Snow, stones, and leaves pelted my face. Visibility was hindered. I lowered my head and pushed on.
The hardened mud path became soft and wet, then gave way to snow. I got down on all fours, slowly crawling up the slippery slope.
The winds howled. Powerfully. One by one, we get knocked down by the invisible force of nature. I looked around me: there were fewer than 10 of us remaining near the top. Every single one sat down on the snow path, holding on to dear lives.
Sitting on the snow
“It’s impossible! The wind is too strong and the path is too slippery!” said one hiker, as she moved down, inch by inch, on her bum, too afraid to stand up.
An Asian guy sent his partner down to safety and tried again. He strode effortlessly up the snow path and went farther than everyone else. He too, slid down the mountain a few minutes later in disappointment.
“It’s too dangerous! The wind is too strong!”
I asked him how far were we from the top. “Around 100m.”
Damn it! We’re so close!
It has been 10 days since my knee flared up badly in Torres del Paine. 10 days of inactivity, just recuperating. I see my bank account slowly draining off, what with the ridiculous high costs in Patagonia.
My knee got better. I could walk without any problem as long as the road is flat. I figured I’d hike up to the base of Mount Fitz Roy. I heard it’s easy for the first three hours and only challenging at the last part. I’ve rested enough. Surely, I could do it, right?
Daybreak is late in autumn. It was 9am when the sun came out. I left my hostel, Rancho Gr ande, in El Chalten and walked confidently to the trailhead. This little town is built right next to the various trailheads, and is aptly called the ‘Trekking Capital of Argentina’.
No one warned me that the starting of the path is steep! Climbing up the slope, I was out of breath in 10 minutes. It must be the cold, thin morning air!
I walked slowly, as a nagging little voice in my head reminds me relentlessly: “You hurt your knee!”
700m in, the first viewpoint, Rio de Vueltas presented itself. A valley stretching far and wide, dotted with red trees and low running streams. I took a breath of fresh air and pushed on. From here, the path is relatively smooth and flat, easy on the knees.
Rio de Las Vueltas
2 hours in, at my turtle pace, was the viewpoint for Mount Fitz Roy. Thankfully, it was a clear sunny day and Fitz Roy stood there in all its majestic glory: wearing its snow cap, peak jutting out above the clouds, standing tall beside its smaller cousins surrounding it.
That's Fitz Roy jutting out in the background
This incredible sight rejuvenated me and the nagging voice went away. I forgot about the pain and picked up my pace with Fitz Roy staring down, guiding me. That is my destination and I will make it.
Stones and rocks filled the path, and it became uneven. I hate gravel paths. How are we to enjoy the beauty of the nature surrounding us when we must watch where we are stepping? It’s ironic to be at the outdoors yet looking down all the time.
Trees carrying autumn colours filled the first half of the trek. Maroon, yellow and orange leaves accompany me, with the occasional rush of a nearby stream.
As if I was at a different location, these colourful trees disappeared. In their place were trees without leaves. Just bald tree branches eerily guiding the way, like a scene leading to the witch’s castle in Disney movies.
Then it begun. The wind howled furiously, adding to the eeriness of the landscape, as if to warn me: “turn back”. It became cold, so cold I couldn’t finish an apple without putting on my gloves. I added a layer of wool fleece and carried on walking.
I walked past two campsites, spotted the hanging glacier Piedra Blancas from afar (unimpressive, to be honest) and arrived at the bottom of the final trail after three long hours.
Multiple signs planted there warn of the physical demands required; a final one hour up an extremely steep ascent. I thought of my knee but I couldn’t possibly turn back right now.
Single-mindedly, I climbed. The path proved to be more challenging that I’ve expected. Without considering how I was gonna make it down, I climbed. My knee started hurting but I’m so near. I climbed.
The winds howled again.
I sat there on the snow path with my back against a rock, waiting for the winds to pass. I wanted to continue. But when a guy who sent his partner down to safety and fearlessly tried a second time say it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous.
I waited, and waited. The wind did not let up. I stood up, and got knocked back down. The path wasn’t wide. I was afraid to fall off the mountain. Very afraid. I thought of the movie Everest where the climbers battled the heavy snowstorm and the cold. Of course, it wasn’t that perilous but I felt like that at that moment.
To make matters worse, it started snowing. I hardly saw past 5m. Mother Nature was definitely telling me to turn back.
Alas, I slid my disappointed ass down the path. Downhill is never easy on the knees, and it hurt again. It took me over an hour to slowly struggle down the treacherous path.
As if to reward heeding her advice, Mother Nature presented a rainbow, created not by raindrops but by the snow.
“Did you make it? And “Have you seen it (the lagoon)?” were the two most common questions that evening in El Chalten.
Was I disappointed?
Two major disappointments in Patagonia in just 10 days. I did not manage to complete two of perhaps the most well-known trek in Patagonia. Whoever said, ‘it’s the journey, and not the destination, that matters’, obviously hadn’t climbed a mountain.
But at least I got to experience, what a seasoned traveller told me, a true strong Patagonia wind. Now that’s something not many people can say they’ve experienced. Looking at it that way, it doesn’t feel THAT bad after all.