by Hank Leukart
January 29, 2009
A Patagonian ghost story
Brothers face their deepest fears in Chile’s Valles de Frances.
Night falls on campers at Campamento Grey in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. (photo by Brian Leukart)
This is the last essay in a three-part series about my backpacking trip in Chilean Patagonia. Start with the first essay for the whole story.T
ORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK, Chile — “You know, when hikers get lost and die, it’s always on these day-hike side trips,” I said to the teenagers from New Zealand as my brother Brian and I were leaving for a hike to the enigmatic Valles de Frances. Every Torres del Paine guidebook insists upon hiking the side-trip, but none manage to adequately explain why the valley is unique compared to the rest of the Circuit — they only use cryptic words like “famous” and “must-see.” I admit that my comment to the girls was mostly my shorthand version of a hiking ghost story, but that’s what an adopted older brother does to his younger Kiwi sisters, especially as rumors continued to surface about a hiker disappearing in a blizzard at the Torres del Paine Circuit’s mountain pass.
“It’s pissing down,” one of the girls said in a thick New Zealand accent, explaining why their families had decided (smartly) to stay behind from the side trip and try to wait out the rain storm.
But Brian and I had a limited amount of time in Patagonia, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see whatever the heck was up there. Sadly, we said goodbye to the New Zealand teenagers and their parents. Then, I put a GPS navigator, first-aid kit, water, and food into a daypack — unprepared hikers in ghost-stories always die lost, with a broken arm, and without sustenance — and we began the trek through the “piss.”
As we walked up the steep mountain, the cold, relentless sleet began soaking my daypack and seeping through our breathable rain gear. Frustrated, I began to marvel at how I had ended up in Patagonia without a backpack rain cover.
On my first multiday backpacking trip, I was so clueless that I didn’t know to bring a rain cover. In Alaska, I forgot to bring one, and on Vancouver Island, I brought one too small to fit my pack. Thankfully, for Patagonia, I remembered to bring a cover, and miraculously, it fit my pack. But on our second day in Chile, the 100-kmh Patagonian wind literally blew one of our Chilean friends off the trail and into a rock as we neared the top of a small mountain pass. When we made it over the pass and around a bend, as the choppy, turquoise waters of Lago Paine came into view, the wind suddenly ripped my improperly secured rain cover off of my backpack. Horrified, I turned around and watched the cover fly erratically over dense underbrush and down the steep crag. Foolishly, I began sprinting toward it but came to an obvious realization: I couldn’t run as fast as wind. Exhausted and helpless, I watched as the cover slowly became a small gray speck against the bright blue Chilean sky, soaring down the mountain and across a lush green valley, eventually disappearing.
So, as rain drenched my daypack, soaking its contents and making it heavier, I began to wish we had stayed behind with the New Zealanders. After hiking uphill for about 90 minutes, we came across some exhausted Israeli hikers whom we had met at earlier campsites, and my brother asked one of them how much time we had until we reached the top.
“It’s only about 30 more minutes,” the Isareli said. “But… it’s nothing. Just… nothing.” Then he abruptly continued down the trail, leaving us bewildered.
The Israeli had seemed confused and scared. Was there really nothing at the top? What did he mean? We wondered whether, at the top of the Valles de Frances, hikers were forced to face their deepest fears, like the plot of a science fiction-horror movie. When we reached the top, would I fall yet again into glacial water and float down an infinite glacial river? Would my brother come face-to-face with an army of killer bullet ants, our family’s go-to example of a person’s scariest possible demise? Did the Israeli reach the top, only to find himself lost in a terrifying expanse of non-existence?
Nevertheless, we hiked onward, half-wondering whether we were hiking toward a physical manifestation of future failure in our careers or our inability to be loved.
Then, suddenly, we stopped seeing the bright-orange trail markers helping us find our way. The GPS navigator showed us off-trail, but we couldn’t seem to locate the trail again. I took my digital camera out of its supposedly-protective Ziploc bag to take a photo, but it displayed inscrutable error messages on its waterlogged display and wouldn’t function. Was the Valles de Frances some kind of strange Patagonian Bermuda Triangle? Were we about to discover a treasure trove of Nazi submarines, extra terrestrials, and Amelia Earhart’s corpse? If so, there wouldn’t be any photographic evidence to prove it.
Under a tree canopy on the side of the mountain, my brother and I ate our only two Clif Bars in the freezing rain.
“We’re going to die up here,” he joked. I laughed and looked up toward a raging glacial river as hail began to fall from the sky.
As we stood in weather seemingly stolen from a Discovery Channel special titled, “God’s Wrath,” we saw a gray dot in the distance, getting larger as it moved toward us. Quickly, the object came close enough for us to identify, and we watched incredulously as my backpack rain cover blew past us, carried by the strong Patagonian wind.
With the wind whistling in our ears, we began chasing after the seemingly enchanted cover toward the Valles de Frances, feeling strongly that when fate and a magical valley reunites you with a long-lost item, you do everything you can to take advantage of the opportunity. As we sprinted across the valley, surrounded on all-sides by dramatic mountain peaks, we heard a soft, rhythmic moaning. At first, we mistook it for the whistling of the wind, but as we ran desperately after the airborne pack cover, always only two steps from grabbing it, the moaning grew louder and more despairing, until we were sure it was coming from a person.
The flying cover led us around a towering, foreboding rock formation shaped like an enormous ice axe, when finally, we stumbled upon a pale-faced hiker lying on the ground. Covered in frostbite, with blood seeping from scrapes and broken limbs, the sounds of his inhuman moaning were deafening.
“Always go hiking well-prepared,” he rasped as he took his last breaths. “And always bring a backpack rain cover.”
Or at least, that’s how it happened in my ghost story.
In reality, after we ate our Clif Bars, we rediscovered the trail and made it to the top of the Valles de Frances only to see a disappointing mountain view, hampered by freezing rain and an overcast sky. I vowed never to hike without a backpack rain cover again.
But after returning from Patagonia, my brother and I read a newspaper with the real story of Ronan Lawlor, an Irish hiker who disappeared on the Torres del Paine Circuit, as rumored. Indeed, he had ventured on a side trip by himself, slipped on a rocky incline, and fell to his death. He was later found dead by the Chilean military while we were hiking in the park.
Even the best ghost story lessons can’t prepare you for everything.
Patagonia isn’t the only remote location I’ve covered. In 2006, I visited a border-town in the Burmese-Thai jungle and traveled to Luang Prabang, Laos on the Mekong River. In 2007, I wrote about an epic hike my brother and I took through grueling Alaskan backcountry. Later that year, I wrote about a night I spent in an isolated area of Joshua Tree National Park.