It was 9 am, and I was in my tent awake for an hour waiting for the rain to stop on Day 5. I was hoping it would be like any other transient storm in Patagonia, but I was wrong. As soon as I was out of the tent, I saw snow covering the mountains near 80 meters up. And the first thing that came to mind was the Pass. The Pass (Paso de John Gardner) was supposed to be the most difficult part of the entire loop. It was a common reason why many never ventured on the Grand Circuit since it was sometimes closed due to weather conditions. That morning I even considered turning back, but I decided to carry on. I hadn’t gone that far just to turn around.
The rain didn’t let up as I started on the trail at 10am. Camp Perros was a 5 hour ascent away and the staging area before the infamous Pass. Within 20 minutes I could see the same mountains from the day before except covered in snow & clouds. While walking through the wet forest I kept hoping the weather would clear up.
Being alone started to take a toll on my mind now. The conditions weren’t changing and the trail was puzzling. Large pools of mud and entanglements of fallen trees took over. The trail snaked around in all directions. I kept hearing the sound of water and hoped a river was near, but the sound just diminished. Snowflakes the size of ping-pong balls started falling and covering what was left of the trail. After five hours of walking within the endless forest, I felt lost. I kept wondering if I should have waited for Ori, Bo, and Gabriel. Did they decide to turn back? Was I the only one headed in this direction?
Suddenly, an older Australian couple caught up to me. With a huge grin across his face, the man said to me, “Humaj!” I had no idea if that’s what he meant to say or if I heard it right, but I was happy to hear another person. The three of us continued on, passed the Los Perros Glacier, and finally reached camp. Thankfully there was a small shelter there with a wood oven to dry our wet gear. Time passed that evening as more people showed up huddling around the warm stove and looking to conquer the Pass the next day. After the rangers advised against going alone over the Pass, most of us decided to head out together in the morning.
Day 6 started off with the sound of wind ruffling the trees above me, then piles of snow crashing down onto my tent. I peaked outside and there was a fresh 15 centimeters of snow on the ground. The rangers said the Pass was still open so the rest of us gathered together and hit the trail by 9:15 am. In anticipation for the snow, I wrapped my ankles in duct tape joining my boots to my pants.
There were about 12 of us trekking through the freshly white forest, braving the storm together. We kept our eyes peeled for hidden trail markers, and helped each other through the rough terrain. Muddy streams crisscrossed beneath the covered trail causing water to seep into my aged boots.
As we were making our way out of the forest above the treeline, the snow became bottomless. It was now knee-deep making it impossible to see the trail. We hobbled on snow covered boulders. The wind picked up beyond expectations. It was near white-out now. I couldn’t tell the difference between the heavy clouds and the snow falling right in front of me. I could barely make out the figure of a person in front of me.
Someone from the back yelled. Three people had turned around. The wind wasn’t helping either as we were balancing on rocks. I didn’t want to give up. But, I could sense the growing desire among the group to turn back.
It was after 12 pm now and within 30 minutes of reaching the Pass. After that – a three hour descent to the next campsite. We all paused – the wind bombarded our faces with icy snow. Someone yelled out, “Should We Turn Around?!” I couldn’t. I had to persist. And then, out of nowhere, a colossal wind thrashed us all off our feet. We fell into the snow like twisted dominoes. We gradually stood to our feet… and agreed to turn back.
It was frustrating coming to terms with this. I was even angry. I only had two more days worth of food left so instead of going the remainder 15 or so kilometers to finish the loop, I needed to go more than double that in the same time. My enthusiastic mood from earlier turned extremely bitter. The next two days would be all downhill.
Stubborn thoughts were running. I can do the Pass alone. Should I let the others return and try again myself? I tried rationalizing. The eastern wind will be fiercer on the other side. The switchbacks on the descent are buried and long gone.
I failed miserably in both regards: my spirits stayed bitter and I was returning. We all split up in our mini-groups which found me alone. What I long before wished for and deserved. My shoulder popped out again two more times and the weight on my knee was unbearable on the descent. I developed a crafty walk which put some ease on the joint. Bizarre thoughts started overtaking my consciousness. And as every part of me became drenched, I thought all the water in my boots was somehow a good thing. It was damping the force at which my foot hit the ground.
After one hour of walking past Perros, I ran into some friends who I met on the drier part of the circuit. The ones I regrettably left behind: Simon, Ellie, Martin, Kajsa, Oran, and Mike. They were headed towards Los Perros and the Pass. I told them what happened and wished them luck. I really hoped the weather turned better for them. I was done with Patagonia.
The unforgiving hike back to Dickinson was a constant state of déjà vu. Each clearing of trees was identical to the prior clearing. I thought I was going in circles. The trail at the lower altitude bacame a fervent stream steadily invading my boots. Almost seven drenched hours later, I saw the clearing from the day before and knew Camp Dickinson was within 20 minutes away.
I arrived to the hut and a few people I knew were there, including Gabriel. Nobody was sleeping in their tents given the muddy state outside. I was utterly spent and joined the rest in the hut.
Gabriel and I decided to hike out of the park on Day 7. A day that proved to be the most physically brutal day of my life. I had woken up with a locked knee. A knee that didn’t want to wake up. A knee that I forced into use for another 10 hours that same day. Gabriel had the same issue. His knee was also in pain. And so, we decided to end the Patagonian adventure in a limping state, while keeping each others spirits up.
I’m not sure if it’s possible to describe in detail my state of disposition during that day, but maybe it can be imagined. That day my 12 kg pack became a biological extension of myself, as if I was born with it. My balance was lost without it, and yet it was driving my knee into a graver state. My cartilage was no longer a cushioning pillow, but rather a bed of dull upright needles gently abrading my bone. Our 30 km walk found us gasping and yelling obscenities during the downhills. My shoulder was no longer there. My brain only listened to my knee.
Whether we had eight hours left or two hours left, I was hungry. My mind quickly escaped the current state of agony as I remembered what real food was like. Steaming idly dipped in piping hot rasam. A warm burrito cradled in two hands like a baby, and doused in spicy orange sauce. Chaaaat! Crispy puris filled with potato and smothered with chili, dahi and tamarind sauce.
I then remembered all my close friends that I shared feasts with. It brought a smile to my face and calmed my mind. It was the perfect escape.
As we arrived into a drier valley, Gabriel and I talked about the Pass. I still felt upset, but surprisingly Gabriel was okay with it. He said, “these mountains are greater than I ever will be.” I realized how right he was. It was the perfect jab to my bloated ego.
I started the trip with a mindset of conquering the trail. Of being in solitude within the mountains. And I realized how narcissistic that idea was. Gabriel had only been there for four days as he started at Hosteria Torres. He hadn’t seen most of the park, yet he was okay with two days of storms and then leaving. He was at peace with nature. As for me, I was weak and possessed by my mind. My bitterness was a sign of failure as I was trapped within my ego.
Our bus from Laguna Amarga was leaving at 7:45 pm. We raced & hobbled there, gratefully arriving at 7:35 pm. I was stiff and exhausted as I sat down on the bus. My feelings were mixed, but almost out of a hole of dissatisfaction. I was finally going somewhere warm & dry.
I realized a few of my many mistakes. I shouldn’t have ventured most of it alone. The people I met in Patagonia are among the best friends I’ve made during my journey and I was lucky to hike with Gabriel that last day. I should have slowed down my pace and brought better waterproof gear (ie, proper boots).
On the other hand, failure was undeniably a helpful part of the process. Had I been more prepared during the trek, would I have stumbled and arrived at the same outcome? I had managed to walk over 150 kilometers (around 95 miles) during the course of seven days. I became nearly a stick as I had lost over 6 kg. My knees were stiff and are still recovering to this day. My feet were covered in blisters and wrinkled thoroughly in a ghostly color. And it all did me so well.
Here’s a gorgeous time lapse video of Patagonia by some guys who hiked there a few weeks prior. Make sure to press HD and watch fullscreen. Thanks Ankur.