Note to our more concerned/fretful readers: We are posting this story from an area of safety, and are both alive and well (if a bit black and blue!). We are resolved to make mistakes only once, and believe us, we have learned this lesson. We do not intend on crossing mountains with winds exceeding 100 km/hr again. And definitely not during a hail storm!
I have never been so scared in my life. As I took one disjointed step after another, two phrases kept reverberating around my mind, repeating as if on a broken loop. “This is fucking stupid” and “People have died on this mountain”. As if those were the last things I wanted to be thinking before I got blown off a cliff. In front of me Aidan was tossed to the ground and I crouched down as the gust that caught her whiped around my hunched body. I contemplated what would be worse: me dying, or having to call home to break the news that I’d be bringing my cousin back to Canada in a body bag. Not that I had any idea how I’d drag an entire person down this mountain, seeing as I could barely hold myself upright. Then back to the loop. “This is fucking stupid!”
Alright, let’s back up a bit. This story begins several hours earlier. We had slept late, our plan to get up at sunrise ruined since the sun never actually emerged from the behind the rain clouds that morning. This went expressly against a rangers advice a few days before, telling us to leave as early as possible to beat the wind that would be raging over Cerró Castillo. Come to think of it, that would be a better place to start our story. Let’s rewind again.
Three days before the fateful one I’m describing, Aidan and I walked into the park information centre to log our trip plan, as any responsible (and rule abiding) hiker should do. The ranger there described the route to us. After a couple days filled with beautiful forest walks, river crossings, and mountain passes, we would arrive at a laguna at the base of a glacier. Our third day would entail fording a small river and then passing over mountains of scree. Breathtaking views were, of course, promised on either side. It was at this point that the smiling ranger adopted a serious expression, and advised us take the emergency exit should the weather be bad that day.
“Oh, and it’s best to leave early in the morning, when the winds are less strong. Seriously girls, people have died on this mountain. If it’s really windy, start following the yellow trail markers, not the red ones. It can get dangerous.”*
His words of warning gradually dissipated over the next couple days. As promised, we did cross many streams, and saw some enchanting forests. But the weather was sunny and wind free – our biggest fear was getting sunburned!
That second night the wind ripped through our campsite. Clouds rolled in and rain stared pouring. It seemed like the precipitation was easing up in the morning, so Aidan and I decided to wait out the worst of the weather in our tent. We were letting the rocks dry off after all. We were being safe! As an added bonus (most definitely not the reason we elected to stay in our tent…), we both managed to finish the books we’d been lugging around for the past month.
We did eventually manage to drag ourselves out into the world, after it had become apparent that the rain would not be letting up any time soon. We were shocked and amazed to find out that our tent had survived the night. I had been harbouring the belief that our little green tent, bought hastily a couple days before our flight, would not be able to withstand a strong breeze, let alone the gale force winds that regularly occur in Patagonia. Apparently Aidan had shared my doubts, having admitted that she had hardly slept at all that night for fear that we would be blown away, Wizard of Oz style.
All the other tents at our campsite were still up as well, and we took that to be a sign that our decision to sleep in had been the correct one. We wouldn’t find out till later that they would all elect to take the emergency exit.
We set off, and soon arrived at the base of Cerró Castillo. Sure enough, there was the turquoise laguna, and there was the river we needed to ford. We also found a young man walking back and forth by the waters edge, trying to a find a place to cross. Let me formally introduce him to you here, as he became our companion for the rest of the day.
What would probably have been a relatively small stream the day before had turned into a torrential river overnight. So as not to be swept away by the current, we proposed that Samuel join us on the crossing. We all removed our boots, linked arms, and stepped into the river. We were soon thigh deep in freezing glacial water, trying desperately to steady our bare feet on the sharp rocks below. We crossed slowly, at times only just managing to stay upright as the water rushed past us.
We pulled our socks on to our now frozen feet, laughing with relief that we had made it through the worst part of the day. We then ascended the mountain on the other side of the laguna, stopping every so often to take in the beautiful sight of Cerró Castillo. This was what we had been hiking to see, and partially frozen extremities wouldn’t stop us from revelling in the view.
We crested the mountain bank, and soon realized we were nowhere near the top. That was when we saw the yellow markers – our invitation to bail and take the emergency exit. At this point it was raining, but not too heavily, and the wind just added to the intensity of the sights around us. We decided that emergency exits were for the weak, and proceeded to follow the red markers.
We kept ascending the mountain, each switchback revealing increasingly beautiful vistas. We would stop to catch our breath and admire the glacier to our right and the valley to our left, then quickly set off again. Stopping for too long meant feeling the cold, and I was starting to lose sensation in my hands. I was also beginning to regret my decision to wear shorts, as I was becoming painfully aware of the rain on my legs. That’s how I was the first to realize that it had stopped raining, and started hailing.
But we were so close to the top – we could see the mountain ridge just above! Then we would have a fast descent down back into the tree line, where we would be protected from the elements. We kept climbing.
Alas, when we arrived as the top of the mountain, we discovered that we had fallen victim to the “summit fallacy”**. We still had just a little bit further to go, and then we’d be at the top. This occurred for the better part of an hour, while the weather became more and more inclement.
We have no photos to help illustrate this part of the journey, as Aidan and I had both put our phones away in order to protect them from the constant onslaught of rain, snow, and hail. We kept trudging steadily up the interminable mountain. At one point I turned to Aidan and said ” Alright, I’m ready to be off this mountain now!”. And then I smiled to convince her (or rather myself) that all was okay.
The wind was blowing very hard now, and a gust caught Samuel’s backpack and ripped off his rain protector. I pulled off my sodden mittens and reattached it, and then discovered that my hands had frozen into claws. With Aidan’s help I forced my useless digits back into the mitts, and we kept on marching.
The wind’s next victim was my own backpack protector, which went sailing over the mountains edge. Then the wind started to push us over as well. A huge gust sent me crashing down onto the rocks. I looked around to see that both Aidan and Samuel were also on the ground, all of us adopting boulder like poses.
If anything, this would have been the point to turn back (many people will say that point was many hours ago), but we had finally reached the summit. We had to get down this mountain somehow, so we really had no choice but to keep going.
Next began a period of time that loses all linearity. Rather I remember this part in flashes, periods of clarity amidst chaos. One such moment occurred after I had taken a particularly rough fall on some jagged rocks. I became acutely aware of my exposed legs, and decided it was time to put on another layer. Aidan and I found a relatively protected area on the slope where we dropped our bags. I managed to locate some pants (a sheer force of will considering the state of my claw hands) and a couple pairs of socks, which Aidan and I used to replace our wet gloves. We also split a bread roll – it was well past noon and neither of us had refuelled in hours. It took a while to eat that bread since our mouths were devoid of saliva. I had a moment to marvel at the sympathetic nervous system in action, and then we continued our descent.
Every so often we would see Sam in the distance, executing the same maneuvers we were doing – the drop and play rock, the bum scooch, the shuffle/sprint every time the wind subsided… These times came as a great relief – I was seriously not in the mood to conduct a rescue.
Another moment tattooed forever in my memory is the time we saw The Double Rainbow. Aidan and I were taking another break, this one brought on by necessity. There were times when the wind blew with such force that there was nothing to do but huddle among the rocks (that we hoped against hope would not start rolling) and wait out the worst. Aidan sat a bit in front of me and I huddled beside her, trying to conserve as much heat as possible. I pressed my head against her side, desperately trying to avoid the shards of ice that were being hurled in our direction.
Suddenly the clouds opened up above us, and the sun came streaming out. The rays mixed with the rain still pouring down, and two massive rainbows appeared below us. I have never felt so alive, so full of love and awe, as Aidan and I stared down at the patchwork of lakes, rivers, and pastures stretching out into the distance. I won’t pretend that that was the moment I knew we wouldn’t die on the mountain – I was fairly sure one of us would at least break a leg that day. But we were doing this together, and neither of us was going to give up.
After a particularly fun bum scooching time***, we saw Samuel running towards us. We were close to the tree line, and he’d come back to make sure we were alright! If I wasn’t as jacked up on adrenaline as I was in that moment, I probably would have cried – for the incredible kindness of fellow humans, and for the promise of safety.
We walked in silence for a while, all taking in the gravity of what we just had been through. That silence was soon shattered as Aidan exclaimed “What the fuck just happened?!”, prompting us to reminisce for the rest of the walk, and late into the evening over some well deserved beers. To be perfectly honest, we’ll be talking about this day for the rest of our lives. Most likely after someone mentions a strong wind.
*Words translated from the original Spanish, as recalled to the best of my ability. The words peligroso and muerta are what I remember most vividly.
**I’m not sure if this is a thing. If not, let me be the first to describe summit fallacy™. This occurs when one can see a horizon, and mistakenly takes that to mean that they have reached the top of whatever they are ascending. One is more susceptible to this phenomenon when one is tired, cold, wet, and hungry.
*** I was singing “Castle on a Cloud” from Les Mis under my breath while sliding down the rocks – Cerró Castillo translates to Castle Mountain, and we were indeed in the clouds. How embarrassing if this had been what I was singing in the last moments of my life! Yet another reason I’m glad survived the mountain.
**** I’m experimenting with footnotes now. I may have gone slightly overboard…