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Backpacker Magazine – November 2013

Best For Explorers: Dientes de Navarino Circuit, Chile

by: Kim Phillips

Matt Vellone stands about Laguna del Paso on the climb to Paso de Los Dientes, 6 miles into the circuit. (Photo by Phillips)
Matt Vellone stands about Laguna del Paso on the climb to Paso de Los Dientes, 6 miles into the circuit. (Photo by Phillips)
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I start to wonder what we’ve gotten ourselves into the moment our Zodiac begins to buck through the frigid waters of the Beagle Channel. Behind us, the town of Ushuaia, Argentina, fades away; ahead, the stark peaks of Isla Navarino take shape. My boyfriend, Matt, and I are headed to this remote Chilean island to explore the 21-mile Dientes de Navarino Circuit, the southernmost hike in the world. Just 70 miles north of where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide at the tip of Cape Horn, Isla Navarino promises gale-force winds and erratic snowstorms, even at the height of summer. But that’s the price of admission to experience a rare stronghold of raw, unvarnished wilderness.

On day one, we cross the wind-whipped summit of 1,804-foot Cerro Bandera and drop to our first camp at Laguna del Salto. Then, a blustery snowstorm rolls in, keeping us tentbound the entire second day. We wake to a dusting of white and a hint of blue skies. With a new appreciation for how quickly our weather window could close, we start a 2-mile climb south up rocky slopes to three neighboring passes: 2,281-foot Paso Primero, 2,642-foot Paso Australia, and 2,510-foot Paso de los Dientes. Our reward: Rarely seen views of the Dientes de Navarino, the chain of toothy, 3,000-plus-foot peaks (dientes means teeth in Spanish) that form the centerpiece of this route. 

We explore 4 more miles of pristine wilderness on our fourth day, weaving through groves of wind-twisted lenga trees and catching glimpses of distant peaks and islands to the south. We snag one last late-afternoon view from the airy Paso Ventarron before thick raindrops spatter our jackets, then hightail it down a boulderfield to our next campsite at Laguna Martillo. Howling winds and rain pound the tent well into the night. But in the morning, our soggy gear is the only remaining evidence of the storm. The low-hanging clouds that draped the entire landscape are gone, revealing Cerro Clem—a 2,920-foot shark-tooth peak—dominating the skyline behind the lake.

The rest of our time here follows the same pattern. We’re bombarded by fierce winds and rain for hours, only to watch the skies clear for yet another edge-of-the-world vista. We move slowly at times, carefully routefinding through the trackless terrain. It’s not an easy rhythm, but  we realize the very difficulty of traveling here is what preserves its sense of powerful wilderness. Five days ago, Navarino’s unruly weather and far-flung location nearly deterred me. Now, camped in the woods above the Beagle Channel, listening to the patter of rain against our tent, I already want to come back. 
 

Do it
Fly into Ushuaia, Argentina; catch a daily boat/van ride to Puerto Williams ($95 one-way; ushuaiaboating.com.ar).

Season
December to March

Permits/fees
None; hikers must check in at the Puerto Williams police station.

Maps
Trekking Map of the Dientes de Navarino Circuit ($6; Shila Turismo Aventura in Puerto Williams); Dientes de Navarino (free pdf; bit.ly/Dientes)




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