(A little over halfway around the circuit trail of Torres del Paine, running short on food, running short on patience, our intrepid adventurers, having moved on to a camp safe from falling timber, discover ‘el sendero’ - the trail - might just get worse. . . )
The night following the lunch communication fiasco we camped away from the forest of quaking, due-to-topple-at-any-moment behemoths, enjoyed a final cookie and began dreaming of being anywhere but on that godforsaken trail. The winds off the glacier were sporadic, but always prevalent. As we tromped the western portion of the trail most exposed to the glacial torrents, we started encountering ravines with lively, splashy streams.
A few posed no challenge to cross but one was especially treacherous. Other than the slippery footing due to algae on the surface of the stones, gusts of wind with enough power to fling you backwards were palpable against our bulky backpacks. At one ravine, the winds were so strong we were forced to time our jumps to keep from being sent tumbling and cartwheeling downhill through a scree field of angular rocks the size of basketballs.
When we were all safely on the other side of the hazardous crossing, we paused to acknowledge our good fortune and recover our composure. It was then we saw him coming around the corner going in the opposite direction. I swear about two things in regards to this encounter.
First of all, the hiker was on all fours with every indication that he had been on all fours for quite some time.
Secondly, he was the spitting image of Steve Laboff. If he had not spoken anything other than Spanish, we might have assumed it was Steve Laboff.
He was miserable. Jeans torn at the knees. Face grimy, thinning hair matted to his balding pate.
And we imagined we were miserable.
This guy, alone, groveling on hands and knees with a heavy frame pack, muttering “El sendero es malo”, over and over, cheapened our misery.
Our spirits sank. Even lower than they already were.
He was groaning about how awful the trail was behind him, just as we were beginning to think the worst lay behind us. Our next thought was, “If he thinks the trail behind him is bad. . . . wait until he encounters what we just survived!”
We gave him swigs of water, attempted a few more clumsy and futile efforts to communicate about the trail ahead and behind, and then bid him adieu. It would not have surprised any of us if we had heard later that he had required rescuing. Or worse.
Our trudge south continued expecting the worse. It was not very long before we encountered the bad part of the trail that had shellshocked our crawling Argentinian friend. We were now walking through the remains of a significant forest fire which, though ugly, would not have been much to write home about except that the glacial winds blew relentlessly.
We were fortunate because the winds blew in the direction which we walked. Steve Laboff’s doppelganger did not have that luxury. He hiked and crawled into the winds. Fine ash and small cinders were airborne. Being a contact lens wearer, I was in my own special earthbound hell. The winds blew too steadily to remove my contacts, while the ash particulates were too ubiquitous to keep wearing them.
Misery doubled down for me.
Robert loves to tell about the times I break into, what he loves to call, my ‘fuck dances’. Though I have no recollection doing that at this time, this would - undoubtedly - be the ideal setting for a ‘fuck dance’.
I stumbled down the trail trying to maintain focus through watery, throbbing eyes. As per usual, when having as much fun as I was, time staggered on. But, then, quite suddenly, we emerged from the blackened ashscape into another inviting meadow like the one we hiked on our first day, the hurricane breezes tapered off and a shimmering, blue lake appeared as if conjured.
It was getting late in the afternoon, so we set up our tents near the lake and inhaled the last of our dwindled rations, figuring tomorrow we should easily reach park headquarters and the promise of additional foodstuffs. There beside a pacific lake in a verdant field of ankle-high grass under a panoply of stars I might never witness again, I felt confident I would sleep like the dead.
I could not have been more wrong.
The glacial winds behaved as if they were an out-of-control firehose left to writhe about untended. Where we had nestled down for the night was an enormous bowl-shaped valley. The terminus of the glacier was just to the north of us where it emptied into the lake.
The winds thrashed about all night, but they weren’t always tormenting our camp. As I said, they reminded me of a firehose unleashed with the water pressure on full bore. You could hear the winds whipping about the valley, sometimes very far off into the distance. At our camp, it would be as still and as calm as a becalmed sea.
But then, as I lay awake in my tent, doing a prone version of the ‘fuck dance’, I could hear the ferocious winds making their way down-valley until - of a sudden - camp was being beaten down by hurricane force gales. Our tents flattened to conform to the shape of our bodies as we hunkered tight. The winds pounded us for half an hour and then move away only to return after making their rounds.
I slept nary a wink.
Dawn broke. Winds died. Bleary-eyed and ravenous, we packed up. We hiked a good distance along the north end of the lake to a ferry we trusted to deliver us to the park entrance. It wound up returning us back from whence we came.
Which - in the grand scheme of our epic hike of the Torres del Paine - was par for the course.