The Dientes de Navarino Circuit in Patagonia is one of the world’s most southerly hikes. This is part 3 of 6 posts about the 5 days I spent hiking the circuit in December 2013 and January 2014. This part covers the trek from Laguna Salto, over Paso Australia and Paso del los Dientes, to Monte Bettinelli.
Part 1: Preparation
Part 2: Laguna Salto
Part 3: Monte Bettinelli and turning back
Part 4: A long day to Laguna Martillo
Part 5: Paso Virginia and Laguna Guanacos
Part 6: The final stretch to Puerto Williams
Being something of a stubborn person, I don’t like to do most things by the book. In fact, when it comes to hiking I prefer to try the hardest routes (hence the selection of the Dientes Circuit), try all of the side trips, and cram as much as possible into one hike. With that in mind, my plan for day 2 was to follow the normal Dientes route until Paso de los Dientes, and then instead of swinging West to continue the circuit, head South and South-East along a less well-trodden path to the summit of Monte Bettinelli, and descend on its far side to join the Lago Windhond circuit. The route is (allegedly) marked, so in theory, this seemed tough but doable…
In the morning my doubts from the previous night were confirmed – the Dientes trail does indeed continue from Laguna Salto by climbing straight up a narrow waterfall for about 15 minutes! Cue a large amount of mud and, of course, water. This is one part of the circuit that really could do with some form of trail in order to preserve the fragile environment, as bushes and the grass all around had been trampled by hikers looking for alternative routes. By the top of the climb I was well above the tree line and in peaceful, mountainous terrain. Even in December there was knee-deep snow on the ground in places and although route finding was not too difficult as the trail goes between several passes, making it hard to get lost. However the map does show several small lakes, which I was very wary of inadvertently walking over while tramping through the snow.
What did surprise me was that even in this harsh environment there were quite a few small plants growing, including some strange specimens that looked like cactus peeking out from underneath the snow.
The hardest part of the day’s trek (and perhaps one of the hardest parts of the whole Dientes de Navarino circuit) was the short section from Paso Australia to Paso del los Dientes. Here the path contours across steep slopes, below high cliffs with Laguna del Paso far below. The route is really quite tricky in places, especially with a heavy backpack, and you need to take great care not to lose the track or starting descending towards the lake. There are several sections across snow slopes where it would be difficult to arrest a slide if you fell. All the time Laguna Paso sits ominously below, still largely frozen.
With that said the most difficult section of the trail, requiring a couple of steep exposed climbs, is over very quickly and before I knew it I was at the head of the small valley looking south across a small lake known as Laguna Picacho, towards the southern end of Isla Navarino. Monte Bettinelli – the target for the day – was clearly visible, and it was even possible to see Lago Windhond in the distance. I knew that not far beyond that laid the Southern Ocean. This was surely one of the best vistas of the whole Dientes Circuit, along with the penultimate day on Paso Virginia.
The lake would be a great place for a quick lunch stop, but by now the wind was howling unhindered from the south of the island and I wanted to get to lower ground. At the far, south, end of the lake it was decision time – this is where the (relatively) well marked Dientes Circuit and the Lago Windhond trail diverge, the former indicated by red markers; the latter by yellow. I briefly considered continuing along the Dientes Circuit, but the draw of Lago Windhond (and hopefully the very south of the island) was too great, so I clambered down and over massive boulders, struggling to see any more yellow markers until I entered the forest again. Throughout Navarino the trees holding route markers have been devastated by beaver activity, but the Dientes Circuit is at least reasonably well maintained. The Windhond trail unfortunately is not, though luckily it is not heavily tree-lined and Monte Bettinelli is an easy target to spot!
The open ground and clear cairns made progress much quicker and after a quick water refill I made rapid progress up the slopes – aided (and sometimes hindered) by extremely strong tail-winds. Surely I could get close to Lago Windhond tonight and then finish the trek tomorrow! The view from the summit plateau of Bettinelli was amazing, offering panoramas of Isla Navarino and even across to neighbouring islands in the west.
Feeling great about finally reaching the summit and sure that the most difficult part was over, the next section stopped me dead: the path narrowed considerably and curved around and across a very steep snow slope, out of sight, with a drop of several hundred feet below. I double-checked the markers but the other possible route was even worse and the marker there clearly meant “not this way”. In better conditions the path would not have been so risky, but in heavy snow it offered the real possibility of sliding off and down the mountainside. I did not want to take the chance – it was so narrow that it was not even cut into the rock and as it curved around I was not sure what lay beyond. If the path got any worse I wasn’t sure I would be able to turn around and come back, so I had to decide there and then: it was clearly too dangerous to continue with a heavy pack and in these conditions. Lago Windhond and the south coast of Navarino would have to wait.
Disappointed, but already forming a plan to squeeze the Windhond trek into my itinerary separately somehow, I headed back across the mountain – now head on into the winds – down towards the tree line where I found a sheltered spot to pitch the tent for the night. As consolation the weather calmed down in the early evening, giving fantastic views of the sunset over Navarino’s mountains.