Cerro Torre

This is the next post in a long trip in South America. For the previous post, click here. For the first post in the series, click here.

I’ve rested in Puerto Natales for a week, reading and writing and chilling in a hostel.  Now I’m recovered enough to hike again.  But I’m not going back to where I stopped walking.  It makes more sense to bus north, to El Chalten.  It’s one of the world’s trekking meccas, somewhere I can do day hikes on varied terrain, without a pack.  Right now, that’s what my shin needs.

The bus weaves through mountains the first two hours.  Then the landscape flattens into dry, billowing pampas, with mountains falling into the horizon as we cut east. To be honest, I wondered how I would walk this part.  Water would have been scarce.  It would have been me and the wind, and whatever motivation I could find to struggle on for 200 kilometers.  I’m still in awe at the pace of a bus, the way it covers a day of walking in 45 minutes.  I stare for a while at the grass, watching it flash by the window and vanish into the past. 

Then I play cards with some other travelers.  It’s an innocent pleasure, talking about mundane shit as the landscape flickers by.  But eventually the game ends, suffocated by the restlessness of being trapped on a bus too long.  I lean into my seat and close my eyes.  I don’t sleep, not quite…but there’s something resembling sleep, a drowsiness and a softness in my body.

After awhile, the bus rumbles over a gravel road.  I’m not sure how much time passed.  Maybe I managed to sleep after all.  I open my eyes with a sullen reluctance and gasp.  Mountains tower on three sides.  Behind them, a naked rock pyramid dominates the sky.  Fitzroy.  It’s 1000 meters of pure granite, glistening in the sun like a weapon.  A feral energy chases the tiredness from my body.  I want to be outside.  I want to run.  I want to gasp that thin, cool air and feel the wind in my lungs.

The bus reaches El Chalten a few minutes later.  The town is a combination of mountaineering mecca and ranching village.  Classy bars and restaurants stand among plain, functional shops and homes.  In a few minutes I’ve walked through town, to a campground near the other end.  I put up my tent and then stare at Fitzroy.  The mountain blazes a deeper red in the evening sun.  My smile glows.  Chalten is as wild as I’d hoped.

Next morning I walk two minutes from the campsite and hit the trail.  The path winds into a forest of pine, and some other temperate trees I can’t quite place.  Wind flickers around me, shy, almost flirting in the way it sneaks up and runs off an instant later.  It brings a cool alpine scent with a hint of wetness, so subtle my nostrils take a moment to grasp it.  There’s something familiar and unique in the smell.  Every mountain range has an alpine taste, but with it’s own spice.

I haven’t really walked in eight days and I’m hungry for it.  An energy takes me hard and fast, like a foreign entity borrowing my body.  I let the energy swing me around switchbacks and throw my legs over rocks.  I surrender into the rhythm, watching as the energy bounces me past hikers laden with packs for overnight missions.  The air is a living coolness in my lungs.  I’m alive, in the way I always am in the mountains.

At 7 kilometers, the path opens onto a high glacial valley.  A creek rages through a spare gravel plain. A few trees struggle in the shelter of stray boulders.  In the open, this world is too hostile for trees.  The wind is already pressing my face, almost a thickness in the air.  The valley slopes on and up, gradually turning into a giant gravel ramp.  I stride further, into the stiffening gusts.  Finally, I crest the ramp and look down.

A green lake ripples with wind.  A glacier spills into the far end of the lake and extends up the valley, all the way to the skyline.  It’s literally a wall of ice as high as a mountain.  Beside the glacier, a row of granite spikes saw into the sky.  Cerro Torre.  It’s impossibly steep and symmetrical, the kind of mountain a child might draw.  A blue-white sheen coats the top third, where the fury of Patagonia flings moisture into rock colder than freezing point.  Instant ice. 

Cerro Torre is a wonder of the mountaineering world.  There’s a technical ice-climb, after a long rock climb, after a long glacier approach, in a part of the world with murderous storms.  Part of me wants to try climbing it.  And part of me is glad my shoulder is freshly dislocated, glad climbing is out of the question.  Part of me is glad I can admire Cerro Torre as a human, not challenge it as a climber. 

I gaze back at the lake.  The far end glistens with icebergs.  Children of the glaciers.  If I’m lucky I’ll see a birth, a column of ice splashing down into the lake.  The icebergs will melt and cascade down the creek as liquid water, and then gush into a river and dump into the sea.  Ocean currents will suck the water into the depths and carry it all over the world, until it upwells to the surface and evaporates into a cloud.  The cloud might ride the wind until it crashes into a mountain and coats a ridge with snow.  And if enough snow falls, the flakes will harden into another glacier. 

It would be cool to put a camera in a water molecule and watch a million-year time lapse.  But it’s also nice even to imagine it.  And it’s nice to just…sit.  Be.  Just wind and sky and rock and me. 

It’s nice cruising without a pack.  It’s nice doing a short day, far less than a marathon.  It’s nice to come back to a tent already set up.  It’s nice to gaze without a thought of time, or the distance I should cover today.  I’m almost glad I got injured.  Now that I can’t do full days, there’s nothing to do but enjoy the world.