Trekking under the ozone hole

Jan 31, 2001 at 12:00 am

The bus from Puerto Natales, Chile, shakes your kidneys for two hours, and then you drag your tingling ass out of your seat, stagger into the light, and witness perfection.

To your right, the Torres del Paine, soaring granite teeth that seem to breathe swirling mist into the cold Patagonian wind. To your left, the ridge of the first foothills, and where the ridge meets the horizon — exactly where you’d hope to see a majestic animal standing in silhouette — a majestic animal is standing in silhouette.

It makes a person immediately suspicious.

The creature on the hill was a guanaco, a short-haired llama. We would pass this same point three times, and each time, there it was. The perfect guanaco. By trip’s end, we had decided it was planted by Sernatur, the Chilean tourist agency: a robot guanaco. Listen closely — do you hear a whirring motor? See what I mean by suspicious?

But an instant after you arrive, you forget about the distant vistas and concentrate on what’s dead ahead. Which is the rangers’ shack, where they ask whether you plan to hike the “W,” a five-day trek that takes the shape of its namesake as it zigzags up and down the apron of the Torres; or the “Grand Circuit,” an extended version that circumnavigates the peaks in seven to 10 days. And if you arrive in the early season and announce you’re sure as hell here to hike the circuit, the route the guidebooks call “one of the world’s great treks,” you will be told that it’s closed under 9 feet of snow.

This story takes place in Chilean Patagonia, just a few fjords north of the southern tip of South America. It is the End of the World. But the story begins in Istanbul, Turkey, on a balcony overlooking the Bosporus, where a wandering chef asked me the following question: “Why don’t travel writers ever tell the truth?”

The first day of any wilderness trip has a visceral impact — the reconnection with grime and hard effort and the slow circus of the shifting clouds. Day One in good weather at the Torres leaves you speechless. The payoff is instant: Get off the bus and there they are, the damn Torres del Paine, just like in the picture books. No three-day slog to get your first glimpse. Just start walking and don’t stop until you can touch them.

For most people, that means a day hike up the precipitous valley of the Rio Ascensio, then a final scramble up a boulder field to the base of the peaks. From there, you might return to the trailhead hostería for a shower and comfortable bed, or you might choose the more rustic refugio, halfway to the peaks, where you can flirt with Austrians over a hot meal. Or you might pitch a tent at one of two campamentos.

Whatever your fancy, the way you feel by day’s end will depend on only one thing: Were the Torres wrapped in cloud when you reached the base? If so, you traveled across the planet to see a few big rocks, and instead you saw a giant fogbank. And you had only one shot at it, because you have five days to do this five-day hike, and then your plane is leaving at 8:07 a.m.

Some strong words are shouted into the winds of the Rio Ascensio valley. On our afternoon climb, the mountains were in clouds. We, however, had a lovely tent and time to burn, and the next morning the sky was clear.

Here’s what you think when you see the Torres del Paine from their base with the pink light of dawn frisking the night’s thick coat of crystal frost: Sweet suffering mother of great blasted scrap metal Jesus.

The three towers are impossibly sheer, like a child’s drawing of mountains, and as you stand dumbstruck you hear the funeral music of mountaineers — a symphony of whistling rockfall. You stay until the wind works through four layers of clothes and the black Andean condors swing past with hopeful eyes. And then you’re off down valley, passing the new day’s busload of people just like you.

This guy in Istanbul, his argument was simple: Travel writers are liars. “The Mediterranean coast is always described as ‘romantic,’” he says. “What about the endless sprawl of half-finished condos filled with squatting refugees? What about the beaches washed by a sea that’s best described as the toilet of Europe? Is ‘romantic’ the word that seems most true?”

On Day Three, I awoke to an avalanche somewhere up the Rio del Frances valley, and with a tingling around my right eye. I jostled David awake.

“Is my eye swollen?” His face went pale. I didn’t understand why until a day later, when we met a Chilean glacier guide who asked if either of us was a doctor. We shook our heads, no. Then he pulled down his dark glasses and showed us a face so swollen that, while his right eye studied our faces, his left stared straight to the floor. The bite of the araña tigre, or tiger spider, he said. Had it been the araña del rincon, well … he drew a finger across his throat.

We got up and moving, my eye swollen up and out like the eye of a crab, the tiger spider’s bite marks visible to all but me. We had things to do — watch avalanches spill down the Glaciar Frances, marvel at the astounding thinness of Shark’s Fin Tower.

We had a little less heart today, though, and I blamed it on the second day of hiking. Long and hard, yes, but also under a blazing sun. And in southern Chile, sunshine is a complicated thing.

Southern Chile, you see, is under an ozone hole. The best advice is to wear a hat, long sleeves, sunglasses and sunblock, though many, many people ignore such warnings.

Still, SPF 30 sunscreen doesn’t block out the psychological impact. The sun at the End of the World is intense. It is the uncut cocaine of sunlight. It is the mother’s guilt of glare.

On the second-day march along the shores of Lake Nordenskjöld, the landscape looks sere and oppressed. You wonder if the hares are dying of cancer, if the parakeet eggshells are going thin. You remember that down in Punta Arenas, population 110,000, it’s only a “yellow light” warning when Caucasian skin can burn in 10 minutes. You remember that it took hundreds of pounds of fossil fuels just to fly you down here to complain, and for at least one instant you catch yourself thinking, this is all my fault.

Right about then you need distraction, and since you’ve just made it to Refugio Pehoe, where the people who do the “W” catch a ferry back to civilization, you ask again about the Grand Circuit. It isn’t officially open, you discover, but a group left yesterday to try to cross the circuit’s high point, El Paso. The Pass.

“No one knows if they made it.”

We found them setting up camp at Refugio Grey, which offers the last cold beer and warm bed before you cut loose for The Pass. They were two young British women, and one of them shared her terrifying tale. The snow was deep, she said: “leg-breaking stuff.” They had hiked the circuit in reverse, so they had come down the slope that we would have to climb. They made it by clinging to the tops of trees sticking out of the snow. Climbing from our direction would take six hours from base camp, she figured — and base camp was still a day away.

She looked askance at my boots, which were losing their soles and were currently held together by a complex skein of strong twine. I bummed a little duct tape.

“You’ll make it,” she said finally, “if you’ve got the balls.”

We shifted weight manfully, moved to a higher camp by nightfall, and the next day walked in silence to the base camp, imagining the horrors of The Pass somewhere high above us.

We rested. We rested our feet, our backs. We rested those essential balls.

The big day broke with a high overcast. We were up at first light, totally wired even without our customary hits of mate, a powerfully caffeinated herb from Argentina. We cleared camp at an insane pace, pumping ourselves up with the lyrics of Henry Rollins: “Don’t just talk about it. Do it! Do it!

And then we did it. And it was easy. We hit the top of The Pass in two hours. The snow was a few feet deep, at best, and the “treetops” were the reaching branches of shrubbery.

Drained and a little deflated, I suddenly saw the logic in it all. We had pictured a wild, Andean adventure, crawling across hot Patagonian pampa to the cuffs of soaring towers, searching for faint footprints on mountain passes where the frost-shattered rock shuffles underfoot in the blasting wind. We wanted it so bad that we made it real.

Everyone, every nose-to-bum hiker staggering across this abused landscape, was telling himself or herself the exact same story. And lo! It wasn’t quite true.

“Yes, travel is always an adventure,” said my man in Istanbul. “But sometimes an adventure can leave you feeling as sad as you’ve ever felt. Sometimes a travel story should end like that.”

We felt a little more settled after The Pass. On the backside of the Torres, untouched beech forests drink rain and put an ache of beauty in your heart.

In the final refugio, two hard-bitten Chilean woodsmen nicknamed The Maestro and the Marlboro Man suggested we skip the last leg of the circuit and take an alternate route, an old trail to an abandoned cabin called the “Wisky Hotel.” There, almost out of food, we found the rangers’ secret stash of chocolate flan. For days, flecks of the pilfered pudding clung to us like drops of blood to Lady Macbeth.

When at last we made it back to the robotic guanaco, we hadn’t had enough of the Torres del Paine. We hitched a ride to the Lago Pingo trail, a less-traveled corner of the park that’s home to the rare huemul deer. At the farthest point on this loneliest trail, on Day 10 of the trip, we suddenly knew that with just one more day, we might really reach the wilderness.

We didn’t have another day. We wandered down from the lush forest to the burned-out plain, the Patagonian weather shifting like a high-speed metaphor for global climate change. In one glade it snowed, and in the next it rained, but it was that straight-from-the-source sunlight that set the tone.

My tired feet fell into a rhythm I first recognized, then hummed along to, and finally recalled as the Pixies’ “This Monkey’s Going to Heaven.” A few lyrics popped into my head, and I repeated them like a mantra: Everything is gonna burn
We'll all take turns
I'll get mine, too.

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J.B. MacKinnon is senior editor for Adbusters Magazine. E-mail him at [email protected]