I’ve had an affinity for the mountains since growing up in New Jersey…yes, New Jersey. My father’s ideal summer vacation to load my sister Wendy, our dog Buck and me in the ‘71 Plymouth Duster and drive to Wyoming, at a top speed of 60 m.p.h., to backpack in the wilderness for a week or so. In the mid 1970s we took up skiing and didn’t have to travel as far—except for the spring break when we rode the Greyhound bus out to Breckenridge, Colorado and back…yes, the bus.
I met my wife Carol at the University of Colorado/Boulder, and our family continues to enjoy the Rockies together in summer and winter. Honestly, access to the Andes was among my motivations for applying for a Fulbright grant in Chile. Our adventures here gave me an opportunity to reflect on mountain activities’ significance in my life and how they, and I, have changed over four decades.
Our first experiences involved hiking and fishing in Southern Chile. We made day hikes in the Villarrica region not only to see gorgeous terrain, but also to prepare for a week’s visit to Torres del Paine National Park, three days’ drive south (see my “Two Argentine Fathers” post). As it was summer vacation season, we had plenty of company. We dubbed our first outing “The Trail of 200 Holas” to reflect the prodigious foot traffic we encountered and Latin Americans’ friendly propensity to greet others. Our walking sticks, rigid hiking boots and daypacks rendered us as foreign as did our physiognomies, especially compared to some casual locals who appeared more likely to be stopping at the store for milk and bread than up 600 meters of elevation on a nine-kilometer trail. (This was reminiscent of my experience nearly three decades earlier of hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with three Peruvian friends who dubbed me “Boy Scout” for my [relative] obsession with planning, food, water supplies and proper equipment.)
In Torres del Paine we met our dear friends the Peys to hike, fish and hang out. We used our one clear day during the week to hike a leg of the famed Paine Circuit, or “W” – the section to the mirador directly below the iconic towers. It was a steady uphill slog of about 8.5 kilometers, the final pitch of which constituted “a knee-popping scramble up boulders” as our Lonely Planet guidebook so encouragingly reported (I’d had knee surgery seven months prior). Unfortunately, one of our party fell ill and had to turn back at Campamento Chileno, a privately-owned refugio offering camp sites, toilets, showers, food and drink. I had seen shelters and park facilities on prior hikes, but nothing like this. Given the scarcity of flat terrain, tents were pitched very close to one another, and a muscular bouncer of sorts checked campers’ payment receipts. Following our slog to and from the worth-every-step mirador, the refugio was very welcoming with its chairs and cold drinks—if rather jarring for the sheer number of people there. This might have been accurately dubbed The Trail of 400 Holas, and its international hikers presented interesting contrasts in look and approach: hyper-fit extreme sports types who literally ran up and down the crowded, rocky trail; hipsters who closely resembled the photos and manikins in Santiago’s many outdoor shops; ‘me-firsters’ who refused to yield in narrow areas of the trail; anarchist/guerrilla-looking types; and some plain folk enjoying their gorgeous country. This was our first experience hiking a world-renowned trail in high season – it offered lots of visual and ideational stimuli to reflect on.
We also spent five days fly fishing in a remote area that’s largely off the grid. Our son Shane and his close friend Mark joined us. Shane is an accomplished fly fisherman—his greatest accomplishment to date, in my view, has been to join his love for fishing with his major in biology to complete an undergraduate thesis that involved six weeks of field work comparing trout populations in two rivers in Colorado and Wyoming. Fly fishing is an art as well as science for Shane. For me it’s a great reason to spend time with him in the mountains, as it was with my father and sister. Although I’m largely a hack with barebones knowledge, equipment and talent, fly fishing in Chile presented a stimulating cultural overlay as logistics, access, transportation, etc. had to be negotiated in Spanish. Not surprisingly, the locals’ lifestyles and outlooks in the South were also quite distinct from what we encountered in the Santiago metropolitan region. As in other rural areas we visited, some locals were resisting infrastructure developments such as hydroelectric dams, paved roads and bridges.
More recently Shane returned with his girlfriend Remy, this time to visit Santiago and to ski. Skiing in the Andes had been on my bucket list since Carol and I first visited Chile in 1988, a poor snow year. The experience was worth the long wait. There are several ski areas within a 90-minute drive of our apartment in Santiago, and the mountains had received a significant snowfall in early June. Most striking for me were the lack of trees, the areas being above the tree line, and hearing Spanish and Portuguese spoken on the slopes and in the lodges (Brazilians are fond of skiing in Chile and Argentina). We also rode more surface lifts—requiring one to ski uphill—than we’re accustomed to: steep poma lifts at Valle Nevado and high speed va et vient (to and fro) lifts at Portillo. Remy took a particular shine to these lifts (young legs!). The views were spectacular: from a variety of vantage points in Valle Nevado one can see downtown Santiago, and a (chair, not surface!) lift at Portillo passes right over switchbacks on Ruta 60 – a major truck transportation route between Chile and Argentina.
Thanks for reading. In the words of John Muir, to whom we collectively owe a huge debt of gratitude, “the mountains are calling and I must go.”