I’m dragging my feet slowly up the slick mud incline. Hendrik and Damien have disappeared into the thick greenery ahead of and above me. My feet and knees are killing me and I’m completely exhausted.
Half an hour earlier I’d entered the Argentinian border post at Lago del Desierto to find that Ricardo, the local guy with horses who transports hikers’ bags by tractor and horseback, had not taken our bags past the 13 kilometer mark of the trail. I wasn’t present when Damien and Hendrik were discussing taking our bags the remaining 9 kilometers by horseback but they were certain that he agreed to do so. Speaking to Ricardo in the border post, he said that since they didn’t pay up front he assumed they didn’t want the bags taken.
There was no chance of making the 5 p.m. boat – it was quarter to five by this point, but there’s another boat at 11 tomorrow morning so we tried to find a solution that didn’t involve hiking back up into the pass, like paying Ricardo to double-back with his horse and bring our stuff down for the boat. He can’t do it – he’s got bags to take the other direction. We’re pretty much up a creek and the only option is to hike 9 kilometers (on top of the 24+ we’ve already hiked this afternoon), pick up our shit and do it again.
Hendrik tried to be positive, calling it a challenge and an adventure, but I think he was pissed because he kept inadvertently slipping into speaking German even though neither Damien nor myself sprechen Deutsch. Damien was more obviously pissed, muttering about “that fucking asshole”. We all get our Argentinian entry stamps and then head back up the trail. Both Hendrik and Damien are fueled by anger and frustration and are moving quickly. Surprisingly I don’t feel angry at all, I just feel totally defeated and I fall behind almost immediately.
The first three kilometers of the backtrack are mostly uphill and I would say they were a pain in the ass, except I can’t really feel my ass by this point. I begin meeting other hikers and bikers who’ve already run into H & D and learnt the score and when they see me they just look at me with sheepish smiles and a “Oh man, I’m sorry” look in their eyes. For the most part I just shrug and try to return the smile.
As the terrain levels out I hit the river crossings. The gnarliest one, the single-log crossing that’s 3-4 meters across, is the one I’ve been dreading. I don’t have that much feeling in my feet now and my legs are shaky. I take it slow and at one point I have to crouch a little bit, catch my balance, but eventually make it across. Bailing was a distinct possibility that time – coming back I’ll have to do it even more tired, with all my gear on my back, and possibly in the dark. Jesus Christ.
About a hundred meters before the border I stop and speak to a group of French hikers I’d met on the way down. They want to get to Lago O’Higgins tonight but they’re not sure if they can make it before dark so I give them a rundown of the terrain that’s ahead of them – I think they can do it, they’ve already knocked off the hardest part. I get the time from them and it’s not encouraging – if I continue at this rate there’s a very good chance I’ll be crossing rivers and heading down slick mud inclines after dark.
I reach the Chilean border a couple minutes later. The trail immediately turns into a gravel-surfaced road and is downhill for most of the next three kilometers. Makes for easy work, but it won’t be on the way back.
I start trying to think of new alternatives, as I’m dreading the river crossings with gear after dark in my current exhausted state. It’s cold – it’s snowing – so I don’t particularly want to get wet. I can’t tent up here either, as my gear isn’t warm enough for the altitude, so the only Plan B I can come up with is hoping that Ricardo’s still at the aerodrome house when I get there and maybe throwing him a few bucks to let me sleep inside on the floor overnight. I doubt it’ll be heated but at least I’ll be off the ground and out of the snow.
As I’m approaching the aerodrome and the turn-off to the house where my gear is I hear a rough-sounding engine and Ricardo’s tractor appears around a corner. In the trailer are Hendrik, Damien and all of our gear. Ricardo’s smiling and waves, the guys are smiling too. I jump on the back – Ricardo doesn’t have time to go back to the Argentine border post but he’s taking our stuff (and us) up the 3-km incline back to the border. Awesome. I forget about my previously half-cooked Plan B: with only six kilometers to go and the last climb out of the way we’ll almost definitely make it back before dark. I’m still concerned about the river crossings but I’ll have to roll the dice.
(Tally up one more mode of transportation for this trip – pretty sure that was the first tractor.)
As we jump out and prepare to hike back down the muddy Argentinian side, Hendrik pulls out a chocolate bar and we divvy it up. He says we need it – he admits to being totally exhausted and Damien’s in the same boat. He asks me if I can carry him down.
By this point we’ve covered about 33 kilometers. I’ve lost all the feeling in my feet and my ass and my brain seems to have stopped working. As we plod through the streams on the Argentinian side my mind begins to shut down and I just focus on where my feet are and where they’re going next. Several times the guys try to speak to me and I don’t even notice – I’m completely zoned out. When Damien does get my attention I realize he’s talking about getting to El Calafate and finding ribs and beer. That doesn’t help my zombie-like state – as I jump across streams and across logs I’m daydreaming of ribs, wings, steak and beer and completely fail to take in any of my surroundings.
The first few river crossings go well, then we reach the gnarly one. Damien goes first and runs across almost as fast as he did the first time. Hendrik is next and he moves very slowly, using his walking poles for balance. At a couple points he looks really unsure, lifting and putting down his foot in same spot five or six times. The first time across it took him about fifteen seconds – this time must be closer to 40 or 50, but he makes it across. I’m last in line and I just say fuck it and go into zombie mode, trying not to think about the water. I stroll across in less than ten seconds. When I reach the other side I know I’m going to get to the end of this without any real problem, get a huge adrenaline burst and yell “FUCK YEAH!” The other guys look at me like I’m out to lunch.
When we finish the descent – somewhere around the 39 km mark for us now – it’s still light out and just past 9 pm. Despite being elated, we all collapse on benches in front of the border post. It’s going to be a cold, miserable night, but I’m relatively dry (buckets of sweat aside) and I probably won’t get hypothermia.