The Sierra Valdiviseo Circuit–Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina (Part One)

By Bryan • argentina, maps, patagonia, personal, photography, travel • 2 Mar 2013

When I was planning my journey to Argentina I opted out of purchasing the full country Lonely Planet.  Full-country LP’s are generally very weak in the trekking & wilderness department as they are keen on one purchasing their trekking guides (they have also moved that direction with urban travelling as well, gently reminding readers that more information is available in Lonely Planet Buenos Aries…).  They are also quite large and cumbersome to be carrying around when one is planning on trekking.  I was confident I would be able to find a used copy in country, similar to how one can find thousands of used LP’s floating around Southeast Asia and Nepal (to name a few places).  I was very wrong.  Patagonia is a knife in your pocketbook.  Don’t expect any cheap finds in this part of the world, but I digress.

I came across the Sierra Valdiviseo Circuit in the LP Trekking Guide to Patagonia and was immediately intrigued.  As I mentioned before, despite it’s positioning as a trekking mecca, hiking in Tierra del Fuego remains incredibly underdeveloped relative to it’s more northern Patagonian cousins.  It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s isolated, it’s dirty, muddy and don’t expect to be rescued if you find yourself in a jam.  I was told that trekkers routinely run into trouble and often perish on the other side of the Beagle Strait while tackling the Dientes Circuit (although when I was in Puerto Williams, the approach to that trek seems far more organized and formal than the Valdiviseo).  It’s everything the end of the world should be.  LP only lists a few treks in the area, most being day hikes into the hills above Ushuaia (Glacier Martial, Laguna Esmeralda) and through the eastern sections of the nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park.  Originally I was planning to tackle the less demanding Paso del la Oveja which passes around the mountains north of Ushuaia, into the National Park and out to the highway.  At three days over a apparently maintained trail on my own, I felt this would probably be more appropriate for my first trek in Argentina.   The Sierra Valdiviseo is rated as demanding in the LP (which generally does not use that word loosely, in my experience), it’s through a wilderness, non-park region of Tierra del Fuego and maps are terrible (as I was to find out).  While the circuit was in the top spot on my list of Tierra del Fuego treks, I’m also not a moron when it comes to backcountry life.  Despite my experiences in international trekking and life in the Canadian bush, this wasn’t really something I wanted to take on by myself.

Then I met Dan on the flight down from Buenos Aries and the circuit suddenly became the hike of choice.

Prepping in Ushuaia was surprisingly frustrating for an up-and-coming outdoor community.  While they sold an amazing variety of camp stoves and other stylish yet useless equipment, not one outdoor store sold any canister fuel or white gas.  The only outfit in town was a local department store, which was closed on Sunday (our prep day) and adhered strictly to siesta and other odd hours of operation.   I had been told canister fuel was somewhat of an issue in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.  Fuel-wise, the local stuff is good to burn…it is just fussy to obtain at times.  Worst case scenario was to use gasoline (good old MSP multi-fuel stoves!).

Reliable maps and local information regarding the trek was also fussy to uncover.  Neither mine nor Dan’s hostels had any clue what we were talking about when we asked about the circuit, nor did any of the outdoor stores or tour outfits.  A couple people had heard of it, but I was routinely redirected to the day treks within the national park.  The best map of the circuit I could find was XXXXX.  This is by far one of the worst maps I’ve ever seen.  It appears if someone had taken a 2004-era Google Sat image (you remember the poor image quality of early Google Earth?), slapped in on paper and estimated approximately the route direction.  Most bizarre were the contour lines.  Half the map had contours, the other half didn’t.  As karma would dictate, the Sierra Valdiviseo didn’t have contours.  I had forgotten my GPS unit so I couldn’t even track the route to upload into OSM, but I had my trusty compass and I remain quite skilful with the unit (which was to come in handy later).  Back in Canada I found this map which is available via EveryTrail which is a trail app for Android and iPhone (yet another reason I need to update my Palm Treo 750).  It’s a pretty awesome map and is exactly where we went.  A compass, the LP map (which was surprising good) and the crappy local map combined with a few cairns, bits of flagging tape and footprints and you’ll get yourself through this 5-day trek no problem!  The SVC is hardly undocumented and there are bunch of blog entries about it floating around, many much better than this one, but it’s always good to have yet another bit of text and photo floating around the net.

Loaded up with food, fuel and what maps and information we could find it was time to hit the trail.  It doesn’t really matter which direction one takes on the circuit.  West to East, or East to West, but I would recommend running the route East to West.  There are three demanding passes to navigate and I felt the ascents from East to West were much easier than moving from West to East.  You also will not be expected to make what could be a trek-killing ford of the River Benban until your last day if you move East to West.  You will be absolutely filthy and soaking wet by that point, so what’s a chest deep ford right before the end?  If you trek West to East, you’ll hit that bad boy within the first two-hours of the first day.

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The Benban valley from Route 3.  The East trailhead is approximately 20 minutes out of Ushuaia via taxi (which clocked in at about 250 pesos).  It’s a little difficult to find, but just look for the natural gas pipeline along the highway.  The trailhead is on the north side  right where the pipeline crosses the road.  If you see the pipeline on the south side of the road, you’ve gone too far.

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The east trailhead.  Apparently it is an old logging road.  Expect to have wet and muddy feet almost immediately.  We were extremely lucky with the weather and only experienced the famous Tierra del Fuego rain storms at night.  This trek would be absolutely miserable in the rain.  48.9km…here we come.

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There are three fords to cross on this trek, with the first to only several km into the first day.  My LP trekking guide was written in 2009 and mentioned the presence of a bridge.  It’s not there anymore.

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Muskeg on the first day.  Luckily it was not too wet, but it remains quite spongy and is akin to walking on snow.  The first ‘checkpoint’ is Refugio Benban, which is past the edge of timber in the above photo.  Day one took us past the Refugio and to the back end of the pass to in the left of the photo.

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The key is to stay off the trail.  Yeah, its’ not the most environmentally sensitive way of hiking, but it’s the most sane way of hiking.  It’s fairly obvious that many people use far more destructive ATV’s up to Refugio Benban.  The trail is fairly well defined from the trailhead to the Refugio.  Keep an eye on disturbed ground and there is the odd piece of flagging tape to mark your way.

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It’s easy to believe that you are making progress away from the wet muskeg areas as you climb.  Don’t be deceived.  Aside from the three passes later on, mud and muskeg dominate.

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Mighty Refugio Benban looking south.  Highway 3 skirts the foot of the mountains in the distance.  The Refugio is surprisingly well stocked although it is a shame to see the amount of rubbish disposed of in and around the structure.  LP recommends spending your first night here, but it’s only about 2 hours from the trailhead.  I recommend pushing further, past the next ford and to the back of the pass.

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A good piece of advice for this trek is to always stay high whenever possible or whenever in doubt. You do not want to forge your way through the above.   Four days later you will find yourself exiting the trek along the far pass in the above photo.  Follow the vague trail, marked with the odd cairn and piece of tape.  As always, look for the footprints.

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This shot was taken about an hour from Refugio Benban looking West toward the ski hills.

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The second ford, about 1.5/2 hours from Refugio Benbad.  It’s an easy cross, where the trail take you into the timber and promptly disappears.  Our goal for the first day will be the end of this valley and slightly to the left toward Paso Benban One.

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This was the most difficult section of the first day.  Once the second ford is complete, we found ourselves up against some timber on the left side of the river.  The trail disappears into the woods and you are essentially on your own for navigation.  Dead fall is everywhere and it is quite challenging to route through.  Stay high and away from the river.  The route becomes confusing as one approaches the end of the valley.

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Looking toward the end of the valley.  At this point, trekkers have a choice.  There is a flagged route that will take you over the hills in the left of the photo and up to some exposed, but somewhat decent campsites near a small stream.  This is the route we took, but in retrospect, I would not follow the flags and continue right to the back end of the valley where it connects with the valley coming down from Paso Benban One.  It doesn’t really matter, as either route will take you to Paso Benban One.

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Camp one, looking down the valley we hiked up.  A little exposed, but flat with a good water source to the right.   This is where quality of equipment comes into play.  Dan (blue) rented his stuff from his hostel and unfortunately ended up sleeping in puddles that night, while I had a very nice sleep.  I’m still surprised that his hostel rented such garbage, although it is yet another reason why Ushuaia is a few notches behind in the trekking industry leaderboard.

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My forest service mug that the Fort Nelson office gave me when I left in November.  It has served me well. 

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