Argentina Diaries: Day 5 / by vanessa

On Wednesday morning we woke up early (7 a.m.) and went to breakfast. Amidst all the usual breads, ham, and cheeses, at the edge of it all, I spotted it: a huge plate of fruit. Two in fact. Yes!! Oh my god, I nearly squeaked. Fruit!!! Reason enough why I highly recommend El Puma. We finished breakfast, packed little sandwiches for our hike and headed back to the room to gear up.

By 8 we were on our way and by 8:15 we stood at the foot of our first trek: Piedras Blanca. I'd like to describe the weather for a moment: Earlier that morning, say 4, we awoke to a massive wind storm. It's a testament to the craftsmanship of the little bed and breakfast that the walls did not shake. Havis peered out the window. We both expected that he would see flying objects swept up by the gale. Llamas, cars, whatever. He did not and we both went back to sleep . Now in daylight, four hours had passed since that first startle, and we assumed the worst was behind us. Yes, it was windy and rainy but at least we could move forward in it. The night before Hav asked me if I liked the wind. That's like asking me if I like dental surgery. This morning, I had dressed warmly and it occurred to me that dressing warmly made the wind seem less evil.

The day before in El Calafate, Hav begged me to buy a pair of windproof/waterproof pants. It's against my unspoken, whacked out principles to buy outdoor gear on vacation and especially when it's summer. Fortunately I listened. The Lulu yoga pants that I'd envisioned for this hike wouldn't have lasted me ten minutes. You see, as we moved, the wind slapped against our faces while the rain beat down sometimes softly, and other times fiercely, but always present. At one point during our trek Hav said, "Remember that hurricane we were in Alabama?" Yes, yes I do. "I don't remember the wind being THIS strong." I agreed. I wondered what I'd have to weigh to be lifted away. Several times along the way the wind pulled the earth out from under me.

On the hike you first ascend a couple of very large, forest-covered hills. They're the kind of climbs where under normal conditions you might second guess your choice for a hike. Then you descend into a valley. (Note: valleys are where the elements are harshest; not that at that point there was any option but to keep going forward anyway.) Eventually, after about 3 hours, you come to a sign which offers the choice of Camp Poincenot to the left or Piedras Blanco to the right. The arrow towards Piedras Blanco had a "30" inscribed next to it, which we later came to understand implied minutes. Our guidebooks mentioned nothing about this crossroad. We both knew we could get there via Camp Poincenot. It seemed to good to be true that there could be a shortcut. We decided at first to take the shortcut anyway, but shrouded in doubt we abandoned the idea after 15 minutes and turned back. A 30 minute detour in the blistering conditions felt a significant loss. We both had icy and weary limbs and then it started to hail. Hard. We made our way back to the sign and got back on course. (Only later would we realize that to get to the glacier quicker, we could have continued on the, umm, detour.) After crossing through Camp Poincenot (named after a Frenchman who met his fate trying to cross Rio Fitz Roy) we came to a bridge for Rio Blanco. The wooden hand rail on one side did little to soften my fear. Two feet beneath me there were ice cold rapids and the wind seemed hell bent on taking prisoners. We made it across the river to the final ascent to the glacier. This part of the hike is considered "medium" in its difficulty. A note about guidebook rating systems: Difficulty connotes technical levels and speaks nothing directly to cardio-vascular conditions. These mountains are not treadmills. Medium, in these conditions, meant we had to hop riverbeds without the luxury of man-made assistance and boulder our way forward.

Still, at this point thoroughly soaked, our outdoor gear had done the most we could expect from it; cold, and still an hour away from our destination, it occurred to me that I couldn’t recall a time within the last year that I had been THIS happy. Here I was, cold, wet, sore, with several more hours of hiking in front of us, and the weather showing no signs of reprieve. Yet, in the midst of it all, I found myself utterly blissful. I felt a peaceful confidence -- an awakening. Despite our conditions, beauty surrounded me. Meanwhile, back in LA where my life is indisputably comfortable, I am overcome with angst over the 10 pounds I gained two years ago that I can't seem to shake. What a curious paradox. Everything I busy my brain with: why can’t I lose this weight? am I doing a good job at work? am I a good yoga teacher? And really -- am I good *enough*?... now appeared so small and meaningless. In the middle of Patagonia, on a hike in callous weather, it was here I finally noticed that all those tangible things -- the things I think I want that always exist in a future state, have no correlation to freedom. Appropriately, even the stillness of this understanding couldn't be held. I suppose I have to write it down so that later when I'm stuck in my life and my story again I can read these words and remember that ah, yes, grace is always here.

We carried on, eventually finding our way to heaps of boulders where the trail became indistinguishable. Benevolent hikers had placed little piles of stones on top large rocks, like lanterns on a darkened path. Placing my fingers in the tiny crevices and wedging my foot in a barely noticeable crack, all to hoist myself up -- it occurred to me that THIS is how physics should be taught -- in practical, real life application. Had I had that, my relationship to science classes might have been very different. And then, after scaling and climbing (oh, thank you Keen), we saw it: Laguna Piedras Blanco and its magnificent glacier.

Fog rose over the lagoon. In the backdrop rested a brilliant mass of ice with a kaleidoscope of blue. (The more compacted the ice, the shorter the waves of white light, hence the color. You probably knew this, but this English major didn’t.) In fact, nature needs no superlative which ends up saving my ass since any attempt to describe my awe would fall short. We sat there for as long as we could, soaking in its prehistoric wonder, which is to say we made it about 5 minutes before standing stationary became unbearable. Our plan was to have lunch at the glacier but there were no dry options, so we retreated and found a makeshift fort of two huge rocks under which we crouched. I ate the best damn butter, banana, and honey sandwich EVER. In any other condition I’d have chosen nothing over the odd tasting butter and hardened bread, but desperation dulls the palette. We ate lunch, traded out our freezing, soggy gloves for socks-turned-mittens, then headed back to El Chaten.

In that kind of weather, the vision becomes singular. There is no choice but to press forward. We passed several hikers on our return who asked us, “How much further?” We couldn’t lie. We also passed a crazy Brazilian (we overheard him talking the next day in the hostel, so this adjective is verified), iPod blaring louder than the wind, knee-kicking his way up the mountain, and, oh yeah, shirtless. SHIRTLESS! I imagined him killing puppies for fun.

8 hours after we started we made it back to town, first stopping at Rancho Grande for a cup of hot cocoa and a beer. Weary as I felt, I was also a little bit smitten with myself, honestly, for having the stamina to go on a long hike carrying a water-logged loaded pack and completing the trip in shorter than estimated time. You can take the girl out of Type A, but you can’t take the Type A out of the girl. So we stopped long enough to drink our drinks and then I headed back to El Puma and Hav headed into town to look for souvenirs. Note: souvenir shopping is stressful. I like buying presents, but there’s little joy in the pressure I feel to find my friends something both useful and meaningful that won’t end up in their garage sale pile in a year. I should make it clear that no one asked me for anything so this, of course, self-imposed.

I took a bath and fell asleep in the water. I feel kinda lucky that I didn’t drown, but I guess God wanted me around long enough to preach the message, Don’t bathe and sleep, kids! After my bath Hav returned and while he took his I went out to the communal sitting area and wrote. I saw Andrea again and we talked about music, travelling, and graciously she helped me learn some more Spanish.

At 8 we went for dinner and I ordered the risotto again, this time SIN jamon. Soy vegetariana, I explained. “Ah yes,” the waitress replied, “I saw you picking out the bacon.” Busted. I also ordered a red wine mushroom soup that I must figure out how to make. Hav ordered some meat filled ravioli in a meat stew. It’s sort of a wonder that they don’t serve meat jelly or meat ice cream here. My risotto came and I am embarrassed to admit that without that nasty ham I so skillfully avoided, it was pretty bland. I tried to pretend like I liked it anyway but my charade was obvious. After our meal we prepared our hiking clothes again, and went to sleep.