Desert Vibes

Desert Vibes
Photo: Ben Clark

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Running at the End of the World—Dientes de Navarino Circuit

The Location
Before packing my bags and heading south for the winter I solicited the Boulder Trail Runners for running suggestions. Peter Bakwin and Buzz Burrell both were quick to chime in. Among the many routes they offered was the Dientes de Navarino circuit accessed from Puerto Williams, Chile—southernmost city/town/village/whatever-you-want-to-call-it in the world! Getting to Puerto Williams is a bit easier now than it was when these two guys did the circuit. There are essentially daily boats from multiple carriers that depart Ushuaia for Puerto Navarino (a small port with two families living there) where you hop in a van for 50 kilometers or so to arrive in Puerto Williams.

While in Ushuaia I did a few good runs, but nothing overly spectacular. The city itself was bigger than I had hoped, noisy, full of loud/obnoxious street racing’ish cars, and just overall unpleasant. I refused to accept Ushuaia as El Fin del Mundo. In my eyes the end of the world should be much smaller and quieter—tranquilo. It should also be rugged and isolated with a surreal beauty that can be daunting at times.

Puerto Williams is where I found these things; the rugged isolation was everywhere. There is the potential to go out in the mountains for weeks there and never see another human being. These types of environments are what I love. ClichĂ© as it sounds; it’s in places like this where you’re reminded just how insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things.

Intro to the Circuit
Typically, when I tell locals, park rangers, or trekkers about my running plans I get the same reaction—a look of disbelief that simultaneously says you’re an idiot, you’re full of crap, and you’re probably going to get yourself killed. I thought the looks/reactions I received in Bariloche, Chalten, and Ushuaia were bad, but they were nothing compared to those in Puerto Williams.

Apparently not too many people try to do this circuit in one day. And by not too many I mean that (from info in town from the locals, Carabineros, etc.)  I’m possibly the second or third party to try it one day, but I have a feeling there has to be others. Peter, Buzz, Lisa, and Stephanie did the loop in 11:26 back in 2005—starting and finishing at Plaza de la Virgen. Someone told me a group of English fell runners have done it in 8-9 hours, but I can’t find any record of that anywhere (not saying it didn’t happen just can’t find any proof). I may possibly be the first person to do it solo in one day, but again I’m sure someone else has likely already done this—just can’t find any record. I can’t possibly fool myself into thinking that I’m the only trail runner in the world dumb enough to go down here and do this route solo in one day…

So, I decided to approach this circuit with a goal of besting 11:26. Starting at Plaza de la Virgen there is about 1.2 miles of gravel road running to reach the trail head. The trail finishes about 4.5-5 miles west of the Plaza. Everything else is technical mountain trails with a total absence of cruiser singletrack. In total, the circuit is around 54’ish kilometers when you start and finish at the Plaza. 
Starting Point--Plaza de la Virgen
Disappointment in the Dientes—First Try on the Circuit
After scouting out the weather for a few days I decided on the 14th of March as THE day. After my morning coffee, a small breakfast, and my last minute preparations Cecilia (owner of Refugio El Padrino) was gracious enough to escort me to the Carabineros (police) to let them know that the dumb gringo was planning to do a 5-day trek in one day and give me a ride to the Plaza de la Virgen for the start.

Around 8:30 AM, mas o menos, I took off. From the start my legs felt lethargic as I struggled to find a rhythm running up the 1.2’ish mile gravel road in the frigid morning air. I eventually reached the peak of Cerro Bandera and was rewarded with a great view off the Beagle Channel and Puerto Williams down below. The trail then cruised along the mountain side for a few kilometers deeper into the valley. The descent down to Laguna del Salta was a bit of a death trap—sharp talus covered with frost from the brisk morning. After almost falling several times I finally opted to put on my Microspikes for the descent and risk dulling them prematurely. The fun wasn’t over after the descent. I still had to boulder hop from the northeast shore to the southwest shore of the laguna with the dreaded ice still mocking me every step of the way. 
Pretty cold start to the day
View from Cerro Bandera
The climb from Laguna del Salto to Paso Primero was a fun slog through a small, muddy stream of cascading snow melt with mud sometimes coming to about 6-inches above my ankles. I got duped into one or two side trips between Paso Primero and Paso Australia since they were marked with cairns just like the main trail. After Paso Australia I got to play in a few snow fields before popping over Paso de los Dientes for another stretch of icy talus and boulder hopping. Again, the stretch from Paso de los Dientes until first glimpse of Laguna de los Dientes was scenic yet uneventful—seemingly never-ending boulder hopping for the most part. 
Between Paso Primero and Paso Australia
Boulder hopping
Laguna de los Dientes is where things got a bit interesting. I didn’t know it at the time, but the trail markers split in both directions around the laguna. I chose to head south—I chose poorly. After slogging my way through beaver-devastated shorelines I found myself at the southern edge of the laguna. I was debating heading back to where I first caught glimpse of the laguna (and the last trail marker I had seen) when I noticed a couple of cairns. There were no other cairns to be found after though. I searched around for over an hour trying to find the trail. 
Beaver damage everywhere.
Finally, 2 PM arrived—the self-imposed “commit or quit” time I had chosen. I decided to turn around and retrace my steps back to the beginning of the route and admit defeat. I didn’t bring any gear for enduring a cold night in the rugged mountains and I certainly wouldn’t be able to follow the route in the dark. Turning around at 2 PM gave me plenty of time to get safely out of the mountains before darkness.
View from Cerro Bandera as I retreated back to the warmth of El Padrino
I was a bit sickened at my problems with route finding. Mainly because the day I chose to do the route turned out to be perfect in every way—no wind, no precipitation, and shirtless-running temperatures. Damnit…

Stats for the day:
Miles—24
Vertical—7,600 feet
Time—10 hours 45 minutes

Who Actually Learns the Lesson the First Time?—Second Try on the Circuit
I sat in Refugio El Padrino for the next few days as I watched the weather turn to absolute crap—rain, wind, clouds, and cold. This sickened me even more. I came to the end of the earth—a place notorious for predictably unpredictable weather—and blew my one shot at completing the circuit in near-perfect weather conditions. I kept watching the weather forecast though…Just in case.

About four days after my failed attempt another glorious day came out of nowhere. Armed with better route information (I thought at the time) I prepared for another go. This time I set out to do everything on my own—let the Carabineros know I’m an idiot and make my way on foot to the start at Plaza de la Virgen (a 20 minute warm-up). It didn’t take long to warm-up because the morning was surprisingly hot compared to the morning of my first attempt.

My legs felt fresh and ready to go from the beginning. I was making great time up to Cerro Bandera and looked to top out in about 45 minutes or so—10 minutes faster than previous. About 10 minutes from the summit some stomach issues needed to be addressed. This gave me the opportunity to shed some layers and get everything resituated so it wasn’t that much of a disappointment. Nature calls sometimes, right?
Heading into the valley towards the Dientes
Having already covered this section of the trail made it pretty easy this time around. I arrived at the south shore of Laguna del Salto in 2:18—12 minutes faster than before. I seemed to dispose of the trail pretty effortlessly until I arrived at the shore of Laguna de los Dientes at the 3:41 mark—almost 2 hours faster than previous. With the kilometers quickly passing I began thinking that the 11:26 goal was totally do-able. And then I lost the trail…for the first time…
All smiles after 2-3 hours on my feet

Moving from Paso Primero to Paso Australia

View after Paso Australia
First glimpse of Laguna de los Dientes
It seems that the map I have was made in 2003. Ten years is a LONG time for a plague of beavers to dramatically alter the landscape. This means the map that I bought is now nowhere near accurate in terms of depicting bodies of water for the area, which makes it incredibly easy to lose the friggin’ trail. Fortunately, the topography is one thing the beavers can’t change.

I confused one of these beaver flood zones as Laguna Escondida and with a very brief glance at my map confirmed this. So, without a cairn in sight I decided to push up-and-over some random mountain pass, which turned out to be somewhat difficult. Things didn’t really get interesting until I topped out on the pass and caught glimpse of this big, beautiful lake—Laguna Esondida. Damnit…

I was now faced with the decision of going back down and around Cerro Gabriel to get to Laguna Escondida the safe way (on the actual trail) or descending about a 40-60% grade (depending on route finding) of loose scree/talus/boulders to get down. I really didn’t feel like backtracking so I let the shit-show commence.

Shortly after committing to the sketchy descent I realized it was a mistake and I’d likely get injured, but I had already committed and going up didn’t really seem like a good option now. With each step I watched layers of scree and talus go sliding down the mountain side. A boulder or two would occasionally gain some momentum and crash down the slope all the way to the bottom to make sure I was aware of how stupid this idea really was.  

When I finally reached the shore of Laguna Escondida and rejoined the trail I had been out for over 5.5 hours (5:32 to be exact). It took me almost 2 hours to cover 1.5 kilometers of the official trail by detouring up-and-over the sketchy pass, which I now call Paso del Idiota (Pass of the Idiot). I still held on to a faint hope of besting the 11:26 mark, but I didn’t have much more tolerance for route-finding errors. 
Looking at the descent that awaited me from Paso del Idiota
The trail from Laguna Escondida, over Paso Ventarron, and down towards Laguna Hermosa was technical, but well-marked and runnable. Around Laguna Hermosa is where I encountered my next route-finding error. Again, the cairns just seemed to disappear. Without the trail in sight I took matters into my own hands yet again and proceeded up-and-over an even sketchier pass than Paso del Idiota—I called this pass Paso ‘thehellwasIthinking.

On the way to Paso Ventarron
The descent down this pass was pretty much equivalent to the descent down Paso del Idiota, but the big difference was the ascent. The ascent was about 60% grade of alarmingly loose scree, talus, and boulders that proved nearly impossible to climb. I opted to bust out the Microspikes again and utilize the snow/ice that I had been trying to avoid. One slip on the snow/ice would lead to me sliding about 100 meters or more down to the bottom where some nice, soft rocks awaited to break my fall (or break something). So I climbed with my left side on the snow and my right side in the rocks to hopefully allow for easy exit from the snow if I should lose traction.

From Paso ‘thehellwasIthinking I caught a glipse of the unmistakable Laguna Martillo with the Montes Lindenmayer mountain range—a pretty spectacular sight. I made my way towards the southeast shoreline where I finally rejoined with the trail and could enjoy the comfort that only cairns can provide. Upon reaching the shoreline I realized that my right shoe was completely blown out. The upper was separated from the sole from heal-to-toe, which would essentially eliminate all running I could do for the remainder of the circuit. 
Shores of Laguna Martillo
I began the muddy, boggy slog from the shores of Laguna Martillo to the beginning of the final challenging ascent to Paso Virginia. Of course, I got off trail again. After some mindless wandering without a cairn in sight I had decided to just follow the valley in a northwesterly direction back to the main coastal road. This idea didn’t last for too long since I quickly realized the deathtrap I would be facing—ridiculous amount of downed trees mostly hidden under thick layers of undergrowth that would break under the slightest amount of weight. So I decided to head upward above treeline in search of Paso Virginia in hopes that I could somehow get back to signs of civilization before dark. The path of least resistance proved to be a small mountain stream with countless downed trees crisscrossing it. I eventually got above treeline to notice a roaring mountain stream, cascading gradually down the slope—just like the Lonely Planet guidebook said. Upon further inspection, I found a cairn! 

I stumbled from cairn-to-cairn like a drunken idiot with hobo shoes until I topped out at Paso Virginia and eventually got my first glimpse of the other side. Laguna los Guanacos, a beautiful valley, and the Beagle Channel all seemed so close. I finally had my first sighting of the route back to civilization! Perhaps the most comforting feeling was looking down and being able to see a well-defined trail for a significant distance, which convinced me that I would make it back before dark. Oh, how deceiving looks can be…
View from Paso Virginia of Laguna de los Guanacos and the Beagle Channel
The descent from Paso Virginia to the shores of Laguna los Guanacos included a steep-as-hell section of scree surfing, which would normally be much welcomed fun. However, in shitty shoes sans socks this proved to be extremely painful with every poke and prod from the larger, sharper rocks. Once I got to the northern shore of Laguna los Guanacos I ran into David and Paula (two guides who were staying at the same hostel as me) at around 7:30 PM. I chatted with them for a bit, politely refused their offerings of food, and nodded with them in agreement that I should be able to easily cover the remaining 2.1 km back to the road before dark. I had about an hour to cover the last 2.1 km before darkness set in—easy, right? Not at all. 
Looking back at the descent from Paso Virginia that included two sections of talus surfing.
Almost immediately after parting ways with David and Paula I began a section of bushwhacking with mud coming up to 4-5 inches above my ankles in places—the entire time hoping the soles of my shoes would just stay attached for a little while longer. I eventually reached the moderate relief of an obvious trail, but had to endure sharp rocks piercing my feet once more. And then the true shit-show started; meandering through thorn bushes, prickly plants, and a mixture other things that hurt like hell as I wandered aimlessly in the dark among a maze of cattle trails. Fortunately, I knew where I needed to go—down.

Eventually, I bottomed out somewhat in a small river bed and then had no idea what direction I needed to go. I put my watch in compass mode and just started moving north crisscrossing the river, hopping up and over downed trees, and barging through thorn bushes. After doing this for a while I emerged from the forest to a flat, grassy area with some big, unknown object looming in the distance. As I got closer I soon realized it was a ~10 feet high cattle fence. Much to my relief, as I neared the fence I soon realized that just in front was the main coastal road! I had just completed the Dientes de Navarino solo and self-supported in 14’ish hours! Now I just had to run about 8 kilometers on a gravel road with destroyed shoes to get back to town. Shit…

After a few minutes of searching for the motivation to run I set off in a trot, slowly increasing my cadence until I hit a decent running pace, with the intent of not stopping again until I reached town. I could already tell that it was going to be a miserable experience with my feet sliding off the soles of my shoes with each step.

A couple minutes into running I noticed a light shining in the distance. I covered my headlamp to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating or something. Then I heard voices. As I neared I realized it was Max and Jorrit, two friends staying at my hostel, who got a bit worried about me when it was dark and I hadn’t returned yet. So they borrowed the hostel owner’s car to come see if they could find me.  When I reached them it was a no-brainer for me—I was taking a ride back. My intent was to close the loop back to Plaza de la Virgen, but given the circumstances—busted shoes and not on FKT pace—I decided that simply doing the trail section was more than enough. I took a beer from the guys, hopped in the car, and rode back into town completely exhausted after 14.5 hours or so on my feet in the rugged, isolated mountains. 
What my shoes looked like for half of the 14+ hour outing
I consumed only 600 calories in VFuel gels and a few liters of water during the entire day and never really felt dehydrated or lacking in energy. I’m continually amazed at how much activity I can do with little-to-no VFuels during the course of the run.

Stats for the day:
Miles—25
Vertical—10,000 feet
Time—14 hours 17 minutes

Best part of the entire day (besides being in the mountains for 14 hours) was returning back to the hostel where the owner, Cecilia, had prepared an amazing seafood soup for dinner. The soup seemed to warm every part of my body that had started to freeze during the last few hours of wandering around in the dark.

Big thanks to:
·         VFuel for the energy to play in the mountains all day long
·         Cecelia and Refugio El Padrino in Puerto Williams, Chile for making me feel at home
·         Max and Jorrit for greeting me at the finish with a beer and giving me a ride back home
·         Peter Bakwin for route information and sharing the wealth of knowledge he has


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