Shelter for Memory
In the violet dawn, Las Torres emerge from the night, spectral. A three-quarter moon fades by degrees, its ghostly glow gradually dimming between the transitioning light and ephemeral clouds, vanilla, periwinkle. Conversations thin in the narrow two track, mud crusted with frost, the wheat-like grasses grey and bent beneath the freeze. Like geese in formation, we shift front to center to rear and back again in the stillness of sunrise, which is cresting clean and clear over the peaks, striking the snow like the glint of a knife. I drift to the back of the line. Rising from the foothills of sage and pale scrub, snowy granite of Los Cuernos clings to its shroud, backlit by the crescendo of light and the dusty blue winter morning.
Guillermo moves quickly, leading our small group through Torres del Paine Parque Nacional. Refugio Paine Grande is a five hour hike north. We will spend the night there, after a quick jaunt—12 km—to Glacier Grey. That is the first leg of the W hike, extending northwest past Lago Grey to Refugio Grey. In the morning, we will head northeast to Valle Francés before walking back to the park entrance. It is not possible this time of year to continue beyond the valley to the eastern side of the W, which would take us to Base Las Torres.
Flynn and I stayed in Puerto Natales several days, unable to secure a guide and unable to enter this part of the park without one, before we met Guillermo. Another duo, partners on business from Santiago, are with us. They have only two days. Even abbreviated, the trek should take four days, but we must complete it in half the time. Kevin, the skier, was in Ushuaia most of the winter. Now he is helping Guillermo in exchange for tagging along. He has been traveling for more than a year doing odd jobs and living off his savings. I grudgingly admire this. Kevin is the worst type of tourist, an entitled adrenaline junkie hipster dropout from Colorado, and my hypocrisy noting this grates. Although I live on the continent, I am still a tourist.
Wild horses dot the landscape in the distance. As we approach, Guillermo points ahead and tells us to be quiet; provoked mustangs will charge. They look like horses I've ridden, but stockier than Mercedario and the others. Their coats are a thick shag. Lording over his harem, the alpha male eyes us inquisitively. He is beautiful, pearly white with a dark mane and elegant legs. The rest paw at the earth and snort, gusts of hot air exhaled in contempt at our intrusion. They circle around the foal and stare at us with suspicion. I wonder how they survive on nothing but dead grass and cold wind.
Guillermo carries an enormous pack, larger than his body, without complaint. Instead, he flashes his even white teeth, checking to make sure we are keeping up. When the trail widens, we settle into a comfortable gait. He tells us stories in Spanish, and I am charmed by his excitement. He is younger than I first thought.
Gesturing to the columns piercing the clouds, Guillermo describes throwing a rope up to the peak of one and climbing it. "It was nothing," he says. "The park is like my backyard. I grew up here."
Flynn asks if he's been to Antarctica. Puerto Natales, the nearest town to Las Torres, is two hours from the southern tip of Chile.
"Yes," he says. Tourists paid him a lot of money to take them in a plane. When he looked out of the windows, all around in every direction there was only water. He felt he might never see land again.
I look up at the three towers, and from the steppe they appear perfectly cylindrical, rising from the earth in a stone vertical so tall the rising sun is obscured. I cannot see their apex through the clouds.
"Which was scarier?" we ask.
"Antarctica. Something goes wrong and you are finished."
To me these are equivalent fates. Mountains remain on the horizon, reticent; the only element advancing in the landscape are dark clouds, warning of snow. Milky turquoise cuts through the lowland, a stream of sediment flowing glacier to glacier. We follow the river, passing an erratic rock before arriving in a forest of scorched trees, the once white bark scored and blackened. Knotted branches curl, grasping towards the sky, spines bent to the earth in supplication.
"What happened?" I ask Guillermo.
"Many forest fires, for many years. Before, visitors could camp in the park off the trail."
Under the glare of the storm, we wind in and out of the charred woods, climbing the ridge, slipping over wet stones as we duck back into the valley, the path lined with downed trees like broken bodies. In the lowlands, an icy creek seeps into the earth and our pace slows as we pick our way through sodden marsh. Is there spring, here? Are the trees ever reborn?
The sun struggles through the low-lying clouds, turning their grey to silver. As we round the bend, Lago Pehoé surfaces and with it Los Cuernos emerge from the mist, heavy with snow. The lake is a brilliant sapphire, and I remember that Paine means blue. But the mountain is a terrifying, brutal, stubborn beauty.
Our approach reveals the pitted, craggy granite for the mestizo it is. Guillermo explains that millions of years ago, repeated shifting tectonic plates forced the rock together violently, and now they are joined forever, like a marriage.
Nearer the water, fierce gales blow from the west. There is nothing to shield us, and the wind howls, churning the lake, scattering froth into the freezing air in angry swirls that sting our faces. We are blown like leaves across the narrow footbridge.
We mount a steep cliff lined with shale. Pieces break off and disappear over the ledge. I do not see them land in the water, but slipping on the wet shale would mean falling hundreds of meters into the lake, weighed down by your boots and pack. You might sink like a stone. But if you landed face down, you would windmill your arms and legs hopelessly in confusion like a beetle drowning, unable to turn over.
Punishing wind shrieks over the face of the rock, through the tall grasses, twisting the gnarled branches, leveling the landscape and flattening the brush. Breathless, we arrive at the deserted refugio. Two starched flags whip and flail, the Chilean flag overlaid by the flag of Magellanes. It sails above the building, blue and gold unfurling, the Southern Cross trembling. A fox sits beneath them, regal with his luxurious tail wrapped protectively around his paws.
The interior is vast, rambling, our voices echoing through the empty foyer. A skeleton crew of two pause to introduce themselves before disappearing into the recesses of the lodge. They let us inside as a favor for Guillermo, but we haven't paid to spend the night—the refugio is closed for the season—so we must camp in the hard wintry field. Picture windows in the cafeteria look out onto Los Cuernos, frigidly menacing from this angle, snow swirling down its slope. The fox comes prancing around the exterior, unfazed by his exposure. When he notices us watching from behind the glass, he crouches on the gravel and shits, staring at us defiantly.
The hike to Glacier Grey is a failed expedition. We stare over the water trying to catch a glimpse, but the sky descends in impenetrable sheets of freezing rain. After several hours, drenched and chilled to the bone, we return.
Upstairs, we peel off our wet clothes and hang them by the fire to dry.
I find Flynn standing in the hall before the staircase. He is facing a set of paintings, almost like a triptych. Three figures are sketched in black and white, their bodies accented red. I read the captions in Spanish.
La Pintura corporal de estos espíritus se realiza en honor a K'etu, el antepasado que fue transformado en una pequeña lechuza blanca. Soorte es el espíritu, quien en la ceremonia de iniciación masculina, el Hain, es el último en aparecer.
Soorte del norte y del oeste stand close, almost holding hands in white elbow length gloves, their broad shoulders squared. Kosmenk pulls a cone-shaped hood over his face, or tries to remove it. The severe, loosely drawn images are unsettling.
Es el más temido, por ser quien tortura a los kloketen jóvenes, iniciados bajo tierra con la espantosa Xalpen, la furiosa reina del Hain, de quien es considerada su esposa y, al igual que ella, se presenta emergiendo del fuego.
The ceremony is perplexing, the gods malevolent. The paintings fill me with uneasy foreboding. I translate aloud before asking him what he thinks they mean. Together, we create a patchwork in English from what we understand.
Inexplicably, Flynn knows about them. He has a proclivity for awareness I do not possess, reads the histories and maps the geography, synthesizing humanity on a level I have no access to, in a way I find God-like, omniscient. He tells me the Selk'nam people are extinct. They came across the Strait of Magellan in canoes. They were the first to inhabit Patagonia. Their language is dead.
Ella es quien sintetiza el complejo simbolismo de la ceremonia. Representaría al Sol, dado que asegura el transcurso del tiempo diurno de la ceremonia, mientras que es el poder femenino nocturno, es decir, la Luna, quien amenaza con reinstalar el matriarcado.
I look at him expectantly, searching for an explanation, an improved interpretation. But none is offered. "Let's eat," Flynn says at last.
Los Soortes pintan su cuerpo de acuerdo a la región a la que pertenecen. Los Selknam utilizan un sencilla paleta de colores que obtienen de pigmentos minerales ocre, rojo, del carbón, negro, y de las cenizas.
I stand in front of the paintings a moment longer, recalling the burnt trees, before following him.
Guillermo makes dinner and we sit around the fire drinking wine, laughing as we thaw. He wants to start a tour company, Punta de Flecha, and talks excitedly of his plans to use social media to build clientele. It is a good business strategy, but he needs money to buy gear before he can work as a guide without partnering with the local hostels. The couple and Kevin abstain, but Guillermo, Flynn, and I put down two or three bottles of wine between us, cheap but excellent Chilean reds that I hope will keep us warm after the fire dies and we retire to the tents in the snow.
In the middle of the night, I wake with an urgent need to pee and remember Guillermo warned us about pumas. I lay in the dark a long while, imagining their sleek feline bodies prowling the perimeter. I'd heard that if you saw one, the cat had been silently stalking you, waiting for the right moment to tear into the tender, defenseless flesh under the insufficient cover of your clothing. I creep from the safety of our tent and sprint inside.
There are no lights. I pause in the foyer. The refugio stretches out with haunted expansiveness, glass and windows and stairs and bannisters and so many doors, some open, some closed. Space for several hundred absent guests. Across the cavernous entryway, something bangs loudly, then softer, rhythmically. I noticed it earlier, behind the locked bathroom door.
The slamming repeats with the muffled regularity of a metronome in the absolute stillness of the refugio. I cannot unmoor myself from the doorway and waiver like a child fearful of the night, listening, my pulse throbbing in my ears. The hallway is long and dark. I take a deep breath and move quickly, embarrassed by myself.
Cold air trickles under the locked door and I quickly shut myself in the bathroom opposite. I flick the switch, but the light does not turn on, and with each thump of the frame, the faint rattle of the glass behind the door, my heart lurches. The disembodied Selk'nam hover in the dark, silenced forever. I flush the toilet and flee without looking behind me.
In the morning, snow blankets the ground and hurries in thick, downy flakes like the Michigan winters of my youth. We kill time, lingering over instant coffee, sitting by the fire and hoping the weather will clear.
Esperando. Waiting and hoping. The snow lets up and we make a break for the trail. Strange geese with silky black ribboned wings waddle across the matted grasses. Startled, they honk and take flight in a flurry of feathers, white and grey and a beautiful rusty brown against the stark sapphire backdrop of Lago Pehoé. Cresting the ridge, a torrent of sleet and snow stunts our progress towards Los Cuernos, only the base visible in the furious storm. Guillermo gives me his raincoat.
The sky gathers in swiftly shifting grey rent with clear patches of blue. Between peaks, the icy aquamarine of a glacier glows briefly before it is muted by the driving snow. The storm exhales like a beast, ragged breaths surging as we draw near the mountain.
Guillermo stops abruptly. Sunlight breaks across the sharp incline of Los Cuernos in a perfect angle. The storm subsides. A fine mist of snow ebbs and flows over the rise of sepia foothills, and under the rinsed sky the pale star illuminates with the nocturnal power of moonlight. Transfixed, I try to hold the shape of light on stone, the texture and tenor of the moment. I want to swallow it so it becomes part of me, like a scar whose origin will be forgotten. But there is no shelter for memory. Clouds press from the south. Once more the flash of mountain and sun are extinguished.
A bridge of wooden slats connects us to Campamento Italiano, suspended high above a river gorge. Written in thick black marker, a cardboard sign reads, "Only one person at the time on the bridge." We cross into Valle Francés, a lush emerald forest carpeted with dense moss, the trees furred with lichen. Ascending, we emerge into the receding storm. Glacier Francés, marbled with ice and veined with snow, gleams with frozen fire as if lit from within. Turning around, I can see all the way to the distant turquoise lake. The clouds pull back like lips over teeth, revealing the grinning spires of Las Torres.
When we arrive at the refugio, it is early afternoon and the snow has resumed in earnest. We linger as long as we dare, but a few hours from sunset we cannot wait any longer. Resigned, Flynn and I quickly pack and gear up, waiting outside while the others prepare without urgency.
I look inside, where our group is casually organizing and zipping, chatting, laughing. "Am I being Punk'd right now?" I ask impatiently, looking at Flynn. "Where is Kushner?"
He looks at me blankly. "Kushner?'
"Where is Jared Kushner?" I demand again, stamping my foot.
He dissolves, tears squeezed from the corners of his eyes. "You mean," he gasps, "you mean Ashton Kutcher."
The path is quiet and blank, like an erasure. Snow is in my eyes, and we trail each other closely so we won't get lost. On the other side of the storm, we stop and sip whisky mixed with mate. My shins ache. We are raw. Guillermo calls us "crudos", smiling hard. Self-assured, fearless, he is in his element.
Night falls softly, wispy threads of light lingering. Smudges, thick like yarn, spool across the park, dyeing the murky turquoise of the river, the saffron scrub clinging to marsh. Chartreuse anemones merge with ruddy bark, the misty indigo above saturating the bleached bone of the pampa. Darkness drapes heavy and woolen over the mountains. They disappear behind the veil and are lost to us as we round a bend in the path. In the stillness, grass whickers against my leg, rustles in the stiff wind blowing from the Pacific and across the glaciers, crunching under my boot in the pitch of the two track, deeply rutted and illuminated dimly by the fading flicker of lights as the others walk on.
I fiddle with my headlamp, switch it off. Stars form and distill like dreams in the black velvet void. The arm of the galaxy extends. I search for the Southern Cross, plucking it from a bright cluster in a corner of the Milky Way. There is an amplified solitude to the hush and I am gratefully diminished. The yawning night draws the mantle of oblivion close, the whispered seduction of mortality descending from the obscured mountains. I cannot see them but I feel their presence. They are ghosts, like words, like memories, like the past.