Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Hiking the Sierra Valdivieso Circuit

Remember when I wrote in our last blog post that we were told there would be too much snow and wildfire damage for us to hike the circuit we´d planned? That area was the Sierra Valdivieso, and despite the nay-sayers we went anyway and spent 5 glorious days there. We suspected a lot of snow had melted after the string of warm days we experienced, and post-fire forests are landscapes we know well from Alaska, so we weren´t too worried about the hike being too ´´ugly´´ (as we were warned by many). The tourist info center warned against it whereas a local guide and a local rancher told us to go for it, but all in all we couldn´t find anyone who´d actually done the hike in recent years. Local knowledge is probably the most valuable source of information we have here in this new environment and we appreciate the folks who have shared what they know with us. However, this trek was also a good reminder that hiking our way across Argentina and Chile depends largely on our own assessment and knowledge of the mountains. With our base of past experience, if we leave prepared and with whatever information we can get, we should be well equipped to assess the terrain and make our own decisions. 
Okay, enough about planning. Let´s talk about hanging glaciers and wildflowers and a remote patch of earth just outside touristy Ushuaia where you can hike for days without encountering another person (though you may encounter and pack out their luggage tags, sunglasses, and broken trekking poles left along the trail :).

A couple hours into Day 1, near Refugio Bonete

The Sierra Valdivieso Circuit passes through peat bogs, Fuegian forest, alpine meadows, and areas of bare rock, snow, and ice. It is described as a 4-day hike by the Lonely Planet Trekking in the Patagonian Andes guide, and we brought food for 6 days (we lucked out with mostly good weather, but bringing extra is a good idea given the incredibly variable weather). We chose to spend five days out there, including 4 moderate hiking days and 1 day relaxing in camp by the river. We spent the first day climbing gradually from peat bog into forest, and then past beaver ponds into the alpine where we camped in a small grove of trees next to house-sized boulders in the valley below our first pass, Paso Beban. Wind howled that night, keeping us both awake (and grateful for the protection of the trees), but the morning was calm and sunny, perfect for crossing the pass. Sun turned to hail by lunch time in upper Rio Torito, and then back into a mix of sun and clouds for our trek through the valley. We passed the area affected by the fire, which had burned parts of an area approximately 2km x 5 km though we only had to hike through about 1 km. of it. I was fascinated to see the few plants and mushrooms beginning to re-grow already, just 1 year after what appears to have been a fairly severe fire. By late afternoon, we were back into the alpine and camped beside the turquoise waters of Laguna Azul. 

View down to LagunaAzul

Day 3 started with a climb to Paso Mariposa, our highest point along the route (at only about 1000 meters, which believe it or not is right around the permanent snowline in this environment).  The sun was shining bright but it was WINDY. Just 100 meters shy of the pass as we stopped to brace ourselves against a strong gust, Markus´ sunglasses were blown off his face and flew another 50 meters downhill before landing behind a rock. After so many years in calm Fairbanks, the wind here seems amazingly powerful and exhilarating (and challenging once in awhile when we want to sleep, or walk outside…)! Needless to say, we didn´t dwell too long on the pass and headed down to the treeline, up again into a high valley filled with stair-step lakes of blue water, over the next pass below hanging glaciers, and then into a long final descent back into the forested Valle Carbajal. We climbed over downed trees and skirted ponds (all created by the introduced North American beavers), and then found a lovely camp by the Rio Olivia. We woke up Day 4 to rain and decided to spend the morning in camp, which later morphed into a rest day sitting by the river and reading, journaling, and taking photos.

Markus hikes through the peat bog in early morning

We´d read that the Rio Olivia can be too high to cross late in the day due to snowmelt, so we awoke at 5am to try to reach the crossing about 10km downstream by mid-morning. The hike through peat bog was beautiful but long, and with frequent photography, birding, and trail scouting breaks we didn´t reach the river crossing until noon.  The river was deep but, in one spot, exceptionally calm. So we waded across up to our waists with our packs slung over Markus´ shoulders, like wading across the shallow end of a (very cold) swimming pool. Another hour and a half walking a cattle trail brought us to the road, where we chatted briefly with the friendly landowner (who asked if we´d seen any of his cows) and went to stand by the road where we were picked up almost immediately by a very friendly man named Carlos who was returning from a fishing and beaver-trapping trip and gave us a ride back into town. 

Some other highlights:  Birds galore! – we have a bird guide and binos with us and had fun watching new and familiar birds such as parrots, kingfishers, caracaras, chingolos, and house wrens; Daily ´´baths´´ in the ice cold streams; A sunrise hike through the peat bog with mist hanging in the air; and many more.

For anyone who hopes to do this hike: it is a good idea to have route-finding experience in the mountains as the route is not regularly marked and you aren´t likely to encounter other people. That said, we found the route-finding pretty intuitive—in many places as we assessed the lay of the land and picked routes that made sense, we´d come across boot prints in the mud and occasional cairns. In general, the passes are well-marked with cairns. There is no established trail but there are human, cattle, and beaver trails you can follow through the forests and bogs for the most part.  There are (muddy) established trails in the Valle Carbajal at the beginning and end of the circuit, which are marked occasionally by red and white marker tape wrapped around trees. The Lonely Planet Trekking in the Patagonian Andes guide gives a very good description of the route. We found it to be accurate and helpful nearly all the time. The one section we found misleading was in the description of the route from Salta del Azul to Laguna Azul – you don´t need to go very far down valley from the waterfall, contrary to what the guide describes. We overshot the lake by heading too far west but were able to locate it from a ridge and backtrack without much delay.


  1. Based on my Alaska experience with you two I'm guessing I would have died on this relaxed 4 day hike. Sounds absolutely incredible!

  2. Hi Karen! I'm writing a book and need some info as I've never hiked through a bog before. Would you be willing to answer a few questions?

    Thanks :)

  3. Hello, thank you very much for your description. We would like to go in Ushuaia in February. I would say that we are experienced, fast-walking hikers and there is no problem for us walking 12 hours per day, do you think it is feasible to finish this hike in two days or or is it too ambitious? thank you very much for our help