By Moira Smart
Runner Up in the 2023 PureTravel Writing Competition
Have you ever watched a spectacular scene unfold and wished life had a pause button to capture the moment so you can somehow recall and relive it? I will look longingly at photos and rely on memory, but it will never be this same interlude in time.
Strangers jabbering in different languages are my companions on a four-hour bus ride from El Calafate to El Chalten, the hub for intrepid mountaineers planning to challenge their limits on the formidable Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre massif. The stone heart of Patagonia.
Viedma Glacier creeps around the corner to greet us through the mist as we approach the town. Clouds are rolling in and there is no sign of my dream fascination, Cerro Fitz Roy. Frequently shrouded in clouds, the Tehuelche of long ago called it “Chalten,” smoking mountain. Thus, the name of this young village founded in 1985.
Dropping my bags off at the hotel, there is time for a short hike. I follow the path to ‘Mirador de los Condores y Aguiles’ to spot condors and eagles. Before I reach the viewpoint, mission aborted, the weather changes from cool calm to skin-shredding wind, rain, sleet, now snow! A taste of the fickle weather of Patagonia. Drenched and frozen I stumble down the hill for a welcome hot shower.
An hour later, tranquillity, but still no hint of the Andes Mountains.
Morning is breaking. Through the window I see colour creeping into the sky. I sit bolt upright in bed. Unfolding before me is the breathtaking scene of the first rays of the sun touching Fitz Roy and its neighbouring peaks. Where is that ‘pause button’? With wispy clouds streaking across the sky, the sun paints its palette in gentle pink and grey, gradually unfolding to soft yellow and graduating to a crown of gold. The glory is transient and soon the steep granite towers stand naked, stabbing the immensity of a brilliant blue sky.
The stage is set for a splendid day.
I set off towards the base of the mountain range on one of the well-marked hiking trails. Winding through the deciduous beech forest, my senses are heightened by fresh sights and sounds: a Magellanic woodpecker, red head bobbing, taps out a sonorous rap on a tree trunk; Austral parakeets twitter in the branches as they busy themselves in and out their nests; campers in the forest are packing their gear as they prepare for their assault on one of the pinnacles.
Resting at Laguna Capri, I watch the sun and clouds play hide and seek with the peaks, highlighting the glacier curling down a valley. At my feet, turquoise waters lap musically on the shore where a rufous-collared sparrow sings his sweet song. My eye catches a majestic soaring condor riding the thermals.
Trailing my fingers in a rushing stream on my return hike, I am reminded that time is like this stream. You cannot touch the same water twice because the flow that has passed will never pass this way again. I cherish each fleeting moment as now being a part of me. Native to Patagonia is the calafate bush with yellow flowers in spring and purple berries in summer. Local folklore says, “he who eats the fruit of the calafate, is destined to return.” I gladly comply. And if I do have the privilege to come back, events would have occurred in irreversible succession as the clock keeps ticking. But one thing is certain: the mighty Andes will be there, bearing witness to history since time immemorial, anchored, and unyielding, like sentinels keeping watch over their domain.
A really interesting, thoughtful piece of writing. The writer is not satisfied with merely describing what they see – rather, they explore the way it makes them think and feel. It really elevates the reading experience. I felt some of the description could have fought harder to feel fresh and original (if I had a pound for every condor that is majestic and soaring, I’d have enough for my own condor aviary), but overall I really liked this, it captured something poignant and heartfelt, it felt like a moment so often experienced on the road.
Photo by Sander Crombach on Unsplash