by Wilderness Kate
16.04.2010 - 24.04.2010
It is amazing how quickly humans can adapt to new environments. Six weeks ago, I was sitting on a tropical island in Brazil, feeling nervous about how I was going to cope with the dramatic change of temperature I was about to encounter in Patagonia. I was not overly eager to expose my body to a cold climate and hadn’t done any real hiking in over a year. I considered myself a city girl who had come to South America to get submerged in its music and culture, but thought that while I was here, I may as well check out some of the wilderness that I had heard was pretty decent. I would not have described myself as very comfortable in the outdoors, and my last real camping trip had been a total disaster, ending in an increased phobia of tics and leeches, and getting dumped by my ecologist boyfriend.
So it is not surprising that I was feeling rather nervous about my first overnight trek in Patagonia. It took me a whole day to prepare for it. I spent 2 hours in the supermarket thinking of food to bring and walked out with some completely impractical items, including 2 bottles of wine and heavy jars of food (…though I did not regret the wine one bit!). But actually, the trek went great and I was surprised with the ease with which it all happened. In fact, I had had such a good time doing the “W” that I was keen to do more. And since the “W” is such a challenging trek with some very difficult terrain, if I can do that then I could do anything… right?
Unfortunately, due to the weather, we couldn’t do any overnight trekking in El Chaten like we had hoped, but we did get to do a few day hikes there. I was starting to feel a real pull toward nature and began jumping at any opportunity that came along. In Bariloche, we rode bikes along a 25km track in the National Park with amazing views of the Nuhuel Huapi Lake. In El Bolson (the hippy capital of Argentina) we hiked to several good look outs and explored the forests inside and out. At one stage in El Bolson, I was feeling so inspired by the surroundings that I started taking artistic photos of a dead log and had to resist the urge to hug a branch lying next to me. I was beginning to feel at one with nature, wanting to emerge myself deeper and deeper into it. No mountain was too high to climb, no trek too long, no blister too sore. I was becoming “Wilderness Kate”, committed to living the rest of my life away from the city smoke, entrenched in the bush.
And while I was loving all the beautiful day excursions I was doing, they were leaving me slightly unfulfilled and I knew that I needed longer than a day to really hit the spot. So after arriving back in Bariloche, after 4 days in El Bolson, I was determined to do some overnight trekking - rain, hail or shine! (Luckily, I didn´t need to test this promise out.)
Tourist information is not easy to come by in Argentina. You need to drag it out of the tourist staff as if you were extracting a tooth from an elephant, and even then they will still tell you very little. After such a process, I managed to find out that there were some good hikes I could do in Bariloche and some refugios that I could stay in overnight (and that was literally the extent of what they told me). But I wasn’t going to let some arrogant tourist staff member put me off. I was charged and ready to go. So much so, that I was willing to do it alone, if Britt couldn’t join me. This time I did my shopping in 20 minutes, bought practical, light food, and was ready to go in an hour or two. I had a map and a torch, warm clothes, and a feeling of invincibility. I felt like a Pro! Britt ended up coming along as well, so I also had good company.
So with our tightly packed backpacks we set off to do the 4 hour climb up to the Catedral Mountain to stay at Refugio Frey. Britt was only able to come for one night, but I was keen for more so I brought enough food for 2 nights and planned to decide up there if I would go on alone or not. The hike was gorgeous and the setting of the refugio was truly magical. Finally, I felt like I was deep in the wilderness far away from civilization, with only the sound of the wind and the lake passing my senses. It was too good to head back the next day, so I asked the refugio staff member if it would be safe enough for me to hike across to the next refugio alone. In true Argentinean style, he shrugged his shoulders and said he thought it would be fine - end of advice. A group of Israeli travelers overheard me inquiring, and said they were heading there the next morning and that I was welcome to go with them if I wished. I decided to join them, and OH MY GOD, AM I GLAD THAT I DID!!!
Little did I realize that the next day’s hike was going to be the hardest I have ever attempted in my life. How can I describe it so you get the full sense of what it was like? Hmmn… Think of a 2km high mountain that you have to traverse. Usually, people would design a trail that would allow you to cross along the side of the mountain to the other side. But imagine that you have to climb straight up to the top, not criss-crossing, just up in a vertical line. Now envisage that the mountain is covered in thick snow, and as you are climbing up your leg falls into a deep pit on every fourth step. Imagine looking down along the way and wishing that you hadn’t done that, and being grateful for any footprints that had been left before you which allowed you to step in pre-compressed snow.
Picture hoping that that the way down on the other side was going to be easier, and although you felt relieved once you discovered that the other side was not covered in snow, you soon realized that climbing down a sandy, steep cliff full of loose rocks was about 5 times as hard as climbing up in the snow. Imagine stepping downwards for close to 2 hours without once having a firm footing, sliding the whole way and falling frequently on your arse. Now imagine that you make it to the bottom and after about 20 minutes of flat terrain, you realize that you have to do it all over again. Also, keep in mind that you started the trek late and are concerned that you may not make it to the refugio before dark. Finally, imagine that after 7 hours of mountain climbing you eventually see the refugio ahead (thank, Christ!), but as a final challenge you need to hike across a swampy, muddy trail that you can’t help but fall into.
I arrived at the refugio shell-shocked and exhausted. Unable to talk or think, I just laid on the floor feeling wrecked. As my brain began normal processing again, I started to recover and I was able to enjoy a hot cup of tea, sympathetically donated to me by the staff member there.
Ironically, I wasn’t feeling like such the “outback kid” anymore. My cocky attitude had been smacked right out of me and I felt like a small speck of dust, bowing down to the all powerful and omnipotent NATURE. I was extremely grateful that I hadn’t tried to hike it on my own and decided that although I had come a long way in my confidence in the wilderness, maybe I was not quite ready to tackle it alone… and that was alright with me!
That night I was awoken by the pain of my throbbing, stiff legs and 2 days later I am still struggling to walk down stairs. Despite the pain though, I definitely feel that my itch for nature was well scratched (if not deeply scarred). I had had a good fix and managed to feel utterly connected to nature for an extended period of time. I can now also appreciate the incredible views that we witnessed, views that are only visible from the peak of a 2km high mountain. And though I am ready for a few days of rest, the light is still burning inside of me, and I know that within a week or so, I will be ready for more.
I wonder if sometimes it is the things you least expect from your travels that are the most rewarding. Maybe they are the experiences that stretch our worldviews and change us as people, opening our eyes to something new. If this is the case, then I can’t wait for the rest of my travels because I truly don't know what to expect. I am open to everything and willing to try anything, so who knows what lies ahead. Although, I wouldn’t be terribly disappointed if I don’t have to climb down a steep, slippery mountain for a while!
- Inspired by the song “Outdoor type”, by the Lemonheads.