Expedition into the Andes II: Seeking the Path
This is the continuation of the first part of the hike, which you can find here.
4th Day – 20 Kilometers: A Visit of the Condors
After the day at the foot of the volcano Descabezado, we leave early in the morning. We want to use the newly gained energy to move forward more than what is planned for a day. We couldn’t climb the volcano, therefore, we’d like to make it to the next hot thermal baths today. The gauchos told us that they should be much hotter and more beautiful than the first ones. I haven’t given up the hope for a relaxing bath in the natural basins.
When we pack the backpacks, it’s still dark. The cold morning wind is blowing while we’re taking the first steps of the long march. The vast mountain and volcano area is still sleeping and bathed in a completely different light. It’s almost like another world, we’re dipping into.
But now, it is not that easy anymore to find the right way. It seems like not many have been walking around here before us. Footprints appear to be sparse, the path is less marked by stone towers. We don’t have the slightest idea how much time and nerves that will cost us later…
Today, we’re walking on pumice. The fine white pebbles could be confused with snow by far. In fact, this underground is quite different, more like walking on a fine sandy beach. Through the deep sink, every step is a lot more strenuous than on solid ground. However, my injured foot is doing very well in this gentle pillow. Moe is walking forward, because behind each of his steps, big dust clouds are rising, which I would otherwise inhale directly. Like the last few days, the sky is clear.
We are stalking lonely through an incredible mountain theater that stretches along the pumice desert. I’ve never seen anything like this before. To wander so close to the sky between the untouched, snow-covered peaks is a fantastic feeling. And even if i follow the path of bygone footprints, it feels like an expedition.
Now I know why I didn’t give up two days ago. Why I tortured myself to the camp and decided not to climb the Descabezado.
The way is tough and toilsome but finally it is worth it, and even though we take so many pictures, I know that it is impossible to catch this feeling up here in them. It’s so quiet here.
We’re walking over countless fields of ice. The sun reflects so strong by now that I have to close my eyes temporarily. I’m starting to feel dizzy, nauseous, and I have a headache. But there is no time for long breaks.
Tired of the ascend, we are striding high up on a huge plateau. And then it happens: I see the first condor blurry that we were hoping for so eagerly. Moe and I can hardly believe our luck as the giant bird is approaching with its impressive wings to finally circuit directly over us. While Moe tries to shoot a picture, I turn around, and suddenly discover more black points in the sky: a whole group of condors is on their way to us! Still dazed, I look in the clear sky and try to count them while they glide directly over us like the kings of heaven. They must be twenty-five. The spectacle takes magical five minutes before the raptors take over to the next mountain range.
For us, it’s going downhill now along a raging mountain river. This is really fun in pumice, because the sinking and gliding of the boots feels a bit like surfing. But the path is once again unclear. Here and there are a few feet and hoofprints, you can always choose between different ways. The fact that we decide so many times for the wrong one means that we have to return on steep downs, cross the river in deep places and have to take out hundreds of times card and compass.
When we take the first break after a few hours, it’s not so far to hot thermal baths anymore. Although we are already at the end of our forces, we still dream of the hot bath at the end of a strenous day. The fact that one is not supposed to camp nearby the thermal springs because of the strong sulfit smell does not keep us from doing so.
Two kilometers before the target, we finally smell the sulphurous scent that announces the thermal baths. With quick steps, we hop down the valley over the flooded river meadows, so our boots don’t sink in too deep in the mud.
Finally, we reach our goal. Smoke rises from the different basins. Hooray! Quickly, we build our tent before it goes down to the thermal baths. At the bottom, we are searching for the basins between the boiling water that pours out of the cracks, but can’t find them. No matter where, the water is too hot even for dipping in your feet. Moe still wants to give it a try, but while he’s testing the boiling water, the first spider crawls up on him. No, this boiling sulfur mud doesn’t look especially inviting. What a disappointment again.
5th Day – 24 Kilometers: At Precipes
Today’s walk begins – surprise – with a strenuous and endless rise. Now, we walk along the smallest paths along the mountainside. My heart is in my mouth serveral times. “If you take one false step out, it’s all over”, I’m saying to Moe while I focus on putting one foot in front of the other without looking down right next to me. Once again, we follow hoofprints and I just can’t believe how someone can ride this way. In less dangerous places, there is some time to breath and soak up the incredibly beautiful view into the valley. Unique.
After a few hours of ascension on the cliff, we finally arrive on top. Now we have a schnaps for the summit before we start the descent. But only a few meters further, we find that this has not been the highest point. The path goes much, much higher.
After all, walking is a little better with the booze. I should have known after the last stages that we have to fight against total exhaustion again today. You always reach this point, where you’re just trying to function. Just move forward.
Just before reaching the true summit, I feel so bad again. The deep pumice is a challenge. I’m delighted when I finally discover a branch in a cairn. The “cross on the summit” reveals that there will not be uphill from now on.
And really, there’s no more uphill. It is going down really steep. And that for hours. Especially the last part through coarse, stony terrain is extremely arduous.
Finally, when we arrive in an autumnal valley and set our camp at the stream of the magical tiny forest, we are beyond good and evil. I see a stone sprayed with graffiti: “Las fronteras solo son mentales” (“Borders are only mental”).
When I suggest Moe to move our camp 30 meters further to a somewhat more discrete place, he’s suddenly pissed off. He tells me that it’s impossible for him to lift the backpack again. “This place here is perfectly fine.” But I don’t peg away. He follows me defiant to the chosen place in order to finally drop down on the thermal mat. “I don’t do anything anymore”, he’s announcing. Now I’ve overplayed my hand, I think while I’m leaving to collect the firewood. When I come back, Moe is already responsive to me. This hike, I guess, pushes us both to our (mental) limits.
At night, I can barely sleep because it’s so cold. Therefore, we dont’ get the relaxing sleep that would be necessary after such a strenuous stage.
6th Day – Too Many Kilometres Off the Path
We start early in the day and follow the footprints that lead us the way. But in comparison with the map, we realize that we have walked too long on the Eastern side of the valley. I guess we missed the turnoff, it’s not the first time. Instead of walking back uphill, we decide to try crossing the valley from East to West. This works fairly well, but we have considerable problems to find the way where it should be. We’re checking everything 5-fold, try to orientate with the help of the summits, but finally we’re stumped. Actually, we should have crossed the path. We go around purposeless, and follow every single lead just to find out that it leads into nothing. We go back and forth. Nothing.
It’s already afternoon, the search took a lot of time. On the map, we see that we have to go West over a peak. But where is the way that leads us up there?
For emergencies, we have our cell phones to receive a GPS signal. Well, this is probably an emergency. But the signal doesn’t seem to be working. We wait forever until my phone finally finds our location. It shows us that we are right next to the path and must have crossed it a few times. Strange, very strange. To have some more battery for further emergencies, I turn off the phone immediately, although Moe says that we should leave it on a bit longer (maybe that would have saved us a lot of time). The search continues. But we don’t find a way.
Some hoofprints lead us up to the mountain ridge. Because we haven’t stumbled over anything else, and it matches more or less with the map, we follow the beattrack through the little forest. At first, we are quite confident that this is the right way. But with every additional meter of altitude, the path becomes overgrown and the prints become unclearer. Maybe this isn’t the way we are looking for, but we know for sure that we need to get to the ridge. Once we get up there, we’ll find the way.
The way up is long. High shrubs are looming out of the pumice and are covering the path like a maze before us. We channel our way through them in serpentines, but increasingly, we must push through ourselves through the dense bushes to make progress. My arms and legs are grazed. I fall on my knees a few times because of exhaustion. But at least you fall soft on pumice. Looking around, I become increasingly pessimistic that the way up here is right. I cannot recognize anything around us. And the way up is further than you think from below.
When I fall down again, I sit down on the mountainside. What’s the purpose of this? I’m sure we’re wrong here. We are using our precious time and energy for the wrong ascent. Now it’s late afternoon. We won’t have sun for a long time anymore. Moe thinks we’ll see more once we are up there. I just think it’s nonsense. We torture ourselves in the burning sun of the midday, and I could bet my ass that there’s nothing but a deep abyss to the other side. And I’m right. There is a great view and an impressive gorge when we arrive on top. But there’s no way.
I turn on my phone again and pray we get a GPS signal up here. We really don’t have another chance to find the way. Of course, we don’t get a signal. I’m staring at my phone for a while. And I wonder what we’re supposed to do now. We can’t find the way by searching and the map doesn’t help us very much since every mountain in this chain looks the same. You just know roughly where the path might go along. But then my phone has mercy. We’re not far away from the way. We just had get up a gorge further. But we couldn’t see a way there.
We can’t walk along the ridge. Big, steep rocksides are in our way. We’re trying to figure out the flattest spot, but even there a crossing is far too dangerous. With our heavy backpacks anyway.
It doesn’t help. We have to go down the hardly achieved meters of altitude again to return to the ridge further westbound. We try to cut across the mountainside as far as possible, so that we don’t have to go all the way down back to the forest. However, the terrain is so rough that we can only move very slowly. Many times, I am asking myself: “What the hell am I doing here?” I just hope i get through this somehow.
At some point, we have made our way through the dried river, the rubble and the densely overgrown shrubs, and see finally… still no way. Now I’m starting to despair. If we can’t turn off the path now, we have to go back to the valley and continue the search tomorrow. However, we were not able to plan this extraday regarding our food rations. The backpacks were heavy enough. We try our luck again, turn on the phone again and locate another time. The battery is slowly dying, and I am terribly afraid that we will be dependent on the GPS the next two days, too. You can never know…
When I see our position, I think I’m bonkers. Right here, where we are right now, in the middle of the bush, in the middle of nowhere on the hillside, we are crossing the way. From here on, the way continues steep up to the Western ridge. Hardly surprising that we didn’t find the way before when we were further down. There’s just none.
So, we’re walking uphill again. We are orientating ourselves with the map while the sun is starting to set. I’m glad we’re finally making progress. But at the same time, I wonder where we should sleep up there on the ridge. The night yesterday in the valley was incredibly cold. How will it be that much higher?
We almost arrived at the top, and while we’re collecting some wood to cook with our last energy left, we see a path that could be interpreted as a way. We go a little further and actually, I think, I recognize a weak footprint in the pumice. At first, I think it might be imagination but now I see a stone tower. We’re back on the way. Thank God!
At the top, we’re increasing the speed although we are pretty exhausted. I don’t want to be wandering around in the dark here. The spectacular view of the mountains and valleys that we have crossed in the last few days, including the great Descabezado, can only be enjoyed briefly.
Far above, a bit away from the windy ridge, we finally find a place for our tent. It looks like a moon valley here. Once again, the last steps feel like pure agony. Full of exhaustion, we build up the tent and start the fire until we end up half-dead in the tent again.
7th Day – 20 Kilometers: Goodbye, Descabezado!
It was a quiet night. Today is probably the penultimate day – if everything goes well. The view is as impressive as the days before. We cross mystical forests, peaceful valleys and climb over rough debris. Of course, we also get lost at some points today. But the little detours don’t cost us longer than half an hour. Some riddles are just part of it! Fortunately, it is much easier when you’re with someone else. If Moe hadn’t questioned some decisions of me, and the other way around, we would have missed the way much more often. Now, we’re proud that we almost made it.
But with every kilometer, my lust for food is growing. Fries! Aww, how wonderful would it be to have fries now. Or what would I give for a delicious schnitzel! Or delicious empanadas! Or, or, or… I’m annoying Moe with endless talks about my food cravings – it’s time to get back to civilization! After we’ve been on our feet all day, we find a quiet place at the river where we build up our tent. A fallen tree even offers us a place to sit while cooking. Excellent!
8th Day – Just a Few More Kilometers, then we will jump on the bike again
The day begins as usual with a rise – but it will be the last after all. When Moe and I finally get back to the sign where we started a week ago, I fall into his arms. I’m so proud of us. We neither got lost, nor eaten by Pumas, nor toppled hundreds of feet deep into the cliff. The only thing missing is fries!
A friendly ranger offers us a ride on the missing three kilometers to our motorcycle with his jeep. We happily accept that offer. But when we sit in the car, we have to admit that we’re probably not the best passengers. Eight days without a shower, the daily bonfires and the spilled sweat of the numerous climbs are surely smelly. The Ranger still stays friendly.
Back at the motorcycle, we are packing our things up. We want to go over the pass to Argentina today. And on that way, we are rewarded with a breathtaking track which serves as a brilliant ending of this incredibly strenous week, leading firstly through a golden valley, then through the majestic mountains. Next to us, we have the view over the volcanic area that we walked through the last week. It’s like a great reward for the efforts of the last few days and I enjoy every curve along the way much more. It means something completely different to pass through this area right now. Almost alone and accompanied by the condors, we ride higher and higher until we finally reach Laguna del Maule – the peak of this festival! This route can be described as one of the best we have ever experienced.
Everything is very relaxed at the border. Since we are the first to show up here, they need to adjust the date on the stamp for us. And between the Chilean and Argentine border, it just becomes more beautiful. And when I am sitting in front of my hardly gained and deserved fries at the end of the day, I couldn’t be more happy!