more traffic in the air and on the sea than the road to Puerto Williams! But the car stopped and gave us a relieving lift back to town, for a shower and a beer!

Our ferry we were to catch to Punta Arena the next day was delayed and would be 12 hours over due!

The Dientes Circuit has been one of the highlights of our trip.  We saw nobody for the 5 days trekking and had all the campsites to ourselves.  We understand only about 300 people attempt this trek a year.  The scenery is outstanding.  We would recommend it to anybody. . . . . although maybe we would like to keep the secret to ourselves!

  

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Comments»

1. Rob McCulloch - September 18, 2009

I plan to do this walk in January so his account is rather sobering. Rounding the Cape by yacht was meant to be the big challenge so it looks like we face two major feats of endurance.

Thanks for an excellent description.

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