December 8, 2008
Wilderness with Teeth
This past week I joined the Cerro Castillo Citizen´s Expedition for a 5-day traverse set to integrate into Sendero de Chile, a national project linking trails its 8,500km stretch.
We set off on a new path only known to Escuela de Guias. A steep, sandy traverse threatens to pitch me into the void. Somehow I dig in my toenails, like a cat on a tightrope, and make it across. Footprints of huemul, Chile´s endagered Andean deer, are everywhere.
The toll: two hikers with debilitating food poisoning from the previous night (the lox?), one guide slips pack first into the river, a few guides and guests wrangle with a full tripod setup (the topographer didn´t interpret work in terrain literally).
¨Aqui me quedo,¨ says the Topographer, and we´ve only hiked for 2 hours. It´s impossible to get him to resist the tendency to flop on his back, and harder to get him back on his feet, as he scrambles like an overturned beetle.
We reach an alpine meadow bordering a snowy pass. Wildflowers peep through the tundra, water trickles underfoot. No one heeds the Topographer. We arrive at camp 7 hours later.
A day for foot repair. A stray dog at the camp receives ham bones, lentils and oatmeal, he must have been starving. We day hike to Glaciar el Peñon but it´s receded so far it´s no longer a day trip.
The dog turns back at the pass. Every man, woman and mongrel for his/herself. When someone breaks out the horse jerky, I even try it. Stringy. Hard to forget.
We nose up toward the creased blue glacier sitting under Cerro Castillo´s cathedral spires. It releases a curtain of meltwater over cliffs, bubbling into the stream at our feet.
¨The Castle,¨ as it´s named, must be Chilean Patagonia´s most iconic peak, though it is seldom approached and only climbed by experts. We debate Sendero de Chile´s vision for lodgings, including one right in this priviledged spot.
Over the course of the hike we´ve only run into three other hikers, all carrying the guide I´m updating. They have alternately told me that it´s exactly on the money and that the directions are completely unclear.
There´s work to do, if not in writing than in perceiving, including on my own behalf. Outside Torres del Paine, Patagonian trails are another beast: scarcely marked, pocked with rivers without bridges and passes without footprints. For now, Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo has only three park rangers to cover its 200,000 hectares.
In this torrential wilderness, any reception of infrastructure, with all of its blessings and curses, will be bittersweet. Yet memories of a wilder Cerro Castillo (like horse jerky) will be hard to forget.