The sun had slipped behind the western mountains and the temperature was dropping. The night wind had started to gust and I quickened my pace. I didn’t want to be caught in the Patagonian wilderness after dark- that would mean missing happy hour at the sweet microbrewery in town. I thirstily contemplated whether to start with the stout or the red- when my thoughts were interrupted by a woman’s call for help.
I had made a late start from El Chaltén- a sleepy, half-constructed hamlet surrounded by towering cliffs that looked like an anime’s take on a wild west town. I’d meant to take a rest day, but one look at the cloudless sky made me grab my trekking poles and set out. Yesterday I’d hiked 20 km into the mountains only to have my views partially obscured by clouds; today visibility would be perfect.
I covered the first 5 km in an hour and met an elderly couple gazing at Mt. Fitz Roy. The husband was a 75 year old Parisian wielding a full-frame Canon with an enormous telephoto lens; his wife was actually a fellow New Englander, originally from Vermont. Like me, they were on a grand bucket-list tour of South America with a lot of overlapping itinerary.
“What a wonderful trip,” I told them. “I hope I’m able to travel the world like you when I’m your age.”
“It’s good you’re seeing it now- I don’t think I could make the hike to the Laguna even at 28.”
“Well, that telephoto lens of yours will save you the effort!”
We readily agreed to snap a few photos of each other- it’s always nice for photographers to get in front of the lens for a change.
Unfortunately, the moment we’d finished packing away our cameras, two wild horses ran up the hill and posed before the mountain vista (seriously!) to compose a moment worthy of National Geographic‘s best. I instinctively reached for my iPhone, forgetting that I’d lost it skiing in Bariloche weeks before. I was forced to endure the sublime beauty of the moment without the means to Instagram it.
I crossed the next 4 km in another hour. Hiking solo provides two big advantages: you can set your own pace, and you can put in headphones and listen to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack without being antisocial. Patagonia’s infamous wind was absent, and I stripped to my T-shirt to savor the warm sun.
I passed two Chinese hikers taking selfies with iPads and a red-crested woodpecker, but otherwise encountered nobody. The snow-covered mountains and uninhabited expanse were an even better accompaniment to Howard Shore’s score than the movies themselves. I’ve always found big landscapes cathartic. The more rugged the mountains, the deeper the woods, the more trackless the beach- the better. Human problems feel minuscule in the face of such enormity. Stresses that fill a boardroom seem petty when you’re standing atop a mountain; anxiety that suffocates a cramped apartment withers in the reflected brilliance of glaciers. The best of us are able to carry such perspective with us wherever we are; I still need nature’s reminder.
I knew from the previous day’s hike that the final km would be as much effort as the nine preceding, so I made a quick lunch of salami, blue cheese, and glacial water from a nearby stream. I brushed the moldy, delicious cheese crumbs from my mustache and climbed uphill- a 500m elevation gain in just one lateral km. I remembered the path I’d previously picked through the crushed stone and snow drifts and made great time, arriving at the top ridge in under forty minutes.
It turned out I’d been needlessly concerned that arriving a second time wouldn’t be as thrilling as my first ascent. If I’d lived 5000 years ago I’d definitely have been the guy who comes down from the mountaintop making up stories of gods and spirits- something about how the three mountains were really three brothers who’d done three things but all got turned to stone because things were tough like that back in the day, and how their tears formed the lagoon because that’s more memorable than the hydrologic explanation.
I walked across the frozen lagoon and silenced the beep on my camera so only the click of the shutter would profane the silence of the place. I noticed ski tracks up the bowl of the mountain and admired the dedication of whoever’d hauled skis all the way up here. I found a sunny rock and lied down to rest awhile. No one arrived to disturb my repose.
I checked the time and saw that it was already 4:30pm- two hours until sunset, and only two and a half til the end of 2-for-1 happy hour at El Guerrero. I was reluctant to leave- who knows when next I’ll enjoy such solitary serenity? But 2-for-1 pints made a strong case for leaving, pristine glacial waters notwithstanding.
I picked my way down the rocky path, extremely grateful for the twin trekking poles I’d rented. The trail down the mountain was already in shadow, and I slipped on a thicker over-shirt. I ignored the views to focus on my footing- I’d already taken in enough mountain majesty my first three times along the trail.
At the 5 km marker from town I checked the time again: 6pm. I’d have to hurry, but the downhill trip was passing quickly. I paused at a fork in the trail- both ways lead to town, but I weighed whether I’d have time to take the scenic path along a lake.
I heard footsteps behind me. I turned and saw the first person I’d seen in hours- a woman taller than me, wearing two coats and a Canon camera around her neck.
“Disculpa,” she said in Italian-accented Spanish. “Dónde está El Pilar? Este es el sendero?”
Shit, I thought. “You’re trying to get to El Pilar?” I replied in Spanish. “That’s almost 15 km north, in the opposite direction.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I parked my car there and my friend is supposed to meet me there with the keys. I should turn around and go there? I think it will take one and a half hours.”
I noticed the woman didn’t have a backpack. No food. No water. I asked if she had a flashlight. Nope. She wasn’t wearing hiking boots, and her nails were freshly painted. Probably not someone who should be wandering the cold and windswept trails by starlight alone.
“It’s already past sundown,” I said. “It’s going to get really cold, and it’s really far.”
“I’m afraid to go alone,” she said. “But if you come with me we can get to the car and meet my friend, okay?”
I considered briefly. I had three flashlights, lots of extra food and water, and some familiarity with the trails. If her friend was smart he’d wait inside the car for her, safe and warm. If her friend was dumb and went looking for her in the night he might get lost himself. On the other hand, town was only 5 km away from us. I could find her a ride to take her to the car, guaranteeing her safety and possibly still making it to happy hour.
“What should I do?” she asked.
“One moment,” I said as I sketched out a 2×3 decision matrix in the dirt with my trekking pole:
“If we walk to the car and your friend drives away to meet us in town, we’re in big trouble,” I explained. Square B1 might actually get us killed, while everything else in row 1 resulted in a risky walk in the dark at best. Regardless of what her friend did, us going to town would be a better choice for ourselves. Only if her friend went looking for us in the dark and got in trouble would it be helpful if we went walking and found him. But I couldn’t take responsibility for him in that case.
“We go to town,” I said. “If your friend’s smart he’ll be waiting safe and warm in the car.”
Just then two more hikers appeared behind us- a couple in their mid-50s from Buenos Aires. My new Italian acquaintance- Patricia- asked their opinion. The husband, Jorge, agreed: returning to town was the only safe option. His wife, Susana, however, was limping quite a bit. They’d made the climb to the lagoon same as I had, but it had proven too much exertion for them, and they were making their way painfully back to El Chaltén, where they had parked their car at the trailhead.
I decided happy hour could wait a day. Patricia and I would escort the couple back to town, where they’d generously volunteered to drive to her car at El Pilar. 7pm came and went, and night truly fell. I got out my flashlights and lit the way to find our footing. The wind continued to intensify, and I donned my final layer. It had been hard to find winter clothes in Central America, but my combination of Belizean long sleeve dive shirt, Colombian insulated vest, and Costa Rican raincoat was working very passably. The stars appeared bright and clear, but the southern constellations were unfamiliar to me; I made up some new ones in case we got lost. Finally, by the light of “Mutant Cat” and “Mutant Cat Minor” we found ourselves overlooking the lights of El Chaltén. It had taken us three hours.
I didn’t have any paper to leave a note at the trailhead on the off-chance Patricia’s friend arrived behind us, but Jorge suggested we drive to the police station to leave a message and see about borrowing radios (there’s no cell reception anywhere, which makes long range communication difficult in survival situations, but on the other hand brings all of Seinfeld‘s plot lines back into play.)
As Jorge drove us to the police station we passed a car with its emergency flashers on. “Stop! That’s my friend!” said Patricia.
Jorge and I exchanged a glance. “Shit,” we exchanged wordlessly. “If she’d walked back she’d have been screwed.”
We pulled over and Patricia embraced her friend, Remi. “I knew Patricia wouldn’t walk all the way back by herself,” he said. From a game theoretic perspective, assuming rational actors on both sides, Remi had been absolutely right: Patricia’s dominant strategy had always been to walk directly to town. I was surprised, though. In Remi’s place I’d have chosen to wait at the car as long as I could, since that had been their only agreed meeting point. If Patricia had played less than optimally (as people sometimes do in unfamiliar situations) she’d have been in danger if she’d showed up exhausted in the middle of the night to find the car missing. Acting conservatively to maximize the minimal outcome would have been safer.
Everything had turned out well though, and we went to dinner together. Though I drank only one beer instead of two, it was twice as satisfying. Patricia and Remi thanked me for my help and invited me to come skiing the next time I’m in Torino. Jorge and Susana gave me their numbers and told me to call them if I ever needed anything in Buenos Aires, which they described as more dangerous and thief-ridden than any place I’d visited yet. Even more generously, everyone pitched in to cover my tab! I’d made it to happy hour after all.
Love your true tales. Now I am thinking that your adventures should be a movie for all of us chickens who are not brave enough for the real thing.!
Steve, amazing experiences and wonderful writing! I am particularly interested in the wild nature as cathartic idea. I’ve always loved Casper David Friedrich’s paintings of puny humans engulfed by overpowering natural landscapes. However real the impulse of release is facing such awesome scenery, I wonder about the traditional conclusion drawn from it. Maybe I’m just more frightened when stripped of culture than many. Less drawn to elemental life and death conditions. Maybe I just never got the hang of reading a compass when really in the middle of nowhere. But, however authentic the feeling, I wonder how true that sense of release from human problems is. It’s understandable we want to make pressing problems seem minuscule, but is that a sustainable or desirable feeling? Anyway, thanks for getting the philosophical juices flowing as well as telling some great stories.