The Yendegaia Traverse

In December 2014 I met a German guy named Markus and we decided to cross on foot from Ushuaia to Chile across the Darwin Cordillera, the most untouched and hostile low altitude wilderness I’ve seen in my life. An area near Yendegaia, in the Chilean Southern Patagonia.

Looking at Google Maps satellite photographs, as there weren't any maps available or any reference of someone that had done the traverse before, we estimated that it’d take us less than a week trekking with heavy backpacks (Markus’s backpack weighed almost 40kg) until we’d reach what would be the southernmost road in Chile, which was supposedly under construction by the Chilean army, near the Eastern side of Lago Fagnano.

My main concerns were the Achilles-tendinitis that I had been developing while hiking with my girlfriend and the fact that my boots were left in el Chaltén, where I was supposed to do proper mountain stuff. I had hitchhiked South to Tierra del Fuego with a pair of light Salomon trekking shoes that were accidentally burnt on a mountain refuge stove by Markus, the day I met him. It wasn’t the best start for our friendship. Luckily the guy at a hostel in Ushuaia was nice enough to lend me a pair of old worn out boots, telling me to bring them back if I’d ever come back to town.
Charged up after a huge Christmas dinner and with kilos of avena packed in our backpacks, we illegally crossed the frontier to venture ourselves in the pathless Patagonian wilderness. We camped by otherworldly sunsets making big fires to dry ourselves to the soul, we saw wild horses and all kinds of birds. No human signs at sight but one small shack eaten up by vegetation at the northern end of Lago Roca.

On the 3rd day of traversing endless wetlands, hip-high meandering rivers and steep forests with impenetrable mazes of fallen trees, we crossed the both physical and psychological point of no return. Also by that time we realized that our pace was extremely slow. As we started questioning the eventual happy end of the adventure, our conversation on the move gradually faded to silence. We only spent the extra energy on comments related to orientation and survival in such alien landscape.

At one point the forest was so dense that we tried to climb up through a river, but when we saw ourselves fighting against deep white water, we understood it wasn't the best idea. Sometimes the vegetation would be so crazy that we’d be either dragging ourselves below several stories of huge fallen trees or walking over the slippery top of it. We strenuously advanced on our physical limit.

By the end of that day I could see the light fading down through the foliage above. We arrived at a shoulder where suddenly the forest opened up enough to see in the distance the last rays of sun bathing some massive hanging glaciers. It was a miraculous view, a sort of window to enlightenment. This somehow meant an unbelievable feeling of warmth and hope. It was reassuring as it reminded me that ‘beauty’ was the reason why I was enduring such hostile place.

But the dense forest rapidly closed the window and we continued navigating those complicated woods in the dark until we decided to stop before collapsing. Soaked and exhausted, that night by the fire we barely talked. We both were aware that if something went wrong in those circumstances it could very possibly have a fatal end.
We knew that we were somewhere near treeline altitude, so we could finally escape to the high mountains. And so it happened the day after, the forest finally opened up, and with high spirits we climbed up fast towards the mountain pass. We didn’t mind the constant rain as we were amazed by the big amount of terrain covered in such short time. We crossed the pass and spent the night on the downhill towards the Northwest. By that time my old boots were falling apart already.

Yet another big fire to warm our souls and dry our drenched clothes while contemplating our fragile state within the grandeur of la Pachamama. Full of doubts and mixed feelings we slipped into our sleeping bags hoping that what laid ahead would be a more manageable environment.

We were up at dawn. My body felt heavy and tired. Legs and arms were covered in scratches. My tendinitis was definitely getting worse. On each step I could feel my heartbeats as pain-beats down inside the boot. That day, apart from the usual forests, wetlands and hip-high meandering rivers, it was time for "the beaver zone"; massive areas where these once introduced creatures thrived with no predators above them, and turned entire valleys into endless systems of dams. It felt almost like a joke, some sort of impassable final boss stage.

On each hill we reached, we thoroughly observed the distance searching for signs of a road, only to find vast expanses of Patagonian wilderness to navigate through. Exhausted after another full day battle, at dusk we decided to set camp on a little ridge that was ahead. I expired my last breaths reaching to the top of it while Markus was behind. It was dark already but I scanned the distance one last time... Any human sign… I saw something. Down the immense valley towards the North, far away ahead, there was a little clear colored dent on the side of a mountain. I quickly pulled out the binoculars. I blinked strongly to try to see through the tears in my eyes, but I already knew what I was looking at. I howled so loud and cried in joy. I looked back and Markus was running up the hill with the biggest grin on his face.

We had found the road.

There was still a long day ahead before getting to the road, but that night we stared at the fire with different eyes. We were so happy to be alive. The stars shone on the unclimbed icy summits and I felt so grateful for everything in my life.
We spent the day after hiking our way towards the road. When we finally reached it, we appeared behind some random bushes to find an army guy operating an excavator truck. He saw us and jumped down perplexed asking questions on how the hell we could be coming from ‘that’ direction. He was happy to see us. He took us to their little outpost, a few miles up North, where we were welcomed by a bunch of very young soldiers cooking Patagonian ‘cordero al palo’ at the fire. And that was by far, the best New Year’s Eve dinner in my life.

Weeks later, in el Chaltén, Argentina, I met a couple that were heading down to Ushuaia and they took the old boots back to the hostel with this story written on a piece of paper inside.

Juan Herrero : photographer & filmmaker from Spain

Juan Herrero is an award winning photographer & filmmaker from Spain, focused in visual storytelling and documentary projects.
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