Friday, November 15, 2013

Navarino Part III: Paso de los Dientes and Descent into the Swamp

Part III in the story of my 7-day solo trek on Isla Navarino, continued from Part II: The hike begins. To start at the beginning or to see the full list of Navarino episodes, click here.

The night had been rough due to the wind and rain. 

I felt like I had been rained on all night since every time a drop of water would hit the tent in the right place hard enough (which was often), a tiny bit of spray would hit my face through the tent. I woke up at first light at 4:30 am to puddles of water inside the tent from condensation and a very damp sleeping bag (my most prized possession—my 0°F down sleeping bag—is wonderfully cozy and warm, but the minute it gets wet it becomes worthless as an insulating layer, so the damp bag was not just annoying, it was potentially dangerous). The inside walls of the tent were dripping wet and I spent a good twenty minutes sopping up the puddles with my little camp rag, wringing it out on the ground outside through the bottom zipper, soaking up more puddles, wringing out the rag, wiping down the walls, wringing out the rag, wiping down my sleeping bag and sleeping mat, wringing out the rag, and starting over in what felt like a hopeless case of bailing water out of my tent. Exhausted, discouraged, and frustrated, I went back to sleep. I woke again at 6 am, repeated the process, went back to sleep, and finally woke up for good at 8 am.

View from my campsite after Night 1

After another wipe-down of the tent, I cooked water for breakfast (oatmeal with generous scoops of honey, as well as some cookies and a half-moldy mandarin—you take what you can get in Puerto WIlliams), checking the water periodically through the bottom zipper. The sun came out briefly, cheering me up significantly and giving me a chance to partially dry out my soggy tent and sleeping bag while I made lunch (Chilean flatbread, which holds up well to a beating and tastes fabulous, some slices of packaged salami, smeared with butter and avocado) and studied my maps and trail guides. My goal that day was to cross over the Paso de los Dientes and head down a side trail to the north shore of Lago Windhond, some 13 km to the South as the crow flies. By the time I had eaten and packed and hit the trail, it was already 11 am.

The first snowfield, the tops of the peaks I'd skirt in a blizzard later in the day peaking out over the top.

The trail from the frozen lake climbed steeply up a creek bed at the north shore to a wide white bowl that was another frozen-over lake buried in a thick layer of snow. From the bowl of snow, the trail continued up a shallow snow-covered ridgeline. The sleet started almost as soon as I began the climb and turned to increasingly heavy snow as I continued, postholing through the deep, crusty snow all the way to the top of Paso de los Dientes, the first of the mountain passes of the Dientes circuit. By the time I arrived at the top of the pass, I was in the middle of a blizzard. Visibility was poor at best and there was no trail as any signs or cairns were buried in snow. But I can read a map and a compass and when I repeatedly ended up at places that, at least in the limited visibility looked like they were supposed to, I felt pretty confident that I was on track. Every once and a while after carefully picking my way across a steep snowfield that fell down into the end of my field of view or scrambling along slippery, rocky ridges I’d come onto an unburied cairn, confirming my choice of path.  However, due to the snow, the hike had taken a full three hours instead of the hour and a half I had been expecting.

Me in the Dientes in the sleet.

The views, I’m sure, would have been spectacular. I had heard that on a clear day from the pass you have stunning views of the mountains and ocean in all directions. As it was I could barely occasionally make out the outlines of the massive peaks that I was skirting.

It was still beautiful though.

I descended from the pass past more frozen alpine lakes and the snow turned back into rain and the cairns marking the trail gradually became visible again. I reached the turnoff for Lago Windhond (marked by a little arrow and LW spraypainted on a rock in a boulderfield). Scree gave way to peat at the end of the descent as I approached the beaver-dammed lake at the other side of the pass. In theory, there was a trail (I was in possession of a map showing a trail and even GPS waypoints all the way to the north end of the lake). But I kept losing the trail as the area was a maze of fallen logs and the beavers had run off with, it seemed, all the trail markers (which at this elevation were red stripes painted onto tree trunks). My GPS signal kept cutting out due to the heavy cloud cover, so was little help in finding the trail. Studying the map, I decided to continue straight on past the lake and through the bog instead of fighting through trees up ridges—the route the map showed—without a clear trail. At least in the swamp I could see where I was going.

Beaver damage along the shores of a lake south of the Paso de los Dientes

It was relatively good going along the side of the lake with the exception of some fighting through bushes until I got to the bog. It was like that scene in Lord of the Rings where Frodo and Sam and Gollum pick their way through the Dead Marshes, an absolute maze of soggy spongy ground snaking around eerie-looking holes (hereafter called the Death Swamp) that, I would soon find out, would happily pull you in and keep you there forever. I was soaking wet after the hike through the snow, and was not getting any drier slogging in the rain through the mushy bog, often slipping knee or even hip-deep into soft spots in the moss. It was like walking on a giant soaking wet sponge, complete with holes to fall into. Progress in the Death Swamp was extremely slow and, in the freezing rain, I started to lose my happy. And that was when I came across a line of water as far as I could see in either direction, too wide to jump across, even if it had been possible to get a running start in the moss. It was either attempt to hike around—wherever around was, which as far as I knew could be all the way back to the beginning of the bog—or choose my steps well and attempt to wade through.

Figuring I couldn’t possibly get any wetter at that point and may as well wade, I stepped…and immediately sank chest-deep into the muck.

The Death Swamp. Looks innocent enough in this photo, but beware!

My now waterlogged backpack rapidly became heavier as it started to fill with water and pushed me deeper into the mud, which seemed to have no bottom. I tried to stay calm, remembering horror stories from childhood about people struggling and drowning in quicksand because of their struggles and wondered if this could be similar as I tried to swim my way through the viscous goo to the other side. When I reached the bank, there was nothing solid to grab onto. Only sponge, and I was still chest-deep in mud with a heavy pack pinning me down.

After frantically smearing my hands around for a bit and realizing I wasn’t going to find anything to grab onto, I dug my arms as deep as I could into the moss on the bank to serve as anchors, and pulled on all of my climbing muscles to heave myself partly up so that my chest was on the bank and then, holding my chest up with my arms which were slipping out of the moss, I swung a leg up, and face and belly buried in the moss I wiggled, slowly, miserably, up out of the bog. It felt like ten minutes but in reality I was probably only in the water for less than 30 seconds. Still, it was more than long enough to get very, very wet, and enough to scare me. Dying in an avalanche while doing some epic splitboarding? Fine. Dying by hypothermia because I couldn't crawl my way out of a stinky hole in a swamp? Significantly less fine.

The hole that tried to eat me alive, trekking pole stuck partway in the mud inside for scale.

I threw off my drowned pack and unzipped my jacket as water poured out of it. My camera had been tucked away inside my jacket, and it had been submerged. My pockets, too, were full of water and I emptied those, wondering if any of my stuff: camera, cellphone that I had been using as my GPS, chargers, water treater, etc. would ever work again. I tried to dry things out as best I could by wiping them off with my undershirt, patches of which had managed to stay dry, but the patches were small and the rest of me was just as wet as the equipment, so I wasn’t able to do much good.

But mostly I was worried about my sleeping bag. Down bags are totally worthless when wet, and it was cold out, and if my sleeping bag was wet it was going to be a very rough night. As it turned out, however, the bag was fine. I had stored it in a plastic garbage bag and that had kept the water out of it. Same with my thermal camp clothes which I had also stashed inside a garbage bag inside my pack. My electronic stuff was maybe fried, but at least I’d be warm and dry that night.

Raindrops falling in pools in the forest. Photo taken while I was still un-miserable enough to enjoy the beauty of the rain...and while my camera was still working.

Shivering, sopping wet, hungry, and without a means of catching a GPS signal with soaked equipment and heavy cloud cover, I gave up on WIndhond and decided to head for the woods on the horizon in an attempt to find a somewhat sheltered, not-waterlogged, somewhat flat place to pitch my tent for the night. I walked as fast as I could (mostly to warm myself up) across the bog, focused on stepping on safe spots and praying for no more long uncrossable lines of mud. About an hour later, at around 6:30 pm, I made it to the woods. In the first semi-level spot I found big enough to set up my little tent I dropped my pack and attempted to build a fire, no easy task given the downpour and how hard I was shivering. Miraculously, I succeeded, and as the fire grew I hung my clothes and soggy boots on branches around it to try to dry them.

I was shaking hard from the cold, too hard to get my tent out of its bag. Remembering stories about the island’s natives who had preferred nudity to clothing because the place was always so damned wet and wet clothes are colder than bare skin, I stripped naked next to the fire. I felt immediately warmer. The natives were right, standing next to the fire with the rain falling on my bare skin, I was far warmer than I had been all day, and was able to stop shivering long enough to set up my tent.

Campsite. Yeah, camera wasn't working too well after its swim in the Death Swamp.

I could see steam coming off of my boots and clothes and hoped that the flux of water out of my clothes via steam was greater than the flux in by rain dripping in through the trees. Item by item as my stuff went from soaked to merely soggy, I tossed things into the tent. There’s nothing quite like snuggling with wet gear, but I didn’t want stuff to get any wetter.

As I arranged things in my tent I suddenly smelled smelly sock…smelly sock…SMELLYSOCK! I bolted out of the tent and saw one of my socks on fire. I snatched it and the other clothes items away from the fire, but it was too late for the socks. The toes of one had burned clean off, and there were large scorched holes in all the others. Shit. I had brought my only two pairs of good hiking socks, planning to switch them out each day and wear one pair while the other dried, and now both were burnt. I had brought one other pair of thinner socks, and although the thinner socks were much harder on my feet and I had meant them as dry camp socks, they would have to do.

My sad-looking campsite the following morning.

I didn’t even bother to cook dinner. I ate the rest of my open pack of cookies, my second sandwich that I had been too wet to eat before, and a few handfuls of cold Garbonzo mash instead. It was damp in the tent but at least I was out of the rain. My phone hadn’t died during the swim, but I still wasn’t getting a GPS signal. Still, after looking over the maps again I thought I had a pretty good idea of where I was and figured I was within an hour or two of the refugio that supposedly existed at the northern end of the lake. If I could make it to the refugio in the morning, I could hang out there and dry my stuff. Although I had heard that the place was infested with giant somethings—the Spanish word wasn’t one I had understood sounded like some sort of rodent but could be mosquitoes. Also, I had seen a few fresh-ish footprints of a group of three or so men on the way down from the pass earlier that day so it could be infested with humans as well. Being alone I was even less keen on seeing a group of unknown men than giant rats or mosquitoes. So as I curled up in my sleeping bag wearing every item of dry clothing I had (including, thankfully, my down jacket) I prayed for a dry day, at least a day without any more dunks in the Death Swamp, and that the refugio would be empty when I arrived.

Despite the wet, I fell asleep early and slept well that night, no doubt completely and utterly exhausted.

But I survived, and the story continues in better weather: Navarino Part IV: Refugio Charles and Lago Windhond