It’s hard to tell when I woke up because I can’t remember when I fell asleep last. Most of the night was in a purgatory of slumber; neither fully awake nor lost on the blissful seas of Nod. I was exiled to this state of non-sleep due to the discovery that Colonel Tom snored. Brian and I do too, but not like this. The sounds issuing from his quaking jowls weren’t human. It was like a bunch of drunken Wookies with throat cancer were using power tools to tear open a hole in the time-space continuum to allow hordes of otherworldly demons through to perform accapella death metal.
And it wouldn’t be continuous. It was more like Chinese audio torture. He’d snort in his breath and you’d wait for an exhale, but there wouldn’t be one. (At one point I actually thought he’d had a heart attack because he stopped breathing for so long. Little did I know Brian was on the other side of the tent wondering the same thing.) Then, just when you untensed your ears and relaxed, the exhale would echo through the tent and wake you up again. As the trip wore on, we began hoping he did have a heart attack during those lapses.
Breakfast was quick and consisted of oatmeal with dried fruits and a fistful of almonds. Despite my best salesmanship, I couldn’t get anyone to calve off a chunk of the cheese moon to put on top, so it went back into my pack. And thank whatever godly pantheon you worship that there was coffee. Brian had brought some good stuff from Peace Coffee back home and Christian brewed it so strong it would put hair on your chest and that hair would make a fist and punch you in the mouth. Forget standing a spoon up in it. You could stand up in it. A good jump-start before breaking down camp and getting everything back in the packs.
It was more uphill scrambling today. We started through areas thick with waist-high underbrush that filled in the areas between tall ashen trees stretching their few branches high above us. The wet wood made footing treacherous and it was tough to find a solid place to put your walking pole. At one point we had to duck under a tree that had fallen down a near vertical incline right where we had to clamor up. You just ducked your pack and grabbed slick roots and pounded your boots into the bare soil and grunted up one step at a time.
Fortunately, the underbrush petered out and we started following a musical mountain stream lined with moss so green it was almost fluorescent. The stream happily gurgled directions, guiding up to a massive boulder that had been deposited by the retreating glacier when it got too heavy for even it to carry.
Speaking of things too heavy to carry, Christian decided this would be a good place to leave a cache of our gear and food so we could divvy up Tom’s load better. We’d take what we needed for several days at base camp and, at some point, Alex would come back and bring up the rest of our supplies. What could possibly go wrong? We loaded up on fresh water spiked with Gatorade or Nuun electrolyte tabs and noshed on Clif bars and trail mix while Christian sorted through all our gear.
We were back on our way in about half an hour and I noticed we’d definitely reached an old moraine field. This is where boulders were left as the glacier had melted. Most of them had been covered over with thick bonnets of moss and grass. A few even sported small trees twisting out of their crowns, roots desperately grabbing at bare rock, spiraling down in search of purchase like loose curls over their brows. We wandered left through more open boulders and what seemed like an endless grove of trees about the thickness of a shovel-handle that liked to snag themselves amongst your legs and in your packs as you twisted and ducked and shimmied your way through them.
Then we suddenly burst from the trees and onto the edge of the moraine valley. It was filled with loose stones bleached pale as if the sudden sun shone on them non-stop. To our left we could see all the way down to our starting point on the lake near John’s property. To the right, the rocks marched like silent pilgrims, making their way around a bend towards the glacier’s terminus. We couldn’t see the ice from here, but got our first glimpse two jagged peaks rising in the distance. That’s was our destination.
We were glad to be out of the forest’s clutches and took a break to strip off a layer and recoat ourselves with sunscreen. Not only were we at altitude in summer, but there is also a hole in the ozone layer in Punta Arenas not much further south, so Old Sol’s radiation is quite fierce here. I made sure to keep troweling on my SPF1000 Gingerspackle several times a day.
I saw something move out of the corner of my eye and turned to see a pack, blown by the wind, begin falling down the rock-covered hill. I took two steps, but it was already out of reach and starting to pick up speed. I heard Alex curse. She had come out from a bathroom break in the woods in time to see her pack cartwheeling end over end, bounding higher and higher, as it made its way several hundred yards down into the valley.
We felt bad watching her go fetch it, but were glad it wasn’t ours. Most of her gear, including her camera, was alright, but her climbing helmet had been cracked in half.
“Well, at least your head wasn’t in it when it cracked.” said Brian.
“I know.” Alex moaned. “I’m just bummed about all the stickers I had collected on it.” Looking at how many there were from places all around the world, I would too.
We began the ankle-breaking dance over the loose boulders down into the valley. Buoyed by the sight of it, I began singing Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Membrane”, but reworked as “Insane in the Moraine”. Brian joined in. Alex, behind us, in the sweeper position, sort of shook her head as we busted out lyrics. She would do that a lot over the next week or so.
We hopscotched a small creek at the valley floor and found somewhat clear land on the other side. After another hour Christian claimed this spot as base camp for our expedition. It would be our base of operations to go up onto the glacier and surrounding peaks from. We were just glad to have a place to drop the full packs for awhile.
I stretched out my back and looked around; lifting my goggles so I could see it with my own eyes. We were in a little glen full of scrubby plants bearing clumps of white berries. A small clear stream divided the valley. High scree fields rose up on either side of us, but we still had a clear view down the valley to the mountain ranges behind us. And somewhere up ahead was still an ancient living river of ice that we were going to climb.
I sighed and smiled into the sun-filled breeze. The air didn’t smell like anything but pure possibility. This would do nicely. Quite nicely.
In Our Next Episode: Onto the glacier…