Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia – Days 12-17 // Sept 13-19
Torres del Paine means “towers of paine.” Paine means “blue” in Telhueche, an indigenous languange from some of the earliest people of Patagonia… It is so named, because of all the different blues that manifest in the park: glacial ice, lakes, blue skies, cold gray shale, the landscape blued in the shadows of great massifs.
I was never as worried about my ability to hike with a pack as David. In the months leading up to the trip, he often admonished, fretted, and scolded reminders about the weight of the pack, the terrain, how backpacking wasn’t “easy.”
I’ve been hiking up and down, off and on, since grade school. I’ve walked to most of the places I’ve ever gone. I’m almost always carrying more than I need, even if it’s never been a fully loaded pack. I’ve camped a fair bit. I just didn’t get the mystique. I still don’t.
Don’t get me wrong: I thought it was cool. I loved having all of the things in their own nook in the bag. I loved unpacking a house each day. I really loved getting to go somewhere I couldn’t get to any other way. Backpacking was fun as hell.
But it wasn’t any harder than hard hikes I’ve been on. The pack was heavy, but David taught me how to properly balance the weight and it was a perfect fit for me (thanks, B-man, at REI Pittsburgh!).
Some of my grit was no doubt powered by spite: the desire to say, “I told you I would be fine.” I was fine, except for some squealing and some crying, which I consider de rigeur for me. Some of it is grit that is always rolling around in my mouth, the pre-raspings of pearls.
I did get stopped in my tracks on day two. After a night in the refugio, we wanted to see Glacier Gray. The wind was hard and unrelenting. David said 35 or 40 mph, but later other travelers said they’d heard 60. There was an inch or two of snow on the trail and wide patches of ice, and we were hiking slowly up what I’d guess was relatively recent (geologically speaking) glaciated granite moraine. Which is to say sharp, somewhat slick rocks. In better weather, it wouldn’t have presented any problem. Even in the weather we were experiencing, it should’ve been fine, if not entirely unpleasant.
But my ten year old Columbia hiking boots proved unable to grip in the ice and snow at all. I couldn’t get any purchase, excepting on perfectly level footholds or patches of bare rock. The latter led me at one point to taking a sort of long, unbalanced step up at just the moment a gust of wind collided with my body. I felt lifted up and back and I screamed. David grabbed me and I crumpled to my knees fish-gasping. There was no real danger at that moment; I wasn’t on a ledge or shelf. But that feeling of precariousness infused every step thereafter. Each skid made my heart lurch. Each gust had me bracing down like a rabbit in the wind. David went up the trail a bit to see if it got any better, and while I sat dejected on a wet black rock, I got a bit low.
The day before, I’d rocked the trail and the pack and everything. I wasn’t cold, like he had been convinced I’d be. I wasn’t slow. Before now, I’d complained about not one thing. I’d had fun.
He came back with bad news and we decided to head back to the refugio. It was just a scrapped day hike, but I was mad as hell for what felt like my failure. David didn’t want to send me back alone, even though I told him to go see the glacier without me. He tried to console me. He wasn’t disappointed; I was. I decided then, that no matter what we heard on the trail about the “passability” of the Torres Mirador trail (still three days away), that he’d have to do it alone.
So, doable never really meant easy. But I liked the challenge when it was physically tough. I liked feeling my body strain up the hills. I liked feeling my back carry the weight of all the stuff I needed. I even liked the freeze-dried rations! And David was a good partner on the trail. We went long stretches just moving forward, and then stopping together to snack or water or look at some bird or rock (until my habits regarding those last two began to wear on his nerves – day 4 – but no one is made of patience, right?).
I want to learn more about the geology in the park. The poorly translated park map says the Horns of Paine are a unique-in-all-the-world mix of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic layers. I want to be able to picture the shifting landscape, the rivers of ice retreating, carving. The land pressing down, tilting up, bending against the weight of water, ice, and more stone. The rocks, first splitting, then melting back down, weathering. Tumbling back and forth along the rims of glacial lakes until their edges have softened to smooth curves.
Things I was (am) afraid of:
1. Rope bridges with spaces between the boards and or that sway pretty much at all.
2. Exposed ledges with barren slopes (nothing to break a fall).
3. The really deep really squishy mud that I was afraid would get in my boots.
4. River rocks with both algae and ice on them, in rivers.
5. Steep slopes down on crumbling shale: too sharp to butt-scoot.
But I know that most of the things that scare me are the same things I love to overcome. Even the one piece of trail that had me in full-on anxiety attack sobbing (for a combination of reasons that I’ll hopefully write about some time) never stopped my forward momentum. Slowed it, yes. But I kept moving. If left to my own process, I’d cry, move until the crying stopped, then keep moving. But, the whole thing stressed David out because we just don’t know each other as well as we like to believe we do. We’ve only known one another for a few months, and even those had an expiration date from the start. I had tried to explain the shapes my anxiety takes a number of times before the trip, but he was still surprised and flustered. He wanted to fix it, because that is what he likes to do. Here’s the catch: it’s my process, not my problem. It might be inconvenient and messy. It might not look ideal. But it isn’t broken.
Condors. Swirling groups of two, five, eight. Huge glosssy black and white bodies. They were a common sight out there. Common!
During one scary bit of downslope, while I was keening and balking for a moment, we were buzzed, at nearly eye level, just six or eight feet away, by a huge female. I sat down and felt a tiny bit more still inside. She never came back.
I love the steady forward progress of my own two feet. I love watching the light change across the landscape over the course of the day. I love noting how the wind’s tone changes over grass from stone from water. I love the perspective from here and how it changes once I’m there.
And constantly, every damn step on the trail, there are vignettes, small moments in time and space where the ground against the sky, or trees against the odd over-oxygenated blue of glacial water or ice, describe an arc or a line that seems to be the most important message from some palpable other world. I’m not trying to get all woo-woo here. But all of our constructs and machinations have forever severed us, for the most part, from a particular conversation that still and always happening out there. You know? The conversation that bends rocks over eons. The conversation that explains how dinosaurs first grew feathers. The story of how waterfalls and oxbows carved the canyon. The literature of grass in the wind being interrupted by horses in the grass. The grammar of tree branches. The syntax of anthills and quartz veins.
It all takes time to take in, and I’m not convinced it can be done at a pace much faster than a couple of miles an hour.
I’m glad I went in. I look forward to more backpacking (once I make a few gear adjustments and additions). I have the beginnings of a story to tell about Torres and my time there. But for a bit longer, I’ll sit quietly with what I saw and heard and felt.