by Hank Leukart
January 20, 2009
An expanded, icy-cold definition of adventure
A father takes his teenage daughter on a final trip to Patagonia.
Hikers admire the view of Glaciar Grey on the Torres del Paine Circuit in Chilean Patagonia.
This is the second essay in a three-part series about my backpacking trip in Chilean Patagonia. Read the first essay about the New Zealand families that adopted my brother and me for the whole story.T
ORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK, Chile — The only thing standing between us and views of 270-square-kilometer Glaciar Grey was Paso John Garner, a steep and rocky pass through the Patagonian Andes Mountains. My brother Brian and I looked up nervously at the severe mountain crags and glacial ice surrounding us, and though we hadn’t been able to substantiate the rumors of a lost hiker’s death during a blizzard in the pass three days before, the gossip made us uneasy. We knew that some hikers had turned back, failing to conquer the pass due to dangerous weather.
The New Zealand families with whom we had been hiking didn’t seem worried. At the bottom of the pass, with the help of the amazing Gorillapod camera tripod, the nine of us took a “family” photo, with the parents, teenagers, Brian, and me grinning from ear-to-ear. Then we started hiking up the pass.
These ambitious Kiwis were surprisingly tough. My family’s vacations were never this intense. Gordon, the 68-year-old father of 18-year-old Brittany, had spent his young adult life mountaineering in Patagonia, summiting many uncharted and never-before-climbed peaks. Sadly, his wife Jackie told me he had a rare disease, which affected his knees, making it difficult for him to walk. The family was rushing on as many adventures as possible, before his legs became totally debilitated. Their planned trip combined the Torres del Paine Circuit with another Patagonian escapade, a reunion of Gordon’s old mountaineering buddies, for the family adventure of a lifetime.
As most of her teenage friends probably were sitting in their bedrooms, messaging cute boys on Facebook and reading Seventeen, tireless Brittany and committed Gordon trekked up the craggy pass, through cold rain and wind strong enough to blow hikers off the trail. Most impressive, neither father nor daughter complained once — not about the near-freezing temperatures; not about the extreme wind gusts; and not about the sleet that occasionally pelted us in the faces. In fact, keeping pace with Brittany and her gung-ho attitude was a challenge for Brian and me as we trudged up the mountain. Even in the most difficult conditions, this girl treated every trek experience — whether entertaining, uncomfortable, or tedious — as an “adventure.”
Thankfully, despite the cold, wind, and sleet, the weather was surprisingly cooperative — in Patagonia, this means only that we weren’t hit by a terrifying tornado or a lethal lightning strike — and we reached the top of the pass with surprisingly little difficulty.
From the top, we looked out over a magnificent expanse of bluish-grey, crevasse-covered ice, sparkling like crystal in the Patagonian sun. From above, the cream-colored frozen water looked like the result of God spilling an enormous and delicious vanilla milkshake into the Patagonian valley below. Brittany, never showing any signs of fatigue, jumped onto my back for a piggyback ride as my brother took our photo in front of the epic ice cream river. Even the air smelled sweet.
I watched as Gordon looked out at the vista and then hiked past us, deliberately moving toward the massive glacier as if pulled by strong, invisible strings.
It was more fulfilling seeing this 68-year-old adventurer gaze at the stunning glacial view than it was to see it myself.
I stood still for a while, taking photographs of Gordon and the rest of the hiking group, as they made their way down the other side of the pass toward the ice. I knew that no photograph could possibly justly capture the sight of the silhouettes of two generations, Gordon and Brittany, in front of the blinding backdrop, but I tried anyway.
Sitting adjacent to the shimmering ice in perhaps the most picturesque picnic location in the world, we ate our lunch of sausage and cheese. When we finished, we hiked toward the glacial terminus, a glacial lake filled with floating icebergs severed from the melting glacier. The teenage girls, Brian, and I bounded toward the lake, and despite my previous harrowing experience with glacial water, I chose an iceberg near the shore that looked like it could hold my weight. I tested its stability with my carbon fiber hiking poles, and it didn’t budge. Carefully, I stepped out onto the floating mass of ice, and Brittany yelled out, begging to join me. She bounced onto the ice, and we posed together as Brian took our picture.
The events that followed are embarrassingly obvious. Brittany’s arrival caused the iceberg to begin rolling in the water. She let out a yelp and leapt to the safety of the rocky beach, causing the iceberg to rotate faster. Quickly, my legs slid into the near-freezing glacial lake as I clung desperately to the jagged ice with my hands, trying not to fall completely into the water. Just when I thought I had avoided total submersion, the damned berg rolled one more time and suddenly, I was swimming in a glacial lake, wearing hiking boots and two layers of insulation.
Shivering, I slogged out of the water, only to be greeted by three hysterically laughing teenage girls and the repeated mechanical sound of the rapid-fire shutter on my brother’s camera. Soaking wet, I admitted that I had gotten what I deserved. I’ve never seen teenage girls look so delighted. Taking advantage of my disorientation, they convinced me to record a mock commercial on their camera, starring me, touting the remarkable ability of my Marmot jacket to dry quickly and keep me warm after falling into a glacial lake. I worry about the day that the video finds its way to YouTube.
That night, as dusk faded, Brian decided to try to shoot some night-photos on the shores of Lago Grey near our campsite. Brittany, ever energetic and buoyant, begged to join us on “another adventure.” Despite our insistence that long-exposure photographs with a tripod hardly constituted an “adventure,” she joined us on our walk to the water. As my brother tinkered with the camera, Brittany and I walked along the rocky shore toward a tiny wooden dock sitting on the water. A supernatural palette of Patagonian blues enveloped us as we gazed at the lake, and the camera captured us under a navy sky, two blurry, ghost-like figures in the darkness.
Soon after, Brittany pleaded with me to go swimming in the glacial waters with her, this time intentionally. She shrieked as I picked her up and threw her into the lake. Then Brian pushed me in as he jumped in himself. As we hit the icy water, adrenaline rushed through our bodies.
Brittany had inherited an amazingly broad sense of adventure from her father, Gordon. At that moment, Brian and I inherited it from her.
In the last essay of this three-part series, my brother and I face our deepest fears in a Patagonian ghost story.