And all this time I thought it was merely a line of outdoor clothing. As the bus traversed further south, we passed signs saying ‘Welcome to the End of the World’. Fortunately, the greeting was more factual than ominous. Separated from Tierra del Fuego by the Straight of Magellan (ten high), and with a strong wind behind you, about an eight iron from Antarctica (yes, when I say strong wind, I’m not whistling Dixie; the whistling you hear is the wind howling through the mountains).
Our extraordinary adventure entailed seeing geographics that defy photography, although Lori has given it her best shot. We are in the land of the newest stone outcroppings on the planet. Their jagged edges protrude straight upwards. Hanging glaciers inhabit their upper reaches. Other ice floes reside at the point where the water meets the mountain. Eons of pressure has squeezed much of the oxygen out of them, rendering the ice substantially denser than the stuff that inhabits your freezer’s cube trays. Its density swallows all of the light spectrum save for blue; hence the appearance of a windex like colour on its slopes.
People come here to trek, animal watch, explore and paint. Situated as far south as Calgary is north, being in the Southern Hemisphere’s summertime, we are, in theory, experiencing Alberta’s July weather. Something however doesn’t hold up. Maximum highs in the mid-teen and relentless winds of 80-140 kilometers per hour render the meteorological comparisons irrelevant. There is a cold, dry purity to the air, further magnifying the intensity and grandour of a setting rarely seen this close up. Patagonia offers up the opportunity to take on Mother Nature on her own terms. People wear wind protective gear, fleece vests and waterproof hiking boots; not because it is fashionable, but because it will keep you alive. Unlike Ray Bans and Land Rovers in Hampstead, which are principally fashion statements, we have the opportunity to understand the fundamentals behind their design and appreciate the genius that led to their construct.
The sheer scale and beauty underscores the magnificence of nature. On a micro scale we see lichen clinging to rock that will eventually break the stone down to its basic elements, adding to a soil base much in need of assistance. On the other end of the scale are massive outcroppings of granite and sedimentary rock. Former sea beds that have been wrenched asunder by the imperceptible clashes of tectonic plates that have, over millennia, restructured the strata of the earth like a deck of cards in a bridged shuffle.
While not usually party to long walks, unless they are offset by eighteen holes, I have continued the strenuous activities that originated in the jungles of Ecuador. Lori has endured uphill, muddy, cold walks through nature and has obtained unforgettable images on film, or whatever these new fangled SLRs use as a canvas.
The voyage has been split between two hotels. The Singular is an old converted meat packing plant and tannery.
Three years ago it was converted to a luxury resort. Brilliantly designed, the property has been built around its original infrastructure exposing as design elements the machinery used to produce meat and leather. The old steam furnaces, scales, and copper tubing have been integrated in the architecture, providing a historical walk through as one heads to the magnificently appointed rooms.
The common areas are mezzanines and further exemplify the integration of structure and design.
The primary focus of the hotel is to act as a clearing house for exterior activities. Guides are on staff for hiking expeditions, horseback riding, nature trail visits and the like. Every staff member is trained and educated in the history of the lodge and the environment. We are situated 2 kilometers from Puerta Arenas,
an old Chilean port with a proud history. Stores sell souvenirs and more importantly appropriate attire for idiots such as us who packed for jungle and tropical rather than cold and bluster.
Since being here, the ability to ascertain the correct time of day has remained illusive. With 11:00pm sunsets, what feels like lunch time will usually mean it’s time for a late dinner. Lori and I experienced New Year’s from a unique perspective. Have you ever seen sunlight as you listen to Guy Lombardo, or in this case while dancing your ass off to a mix of Latin, techno and Michael Jackson? Otherworldly.
Our second point of refuge, Tierra Patagonia, was designed by a prominant female Chilean architect who has created a curved wooden masterpiece.
Blending seamlessly into the craggy environment, situated on a beach and lake with one of the most dramatic mountain ranges in the background, one wakes up and has to take a moment to locate one’s emotional and geographic bearings.
Daytimes are spent exploring the region. Two days previous, we signed up for a three mile hike. All started off well enough. We slogged through a few muddy areas as we traversed the side of a mountain, gently ascending. The light breeze was a pleasant offset to the sweat being generated. An el condor passa’d overhead.
Lori made every effort to keep up and gave it the old college try. Unfortunately, her lungs and stamina are more of a cegep level. The group, being better natured than I, elected to wait for her whenever necessary. As we climbed, the clouds began to overtake and the temperature dropped; plummeted, more accurately. Seeing white flakes swirling around me, I was hoping that our guide had a dandruff issue. As the flakes heightened in intensity and evolved to ice pellets, I felt a desire to find the nearest Carribean cruise ship, sidle up to the all inclusive bar, knock back a few watered down mojitos and hope that the mountain adventure trek was a bad dream. Not the case. We bivouacked for lunch, finding shelter in the leaside of a rock outcropping. A cold sandwich offered minimal consolation. However the thermous of hot soup brought along by the guide brought me back to a movie I had seen a goodly numbers of years back. It was called Survive!. Its subject was a group of soccer players on a plane that went down in the Chilean Andes. They eventually turned to cannibalism to survive. At this point, it was only a bottle of warm soup, but the mind wanders to dangerous places at times like these. The womenfolk, cursed with smaller and weaker bladders, had to pee in the bushes behind our newly established lunchroom. Following the meal our tour guide put forth to the group the notion of continuing or calling it quits. Lori and I obviously opted to hang out with too hardy a bunch.
The vote was split down the middle. “Wild horses would be required to drag me further”, I intoned. The guide then pointed to a series of seven small dots situated on the adjacent ridge. Viewed through binoculars held by shaky, frostbitten hands I was able to make out the equine shapes as they grazed on wild oats, unphased by the encompassing blizzard threatening to kill us. The one on the left was a beautiful chestnut mare that I will catch some day if I can. Logic trumped adventure and we headed back to the van.
Yesterday Lori and I decided to take differing paths. She opted for a nature walk up on a ridge.
Having survived yesterday’s ordeal, my day consisted of a van ride to a lake, followed by a boat ride to the base of the mountain and then an eight hour trek through a mountain pass, humming Mussorgsky’s Hall of the Mountain King.
To put a further exclamation point on our trek, as we reached our final distance point settling down for lunch at a crystal lagoon, the mountain, visible from our hotel room and now a mere hundred meters in front of us, let out a thunderous roar, which signalled the start of an avalanche. We ate our sandwhiches and drank glacier water watching tonnes of snow cascade down the upper peaks.
The weather was fine until John noted that wind and rain had been absent all day. On signal, the wind picked up and the rains started, making for a longer and muddier slog for the 7.5 kilometer return.
Fortunately Lori and I each attained what we sought. She got a great series of photographs; I was one of the recipients of a rousing round of applause from the rest of the group as 15 muddy, tired trekkers returned to base camp. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Chilean pesos changing hands amongst the group. Apparently the odds were 4-1 against me making it back. I’d have taken some of that action.
Another final night awaited this newly formed family. We exchanged e-mail addresses, thanked Natalie once again for her superb organizational skills, shared a few last laughs, and a bit more reminiscing. The next morning we were on the vans, heading back to points north. All of us richly imbued with a sense of adventure, spirit and a realization that we’d been a part of something special, due to the presence on this earth of Francis Greenburger,
a man as unique as the environment we were fortunate to have shared.