27 March 2010
La Parva. A ski resort town about 40 minutes northeast of Santiago through which is the easiest access to the legendary Andes Mountains. I have been up there three times now and I must say, each and every time has been an adventure I will never forget.
It all began back in Janurary, soon after I first arrived to this country. I made the first expedition with 3 friends from my program and successfully summated two mountains and hitchhiked back with a very friendly couple. **This part of the story is written down by hand. I will add it in when I have enough free time and I’m not too lazy**
Although I successfully bagged two 13,000 ft. peaks and made it back to Santiago safely, I was eager for more. I knew that I could easily summit 13,000 ft. in the Sierras back home in Califronia, and that for the Andes that is actually quite small. From the top of El Pintor, the higher of the two, I could see the glacier and rock masses of Cerro Leonera and Cerro Plomo looming far overhead. As I turned back towards the city I was eager to return for these two 16,000+ ft. peaks.
Last week the chance to return presented itself. While many others on the EAP program decided to take advantage of their extended vacations and weekends, I elected to remain behind in Santiago with the intention of being productive in the sense of writing about my Patagonia experience and knocking out a chunk of my huge pile of readings for the semester. By Thursday, however, I was itching to escape the city for the mountains.
I began researching the tallest mountains that could be done in a day and mountains that could be done alone, knowing that the possibility of not being able to find a partner for this escape was high. I decided on Cerro Leonera, a 16,253 ft peak that is normally done in two days but is possible in one. I was able to convince Josh as a definite confirmation and Evan as a probable. I went to bed Friday night full of energy and excitement, eager to begin the adventure. Knowing that I needed to rest up, I reassured my insomniac self that rather than actually falling asleep, it is more important that my body rests.
6:30 am. I jump out of bead to the sound of my alarm, quickly stretch and suit up. “Are you ready to tear up this mountain?” I ask Josh and Evan via text message as I add my food bag to my pack. I enter the Manuel Montt metro station to find it completely empty except for Josh sleeping on a bench down on the deck and a guard telling me that the pictures I was taking of him from the platform above were prohibited. After watching each passing train carry more and more people without seeing Evan step off, I call him to find that his fever has returned. Josh and I would have to continue on alone.
It is still dark outside as we ascend to the street and search for a bus station. The frustration builds as we are passed numerous times by our tiny orange bus, which seems intimidated by the gigantic white and green caterpillar-like express buses. Fed up with the situation we walk up the street, veer left onto Las Condes as it splits off, and wait for another 5-10 minutes on the dimly lit sidewalk for the bus that never seems to come.
Finally, the little orange bus turns left towards us, we see the “C01” in the windshield and frantically wave it down. “Oh wow, are you kidding?” I thought as the doors open to reveal the inside of the bus packed to the door with people, crammed in like a can of sardines. “Let’s go!” I yell to Josh, not wanting to waste any more time waiting for another bus. Josh jumps on and worms his way up to the left. I am on the first step, the doors close on my pack and my right leg. “The only thing more ridiculous would be if they had let us ride on the roof!” I thought as the bus begins to drive off with a third of my body still outside. Somehow I manage to wiggle my arm up through the packed crowd to scan my BIP card, laughing at the success of y insignificant action.
As the riders slowly filter out stop by stop, I position myself near the windshield so I can see our oncoming destination. The streets look familiar, then suddenly I see the Terpel station. Next stop I yell to Josh, who relays the message to the driver. We jump off the bus, amazed that the driver let us on in the first place and move on to the next challenge of our journey: the ride up to La Parva.
We immediately see a group of people waiting by the curb. I become relaxed, assuming that these are all hikers waiting for the shuttle bus up to the ski resort. Unfortunately, on asking one of them I find he has no idea what La Parva is. I see a 4 runner drive up and a man clad in lightweight hiking gear descends from the cab. “This looks promising,” I think to myself as Josh is already asking him of his destination. Yes, he is going to La Parva, however he is with a big group and he doesn’t think there will be space. About 30 minutes later he drives off alone in his car to the other side of the gas station, where he enters another SUV occupying the 3rd of 5 seats. “What an asshole”, I exclaim to Josh as they drive off. After 2 more hours of similar situations, nonexistent shuttle busses, and already filled taxi cabs, I finally run across the gas station to wave down an empty cab before it speeds off into the distance. The driver agrees to take us to our destination for $20,000 pesos, a full USD $6 more than last time, on top of the fact that rather than split between four it will only be split between two. But it is already 10:00am and we need to get going.
On the way up the narrow, windy road I try to make small talk with the cab driver as Josh sleeps, hoping to become friendly enough with him to the point that he will drive us the extra 2km up the dirt portion of the road to the base of the ski lift. This, combined with the fact that he had never been up there before worked perfectly in my favor. I was so pleased that he drove us to the base of the lift that I gave him an over proportioned tip, about USD $6. After buying my lift ticket I immediately regretted it.
Beginning our hike at 11:00 am, frustrated and anxious, we quickly acclimate and blow past the large group that refused to give us a ride to the top. Stopping only briefly for a sip of water, we shatter our pace that was set the last time we were here. By 1:30 pm we are at the base of the ascent trail of Leonera, finishing up our lunch.
“No more fucking around, it’s time to get serious here” I tell Josh as we begin the ascent up Leonera. We are already at 13,000 ft. Soon after departing from our lunch break we come across two eagles sitting on a rock 5 ft. to the right of the trail. I snap some photos and then proceed on. With each step we can feel the effects of the altitude. I feel the pressure in my head grow. Josh drops behind. I focus on my steady pace, rest-stepping and breathing. I look back to find Josh laying on the trail. “Don’t do that Josh! That’s really dangerous!” I yell to him. He jumps up and continues. When he catches up to me I explain to him that the most important thing is to keep moving. With every stop it becomes more difficult to start up again. If you sit down and succumb to the urge to rest, your eyes will close, you will fall asleep, and hypothermia will set in.
I pull away from Josh, pause and encourage him to go on. With each interval he becomes more pessimistic. I encourage him to climb up to the next plateau where we can get a better view of where we are going.
I begin to feel the altitude as well. I can feel the blood pounding through my temples, veins pulsating as I grow light headed. Occasionally I sway to the left, almost throwing off my balance. I try to focus on my breathing and practicing that constant pace. I picture myself trying to catch up to my friend Chris, who is always pulling away from me when we summit in the Sierras, as if I’m in a time trial mode of some racing video game where you have to beat the ghost figure of your best lap. I begin to think of nothing but moving on at a steady pace.
We are now directly below the false summit and can see the true summit peeking out from behind it in the distance. We are half way up Plomo and El Pintor and La Parva look like speed bumps off in the distance. We estimate that we are at about 15,000 ft, higher than either of us has ever been before. Josh checks his phone and reports that it is 3:00pm. “This is our turn around point” I say as my camera battery dies. We begin our decent, weary that the altitude makes us careless and cautious not to misstep.
“Whoa dude! Look at that!” Josh yells from close behind me as we approach the spot where we had lunch. I look up in front and then immediately to the right to find a huge condor soaring level with us only 10 ft. to the right, close enough to see its eyes. I throw off my pack and rip out my camera. As it circles along the updraft it passes directly above us. I frame and focus a perfect shot of it, again able to see its eyes, only to be pitifully reminded that my camera battery has long been dead. “Shit!” I yell as I lower the camera and watch the massive bird rapidly gain elevation and then soar off into the distance. “That right there made this whole damn trip worth it” says Josh. “Yah, that and those two eagles earlier,” I agree. I had never attempted to climb a mountain before and not reached the summit, and these to encounters with extremely rare raptors were the only things that kept me from feeling utterly defeated.
After catching one of the last chairlifts down, we find an empty parking lot. Josh dozes off as I chat in Spanish and English with the man in the ticket office about bikes, finding that he has spent the past four California summers working in Tahoe. One thing that I had known long before coming to Chile, but since coming have become constantly reminded of, is never to underestimate the power of simply talking to someone. Our 5 minute conversation led without any provocation from my part to him offering a ride back to Santiago in one of his friend’s cars. Delighted, Josh and I wait until a man rolls in on a bike and starts loading up the last remaining truck. He explains that he is staying in La Parva tonight but will drive the truck into town where he will meet the owner of the truck who is still out biking. This person is the one who will be able to drive us back to Santiago. As we wait, two more people, apparently friends of the employees, empty the fridge of its craftbrew, offering one to me. An unfiltered Lager, something I had never encountered before coming to Chile but apparently its pretty popular down here. We finally descend via truck to the edge of town where he drops us off. He tells us to wait here for the owner to return. We waited for an hour in the slowly receding sun, contemplating the validity of the situation. We try hitching again but no car will stop for us. I call the number the taxi driver left us only to find the number is not valid. Josh wanders off in search of the truck.
After another 5 to 10 minutes which felt more like 15 or 20, I hear an engine. Another truck but not the one I’m looking for. It does not slow down, creating a cloud of dust and dirt as it makes a left up into town. Through the dust, backlit by the late afternoon sun, I see the silhouette of Josh, as if from an old Western film. I begin whistling the theme to “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” as he emerges through the dust from behind the hill. “They were right there just sitting in the car….he’s coming though” another 5 molasses-like minutes and finally we see our truck. It stops and we pile in.
As we descend back towards Santiago we find the driver to be an extremely amiable person of about similar age and interest as ourselves. We chat about Chile and the U.S. I am comically relieved to find that his opinion of people from the U.S. is that people from California and New York are nice people but the rest he finds very strange. As the conversation draws on Josh and I seem to lose our ability to speak in Spanish, explaining it is getting tough to think in English let alone this new language. We thank him as he drops us off next to our metro station. The ridiculous day is complete. We devour a plate of Churazcos and Papas Fritas at a restaurant and then return to our respective houses to sleep.
For the following week I could think of nothing but my vengeance for Leonera. When I start daydreaming in class: Leonera. After reading two paragraphs in my texts for class: Leonera. When the conversation at the dinner table becomes silent: Leonera. I am determined to set up a rematch with this mountain, and I soon make plans with David and Juanfra to do so.
That Thursday night, unable to convince Josh to come, the plan is that David, Juanfra, Evan and I would meet at Manuel Montt at 6:30 and follow a similar plan as last time, only better executed. Again, I reassure myself that the rest is for the body more so than the mind.
I am woken in the darkness of the morning surprisingly to the sound of my ringtone rather than alarm clock. “Cuando vamos a reunir?” David asks me over the phone. I look at the time. 6:30. “Shit, 10 minutes ago” I reply, “My alarm didn’t go off for some reason. I’ll be out ASAP.”
I jump out of bead and throw on my gear. Absent mindedly only taking one of the three fruits set out for me for breakfast. I leave the house to find David in the street, explaining that while Juanfra has dropped out, he is excited to begin the journey. We rush to the metro station and again wait for Evan.
After two phone calls and two passing metros, neither of which give us any leads on Evan’s whereabouts, I decide to send him a text letting him know we are moving on without him.
We left at about the same time for this second attempt as I left for the first. However, due to the fact that this attempt was on a Friday rather than a Saturday, the metro, the streets, and unfortunately the busses were filled with five times as many people as the previous week. Attempting to execute our plan with minimal setbacks, we passed the first bus stop and headed straight for the next one, after the split onto Las Condes. Unfortunately, none of the C01 buses would allow us to squeeze into the already crammed busses like the previous time. After countless shaking heads in response to my questions of if the buses are going to Ferrellones, we finally decided to just jump on the next bus, which happened to be the same numbered bus as the first ever attempt at La Parva (426), and also happened to be filled to the doorway with morning commuters.
After a few minutes of uncertainty, I recognized where we were and got off the bus, opting to forgo the C01 transfer and walk the rest of the way to the Terpel station, a distance of about 3 or 4 bus stops. As we neared the Terpel station, we saw two taxi cabs in a parking lot to our right. After unsuccessfully bargaining a decent price we began to walk off to the gas station to see if we could find anyone to hitchhike, but then quickly realized what disaster this decision could bring. “OK, 20 mil pesos” we agreed as we got into the cab.
This cab driver was much more talkative and knowledgeable of the area than the previous one. As we ascended the narrow hairpin turns, passing a Chilean cowboy smoking a cigarette as he ascended on horseback, the driver talked about everything from earthquakes to urban development to pack trips through the valleys on extended weekends. As we neared the town of La Parva, I asked him if he knew the bike park. The friendly “no” was an acceptable reply, for I could tell he would end up driving us due to our conversation and due to the fact he didn’t realize we were about to have him drive 2km on a narrow dirt road which a car of any less ground clearance would high-center.
The air was brisk, cold enough were we had to throw on our sweatshirts and gloves while we waited for the lift operators to get things up and running. With the anxious notion in the back of my head that we might have missed our window for the season we ascended the ski resort, listening to the pack of dogs that had chased a truck up the road to the ski lift now pestering a small group of cows.
The short, steep hike from the top of the chairlift to the saddle was much easier this time, most likely due to the fact that that I was probably still a bit acclimated from the previous week’s attempt. About 5-10 ft. below the saddle, I looked up to find a brown and white furry object quickly approaching me, tongue flopping out, tail wagging excitedly. The dog jumped up with the excitement of seeing another life form, and I was able to see why when I ascended to the saddle. Nothing…for miles. Unlike the previous two times I had stood at the top of this rock looking down towards the small lake, up towards La Parva’s summit and back down towards the chair lift, the only sign of life besides us three was a strange man carrying a lap top bag and an ice ax, slowly lumbering up towards the saddle. Knowing that this would be a long hike and we would have to set a fast a steady pace, we proceeded to ascend La Falsa Parva after a quick 2 minute break.
David began to drop behind, stopping occasionally to remove his jacket, take some pictures, and probably try to continue acclimating. The dog disappeared below but by the time I made it to the top of the pass she had rejoined me. After a brief application of sunscreen and a few pictures for David next to the cross, we continued on, trying to set a quicker and steadier pace.
As I passed by La Parva, filling in the blurry sections of my cognitive map of the trail, I felt an oppressive uneasiness that we were going too slow. I felt as if I was moving quickly, however there was absolutely nobody else out this time for a comparison of pace. The only other life forms besides me were David, again dropping back in the distance, and the dog which would bounce between us.
I was struck by the sheer beauty of the landscape as I passed over the plains between La Parva and El Pintor, yet I continued on, actually quickening my pace, for this was already my third time passing through this area in this direction alone. The idea of taking a photo crossed my mind but I quickly told myself I have been here too many times and already have pictures of this area. I knew that unless I saw something extremely photo-worthy, I probably would not remove my camera until I had passed the point at which Josh and I turned back.
After about another hour of passing of the desolate plateau, we came to the ridge where Leonera breaks off. I heard David yell from behind that he wanted to stop for lunch. “Ya, right here! It’s where we stopped last time” I responded. The three of us sat and soaked in the view of Plomo, marveling at how people could climb its 60 degree pitched glacier crisscrossed with cracks and crevasses. Eating half my stick of salami and a few slices of cheese, David and I both looked in wonderment at the dog, not only amazed that it had followed us this far, but more so due to the fact that the dog didn’t even bother to beg for food. All four of my dogs would be all over me trying to convince me to give them the food. As we packed up the thought of the dog burning as many calories as us was too much for me and I gave her a piece of my chocolate bar. Her eyes sparkled and tail graciously swayed. Then the three of us were ready. “This is where it gets serious” I said. “Only bit steeper and just a few technical areas but for the most part the problems will come from the altitude. We’re already above 13,000 ft. Remember, setting a quick pace is important, but what’s more important is to set a steady one. Try to keep moving.”
“Ya I’ll probably set a slower pace than you so go on ahead” David replied. And so we did.
Quick and steady. I was impressed with myself. I felt much more energetic around the point where I began to feel dizzy last time. I did, however feel the blood pumping hard through the veins in my temples, pulsing with every step. I continued practicing my high altitude breathing technique to offset this. Using my rib cage to expand my lungs, I took a deep breath in through my nose, and compressed my ribs forcing all the Carbon Dioxide quickly out through my mouth, making a whistling sound. By now my rest-stepping technique had been perfected. With each step, one leg was given a short but vital rest, essential at this altitude. Without breaking pace I looked back to find David and the dog off in the distance. Turning back toward s the summit I could see the next two plateaus, the first of which contained the only technical part of the trail, the further one off in the distance was the turnaround from last time. I continued my steady pace until the top of the technical area. Stopping to make sure David found his way up the not so well marked trail.
From here I urged him to keep going, growing more anxious of our limited time with each step. I set into my groove again, rest stepping and breathing. My thoughts began to drift around and suddenly I am surprised by a brown and white blur rushing past me. My eyes follow the dog running towards the strange rock formations that mark last week’s turnaround point. I am impressed with my pace and my energy level. I can barely see David in the beyond the ridge, so I decide to take some pictures and reward myself with some water. I am fully refreshed by the time David arrives but allow him to rest as well. By this point both of us are amazed that the dog has followed us this far. “It may actually follow us all the way to the summit,” I thought as David puts away his water bottle and we stand up, ready to continue.
By this time I am a bit worried. It is getting late and I know that it will take at least 2 hours to get down. But we are so close we have to continue. So I push on, ahead of David but behind the dog, beside a field of ice and up a slope which becomes increasingly loose and steep. Before I know it I am picking my way up loose rock through a series of chutes. “This better not be the false summit, it has to be the real one” I tell myself as I scramble upwards. A miss step, a stumble. My body sways to the left, then backwards. My vision is light. “Whoa. Hold on now. You’re at 16,000 ft. Calm down. Take a step back. Breath. Reassess the situation and look for the trail” I think to myself as I take three deep breaths. I turn around and walk back to where I had left the trail and continue upwards. It soon flattens out. I grow excited. Am I at the false summit or the true summit? I see the dog running down the trail as it curves to the right and folds back on itself. I follow her and find myself at the summit block in the brutal Andean wind. I throw down my pack and take panoramic of the view. 16,253 ft! I yell in my mind without wasting any precious breath. A few feet below the summit block I find shelter behind a large rock. Here I sit with the dog and eat the rest of my salami and cheese, sharing a few slices. I look at my phone and see that it is already 3:00 pm. Shit, we have to turn back now if we want to make that down-lift. I decide to descend to David and ask his opinion of the matter. As I reach the last technical part before the summit, I am surprised and relieved to find David already halfway through it. “Your almost there man, but its late!” I yell over the wind. “Come on up here to the summit and we’ll discuss our options!”
We decide that resting is more important than rushing back to try to make it in time for a chairlift. Walking down the ski resort won’t be that bad. After nearly falling asleep twice we decide it’s getting dangerous to stay at the summit and thus begin our decent. The entire way down I shift between sticking close to David and talking about future plans and ski resorts, and quickening the pace with the hopes that we may actually be able to make it in time for the lift. Hoping that David will try to keep up I break off ahead, but the gap between us only widens, over which the dog runs back and forth. The dog reminds me of “compass” in “Mi Mejor Enemigo,” a film we watched a month ago in our language and culture class. She didn’t really follow us up the mountain and back. It was more like she was hiking along with us, sometimes out in front, sometimes lingering behind.
The sun began to sink lower in the sky as we took our time with the decent, displaying this landscape that I had become so familiar with in a completely new light. The late afternoon sun highlighted the oranges and reds in the rocks and created shadows behind the cliffs. The smoggy haze of Santiago had also begun to rise up through the valleys, contributing to mystical orange atmosphere. David described the landscape as Tatooine from Star Wars. I agreed, soaking in the desolate beauty of this strange land.
It was not until I had descended back to the saddle above the chairlift where I saw the first forms of life since that morning. A party of four had set up their tents on the saddle. I sat down on a rock. My gaze shifted between them, the dog whom was rapidly descending the pass, David who was still taking his time, and a figure ascending from the lake whom I soon recognized to be the man with the ice pick and the lap top bag. To my disappointment, after descending the dog passed right by me on towards the camp. “Goodbye, Compass,” I thought, reminding myself that this was not my dog, but a dog of the mountains who does what she pleases. I looked out towards the lake and saw the man stop and put his hands on his thighs as he rested, now within earshot. He waved to me. “¿De dónde vienen?” I asked mistakenly using the wrong tense. “¿Dónde fuiste?”
“Por acá” he motioned behind him. “Well, duh!” I thought. After a few more lines he decided to converse in surprisingly well spoken English. I soon found out as he sat down next to me that he was not Chilean, but had been born in Russia, grew up in Austria, went to an U.S. school in Korea, and had been living in Chile for fifteen years collecting native seeds and selling them to clients across the globe. As David joined us we continued talking about his work for a bit, then I decided to ask him for a ride back to Santiago. I probably should have picked up on the first warning when he said he might be able to make space for two. But David and I were too tired from our adventure to care. We began to follow him down the ski resort to some plant he wanted to stop at on the way back to his truck, keeping the friendly conversation the entire way to ensure our ride back.
The sun begins to set as we slide down a steep, loose slope due to our detour. I stop every so often to snap a picture and then rush to catch up to David and the Russian. It is nearly dark when we reach the bottom of the chairlift and the valley is filled with a dark reddish orange haze, below which can be seen a small collection of yellow lights from the towns of La Parva and Farellones. A mountain in the background becomes a dark silhouette, isolated by the sea of fading light. I turn around to see David sitting on top of a spare tire in the back of the old, grayish silver truck. The rest of the truck is completely filled with bags and other random, indiscernible items. I find it a bit comical that there are only two seats in the truck, including the driver’s seat.
I open the passenger door as the Russian moves some bags around off the seat. There are some small black hard objects on the seat that I remove, unable to determine if they are rocks or bits of chocolate cookies. As I climb in and sit on the torn cloth seat, feet amongst a pile of random files and equipment, I notice a fairly strong smell which resembles Powerbait. I look at the dashboard to find an array of gauges and meters, most of them broken. As he struggles to start the engine, I feel like I’m in the cockpit of a sketchy, old soviet jet rather than some truck which I was sure said “Chevrolet” on the back. The Russian tells me how it’s difficult to start when it gets cold out because the engine and the sparkplugs are old. After a few minutes of teetering back and forth, with and without engine running, it finally roars and we begin to descend down the dirt road. Slowly at first, he then speeds up through an extremely steep dip, about the same dimensions as the one that took off part of the fender of my mom’s Subaru when I was 16. “OUCH!” I hear David yell as his head slams into the roof of the truck.
“Oh, sorry, haha, oh wow, I forgot he was back there” the Russian tells me shaking his head. After navigating through a few more dips, only slightly slower than the first, he stops the car. Yanking some levers he then floors the gas pedal, shouting with glee that we are now in two-wheel drive. As we fly down the narrow dirt road, cliff on the right, at an extremely nerve-racking pace, he begins to tell us how he almost overturned his truck on three separate occasions. “Ya I kinda almost did that once too” I say to try to lighten the mood as my muscles tense up with fear. He answered with an extremely interested response. Apparently this guy absolutely loves doing ridiculous things in off road vehicles, laughing at his story he tells us about watching a Soviet jeep launch off a bump throwing the man in the back up and lodging his head in the tarp roof.
As we near the pavement I hear David desperately ask him to slow down. I look back to find him almost directly behind us, apparently he slid all the way down the cab. The crazy Russian doesn’t hear him at first. I reassure David that we are now on the pavement, but we are then rocked by a series of potholes, turning the corner to almost run into a group of construction workers, and turning hard around the first hairpin turn. I look for something to hold on to, all reassurance brought by the pavement flung out the window. As he reaches back to put on his seatbelt he tells us how he likes to turn off the engine when he goes downhill to save gas, relying completely on the breaks. “Not by the book” he describes his method, noting the dangers of overheating the breaks which in the end would mean we would probably fly off the side of the cliff, but determining that his method is more economical as well as more fun.
After about five minutes of flying around corners with dim headlights and an engine only half the time we turn down an unfamiliar road. He reminds us that he has to make a side trip to fetch his seeds. We stop on the side of the dark road. He gets out with a small flashlight to search for his seeds. When I feel that he is far enough away from the truck I turn around and stare at David with intensely frightened eyes. “I have done a ton of extreme and dangerous stuff in my life, snowboarding, mountain biking, climbing, but I have never once until now actually feared for my life. I don’t think I’ll be hitch hiking for a long time after this.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever hitchhike again” David replies. We then softly discuss which is worse, David’s seatbeltless position in the back of the truck sandwiched between a spare tire and an ice pick, or me in the front, being forced to stare out the windshield with fear, watching the cliff behind each corner rapidly grow near, slamming my foot on the non-existent brake pedal. “Are we close?” David asks. As I pause, fully knowing that our decent really hasn’t even begun yet David exclaims “Just say yes, whether it’s true or not. Please just say we are close to a real road.” “Oh wow”, thought as I pictured all the narrow winding curves I had so much fun counting on the way up.
The Russian returns to the car complaining that he can’t find his seeds. We drive down the road a bit further and he stops again, sure that this is the correct spot. As he searches I ponder to myself what I would do if when he tried to backup on this narrow road the back of the car fell off the cliff. I could picture myself jumping out the door as the truck plummeted down into the abyss. However, I could also picture the seatbelt or the door of this ancient piece of metal sticking, or the door catching me on the way out. It’s probably best not to think about this at all.
After a surprisingly smooth turn around, we began flying back on course. Nearly hitting two German Sheppards tearing around the corner through the down of Farellones, we come to the first of many hairpin turns. “Oh my god,” I whimper to myself as I read the sign “Curva 37”.
With each approaching curve cringe as I picture one of the million possibilities of something going wrong. The fact that while we were flying through town he tells us he wants to learn how to drift is no reassurance. As he approaches each curve with a hard jerk to the outside, crossing either onto the opposite side of the street or onto the dirt shoulder, and then an even harder jerk back to the inside I wonder if he is trying to drift the damn thing.
By Curva 29 I am surprised at the lack of fear and tenseness in my reaction as he rounds the corner. “Is he driving closer to a normal human being or am I just getting used to it?” I wonder to myself. Then suddenly my fear is jolted back into me as we reach Curva 28 when he jerks hard to the left, crossing to the other side of the road, almost to the shoulder, then yanks the wheel hard to the right. I begin to wonder if this car even has power steering as he grunts around each curve.
This goes on for a while, nobody talking. Normally I try to spark up a conversation with a driver, to try to establish a human connection creating a sentiment of understanding and friendship. Here however I say nothing, not wanting to start him on an excited tangent about seeds of crashing cars thus distracting him from driving. Only the sound of his grunting and wheels screeching around corners, who knows what loose parts clanging and grinding underneath the car, the roar of the engine as he periodically turns it back on, and the switch of the lights to avoid blinding oncoming traffic, sometimes completely turning them off. Occasionally the Powerbait smell returns and I don’t even want to begin thinking about what crazy fluid is leaking to create this smell. As we turn around one particular corner I hear him heavily sniffing the air. I then begin to smell something that I fear might be overheated breaks. I jump as he turns on the engine, not knowing that it was off. We then round the next corner, again with the front passenger wheel off the pavement.
Finally the road begins to straighten out. We approach a bridge across a small river and begin proceeding uphill. I am so relieved to be on a relatively straight road but I know that more hairpins are quickly approaching. As we round the corner I sigh at the sign of Curva 16. “So close but so far” I think to myself as I shake my head. The countdown takes forever. The ability of stress and uncertainly to warp ones perception of time is remarkable. “A fox!” I yell, unable to contain myself from the childish glee still inspired by seeing this animal dart across the road. “Crap” I think to myself as I hear the driver’s startled reaction. “That was a fox” I said. “Possibly, there are many here” he replies as we approach another curve. I say nothing, reverting to my rule of not talking until we are out of the hairpins.
And then finally, we are. But as the road begins to straighten, he is still jerking hard to the left and right around these longer turns. “Ok, what the fuck. Is he doing this shit on purpose? Is he TRYING to drift this thing?” After a minute or so I deem it safe enough to spark up a conversation again, sick of the awkward silence, yet still cautious not to distract him. However, the conversation does not relieve the stress and anxiety that had built up inside David and myself, for every topic I bring up he is able to turn into something that in any other situation would not be so frightening, but flying down a mountain road passing oncoming traffic it takes on a fearful quality of a whole new level. He tells us how he wants to get a new truck because everything on this one is broken. Oh great. As I tell him I would like to take a Subaru out here but wouldn’t like to get stuck behind trucks he asks why, misunderstanding me thinking that I meant the oncoming trucks that we had been passing. This for him is fun, not knowing when a truck would slam into your windshield and having to dodge out of its way at the last minute. Towards the end of the canyon, but still with a cliff to our right, the cab is filled with the flash from David’s camera. Once more David takes another picture, and startles the driver. “Don’t fucking distract him! There’s still a cliff on our side, man!” I yell to him telepathically.
And when I see the sign of the Terpel station, I am filled with joy. Finally back to civilization. As we get out of his car by a bus stop I thank him for the ride. David snaps one more picture of the inside of the cab and we walk off. As soon as he drives off David drops and kisses the ground. “HAHA I was thinking of doing the same!” I yell. “I was trying to remember all my Jewish prayers but I couldn’t remember any! Not one!” David yells. We are finally free, and more than ever appreciative of our lives.
After that car ride the rough Santiago bus feels like nothing. We sit down in the “special assistance” seats, feeling like we deserved it after that ride. After a quick shower we go out to the closet bar to our houses and drink three beers each and devour one whole pizza each. David also smokes three cigarettes. We begin to laugh at our ridiculous experience, happier than ever to be alive. Every time I go up to La Parva it’s always an adventure, and each time I become more aware of how lucky I was the first time for everything to run so smoothly. This time was intense enough to hold me off for a while. David and I agree that we will not be attempting Cerro Plomo the following week. We need a break from taxis and hitchhiking.