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Heartbreak made our odyssey possible. Sarah and her companion of five years, John, split during the Christmas holiday, and in what seemed like the blink of an eye, we were seated on a plane bound for Buenos Aires. This trip was to be therapeutic for Sarah and by the time it was over, she was transformed from a weepy, fragile companion into a confident, gnarly mountain woman. Who needed John anyway!?

And so we began our adventure in Parque Nacional de Los Glaciares, home of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. Until mid-February, when we arrived, high winds and constant storms had kept climbers bouldering or hanging out in funky-looking wooden huts. So far, it had been a bad year for summiting Fitz Roy with only one team of Russians achieving success early in the season. We hadn't come to climb though, we'd come to be stunned visually, and the halo of good weather that descended when we entered the park meant that our wish would come true.

Piedra del Fraile, frail rock: the refugio here provides access to the north face of Fitz Roy. Sheltered from the incessant winds that howl off of the Hielo Sur by an enormous hunk of granite, this campsite, we discovered, is popular on the French trekking circuit. Two separate tour groups arrived within 24 hours of each other with large amounts of luggage hauled in on horseback. Pablo, the soft-spoken caretaker of the Refugio Los Troncos, fretted about where to put them all. In a flash, a city of tents arose on the lawn, ten VE-25's packed in tight formation. The latter arrivals had to deal with sites on the rock's north side, only marginally protected from the winds.

The following day we set out, bundled in Gore-Tex, to contemplate the north face up close. We were not alone. One of the French groups had found the trail first and so we nipped their heels until they pulled off for a rest break. Higher up, fresh snow covered the rocks and the wind gusts intensified. A large boulder provided respite from the gale, and when we peered around it, the sky was white. A never-ending stream of snow cascaded off the glacier. The French trekkers arrived not long after and quickly hunkered down behind our boulder. As the chill began to permeate our core, Sarah and I took one last look at Fitz Roy and opted to descend. Once down at Piedra del Fraile, we hoped to visit the nearby Lago Electrico and perhaps the enormous glacier beyond. The wind had its own ideas, and for every step forward, we were blown two steps backwards. We reached the lake and went no further.

That evening, Pablo did not open the refugio's store, which supposedly stocked real chocolate cake. Instead, he butterflied and grilled a small lamb for one of the French groups. While they feasted, Sarah and I stared at our freeze-dried glop and wondered what we could possibly trade for that duffle bag full of oranges.

Our next destination was Chile's Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. We boarded our bus in the pre-dawn light of Puerto Natales and rumbled into the park several hours later, slipping through an enormous herd of guanacos (llama like animals that spit when angry.) A park official clambered on board and delivered a ten-minute lecture, most likely on etiquette while in the park, but since we suffered bad Spanish skills, his words were a mystery. The park entrance was alive with buses disgorging passengers, and amidst the turmoil, Sarah and I spotted Aconcagua man, aka Tim from Colorado. We had met him in Los Glaciares, fresh from an attempt on the continents' highest, and like many other trekkers we met in that park, we would bump into him again in Chile.

Glacier Grey is endless and silent. We had slogged for four days through soggy meadow and constant drizzle before we crested John Gardner pass and beheld that ocean of ice. We could not see the end of it in any direction. Blasts of wind quickly terminated our gawking, and anticipating an ugly descent, we trundled off down the trail. We had spent two hours negotiating knee deep mud on our way up the pass — mud we swore was far worse than anything we'd encountered in all our years mountaineering in Washington's North Cascades.

The descent set a new standard. Slick vertical mud, fortunately punctuated by numerous trees, now stretched before us. After two hours of tedious vegetable belays, we encountered our campsite: a big garbage dump. Bulging plastic garbage bags lay everywhere. Among the contents were several LARGE, but empty, whiskey bottles. We ate a less than satisfying dinner as far from the garbage as we could manage.

We finished the "El Circuito" at Lago Pehoe, where, twice a day, a small boat arrived to transport grimy hikers back to the buses bound for Puerto Natales. The wind began to intensify as we commenced our wait for the afternoon boat. Five Israeli boys and a young Austrian couple shared our huddling space amidst a grove of stunted evergreens. The wind blew fiercely, sending whitecaps scurrying north across the lake. After four hours of mostly looking at each other and for variety, the water, we spied the boat, tilted at an odd angle, struggling toward the dock. The crew piled us in the hold of the boat, leaving the upper chambers for a well-heeled tour group. The Israeli boys sat in a row, and head to shoulder, passed out. In 30 minutes we were across the lake and staring at a very decrepit refugio.

The Israeli boys disappeared in a jeep, the tour group was met by a van, and Sarah and I and the Austrians wandered into the refugio. One brief glance convinced us the tent was a better option. No sooner had we pitched the Bibler by the lake's shore, however, than the wind speed revved up several notches to a new level of fierceness. I quickly put in ear plugs, which reduced the roar to a pleasant rumble, and wondered rather anxiously how long our tent walls could endure those blasts of wind. We awoke, on what was our last day in the park, to a calm, blue sky.

Sara Machlin, Staff
Unless otherwise marked, photos are by Sara Machlin

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