Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 5 April 2020

Daunting peaks and diverse terrain: hiking in Patagonia

People have been hiking The Teeth since the 1990s, but a new tour with Chile Nativo has made them ­slightly more accessible

The view of Laguna Los Guanacos from the summit of the 53-kilometre hike through Navarino. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty
The view of Laguna Los Guanacos from the summit of the 53-kilometre hike through Navarino. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty

“Es una dia bonita!” cackled the too-enthusiastic pilot as Patagonian winds buffeted our little plane at Punta Arenas airport. As the ground-based turbulence continued, he assured our six-person party that these conditions were normal for this wild region in the south of Chile, and that he was very experienced. Then he laughed again.

The flight to Puerto Williams on Navarino Island was supposed to take an hour and 15 minutes, but with the strong wind blowing behind us, we were on the ground again just 55 minutes later. From the air, we could see the Argentinian territory on our left, Chile on the right, their invisible border running down the legendary Beagle Channel beneath us. Quite who governs what in this extreme part of South America can be confusing to outsiders, but our goal was clear: Navarino and its snarling, daunting Los Dientes, or Teeth.

These imposing, snow-capped mountains looked like they might be part of the Mordor range, or perhaps a yet-to-be-made Game of Thrones prequel. What they didn’t look like was ripe for trekking, and yet that was our plan.

People have been hiking The Teeth since the 1990s, but a new tour with Chile Nativo has made them ­slightly more accessible and includes a series of detours for little-visited viewpoints and campsites away from what has been regarded as the traditional route. Whichever way they are tackled, this is recognised as one of the southernmost treks anywhere on Earth. There would be no summiting of any of the Teeth themselves, but they’d almost always provide an impossibly dramatic backdrop as we spent five days navigating their mighty jaws.

From the tiny airport in Puerto Williams, we transferred to the Chile Nativo office to rent sleeping bags, mattresses, crampons and walking sticks. We’d been told to pack light, but with the added gear and snacks, my backpack still weighed around 15 kilograms. As it slid on, I began to silently wonder what I’d got myself into. Of course, our porters and guides had it much worse. There are supposed to be weight limits, but this only applies to what they’re carrying for visitors; by the time their own gear was added, some had bags hovering around 25kg.

They were led by the 24-year-old, supremely fit Matias Cortes, who estimated that he’d completed the circuit about 25 times in total, in various configurations. Nonetheless, he didn’t take it lightly – only a week before we started, in early December, he’d helped rescue eight hikers who got lost at the climactic Virginia Pass when severe weather closed in. Our forecasts were more favourable, but the little man from Temuco still made sure we had snacks, supplies and warm clothing in abundance.

After a large lunch in town, we were dropped at the start of the route and immediately began to climb into a forest. The weather was so kind at that point that our main challenge was keeping cool. It may have only been around 12°C, but the steepness of the climb coupled with the weight on my back meant I was soon ­shedding layers.

An hour or so later, we’d popped out above the tree line, the Beagle Channel behind us, Los Dientes now in front. Also waiting for us was the wind, which returned with a vengeance as we traversed a snowy plain towards a rocky path. Below us, there were lakes and more forests; above, those incredible mountaintops.

The route totalled 53km in total. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty
The route totalled 53km in total. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty

Four hours after starting, we’d reached Laguna Salto, Lake of the Jump, a reference to a pristine ­waterfall that fell noisily from a mountainside. This was to be our first campsite of the trip, and scenic though it was, it was clear that Patagonia’s wind wasn’t going to make things entirely peaceful for us.

My legs were still trembling from the descent when Cortes came over. “How was it? That was the shortest day, but I hope you enjoyed.” I ­enthusiastically and sincerely told him that it had been great, but a little voice inside me was nervous of what was to come, too.

As it turned out, what lay ahead was a lot more of the mountains, ­including a stiff climb to start the second day, right next to the waterfall. Soon its muddy slopes were traded for snow and blue skies as the colossal Teeth led us ever higher into their realm.

Over the next few days, it became clear that the terrain on this route – which ultimately totalled about 53km – would be very hard to pigeonhole. We were faced with every kind of footing, from mud to snow, to boulders to sand. We walked through as many forests as we did mountain passes, and around as many lakes as we traversed meadows.

As it turned out, what lay ahead was a lot more of the mountains, ­including a stiff climb to start the second day, right next to the waterfall. Soon its muddy slopes were traded for snow and blue skies as the colossal Teeth led us ever higher into their realm.

Perhaps surprisingly, there was a remarkable lack of wildlife. Navarino is so far flung that South America’s guanacos and pumas haven’t made it here, and while we saw a healthy number of birds – including the vast figure of a condor swooping above us – the only significant mammals we spotted were beavers.

“They aren’t supposed to be here; you can see how much damage they cause,” said French porter Pascal Guerin, sweeping his hand across a view of skeletal trees, bleached white by the Patagonian climate, having been stripped of all their bark by the invasive beavers. This Canadian subspecies is particularly aggressive in altering landscapes and, with no natural predators, they have run riot around the island.

When not with tourists, Guerin does his bit to reduce the population. “I don’t hate them; I respect them, but they’ve become a real problem here on Navarino. And also, they taste really good,” he explained from somewhere under his extraordinary beard.

When day four came around, we knew we would have to face the Virginia Pass, the same spot that had ended the treks of wayward tourists only a week before. They hadn’t been prepared properly, nor did they have guides and porters with them, but the prospect still seemed daunting.

After a two-hour climb over snow and scree, we summited the pass late morning, a banshee wind waiting for us, though by this point in the trek, it was absolutely expected. We traversed the pass for half an hour, before peering over the other side.

Below, the deep blue of Laguna Los Guanacos looked inviting, but there was no way to get there – only a near-sheer descent that looked far too ­dangerous to even contemplate, let alone attempt. “Stay close and take your time, especially at the start,” shouted Cortes over the roar of the gales before, ­heroically, leading the way. Later, he told us that this ­particular section had left some of his clients in tears and others suffering from vertigo.

One of the younger and perhaps braver members of the group, Chilean Pedro Astorga, followed Cortes initially, then forged ahead as he had done for most of the Dientes trek. At first, he took his time and then, extraordinarily, he began running down the mountain.

Matias Cortes, leader of the trek. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty
Matias Cortes, leader of the trek. Courtesy Jamie Lafferty

I could hardly believe my eyes, until I reached the same section – despite its steep decline, soft, sandy footing actually made that tactic much easier than gingerly trying to ease myself down. I wasn’t quite able to match Pedro’s speed, but only 20 minutes after beginning, I was standing gratefully by the lakeshore. We still had a half-day of trekking to do to reach the finish line, but this was physically and mentally the route’s true crescendo.

The following afternoon, my clothes now all smelling of campfire and worse, I was as relieved as I was delighted to have a shower and some fresh garments back in Puerto Williams.

I asked Cortes what he’d do to relax, now that our trip was over. “I go back to the mountains,” he said, without much emotion. I laughed at what I assumed was a joke, until I realised that it wasn’t. It may have felt like a revelatory trip to me, but for my guide, it was just another few days in the world’s most unlikely office.

Updated: January 15, 2020 05:41 PM

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