There was no dusk those first few days at the Torres del Paine; evening just came down. It seemed to rush in randomly minutes after we’d arrived at the campsites and Alejandra muttered Argentinian curses against it as we struggled to get the tent up in the blind dark.
She was half crazy and I was already half crazy about her. We’d met at the entrance to the park and immediately passed into efficiency. She spoke little English and I spoke even less Spanish, but we formed a decent wordless partnership which kept us from being alone. She had beautiful dark eyes, and liked to stop at passes and look down at the beech forests and turquoise lakes; I liked to see the glaciers, remote and ancient in the sun. At night we lay awake in the tent with backpacks separating us, cold, fully clothed in sleeping bags, listening to the ice cracking on the mountains, occasionally muttering foreign words about the beauty of southern Chile which faded incomprehensibly into the darkness.
The third day was supposed to be the easy one, with a small climb to a lookout followed by an easy descent back to the camp. We climbed, but never seemed to find the lookout and Alejandra, determined, half crazy, persuaded me we needed to climb the mountain further, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right, to find the tourist tracks again. I wanted to do what she wanted to do. But at least an hour later, and no further sign of the tracks, I told her that I thought we should turn around and head back. Looking back down though, the trees and rocks and lakes were very small, we were high above everything and I had no idea which direction we had come from.
‘Vamos,’ she said entirely straight-faced walking back down, and for some reason I trusted that straight face to find our way back.
We descended for some time and made for a clearing in a forest a little way off, but as we walked the trees seemed to slip down from the shifting horizon and after a few hours we seemed just as far from everything as earlier. The afternoon was getting on. I tried not to think of the evening, waiting, grey and dangerous, at the edges of the sky.
We kept on walking, and all the while I focused on trusting the beautiful stranger whose black pony-tail was bobbling in front of me. She was leading us back. But the weather began to change. The sun went behind clouds and the shade was freezing and the wind came in surges full of ice. Then Alejandra stopped for a second and, without saying a thing, took off in a different direction. It was a hideous moment.
She had no idea where she was going.
As she climbed down the channels of rock away from me, it became apparent just how hard and massive and desolate this land was, how near we were to the end of the world, and how tiny and valueless we were to it. The blood fell in my stomach and I began to listen to thoughts I’d been hiding from. What would we do if we didn’t get back before it was dark? What if we really didn’t make it?
The panic rose in me and I began shouting at her, and she began shouting back at me, and she began crying and I cursed her for being crazy.
Then I saw what she had been heading for. The slope we were on gave out into a dried-up valley of rocks which toppled down the mountain. Our camp was by a river. If this barren waterfall led to the river then, in turn, it would lead us back to the camp. It was simple and brilliant.
I moved ahead of her and she cursed me, but eventually she was quiet again as we concentrated on getting down the mountain as quickly as possible. I offered my hand to help her down but she refused it quickly. Gradually we heard the sound of running water, and then in the lowering light, saw the river moving thick and dark below us.
Now she took my hand. There was still a darkness in her eyes but she gripped my hand warmly. I returned the grip. Ahead of us the evening was holding off, bit by bit, ushering us back in.