Reflections from Chalten: 2 of 4

 

With dreams of a new route I slam the lid down on my new 100 liter backpack. 65 pounds (30kg) of some of the world’s most lightweight and advanced gear fills it nearly to the brim. The weight is oppressively heavy no matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise. Unfortunately for my partner and I, we have some long days ahead.

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Big packs and many miles. Photo by Tess Ferguson.

Hunched over like tired soldiers by the weight of our packs we silently march on. Through the sun and rain, wind and rivers, over hills and across valleys. For hours we move as the voice of podcast drones. Soon I realize I’m not even listening to the words. Lost in a myriad of nothingness, I continue.

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Water above, water below. Tess nears the far shore on one of the many river crossings along our path.

The deep blue water of the glacier-melt lake begins to fill more and more of my field of vision. A small arched wall of stacked stones is the only sign welcoming us to our campsite. Just an hour ago, we finished a 1500 vertical meter climb into a mountain pass. Having descended a third of that, we now camp on one of the final spits of land before the start of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. The land, barren and rocky, reminds me of a boulder-filled Norwegian coast. The nearly 17,000 square kilometer Ice Cap, as it is more commonly called, shimmers in the strong light of the Patagonian summer sun. Even though I know it is frozen, I have to look twice, three times, and stare intently to assure myself that it is not just an impassable sea of water.

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Tess cautiously exploring the ice field.

In the morning, we rise with the dawn. We ready ourselves in silence, the feeling of intimidation hanging heavy on our already burdened shoulders. By daybreak we find ourselves entering the world of ice. It is clear after only a few moments of being in this eerily exposed environment that life does not sustain here for long. As the hours and kilometers tick by, the wind begins to howl. “Let’s just wait here until it clears”, my partner suggests after arriving at the bottom of the horseshoe-shaped mountain range. While the sky above the ice cap has remained mercifully clear all day, the clouds, thick as cotton, blanket the peaks completely. I stare at the map on my phone’s screen. If not for this, I would never know the mountains were here.

We wake at 3:00 a.m. on the third day. Even the act of sitting up has my body screaming. My partner lies beside me sniffling, losing her own battle to a worsening cold. The wind outside is still blowing viciously. Now, the moment of truth. I close my eyes tight and stick my head out of the vent in the rear of the tent. While I came here with high hopes of climbing, now I wish for nothing more than the clouds to still be in their place. For them to give me a reason to lay back down, snug in my cocoon of down and safely protected by a few tenths of a millimeter of waterproof nylon. The weather, fickle as ever, obliges me.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I know what this means. All of our efforts have been for naught; those hopes of climbing blown to pieces by the merciless Patagonian winds. All that remains of our dream is the long, brutal walk home. But for now, that is none of my concern. I lay back down and listen to the snap of taught nylon in the breeze as I drift into a dreamless sleep.

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The long walk home, beaten and empty-handed.

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