Hiking Into the Sky, Patagonia, Argentina
“First hike in El Chalten,” Victor said, “Is twenty-six kilometers. Next day, we’ll take it easy and do nineteen. The following day, we get to El Calafate and hike up a glacier.”
“When do we rest?” I asked.
“We are in the last days of the trip. So… at home.” Victor said casually.
Ayala and I glanced at each other silently. Neither of us dared to contradict the man who spent over a month polishing our Argentina itinerary, painstakingly researching every detail.
In a moment of madness, I decided that all of this was of course doable, but only with the right equipment. I ran out and bought new hiking shoes and a lightweight warm winter jacket. I’ve never before and never since had so many issues packing for a two-week trip. We were going to tango dancing and dining in upscale restaurants with Ayala’s relatives in Buenos Aires, trekking around Iguazu Falls in hot, humid, and rainy jungle, walking on a glacier in El Calafate in freezing temperatures, and doing a full day hike up to Fitz Roy during which the temperature varied widely depending on time of day and altitude. My fifty-liter backpack never felt smaller. Every item was closely scrutinized, discussed, weighted, and rolled up in a tight bundle before being stuffed into our luggage. Mistakes were made. Worried more about freezing than being hot, we brought too many warm layers and quickly sweated through too few t-shirts in the summer heat of Buenos Aires and the humidity of the Atlantic rainforest. Unclear just how strenuous Patagonia hiking would be, none of us brought good wool socks and ended up with torn and wet socks that were too thin to properly cushion. Ayala had to borrow my shirt to layer up during hikes and I wore ugly sneakers to an upscale restaurant. But none of these fashion faux pas and wardrobe malfunctions put a damper on our trip. What did fail us was the giant gap between our daring itinerary and the sad reality of our physical abilities.
On day eleven of the trip, we finally made it to El Chalten, our backpacks full of crumpled, dirty, and sweaty clothes, and were immediately treated to a gorgeous view of the steep mountain peaks of Los Glaciares National Park.
“We are climbing up there tomorrow,” Victor said casually.
Ayala and I glanced at each other silently. The urge to argue with the man who planned this entire excellent trip was growing harder to ignore.
We set out early next morning, before sunrise, to what is often lauded as the most beautiful hike in Patagonia. A long and strenuous nine-hour trek, mostly all uphill with the around 400 meters of steep climb towards the final view of Fitz Roy, is certainly not for the faint of heart. The incredible thing about this hike is that gorgeous views are found the entire way there and back, not just at the Fitz Roy peak. We walked and walked and walked. We rested and walked again. We pointed out the beauty of the landscape and complained of exhaustion in the same breath. The scenery changed from a winding trail in a magical forest, to an open rocky path, climbing steeper and steeper into the mountains. The forest looked like the type of place fairies and dwarves casually hang out and unicorns idly graze in the clearing.
“They should film fantasy movies here!” Victor marveled.
“They should build public transportation to Fitz Roy…” I moaned.
Ayala had trotted ahead of us a bit ago and I was worried that we wouldn’t catch up to her until the end of the trail. Suddenly, as the path ahead of us twisted, we came upon Ayala sitting directly on the ground, her legs extended and spread out in front of her, her upper body slumped over. She looked like a broken doll.
“Are you OK?”
She looked up at us with one word to summarize the entire experience, “Tired.”
We rested a bit and moved on.
Less than 500 feet from the destination (before we had to turn back and walk the entire trail back to El Chalten), I finally had to face the fact that I might not have enough strength left to climb the almost vertical path in front of me. I was sitting on a rock, drinking crystal clear mountain water we just filled our bottles with from a creek and trying to figure what to do next. Then I heard a very cheerful voice yell out, “Excuse me!”
A smiling woman with a bouncing step full of youthful energy was descending the mountain. She was approximately seventy years old. She winked at me as she passed and quickly disappeared in the distance. She woke up earlier than us, walked here quicker than us, and honestly looked much better than I did in my current condition. I stood up and started climbing.
The final view was worth all the pain and suffering. The snow-covered peaks soared into the sky, reflecting in a gorgeous blue lake. We ate our lunch, threw snowballs at each other, took dozens of pictures, and just sat there for almost an hour, breathing fresh mountainous air and soaking it all in.
I don’t remember the hike back. My brain, in a feeble attempt to salvage the situation, turned completely off and I walked back in some kind of self-preservation autopilot fatigue state. All I knew is that my brand-new water-proof hiking shoes were soaking wet. My next recorded memory is sitting in a random restaurant in El Chalten, layers of my sweaty clothes hanging off the back of my chair, eating the most delicious meal of my entire life. I don’t remember what I ate and completely forgot to take pictures, but all three of us agreed that we’ve never tasted anything this wonderful before. We ordered starters, entrees, and desserts and licked our plates clean. The waiter didn’t seem impressed. She was used to the “hiked the entire day” type of hunger from all her customers.
The next day I woke up and gingerly walked to the bathroom. My feet were killing me. On closer examination, I found multiple blisters, some of which were large enough to have their own smaller blisters. Ayala and Victor were not in any better shape. We ate breakfast and set out on our second day “easy” nineteen-kilometer hike. Six very slow kilometers in, we found a gorgeous overlook with multiple fallen trees to act as benches and settled in for a break.
We never made it any further. Victor, without any prompting from Ayala and I, finally admitted that his overly ambition hiking plan was outside of the realm of our physical abilities. We took off our hiking shoes, rested our weary and smelly feet, and snacked on bits of our lunch, watching the Fitz Roy peaks in the distance. It was a welcome break, especially since we still had to scale a glacier the very next day.
Next Post: Walking on Not-Very-Thin Ice in El Calafate