The big unknown about our reaching Cape Horn was whether we would actually be able to stand at the fabled point itself or merely view it from the boat, the determining factors being weather, weather, and weather. (More accurately, the factors would be wind, waves, and beach conditions. Rain and snow are not considered unless extreme.) From the Australis we could already see the Cape Horn monument atop the island, silhouetted against the dawn: a 15′ tall metal square, standing on one corner, with an albatross-shaped hole in the middle.
But we got lucky, as the day dawned partly sunny and the swells, though very noticeable, we’re not too high for safety in the Zodiacs. We were warned about a number of things, starting with clothing: wear every layer we had (we were told); the weather is ferociously changeable. Truer words were ne’er spoke.
And so we bundled up in five or so layers, the outermost being rain slickers and waterproof pants and boots, and our life vests on top of that. The life vests had been hanging in the closet of our cabin, each one with a red tag clipped to it displaying our room number. Adjacent to the Zodiacs was a pegboard with corresponding numbered hooks: the idea is to hang up your tag on the hook before barring the Zodiac and collect it when you return, thereby giving the crew an immediate heads-up if someone is still on the island. (This is a a rare to nonexistent occurrence.)
We received our instructions for entering and exiting the Zodiacs, climbed in when instructed, and away we went though the chop and into the wind. There was uncharacteristically no rain, though that would change as predicted; the weather here is spectacularly, dramatically volatile.
We motored through the chop and beached at the bottom of a very long flight of precarious wooden steps up the cliff side, something like 156 of them as you see at right.
It was a long, steep way up, exciting not only for the reality of where we were but for the more prosaic fact that the steps were rickety and slippery, and it was an awfully long tumble down to the rocky surf below.
The Chilean navy station at the top marked the prelude to another climb, this time much shallower over a long wooden boardwalk with a few step risers along the way, wending its way over scrubby grass and stunted trees and up some hillocks to a vantage point fro which we could get a view, not only of the sea and snowy peaks behind us, but of the monument itself and a small lighthouse on a promontory nearby.
The scene was striking in its own right, amplified by the increasingly hellacious wind that tore into us now that we are atop the unprotected bluff. It is fortunate that our trip leader Julio had managed to pull a few strings to get us out on the first Zodiac, because we and the other ten folks in our Zodiac thus had the place to ourselves for a few minutes, and it was kind of exciting to realize that we were nearly alone at the this very point, which is the well-and-truly actual southernmost anything outside of Antarctica itself, about as close to the actual end of the Earth as you can really be. No doubt about it, it was more than a little cool. And so here we are (photo below) being awesome at this particular bucket list location.
Speaking of “pretty cool” the weather — already more than pretty cool in the literal sense — almost immediately turned to “hideous” with genuinely remarkable speed at just about the moment we stepped away from the monument to allow the newcomers to have their pictures taken. Clouds moved in, the temperature dropped like a stone, it started to hail and snow, and in short order we looked like the picture at right.
You haven’t really appreciated hail until you have had it driven into your face by a 40 mph wind in near-freezing temperatures. It was like being stung continuously by about 200 angry bees, and it disinclined us to linger too long at the top.
But first we had to see the lighthouse. And who, you might ask, is the lighthouse keeper? Who could possibly have a life in this ridiculously remote location with no newspapers, cell phones, or indeed much of anything at all? And the answer is: a young Chilean naval officer who, in full dress uniform, mans the tiny gift shop at the base of the lighthouse, along with his wife, teenage son, and little dog. He cheerfully signs “I visited Cape Horn” certificates in the gift shop, no doubt wondering exactly who in the Chilean Navy he offended that caused him to draw this particular assignment. His wife and kid no doubt think the same thing. (“Dad, I hate my life!”)
In fairness I should say that this assignment is actually considered an honor, or at least that’s what they tell everybody. But regardless, it seems to me that you better get along with your wife and kid really, really well to avoid thoughts of throwing yourself off the cliff.
We made our way back down the rickety and now ice-covered cliffside stairs, squinting against the hail and biting wind while trying not to slip and tumble down all 156 steps. (Our waterproof Wellington boots by this time were doing more harm than good, offering virtually no traction on the rime. Alice slipped and fell 4 times along the way, none of them seriously.) but we were high-fiving to hell and gone by the time we reached the Zodiac for the windy trip back to the Australis, and there were plenty of stories to swap at breakfast at our return (but first…remember to clip your red room tag back onto your life vest!).
The storm passed, and the afternoon was markedly milder. During breakfast and lunch the boat had moved a few tens of miles back up the island towards the Beagle Channel, and our afternoon Zodiac excursion was at Wulaia Bay along the way. This was one of the areas where Darwin did some of his research, and it is a striking setting ringed by mountains and dotted by a number of small islands. The island that we docked at (their was a small pier that could accommodate the Zodiacs) was dominated by a ridge about 600 ft above the bay, and we undertook a real workout of a hike to the top of it. We had had three options: an easy hike along the coast, a very strenuous “fast hike” to the the top, or a “moderate to difficult” hike, also to the top. Most people, including ourselves, chose the last.
It was no walk on the park. Though we took about 45 minutes to make the ascent — including a couple of pauses for nature talks by the guide — there were parts that were so steep that it was necessary to use a rope strung alongside the trail for assistance. One of the nature stops included a beaver dam, of all things. Fun fact: in 1947 someone who had never heard about rabbits in Australia, mongoose in the Caribbean, or rats in Hawaii had the brilliant idea of importing 25 pairs of beavers from Canada and releasing them in Ushuaia, figuring that in the absence of any local predators they would reproduce without interference and create a whole new industry of lucrative beaver pelts. They got it half right: there is now an out-of-control population of 100,000 beavers living throughout the archipelago…. whose pelts are worthless because it is the hormone-laden oils secreted in fear of the predators that gives them their valuable sheen. For a while the government was paying a $10 bounty on them, but it didn’t help much. Truly, we are in the Golden Age of Invasive Species.
Rampant beavers notwithstanding, we huffed and puffed our way to the top — not everyone made it — and our reward was this view.
That’s the Via Australis on the water about halfway up and two thirds of the way to the right. Here’s another view, with the ship at lower left.
Upon our return to the ship a crew member with a power washer hosed off the bottoms of our shoes. This is done after every island visit to keep our hallway and cabin floors mud-free.