Dientes de Navarino trek – 4 days (in good weather!)

23rd February, 2014 – 3:31 pm

When we heard there was a remote trek in the most southerly point of South America we thought this was interesting. When we then heard that this is more southerly than Argentina’s most southerly city (in a Chilean town that snubs it nose at it’s northern neighbour) we were hooked. Apparently it’s not for the inexperienced and ill-prepared, being inexperienced and ill prepared we were going!

We Found Jesus - Plaza de Virgin at the start of the trek

We Found Jesus – Plaza de Virgin at the start of the trek

The Dientes de Navarino An example of a marker post

The Dientes de Navarino An example of a marker post

View from our tent - Lago Salto night 1

View from our tent – Lago Salto night 1

Up by Paso Australia in the snow

Up by Paso Australia in the snow

An incisor

An incisor – one of the teeth (dientes)

 

Charlotte admires the view from Paso Ventarron

Charlotte admires the view from Paso Ventarron

A viewing platform

A viewing platform – why these built these we’ll never know

Steve cleans his dientes in the shadow of the dientes

Steve cleans his dientes in the shadow of the dientes

The French Couple enjoy the descent

The French Couple enjoy the descent

On our way back to civilisation

On our way back to civilisation

The map

The map – available at Tourism Shimla. I’d like to say it’s perfect, it isn’t but it might be all you have (download and print the trail notes before you go too).

For this you will need:

  • A good tent – something that might(!) stand up to the wind.
  • Matches and a lighter
  • Stove
  • Food for 5 days (or at least a day more than you’re expecting to walk for.. there is a risk of being snowed in – there are two fairly well stocked supermarkets on Piloto Pardo but you might want to buy your essentials in Ushuara or Punta Arenas where there are big chain supermarkets).
  • A map – Tourism Shimla in Puerto Williams (on O’Higgins) sell a basic map which has the route but the level of detail is poor and many lakes are missing
  • The notes download and preprint these before getting to Puetro Williams, we hadn’t but found a copy in the hostel
  • Pack liner – it will rain on you and you will get cold
  • Two pairs of trousers (I normally only trek in shorts – not once would I have done this on this trek and we had good weather).
  • At **least** a -5° 3 season sleeping bag
  • Thermals
  • Something warm to walk in
  • Waterproof jacket and trousers
  • Sunglasses with a strap (the wind can whip them off your face)
  • Sun hat
  • Wooly hat (I slept in mine so keep it dry).
  • Suncream – high factor, there is a hole in the ozone layer over Patagonia
  • Water purifier unlike most of Patagonia Navarino has beavers which carry Giardia so you need to purify your water – we use a Steripen and I can’t recommend them enough  
  • A weak lemony drink (you don’t of course, but I enjoyed the reference)
  • Water bottles (1L each is enough – quite a few streams along the way, perhaps in a dry period this might be more difficult?).
  • GPS – Tourism Shimla rents these for $CH3.000 a day (£3) – we didn’t take one and I wish we did as if the weather had have come in…

If you read the guide books on this trek it comes with a healthy warning that it’s not for the inexperienced. I hate walks with exposed sections (where you’re at risk of falling off a cliff as you clamber over rocks) and having to climb or use fixed ropes and I really enjoyed this trek with the only sketchy bit being an extremely steep descent from Paso Virginia on day 4 that spooked me. That said in poor conditions it would have been much more extreme. If all that sounds OK then it’s certainly doable and very rewarding but make sure you take waterproof and warm clothes and a good sleeping bag, wind resistant tent as you’re really out in the elements. When it says “snow is a risk” you may as well take that as a 50/50 chance and I’m taking about February – outside of summer who knows!

We can’t quite remember how we came to hear about this trek. Charlotte had planned most of our South American adventure and was most excited about Patagonia. We’d heard that this trek was supposed to be isolated, one of the most southerly and beautiful… after that how could we not do it!

After five months of travelling in South America with only loose plans we finally, albeit reluctantly, had to draw up an itinerary as Chile was in peak season and we were finding buses and hostels booked. So we were a little annoyed that we had to rejig our newly formed itinerary because the weekly 30hr ferry from Punta Arenas was not available on the dates we wanted – we were trying to avoid flying for environmental reasons and the ferry journey is a must! It turns out that there is a bit of a cat and mouse game you have to play with the ferry as it seems there are (fairly!) locals only quotas on semi-cama beds that are only released 48 hours(?) before the journey though there as there aren’t more than about 60 seats I wouldn’t bank on these in high season).

The ferry from Punta Arenas nearly left without us as though, somehow, we’d managed to reserve semi-cama seats (this means a reclining chair) despite originally being told this wasn’t possible. Unfortunately the important information that you had to go to the office (in Punta Arenas’ Tres Puentas ferry terminal) 24 hours before the journey and pay (cash only) was omitted from our confirmation email. So our booking had been cancelled – annoyingly we had tried to go in and pay as we were at the ferry terminal for the Magdalena Penguin tour the day before but, as is usually the case in Chile, the office was closed for about 3 hours for siesta (usually 12 – 3pm).

With no reservations we were polite and showed the email and the helpful booking staff found us some full cama seats (which in the end we didn’t pay the extra for). It was as this was happening I realised we hadn’t been to the bank… we were heading to the island at the bottom of the world with no money. The staff reassured us that there was an ATM on the island and nothing you can buy on the ferry so not to worry (how much you should rely on this ATM is up to you…) they also mentioned there was one in the petrol station two blocks from the ferry terminal. After a frantic run to the ATM and back and I boarded the ferry to find Charlotte chatting with the nice Canadian couple we’d first met in Puerta Varras. Here is where we realised that you weren’t going to have access to your packs for the journey. So no chance to shower and change… I realised this and asked to get my glasses and tooth brush out at least before the luggage storage was closed.

Though we were travelling on a tight budget I must say the cama seats *might* possibly be worth the extra – you get a lot more space and I even fell asleep on my side, something I’ve never managed on a bus seat.

What also wasn’t in our reservation email was the fact that you can sleep on the ferry the night it arrives (as it arrives at midnight this is quite useful). This would have saved us the quite embarrassing episode of attempting to phone and book a room in our broken Spanish which just resulted in everyone kept putting the phone down on us confused. It took quite a while to find out out that we’d been doing something screwy with the country and area codes in Chile and were ringing completely the wrong people – no wonder they hung up when we were asking for rooms in their house in bad spanish!

The ferry journey was very enjoyable – the food was pretty dreadful though so I’d definitely recommend taking some of your own and note that alcohol is NOT allowed. Obeying the rules, of course, we brought along “red grape juice” in a water bottle to aid the evening meal digestion. Both us and the Canadians were surprised that there is a drinking ban on the ferry as in our respective home countries ferry crossing are normally a free for all boozefest.

We arrived bang on time (after an enjoyable 360o spin in the ferry to admire a glacier along the way). We’d seen sealions (lobos del mar in Spanish, translates as “sea wolves”), albatross and the odd whale on the way. We got off the boat to find the energetic and welcoming Cecilia of hostel Refugio El Padrino waiting for us – she greeted us with a two sided kiss before telling us there were no beds as due to bad weather trekkers had backed up in the hostel. Ordinarily this would be a problem but we had free, comfy cama beds on the ferry and she kindly invited us to come for breakfast anyhow! Back on-board we went to sleep until 6.30am when the ferry (which had moored out in harbour for the night) did another 360o and docked again to hoof us off at 7am.

The hostel was just waking up with the guests more than happy to tell their harrowing Dientes trek tales of snow storms, 10m visibility and “hunkering down because you couldn’t risk the pass”. We began to wonder just exactly what were we letting ourselves in for with a tent that didn’t hold the heat and no proper waterproof trousers.

We made ourselves breakfast as we were early for the supplied one and took on as much route and trek advice as we could. “Stay high on the last bit – you’ll be waist deep in mud if you go for the river” – “ensure you’ve at least got an extra day’s food – you might need another night”, “you can find the route alright, as long as you have a map, compass, route finding skills and seven German guys in front of you with a GPS”. OK so they didn’t quite say the last bit but that was implied from their experiences, they’d had seriously bad weather, we were told to consider ourselves lucky if we saw 2 hours of sunshine.

 

DAY 1 – Puerto Williams to Laguna del Salto #11

We took a shower at the hostel, needed after the 30 hour ferry ride, and went about repacking our bags to leave the unnecessaries at the hostal. Packed (but concerned our bags were still stuffed and very heavy), we headed off the Police Station (police are called ****Cabineros*** in Chile – I think it’s a wine [p]reference) where you have to register your details for your trek. The police man seemed bemused with the fact I’d forgotten to bring the passports and was attempting to register by showing him my mobile phone photos of our passports. Whilst there, we watched two policemen fully gear up, including full body waders and body amour. They were both ready to be shot at and shat on by the weather (perhaps the beaver hunters have poor eyesight?).

We registered and sneaked a peek at his computer to see the ultra advance trekker tracking system (an Excel spreadsheet) had about 280 rows above ours. It seems this trek is gaining in popularity as this was just for January and up to the 8th of February 2014.

We headed back to get our bags, scoffed some snacks and made some luxury sandwiches with lettuce and tomato to at least have some vitamins on the first day. We were ready!

The weather was a bit blustery and cloudy but the sun was out. We set off with our newly acquired map looking for the major road that takes you to the Plaza del Virgin, a statue of Mary holding baby Jesus. Here is where we got lost – which was a little concerning, we couldn’t even make it out of the town. It seems many people find Jesus in their lives’ fairly easily – our Jesus was in the arms of giant statue of Mary and we couldn’t find him. The notes fail to tell you the street where Plaza de Virgen is and the map makes it look like there is a major road at the back of town when in fact there are other roads behind this. So let me tell you to save you the embarrassment of having to ask a local women who then fears for you life that you’re heading out on a dangerous trek and can’t even get out of town – it’s at the end of Cabo de Hornes and Camino a la Cascada, head towards the Naval communications centre which has three masts and a giant cylindrical tower (perhaps for gas or water?). From here you head to the left of the tasteful statue and walk up the unsealed road to the Cascada and what seems to be the towns water reservoir.

Here is where we made a big but simple mistake. After congratulated ourselves for the forethought to note down the campsites on our map from the big sign at the first guidepost and the official start of the trek we then promptly headed off in the wrong direction. We walked the “old” route which heads right into the woods and then turns steeply up to **Cerro de Bandera*** – a large Chilean flag on the hill, now a proper flag rather than the metalic one originally errected to wind up the Argentinians in Ushuasia during a border row (apparently). This is a recognised route and used for the day walk and the route for the other major trek on the island but you can avoid the extremely steep route up to the flag by going the correct way.

At the flag we met the nice french couple we’d first met on an acclimatisation trek in Huaraz, Peru before going on the Huayhuash trek  – it was nice to know we weren’t going to be totally alone on this trail. They had much smaller packs and we were a little worried they’d be warm enough!

From the flag the trail heads to the right of the top of the hill – never summitting or descending (much). You’re basically cutting across a contour line on the map which occasionally touches the top of the trees but never really enters them. The path is mostly easy to find up to guidepost #16 which I think was missing as we never found it. There seems to have been a landslide and from the footprints everyone has headed down the hill to cross the creek but then it’s not obvious but you then have to head back up the hill – this is a steep and slippery part but doable. You should be able to find a route without getting yourself too exposed if you’re climbing there’s probably a better way.

Now is where you have to cross a steep screey slope cutting across the hillside on a four inch wide path and hope that your feet don’t cause a slip.. not sure how this bit would look in bad weather, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted it to be much more windy than it was!

Finally we got to guidepost #9 where you have to turn right and head down over scree and then large boulders to get to the “camping area”. Camping is a matter of finding a relatively dry, flat and sheltered area somewhere around the lake. Finding a spot with this unique combination of factors on this trek is something you’ll soon realise is only of the daily challenges!

We camped up and I headed into the bushes to pre-empt my morning necessaries and dug myself a hole. A camp dinner later and we retired to bed as it was getting cold and the wind was getting up. During the night the tent fought off the random wind blasts. This is something I’ve never seen before – one second it was totally still and then there would be a blast of gale force proportions swirling wind trying to tear your tent from the ground (the worrying thing is that whether you’re in your tent or not seems to make not a jot of difference of the feeling it’s about to blow away). I think we’d picked a fairly sheltered spot but I was still thankful we’d put heavy stones on each of our tent pegs.

Today we’d walked for just over 5 hours (including a break for lunch) which with the big packs was plenty enough. In bad weather I think this could have taken much longer.

DAY 2 – Laguna del Salto #11 to foot of Paso Guerrico #23

We woke up to a clear but cold day. After a breakfast of [bloody] porridge [again] we headed up to the left of the biggest rocky outcrop by a small creek – it’s opposite the rather perplexing viewing platform that has been beautifully built out of timber (I’m guessing this must have been helicoptered in?). It’s perplexing because the whole route has beautiful views – why build a platform here?). The day started with a steep, slippery that instantly got our already cold feet wet. We got up to the plateau and then headed to the left for Paso Australia. Why the trek creater called it ‘Australia’ is not clear as I think of the sunshine kissed, warm lucky country and you actually get a snow covered, exposed, blowy pass… having said that it’s really beautiful. It was fairly straight forward to get here though again I stress we had good visibility and could always see each of the next cairns from where we were. After the pass you head across the hill (we had to cross a snow patch, kicking our feet into the already made foot steps).

After the pass the route was fairly well signed – but ensure you look for the turning to the right or you might end up on the Lago Windhorn route (a separate 3 – 4 day trek)- though we wanted to see this apparently well signed turnoff and couldn’t find it so good luck if you’re planning to go this way!

The suggested route gives you a “pass” everyday. As we were feeling quite fresh, and the weather was good, we pushed on through the recommended stop for day to head for the camping near guidepost #23. This meant also taking on Paso Ventarron on the same day (which has a beautiful view over to the other side of the island) – to find this you walk past another viewing platform (if you can excuse the first one as for day trippers from Puerta Williams what the hell is this one for?) on the Lago Escondida, cross a stream and then up head up. This section has a lot of cairns but look for a few where the direction of the route changes- we nearly missed one that was up the hill behind the one we were at after a long time of heading in the same bearing. The climb up to the pass is quite easy but with a fairly screey decent (with the route often not being clear over large boulders). The problem here is that there are a lot of lakes in the valley that you look down upon that aren’t on the map – not sure if this because they are temporary beaver ponds or just a failing of the map. In bad weather you might question whether you’ve come the right way!

To camp we found that carrying on a little longer past #22 to guidepost #23 was best as the campsites on the maps are exposed but at #23 the campsite is by a hidden lake in the trees, it’s drier and more sheltered there. The stream next to where we camped did have small leeches so check your water before gulping down!

Walking time: 7 hours including breaks (again GOOD weather!).

DAY 3 – Foot of Paso Guerrico #23 to Laguna Guanacos #36

Again waking up to a thankfully clear day it was only the chilling wind that caused a problem (as we stood around to cook and pack our damp feet got quite painful!). We filled up with leech free water and headed up to Paso Guerrico for another steepish start to the day with some muddy uphill. We then found where our french friends had continued on to, the campsite at #24 which they said was nice and not as a wet as the trail notes made out (though perhaps it suffers when it’s been raining).

From #24 there are lots of sections where there are very few markers and you have to use your best trail finding skills again, in poor visibility I’m not sure what you do. When you get to guidepost #30 here is where the fun begins for the day. You have a steep, poorly marked, extremely muddy downhill – “surely this can’t be the right way”, “surely there is an easier way”.. I love to know if there was. We had to use tree roots, bushes and our best balancing acts with our packs to haul ourselves down the hill to the cross the valley.

The fun at #30 is reversed and doubled at #32 where you have to haul yourself up to a plateau using whatever means you can. There seems to be an old path and a new path – the old one goes through the forest with a couple of markers on trees – I *think* the new one goes up to the right, around the trees. Either way once you get out of the forest you’re looking for the lowest saddle point of the hill to the left of where you are. You follow cairns (again there are a few routes I think but the route we were on was very well marked until the stream) and eventually come close to a stream. Here there is a confusing (old?) arrow on a rock pointing up and left but the track is actual heads right to marker post #34. WARNING! At #34 there is a large snowy overhang with a 300m drop – heed the warnings and don’t step out onto the enticing snow, when you descend, look up and you’ll see why this would be a bad idea!

At #34 it’s hard to see the trail down.. in fact you think ..”surely it can’t be this way”. This trek loves to throw new challenges and now you have one. You head just to the left of the bump of the hill on your right and then start to steeply descend. Here is the only section of the trek that I got the wobbles, there is one part where I think there has been a landslide and there isn’t much to walk across to get to the path. What you do here in bad weather I have no idea.. Charlotte simply trotted across on a seemingly impossibly angled slope with no foot holds – I crawled desperately trying to dig my feet into the loose gravel to reach the trail. There was only about 10-20 meters of dodgyness before you hit a nice skree slope and can bolt down (it’s a bit TOO tempting to skip down this.. ). The french couple had great fun running down this and filming each other!

We go to the bottom of the pass, walked to the left of the lago and headed a bit further down to camp in the woods in the top of the boggy valley. Probably the most dry and sheltered campsite we had.

Again 7 hours of walking today

DAY 4 – Laguna Guanacos #36 to Puerto Williams and beer and fruit and cake

Another cold night but our 3 season down bags bolstered with the fleecy liners, acquired in Punta Areana’s tax free haven Zona Franca, kept us toasty (the French couple said they were very cold again).

We stopped ourselves when we started using the words “today we just have to walk down the valley” as by now we’d realised this trek never had a section where the words “just walk” apply. We set off across the field before finding in the middle it’s a giant swamp.. head to the right and keep in the trees. Again this day is poorly signed (or we went the wrong way), you’re basic aim is to keep the stream on your right but stay high in the woods to avoid the boggy path next to the stream… something we’d told the French couple about but completely failed to do ourselves. I think we got away without getting too muddy as it hadn’t rained heavily for days – this might have been different. We sadly never found the last guidepost which marks the end of the trek before you have to make your own path out to the road but worked our way onto a pasture on a hill with Calafaté bushes and daisies. From here you can see the road down below.. we headed diagonally across occasionally finding tracks from humans and cattle, though I’m not sure there is a proper path – the map does say you have to make your own way.

We got back to the road after about 2.5 hours from leaving the campsite and started the 8km walk back to town – now in beautiful sunshine. About a kilometre down the road we found the French couple who’d seemingly come the right way. They were sat in the sun and were waiting for a truck, which was parked near a small boat, and hoped to catch a lift back to town to avoid the “boring” 8km along the road. The walk back for us was actually very pleasant as the sun was out and the Beagle Channel looked beautiful. As only one truck passed us (unfortunately minus the French!) I think we made the right decision. I think you have to be quite lucky to hitch this section.,.. I wouldn’t rely on it!

A steaming cup of tea and some cake later and we felt refreshed – at this point the French returned having had to also walk. We’d all made it through the Dientes de Navarino without getting chewed up too bad or even rained on (though it did rain at night). I think we might find the Torres del Paine circuit a whole heap easier after this!

 

 

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