Let me see if I can properly dramatize a relatively banal situation: I am writing this in a $12 hotel room in Cochrane, Chile, freshly released from the hospital. End paragraph. Cut to unconnected scene.
From Puerto Natales, I bused to El Calafate, crashed the night there, skipped the glacier, and bused up to El Chalten, which lies on the border of Los Glaciares Parque Nacional, famous for Mt. Fitz Roy. I’d had El Chalten circled on my map since I’d had a contractor, Ryan, over to look at my house and discuss my various schemes for it. When timing for the remodel came up, our conversation got derailed because we both had scheduling conflicts due to planned extended trips to Patagonia. He had me google El Chalten and said, That’s where you want to go, right there. The mountains above El Chalten are the Patagonia logo (some googling showed that Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard climbed Mt. Fitz Roy and made a film about it in 1968, then used the outline of Fitz Roy as the logo). He was a little hazy on when he’d be there, as was I. And yet, that first night as I sat there in the hotel – one of fifty-seven, according to booking.com, which underreports – he walked in with his girlfriend. It was less random than the time I ran into a friend from UNC, the only other person I saw out there the entire time, while backpacking in the backcountry in Denali – a truly startling coincidence – but I like coincidences so I made a big deal out of it. They got some takeout and we reconvened in the hotel some time later.
A few interesting things about Ryan and his adventures: 1) From what I gather, he organizes his life so that, for most of the year, he can work hard building sustainable homes and training diligently at Climb Nashville. The rest of the year, he either goes to El Chalten (this winter and last winter), Nepal (this fall), Mongolia (some indefinite time in the past), Mexico (also indefinite), Hawaii, probably others. 2) He was motorcycling through Mongolia looking for a Buddhist temple when he fell into an icy river and became hypothermic. A man appeared serendipitously but ignored his pleas for help and would not speak to him. Ryan asked him in English, French, Spanish, Mongolian, if he spoke the language. The man ignored him. Ryan followed him and they came to a yurt. Inside were 12 French tourists who were also out to see the Buddhist temple. They took him in and warmed him up. I do not know if he ever found the temple. 3) At the Guatemala-Mexico border, he was detained because he was bringing in a car that he owned when the Mexican records showed that he’d already brought in a car and had not exited with it. I suppose you cannot have two cars in Mexico as an extranjero. He signed over the title to his girlfriend and they passed through. She was not tempted to keep the car because, as he put it, it was a piece. 4) The El Chalten climbing community, according to Ryan, is made up of about 50 sponsored pros, 100 dedicated “dirt bag” climbers who live in their cars and do whatever it takes – vacuum office buildings, clean bathrooms – to be able to climb at all times, and 50 or so people like him, who have real jobs but a maybe unhealthy passion for the dangerous sport of mountaineering. All 200, however, are obsessed with weather. There are few windows in which it is safe to attempt summits. Furthermore, the internet is so horrendous that it is often impossible to load a browser page. The particular page with the advanced meteorological data they need – wind direction and speeds, barometric pressure, etc. – is notoriously difficult to load. The climbers therefore often get up before dawn to check the weather forecast before the masses dilute the wifi strength. They then disseminate the information to the climbing masses. If there is a window of a few days, they go. 5) Ryan made an attempt on Cerro Torre, a highly technical summit next to Mt. Fitz Roy, several weeks ago. The forecast showed a window coming up and they jumped it, in retrospect a little too soon. The approach requires you to hike up a steep grade to the base, rappel down a cliff to the other side, then climb up to the granite face itself. Because they started just before the window actually appeared, they got lost on the approach in the clouds and wind. Once they got their bearings, they encountered another barrier. He and his climbing partner were roped together. Several times, on the ice cap behind Cerro Torre, one or the other punched through into crevasses, requiring the other to dig in with crampons and ice axe to prevent them both from being swallowed by the blue ice. By the time they were ready to rappel down the other side and prepare for the ascent, they were both hungry and down to 1500 calories apiece. It had been several days and would be several more days before they would be able to acquire more food, should they push on and attempt the summit. His climbing partner suggested they rappel down, eat all their food, make a dash for the summit, and book it out of there. After pondering it, Ryan wisely disagreed. They left with a story, severely chapped lips, and no summit, but alive. 6) There are several bodies strewn throughout the peaks above El Chalten, including a guy at whose house Ryan couchsurfed last year. It would be too dangerous to attempt to remove them. 7) There is no search and rescue squad in El Chalten. When someone needs to be rescued, the rangers ask the climbers for assistance, as they are the only ones capable of the rescue. Unfortunately, as I already described, when the weather is amenable, the climbers climb. That means two things: a) Rescue attempts are usually delayed; and, b) Rescue attempts are often executed by exhausted climbers recently returned from their own grueling, hazardous expedition. 8) Earlier this year, two women were climbing. I’m not sure what peak, but I do know they were far from El Chalten, up a difficult approach and something close to 10 very difficult pitches of technical climbing. A rock fell from above and struck one of them in the head. She became confused and unable to climb, rappel down, or assist her partner in rappelling down. Her partner began the strenuous and unbearably long task of rappelling herself down every pitch, descending the approach, hiking back to El Chalten, organizing a rescue squad, leading them back, and climbing the highly technical pitches of granite to where she’d left her partner. When they got there some 2 or 3 days later, the rope had been cleanly cut. They found her partner’s body several thousand feet below in a crevasse. No one knows why she cut the line. Did she become hypothermic and choose a quicker death? Was the wait too excruciating, the uncertainty too great? Or was it merely the absolute alien solitude?
In El Chalten, I hiked up to Lago de los Tres and spent some QT with Fitz Roy. The next morning, I went to the only agency, Zona Austral, that books the O'Higgins ferry, where a willfully unhelpful and incidendtally unattractive woman told me the O’Higgins ferry was sold out until Monday, which in turn led to me wasting a day trying all sorts of desperate plans that would allow me to complete the Carretera Austral and meet with Charlie in Brazil before he heads back to the states March 11 instead of hiking to Laguna Torre as I'd planned. The next morning, I went back to go ahead and buy the ticket for Monday. There was a different woman there, friendly and, incidentally, pretty (I almost started to buy into the Hollywood dichotymy of good/beautiful vs. bad/ugly). I told her I wanted to a ticket for the O'Higgins ferry for as soon as possible and she sold me a ticket for Saturday no problem. I hit the road Friday morning feeling optimistic. I got 7km out, ripio (the word they use for any unpaved road, usually gravel) all the way, when a car pulled over beside me. Tu mochila! the woman said. Sure enough, my backpack had fallen open. I had worn my Vans that day for some reason, so it was my Salomans – absolutely crucial for the next day’s bike pushing up the steep dirt trail – that were gone. I backtracked all the way into town. They weren’t on the road, nor at the café, nor at the hotel. On the way back out I stopped every car I saw. One of the first told me that she’d seen the shoes in the road. A man had stopped and retrieved the shoes, then driven off. Great. I rode on, continuing to stop the cars. Nadie habia visto los zapatos. I had already gotten a late start, prioritizing the procurement of an egg and cheese sandwich and potentially the last good coffee for a long time over a comfortable arrival for the first ferry across Lago del Desierto. Now, I had 3 hours to go 40km on ripio. I had yet to ride on ripio but had been told that the road would take me at least 5 hours. I time trialed all out, giving up the shoes. Fuck the shoes! I thought. It felt all right. Puedes hacerlo, I kept saying to myself. And fuck the shoes! But then I’d round a bend and a short uphill and a headwind would knock me down to a crawling pace and I’d lose hope. Ultimately, I made the ferry with enough time to eat the sandwich before it took off. The camping area, which doubled as the Argentinian customs station, was spectacular. The customs officers had horses for patrol, and they wandered across the green grass that lay between my campsite in the lake, posing magestically outlined against Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre on the other side of the lake. I was sharing the campground with a German couple who had bicycle toured from Buenos Aires on a tandem, another German, middle-aged and grumpy, who was bicycling up from Ushuaia and did not seem to be enjoying it (the wind! he would say, and shake his head), a hiker from Canada, and another hiker from Switzerland. A friendly cat kept me company as I cooked pasta. He tried to score a member of a flock of geese but they saw him coming from a mile away, and he would have been fucked if he’d caught one anyways, being a little guy, like Samson with the deer. He seemed determined to share the meal with me, though, because he showed up a minute or so later with a small bird, which he proceeded to eat in its entirety next to me. I appreciated the gesture of companionship but felt sad for the bird. At least he ate it rather than toyed with it.
The next morning brought the infamous Lago del Desierto to Lago O’Higgins stretch. Cyclists had talked about it on crazyguyonabike and in person down south as a truly formidable, trip-defining trek. The hills will be steep, they said. And the trail is rutted with erosion so that you and the bike will not fit through together unless you remove your panniers and carry them separately. Many people take more than a day to do the 22km, they said. I do enjoy a challenge. When I awoke at 7:45, the German was gone. I made oatmeal and coffee and hung with my cat friend a bit, and finally got started at about 8:45. I carried my backpack on my back and pushed the bike with the panniers still attached to the rack, often needing to walk above the rutten center, some 2 feet above the wheels, with my weight half on the handlebars as I leaned over. Overall, though, it was not too bad. I passed the German within 15 minutes. Four trips, he said. Four trips I have to make. He shook his head, as he was want to do. I tried to be encouraging. They say you only have to push for 5 kilometers or so, then you can ride, I said. He was defeated. But, he said, each kilometer is 4 kilometers to me! He had all sorts of tarps and bags, none of which could be worn as a backpack. Furthermore, whether because he was old and weakened or just pessimistic, he did not think he could push the bike with any bags at all on it, so he was taking one trip for the bike alone. As TeTe would say, oy oy oy oy oy. I got through the first 4km within an hour and a half, riding the singletrack where I could, while wearing the backpack, as I frequently had to stop and push and didn’t want to deal with the bungee cords every minute or two. I ran into a couple of Americans from the south, North Carolina and Georgia, and we swapped some money, as they were heading to Argentina and I to Chile. The guy tried to dick me over a little and charge me the street rate, but of course the street rate for each country applies to both of us, so we met in the middle, and I even got a little better of the deal. We were all very amicable in the end and hugged it out, being pleased to find fellow southerners in such a faraway land. He had bicycle toured Colombia and Peru and seemed to just be fucking around Patagonia with plans for Spain next. At 6km or so, I hit the Chilean border and the path instantly became a dirt road that was easy to ride, except for the final few kilometers, which were a steep gravel descent that I was very pleased to not be climbing. I had stopped along the way to make coffee and pasta and still arrived at 1:30. The ferry was at 4:30. At 2:30, I was sitting at the campground next to a few occupied tents when a ranger rode up on a four-wheeler. The ferry is here, he said in Spanish. You are going to miss it. Is it not leaving at 4:30? I said. Nope. So I booked it down there with the people taking a siesta, and we all got safely on the ferry. My German friend and neither of the hikers made it, however.
That night I stayed in Villa O’Higgins and identified the best wifi spot to be just outside of a panaderia on a side street near the plaza and spent a couple hours standing there like a big stupid gringo just asking for it with an iPhone 6 held about a foot in front of my face as the street grew dark and quiet except for some lurking (the negative connotation of “lurking” seemed appropriate at the time) SUVs. I washed my bike and headed out in good spirits. There were some headwinds, no small amount of boredom, and an intense battle with three horseflies at kilometer 50, but otherwise it was a good day. Beautiful views and a very solid 96km covered. I made it all the way to the first ferry but not in time to get across. Just shy of the ferry landing, there was a small shelter with a tent in it. A couple from Texas were camping there, and I spoke to them for a while. Two years ago, they sold their house in Houston and all of their belongings and hit the road. They rode first to Portland by way of Death Valley then south across Mexico and the Americas to where I found them there, on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere in Patagonia. They looked to be late thirties. We have no plan B, man. This is it! Everything we own, right here. He struck me a successful corporate type with a latent sense of adventure that suddenly burst to the surface one day, but that’s just speculation. They are going down to Ushuaia and then will sell their bicycles and ferry up to Puerto Montt then fly back to Texas. What are you going to do there? I asked. No idea! Like I said, no plan B! We’re just going to see what happens. I will not be surprised if they either do not make it back to Texas or do not stay there long. Further along, at the landing itself, there was a larger shelter full of people. 5 French and 2 Chilean bicycle tourists, all southbound, 2 Chilean motorcycle tourists, and a car full of a very sweet middle-aged couple from Santiago, their daughter, their son, and their son’s friend. The son was studying to be an engineer and his friend to be a veterinarian. I’ve noticed that young Chileans, at least the college bound or graduated young Chileans, all speak very good English. The generations above them do not.
I biked 75km the next day, limited by the 11am ferry, which arrived on the other side at noon, and the cheese empanadas at the other side. I’d read that the day began with “a few steep hills,” one of which, at 22%, was too steep to ride, but it turned out there was one ultra steep stretch within 7km of 1100ft of elevation gain. That ain’t a few hills, that’s a climb brother. I, too, had to push a stretch. My legs were feeling the previous few days’ efforts and I was just sandbagging to be honest. But then I got over the climb and the rest was pretty easy. I met a girl, early twenties, I’d say, solo bicycle touring from Buenos Aires and a French guy, late twenties, solo bicycle touring from San Francisco. He’d worked there two years and then decided he’d just ride his bike south until he couldn’t ride it any more. A lot of crazy people out in the world. I camped that night beside a milky blue river. It was very peaceful. I finished reading The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara as I drank coffee the next morning and waited for my tent to dry from the previous night’s rain. I had done some research in Puerto Natales, trying to connect the empathetic narrator of the Diaries with the ruthless revolutionary of later years, and to reconcile the two divergent portraits of Che (and Cuba) that seem to dominate the public space. Was he an idealistic dreamer who fought for peoples’ rights to a life of dignity and sustenance – the person who is reflected in much of the Diaries – or was he the megalomaniac with a blood lust and a will to power who executed prisoners seemingly with relish, often personally, often with little reason, as the final stanza of the Diaries could seem to indicate? I found an account by George Plimpton, a famous editor who had interviewed Hemingway in Cuba in the early 1960’s. Hemingway spoke of the beautiful purity of the revolution and his hope for the Cuban people. But, he told George, there’s something you need to see. He would not tell them what the spectacle would be, simply drove him to a field, where they set up lawn chairs and mixed cocktails. Shortly, a bus unloaded a dozen or so prisoners, who were summarily executed via firearm and loaded back into the bus as corpses. The account is vague regarding Hemingway’s intentions. Did he enjoy the spectacle, as the daquiries and lawn chairs might indicate, or did he think Plimpton needed to see the dark underbelly and merely sit because the alternative was to stand and drink because Hemingway always drank and because it is probably hard to maintain a façade of worldly cool in the face of summary executions? It’s a shame no one was live tweeting the Cuban Revolution, but I suppose even then you’d have conflicting Twitter feeds reinforcing whichever worldview one chooses to take. The gray middle is a lonely place.
After I finished my book, I biked on with the intention of hitting Cochrane (50km) at around 3pm, eating a late lunch and taking advantage of the WIFI, then biking another 30km or so. I was very, very near Cochrane, in the middle of the long, steep descent toward the pueblo, when I suddenly found myself on my back in the road, looking up at two strange faces, unable to speak. I have flashes of sitting in the bed of a pickup truck and insisting, No no todo bien, no necesito ir al hospital, solo un hospedaje (hostel). They dropped me off in front of a hospedaje that had camping in the back. I realized I had no idea where I was and that there was no way I was capable of putting my tent together. I saw a woman walking toward me and asked her what I was thinking: Where am I? Cochrane. Where’s Cochrane? I must have looked pretty rough because the next thing I knew she had called the police and they were escorting me into their car. There were two large black dogs with grey beards that watched with brown eyes like swollen ticks. I remember them because they were there when I got out of the hospital 24 hours later. The funniest part was when my memory started coming back to me. At first it seemed ludicrous that I had taken a leave of absence from work, had left my nice house and my main man Samsonite and the restaurants and music and comforts of home, to go suffer in South America on a bicycle by myself. At first, I literally couldn’t believe it. What a fool you are, I thought. And to think I didn’t even realize it. The nurses and doctor, a young, very calm and articulate woman, were all very attentive, friendly, and professional. The hospital clearly had no money, though. They had me shower before they cleaned the gravel from my scrapes, but they had no soap or towels. The bathroom was a reeking mess, also with no soap. It was amazing what they are able to accomplish with such an obvious shortage of funding, and that a tiny, dirty, underfunded hospital is able to attain and retain such talented, competent medical workers. This morning, I discovered my bike and helmet are both messed up, though possibly still useable. My shoulder and hip are swollen and hurt like hell if I move them. My head feels fine and I believe I am lucid, although if you’ve made it this far in the narrative you’ll have your own feeling on that matter. The doctor said not to ride for at least 3 days, but a week would be better. The question is: what to do?