Damien, Hendrik and myself are hoofing it up the dirt road away from the jetty and toward the Chilean border post. To our left is a turn-off to what appeared (from the boat) to be a couple of farms. Two quads in carabinero colours roll past us on the way down to the boat – for hauling supplies up to the post, no doubt.
We’re hauling ass, and with good reason. By the time we’re off the boat with our gear we’ve got six hours and twenty minutes to get checked-out of Chile, hike 22 km (approx 5-6 hours, depending on who you talk to), check-in to Argentina at another border post and get on a second boat. If we don’t make it we’re sleeping outside, and that will suck, given our lack of suitable equipment.
On our way up the hill to the post we step to the side to allow a slow-moving tractor hauling a small trailer past in the opposite direction. We think nothing of it.
The one-kilometer trail marker and the Chilean border post come quickly.
We run up the steps and hand over our passports. The carabineros manning the station are super-polite and efficient, not really asking us too many questions, understanding that we’re in a bit of a rush. We ask about the horses – it turns out the guy with the tractor is the guy with the horses. He picks up everyone’s equipment at the jetty, not at the border post. We just blew past everything too fast to get an understanding of what was going on. Apparently he’s coming back this way soon so we head down the steps and wait anxiously.
Some of the other passengers, including Philippe and Marion, begin showing up a few minutes later at a more leisurely pace. I take the delay to snap a few pics, including one of myself. Not usually a selfie fan but I don’t really have any evidence of being south of Santiago, so I reckon it’s time to give it a shot. The scenery is a bit washed out but I look fantastic.
The three of us on a schedule are pacing like mad. I throw out the idea of saying fuck it and just marching hard with all of our gear. I know it’s a dumb idea – our chance of making it would be far less and the walk will be way less enjoyable – and Hendrik goes inside to see if the carabineros can radio the guy with the tractor (Ricardo). It turns out he’s back at one of the farms, not in a real hurry to go anywhere because he isn’t carrying gear across the frontier for everyone else. We backtrack one kilometer, half-running back to the farm to find him. He seems surprised that we’re going to try to make it all the way across and can’t promise that he’ll be to the second boat by 5 pm, so we negotiate a deal for him to take our bags as far as the last landmark his tractor can reach, the aerodrome at the 13 km mark. About $8 USD a piece. From there we pick up our bags and hoof it the remaining 9 clicks. He heads off and we head after him. I hold onto a reusable shopping bag with my raincoat and some food – other than that, everything I own is behind that tractor.
Not only is it now noon – we’re down to five hours to accomplish our task – but by backtracking we’ve added two extra kilometers to the walk. Still, it should be possible, but it won’t be enjoyable. Not far past the border post the real ascent starts. It’s a real road, obviously navigable by tractor or quad and possibly even by some cars (i.e. Admiral Nelson of Mongol Rally fame) but it’s a bitch to walk on. It’s large, loose gravel, making the uphill walk “slushly”. I slide back a few inches every step I climb. The guys are pulling ahead of me. It’s every man for himself now. We quickly pass the people with bikes and not longer after pass Marion and Philippe.
I know the ascent is 6.4 km long but I have no way of telling either distance nor time – no GPS, no watch. The guys have watches but they’re a ways ahead now. Being out of shape and being a boozehound on this trip is coming back to bite me in the ass now. I have to stop and take a breather, taking a pic behind me as I do.
The hillside around the ascent is sparse with vegetation, a few lonely trees here and there, tough-looking shrubs taking up most of the landscape. In addition to the mostly-constant ascents are short descents that make me swear more than the ascents – that’s climbing I know I have to make up. Eventually things start to level out and the vegetation changes, growing thicker. I don’t want to count my chickens but maybe, just maybe, I’ve made it over the crest.
There are still ups-and-downs but they’re short and with level ground in between them. I’m givin’er. Small streams are rolling off the cliff face to my left side, through culverts and down into the gorge to my right. The two liters of water I brought are disappearing fast and I know the lake is safe to drink from, so presumably the water flowing into the lake is as well? I’m not drinking it yet but I reckon I will before long. I really don’t want giardia though.
I figure I must be around the 7-8 km mark when I run into the Kiwi couple, having lunch in a little grove to the left of the path. They’re on bikes but they’re absolutely annihilating everyone else, even hikers. Impressive. They tell me the other guys are only about five minutes ahead. I’m thinking it’s 2 pm by this point but they tell me it’s only 1:10. Holy crap, I really booked her up that hill! I say thanks and jet and a few minutes later I see the first km-marker since KM-1 at the border post – it says “9 KM”. Shit, I’m making goddamn good time! The worst part’s finished. This is definitely gonna happen.
I don’t get cocky and let off the gas – I know I still have to lug gear after the 13 km mark – but I do take the chance to snap a few more pics.
Almost there. KM-markers are regular now. Pass 10. Somewhere around 11 I hit this bridge:
I’ve exhausted my water supply so I dip my bottle in and fill it partway up. It tastes okay – a close look shows it’s not as crystal-clear as it looks but to hell with it, I’m thirsty.
I see the 12-KM marker and a sign indicating that the aerodrome is down a path to the right. I rush down the trail and it opens up into a large grass strip, no real tarmac and no building whatsoever. My high-viz hoodie is wrapped around my tent and my sleeping bag so my shit should be clearly visible. Maybe it’s behind one of these red-and-white barriers… Nope. Maybe it’s over here, by that tall grass… Nope. I feel panic setting in. The guys are nowhere to be seen either. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck
Then I remember hearing something about “trece kilometros”, the 13-KM mark. To be honest the Spanish was moving too fast for me to grasp everything when we (mostly Hendrik) were speaking with Ricardo and I know I missed a lot. There must be another entrance, maybe with a small building, another kilometer up. Back on the main trail and I’m almost running. The Kiwis pull up behind me on their bikes and pass by me.
They stop not too far ahead. A river has washed out most of the path, but there’s been a hole cut through the aerodrome’s barbed wire fence that they can slip their bikes under and bypass the washed-out section to a bridge further along. I do the same, but this is the 13 KM mark. No bag. No building. I told them what was up – why I looked frantic – so they shoot me a worried look as they continue down the road. I get the time from them – it’s almost 2:30.
After wasting time running circles around the aerodrome, I’ve now got 2.5 hours to get to the boat, but no idea where any of my stuff might be. Now if I don’t make the boat, I don’t even have a tent or a sleeping bag. The stakes have been raised significantly.
I run my hands through my hair, say “Ohhh shiiittt” to myself and kind of feel like I’m going to be sick.