So much water. Some of it frozen clear and solid, some of it rushing quickly over rocks in a frenzied effort to get down as fast as gravitationally possible, some sitting, collecting in dammed lake beds, some crystallized and white and resisting with a vengeance the intensifying spring sun, but ever-present every day in our lives for the past section. The frozen variety has proven to be the most pesky in terms of its route-altering behavior.
Take One was a hike out of Santiago in the lower mountains, where the Andes rise up from the central valley, but are not yet enormous. The higher mountains with their flattish pampas and long valleys conducive to walking are still covered in snow, and without more technical gear, are impossible to travel on foot until later in the season when more has melted. The shorter mountains leading up to the giants are in a hurry to rise from the flat valley to meet the high peaks and ridges, and so are steep and sloppy about it, leaving impossible-to-walk, craggy valleys and slopes on their way. Without ropes, and with sanity (at least some), we were rejected after a couple of very hard days and had to make only our second complete about-face of the trip, hiking out the way we came in as we went back to the library in Santiago for another good look at the topographic maps and some reconsideration of our route. We decided after hours of deliberation that the Coastal Range was the only viable option this early in the spring that would enable us to remain in the mountains.
Thus, instead of veering left out of Santiago, we shied to the right. Passing through more vineyards, we found a trail immediately that led up over a pass through a forest and next to a stream. We were more than happy with our decision. The two things that are the most exciting to both of us at this point in the journey are trails and trees, both of which have been lacking for the previous 15 months, and there they were, right off the bat. Awesome. The third most-exciting thing on the list is other hikers. Our friends that have travelled down for a visit from the States have been the only ones of those that we have encountered as of yet. But on the second day of the section, we happened to run into three guys with packs heading up into the hills for the long weekend, Philippe, Claudio, and Alfredo. We were astounded and glommed onto them immediately, altering our route slightly just to be in the presence of new friends, at last sharing the trail and a campfire with similar-minded folks. We had a beautiful hike up and a great time, reminding me that backpacking is, for many, a fun thing you do over a long weekend and not a life-choice. One of the guys in the crew, Alfredo, decided after only a small amount of persuasion to join us for the following couple of days as we continued on to Rancagua. After getting to spend more time with him, it became clear that he was an exceptional human being and I felt lucky to have his company. He provided a calm that would soon come in very handy, entertainment, as he demonstrated the different accents of Chile, and a chance to get into more depth with our conversation, which was great mentally as well as linguistically. (We had, in Santiago just after we arrived, met several very kind new friends, Johnny and Nadia and their friends, whom we spent a couple of days with, and had the chance to have slightly more in-depth friendships with, but to have that on the hike is an especially special thing.) For much of the time with Alfredo we either had a straightforward ridge to follow or a clear trail winding through trees and scrub brush. We maintained a mellow pace and took time to relax next to an afternoon brook watching water bugs. The last day was supposed to continue at the same level of intensity, with a clear trail leading over a ridge and down the other side into town in time for Alfredo to get a bus back to Santiago for his evening class (thermodynamics perhaps?—something for his mechanical engineering degree). However, the trail we elected to take to get over the ridge was not in fact the trail that actually went over the ridge. This was not made apparent until we were half-way up the mountain on a very hot day and our wide, clear-as-day trail came to an abrupt stop in the middle of thorn-rich vegetation. We were not about to turn around and redo the entire morning’s climb, so we pushed ahead with hopes that the trail would reassert itself and emerge again just above. Apparently, we were too hopeful. The trail never re-emerged and we spent six hours bush-whacking through spines and thorns and prickers and cactus up an exceedingly steep, rocky slope in soaring temperatures. Entirely ridiculous. Every time this happens we emerge at the end on the verge of tears and vow to simply turn around the next time, because it always turns out badly, and we always lose lots of time in the struggle. And yet here after so much experience, we found ourselves in perhaps the most ridiculous fight with vegetation to date. Dehydrated, exhausted and shredded, we arrived at the top, Alfredo in amazingly good spirits for the pain his feet were in and the absurdity we had just put him through. We followed the fairly clear ridge until we met up with the trail that we should have taken to begin with. Our several hours steeply down the other side was hurried, as we hoped to find water at the end of every switchback. No luck, however, until arriving at a chicken farm in the flat valley below. All of us were parched and Alfredo’s feet, in his plain black work shoes, were obviously bad off, but the water and a snack gave us the lift we needed to continue into the sunset toward town. After a dinner with our new friend, we parted and Gregg and I went about our town routine, cleaning, re supply ing, calling and route-researching.
We decided, as the Coastal Range dropped off into relative flatness, that we needed to return to the real Andes from there, trying to stay in lower in elevation where possible to avoid the snow. The trek was to start by making our way up to the small resort-y town of Termas del Flaco, where we would get a few extra days of food and head over the pass that would be our litmus test for the rest of the section in terms of do-ability in the snow. The test actually began with the town of Termas del Flaco, which was pretty much shut down until the summer season started up in November. Instead of small stores and hostels abutting the locally-famous springs, we found boarded-up buildings and pools of thick algae. A few people were there working on small construction projects, and they ended up preparing a dinner and breakfast for us, helping to save our supplies, but there was no question that we were going to head off with a lack of rations. In addition, our night spent on the porch of one of the boarded-up buildings brought heavy rains and winds, which we knew dropped snow not far above us, adding to the patchy blanket of white which we eyed anxiously from the valley below. Before we could attempt the climb to the pass, we had to make our way across the swollen river on a collection of cables and wire and fencing that was termed a “bridge.” What ensued was probably about the most awkward series of consecutive movements I’ve made. Every limb put opposing forces on the metal lines, which all moved independently, making forward progress very slow. But at least there was a way across without putting our bodies in the glacial-runoff water, which was not to be the case the rest of the way. Our climb up the north side of the ridge went smoothly enough, with only a couple small snowfields to cross, but we climbed with apprehension as we neared the top, knowing that the southern faces of the range, being in the southern hemisphere would have significantly more snow. Our tension lessened significantly as we crested the ridge and looked down, as even though there was indeed an abundance of snow, it was possible to get down. The sledding on our mats and skiing in our hiking shoes was fun only briefly before it warmed enough that we were post-holing, dropping through the snow with every step, which quadrupled the effort and soaked our feet. Then came the steepness and the rivers, which was not fun, but we made it happen. We had made it over what appeared on our maps to be the toughest pass of the section, but it turned out to be anything but the biggest challenge we were to face.
As we climbed up the next valley, the dirt road we followed slowly became more and more of an idea as larger and larger sections of it were buried in snow. Eventually, our surroundings were entirely white, save a few steep black rock faces on the surrounding peaks. We slept that night on a small island of cinders, wondering what the next several days would bring, as we were not to drop in elevation for many more miles. The next day seemed like a dreamscape out of a movie to me. White, flat, post-eye-exam bright, quiet except for my crunching footsteps, and endless. Time did not pass; we moved through the day. The only events to punctuate the day were a crossing into and back out of Argentina, marked only by the standard metal pylon poking slightly out of the snow, which labelled “Argentina” on the Argentina side and “Chile” on the Chile side. The second pylon as we re-entered Chile was broken off, and only a metal tip showed through the icy coating that was our ground. The sun moved across the sky, and it was time to camp again. The time since leaving our last camp could have been 18 minutes or it could have been 163 hours. We found another small island of cinders to camp on and called it a day.
The next day was similar with a bit more challenge. A shallow, snowy ravine brought us to a fast, rocky, pretty-deep river. Mild rapids, very cold water, and no way around it. I tried denying the necessity of our crossing it while I was waterproofing my possessions in layers of stuff-sacks and zip-locks. Even while I was stripping off layers of clothing to pack away dry and putting on my Crocs I stayed matter-of-fact about it. We put our packs back on and stared at the river, trying to figure out the post possible way about it. Gregg went first, into the frigid water, walking upstream a bit to get to an area of slightly less turbulence before pushing his way carefully and forcefully across. Still I was in denial. A minute later I stepped into the water, made my way upstream and began the process. All was fine until I realized that my feet had gone completely numb and I could no longer feel my footing on the irregular, rocky bottom. Without a secure stance and now in the strongest part of the current, I quickly realized I was done crossing this river with any sort of control or composure. The torrents knocked me down and pulled off a shoe. I pushed my way toward the other side, kicking my feet along the bottom, not sure what they were hitting or pushing off of, but knowing I was moving forward, submerged up to my neck now. I reached the rocks of the shore and dragged myself out, more than a little pissed off and upset. My feet were too numb for me to realize that my other shoe had also been pulled off, so I threw on my soggy boots and made my way up to the flat shelf where we could dry off, regain feeling (which unfortunately came with the pain of banged-up feet and knees) and composure, and have a late lunch. Not fun. But the rest of the day was slightly smoother, other than Gregg sinking through a snow-bridge and ending up face-down in a hidden stream. Luckily, he was able to warm up in the nearby hot spring (which caused the hollowing-out of his snow layer) for a minute before continuing. After a few more miles, we stopped on the only non-snow-covered patch of ground in sight, a sloped, rocky, ant-infested little outcrop of earth, which we smoothed out with our cold, soggy feet and forced into a surprisingly-decent campsite.
The tests kept right on coming. The next day brought miles and miles of rough lava flows hidden beneath the snow and gradually emerging as the valley dropped to below snow-line. Post-holing here meant falling onto jagged rock with the potential to do some damage. We began gingerly over the snow, trying to cover ground before the sun warmed the crust enough to fall through. However, as we had dropped slightly in elevation, the warmer temperatures gave us practically no time to make much distance before we were punching through to the rock below. We felt that our luck in not hitting anything too awkwardly was running out and we pushed our way toward the side of the valley where we could stay mostly on the less snowy ash and cinder piles. Fortunately, at this point we encountered a hot-spring river of milky-blue, steaming water, which melted all the snow along its banks and gave us an avenue to happily cruise down for a brief period of easy walking. Soon we were on the cinder dunes and our relatively easy walking continued, but of course not for long. The next morning we had a few more smooth miles before we were confronted with very strong winds, which, in and of themselves wouldn’t have been a problem, but as the ground was made entirely of ash and cinders, stirred up an enormous amount of debris. We were soon caked with dust and sand grains, in our hair and ears and eyes and gear. The dust clouds were so thick we were unable to see each other only 30 ft. apart. In the midst of this, we realized that the large valley that had just joined up with ours brought with it a river twice as wide as the one we had been walking next to. Inevitably, they joined to form one, and of course, we were on the wedge of land between the two, necessitating yet another glacial-runoff river crossing in strong currents. Shaken from the previous effort, I was not at my calmest about this one. My feet lost feeling well before the middle of the river again, but this time the bottom was flat, and so staying upright was possible and we both crossed without event.
From this point in the hike, according to our topo map, the GPS map, and our research on Google Earth, we were to follow a trail around the east side of a large lake. After the lake the trail would turn into a dirt road which we would follow down the rest of the valley to the road where we could get a ride down to town. So we were considering ourselves pretty much home-free, which was good since we had eaten all but a tiny bit of our already very-rationed food. We neared the lake and grew silent as it came further into view with each step. Both sides of the valley rose in sheer rock cliff straight out of the glacial lake; it had been dammed, the lake level had risen since the maps were made, and we were trapped. Without taking multiple days to climb up a very unsafe canyon back into the snows and down another very unsafe canyon on the far side of the lake, we would have to figure out a way to get across. Part of my mind was yelling “No!” repeatedly. Another part was scanning the rock walls, finding routes to climb, traversing the entire edge, like a fun kilometer-long problem. And yet another part was looking around at the dead trees remaining from before the flooding on the lake shore, thinking of ways to rig up a viable raft to float across on. I dismissed that option as silly and time-consuming, leaving the choice of negotiating the edge somehow. About a third of the edge, cumulatively, was rock slide, which we could climb over. Another third was climbable rock wall, but the last third was smooth and vertical and impassable out of the water. We would have to swim. Perhaps the greatest acute mental challenge of my life came next. When we got to the first impassable portion of wall, we sombrely waterproofed everything, took off our hiking clothes, and convinced ourselves that we could do this. We had to do this. Gregg plunged in first and I watched him paddle across to a part of the wall he could grab onto. Shocked, but OK, he reassured me that it was fine and continued. I slowly lowered myself into the water, and once done with that part, pushed off and went as quickly as possible around the corner to where we could get out on another rock slide to warm up. I found myself thinking, “We’re doing this. We’re actually doing this. This is happening.” We briefly warmed ourselves out of the water, and made another plunge, this one a slightly longer swim to a larger rock slide. We were very cold and took our time warming up, putting on dry clothes and getting in our sleeping bags. Haven taken so long to regain our heat, we debated whether or not to do another stretch, but decided that we were too cold and it wouldn’t be safe to go on, as the sun was quickly setting and we were already in shadow. We bivied for the night on the least pointy sections of the rock fall we could find, eating the broth packets and few peanuts we had left in our food bags. A beautiful full moon-rise over the lake let us know that the sun would rise directly opposite our “camp” in the morning, giving us a better shot of warming up quicker and getting out. The sun came as expected, and as we were packed-up ready to hit the frigid lake once again, the winds of the previous day made a return and stalled our departure; it was just too cold. Clouds rolled in and out and we waited, eventually deciding that we just needed to go and finish since we had absolutely no food left at this point apart from spices. We began swimming, this time with much longer distances between the rock slides to allow us to get out. We swam around corners blindly, not able to see when the next rest spot would be, and turn after turn left us with no way out, so we kept going. We finally arrived at a small cove and emerged to kill the chill, though scouting around the corner showed that we could climb out the rest of the way around the lake—rock slides and gravel beaches would bring us to the other side, fully out of the water. I was elated. We had done it. Despite the strong shivering and teeth chattering, which usually had a several minute delay upon exiting the water, neither of us was hypothermic, and we were able to hike to the dirt track that led us down to a hydroelectric facility down the valley. Even though the company was responsible for the dam that left us stranded, the workers were nothing but amazingly kind, giving us a bag of food and a ride to where the buses left for town.
We were soon amongst people and supermarkets and internet cafes and the whole deal became less solid in my mind as a reality. How can things be this simple and easy? People sitting on park benches eating hot dogs. Why do I choose, essentially, to go through what I go through when I could be here, sitting in the grass of that plaza in the sunset with a book and a bottle of Coke? Without any conscious effort or conclusion-drawing, I have found myself very happy these past couple of days in town. Not because I am appreciating all the little things more now, but because I feel like I have lived more fully. I am more aware of what I am capable of doing and how I react to tough situations beyond my full control. This knowledge is always a gift. And though I will obviously avoid similar situations whenever humanly possible, I feel more prepared now should they arise again. I think I trust myself more, which makes me very, very happy. It is a deep sense that cannot be gotten by remaining in the known and the comfortable, and perhaps that is at the core of the Why?