Sunday, January 15, 2012

And in the end, it's all just shifting sand

     I really struggled with what to name this entry. I had all kinds of ideas:

A little stroll to the bottom of the world and a slow dance with hypothermia

According to Dante there are 7 rivers to hell, he's wrong, there's only 3 but you cross them twice

I know what sexy looks like, she was flirting with frostbite

Are you laughing or crying?

Misery loves took her 3.5 days, but she eventually found it

We do this for fun!

In the end though, I settled with what you got.  The others while entertaining enough, for some reason or another seemed slanted toward the negative. Yeah, this hike was a challenge, but I really did have fun. I had a blast and wouldn’t take it back for anything. I don’t think I would do it again, but I’m glad and grateful to of had the experience…once in my life.

I made a conscious decision not to go into Tierra del Fuego or to Ushuaia on this trip. I'd heard a lot of mixed reviews and decided that it wasn't for me. I would rather spend my time and money in other ways. I don't need the bragging right to say I went to "the southernmost city in the world." I definitely don't need to buy any more crap to carry around in my backpack. Tierra del Fuego could be interesting, but I struck gold with Torres and Chalten and, well, let's be honest, it would damn near impossible to top those.

But I was convinced by dear, sweet Julie to go with her to Cabo Froward. "We could hike to the bottom of the world!" she told me. Emphatically and enthusiastically waving her hands and nodding her head she coaxed me..."we could hike to the bottom of the world!!"

When you put it like that, how do you NOT go? Drunken with her energy and eager for just one more hike in my beloved Patagonia before I head up north, I, in my ignorance, agreed.

All I knew about this hike was what I had been told. I did no research on my own. I asked others who had gone before and with a casual indifference I was told, "it's not a difficult hike. Hiking down, the coast is on your left and hiking back the coast is on your right." It sounds straightforward enough. The only warning I was given was that we had to know the tides, because we would have to cross 3 rivers and it's best to do it at low tide.

I am not sure this really registered in my brain until I was standing there stripped down to my underwear in the rain and blistering cold and facing my second to last river crossing. I agreed to this. I am willingly going to put myself in this position, not once, not twice, not even thrice (I just wanted to say thrice), but 6 times. These aren't just any rivers either and this isn't just any beach...lest I remind you, we are talking the southernmost point on the South American continent with water that flows in the Straight of Magellan.

And I used to think swimming in the beaches off San Diego was cold. Oh, how things change.

But of course, this hadn't registered in my brain yet. I was still thinking, "we could hike to the bottom of the world! la,la, la, la, la. Dum de do dee dee." This will make a great story!

Because of the fire in Torres del Paine there were several people looking for alternatives and we ended up with a pretty good-sized group. This group included Paul and Cham, two friends from New Zealand who had been working at Erratic Rock, Julie and I, and Rich and Stephanie. The last two were a couple of people that happened to be staying at the hostel and wanted to come along.

I had my reservations about the last two. I didn't know them from Adam and you don't just go tromping off into the wilderness with complete strangers. They could be crazy...or worse, they could be bad campers with no sense of humor when things go wrong. If there is anything that I’ve learned it’s that things will at some point go wrong, that’s part of the fun. At least if you can laugh about it, it is.

I don't like to pass judgment too quickly on people and I really try to give them a fair chance. Rich seemed like good people. He lives in Seattle, so that right there automatically gave him a couple bonus points in my book. But this Stephanie character, something about her just rubbed me the wrong way. She just emanated stress. This chick has been "traveling" for over a year and was still strung tight enough to snap. Sheesh, I wonder what she was like before .she started her trip. In the end, I can’t say I’m “glad” she came...but her ceaseless bitching provided me with hours of entertainment and a couple unforgettable quotes I will share in this entry.

We all took the last bus out of Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas. The 4 of us Erratic Rockers were sleeping for free on the floor of the office of a friend of Bill's. Stephanie and Rich were staying in a hostel just up the street. In the morning we would all meet to take the local bus to the last stop and from there we were expecting a fairly easy stroll along the beach to, well, you know, the end of the world.

We all, minus Stephanie, had that first day hiking enthusiasm. I think it's because of this that I actually had no recollection of how long we walked down the road or how long we walked down loose rocks of the beach. We saw a sign that said it was 4km to the took us 2 hours to get there. Either we are really slow hikers or that sign was not all that accurate.  I’m going to go with the latter to save face here. By the time we got to our first camp it had been raining pretty steadily from the moment we stepped off the bus and it was time to set up camp 7 hours later. For the most part we were all still pretty stoked to be there. I did, however, notice that Stephanie didn't seem to be glowing like the rest of us. I watched her struggle with her tent and drop the F-bomb a couple of times before I asked her what was up. First MSQ (Memorable Stephanie Quote) with the erratic moves of someone about to explode with anger: "I'm not really big on hiking and I kind of hate camping."

I was floored. What in the world are you doing here?! This would have been good information to know BEFORE we agreed to let her come on this trek. Because, well, there is no infrastructure here...and the only option IS hiking and camping. I thought that was pretty self-explanatory. Apparently I was wrong. Sorry sweetie, there is no Marriot around the next bend. I didn't really know how to respond to that. So I just did the only thing I could think to do. I picked my jaw up off the ground and walked away. This, I fear, is going to be a long few days for our new friend.

Julie and I were sharing a tent. It was pitched and set up fast. Dinner was ready...and we washed our dishes Mongolian style (aka licked them clean) before crawling into our respective sleeping bags and passing out. We were hoping for better weather the next morning. The two of us like this hiking and camping stuff...but even if you like it, it can get a little rough when you're wet and cold for long periods of time.

We woke up and it was still raining.

So we packed up the wet tent and wet sleeping bags and wet clothes and started along the trail. We were was going to be our first river crossing. I was mentally prepared for this. I was ready to earn my stripes and call myself a full-on hard-core backpacker, like for reals. And this river was going to be my rite of passage. But we had to get there first. That required walking over more loose rocks, wet rocks, algae covered wet rocks, fallen trees, mud, lots and lots of mud, spongy marshland trampoline ground and sand. We would get to the point were I thought I simply couldn't take another step on the loose rocks, then we would have to walk on solid rocks but they were slippery and wet, which for a while seemed better. When I thought I couldn't possibly take another step on the slippery wet rocks we moved to rainforest aka mud and fallen trees. Which…for a while seemed better. And when I thought I couldn’t possible climb my way over another fallen tree and slip and slide my way up or down a mud path we were dumped back onto the beach to find….loose wet rocks! Which, all of a sudden didn’t seem as bad. But then came the river.
I stared her down. I stripped down to barefoot, unzipped the bottoms off my pants, hiked up my pack and started walking.

I can do this. I can totally do this. Breathe. Breath of fire! Breath of fire! Think warm thoughts. I’m so brave. I’m so strong. This is fun!  It’s not that bad. Almost there…just keep going. And made it to the first sand bar. Success! Now we get to do that again. Yeah, this is so fun. I’m so hardcore! Take my picture!!

So yeah, the first one was fun. It was novel. I had never done anything like that before. It made me feel like I was on a legitimate adventure and that I was earning this hike to the bottom of the world. Each one after that first kind of lost its appeal. Kind of like getting a new vacuum cleaner. At first it’s fun because it’s new and you want to vacuum everything…but eventually you come to realize that it’s still a vacuum cleaner and you’re still doing chores. At this particular moment, I was still excited…but we weren’t on our way back yet.

Then it was back to the wet rocks, the algae covered rocks, the loose rocks, the sand, the mud, the fallen trees. I was serenaded by an endless stream of profanity from Stephanie a safe distance behind me. I lost count of the F-bombs dropped within the first hour, but used them to be sure that she was in fact still alive back there. It saved me the effort of actually having to look back and check on her.

Then we got to the second river crossing.  It was hailed with the second MSQ of the trek: “Oh, my God, how is this possible?! Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, it does.”

With the uneven ground it took us a while to go the 7 km and we had missed low tide. It was in fact closer to high tide. This made me a little bit nervous. I could handle water up to the knees, but I’m wasn’t sure I could handle it going much higher. Kiwi Paul was our river scout. He volunteered to go out first and see how deep it was and navigate the best route. I am eternally grateful for this. He’s a big guy. Measuring up somewhere around 6’6” so it seemed right for him to go out there first. Problem is, his knees are not at the same height at MY knees. I watched him make his way across the river as the water moved from the ankles, to the shins to his knees…to a little above the knees.

Please stop. Oh come on! Please, please make that be the end. Not any deeper…

The river water stopped rising a bit above his knees. I breathed I nice long sigh of relief. Until I realized that just above his knees was right at my crotch.

It’s cool. I can do this. I’m tough. Strip down. Loose the shorts. After the last river I changed into my swimsuit bottom aware of the fact that the next crossing would most likely be higher.  I was right. I hiked my pack up a bit higher so it wouldn’t touch the water and went for it.


If I had balls they would have retreated to my throat. I think I actually forgot how to inhale. It’s so cold it burns. This is not novel anymore. This is madness. This is pure, masochistic, insanity. And we do this for fun.

Eventually you go numb. The cold starts to feel warm if you can feel anything at all. And just when you think you can’t take it anymore, you’re across the river. It’s done. It’s over. Put your pants back on. So that was…fun. You guys ready to set up camp?

We’re all hyped up on adrenaline. We just crossed a freakin’ ice cold river at HIGH TIDE. We can do ANYTHING! Heck yes let’s set up camp. Tomorrow we make it to the cross at the bottom of the world! In the midst of our celebratory mood I hear the 3rd MSQ of the trek: "Congratulations, you have just seen me on the worst day of my life." I just let that one go. At this moment I feel invincible. This is awesome. I just crossed that effing river. No one can take that from me. Let’s make some pasta and eat! I need calories to warm myself back up. It takes a lot of energy to be this hardcore. J

Yes…it’s still raining and we spotted a fox near the camp.

We wake up and it’s SUNNY!! It is a really beautiful day. It’s the first clear view we’ve had the entire trek so far. We’re ecstatic. We were pretty thrilled the day before when we saw dolphins and whales, but this, a sunny day, this is even better! I think I even saw Stephanie contort her face into a smile for a second. It could have been a twitch, but I’m going to say it was a smile. Unfortunately the sun was about as short-lived as that smile.

We hadn’t gotten very far with the Michael Jackson trees (too high to get over, too low to get under, you’re stuck in the middle) on the beach before the rain started back up. Really started back up. We got to the first place where we could potentially see the cross…it was however, completely hidden in clouds. They will burn off. If we think sunny thoughts, they will burn off. We’re at the bottom of the world! We just crossed 3 freezing rivers to get here. Give us a break.

It just kept raining. Then the wind picked up. Insert 4th MSQ: "What the hell?! Is it raining algae?!"

After several hours of slipping and sliding around the rocks we got to the climb to actually get to the cross. This was no easy climb. It felt like it was straight up. We climbed sending our wishes for sun the whole way. The sun never did make it out…but we all made it up the to top. It felt like victory. Sadly we couldn’t see anything. You should be able to see something…some amazing panorama vista or something. We saw clouds. Who cares? We made it! And now we start the journey back. We have officially reached the half-way point. 

At the bottom of the hill we all regroup. It’s no longer time to celebrate, we have to get back to camp. It’s getting really, really cold and we still have a long trek ahead.  MSQ #5: “So...what's our evacuation plan?” We all just looked at her. Um…there isn’t one. You have to walk back. That’s the only option. After what felt like an eternity we finally made it back to camp to find that all of our tents had been destroyed by that damn fox.  MSQ #6: "I thought yesterday was the worst day of my life, I was wrong, TODAY is the worst day of my life." For once, I think we all may have shared a bit of her sentiment.

Don’t let me mislead you this hike was a challenge. At think at that point we were all pretty beat and ready for a break in the weather at least. I slipped and fell numerous times. I slipped on rocks, I slipped in the mud, I fell trying to climb over trees, under trees, around trees. I bent my elbow in the wrong direction and it hurt to move it for a few days. I made love to tree trying to climb over it. I face-planted and tripped over a root. I did one of those cartoon style slips where the foot goes flying up I the air and you land smack on your back. I was wet and cold. My hands swelled up so much you couldn’t even tell I had knuckles anymore. My feet look like they belonged to some corpse that had been left floating in a lake for days. I stank a stink I didn’t know I was capable of stinking. I think I have a toenail that’s about one more hike from falling off. My skin cracked from the cold and bled. The rain just wouldn’t let up. And just when I thought, “ok, I’ve reached my limit for today.” we came back to find our tents had been ransacked by a fox. The netting had been slashed through and food and garbage strewn about inside out tents. This hike was a mental assault. Physically, I would say it was medium difficulty. There wasn’t a lot of steep ascents or descents. The footing was tough and you had to watch every step, but it wasn’t technical. But mentally it just beat you down. You couldn’t take a break. Every step was key or you would land on could slip and twist an ankle….and that relentless rain. 
making love to a tree

Muddy shoes and gaitors
stank nasy feet

It's a a moment like this that you start to wonder what you're doing. That night I watched Julie's laugh morph into a cry as she fumbled unsuccessfully with a spoon to try to eat her dinner. Later, huddled togther in our tattered tent, stripped down to soaked underwear, shivering uncontrollably on wet sleeping bags that moments before had been littered with trash left by the fox, we laughed...we cried...we attempted to console one another with frozen hands on shaking shoulders and became sisters in trial. In this moment of challenge we had support in one another, and with tears in our eyes we laughed at the absurdity of it all. Why did we want to walk to the end of the world exactly? To get a story? Well...looks like we got what we wanted.

Life school is handing me another test. I was learning another lesson on perspective. What you think you can bear, what you think you can tolerate, what you think you enjoy, what exists just beyond your frame of reference, it shifts with each step, just like the earth beneath my feet. We´ve all heard the saying that "the only constant thing is change" and this trek gave me a new way of understanding that. Sometimes it's a gradual shift like the clouded view that burns off to display a magical panorama. Sometimes it's fast like the shock to naked legs in a cold river. Sometimes it's earned like forward progress on loose rocks that crunch with slide with every step. Sometimes it's only in retrospect, when you look back and see how far you've actually come...and how much more you still have to go.

Sometimes it's finding your low to experience the soaring high of a new morning. Today I live. Today I breathe. Today I laugh. Today I watch wild dolphins play just off the shore. Today I hear the thunder of a whale's powerful exhale. Today I fell the exhilaration of finding new strands of resilience deep within myself. Today I saw a cross at the bottom of the world camoflouged in clouds that matched the color of its paint. Today I found a sister and friend who just happened to be born in a different country to different parents. Today I laughed until I cried and cried until and laughed and found that they both create tremendous amounts of heat. When you see it like that, even this low is pretty darn high. And that night, I slept like a rock.

The next day we were heading back. We would have 2 full days of hiking to get back to the bus stop. Morning came, and with it the understanding that we would have to cross rivers that day. It was a cold morning, colder than the previous days...and of course it was still raining. We looked back in the direction of the cross to see the sky was still heavy with coulds. We must just well get to it, no reason to hang around here.

The first thing on the trail was to cross a river. As it was high tide, we were all mentally preparing for the worst. I was well aware that the water could reach as high as my armpits and I closed my eyes in a quick prayer. Please, let this crossing be smooth, let it be fast, let it be shallow...I don't know if I can do it if I have to swim.

Like a true gentleman, Paul volunteered to go first to see how deep it was and to see if he was going to have to carry anything or anyone across. He jumped down off the lege into the river. The remaining 5 of us watched in anticipation as he started to cross the yellow/brown water. It started just below his knees. He started walking and the water was creeping higher, but not by much. He made it to the middle and kept going. We were screaming, jumping up and down, celebrating, ths might be our lucky break. It felt like some wonderful gift. The river never rose higher than just about his knees. Let's do this!

When we had all crossed the river and put on our socks and boots it was all business. The only agenda for the day was to hike as far and as fast as possible. If the weather wasn't going to let up there wasn't any point in taking it slow. And with tunnel vision directed at our feet, we took off on wet, loose rocks.

It was about an hour into the day's hike before I looked up. It had finally stopped raining. In order to make a point, the sun decided to come out and reveal the majesty of this place. There was a remarkable sight I didn't expect to see, Tierra del Fuego with its snowy mountain peaks across the shimmering Straight of Magellan. You're telling me that's been there all along?! It was almost enough to make me want to turn around right then and see the cross on a day like this. I can only imagine what the view would look like on a clear day, and it almost hurt to think about it. Did I really just consider turning around and going through all that again? Yes, it was challenging, but I didn't was fun, right? And right now, it's just so beautiful.

We didn't turn around. We did, however all enjoy the break in the weather during the hike back. I think even Stephanie softened a bit and was at least partially enjoying herself too...I hadn't heard an f-bomb out of her in a while. There were more dolphins. There were wind-formed trees that resembled giant bonsais. The lapping of the waves on the shore was pleasant again. The rocks had dried and were much easier to navigate. It smelled like the ocean and I closed my eyes and took a few long, deep inhales. Man, I love the ocean. This really is a beautiful hike, this really is a magical place.

The rest of the day stayed clear. We set up camp on a grassy plot near the beach and I watched the sun sink low and paint the clouds in gold, orange, pink and red before the deep blue of night took over. It was warm that night and morning welcomed us with bright skies. It was a relaxing morning with no agenda other than to drink in the view. We had covered a lot of extra ground the day before to shorten the last day. I am glad we did, because it gave me a chance to enjoy this place for a whole morning.

It seemed like a completely different trail than the one we took in. Everything seemed different, as if I had never been there before. But then, I guess the version of me heading back on the trail was slightly different than the one that took it in. Technically, she had never been there before. I had a revised perspective...a shift in time, in weather, in what defined "me." And like the sand beneath my stride, everything at the end of the world, had shifted.


  1. Allow me to correct your quotes. You are correct that I said I am not big on camping but I NEVER said I am not big on hiking. I LOVE hiking. That is the reason I was willing to put up with camping for 4 nights. That is the reason I stayed in El Chalten for 2 weeks. That is the reason I wanted to go to Torres del Paine.

    You got #2, #3 and #6 correct. I don't remember #4, but it does sound like a bitter joke I might make.

    You apparently missed my sarcasm in #5.

    I fully appreciated you and Julie allowing me to tag along on this trek. I (like you it seems) knew nothing about this trek going into it. I should have done some research, but since I was told it was easy, I didn't. You did see me on the worst and 2nd to worst days of my life.

    I was really impressed by the abilities of you and Julie to keep such a positive attitude about everything... until Day 3 when we ALL lost our sense of humor. It is one of the things that kept me going and helped me to push through the horrible cold river crossings Day 4 and the pain of Day 5. Guess that whole "positive" thing does not apply when writing about other people.

    I enjoyed your telling of the story despite the bashing. Clever, entertaining, and well-written.

    Maybe try to remember as you continue your trip that some people have different travel styles, abilities, and preferences than you. Not being able to set up a tent super-fast (especially when I am doing it alone) will never be something I worry about.

  2. That which doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. Or slowly weakens you down, and then kills you.

  3. Amazing. You definitely are rocking up the stories to tell your future spawn. Sounds like an amazing, albeit difficult, adventure. Stay safe friend.