Trekking at the end of the world
In Chilean Patagonia, Dientes de Navarino is a trek of superlatives. It departs from the southernmost city in the world, Puerto Williams, on the 55th parallel. Because it is so close to the Antarctic tectonic plate, cold air and fierce weather is blowing from the frozen continent below. No other landmass extends so far south, so the winds of the race are uninterrupted around the globe before crashing violently into the namesake of the trek dientes, which translates to “teeth”, in reference to mountain peaks. The result is a whimsical and volatile climate that has earned the route another unofficial superlative: the world’s most unpredictable trek.
Our next trek would cover 35 to 45 miles, depending on the route we chose and how accurately our trackers monitor our steps in the mud and snow. First hiked in the late 1990s, but only officially (and partially) marked in 2016, about 200 people attempted the trail each year before it opened. Since then, the number has grown to between 1,000 and 1,500 per year.
When I boarded it was close to 11 p.m. on December 8, 2019, approaching the longest day of the year. Due to the freezing rain and extremely deep snow, the trail is only passable for a short time: around December to the end of February, the peak of the Chilean summer. But due to the mountainous terrain, cold temperatures and snow exist all year round. My companions, solo travelers grouped together by the guide company Chile Nativo, are all active types: an aerial arts instructor from Tennessee, a professional kayaker from Chile, an author who had just hiked the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand. , among others. We had stayed awake too late at the bar at La Yegua Loca, our hotel in the town of Punta Arenas, the closest town on the Chilean mainland to Puerto Williams on the island of Navarino. The sun was barely starting to set despite the late hour, and as we sat around the bar table, we tried to temper expectations of each of our hiking prowess before heading back to our rooms to sort our bags and enjoy the last bit of Wifi.
At 9 a.m., we boarded a nine-person propeller plane for a one-hour flight from Punta Arenas to the town of Puerto Williams. The winds were gusting at 75 miles per hour, and the plane looked like something out of an Indiana Jones movie: a single forward propeller; an open cockpit of cloudy dials and hanging ropes. The wind slowly blew the plane across the runway as we boarded, creaking miserably under the weight of each new passenger as if in protest that it was never designed to carry a full load.
Laughing at our worries about the weather, the pilots told us to buckle up, hold on and not worry as the winds dropped and lifted us like a paper plane over the Strait of Magellan. I focused on the glaciers, hovering on the surface of the rough, almost frozen sea of the Beagle Channel below us.