Thursday, January 8, 2015

Time Dilation: Musings from a season in El Chaltén, Argentine Patagonia

I can't make the southern migration this year, so this goes out to all the monkey who have ventured south to chase big dreams in the world's worst weather...

Time Dilation

There’s a land at the end of the world that sleeps and wakes in its own time. It lies alone in the vastness of the ocean, the only land piercing otherwise unbroken sea. The wind whirls around the Antarctic vortex with the force of a spinning planet and slams into this land with cold indifference, a mere speedbump on its eternal journey around the pole. It is a land of fire and ice, stone and sky, where the stoic icecap feeds torrential rivers into broad sparkling lakes that spread out into the endless brown of the pampas, and it all quivers and breathes beneath the incessant wind.

There’s a town in this land at the end of the world where wanderers and athletes and dreamers collect every austral summer to sit at the base of the mountains and wait for their chance to venture upward. They come from every continent, represent every type of lifestyle and profession, and they arrive laden with bulging duffels and potent dreams. They bring the newest ropes and mountain boots and alloy crampons, they bring carbohydrate goo and freeze-dried meals and US dollars and empty memory sticks for their cameras and hope, hope, hope.

People bring their stories. Some leave whole narratives at home, some have no home except the pages they are continually scripting. They all come to this town at the land at the end of the world to write new chapters to their stories. They come to observe, to taste, to experience…but once they stay long enough they realize that regardless of the success or failure of their personal efforts, they have become characters in the story of this place.

Some came and suffered and returned to their homes. Some saw their dreams crushed and left in frustration, never to return. Some fell in love and set a new course for their lives so they could come back. Some bought houses there, some got famous, some left in leg casts, some left in worse. Some did not return, and their absence haunts us with more questions. Some removed the scars of ugly history and ignited worldwide debate, some forged new history, some pushed beyond their own limits, some suffered cold nights and watched the sun rise more beautiful than they’d ever seen before.

Just as the wind blasts incessantly over the icecap towards the plains only to spin around the planet and come back, people come and go from this land, but their stories keep returning.


One AM, stagger through the headwind across the lawn into the campground bathroom and the door slams shut behind you. Inside, there’s no escaping it, the old structure is alive with it, the old slats whistle and creak and the roof stutters beneath the gusts, and there’s a man in the stall, squatting on the shitter with a shirt wrapped around his head, smoking inside it. He looks up, the cigarette coal crackles and smoke seeps from the collar below his chin and out his mess of hair, his shoulders begin a shrug and give up the effort. “The wind,” he says, “the wind,” and his eyes stare past you though the wrinkled shirt, into the dark beyond the door that shudders on its hinges.

Morning, the windswept streets lie empty in bright sunlight and droplets of water fall in a light spatter on the cobbled sidewalks; they will fall all day despite the warm sun, borne by the wind from the white miasma of cloud hanging over the mountains. An elderly man takes his morning walk, in leather shoes and well-worn corduroys and a high-collared jacket. He steps with his cane past a sleeping dog, leaning at a hefty angle into the side-long wind, free hand clutching his beret to his head.


Despite the pre-dawn chill we are stripped down to thermal tops while booting up stiff snow towards the col. The path turns to loose talus and our pace slows, and as the gulley tightens the wind increases and forces us to don our shell jackets; we carry on. The terrain steepens and we climb upwards with hands and feet, seeking dry grips amongst smears of slick verglass as the wind harries our bodies. At times the gusts rush down from the col with such force that it’s all we can do to hold our place, clutching the rock and closing our eyes against assailing spindrift.  Thus scrambling in bursts between gusts we gain the col, strap on crampons and start up the steep glacier as the eastern sky begins to lighten. Above the bergshrund the snow glows pink as the sun rises over the broad expanse of the pampas. We swing axes into the crisp neve and front-point upwards, light spreads across the world and in the protection of our chimney we enjoy the illusion, for thirty minutes, that the wind has stopped.


The gaucho draws his long facón blade from its sheath on his belt and carves even slices of steaming meat off the roasting flank. As we hold out a platter he stacks it with slabs of grilled sheep until satisfied with the harvest, then wipes the oily blade in a loaf of bread and sheathes it again, where it will wait until the next asado. He carries the laden tray easily against his paunch and sets it on the table with flourish, sizzling meat glistens in the firelight and the whole barn glows with the aroma of night and laughter: wine, smoke, and warm fat. The gaucho has lived here since 1983, before the government decided that a town should exist, and rough-handled instruments of his trade hang from the barn walls. These days the gringos come in larger numbers, lured by grocery stores and insipid internet and magazine photos, and he still pulls the facón from its sheath to carve meat around a fire.


How do you descend from a 500 meter spire, moving safely through vertical terrain and objective hazards? Inside, a voice called ego pleads without reason to be out of the danger zone, to be safe on flat ground. In a glance we see this silent plea in each other’s eyes; we don’t dare voice it. In this austere world of rock, wind, and vertical sky, where a single mistake can kill you, when the child inside you yearns for nothing but safety, how do you make it down? With patience. Without ego, without panic. Without fear? A little much to ask for this guy, for us mere mortals. At moments of doubt, staring down unfathomable distances of rough terrain, I feel a swell of terror rising in my chest. But the wave must not break. As alpinists, we make that commitment before we leave the ground. I acknowledge the wave, relax into its motion and let it pass. “If it weren’t for climbing we’d all be surfers,” the sage said. Maybe we still are.

So how do you descend from a 500 meter spire? Calmly, a compilation of small steps, executed with precision. One. Two. Ten Thousand.


We wait, we hope, we pack and re-pack and eventually un-pack, AGAIN. We cook. We forego cooking to eat what someone else cooked. We go on dessert binges around town, we eat ice cream at Domo Blanco the second time…that day. We stare at the meteogram. We talk. Mostly we talk shit. We make plans, we talk about going bouldering, yeah bouldering! We talk about it and finish our meals and talk and fill a water bottle and talk and run back to the hostel to grab the shoe/chalk bag/speaker system/beer that we forgot and we stand outside the Centro Alpino apartments talking with the residents as two members of our delegation try to track down four of the eight bouldering pads in El Chaltén and in the meantime I need to go find Joel and in the process give a kiss and hello to all the members of Teresa’s family in La Lucinda and might as well say high to Jason and Kevin who are sipping tea at their computers and talk to Neal and Carlos hanging out inside and eventually I get back and we’re still all hanging out talking shit outside Centro Alpino and finally one pad plus one pad plus the promise of two more in half an hour equals enough critical mass to start walking and we FINALLY start walking out of town to go bouldering, talking all the way.


7 PM, wandering. I’m hungry but the sun still hangs high enough above the horizon that my body doesn’t see the day winding down. Another day in limbo. I could mend gear, I could read, I could eat empanadas, but the sun says the day is still happening, so I walk the streets of El Chaltén trying to not spend pesos, but with a wad of them in my pocket nonetheless. At La Lucinda, Ben and Joel are poring over a map between sips of tea. The creased paper covered in squiggles hints at the tortured coastline and desolate ranges that make up Patagonia: the topography of chaos. We discuss distances in days, the weight of packrafts and how to chop a bike frame into packable parts, and dream of the adventures that lie within those blotches of primary color. The tea is hot and outside a sign beats upon a wall in the wind.


For two hours, every rock we’ve stepped on has moved; I look up-valley and the same interminable scree continues beyond the edge of sight. Contemplating the distance is so demoralizing that I pull my gaze back to my immediate vicinity: the next 20 feet, the next six feet, even the next two feet require thought. Each rock is its own puzzle, with its own angles and texture and its unique position of the infinite game of Jenga we’ve inadvertently stumbled into. Will the rock shift when I weight it? Can I bridge my foot over two rocks together? Will it drop the rock above it onto my ankle? Could I walk back with a bum ankle? With a fractured tibia? Each rock…each motherf*!#ing rock, for two hours, three hours…tiny rock crystals work their way into our socks and my heavily laden pack slowly abrades the skin off my hip bones. We’re playing a game with one rule: don’t topple the blocks. Five hours later we step off the lateral moraine onto the rubble-strewn Torre Glacier, where we can almost walk naturally without scrutinizing our next step. We stop to rest in silence and I fill my canteen from a trickle of cold, pure meltwater. Looking up-valley we can see the Mocho shrouded in snow and imagine base camp nestled at its base, with an empty tent-site sheltered by boulders. “Well, maybe people go the other way around the lake.” “Yeah. Maybe.”


At the col that morning we’d scoped the route, trying to keep our balance on straddled legs braced against assailing gusts of wind. The terrain looked casual but the conditions…we could see snow on ledges all over the face, and it was hard enough to stand down there. But we came all the way here to the tip of the end of the world, and I have a flight in 3 days, so I took the rack and begin climbing in gloves, hood zipped tight.

Now we’re getting what we came here for, movement in the mountains, under a blue sky and above a jagged world of rock and ice. Handholds lead to sequences, sequences surmount features, features begin connecting into the totality of the mountain and the details cease to matter. We move upwards, reading the braille cyphers of the mountain with our fingers and feet. The mountain presents mixed media: in a windy notch Dave dons rock shoes and weaves between jagged gendarmes; I lead out across a hanging snowfield and sheath my axe on a gravel perch beneath a stone wall dripping with meltwater. High above my gear, I clear snow from a granite gutter and jam a gloved fist in the icy sludge. My approach shoes smear on clean rock running with sparking rivulets of water. This is not terrain one should fall in, but the sunlight and the widening expanse of space buoy us upward; we move through each nuance in rhythm towards the next, more focusing on the flow of the song and letting each note pass in its own time. Alpinism is jazz, an improvisation of formal methods to flow with a constantly changing rhythm; it is the art of dynamic harmony.

Time pulses with the rhythm, stretching across fluid pitches and compressing into finite moments—weighting a tenuous off-finger lock, checking an Alien’s lobes in a flared crack—and expanding again. Like musicians, the more we feel the beat the less we remember ourselves, only immediate facts: I have twenty more meters of rope, I have three cams left, my left shoe is wet. I am hungry, I am cold, I am alive. I sip water from a crevice and stare across to the knife-edge ridge of Cerro Pollone, trying to comprehend the expanse of the icecap beyond.

At the crux things are getting real; the gloves come off and I jam bare skin in rough granite, fighting for purchase, trying to read the sequence above. Time contracts; the details matter again. A widening crack choked with intermittent snow guards overhanging terrain. A chockstone seems to be the key to the puzzle, but it is covered in ice.  In the mountains there is no room for hesitation, we must keep moving; I know what I have to do. I stem up the clean corner armed with the nut tool and press my feet hard against the walls while I hack ice off the chockstone, enough so I can pull on it securely. I stem a foot higher and I can clean snow out of the next jam, then step down to rest. Above, the way is now clear. Three breaths, and execute: the rhythm collapses into total focus. The crux is perfect, just enough features to let me through, nothing more.


The LCD display on my wrist slowly drifts into focus: 3:05. I collapse against a boulder and stare back across the moonlit glacier, waiting for Seth and Neale’s lamps to emerge over the swell of glacial ice. Since our brew stop at 6 PM it was eight rappels down the ramp, a tenuous traverse over soft snow across the bergschrund, and an hour of careful travel on the steep crevassed glacier until it leveled out and we could finally just walk. A long walk, below the hulking mass of Fitz Roy bathed in moonlight and not a calorie left between the three of us. Why did I pack food as if I was climbing some classic in the Black Canyon? Some things I’m still learning the hard way.

The headlamps arrive and we slouch in a windbreak at the col, exhausted. Someone mentions bivying here; of course we’re all thinking about it. But I’m already shivering in my belay parka; our bodies are out of fuel and we have to keep moving to stay warm. We grunt, shoulder packs again, and contemplate the dark opening of the gulley. Can’t relax yet: below lies a thousand-meter drop of rock, snow, and loose talus, and the gulley walls are sporadically covered in a veneer of slick verglass. It’s the last thing in the world I want to do right now, but our food waits at the other end. After a long silence, I step out with one foot, then another. Descending is simple arithmetic: the sum of tiny parts, so small each seems futile on its own, ends up adding up to something tangible. An hour later we stumble into camp as the sun rises above the land at the end of the world, our second sunrise that day. We crumble sausage and cheese into a freeze-dried meal and barely finish it before passing out in out gravel tent site, a long walk still awaiting us before foul weather comes in.

Canción y Vino (song and wine)

Wine and song flow all evening in the small café. The musicians play old gaucho ballads and their voices meld in the warm light as heads nod and feet tap to the galloping rhythms; soon tables and chairs are cleared to the walls and people are dancing, in circles and pairs. I join in as they clap to the chorus. I’m the last gringo in the café, but I have no desire to leave: tonight, this is the heart of El Chaltén. The rhythm swells and bodies twirl and the hand of an Argentine woman pulls me from the wall; we dance through the café, song after song. I don’t know the steps; I fake it with a questionable salsa form I learned in Ecuador years ago. I stumble as the rhythm changes and she floats through the transition, guiding me to the next beat with tinkling laughter. She is beautiful and doesn’t care and I don’t either. These people are all beautiful, they blossom with a blend of heritage and inspiration as they gracefully carve out a living at this margin of rich culture and savage wilderness. In this town at the end of the world, nothing tomorrow is so important that they cannot dance tonight. Another man takes the guitar and sings song after song and everyone knows all the words. The dancers consume the whole floor and Juan and Teresa take turns dancing and opening bottles at the bar.

The night grows late and eventually only a small core of us remain. More instruments emerge and I am invited to play; I squat atop the cajón and feed rhythms to the guitarist, who keeps singing folk songs. People gather around the microphone and sing at the top of their lungs with their eyes closed, mouths gaping in joyful smiles. Someone opens another bottle, someone finds a tambourine, and the music seems to flow forever. Eventually I will stagger back to my hostel watching the sun rise above the pampas, I will pass out for a few hours and gather my bags to travel back across the planet, back to a world of clocks and schedules and my hemorrhaging bank account. But right now the people are singing, the skin of the cajón sits potent beneath my fingertips, and in this town at the end of the world, there is no time but right now.

Much thanks to Seth Adams, Neil Kauffman, Dave Brown, Mike Finkowski, the Troutman, Ben Erdman, la familia at La Lucinda, and others for sharing photos, stories, and the journey. This piece is published alongside fine writing and photos in the Climbing Zine, a grass-roots publication sprouting from the Colorado western slope. Check out for more goods from amateur writers doing their thing.

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