Hiking the Andes in Chile Below the Thunderer
Through provocative insights and observations, Tom Reed explores the ruggedly beautiful landscape of Southern Chile and Argentina as intensely as he examines the current social, political, and cultural landscapes of North America and his own rich inner and spiritual life. Deeply personal, intellectually astute, and searingly honest, Reed misses no nuance in his inward and outward search for a place he can truly call home.
“Equal parts Romanticist, Beat, Transcendentalist, and Zen Master, Reed is a refreshingly unique new voice in travel and social commentary, and The Other Side is an important journey for all who are seeking to discover what it means to truly thrive as individuals and societies in today’s complex world.”
-Lauryn Axelrod, Founder of GoNOMAD.com, alternative travel website
Excerpt from The Other Side, On the Road in South America
Feeling much better without my burden, excited by the terrain, and energized by the sight of the giant birds, I climb the headwall with the zest of a kid. Above the snow slope there is another small cirque with another tarn, this little one still more than three-quarters frozen.
The granite turrets above it are pink to rust in color, but also fruity— cantaloupe, mango and persimmon in places. I make my way for the pass to catch a glimpse beyond, and meet a Belgian couple in their sixties as I begin a climb on large talus boulders. They are slowly and carefully making their way from the chair-lift to the refuge.
Following the Red Spots
I’m impressed. They tell me that the trail had steep drop-offs and was scary, so now I want to see it, and when I hit the pass I keep hiking north along the ridge, on the west slope of it, below the crest, following red spots painted on the rocks—and it’s nothing but rocks. Large angular boulders lie on an angle that barely allows repose below a craggy ridge.
These rocks once stood above those crags, maybe in majestic vertical displays like what remains behind me. Those spires of the cathedral have a castle-like quality, due to the highly fractured rock, which resembles block construction. Abundant fingers of rock, called gendarmes, decorate the towers like the gargoyles of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I wonder where the boulder under foot once stood, in what cathedral, and in what cataclysm it came crashing down.
While traversing a buttress of the peak above, the rocks get as big as cars. I round one and see a guy about thirty feet below me, standing still, wearing a new overstuffed red pack on his back, and a big day-pack slung on his chest.
I yell down, “Watch out for falling rocks,” and he turns quickly and bursts into rapid exclamations about the magnificent view in Spanish that sounds like sing-song Italian. He’s totally overwhelmed by the beauty, and he hasn’t even seen the cathedral yet. He asks how far to Frey, and I describe the route.
The Scary Part
In a while the chair-lift comes into view. I suppose I passed the scary part without knowing it. I still feel strong, so I leave the route and head for a peak. At over 2,000 meters the air is already getting thin for this body from sea level, and I have to stop a few times to catch my breath, but I make it to the top with no problem.
The final sixty feet or so is a near vertical rock climb, up a crack and through a chimney. A spot just below the pinnacle offers shelter from the wind, which howls in off the Pacific, crossing Chile in no time, and biting my right cheek. From my perch I face south, overlooking the spectacular granite amphitheater, and turn my head to reconnoiter tomorrow’s hike in the next valley to the west.
Beyond my route, ice-covered Mount Tronador, the “Thunderer,” looms high in the sky, marking the Chilean border, and beyond it are the lower slopes of another volcano that is probably Osorno.
Its top is mantled with the weather that’s moving in. To the north and south, snowy peaks and ridges continue to the horizons. The Andes are a long mountain chain—three times the length of the Himalayas. The word “Andes” is thought to have evolved from either of two Indian words: anti, meaning “east,” or anta, meaning “copper.”
After studying tomorrow’s route with binoculars, and assessing the snowy pass to be crossed, my head turns back to the south and my eyes catch the movement of a condor closing in from the left, gliding into the wind at high speed and close range.
Immediately I reach for my camera bag, but with my thumb and forefinger on the zipper pull, I stop.
There’s no time. If I go for the photo I’ll miss the experience—and probably the photo too. The condor is only a couple hundred feet away. I see the feathers of its downy white collar shift in the wind when it turns its head ever so slightly to look at me.
Its wings span ten feet and are motionless as it cuts into the wind. It passes me at about twenty-five miles-per-hour, flying into a headwind that’s thirty miles-per-hour or more, and is gone in a few seconds, becoming a flattened ‘v’ silhouetted against the stormy sky.
Its head, described in my bird book as “bare, wattled and carunculated,” is a blue-grey, telling me it’s of the southern race of the species, and the fin-like crest atop tells me it’s a male. I wonder if this fin helps him soar with such efficiency. As he shrinks to a dot in the western sky I come down from the rush, and hear myself say, “Cool” out loud.
A sudden feeling—that I could leave now and be satisfied with the entire trip—passes through me and takes me by surprise. Why do I feel so satisfied, so content? It’s not like I came down here to see condors. I came to scout for a new place to live. Not just a new place to live, a place to thrive.
Tom Reed, geographer by education, is a wilderness photographer and author who has worked as a surveyor in Alaska, a river guide in the Western US and Alaska, a sailor, fisherman, carpenter, artist and a martial artist, now a hypnotherapist. He is the author of The Granite Avatars of Patagonia, available at www.tomreed.com.
BuyTom Reed’s The Other Side, On the Road in South America
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