Looking out from the airplane’s window over the landscape below, it didn’t seem much different from flying over the Midwest of the United States. But, I was on a plane flying from Buenos Aires to El Calafate in the south of Argentina. I tried to imagine the people who inhabited the land below. What they liked to eat, the songs they sang and the moments that brought them joy. I had no idea who they were or what they were like. I couldn’t wait to find out once.
I was headed to El Calafate, a lonely outpost in southern Argentina. From there, I intended to travel via bus five hours to El Chaten, a tiny, more lonely, outer outpost at the base of el Parque Fitzroy. The bus arrived just before sundown. Weary and feeling lost, standing in front of this vast, vividly green, glacial-filled valley with the peak of Fitzroy and the rest of Cordon Adela there in front of me, I felt a mix of fear and freedom. It interesting how many times these two emotions have arrived together in my life. From the perspective of outsider, the town seemed sparse and abandoned.
The ranger said that we had arrived with luck because it isn’t often that one can see the peaks so clearly. Usually it’s shrouded in clouds and fog. We’ve got less than three hours to obtain our final supplies and find a decent camp spot before it’s too late to enjoy the final, privileged moments of alpenglow at Fitzroy. I rushed into the center of the tiny ‘aldea’ or village, El Chaten. No more than an outpost for hikers and climbers; the rough town is located on the often-disputed border between Chile and Argentina in southern Patagonia region. The town is rustic, with weathered wooden and rusted metal facades and unique and creatively artistic signs. Streets are dirt with no sidewalks. You truly feel like this is an outpost; a lost, forgotten outlaw town.
I planned to stay a week in this area, between El Chaten and El Calafate to hike and check out the glaciers. It was an amazing couple of days overall, but one particular day stands out in my memory. It was the day I decided to day hike to Lago de los Tres. I was told by a local guide I had met that it wasn’t safe to hike it alone. He was leading a group of English trekkers that morning and encouraged me to join them. I tried to hang with them for a while, but the peak was calling out to me and they were too slow. I broke free from them and started trail running through the valley. It started off fairly mild with undulating dips and peaks through emerald green forests. It rained the night before so everything was alive and vibrant. I felt the energy of the entire universe surging through me. I wasn’t even aware at how fast I was going until I reached the base of the trail to the summit before noon. I took a brief rest and then began to climb up the steep and winding trail leading to the top, where supposedly I’d find 3 lakes and a spectacular view of the valley. The maps and signs all say that the trail is only recommended for experienced climbers. I didn’t worry because I have plenty of miles under my belt from Yosemite and the Sierras. No way could it be more treacherous than some of the hikes we climbed in the Hoover Wilderness? As I climbed higher and higher, the wind began to blow fiercely. The rocks were slippery and it started to snow. I only had a small day pack, a light-weight shell and trail running shoes. I slipped a few
times. At the switch-backs I literally had to hold onto the rocks or I felt as if I’d be blown off the mountain. At this point I couldn’t see above or below me. I was caught in this mid-world between what I knew and what was unknown. Part of me wanted to go back to safety. But my body pushed me forward. I was terrified. I mean, here I was in the middle of Patagonia, alone, and no one really knew where I was. If I fell, I could be lost for days. The wind kept pelting me with sleet and rain. I clung to the side of the rocks and with each switch back I reassured myself that I needed to finish this climb. There was no way I was backing down. I wasn’t going to be afraid. Finally, after much struggle I reached the top. For a brief second, I could see over into the valley with lakes. But quickly, the clouds swirled around and closed off my view. I was surrounded by fog and clouds. I couldn’t tell where I was at all. I had no view below me from either side. I burst out laughing! I mean, to come all this way, for what? A photo of me with ruddy cheeks and the clouds? Of course! That is exactly why I came here. After everything I had survived in the last year, the feelings of abandonment, personal sacrifice, feelings of failure and loneliness; I knew that this was why I was here. It was in the moment that I felt a sense of knowing, a lifting of the veil of the enlightened one, infinite spirit, God [if you choose to use that name], but most certainly, something greater than me and all my baggage. It was at if I knew myself for the first time. Like I truly knew what my purpose was and all the connections in my life were. It was a moment of pure freedom I will never forget.
The storm grew worse and it was close to sunset. I had to get down off the mountain quickly. Going down wasn’t any easier. In fact, it was kind of worse. Once I made it down below the worst of the weather I stopped for a second to catch my breath. I swore I could hear voices. Was I going crazy? No, it was another group. A group of three young travelers from Israel. “Should they go on?” they asked? “Can you see anything?” they pressed. “Is it worth it?” they cried. I laughed. I laughed so hard until I cried. I said to them, “it’s only worth it if you want it to be.” I felt wise; as if my moment on the mountain somehow gave me a sense of entitlement. And I laughed inside as I thought to myself about Moses and his tablets. I began wondering if I was much different from him.
I smiled as I turned downhill, “you’ll see what you want to see” I said, and I started down the mountain feeling wise and accomplished. It was such an amazing feeling to have conquered that peak, survived and come across other travelers who were there asking me if they should go on. The irony is that only minutes ago I was just as lost and scared as they were. But now I was exhilarated and confident. Funny how things can change so quickly. I got back into town just as it was getting dark. I sat in a cafe drinking hot chocolate and I wrote myself a post-card. I quoted TS Elliot, “never cease from exploring, at the end of all your travels, Jill, you will find yourself back in the place from where you started and know it for the first time.” I told myself to remember this day forever; especially on those days when I am just not quite sure if it’s worth it to keep going. What’s ahead? I may ask myself. And the answer is invariably, whatever I chose to see