After having to abort our mission to the Piedras Blancas glacier after I put both of my feet into the stream, we took a day to try again. It wasn’t a particularly difficult hike, but it was a long walk mostly over rocks and there were small streams that popped up everywhere along the route.
There have been many times during this trip that I’ve had to cross a stream by hopping over the rocks that just barely break the surface of it. The rocks will be of all different sizes and shapes making the choice of which rock to step on with which foot complicated. If I step on one rock with my right foot but the next rock is situated to the far right, I have to do an awkward little reshuffling dance so that I can step on that rock with my right foot as well and be assured that I will not plunge into a frigid stream like I had done previously.
The way that I navigate the rocks reminded me of learning the fingering for a piece of music on the piano. You can play a piece without the proper fingering, but usually it makes it easier if you don’t. My first experience with the piano was not with reading music, but by watching my grandmother play what was then my favorite piece of music, “Fur Elise” by Beethoven, and imitating what I saw. I ended up being able to play the beginning of that piece flawlessly before I ever knew anything about reading music. Therefore, I felt that I knew just about everything when I started taking piano lessons. I flew through the beginners books not paying attention to petty things such as fingering and pedal notations. I felt that these were really just suggestions and not things that I had to take notice of. My piano teacher’s insistence that I pay attention to such things while playing a one-handed three-note piece like “To the Zoo” seemed ludicrous. “Lady,” I thought, “I can play Beethoven. I don’t need your fingering crap.”
Once I started to play longer and more complicated pieces, I realized that if I paid attention to how it was supposed to be done right from the beginning, it made things much easier in the end. And of course, with practice, it became somewhat second nature. But it was still sometimes painfully slow as I was learning.
This is what I remind myself of when I see Adam hopping over streams in what seems like a single bound. I’m still practicing, and that might mean that it takes me three times as long to get across. It might mean that I accidentally fall in. But with each time I learn a little bit more about what it feels like to perform such a task intuitively. What the rocks feel like under my feet. How much I can slip without falling. How far I can stretch my legs to reach the next tiny island. Slowly but surely.
I then faced the next obstacle between us and the glacier: big boulders. Climbing over the boulders proved to be much like crossing the streams. Where do I put this foot now? Most of it was rather easy and fun, but there were times when I would be stuck on top of a rock, too fearful to make the next move. I pictured myself wedged between two boulders, stopping up the hole for all of eternity. Then Adam would come to my rescue. “Look,” he said at one point, “this is granite. It’s very sticky.” He demonstrated the stickiness by calmly walking down the side of a boulder like Spiderman climbing a wall. Tentatively, I inched down the side of the boulder. I stuck! This was great.
We made our way over to the modest lake and looked across to the glacier. It wasn’t as large as some of the others, but the seracs, looking like the crumbly cheese they are named for, radiated a massive amount of bright blue light across the water and the Fitzroy range peeked out from behind the ice. We ate some lunch, sunning ourselves on the rocks like the lizards that scampered to and fro on the trail. Then it was back over the boulders and streams, not quite as quick as I would like to be, but I was gaining confidence.
What was especially nice about the last few trails that we took, was that they were much less crowded than they had been at the beginning of the week. I talked before about how exhausting it is to greet all of the people that you pass on the trail, but worse than that is dealing with people who don’t understand trail etiquette.
The worst offense that people commit is not yielding to hikers who are going faster than they are. This is akin to driving 20 miles per hour below the speed limit on a one-lane road without having the courtesy to pull over and let others pass. Just as it is in a car, passing people who don’t yield can be dangerous. While it is unlikely that you will get into a head-on collision, it is likely that you will trip or step into a hole and injure yourself as you go off the path around the oblivious pair that are chattering away rather than paying attention. It seems to me that it would be uncomfortable to have two people breathing down your neck as you walk along, but it’s amazing how many people don’t show the slightest hint of uneasiness.
We tend to see a lot of this lack of trail etiquette because Adam cannot abide having people in front of him on the trail. Understandably, he enjoys himself much more when he doesn’t have to constantly look at the backsides of people in front of him. They way that I observe it, he is like the Terminator locking onto a target. He sees the people ahead of us on his screen. He locks on. The text on the screen says in red capital letters, “MUST PASS NOW.” He initiates passing mode and like a true Terminator, does not let up until the mission is accomplished. At first I found this to be exhausting, but as I get faster and faster, I have acquired a need to pass people as well.
We saved the hike to Loma del Pliegue del Tumbado until the end of the week. The first couple of hours were surprisingly easy. It was a continual yet gentle uphill climb, and I popped on my Ipod and put on some Guns N’ Roses which always helps me get moving. As I contemplated a viable way to get Slash and Axl to make up and get the band back together, I noticed that the climb was getting steeper and I was having to stop more frequently. All at once the terrain changed to reddish-brown crumbling slate which was quite slippery. I knew that the only way to get to the summit was to scramble up this steep, slippery incline, but I was unsure that I could do it. Axl was not helping, so I turned him off and put him in my pocket. Adam called down from the top what has become somewhat of a mantra: “If you fall, you’re not going to fall far. You are not going to fall down the mountain.”
I picked my way cautiously and nervously up to the top and was rewarded with an awesome 360 degree panoramic view of the area. It was like a summary of everything that we had seen throughout the week. There was the Fitzroy range partially obscured by clouds. There was the valley where the tiny town sat. There were the glaciers and lakes that we had lunched next to. It was approaching frigid up there with the clouds and the wind as usual, but this was the view. Adam surveyed the scene and asked, “Do you see how this can become addicting?” I did.
However, when it came time to head back down, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. I felt like a cat stuck in a tree. The prospect of going down that slippery slate path was even worse than that prospect of going up it. I figured that even if a rescue helicopter could be convinced to come and pick me up just because I was scared, I was pretty sure that it would be quite an embarrassing, not to mention costly, situation. So I picked my way back down, reassuring myself every few seconds under my breath. Nothing happened. Unfortunately, the evidence keeps mounting that I am acting like a spaz for no good reason.
After the hike we went back to the cabin to kick off the shoes and put our feet up. One thing that was nice about the cabin that we stayed in was that it had a DVD player and the owners had a large selection of DVD’s to choose from. There is something so appealing about being all cozy inside watching a movie with a big bowl of homemade popcorn with real butter while the wind howls outside. The only bad thing about this arrangement was that getting the DVD’s turned out to be a kind of awkward situation. The reception area for the cabins was also the owners’ home, so whenever we wanted a DVD, we would have to go to the door and knock and then 1) be greeted by the perpetually shirtless husband who would call from the loft, “Don’t mind me, I just came in from a run!” and 2) feel rushed and uncomfortable as the wife stood staring two inches away from us as we tried to make a selection as quickly as possible.
The last few nights we watched the whole original Star Wars trilogy in Spanish without subtitles. This might sound like we are real pros now, but think about what the dialogue in Star Wars is actually like. The best part about it was listening to the really well-known lines in Spanish: “Luke, soy tu padre.” And I was delighted to find that Yoda still speaks in his quirky anastrophic manner even in Spanish. Sadly, the end of the Star Wars trilogy signaled the end of our time in El Chalten.
For several reasons that all seemed stupid when we were standing outside in the merciless, icy wind at midnight waiting for a bus, we bought tickets for a bus from El Chalten to Bariloche that left El Chalten at 11:30 at night and arrived in Bariloche two mornings later. As I mentioned before, El Chalten is an extremely small town, so they haven’t quite gotten around to finishing the bus terminal that my guidebook tells me they began in 2005. So we were standing around in the freezing dark with thirty or so other people trying to stay warm by sheltering ourselves in the unfinished building next to the bus stop that had no doors or windows and was not helping at all. I went into silent meditation mode. Think about sun. Think about fire. Think about…FUCK I’M COLD! The bus showed up over an hour late, but by that time I had no energy for criticism. I plopped down into my seat finally able to relax my tensed muscles, and promptly fell into a fitful, yet satisfying sleep that would leave me well rested for…the next day on the bus.