I’ve promised a piece on our hike of Mount Tarn. I’ve struggled with how to describe the experience. I settled on telling a straight story and providing LOTS OF PICTURES.
So, the facts first. Monte Tarn is a peak on the southern tip of South America. There are islands that, in my mind, are part of the continent further south but Tarn is the last mountain before the continent dissolves into those islands. From the trailhead, you can walk south maybe 10 miles more and then, poof! no more land. The peak was named after Dr. John Tarn, a British surgeon who climbed the peak while sailing with the HMS Adventure and again a few years later when he was serving as ship’s surgeon on the HMS Beagle. A few more years after that, a young naturalist named Charles climbed the peak while also sailing with the Beagle.
Darwin wrote of the ascent in his journal and his description is very like what we experienced. Here is a link to another wordpress site with a nice account and some good video:
From his journal:
“I left the ship at four oclock in the morning to ascend Mount Tarn; this is the highest land in this neighbourhead being 2600 feet above the sea. For the two first hours I never expected to reach the summit. — It is necessary always to have recourse to the compass: it is barely possible to see the sky & every other landmark which might serve as a guide is totally shut out. — In the deep ravines the death-like scene of desolation exceeds all description. It was blowing a gale of wind, but not a breath stirred the leaves of the highest trees; everything was dripping with water; even the very Fungi could not flourish. — In the bottom of the valleys it is impossible to travel, they are barricaded & crossed in every direction by great mouldering trunks: when using one of these as a bridge, your course will often be arrested by sinking fairly up to the knee in the rotten wood; in the same manner it is startling to rest against a thick tree & find a mass of decayed matter is ready to fall with the slightest blow.”
That was written on February 6, 1834 – 183 years ago exactly as I write this journal entry. We hiked on January 29, so pretty close to the same time of year – mid to late summer. Tarn is at 53.7 degrees south latitude so even at this time, it can be chilly. We got lucky and had nice weather. I hiked in short sleeves until very close to the top when the wind made it very cold. Sitting on the peak I had to bundle up and Mary never got warm. But I get ahead of myself.
The first question we had to ask was how to find the trail. I found great accounts of the hike online but little in the way of directions. Moreover, we had a rental car and weren’t eager to take it off-road, which the last 10-15km of the drive to the trailhead was. I contacted a few of the bigger area tour groups who advertised Mount Tarn hikes on their webpages but who, when contacted, either ignored requests or told me they no longer operate a Mount Tarn hike. We suspect that the trouble is that we fall into a relatively small segment of the traveling public in Patagonia. The people we encountered were either “hardcore” and headed for days or weeks (or months or years) in Torres del Paine and Tierra del Fuego or were hopping in off a cruise ship for the day to do a city tour and shop at the market. That is, if you wanted a hard hike up a mountain, world-renowned, rugged trails awaited you with just a little bit more effort. On the other hand, if that didn’t interest you, you probably didn’t want to slog through the decaying forest at the foot of Mount Tarn. Mary and I desperately wanted a hard hike and mountain top view but had only a couple of days. Hence, most of Patagonia was off the table.
I finally succeeded in finding Aldo, the owner of Patagonia Travelers, an adventure travel agency he founded in 2015. Turns out he’s from Kansas, so I felt some kinship even if he didn’t have a clue where I was from. He came to Patagonia on vacation, fell in love with the place and never left. He has worked as a guide and is now trying to make a go of his own shop. He was very accommodating, patiently exchanging email about our goals and time constraints. He agreed Mount Tarn sounded like a good fit but he made other suggestions. We finally came back to Mount Tarn and he arranged to have a guide meet us at our hotel early on Sunday morning.
As promised, our guide, Fernanda, showed up with a driver at the appointed time and we all headed south on Ruta 9, which we had driven to the end of the pavement on our first day. At the end of the pavement there is a monument which we had seen but not understood. Fernanda, who speaks excellent English and good Italian (or so it sounded to me) along with her native Spanish, offered to take our picture at the monument and explained that it marks the middle point of Chile. Chile is a long, narrow country, running 2500 miles or so north to south and probably never being wider than about 100 miles east/west. However, we were about to hike to, essentially, the end of the continent. How, then, could this be the halfway point?
Well, Chile has a significant Antarctic presence of which they are justifiably quite proud and if you simply tally up the latitude of their southern most point in Antarctica and the latitude of their northern most point in South America, the middle is almost at the end of the South American continent. So we trundled out of the van and had our picture made at the monument.
That may be the last picture you see of us from this day in which we are clean.
We drove south on gravel roads which, honestly, weren’t as bad as we’d been led to believe, to the end of even the gravel road. We hopped out and were “given a last chance” by Fernanda to opt for the hike to Faro San Isidro. This is the lighthouse that is furthest south on the continent. It is about a 5km walk along the beach – that is, flat and easy – to the lighthouse. Mary and I said that we definitely wanted to hike up the mountain. Later, toward the end of the hike, Fernanda would tell us she was very happy we chose to ascend the mountain. The choice to go to Faro San Isidro – same price – is an easy one. It’s a few miles along the beach and scores of people were doing it, some carrying picnics others barefoot. I’m sure the lighthouse is nice but a difficult hike it is not and it very much does not require a professional guide. Fernanda and the driver arranged an estimated pick up time (6pm) and we set off at just a little before 10am. Much later than Mr. Darwin began his ascent.
The walk to the trailhead from the parking area is around 500m – note, dear North American readers (most of you) that all measurements here are in m and km; it’s interesting, seeing a road sign with “800 m” as the distance to go – and neither Mary nor myself would, upon our return, recall this stretch of beach walking before reaching the trailhead. I have no picture to show of the trailhead now but there will be one later as we return. It’s a steep entry to the trail as one must ascend from the beach what is, mostly, a climb. It is such a climb that there is a rope present for you to haul yourself up. It is at this point that you first get dirty.
After climbing the 20 feet or so up to the trailhead, you ascend slowly through forest that would be unremarkable in North Carolina. It was cloudy and about 50 F when we started and it could easily have been a late fall hike in North Carolina or even a hike there on a good day in winter. Here, it was mid-summer.
After 1000-1200m, the trail turns more sharply upward and starts to go through…I don’t know how to describe it, the trail floor. It was a spongy material that one could sink in if one weighed significantly more than one’s companions. Fernanda and Mary thought it quite nice, it was soft and gave way easily. I, on the other hand, sank a couple of inches with each step.
Look, let’s just get this out of the way. There were three of us on this hike. Fernanda, a professional guide in her 20s (guessing) and outdoor enthusiast who was very small and light on her feet. Mary, a little older, but a fitness nut who practices yoga, rides centuries, runs marathons and, occasionally, around the world. And me. I outweighed both of the ladies combined, carried a pack and may have done as much physical activity in my life as either of them do in a month. So, as I’m telling the story, the point of view will be from the back of the column. The two of them hiked well ahead of me and seemed to develop quite a rapport, talking about exercise and boys (I’m guessing) in Spanish and English. Fernanda, professional guide that she is, would frequently stop and wait for me, asking if I were okay. I told her, in Spanish, Mary usually wouldn’t wait for me. I think she thought I was joking even though Mary agreed. Point is, there was little doubt the two of them would make it to the top. It was touch and go with me.
Anyway, the ground we walked on for the next few kilometers was never very firm. The spongy, weird stuff which was certainly decaying, mulched trees gave way to what was almost wetland. At times the trail was steep as we wound over and under fallen limbs and more than a few trunks. At other times we would descend into and then out of a gully, often with the aid of a rope. And then, every two or three hundred steps, you’d sink up to your knee in muck.
Finally, the terrain leveled off into what I would called the lake district of the hike. Here is where Fernanda really earned her living as there was no trail to speak of. The trail to this point had been well marked with ribbons, paint, cairns, etc. There were colored posts through the lake district but no clear way to get through it. This is undoubtedly because the way through changes depending on recent weather. The ground is very soft and sinking your boot became more common. We wound through hundreds of “ponds” ranging from less than a meter across to 4 or 5. Then, suddenly, we came out onto solid, rocky ground. If you read Darwin’s account at the link above (and you should), you can see why he doesn’t say much about the climb after this point. The ground solidifies above the treeline and all you have to do is walk up the hill. And it really isn’t that far.
Oh, the wind. Right. All you have to do is walk up the hill into the blasting, ferocious, cold wind. But, really, it’s pretty easy. You forget what a blessing solid ground is. The climb here, in places, was tough where the rocks became gravel and you had a tendency to slide down if you weigh more than the ladies but was very manageable and, surprisingly soon, we were on top.
I should back up a step. At many points, and especially as you come out of the brush, the view is spectacular. Proofreading, I see I use this word a lot but it fits. When I would pause to catch my breath, I would often take long looks around and have trouble getting going again as the sight of the Strait of Magellan, Tierra del Fuego and the Darwin range stretching south, seemingly, forever was stunning. Closer was Faro San Isidro which jumps out as the only man made object save for the possibility of a ship passing through the strait. It really was incredible.
Directly up from my head in the top picture is Faro San Isidro. The bottom picture gives you a bit closer view. You can see the quality of the trail. Across the Strait of Magellan is Isla Dawson, more in a bit on that, and stretching away to the right is the Darwin range. Fernanda took this picture, probably for something to do during one of her and Mary’s frequent pauses.
Did I say it was windy? Once we came up to the ridge, the wind, incredibly, picked up. My hat blew off and I got very cold. I was determined not to stop until I got to the top where Mary and Fernanda were. They were each pulling new layers out of their packs and bundling up. They were having trouble standing up in the gale. Ha! Strong cold wind is where mass and blubber really come into their own. Of course, when I reached them, they didn’t turn out to be at the top but only on the ridge. We still had about 200m to walk. Down and then up to the “flag” of which only the pole was showing. Fernanda thought maybe the flag at the summit was wrapped around the pole. Plausible.
The view from the ridge, like I will say over and over, was spectacular. Just before the final push to the summit, there was a little cutout – I suppose a stream passed through that many eons ago – that gave quite a nice view.
We had just come down from the ridge to the left and needed to climb up to the right to reach the summit. Which we did in short order. It was very windy but you could see the end.
Again, the view was unbelievable. I could’ve stayed up there all day save the driving gale and cold. I’m not writer enough to expand on the view so I’ll let the camera tell the story.
The flag was not there and Fernanda was, we believe, genuinely upset. It was there the week prior when she took a group of Mexicans up. I’m not sure how they could expect it to stay in the face of that wind. Anyway, that’s us at the summit. Isla Dawson is in the background to the right and Tierra del Fuego to the left. Isla Dawson is not a happy place. In the 19th century, bounties were placed on the natives living in the archipelago as European settlers (Argentines, Chileans, Brits and Americans) wanted to use the island without all the pesky trouble with natives. So they paid people to kill the natives and were successful. The number of the Selk’nam were reduced from a few thousand to a few hundred over a couple of decades. The remainder were incarcerated in a concentration camp on Isla Dawson. The last of the Selk’nam died in the 1970s.
Which is a nice segue to the next time Isla Dawson featured in history. When Pinochet came to power he removed many of his rivals to the island for over a year during which they were pressed into labor, tortured, etc. You get the idea, it was a concentration camp.
So that is part of the background to the summit. Fortunately, you also have the beauty of the Strait of Magellan, the Darwin range, the mountains of southern Patagonia to the north and Tierra del Fuego across the strait. Seriously, it was spectacular. More pictures are in order. Captions are under the photo.
Looking south along the ridge.
Looking northwest toward southern Patagonia.
Looking northeast, more or less the direction from whence we came.
An iPhone panoramic shot looking north, back the way we came, along the ridge.
An iPhone panoramic shot looking south along the ridge.
Earlier in the hike, on the way up the mountain.
On the way back down.
Stopped for a picture just before we head down off the ridge.
Looking northeast again.
Coming down off the ridge.
The rest of the hike was, as Darwin said, pretty easy. I mean, you still had to wend yourself around downed trees and frequently sunk your legs into the muck but it was downhill and it got warmer as you went and, on this day, the ridge shielded us from the worst of the wind. Yet, I recall feeling sad that we were leaving such a beautiful spot. A spot we’re unlikely to get to again.
At the end of the trail, we had to use the rope to make our way down the steep entry. Here is that image from Fernanda. I won’t show me coming down because at some point, I’d ripped the crotch of my pants apart and later sat on a muddy log. It looked very like I’d messed myself and, because of the large hole in the pants, that extended to the undies.
Sorry for that mental image.
So there it is, our hike of Monte Tarn. Patagonia Travelers was great and Fernanda was an outstanding guide. If you’re in the area, you should do this hike even if you are drawn to the rougher country to the north. It provides a spectacular view and a hard day’s work. I should add that, while it can be done without a guide, if you don’t have a 4-wheel drive vehicle and know the trail well, I would recommend one. Once you’re above treeline, sure it’s easy to see where to go but to get to that point it isn’t. And the luxury of having a driver and someone who knows the area – Fernanda recommended a great restaurant, for instance – really makes the guide worthwhile. Plus, she was great company and made Mary wait for me.
Why do this? We spent 7 hours (we were back at 5pm, an hour ahead of schedule! (Edited to add: Mary says, “It was more like 4:30.”)) working hard up a hill covered in mud, muck and some unusual form of earth we’d never seen. For what? I tend to ask that question a lot on uphills.
Certainly the view is a big reason. But one can rent a helicopter and get much the same. For me, I enjoy the thrill of accomplishing a physical challenge that I was not certain I could do. I was once in much better shape than I am today and it’s nice to reassure myself that I’m not quite out of the game yet. There is also the “oneness with nature” to borrow a tired phrase. Nature is both changing constantly and static relative to human creations. It is nice to know that if you come back 25 years from now and do this hike you will see something very like I saw. And that I saw something very like that that Charles Darwin saw when he made this hike. I once went to Ford’s Theater (sorry for the quick shift of gears) to be where the tragic assassination took place. Only, it wasn’t the same. The experience of Washington, DC in 1994 was nothing like the experience of Washington, DC in 1865. Much like my trip to the base of Monte Tarn was nothing like the voyage of the HMS Beagle in 1834. However, once we start up the mountain, the terrain and the surroundings would be quite the same. In my mind, the connection between natural settings through time is far greater than that through human constructs.
At the same time, no one will ever again have exactly the same hike we had. The little details will all be different, a unique point in time.
For this hike in particular, there is the added bonus of some history and the knowledge that you’ve been to a very remote spot shared by very few. Again, if you’re headed to Punta Arenas to jump off to more distant Patagonian points, make some time to seek out this excellent hike. If you’re there for just a short period of time, don’t miss it.