Thoughts from the End of the World
From the end of the world to you, Ola! Here we go, at long, long last, this last famed trail.
So! Dientes. Puerto Williams, the southernmost point of civilization in South America, yae – further south than Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego – is the home to the Dientes de Navarino hiking circuit. And in the ten days since our last updates Tyler and I successfully traveled to and hiked Dientes with our friend Andy, who is, after all the shared suffering, as much a member of Patagonia Soul as Tyler and I. I’m not saying he’s going to get a tattoo of an empanada at the end of this trip but … no, definitely not. But for this week, for this experience, Patagonia Soul was a three-man team working together to safely navigate and complete what has been deemed by Outside Magazine one of the world’s twelve most remote wilderness circuits.
A Bit About Dientes
Dientes is a 32 kilometer circuit that begins just south of Puerto Williams and loops to the west. The 32 kilometers have three major passes that feature the Dientes, which mean the Teeth of the mountain range, hundreds of lakes and streams, and shades of deep green indicative of oversaturated ground best described as ‘bog.’ If one hikes to the trailhead and back to Puerto Williams from the trail exit the total length of the loop is 42 kilometers. There is an option for a 13 km out-and-back spur trail that leads to Lago Windhond, a large lake on the southern edge of the island with a famed wood shack refugio called Cabana Charles. With five days of time between flying into and out of Puerto Williams on an 18 passenger plane, coupled with an extreme confidence in our capabilities, we decided to add the spur trail to the circuit, putting the total distance for our time on Dientes to 68 km. Math.
With the trail conditions (poor), and weather (highly volatile), it’s common knowledge that one can expect to hike around 1.5 km per hour on Dientes, that pace dependent on perfect navigation. This is a rare occurrence for the following reasons: The trail is on a national reserve and thus there is no trail authority. The trail markings consist of swatches of red paint on rocks and trees at irregular intervals, cairns put up by hikers over the past ten years – some which stay on the trail, others which stray off trail, and 38 white posts placed in high-visibility areas … if the weather is clear. But because the weather is rarely clear and the trail oscillates between states of plasmatic mud and dense underbrush below the treeline, and loosely-packed scree and talus above the treeline, one can expect to spend a significant amount of time getting off trail, and an equally significant chunk of the day looking for the trail they’d lost. In anticipation of this we brought along a Garmin GPS, a map, and a rescue device.
So, today, right now, I want you to imagine flying into a town sitting on the edge of the world. Imagine that you are on an 18-passenger plane, a Twin-T, propeller blades burning up the low-slung clouds as they spin madly in our approach. Imagine seeing nothing but the grey clouds of a Monday morning giving way to the island below, the three streets of civilization built on the edge of the ocean. The colors of the buildings are brown and red and green. This is Puerto Williams. Imagine looking up from the town and seeing the mountains, sharp and built up against each other, like teeth crowding a shark’s mouth. Imagine the plane touching down, slowing, stopping, a drop-stair unlatching and you stepping out, breathing deeply, and feeling the dampness on the air, the chill moving into your clothes. Imagine looking up at the mountains and knowing that, tomorrow, Dientes begins.
Dientes, Day 1, 12 km: Hello Andy, Hello Scree, Hello Teeth
The trailhead to Dientes is two kilometers south of Puerto Williams. The road leading to the trailhead skirts left around the Plaza of the Virgin, featuring a twenty foot statue of the Virgin Mary holding the immaculate child, who in my opinion looked sort of pouty, sitting there on his mother’s gigantic forearm. This was where Tyler and I planned to meet Andy on Day 1 of Dientes.
Andy flew in the day after Tyler and I landed in Puerto Williams. After working out the details together in Punta Arenas we figured out the food situation, which was pretty simple – Tyler and I get the food and pass on a third of the weight to Andy. Andy, the poor guy, had no idea how deeply into backcountry gourmet we’d descended, and was thus justifiably incredulous when we handed him a bag of dinner foods weighing over 30 lbs.
“What?” Asked Andy. “What in the world is in here?”
Five packs of crackers, five onions, ten carrots, two kilograms of cheese, three bags of pasta, six pasta sauces, two kilograms of rice, a kilogram of lentils, a kilogram of chickpeas, a kilogram of black beans, four packs of instant potatoes, six regular potatoes, and five packs of chocolate cookies. Oh, and six different spice packets. And six soup packets. And a jar of sauce. And a chocolate bar. For five dinners.
Hello Andy. Welcome to Greater Patagonia.
It was a beautiful day. Unseasonably so. Warm winds, overcast skies. No hint of rain. We hiked to the trailhead, read the signs, and I immediately went the wrong way. An auspicious start. But the trail, once Tyler took over leading, was well maintained, leading up to a massive Chilean flag sitting on top of a scree mound some thousand feet above Puerto Williams. All of us were wondering what in the world everyone was so uppity about when it came to describing the Dientes trail conditions. Then we rounded the flag, saw our first cairn, and understood.
Dientes, now, truly, had begun.
The trail became a loose definition, the sort that kept me looking down at the GPS, Tyler to the horizon for cairns, and Andy between the two of us. Our tight pack of three spread out as we hiked ahead onto a scree slope, the mountain steepening as the path cut across its face, a thin line of loose gravel grooved into the rocky expanse. One wrong step could break an ankle, another might send you tumbling down the slope, screaming “AS YOUUUU WISHHHH!” But there was no soft landing at the bottom, no young Robin Wright to smooch a sweaty mustache, just thorny scrub and wet mud a thousand feet below.
We walked slow, and took our time. And well worth it, too. For this first day of Dientes one has a full view of the teeth, sharp and dangerous peaks which purple in fading light. Step by step we wound our way towards them, to Laguna del Salto, which would allow us to set camp in a relatively protected bowl, covered on three sides by cliff faces and the fourth offering a long view down the valley back towards Puerto Williams.
That first night at camp was a beautiful one, and we cherished it. Weather, truly, can dictate an experience. We discovered that the next day.
Dientes, Day 2, 16 km: A Thick and Dangerous Fog, A Warm and Dry Night
The day started off so calm. Beautiful, even. I mean. We woke up dry, packed up dry, laughed dryly with (at?) Tyler – who had taken the trouble the night before to dig a poop hole for his “Morning Meeting at the Office” and, stumbling over at dawn with lentils rumbling towards rupture, discovered that hole already filled with another’s bodily evacuation (we believed it was the Australian woman a few campsites over), and so had to scramble to execute a proper LNT poo. Sunshine, laughter, poo jokes. Life, truly, was good.
So, feeling the happy vibes we hiked slowly uphill, getting our first taste of the mud which would later define so many kilometers of trail, thick oily stuff that stuck to our boots, squished and squelched and groaned gaseously as we pushed through the muck, until we crested a mound and saw the approach to our first pass, a long and haunting cut through the teeth that was in a fight for its life with a heavy fog rolling in behind its range. I pulled out my camera and in two minutes watched the fog crest the teeth and tumble down the slope towards us, like The Mist, devouring all definition in its approach. The wind rose, the temperature cooled, and soon we were enveloped, twenty feet apart and hardly able to see each other. It was the soaking kind of fog that gets into your bones. Insistent, relentless spattering precipitation increased in intensity as we climbed towards the pass, rain turning to sleet, sleet to ice, ice to driving picks that stung the face. We made the first pass, descended, and lost the trail.
Let me be a bit clearer – following our GPS device we stayed on the embedded trail, but trails can change. Cairns are the true markers on Dientes, and they follow no digital map. While we followed the Garmin trail we lost contact with the true trail. Not much. Thirty meters at the most. But in those thirty horizontal meters we descended a hundred vertical ones, and through the soaking fog stumbled to the edge of an alpine lake. The Garmin told us to hike straight through the lake. Impossible. So we clambered around the side of the lake, hopping from heavy stone to scree slide, boots clacking on slick rock. At some point we came to an impasse. The scree ended and a cliff descended straight into the lake. Looking up we saw a cairn atop the wall, and another cairn further off behind that. The trail was following the above ridgeline. A decision – turn around and climb a sheer slope, or turn right and climb a sheer slope? Turn right. That was how we found ourselves, in waves of mist and sleet, climbing a Class-III wall with 50 lb packs on. Not fun, not safe, but unavoidable. Grateful for strong fingers, heavy tread, and calm minds.
The rain continued. Waterproof gear can only handle so much moisture. The weather conditions were similar to a machine wash on a gentle setting. The wind was wicked and cold. I walked with soaked gloves, Andy without gloves, Tyler with his hands shoved up the sleeves of the opposite arm, a contemplative Confucian channeling deep resources for serenity and warmth.
“Reese, can we have a look at the Garmin?”
It was Andy.
“The Garmin? Let’s have a look. See how close we are to this turnoff.”
Good timing. We’d come to the intersection. A right to continue on Dientes another 19 kilometers west and then north to civilization, a left to hike 13 km along questionable trail up and over another pass and then down to Lago Windhond, where Cabana Charles awaited, the quality of the refugio unknown. I looked at Tyler.
“What do you want to do?”
“Confucius say, one path leads to another, padwan.”
“Let’s go to the refugio.”
So we went to the refugio, and it was fucking brutalizing. I don’t have the vocabulary for a less profane description of the experience. It is the absolute best I can do looking back on the five hours following the decision to leave the circuit. The weather worsened, grew colder, wetter. We climbed another pass, Betttinelli, which was supposed to be the highlight view of the experience. I was bitterly reminded of my first sight of the Grand Canyon, which Dad had hyped up for six hours in a small sedan, cruising through the Arizona desert, only to arrive in a total whiteout. There was nothing. Nothing to see but Andy and Tyler, ten meters away, pastel swatches in a wet haze.
We followed cairns, little black temples on our limited horizon, up and over the pass, hiking down a spine in splintering winds, sleet spattering against our pants, jackets, packs. More ghostly alpine lakes. A long and exposed hike across a flat scree field, the wind directly in our faces. Looking back and seeing Andy leaning forward, driving with his legs, pushing himself towards the approaching tree line. Tyler behind, hands enveloped, head down, moving with steady determination. Into the tree line, the sleet giving way to rain, the scree to deep mud, the open field to a steep forest ravaged by the elements. Hiking down 30 degree slopes in this mud, taking stuttering steps, watching each footfall, holding our breath but keeping our tongues behind our teeth lest we slip, fall, and close our mouths sharply. Pulling ourselves over the hundreds of downed trees, ripping pants, stepping into mud sliding up past the ankles, shins. Andy falling onto a hiking pole and cutting his palm, blood mixing with mud. Tyler slipping and sliding towards a steep dropoff, catching himself before the precipice. Me stepping onto a wet root, feet flying outwards as I fell backwards into six inches mud, grit and ice slipping down into my pants, running between my legs and down into my boots. Leveling ground, a river crossing atop a slick and rotting log. Stepping into a flat bog two kilometers from the refugio and sinking down into the saturated earth. Playing leapfrog from moss mound to mound, fascinated by the microclimate, the fungus pulling itself up and out of the stagnant water. Fog lifting, descending, lifting again. Scanning the long field for sticks shoved into the ground, cairn replacements. Growling. Growling like a wolf, some rabid dog, unable to stop growling, a distraction from the numb feet, numb hands, soaked body, grime squelching between my legs. I remember climbing on top of a fallen tree south of the bog, hopping to another log, and growling. I remember seeing the refugio. Walking to it, opening the door, and sighing at the sight of a wood stove and a pile of dry wood. Andy walking up, seeing the refugio, and hollering “Goonies! Goonies never say die!”
Goonies never say die.
That night we didn’t move much from the fire. We ate our dinner there, dried our clothes there, put on a heavy log before rolling out our sleeping pads and descending into deep sleep. With the warmth, with the comfort of being out of the elements came a giddiness that follows some desperate effort. We laughed and joked like schoolboys, told stories and reveled in Cabana Charles, which must be used for fisherfolk seeking the fat and lazy trout of Lago Windhond. But tonight the refugio was ours, just as the trail had been ours ever since stepping off the circuit. This night the end of the world was ours, and we reveled in the experiences, daring not to think about the next day, when we’d have to return those 13 kilometers back to the circuit, through the bog, the forest, the scree, and the pass.
Perhaps, maybe, the weather would be better.
Certainly couldn’t have been much worse.
Day 3, 16 km: A Clear Pass, Wandering Ice Storms, A Cold Camp
The morning was clear. The sights we’d missed the day before were there, on the horizon, covered in snow. Snow in the middle of summer. A beautiful sight, but chilly to look at too long. We packed quickly, stretched, slapped hands, and stepped out from the refugio.
It started raining immediately. This is how I felt about it.
Not for long though. There was a driving wind today, pushing the sporadic cloud cover up and over us with speed. Rain came and went. We hiked through the bog, hiked up the slick mud slope through the forest, popped out on the flat scree field, and stopped, stunned. Ragged, jagged peaks all around, dusted with fine white snow. Looking into the distance we saw Bettinelli, the lone round mound amongst a party of teeth, and made for it. As we climbed the rain gave way to moments of ice, tiny pellets that stung the exposed face, heavier pearls that pattered against the roofs of our jacket hoods. Yet atop Bettinelli we dropped our hoods and looked out on the 360 view – mountains everywhere, lakes everywhere, the ocean to the south, clouds moving rapidly north. A sight unlike anything I’d ever seen. We took our time atop this pass, until another ice storm rolled across the pass and drove us down towards the trail, past cairns still holding snow, back to the circuit.
Reconnecting with Dientes wasn’t as difficult as we’d feared. The weather truly defined our experience on Day 2, and it defined our experience on Day 3. The 13 km from Lago Windhond was easy compared to the 13 km there, and we hit the circuit with enough energy to press towards a campsite on the edge of Laguna Escondida. We passed the final few kilometers talking about shades of love, conversation reserved for both dimly lit bars and wilderness spaces. One thought came to me during this time, the sun peeking out to shine onto the snowy slopes of the mountain perimeter around Laguna Escondida. That love is an action as well as an emotion, that love is defined by the steps we take to experience life, and who we choose to experience this life with. Andy, thank you for choosing to experience Dientes with us. Tyler, thank you for choosing to experience Patagonia Soul with me. Grateful for you both.
That night we ate dinner underneath a tarp strung between two heavy stones that offered both a windbreak and a wall of protection from the ice storm that struck just as our pasta was boiling. We ate our cheese and crackers with raw onion and raw carrots, giggling at the ridiculous weather, grateful to have made a space in which we could eat comfortably, dry and bundled up in all our clothes, as the temperature dropped below freezing.
Day 4, 16 km: A Cold Morning, Fleeting Sun, A Final Pass, A Dark Camp
It was the sound of Andy shaking ice off his frozen tent that woke me up. Overnight our tents had turned to the world’s thinnest igloos. I peeked out my rain fly’s air vent, saw it was a clear day, looked down at my tin cup, the baggie of Nescafé, my very cold bottle of water, and sighed. Just a few more days until I could enjoy a hot cup of coffee.
“Brrr!” Tyler. Pause. “Hey! My tent’s frozen. Anybody else's?”
We took our time at camp that morning, letting the sun swing its way up and into our campsite before packing and heading on. This took a while, for our campsite was against a trio of jagged peaks set directly between the rising sun and our tents. Our bodies were hurting, tents were wet, sleeping bags soaked with condensation, and nobody was especially excited about two passes, ten miles. So we relaxed, waited for the sun, and let it warm our aching muscles, dry our soggy gear and then, when we were ready, hoisted packs and began a slow series of steps that would lead to the final pass of Dientes, the final pass of Patagonia Soul, the final few kilometers of our hundred day adventure through Patagonia.
Where ice fell yesterday sun fell today, a clear sky. Still winds. A quiet valley. Atop the first pass we could stand and be witness to the expanse below and beyond, a great wash of green forest, brown bog, blue lakes ascending to orange scree and purple peaks. Nature’s rainbow ending here, at world’s end, perhaps the clear scene below our mythic pot of gold.
Descending into the valley we swapped scree for bog and then bog for mud. Shin-deep, knee-deep, boot-sucking, soul-squelching foulness begat from an oversaturated landscape and a singular path. Progress slowed, stuttered, lurched ahead, and stalled from one valley to the next. The sun swung across the sky at an odd horizontal, consequence of our extreme latitude, and soon was covered behind a wall of approaching cloud.
Today, more so than others, we met other hikers on the trail. An Australian man named Shane who was traveling solo, an Israeli named Avidad who had no GPS device but a dog from town named Samantha – an Australian sheepdog mutt with haunting eyes – who acted as companion and guide. Avidad had avoided the worst of the mud because of Samantha, who knew where to cut through the thickets and emerge in dry spots of navigable trail.
Everyone – Shane, Avidad, others – said the same thing: “Oh, you’re going up Paso Virginia today? Ah, well, good luck. It’s a long one.”
And it was. But our decision to make the pass and descend on the north slope of Dientes was unanimous – better to hike late in good weather than wake early to potentially bad weather. So we ascended, pushing upwards through steep and deep mud, storing hiking poles to grab roots, scramble up rocks, and lift ourselves through the worst sections of trail. Mud turning to loose scree. Loose scree to packed scree. And then, suddenly, packed scree giving way to a plateau. One final push up to Paso Virginia, the sky softening into golden hour.
Atop Virginia was a stone circle for a bivouac shelter, meant for an adventurous soul on a calm night wanting to witness both sunset and sunrise. We sat in that circle, ate cookies with caramel, and had a moment. For Tyler and I, this was the peak of Patagonia Soul. This was the end of the trail – no further south for us to go. And while it will take weeks to fully process the experience of the past three months we did recognize the significance of this moment – what we’d accomplished, learned, experienced as our trip evolved, hit hard. Gratitude for the trip, for each other, for making it here safely. I’m not going to say I – he – we cried, just a little bit, but, well, maybe.
We descended off the pass in fading light. A horrendous scree slope dropped us a thousand feet in a thousand feet, quick steps that sent tiny rock avalanches down the mountain. Our knees, obliterated from the previous three days of slog, sent pain deep into the joints. We limped along a still lake, down one last mud-slicked path, and found ourselves in a campsite bordered by two gurgling streams clear with glacial melt. We set camp and ate in the dark, satisfied.
Day 5, 8 km: Off Trail, Long Pasture, The End
We’re not really sure what happened in the final three kilometers between our campsite and the road back to Puerto Williams, other than the trail went one way while we went another. In retrospect what might have been easiest was to take a deep breath, turn back, and go stomping through mud and pushing around dead trees back to where we got off trail and use the Garmin to put us on a more reasonable path. But we didn’t do that. There are a number of explanations for this decision but I believe the most reasonable and rational one is that we got a whiff of freshly fried empanadas and pushed forward, sharks frenzied by bloodlust.
What followed were three hours of mud slips, tree-hopping, and bush-whacking. A quick snack out of the woods, marveling at the long pasture laid out before us, and then discovering that pasture continuing through a bog populated by horses both living and deceased, most notable a half-rotted corpse decomposing into a small stream feeding out towards the Beagle Canal.
More woods, more pasture, a bit of bog, thicket, pasture, and, amazingly, the sound of a heavy truck grumbling through loose gravel. Pushing through a final thicket and seeing the road and beyond that a long sheet of calm water. The end of Dientes.
It didn’t take us long to get a hitch back into town and once in town it took us even less time to purchase a liter of soda and a sack of empanadas.
That night, sitting around a campfire and contemplating the previous five days I asked Tyler, Andy, and myself what advice we could give to someone wanting to do Dientes, and then follow that with what advice we could give to someone wanting to do life.
Tyler: “Bring a GPS and know that the weather is tempory. Oh, and completos for life, yo!”
Andy: “Bring waterproof gear. Lots of it. And PMA – Positive Mental Attitude. Goonies Never Say Die!”
Me: “Take Dientes one step at a time. It’s a wild trail. Take life one step at a time. It’s a wild trail.”
A Quick Reflection, Because this Update isn’t Quite Long Enough
I’ll keep this brief. I’ve written enough. Thank you for reading this to here. I believe that, of everything Tyler and I have done, our time on Dientes is the experience most likely to be published as an article and I wanted to lay the foundation for that in this email.
I believe that we hiked Dientes de Navarino at the perfect time – the trail is still in its infancy, but established enough that hiking it solo is not totally dangerous. There is foot traffic but not an overwhelming amount. The trail is savage and wild. It demands respect, and I like to think that the deference we showed Dientes provided the space to accept such a positive and meaningful experience. The weather helped, of course, but we did suffer through some difficult moments, yet these made the clear skies that much more special. To have traveled so far south, to the end of South America, to the end of the world, and placed ourselves in the teeth of an unpredictable trail, relying on our backcountry knowledge and each other for support and survival made Dientes a life experience with weight I’ll carry long past our final footsteps on this trail. Life is not defined by the experience itself, but how you choose to move into and through that experience.
Now, as I write this, Tyler and I are back in Santiago. Andy is back on his bicycle in Punta Arenas, five months into two years of traveling through the Americas. I leave for North Carolina, for home, this coming Tuesday. Patagonia Soul is over. But the lessons we’ve learned and memories we’ve shared last. Dientes lasts. Goonies never say die.
Reese & Tyler
Nacho y Tigre