By day 4 Roberto had figured out that I liked going fast. Other hikers made jokes, “Did you notice there were mountains out there while your were running?” We had found our rhythm and it was a rush to see how much you could beat the posted trail time. You couldn’t miss the sights as they confronted you around every corner, but part of the fun was seeing how hard we could push.
Roberto had been letting me take the lead, bringing up the rear, like a good guide keeping track of his “tourist’s” steps, timing, fatigue. He basically let me set the pace the first three days. But it was now day four, and he was going to show me what speed looked like.
As we left Cuernos Refugio, instead of giving me the big smile and “Vamonos” (lets go) as usual, he took the lead. And it was a lead. I thought I’d found my hiking gear the previous days but this was a whole new level. He was rolling. I kept thinking to myself, so this is true Patagonian pace. I could see that, though it had been many years since he’d been a porter hauling gear from camp to camp, the speed was still there.
(These porters are guys hired to carry packs larger than themselves, full of supplies between camps as there are no roads or easy access. In fact, at the Chileano Refugio the first night, two of the guides were talking about the porters who carried up the refrigerator for the lodge after the old one crapped out. No lie, we met some of these guys running with towering bags over their heads. Amazing.)
With the porter in Roberto in full hustle mode, it was all I could do to keep up. Then suddenly I saw what this was all about. A larger group of hikers, what I call “the country club retirement set,” had gotten out of camp about 30 minutes before us. Needless to say, to be stuck behind them trying to get to the French valley was not going to be fun. Roberto had already considered this. He had figured out the exact pace it would take for us to catch up, pass them and do this all on the shore before we began our climb up to Camp Italiano. He had it timed to the minute, and as soon as we were where he wanted us to be, he gave me the lead. The whole time I never once assumed there was any real reason other than him wanting to go fast. I should have known that there was intention behind it, but blocked by language, it was better for him to just show me than trying to get me to understand. How often I assume things about people by what I see instead of trying to discover a deeper motive.
Las Torres from day 2 was like being on Mars. Striking and stark. 3 granite towers jutting skyward like sentinels to Middle Earth, Day 3 was like snuggling into the base of Cuernos on the shore of a glacier lake. Very different. And now one day later to be running up into the French Valley, an area carved by glaciers and the resulting rushing river, strained my understanding. The dramatic variations of climates and sights in such as small space as Torres Del Paine makes me understand why National Geographic called this place one of the 50 places to see before you die.
After beating the hike time to Italiano by nearly an hour, we dropped our full packs, stripped back to day-pack and began our run up the valley. Hiking in the open along side the rushing river was invigorating. I was really in awe. I just kept smiling and saying the same thing over and over. So much so that it became Roberto’s imitation of me. In his think Chilean accent, he’d put on an American accent as best he could and say, “Wow, Wow..Amazing.” Wow wow amazing…that was all I could muster most of the time.
If not dramatic enough, we began hearing what sounded like a shot gun. It was the the hanging glacier overhead giving way and avalanching down the face of the mountain. Like a massive waterfall of snow we watched multiple breaks and cascades of ancient ice surrendering to the summer heat.
I once asked my friend Sue to describe an amazing trip she and Mike had taken to Italy. She paused and said, “It’s funny, my memory is more of a feeling than a memory.” That describes the French Valley for me. Stunning views. Contrasts. Extremes. Feeling fully alive.
After reaching the final mirador (lookout) we ate lunch and then I told Roberto we should see how quick we could get down. He smiled….and then we ran…I mean…ran…He set this amazing pace and it was like being in the zone. Another hiker told me that night that we looked like we were flying and right on the verge of being out of control. It’s funny, it never felt out of control. It felt like it was in slow motion.
Smiling like a fool and flying down the valley we met some climbers coming up and something unexpected arrested me. They were all wearing earphones. Earphones are pretty common everywhere in our plugged-in culture. I’m as guilty as anyone. But it wasn’t until this day that I realized two things. One, I had not seen people wearing headphones ‘till now. And two, despite my usual need for a soundtrack to everything, I never considered blocking out the sound around me.
No phone, no network, no mail, no music. I was suddenly aware that something crazy had happened. Day by day, things had been stripped out of my life until suddenly, I was alone in my head…it was me, the mountains and God…and in the absence of the noise, all I felt was whole.