The Dientes Circuit
Situated at the far tip of the South American continent, farther south than Tierra Del Fuego, harder to get to than the Galapagos, and infinitely wilder than any park we had been to yet, the circuit hike around the Dientes de Navarino hike ranks high on a number of superlative lists, not the least of which was that it is indisputably the Southernmost Trek in the World.
Before we ever boarded our first bus we had read about the hike on a travel blog listing 'The Hardest Hikes in South America' and were intrigued by the challenge. 5 days of stomping up mountain passes, poorly marked trails, and barren high-altitude lakes at the end of the world seemed like a fitting end to our 10 weeks in South America, and so we added it to the itinerary.
Sitting warm and safe in a cafe in Puerto Natales, Chile, we began planning our attempt on the circuit hike several weeks out. With unpredictable weather and ravenous winds promised, we began slowly adding to our camping kit by buying up extra tent stakes, dry bags and rain gear. Online backpacking blogs had so far beenour main source of information on the hike so we interviewed our hostel-mates and every hiker we met who had heard of it, trying to pick up enough scraps of information to pad our luck once we arrived.
To be clear, Rosie and I have done many nights in the backcountry and weren't so much worried about our ability to survive in the wilderness as we were aware that the Dientes de Navarino circuit (the "Teeth of the Navarinos, named for the mountains that they pass through) was notoriously poorly parked, badly maintained and highly unpredictable. What we were not preparing for was a few days that would tumble us out of our known camping experience and send us into worse conditions than we had yet dealt with, ultimately confronting us with a deeply difficult choice.
The hike's first obstacle involves making it down to Puerto Williams, Chile one of the three cities in South America that fights for the title of 'Southernmost in the World'. Punta Arenas in Chile seems to think no one will notice the the two towns below it, Ushuaia, Argentina claims that it is the last 'true' city, and tiny, windblown Puerto Williams, Chile below both of them simply points to its latitude marking, ending the conversation.
Getting to Puerto Williams and back can be done either by plane or by sea, but in classic remote-island fashion, flights only run several times a week (and only one plane a day), a 2-day-long ferry makes the trip 3 times a month (and even then is difficult to reserve) and all of this is subject to weather, We booked ourselves a place on the waiting list for the ferry (the same company that took us to Isla Magdalena) but upon walking into the DAP airline office in Punta Arenas were offered the last two seats on the flight the next day. We jumped at the opportunity and headed to the closest grocery store to stock up on five days worth of backpacking supplies, as we had heard the grocery stores on the island were of questionable usefulness.
The next morning we walked across the tarmac to the oldest and most beat-up looking jet we had ever seen, and later when instead of crackers and coffee as an in-flight meal were served a handful of candy, we began to get a sense of how far off the map we were headed.
The Deep, Deep, Deep South
Puerto Williams airport is so small that there is no baggage handling area. Once the plane disembarks, the baggage is brought off and deposited in a hallway where 6 passengers at a time are allowed to go in and pick up their bags. It was upon stepping through these hallways doors that we first saw the Dientes jutting up from behind the far hills- jagged, unfriendly-looking and unmistakably reminiscent of teeth.
As we were hitchhiking the 3 miles into town we had a bit of luck: a van stopped to pick us up, and it turned out to be Cecilia, from the El Padrino hostel. We didn't know Cecilia yet but had already read all about her on the internet- her hospitality and warmth was the subject of many glowing trip reports and reviews and in this, she was immediately recognizable. She drove us to her hostel, insisted on making us coffee and toast and then sat down with us to warm up. We would stay with Cecilia every night we were in town and the international assortment of hikers and travelers who gathered at the small dinner table quickly felt like old friends. When you have come so far from everything else, people seem to tend to bond together easily, and this was certainly true of Cecilia's place.
Apparently no one in Puerto Williams needs to mow their lawns
Puerto Williams Need-to-Know
There are only 2 places on the island to get wifi- the public library (often closed) and the one coffee shop (not open very much). Make any travel plans in advance and don't count on being able to get any electronic contact out.
There is a commercial center with two small markets, two restaurants and a tourist office. These are often closed, and the posted hours are more for decoration than anything. Strangely, there is a bright, modern 24-hour ATM, which is useful because everything on the island must be done in cash.
You must register with the Carbineros (police) before you begin the Dientes trek. They buzzed us into the darkened police station and when we communicated our intentions to make the circuit trek, they pulled a gigantic, tattered binder off a shelf for us to write our names in. There was a show about exorcisms playing on the one television screen and if we had looked closer at the book while we were signing it we might have noticed the rather high number of people who had signed in and then back out only one or two days later. It was an eerie atmosphere.
Despite being an occasional stopover for expensive cruise ships, Puerto Williams is small, extremely weather-beaten and has not yet turned into any kind of tourism hotspot. Loose horses roam through town, grey skies pelt rain onto the tin roofs most of the day and smoke rises from chimneys on nearly every house. When you are in town, the edge of the wilderness feels very close, and walking out of town feels like a true departure from safety and civilization.
There are 2 hostels in town, and Cecilia at El Padrino is a great resource. She was able to arrange our ferry off the island and has posted helpful signs like this around the hostel.
#10: "Last and not least you are in the end of the world. I remind you that we are on an island- a place easy to get to, but hard to leave from, yet there always exists a solution. Don't stress, just RELAX."
So after a day in town of getting ready and outfitted with 5 days worth of food and fuel, extra tent stakes, our names in the carbineros' book and a $6 map, we trooped out of town and headed into the backcountry.
The trail immediately lived up to its reputation.
This was one of the better sections. You can also tell that it was early on because of the smiling!
Due to a concerning weather forecast, we had opted to begin the circuit on a lower-elevation trail that ran parallel to the first section which was on a ridge. Even then, in the easy forested section, downed trees obscured the path, the semi-blazed main trail interwove with misleading dead-ends and we constantly had to stop to reassess our position.
Then came the mud. Starting about an hour in, the trail became somewhat easier to follow, as it had been progressively turned into soupy black mud that was occasionally ankle deep and sometimes knee-deep.
We hiked in this for around 5 hours in the cold rain, hoping that our rain gear would hold, rain covers clipped to our packs and a trail that didn't want to be found. There is a section on the map about 2/3 of the way to the first "campsite" where several lakes all converge and this is about where the trail went underwater (literally), with standing water sitting on top of the saturated mud.
We were starting to get a little disheartened by all of this, when after following some yellow plastic tags (the blazes had disappeared hours ago) through an overgrown thicket we discovered the trail had been wiped out by a landslide.
"Trail? What trail?"
After crossing this soggy, destroyed section we were faced with our first hard decision. The trail was lost, we only had 4 hours of daylight left and the rain and wind were picking up. If we could not re-find the trail ahead we would have to backtrack through the standing water and make camp soon. It took 30 minutes, but we managed to find a blaze amidst the downed trees up the hill and began the final slog to the mountain lake where we were hoping we could camp.
At this point in the trail we just accepted we were going to be soaked and gave up trying to stay dry
Over dead trees, through mud and into the hills we went, now thoroughly soaked and desperate to make camp, when after crossing an open field saturated with rain we could see the lake below us. The final descent came in the falling light as we slipped and scooted down a muddy waterfall to the shore of the frost bitten lake.
Also the trail, for the record
Try as we might, we could not find a level campsite that was not in a puddle, but after crossing the top of a small waterfall we found an area that was sheltered at the very least, and we made camp. It was while we were running our extra stakes into the muddy ground that our luck changed for the worst, as the rain turned into snow.
Exhausted, cold and soaked to the skin, Rosie and I made up the inside of the tent, hanging up as many of our clothes to dry as we could and wrapping ourselves in our emergency survival blankets to stay warm. We were so cold we didn't even eat, we simply curled up in as many dry layers as we could and tried to sleep.
We had agreed somewhere on the muddy trail out to camp that we would only cross the first mountain pass into the Dientes if it was safe. The snow made that decision for us. Upon waking, we were excited at first- the tent was so bright inside, the sun was surely up! Looking outside told a different story- our tent and much of the lakefront was covered in muddy snow, and the pass above us was blanketed in white. Our hike was over.
Time for snow angels!
The view across the lake
Turning back was one of the hardest things that we have had to do yet on this trip. Despite our wet gear, lack of feeling in our fingers and toes and the impassable situation before us, we had come so far and gotten so close. Looking up into the white mountain peaks was almost heartbreaking, as they had been dark and clear just days before. Not even the thought of hot food and warm socks was exciting, as our goal had been up and over Primero Paso, the first mountain pass on the circuit.
When confronted with such a situation, however, we knew which option would keep us alive and which would prove potentially fatal. With no sun to dry us out, no mountaineering equipment and sleeping bags that had struggled to keep us warm the night before, the only safe path was the one back to town.With the snow still falling we broke down camp, pulled on our nearly-frozen clothing and stomped back through the mud on our second day. Looking back as we hiked to town was a mixture of feelings- sadness to be seeing the Dientes disappear once more into the hills and relief to know that we had a safe way out.
Happy to be headed back to warmth (never mind the 5 hours of hiking ahead!)
The Teeth never looked as sharp as they did that morning, nor as formidable. It is a strange sensation to feel oneself up against the wild so acutely, and to then feel as though you have been snatched back, like being pulled back from a cliff. It was not our planning or our nerve that failed in the frozen campsite on the snowy lakeshore, but rather that the wild yawned wide above us and for a brief moment, we could see all of its teeth.
Blazes on the path heading back into town
The muddy aftermath of two days on the trail