Hiking the ‘Himalayas of South America’
July 28, 2012
The air at 16,400 feet on San Antonio pass in Cordillera Huayhuash is notably thinner. It blows with just enough force to fill your soul, not quite enough to steal away your labored breath from the 2,000-foot ascent. The view does that. Known as the “Himalayas of South America,” our most recent stomping ground kept us screaming with enthusiasm at every pass and every corner. In the distance, Yerupaja’s elusive summit hides under the massive glacier pouring into the crystalline lake, carrying with it numerous stories of conquered and failed expedition attempts in this international climbing mecca. It is certainly not the first time we have found ourselves speechless, enveloped in the powerful mountain silence. Reflecting on our amazing journey, we are again bewildered by how this reality has unfolded. The language of outdoor adventure does not always translate easily. In Spanish, there is no translation for hiking or trekking or backpacking – they literally use the English words. No highly traveled trail system like the Appalachian Trail spans the entire continent of South America. But we wanted an all-in-one trip. A Continental-divide-trail-type adventure with more of a cultural aspect. The ideas began to snowball. A year later, in September 2011, Sarah Field, Trinity Ludwig and I took a year off from life north of the equator and embarked on an outdoor enthusiast’s dream – “to hike, as much as our guiding principles allow, from Ushuaia, Argentina to the Ecuador-Columbia border over the course of a year.” Our route has carried us more than 4,000 miles, past thundering glaciers to impenetrable bamboo forests, over arid desert hills and below mammoth Andean peaks. A combination of helpful locals, map study, Internet research and general reasoning guides our perpetual northern travel. Although poor signage and lack of information on trails is a challenge, the landscape continually surpasses our expectations. It seems almost impossible to summarize the extent of what we have seen and done.The Andes certainly deserve the respect and the fame they have received. The lack of traffic on the unbeaten paths and the grandeur of surrounding peaks make you feel as if you are the only one to know such beauty. Barren, desolate landscapes of both desert and glacier make you feel vulnerable yet virile. The typical undetailed tourist maps we pick up along the way do little to aid the anticipation of the paradise within: A wistful willow tree on a pristine beach in Los Alerces National Park; The stunning knife-ridge backdrop to Refugio Frey; Aruacaria trees whose 2,000-year-old mock tortoise-shell bark survives lava-flow; The raw, erosion-cut landscape of the desert; Humid jungle-like forests practically dripping in green; Herds of guanacos by the hundreds; Wide valleys paved with chromatic coral-esque pebbles, evidence of a primordial ocean; Vibrant red rocks and florescent green algae amongst stark black volcanic moonscapes.
National parks have been established for obvious reasons. Their beauty is undeniable. Torres del Paine’s idyllic celestial turquoise water flanked by an island of dramatic snowcapped peaks would make any top 10 list, but it is the unplanned and unexpected that continue to leave us awestruck and pressing forward wanting more. Some of the most powerful things are not included in trail descriptions or adequately portrayed through a mere photo; stumbling onto puma tracks in Chacabuco; the ghostly glow of a lunar rainbow on the plains; the overnight flow of an iceberg; an owl surfing on the wind, pausing at arm’s length; witnessing massive cornices break and subsequent avalanches; sunsets melting in the reflections of the Salar so beautiful you nearly cry; a majestic condor gliding only 60 feet above. These must be experienced in person. From the well-traveled national parks to private estates, we continue to form an unforgettable panorama of memories.We have been lucky to happen upon several hidden gems, especially in relation to the people we have met along the way. Southern hospitality stretches far south of the equator. A three-day hike from society in the middle of a gorgeous lush valley, we were taken in from the snowstorm by Don Rial, where we appropriately celebrated Thanksgiving with many thanks for an open home and heart. There have even been a few multi-day hikes where we have returned to “civilization” with more food than we packed at the start. Whether it is a ride to salvation from a dust storm or a piece of ground to pitch our tent, we have been continually reminded of the kindness of strangers. Several mat lessons and a couple of spontaneous horseback rides later, the Patagonian gaucho culture is securing its place deep in our hearts. After nearly 10 months on the trail, we never take a warm shower for granted and openly accept any home-cooked meals, no matter what is on the menu. We have adapted to the slow-moving lifestyle of South America, taking a deep breath and spending the extra hour picking fresh blackberries. Looking upward at night we see the familiar Orion’s belt, and we have learned to identify the Southern Cross in the absence of the North Star. We know how much we will miss seeing the full moon rise over these foreign lands when we return home.Shelley Brook grew up in British Columbia and Kansas while dreaming of becoming a photographer, traveling the world, and learning from various cultures by living them. She spent two teenage summers in Canada & Costa Rica, with winter ski trips in Colorado. During college, she worked summers at Camp Cheley near Estes Park, sealing her love for the mountains. After a semester studying in Spain, she graduated from the University of Kansas in 2007. She worked four years as assistant manager in the sales office of the Breckenridge Ski and Ride School, exploring western parks and wilderness areas during off seasons, prior to launching her current year-long adventure in South America last September.