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teething: march 12 – 20

They’re called the Teeth of Navarino.  Better they should be called the Fangs.  Vicious, merciless, and sharp, these rocks bite.  El Circuito de Los Dientes de Navarino is the southernmost trek in the world, a five-days-plus mission into the exposed interior of the island that sits south of Ushuaia, between the water of the Beagle Channel and the wind of Cape Horn.  I’d read about the trek before I ever left the US, planned it while I was working at the erratic rock, dreamed about it while I traveled south, first by bus and then by airplane to Puerto Williams, the starting point of the trail.  I knew it was going to be tough; I knew it was dangerous to go alone, but the peaks called to me, compelled me to test myself and maybe break myself against their gorgeous, unsympathetic faces: to kneel at their scree altars and pray.  For what?  For enlightenment?  What was I proving, I wonder, and to whom?

On the first day, it snowed uphill.  It fell down one side of the valley and the wind blew it back up the other, into my path, blinding and horizontal.  That night, camping at Laguna Salto, I lay in my tent listening to the wind.  It would begin as a low rumbling, somewhere behind the hills, and build steadily into a locomotive of rushing air and frightening sound until it was on top of me, flattening the windward side of my tent until it flapped around my ears where I lay.  I curled up in my sleeping bag and jacket, hearing the elements thrash it out, feeling small and powerless.  On the second day the sunshine coaxed me out of my down cocoon.  Peaks bright with morning light caught my eyes and stirred me into action, up the hill, across the approach to Paso Australia.  I achieved the pass but the celebratory dance was cut off abruptly as the wind slammed into me with the force of an 18-wheeler, pushing me off my feet until I sat, just below the pass, with my back and pack to the wind and my heels dug into the scree against being thrown all the way to the lake at the bottom.  The wind was spinning miniature tornadoes across the lake surface in all directions.  It was even worse at the bottom of the second pass.  I was walking across a deep glacial trough, alongside a lake.  Jagged slices of granite surrounded me on all sides.  The sky was still bright and blue above me, but I was wearing gloves and a hat and jacket, moving into the wind, gritting my teeth and screaming back at it when it blew hard enough to stop me in my tracks.  I found shelter behind a tall rock and stopped to catch my breath.  The wind was like a living thing, ripping down from the peaks, over rocks and through the thin tufts of grass growing next to the lake.  It snapped, like a plastic tarp being torn off a woodpile and shredded.  By the end of the day, I was exhausted of wind, blown raw.  Even after I’d found a sheltered campsite for the night, the sound of the breeze being dispersed among the trees made me flinch.  Why am I here, I wondered, and for a brief moment, wished I was elsewhere.  The wind scared me.

On day three, I woke with silence ringing in my ears.  Stillness greeted me as I climbed out of my tent, and I cooked breakfast outside, without needing to build a wind-break.  I walked on tip-toe the entire day, holding my breath as I summited Monte Bettinelli in sunshine and calm air and reached the rustic hut on the shores of Lago Windhond.  Day four, the same.  Not a breath of wind to impede me.  I retraced my steps over Monte Bettinelli, marveling for the second day in a row at the panorama that lay spread before me.  To the south, the islands of Cape Horn, dark blue and misty, but visible.  Westward gleamed the white steep peaks of the Cordillera Darwin, and between here and there, the rough spine of the Dientes themselves, the soggy yellowish lowlands of Navarino, and countless lagoons and beaver ponds, sapphires in a gold setting.  Superlatives rolled through my head, but not through my heart.  For the first time in many solo hiking missions, I was not content.  Something had changed.  I’d shot myself up with my usual fix, but failed to reach the same high.  The wind had stripped away my confidence, my courage, and pressed  an acute awareness of my mortality into my skin.  Alone on the top of Monte Bettinelli, I felt no awe, no wonder or magic at the landscape.  I felt alone.  This was what I’d wanted: to be on my own at the end of the world, fighting the elements, testing myself.  And now I felt only a desire to be safely on the other side of the hills, finished, and back among people.

And then I met the Dutch.  Daniel and Robert were both my age, both tall and lanky, one blonde, one brown.  They were lounging in front of their tent on the edge of Laguna Escondida, passing a bag of granola back and forth when I stumbled upon their camp.  They invited me to sit and share their thermos of tea, and I did.  Suddenly it was as though I was back at the hostel, meeting new friends, trading information and travel stories.  My fears of the days before quietly sputtered and died out, but even as I drew a deep breath of relief, I felt like I’d given up on something, like I’d failed somehow by needing their company.
I camped alone that night; the area around the lake was big enough to comfortably hide several parties, and I never even saw the Dutch.  It was a clear night, but the morning was a repeat of day one: sleet, wind and a long, hard trail in front of me.  This time I was determined to be prudent and turned around.  The Dutch weren’t far behind me, as determined to press on as I was to turn back.  Their smiles and the sudden reappearance of the sun convinced me to change my mind, and I set off behind the Dutch, struggling to match their pace.  Comfort in numbers, I theorized.  Until we got lost.  We tried to rationalize and make educated stabs in the dark as to location of the trail.  Our maps were pathetic, little more than squiggly lines with small labels and arrows.  Two days later, when we were safely on track once more, Daniel told me that my first mistake had been agreeing to hike with Dutchmen.  “We don’t have mountains in Holland!  We don’t know how to find the trail.”  The interior of the island is a labyrinth of beaver ponds, dams, marshes, downed trees and lakes with rock faces for shoreline.  We climbed one ridge after the other, in between hail and sunshine, always expecting to see a cairn over the next rise, until suddenly daylight was waning and the snow clouds were inhaling for another big blow and we retreated to the lake where our morning had begun.  I should have been annoyed, but it had been a fun day, and more entertaining than if I’d stayed holed up in my tent all day.  It’d been nice to have someone else leading the way (poorly notwithstanding), someone to joke with and to appreciate the adventure.
A gray dawn revealed a heavy dusting of white precipitation on the ground and our tents, and I had to break a skin of ice on the pond next to our site in order to wash my pot after breakfast.  Bone-gnawing cold and questionable skies finally gave way to a sunshine and zero clouds, and this time, I went ahead of the guys to scout the trail.  It meant they had to walk slower, but as we warmed up and moved closer to our goal, we were able to laugh at ourselves.  It was just as well we’d been lost the day before.  The trail to the pass was steep and muddy enough without the extra precipitation, and the view from the top would have been completely obscured.  If I felt any twinges of disappointment about not being alone as I stood on top of Paso Virginia, the last of eight passes and summits of my trip, they were overwhelmed by the high-fives and wide grins I shared with the Dutchmen.  We completed the Dientes Circuit!  We did it!  I found that I saying “we” felt just as good as saying “I”.Our victory photo, on the beach outside of town, and our pizza-beer-pastries-fire-cable TV celebration felt like victory, felt like a celebration.  And dammit, alone or not, it was still hard core.


see the rest of my photos from the island

2 comments to teething: march 12 – 20

  • Marian

    I so wanted you to not get lost as I have been dreaming of doing the Q in Torres and now due to the fire it is not possible. I am thinking I will do the W and the Diente but I wanted to find someone who had done it alone to tell me the trail is marked and not to worry. What do you think? I’m leaving in 36 hours. Marian From Philadelphia

  • Wow, It’s good to see this :)

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