Finally, the rich satisfaction of my Barba Negra “Robust Porter” from the Chilean craft brewery Del Puerto. “Extra Fuerte,” although it does not list the ABV on the bottle. Far from the richest porter I have had, it’s well toasted malt is nothing to complain about, especially after yet another adventure out of La Parva. The trend continues that each time I venture up to this Andean section of the metropolitan region I am thrown into an adventure more ridiculous than the previous.
This time our goal was Cerro Plomo, the largest of the group. Josh and David apparently were still shaken from Leonera, and Eric was still feeling the stiffening effects of the Santiago Marathon. Luckily, McKay accompanied me, greatly increasing my chances of survival had I attempted this solo. This would be the first excursion which necessitated more than a day trip. Most people take three days, however I have been told that it is possible to do in two. Either way, I would have to borrow or rent a sleeping bag and pad for this journey.
I met Cecilia at 9 am in the metro to pick up her sleeping bag, the same one that I had borrowed in Longaví to construct houses. I knew that the thin fabric of this sleeping bag would barely keep out the frigid temperatures which I would experience. My plan was to go to the one store that every other mountaineering store says is the only place in Santiago that rents gear, Patagonia Sport. However, I borrowed Cecilia’s sleeping bag just in case. A two hour search the previous day had led to no findings of this store, and there was no telling if they actually rented bags or not.
On arrival at Patagonia Sport, which to my surprise had no relation to the large company “Patagonia”, I found a small, urban house in which there was a mountaineering school and a closet filled with gear that was the sales and rental shop. To my disappointment and contrary to what the website had stated, this store only rents technical gear such as crampons and other things useless to me for this excursion. I ended up buying a sleeping pad, fuel, a sporknife, and the most inexpensive pair of gloves they had (woolen with leather palms), knowing I would probably have to layer with every clothing item I had to stay warm that night. As I left the store, the city was still shrouded in mist. Cerro San Critsobol was hidden behind the thick clouds. I began to worry slightly about the weather as I made my way back to my house to pack up.
I finished packing within the hour and decided it would be a good idea to buy two empanadas to send me off. As I was making my way through the hallway towards the door I heard a series of loud pops coming from my room. I turned around and looked up at the corrugated green fiberglass outside my window. I then ran to the front door to find fat drops of rain exploding as they pounded into the cobblestone street. Pedestrians ran for cover with books, newspaper, and anything else they could find to keep they heads out of the rain. “Wow, this is amazing,” I thought, “the first rain in Chile since I have been here. Well, it rained in Patagonia but that doesn’t count, it always rains there (I was lucky I had so much sun there). The first rain in Santiago, the day I am leaving for the mountains.” Filled with the childish joy I always get from experiencing rain, I began to think about the weather conditions I would experience that evening. I hoped my layers underneath the meager fabric of the sleeping bag would be sufficient.
Pack on my back, empanadas in my stomach, BIP card in hand, I headed to the metro station to meet McKay. From here we hopped on a crowded bus and sat for an hour in traffic as we crawled towards the edge of town. Swaying back and forth from the heavy foot of the driver, I began to think that we should have taken the metro. I rationalized this by explaining to McKay that with this bus we would have to make fewer transfers, which always bring with them loads of uncertainty.
Approaching the Terpel station on the edge of town, we came to our next obstacle: finding a taxi for a decent price. We came to the parking lot where they like to hang out, waiting for needy clients to come to them. McKay noted that more of them in one place is better for us, providing competition to keep the price down. I disagreed, claiming that with more of them they are more likely to reinforce each other’s decision to keep the price high. This is not an open market, this is an oligarchy of cab drivers praying on desperate tourists. I got the familiar response of $25,000 CLP. “Bullshit” I thought. And much to my expectations they would not drop below $20,000. We decided to try flagging down a cab. As the driver got out of the cab to help us put our bags in the trunk we had him in a better position than the ones socializing in the parking lot. His engine was running, his car in the street with the potential to block traffic. He reluctantly agreed to drive us for $18,000, and we were on our way.
On the way up I tried my talkative technique again, hoping to establish a relationship in which the driver would not mind accepting a discounted price and would raise the chance of driving us further, all the way to the chairlift. This, however, was soon destroyed by the weather conditions as we entered the cloud ceiling in the town of Ferrellones. The driver slowed down, gripped with fear of the low visibility. I noticed he was driving the wrong way on a one way section of the road. With every turn he asked if it was a good place to drop us off, complaining that he couldn’t see anything. “No, sigue. No estamos en el pueblo de La Parva.” I was not going to have this guy drop us off in the middle of the road. I urged him to continue to town, reassuring him that we were fine. We passed by a dog wandering in the middle of the road, looking up at the window of the cab driver who responded to his wagging tail and curious nose, possibly a bit of comic relief in his horrible driving experience. The dog followed us for a few steps and then stopped in the middle of the road behind us. We watched him as he stood there, staring at us as he faded into the mist.
Finally, we reached the town of La Parva. The driver had complained so much that we told him to park at the entrance of town, paid him the full $20,000 that he originally wanted and then made our way to a small shelter to prepare for our hike.
The large buildings in town were completely hidden by the clouds. We could hear the sounds of motors passing by but could not see the trucks which they belonged to. A man appeared to throw away something into a trashcan and then quickly faded as his silhouetted was concealed by the fog.
We decided to hike up through the town on the road, hoping to catch a car bound for the chairlift. One car passed by with three people dressed in mountaineering garb. We tried to flag them down but they continued on. Therefore so did we. We were soon joined by a large black dog with an enormous head. As we rounded a corner we were joined by a second dog, who I quickly noticed was the same dog that followed David and myself to the top of Cerro Leonera two weeks before.
The dogs watched us as we changed into our waterproof gear underneath a balcony of a building. As McKay rigged a cover for my pack with the rain fly from the tent, I couldn’t help but think about how I saw a cover in the store that morning and didn’t bother to buy it, electing to buy a sporknife instead. I was also a bit worried for this was the second place that we should have seen a sign for the bike park, despite the thick cloud cover.
We hiked on, up the dirt road towards the ski lift. I began to seriously worry as we passed by the third place where there should be a sign for the bike park. After climbing up a steep road at which I was amazed that we had descended in the rickety truck of the Russian, my fears were confirmed. The chairlift lay motionless. The parking was lot empty. The nets and features of the bike park had been taken down. The chairlift was closed for the season.
Onward, following the bike trails up through the clouds. The top layer of the dust and dirt became saturated by the moister of the mountain fog, forming a sticky mud which gripped the bottom of our boots and collected in balls like the slush of a melting glacier collects in the crampons of a descending mountaineer. Rain turned into snow. Icicles began to hang from the thorns of the small shrubs and small, white balls of “Dip N’ Dots” snow began to collect in the depressions of the earth. Suddenly I recognize the features of the terrain and begin to break off from the dirt road onto the trail leading up to the saddle. Large rocks dusted with snow against a backdrop of grey cloud marked our destination. On reaching the saddle we were immediately struck by a constant stream of icy wind. We decided to descend a bit to get out of the wind before taking our first break.
Soon after dropping below the saddle the clouds suddenly broke up, revealing beautiful snow dusted terrain, the small lake which was now frozen, and peaks of mountains which poked through the clouds in the distance. We stopped to take a few pictures and soak in the mysterious beauty of the mountains as they showed themselves and hid amongst the shifting clouds. Now we really felt the power of the Andes. An otherworldly experience, we felt the power of the mountains but were left in wonderment of what was not seen, hidden behind the clouds.
I notice that the tops of the clouds are painted with the beautiful golden light of the setting sun. My first reaction was one of awe and admiration of the great natural beauty that can be found in this world. Quickly thereafter I realized that this was also a warning message. We still had many kilometers to cover before we would reach the refugio, and these beautiful colors meant that our light was soon to run out. And it did as we descended down the next ridge.
As the darkness crept in so did the clouds. Soon we were back in total obscurity. No more sunlight, no light from the moon, and thick fog there to block out the limited starlight. We were surrounded by an aura as the mist glowed from the light of our headlamps. It became difficult to navigate, as not only had visibility dropped to about three feet, but neither of us had been on this trail before, relying only on what we had picked up from looking at the map. We could hear the river but could not tell how far away it was. It sounded as if it was down a steep slope or cliff off to the right. We could not decide if we were close or far from the crossing, so we continued on the trail.
We eventually came to a point near the river where the trail split. We decided to take the higher route to the left, knowing that the trail to Cerro Bismark should split off by the river. However, we soon decided that this trail was taking us too high up the slope towards the south ridge of Leonera. We descended back to the lower trail and followed the ice crusted river as it wove its way through many paths in the wide river bed. Indeed, rather than one giant river, this late in the season there were many small streams spread across plane, each encrusted with ice and slippery rocks. As we followed them up they began to join together and the banks grew steeper. We determined that we were nearing the waterfall and should cross sooner than later.
Finding a suitable spot, McKay prepared to jump. He took a step back. “Be careful, this is ice” he said as he readjusted his footing. He leapt across without complication. I placed my foot on the edge and as I slowly shifted my weight it slowly sunk into the icy crust. Icy water, no good. The many ignored opportunities to reapply the waterproof coating to my boots flashed across my mind. I then placed my foot on a rock and as soon as my weight was shifted I immediately slid on the icy covering, my foot breaking through the ice and throwing by body backwards into the snow. McKay’s first concern was to see if I had been hurt, quickly followed by an inquiry as to if I had gotten wet. Thankfully, neither had occurred, although I did feel like a tortoise which had fallen on his back as I struggled to lift myself against the weight of my pack.
I approached the river for a second attempt, weary of my footing, searching for solid ground. With some persuasion from McKay, I decided to commit and smoothly leapt towards a small landing on the other side of the river. McKay complimented my second attempt and we continued on, up the steep, loose slope of the river bank.
We began to veer off on separate courses. McKay chose a more direct route, climbing straight up the slope. I began to follow snow covered depressions, remnants of a previous climber, leading me off the left and zigzagging up the hill. As we reached the top I heard McKay yell “This is slowly turning into a survival story!” I briefly thought of the many episodes on the Discovery channel, where people would go on an adventure in the wilderness and things would change horribly for the worse. I didn’t feel frightened, but I did see the potential. I resolved to make sure that I would not end up on one of those shows.
We rejoined with the trail and passed what we assumed to be the waterfall. The clouds had long cleared but the moon was nowhere to be found. The sky was filled with stars but the land was filled with darkness. It was still difficult to determine our whereabouts, so we continued to follow the trail, assuming that the refugio would be close to it in plain sight.
We hiked on for what seemed like hours over what seemed like kilometers. There was really no way to tell. Neither McKay nor I had a watch and it was too dark to make out features to match with the map. I had my phone in my pack but didn’t bother to take it out. As we continued on the temperature only grew colder and the wind grew stronger. We came to an area where previous hikers had created small wind barriers behind which they had pitched their tents. McKay assumed this was the second campsite, doubting that the first refugio existed. I explained that this was probably just an area where people had camped, not the “official camp site”, and that we still had a while to go for the refugio. We continued on into the icy wind.
The lights from our headlamps swayed from side to side, falling on every large rock to make absolutely certain that it was not the refugio. As we wind our way up switchbacks I begin to feel as if we had passed the first refugio and the second camp site and were now nearing the second refugio. We take turns wandering off the trail in search of it, meeting back at the trail, and pressing on into the frigid night. I didn’t want to think about how late it was. I considered pitching the tent but the thought of sleeping in a wooden structure which would insulate us from the cold was too enticing. We continued our search. Tired and beginning to feel effects of dehydration, I turned to McKay. I did not want to put ourselves in a life or death situation. I was honest with him when I told him I did not know where we were. It was late, it was cold, it was dark, and neither of us had ever been on this trail. The enticing thought of sleeping in the refugio could prove to be perilous. Returning to the rock wind barriered camp sites seemed like the smarter option.
As we backtracked I was amazed at how much land we had covered in search of the refugion since the campsite, surprised at the amount of hills we had climbed and corners we had turned. I then noticed that we were on an unfamiliar trail, yet a trail nonetheless. We then came to a flattened plot of land at the base of a small slope, surrounded by a small rock wall in the shape of a rectangle, with a large rock at the north end sheltering the area from the wind. This was not the original camp site we had intended to return to, but it was the campsite we were going to use. We then quickly set up the tent according to the ordered procedure we had planned. I ducked into the tent. “No bags in the tent” I heard McKay tell me. I emptied almost everything out of my bag and piled them up in the tent. I quickly took off my clothes to put on my base layers and threw my hiking clothes back on followed by my medium weight top and rain gear before I lost too much body heat. I slid into my sleeping bag with my slippers on and piled all of my things close to my body for fear of them freezing. McKay had already buried himself in his sleeping bag. I pulled out my water bottle and began to drink. The water was ice cold and was actually painful to swallow. I felt the top of my stomach tense as the frigid liquid entered my body. I knew this would lower my core body temperature but at this moment I feared dehydration more than hypothermia. We had taken very few brakes in our desperate search for the refugio. Yet I shivered as I lay down and began to wonder if I had made the correct decision.
That night was horrible. I could feel cold drafts of the mountain air robbing my head of its warmth. I put on my gloves and tried to hold the sleeping bag over my head. I did not fit correctly into it and needed to constantly hold the hood in place to stay warm. My fingers and the back of my hand would become chilled. I routinely rotated, shifting positions and using the opposite hand to hold the bag while the other regained its warmth. As I used my arm as a pillow I feared the lack of blood running to my hand causing it to fall asleep would also cause it to become more susceptible to frostbite. I flexed my biceps and clenched my fist to keep the blood flowing but ultimately the only solution was to shift positions more often. This went on all night. Between many short intervals of sleep and shifting positions I became frustrated. I thought of my warm bed back in Santiago, Pepi jumping up at the kitchen window to see what was cooking for dinner. At one point I woke up and felt my body was rested. I considered waking up McKay to ask if he wanted to continue our journey but quickly realized I already knew his response. When I had asked him if I should set an alarm he responded with a firm “no”, telling me he planned to stay in his sleeping bag until the sun hit our tent. I then thought of waking him up to ask if he wanted to turn back. I immediately realized how ridiculous that decision would be and tried to ignore my desire to leave and tried to fall back asleep.
Twice (out of the many times) during the night I was woken to a load groan, which I realized was my stomach. I couldn’t help but think that I probably should have tried to eat something before I went to bed. It was too late now, for my bag of salami and cheese was now a meager pillow which had to be bolstered by my bicep. I felt hard objects poke me, my camera, by belt, rocks beneath the tent, as I rotated positions. On many occasions I noticed I was breathing heavily, unsure if it was a result of the lack of oxygen at this altitude or an affect of dehydration or the cold. The warm gooey liquid oozed from my eyes and crusted in the cold, dry mountain air. My nostrils became more and more clogged, forcing me to breathe through my drying mouth. I could hear McKay having a similar experience as he pulled out his bivy sack to insulate him.
Finally on one of these cycles I woke to find that it was light out. “Should we continue towards Plomo?” I wonder. I then recall that McKay would probably be against the idea. I agreed, acknowledging that it was still freezing out. I could picture in my mind the light sky but the great shadows cast by the mountains as the sun had not yet risen above them. I fell back asleep and woke again to similar conditions, only slightly less cold.
McKay was also now awake and told me to turn on my phone and check the time. Half asleep I turned it on and fell back into an uncomfortable sleep filled with strange and disturbing dreams. I then woke up again and noticed it was warmer. Our tent was finally hit by the direct sunlight. McKay asked me if I had slept. “Kinda, not really, I woke up a lot” I lethargically responded. McKay laughed as he recounted his sleepless night, his feet cold from the holes in his sleeping bag.
I looked at my phone, 10:26am. I was then suddenly surrounded by excessive warmth. We jumped out of our sleeping bags. I shed most of my layers as McKay prepped his stove. I grabbed my camera and climbed a small hill nearby to find out where we actually were.
It is insane how different everything looks without the veil of darkness and heavy fog, not to mention the desperation and distortion brought on by extreme cold and exhaustion. I looked at the map and compared the land features to find that we were actually far below the refugio. Had we continued on we probably would have made it to the first one. I then looked down the valley towards Santiago to find clouds building in the distance. “We better get going” I thought as I descended down the hill back to the tent. We talked as we packed up of how it is possible to summit and return in two days, but everything needs to be planned perfectly. The clouds continue to build in the distance. We are both disappointed that we cannot summit, but neither of us wants to spend another night out here and hurry to begin our return journey.
As we descend down the trail I am amazed at how different everything looks. The waterfall is out in plain sight, encrusted with ice. The grassy flats of the first camp site off in the distance. The river crossing is insanely easier now that we can see further than five feet and the banks are not covered in slippery ice. As we continue down the trail we turn back to look at Plomo, growing as we pull away from it. I debate with McKay that it is possible to do in two days. Our problem was we left too late, the taxi took longer than expected, the chairlift was not working, we didn’t have a car to drive us out to the ideal trailhead, and night and fog significantly slowed our pace.
As we entered the first of two valleys which separated us from La Parva we saw a large flock of gigantic brids sweeping through the valley. Condors, eagles, and falcons. I had never seen anything like it. So many majestic birds in one place. We watched them soar through the valley and circle over our heads, listening to the screaming at each other. We slowly approached them, noticing that they are feasting on something below, a dead mule or cow. They swoop low, close to us, turning their heads as we express our excitement. Much like the failed attempt at Leonera, the wildlife made the trip worth it. I laughed at how on the trips I had summated I had not seen any wildlife, but the failed attempts were filled with rare creatures. I took many pictures, only to realize as we turned away that I was taking them in the wrong setting. I feared that the pictures would not come out but it was getting late and we both wanted to get back to civilization.
At the top of the next ridge sat about five cars parked at the trailhead. Knowing that we still had a massive valley to pass, followed by a long descent down the ski resort, we were frustrated that we could not have started our journey from here.
As we walk through the next valley, I imagine it filled with snow and I ski off towards the chairlift. I then snap back to reality as I adjust my pace and breathing to ascend a long, steep climb up towards the saddle. As we reach the lake we are once again consumed by the clouds. This time, however, it is not as thick, allowing more visibility, yet creating an eerie sensation. We decide to wait on calling a cab, hoping that we can find a ride in town.
As we descend through the ski resort, opting to save our knees and wind our way slowly down the dirt road rather than slide down the steep shortcuts that the Russian had lead David and I through, our conversation began to take a philosophical turn. It begins with my anxiety of receiving the email response from my dad. I am certain that when I return to my computer I will have the response waiting for me in my inbox, bearing the decision of my biggest concern: the decision if I would be able to extend my program to the full year. This leads our conversation to McKay’s thoughts. He is not eager to return, yet he is looking forward to it. He values his family, his friends, the people and places he calls home. My desire to extend does not conflict with this sentiment, for as I explain to him, I also value the relationships in my life back in California. However, I know that they will always be there for me when I return, and I need to squeeze every last possible drop of experience out of this cultural sponge, for in reality there is no telling when, if at all, I will return to this country. McKay explains how when he was 18 he was all about going out and being independent, exploring the world by himself and exploring himself. He is now ready to return to his social relations, having achieved a newly found respect for them.
I then explain to McKay that my outlook is different. It is not about being independent. I am independent because I am forced to do so. I travel alone or with small groups because nobody else is able to follow me. Nobody else wants to follow me. That is why I am so appreciative of people who do. I agreed with McKay explaining that some of the best places I have experienced alone, I sorely wished I could have shared.
We look up and realize we have stumbled remarkably close to two cows. One of them has large horns and we cautiously proceed to the left, turning down the road away from them. Our conversation here follows the theme of traveling. I explain to McKay my outlook on traveling which I had solidified in Patagonia. There are two sides to traveling, each equally important. There is tourism, a quicker, more general exploration of a new territory. Many choose to travel on the road less traveled, in “Third World” nations and in long forgotten lands, attempting to escape tourist acts. This is however, still a form of tourism. In the end they are doing the same things and acted the same way, only transplanted to a setting in which most of the rest of the world does not go. The ironic part of this is that these places are generally harder to get to, thus requiring more resources. Thus the people who tend to travel through here tend to be the richer, using the poor as their playground. I do not, however, want to seem too critical of this, for everyone does it. In fact, I believe that this form of traveling is necessary. The world is too big to only travel the second way, which is slowing down, taking your time, and actually emerging yourself in that society. This is what I am trying to do here in Chile, and this is what I hope to do throughout my life. Spend years at a time in a country, living, working, becoming a part of the culture. Adding to their societies rather than extracting experience in exchange for my USD. McKay then tells me about his summer on the French coast, working on boats and receiving tempting job offerings. Agreeing with my two sided thoughts on traveling, he recounts his own experiences of each.
After a few more turns in the conversation, taking the topic to friends growing up and getting married, sustainability, and craft beer, we find ourselves at the empty parking lot of the dormant chairlift. We drop down the road and turn the corner around the ridge to witness an amazing view of the town of La Parva, surrounded in the mysterious fog as it slowly creeps up the mountainside. McKay is amazed that we climbed up through the entire town as I marvel once again at how different things can look without the thick veil of fog leaving so much up to the imagination to fill in. As I stop to take a picture, the dog that followed me up Leonera came up to greet us on our return. We passed a few workers on our descent. The idea to ask them for a ride crosses my mind but is quickly subdued by the realization that they are still on the clock and probably live here in town. We pass by an older man in an Autti, not even bothering to ask him if we could cram our large, dirty bodies and bags into his tiny, leather clad coupe. We pass by the black dog with the massive head, as well as a pack of other local dogs, who follow us down the winding road to the edge of town. The whole time I was thinking that there must be a bathroom where I can refill my long depleted water bottle, and possibly chat someone into giving us a ride back down to Santiago.
I did find a bathroom. However, to my disappointment, other than the workers who were not returning to Santiago and the wandering dogs, the town was completely deserted. We sat down on the steps of the vacated ticket office. McKay begins to cook some pasta while I fruitlessly tried to call a cab. Neither of the numbers in my student handbook worked. I called my host mom to no avail. I then called my Chilean friend Juanfra, who gave me a number to another taxi service. After a long conversation the man on the other end decides it is not worth his time and tells me that it is too far of a distance and that I should call the Carabineros. The Carabineros told me I need to find a cab. As she begins to explain to me what a cab looks like I couldn’t help but grow frustrated, telling her that I know what a cab looks like, the problem is that there are none in La Parva. I eventually gave up and called Junafra again, imploring him to call the company for me. As we sat on the side of the curb, waiting for a possible passing car or the call from the taxi, I ate my pasta and McKay began to cook his bowl. Suddenly a truck finally stops. We ask him where he is going. Not Santiago, but Ferellones, the next town below, a better location to find a ride down to Santiago. McKay pours out the water from the pot as I throw our things into the bed of the pickup.
We thank the man as we get out in Ferrellones. The cab company suddenly calls me, offering $40,000 CLP and a wait of more than an hour. I was unable to talk him down lower than $35,000. McKay and I are reluctant to pay $70 USD, despite our desperate situation. I told the cab driver I would call him back in five minutes as we discussed our options. We then took off down the road towards the corner, supposedly the best place to find a ride. McKay took off to a sheltered bus stop for nonexistent busses as I tried to wave down cars. The first one flies past me. The second driver attempts to ignore me. The third is a small pickup and pulls over. I ran to the passenger side window, my exhausted mind unable to comprehend that he does not have automatic windows and the car is packed with random objects blocking his access to the door. I then ran around to his window and was amazed that he was actually going down to Santiago. He said we would have to ride in the back. I looked in the back seat, filled with blankets and other random objects, realizing that he must mean the bed of the truck. I tossed my bag in and jump in after it, telling him my friend is waiting at the corner. As we approach the stop I poke my head around the side of the truck. McKay’s expression shifts from one of exhausted desperation, on the verge of giving up hope, to one of ecstatic relief by this salvation. He poured out the water of his pasta for the third time and threw his bags next to me in the back. Confirming with the driver that we were in fact going to Santiago, he jumped in next to me and we were on our way.
We laughed the entire way down as the driver zips around the turns. I am amazed at the fact that we are actually in a much more dangerous position than last time with the Russian, yet I had absolutely no fear. This was probably due to the fact that the driver, although descending rather rapidly, was not nearly as reckless as the crazy Russian. We looked off into the painted clouds of the setting sun, happy that we had a secure ride back, an extremely unique one at that, and better yet a free one, with a strong sense of relief that we would not have to spend a horribly cold night up in the dark, cold, cloud saturated wilderness.
After a few bus rides and a metro, I finally stumbled back into my house to an epically warm and filling meal. I took a soothing, hot shower in the unexpectedly clean bathroom. Then I finally sat down with my dark roasted porter and opened up my computer to find that my friend Lindsey had posted a message on my Facebook wall. She said that she lives with a Chilean who loves mountaineering and owns a car, and he wants to summit Plomo in the next few weeks…..Perfect.
View the rest of the photo album here