Archive for June 14th, 2011


The first few pages of The Other Side

the following is the beginning of THE OTHER SIDE, On the Road in South America, available at

watch the book’s video at

Chapter 1

Fight or Flight

This trail parts chest-high chaparral with dense overhead thickets of a bottlebrush bamboo, heading south, crossing a slope that faces the rising sun, with a big lake below. It’s a still and cloudless summer morning in early January, and the tingle of delight I feel entering the Andes for the first time on foot seems to buoy my full backpack.

The route passes through a burned area. The fire must have been low and hot, killing the trees by burning through the bark at the ground. Most of the trees have little charcoal on them, and the twigs are still on the branches. When the trail hits a valley that heads west, into the mountains, it follows the stream in the bottom and enters an exotic forest. Only one species of tree grows in the valley: the lenga, or southern beech, and they stand about sixty feet tall. The improbably dominant lenga comprises the entire forest in all of these mountain valleys, all the way up to tree line. I’m reminded of the claim that the largest living organism on the planet is an aspen grove in Colorado. I’d be surprised if all of the lenga in each valley of these mountains are not someday found to contain identical DNA, with each valley contains a single tree, sprouting countless times as the roots spread through the soils, from the quaggy bogs in the valley floors up to the desiccated scree slopes tumbling down from the eroding peaks. What is it about them that feels so exotic? The main trunk splits low into several branches which continue up, like an elm, then the leafed branches find a horizontal orientation. The leaves are small, and these horizontal layers of fine dark green leaves give the forest a Japanese feeling. “It’s more Japanese than any of the forests I’ve seen in Japan,” I joke to myself.

Proceeding up-valley, the path comes upon a small shelter made of two log walls enclosing the overhang of a huge boulder. The boulder is granite, the size of a small house. It could have ridden on top of a glacier to get here, or it could have come to rest after a violent drop from a peak above. Either way, it’s been here for a long time. The little refuge, maybe half a century old, is just its current state, like a warbler nest in an ancient tree. Who knows, maybe the aboriginal Tahuelche used the overhang for shelter on occasion, or maybe all of the soot on the boulder is from fires built by hikers in recent years.

As elevation increases, the trees begin to diminish in height, revealing broken granite spires on the ridges above. Soon I’m in a sea of dense, low lenga covering the upper valley like chaparral, with a steep stream roaring in cascades beside me; then the trail makes a final lunge for the pass. Up there I find a large tarn, and where its water spills into the valley is Refugio Frey, a two-storied structure of fine cut-stone blockwork. Beyond the refugio and the tarn sits an amphitheater of several spiky peaks appropriately named “Catedral.” The view is a satisfying reward after the climb. Not having seen any photographs of this area, I had no expectations of what I’d encounter, so I’m pleasantly surprised at the regal nature of the spires. They jut skyward like the “drizzled” points I made topping sand castles on the beach as a kid. The scree slopes around them still bear lots of snow, and this month is the southern equivalent of our July, so the snowfall must be substantial here.

The refugio was built fifty years ago and named for a local mountaineering hero. Its first floor is a rustic dining room with three massive tables and benches made of thick timbers, behind it is an even more rustic kitchen. Above is a bunkroom, able to squeeze forty people side-by-side on two long bunks like shelves, one above the other. Rock climbers are milling about, most of them Argentinean; sometimes other languages, English or Portuguese, float through the air. They tell me that a storm is coming and recommend staying in the shelter. One warns me that the snoring inside is incredible. I had planned to pass this valley today, but three weeks of sitting on buses in Chile took away muscle and stamina without my noticing. Travel is like that, the constantly changing environment and complete lack of routine, the strange food, missed meals, and increased alcohol intake all contribute to a less than optimum situation for monitoring one’s physical condition. I was in shape when I left California, but I’m not now, and I’m tired. The enthusiasm I felt when I first got on the trail has dwindled. The buoy has been cut from my backpack. Sitting on a stone wall, I make a ham and cheese sandwich and consider my options. Do I want to sit in a one-man tent through the storm, or hang out at the shelter with a coterie of climbers? I decide on the tent. It’s too much of a scene here. It’s a one-dimensional atmosphere, like I find at international surf spots, or martial arts summer camps. If you’re not a climber you’re on the outside. It’s one thing to be alone; it’s another to be alone in a crowded room.

It takes a traverse of the entire length of the lake before finding some solitude. A tent city fills the spaces in the lenga scrub along the lake-shore. But at the far end there’s a cozy alcove in the brush big enough to throw up the tent. I stash my pack in it, and take off for a walk. Making my way for the snow-covered headwall of the cirque that holds the lake, the refugio, and the climbers, I notice two huge birds cruising along the north ridge. “Fucking condors!” I blurt out. A wave of excitement rejuvenates me. It’s been a hope that I would see them, but given that the California condor has eluded this birdwatcher for decades, I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high.

Feeling much better without my burden, excited by the terrain, and energized by the sight of the giant birds, I climb the headwall with the zest of a kid. Above the snow slope there is another small cirque with another tarn, this little one still more than three-quarters frozen. The granite turrets above it are pink to rust in color, but also fruity— cantaloupe, mango and persimmon in places. I make my way for the pass to catch a glimpse beyond, and meet a Belgian couple in their sixties as I begin a climb on large talus boulders. They are slowly and carefully making their way from the chair-lift to the refuge. I’m impressed. They tell me that the trail had steep drop-offs and was scary, so now I want to see it, and when I hit the pass I keep hiking north along the ridge, on the west slope of it, below the crest, following red spots painted on the rocks—and it’s nothing but rocks. Large angular boulders lie on an angle that barely allows repose below a craggy ridge. These rocks once stood above those crags, maybe in majestic vertical displays like what remains behind me. Those spires of the cathedral have a castle-like quality, due to the highly fractured rock, which resembles block construction. Abundant fingers of rock, called gendarmes, decorate the towers like the gargoyles of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I wonder where the boulder under foot once stood, in what cathedral, and in what cataclysm it came crashing down.

While traversing a buttress of the peak above, the rocks get as big as cars. I round one and see a guy about thirty feet below me, standing still, wearing a new overstuffed red pack on his back, and a big day-pack slung on his chest. I yell down, “Watch out for falling rocks,” and he turns quickly and bursts into rapid exclamations about the magnificent view in Spanish that sounds like sing-song Italian. He’s totally overwhelmed by the beauty, and he hasn’t even seen the cathedral yet. He asks how far to Frey, and I describe the route.

In a while the chair-lift comes into view. I suppose I passed the scary part without knowing it. I still feel strong, so I leave the route and head for a peak. At over 2,000 meters the air is already getting thin for this body from sea level, and I have to stop a few times to catch my breath, but I make it to the top with no problem. The final sixty feet or so is a near vertical rock climb, up a crack and through a chimney. A spot just below the pinnacle offers shelter from the wind, which howls in off the Pacific, crossing Chile in no time, and biting my right cheek. From my perch I face south, overlooking the spectacular granite amphitheater, and turn my head to reconnoiter tomorrow’s hike in the next valley to the west. Beyond my route, ice-covered Mount Tronador, the “Thunderer,” looms high in the sky, marking the Chilean border, and beyond it are the lower slopes of another volcano that is probably Osorno. Its top is mantled with the weather that’s moving in. To the north and south, snowy peaks and ridges continue to the horizons. The Andes are a long mountain chain—three times the length of the Himalayas. The word “Andes” is thought to have evolved from either of two Indian words: anti, meaning “east,” or anta, meaning “copper.”

After studying tomorrow’s route with binoculars, and assessing the snowy pass to be crossed, my head turns back to the south and my eyes catch the movement of a condor closing in from the left, gliding into the wind at high speed and close range. Immediately I reach for my camera bag, but with my thumb and forefinger on the zipper pull, I stop. There’s no time. If I go for the photo I’ll miss the experience—and probably the photo too. The condor is only a couple hundred feet away. I see the feathers of its downy white-collar shift in the wind when it turns its head ever so slightly to look at me. Its wings span ten feet and are motionless as it cuts into the wind. It passes me at about twenty-five miles-per-hour, flying into a headwind that’s thirty miles-per-hour or more, and is gone in a few seconds, becoming a flattened ‘v’ silhouetted against the stormy sky. Its head, described in my bird book as “bare, wattled and carunculated,” is a blue-grey, telling me it’s of the southern race of the species, and the fin-like crest atop tells me it’s a male. I wonder if this fin helps him soar with such efficiency. As he shrinks to a dot in the western sky I come down from the rush, and hear myself say, “Cool” out loud. A sudden feeling—that I could leave now and be satisfied with the entire trip—passes through me and takes me by surprise. Why do I feel so satisfied, so content? It’s not like I came down here to see condors. I came to scout for a new place to live. Not just a new place to live, a place to thrive.



June 2011
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