Thursday, December 11, 2008

Day 3 – On which we find out why the Circuit is closed.

The wind was manic, pummeling us about the head and chest as we worked our way up the snowbound track. Yesterday’s blue skies had given way to a sinking, gray ceiling and we hoped to get over the pass before the weather shut us out.

So far we’d seen nothing that could stop anyone with even rudimentary mountain experience. But it was clear the trail had to be “closed” to keep out the hostel-crawling Euros who might otherwise require a costly rescue.

Leaving the calmness of Campamento Guardas a ranger stopped us on the trail. I think he asked us where we were going, but as usual when spoken to in another language, my ears seemed to lock up and the words just spilled over me like so much murky water.

“No comprendo Espanol,” I pleaded.

“Paso Campamento?” he replied as simply as he could, referring to the next camp.

“Oh, si, si! Claro,” I replied in half truth, still worried that we might end up in a Chilean jail for hiking on a closed trail.

We moved on and came to another big washout. The one the night before had a length of blue faded perlon knotted and hanging from a large lenga root. This one had a sign: “Trail closed”.

Next to the sign were two packs and their owners -- an English couple who’d clearly never been to the Alps in Spring, -- were probing the edges of avalanche debris as if it were toxic.

“Are you going for the Circuit?” I asked when we, too, stood on the slide.

“We wanted to,” he said, “but we’re told it’s closed.”

Peggy and I marched by the gal waiting on the slide's edge, following a set of footprints across the corn-snow and upwards to the gully’s bank. From here there was no trail, so we made our way upslope to where the washed out trail reached the cut, calling down to the nervous Brit to follow the rim back up to the trail after they’d crossed.

Beyond, the trail zig-zagged up and down, sometimes through linga forest. Many of the trees were infected by a weird globular fungi that grew on burls. They looked like orange herpes on crusted brown warts. There was no wind yet and the trail was littered with the local Patagonian fox scat, coyote-sized.

The Grey Glacier was big and ablating below us. It looked like so many Alaskan glaciers, more melted than cracked. Who says the warming’s not global? People who stay inside and do little else besides count their money, I guess.

As we reached the rather abrupt tree and snow line, the wind picked up and we lost the trail under the snow. Two sets of footprints weaved through the stunted nirre shrubs – Frenchmen we’d heard who were the first round the circuit had passed through a few days earlier. Hopefully we followed one set of tracks higher, until we could see trail markers poking through the snow. Most of the snow was ankle deep, sometimes to the shin, but easy.

By the time we reached the pass, I was chilled and Peggy didn’t want to stop. Over the pass there was more snow, knee deep and what looked to be an hour or more of it. It looked and felt like Alaska but the wind howled in scary Patagonian gusts that threatened to -- and once did -- knock us over.



We stopped behind a boulder to put on another layer, choked down some calories and froze. The boulder did little to shelter us.

No sooner had we left knee deep snow – but not the wind -- than we struggled through shin-deep mud. The trail braided out into a maze of deep, stinky, wet tracks. Like a whitewater river filled with rapids, these mud runs were punctuated by sharp-sticks and undependable rocks, with no means of missing the foot-sucking mires. Poky-spined califate brush filled any dry land to waist height between the muck pits.

“This is why the trail’s closed – they haven’t put in the board-walk yet!”

We endured this for an hour, until the trail-braids coalesced within a wind-ravaged forest, leading us down stream to a rickety bridge across the puppy-sized Rio Perros.

We crossed the bridge and shortly walked to the Los Perros camp with its run-down refugio, an empty mountain tent, and a green-tarped yurt with voices.

Inside, two Dutch boys smoked cigarettes and jumped out of their boots when we threw open the door.

Wide-eyed and with mixed-English accents they asked us about the route over the pass, whether or not they should attempt it. They, too, had heard the Circuit was closed but had hiked here in two days from the Park entrance.

One had learned Spanish in Mexico and spoke some English with an American accent, some with a Brit accent, and still more in Aussie. His pack was a travel bag with rollers.

“You won’t be able to pull that over the pass,” I joked, “the mud’s too deep.”

He smiled and asked earnestly, “Do you think we can make it to Grey tomorrow?”

“Oh yes,” I encouraged. “It’ll be hardest at the beginning. The mud and the snow are deep, the wind will be very strong and in your face, but you can do it – unless it snows tonight, you can do it. Just follow our tracks.”

I was glad we’d met no one on the other side who’d told us that.

It would have spoiled the uncertainty we savored.

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