I’m half-way up the east side of the Paso John Gardner, on a solo hike of the “circuit route” in Torres del Paine National Park at the extreme southern tip of Chile, in Patagonia. My Patagonia Houdini wind shirt is snapping and flapping in the fast rising breeze. I sit for a moment to take stock of my route to the top of the pass. I’m not suppose to be here. Or, rather, I am not suppose to be here alone. There is a Park rule about this, and I’ve broken it. But, I am more afraid of the wind than I am of the authorities.
The 80-mile circumnavigation of the Torres del Paine massifs is one of the two must-do treks in South America. (The other, of course, the trek to Machu Pichu.) I’m in Chile to teach a software class, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to come to Patagonia, a place that captured my imagination in grade school geography classes with its wonderfully vivid names: Tierra del Fuego, Ultima Esperanza, the strait Magellan found when sailing around the world, seeing this country for the first time. I have hiked, usually by myself, in many places in the world. This is the first time I’ve wondered aloud if it were a good idea. “Just don’t make a mistake here, my man. Just don’t make a mistake.”
The plan was to cross this pass with Craig and Alex, two young men also hiking the Circuit, with whom I had become acquainted while sharing campsites. I was suppose to stop and camp at Los Perros, and hike over the pass with them tomorrow. But, I felt strong on the hike from Refugio Dickson this morning, and reached Los Perros around noon, much earlier than planned. What made me push on without them, disobeying Park rules, was the wind. Or, rather, the relative lack of it.
This was the second day in a row of what passes in Patagonia as dead calm. What was the chance, I reasoned with myself, that I would get a third calm day in a row in Patagonia? Nearly non-existent, I thought. And the wind scared me. The reason for the Park rule about hiking the pass alone is that hurricane force winds are common on the pass. The most common injury in the Park are broken bones from people being blown over by the wind. And nowhere is the wind stronger than on the pass in front of me.
Three days earlier I had been standing at the entrance to the narrow canyon that leads to the iconic towers in the Park when a gust of wind literally picked me up and dropped me 10 feet off the trail into a pile of bushes. This happened to be one of the few good places in Patagonia to be blown off a trail. Had I been 300 yards further along, I might still be at the bottom of a 400 foot drop to the Rio Ascensio. In fact, this is exactly what they warned us might happen at the daily orientation talk I attended at the Erratic Rock Cafe in Puerto Natales before I started the hike. They told of the solo hiker, dead three weeks when they found him and with a severely broken leg, who stepped out on a rock to take a picture. No one could hear his cries for help over the roar of the wind. “Don’t hike alone,” they admonished.
In the days before I left for Chile, I heard of a friend of a friend who had been blown over on this same pass two weeks earlier and had put a tooth completely through her lip. Fortunately, her hiking companion had a tube of superglue and managed to get the bleeding stopped and the lip patched well enough for them to continue the hike.
These thoughts in my head, I turn now to look up the trail to the pass above me. I can see most of the trail to the summit, and no one is on it. It is late enough in the afternoon that I would see anyone coming from the other side. Craig and Alex are the only hikers behind me. It’s clear to me I am going to be the only hiker on the pass today. I take out my camera and take a picture of myself at arm’s length. I want my children to have a picture to remember me by when the authorities find my body, weeks from now.
The wind is freshening, and it is cold. I dig in my pack and put on all the clothes I’ve brought with me. I pray my hiking poles, heavily taped with Leukotape to prevent them from collapsing, will hold up for just a few more hours. I move slowly, carefully…ever so carefully, up the rocky trail, listening for that gust of wind that surely has my name on it.
An hour later and I have made it. I lean into the air rushing over the pass off the Gray Glacier, trying to steady my camera to take a picture of the most spectacular glacier I have seen in my life. The glacier is three miles wide and at least 17 miles long. It is part of the Patagonia Ice Sheet, the second longest contiguous ice sheet in the world. The spectacular view only makes me feel more alone. Next time, I think, I’m going to hike this pass with someone else. Not for safety, but to share this experience with me.
You can find a short video of this trek on my YouTube channel.