A little over a year or so ago my best friend, Carleson, was in Atlanta for a few hours. He comes every now and then to visit me and hang out, but this particular time I think he had just returned on a flight from the U.K. and was waiting on someone to drive to Atlanta and take him back to Birmingham. We spent a few hours checking out downtown and as we were coming out of the subway and upon approaching the stairs and escalator there was a dilemma. I don’t know about y’all, but I’m lazy and I almost always take the escalator. Except this time Carleson looked at me out of the corners of his eyes, gave me a ‘What the fuck?’ look and remarked, “Hashem gave you legs, Emily–use them.” Every now and then that comment comes back to me so I don’t forget to be grateful every day for what I have, not the least of which is a functioning, healthy, able body.
A year ago if you had mentioned strapping a 20-pound backpack to your body and climbing up the side of a mountain I would’ve looked at you as if you were crazy. In fact, I still do. Who was the person who decided that would be fun? Or even remotely worthwhile? I’d like to give them a big smack upside the head. However, after having done a day hike in Córdoba with Charlotte and then spending two days hiking around Parque Nacional de los Glacieres in El Chaltén, Argentina, I finally decided to do the real thing and hike and spend a night camping in the mountains.
I mentioned that I was going alone, but the thing is, when I go things alone, I never end up that way. I mostly travel alone because it allows you to meet people and do things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do with a friend, and much less in a group. Upon getting off the bus at the entrance to the trail I met a group of Israelis (there’s so many of them in Patagonia!) and doing the hiking and camping with them. There were three guys and a girl and it worked out perfectly because we all hiked at pretty much the same pace. Particularly Maya and I who probably stopped every 10 minutes gasping for air and a scene kept popping into my head from Diary of a Mad Black Woman, where the grandmother sits down in the middle of the ransacked closet and heaves, “And while you’re down there… bring me some oxygen!” We were doing the first leg of what is called the “W” because of the rough shape it makes on the map. This particular leg towards Campamento Torres, which is supposed to be about 9 and a half kilometers and takes about 3 and a half hours, involved hiking straight up a mountain for the first hour and a half before it finally leveled out a bit and became more of rolling hills on the side of a mountain until you reach the first camp. I finally learned to break it up and set mini-goals for myself to keep from stopping so much and that made it a little bit more bearable.
From the first camp, Chileno, to Torres, the path was through woods and was more of the uphill battle. I have to admit, whoever said it was mind over matter clearly never stood at the base of a mountain and decided to hike up it with a very heavy backpack while also bearing in mind that the body you would be doing this trek in? It hasn’t done much more working out than running on a treadmill once in 5 months, walking short distances around a very flat, paved city, running to catch buses, swimming a few laps in a pool a few times a week, the occasional dancing, the day hike in Córdoba, the climb up the mountain in Bariloche, and the 2 days of hiking in El Chaltén. Also, that 20-pound backpack I mentioned above? It actually weighed 32-pounds (or roughly 15 kilos) as I found out when I got back to the hostel and weighed it. Or maybe the person did know what they were talking about because I did it and I lived to tell the story.
Once we reached the campsite everything was pretty much hunky-dory. As hot as we were while hiking, the temperature plus the wind chill was very cold and as we were pitching our tents Rotem reported that it was raining. As I looked up and then looked at the top of my tent I exclaimed, “It’s not raining, it’s snowing!” I could’ve died with happiness right then and there. My first real experience backpacking and camping AND it’s snowing? What more could a girl ask for? We all quickly set up our tents and the guys got out the stove to head up some water for tea.
After setting up camp one of the guys decided, after having hiked for several hours, that it would be a good idea to go hiking some more! What better way to warm up than that! And so, having dropped everything off at camp and taking with us only what was needed, we set out for the mirador (look-out point) of the famous Torres del Paine. This is where the mind over matter thing really starts to come into play. Here is what the matterhalf of the equation looked like:
Now imagine having to climb up it for an hour. I think it took us a little longer than that because we all kept stopping and wondering if it was really worth it since we were basically inside of a cloud due to the snow and knew we wouldn’t be able to see much. Besides, we were going back up at sunrise in the morning because it had been highly recommended. Yaniv, Maya, and I made it to the top while Rotem and Ofer went up about three-fourths of the way before turning around to go back to the camp. The view at the top, even though obstructed by clouds, was still incredible. If not the least of just being able to say that I did it. So many times during that day I couldn’t believe how much my body was able to do! Pushing myself way beyond normal limits and things that I previously thought I would never do has pretty much been the theme of my stay here in Argentina. So many times I kept thinking, “Look what I just did!” and being so grateful for a body that is strong enough to allow me to see views that most only see in photographs.
The way back down was just as difficult because after 10 years of gymnastics my knees have had their share of a beating and they still don’t appreciate walking down mountains, much less having to step down off of boulders. Thank G-d the guys were in the same way I was: after 3 years of being in the Israeli army and doing a lot of running they were willing to take it slow as well. Back at camp Rotem cooked rice and lentils for us while the others ate sandwiches. We went through my stash of dried fruits pretty quickly during the hike and the dried coconut and mangos were a crowd-pleaser.
It was freezing that night and I slept in increments due to some discomfort or another. I had layered up with a pair of waffled long johns, sweatpants, two pairs of socks, a tank top, a sweater, a fleece jacket, and a sweater wrapped around my head, bundled inside my sleeping bag and still froze. It’s a good thing I went up to the mirador the day before because we all overslept and missed witnessing the sunrise (shocker!) and when they decided to head up around 7:30 or so I was congested and my eyes had crusted over. Needless to say I passed on going back up to the mirador but I’m told the view, while better than the previous afternoon, was still clouded over. I went back to sleep for a few hours since the temperature had warmed up a bit and I wasn’t feeling well. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal made with dried milk and a dash of vanilla or chocolate milk flavoring (try it!), breaking down the tents, and packing up it was back to the sendero (trail).
When we reached Campamento Chileno I decided to let them go ahead of me since my bus wasn’t until later that afternoon and they had about 7 and a half hours of hiking to do that day. Let me tell you, hiking alone is a lot more challenging because there’s no one in front of you to motivate you to keep going up that mountain! The day before some day hikers had stopped on the side of the trail to let us go past since we were heading up a mountain with ridiculously heavy backpacks and they cheered us on. That was one of the highlights of the trip.
While I was hiking it didn’t seem to bother me, but upon getting to the base of the mountain and trying to find out when the next bus was coming to take me back to Puerto Natales my eyes were burning something fierce. After much frustration with trying to find out what time the next bus was coming (hello, South America–let’s get with it, eh? A little more organized and coordinated, please?) I ended up getting a ride with a lovely Swedish couple back to the entrance of the park and from there waited about 45 minutes for a bus. When the 4:00 bus finally came I was informed that the bus I had been told about before? It didn’t exist. The next bus would be there at 7:45 and I would have to wait there until then. Let me tell you, knowing Spanish has really come in handy with getting myself out of these situations. I explain what’s going on with eyes and at this point am barely able to keep them open and can’t see so well. The lady comes back over 5 minutes later to where I was sitting and tells me that the bus that she had just told me didn’t exist? There’s one seat left and I can’t take it back to Puerto Natales.
Getting back to civilization I drop everything off at the hostel and after wallowing in pain for a few minutes on the bed I finally get up the strength to go to the pharmacy. After explaining what is going on and how I stupidly changed my right contact lens out the day before after only rinsing my hand off in river water. No one had any soap or antibacterial gel so at the time it had to suffice because my contact had been bothering me all day and I knew it had to come out or I’d risk scratching my cornea. The pharmacist takes one look at my red, swollen eyes and gives me antibacterial drops with cortisone and sends me on my way. I walk two blocks with my hands holding my eyes open to a vegetarian (!) restaurant to eat some dinner so I can just go back to the hostel and sleep. At the restaurant I eat as quickly as possible because my vision was getting worse even though I had put the drops in. I kept thinking about how much I wish my mom or a friend was there to take care of me because I wanted nothing more than for someone to feed me the soup I was eating, take my hand and lead me back to the hostel, and then take care of me for the rest of the night. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case so I strained to keep my eyes opened as I walked one more block back to the hostel where I passed out at 8:30. I woke up periodically through the night with tears streaming down my face and my pillow soaked with them, but when I woke up this morning my eyes were feeling considerably better. My right eye was the one that had been the worst yesterday, but this morning it was my left one, so I put my right contact in (I left my glasses in Buenos Aires, which I now regret). I woke up at 8:45 so, having missed my 8:30 bus back to Argentina I laid in bed for another half an hour and then went down for breakfast.
Again after much frustration with bus companies, I ended up just paying for another ticket with a different company for a bus back to El Calafate since I have also missed a bus from El Calafate to Rio Gallegos on my way to Ushuaia and didn’t have time or money to wait around in Puerto Natales until tomorrow morning. I just finished eating an apple that I “illegally smuggled”–according to Yaniv–from Argentina to Chile. I declared that I had fruit on my Customs form, but the guy read it, stuck his hand in my bag which, when asked, I told him was full of “ropas sucios.” Dirty clothes. And that’s the truth. A load of laundry that would cost no more than $6-9 pesos in Buenos Aires costs anywhere between $25 and #35 pesos here in Patagonia. I don’t know about you, but I refuse to pay around $10 American dollars for a load of laundry. Anyway, all that aside I have just been through Customs again and am officially back in Argentina. If everything goes well I’ll be in Tierra del Fuego by Wednesday night.
View entire set of pictures from this post here.