Patagonia: the John Garner Pass

Day Three: Los Perros to Refugio Grey

This was the big one. The one the first two days had been leading up to. The John Garner Pass.

Standing at 1241 meters (4071 feet) it’s the highest point along the Torres del Paine Circuit. To reach it required a 5:30 wake-up call. Cubano, our cook from the night before, scrambled some eggs, we hastily assembled our lunches, and then we were on our way.

Climbing that morning, our route gradually became more exposed, and those famous Patagonian winds picked up. Above the tree line, the terrain turned to loose rock — a familiar surface for those of us who’ve hiked the Colorado Rockies. To our left and right were jagged peaks, ice hanging off their steep slopes, and behind us, growing more distant with each step, was the lake from our campsite.

Still, we got very lucky, and we knew it. The Garner Pass can be… well… impassable. Hikers have been blocked from crossing it by the elements, and some have gotten lost and even perished. Us? We reached the top in our base layers. What should have been a very brief pause at the top — my guidebook warned “the near gale-force westerlies blasting through this keyhole may make it hard to enjoy the views for long” — turned into a leisurely (first) lunch.

Eventually we got moving again. That initial part of the descent was a highlight of the day and the entire Circuit. Dominating the landscape below us was the end of the mighty Glaciar Grey, a massive hunk of blue-tinted, creviced ice stretching nearly 100 square miles, itself a part of the vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field, one of the largest in the world. The glacier jutted through the mountain range, feeding into Lago Grey to our left. Soon, the terrain under our feet began to vary, still rocky on the surface but bursting with vegetation.

Its beauty aside, the descent eventually turned bruising, noticeably steeper going down. And it was long, so very, very long, and we had used up a good amount of energy on the way up. In all, the 24 kilometers (15 miles) took their toll and for the third straight day a group of weary hikers stumbled into camp. We would feel it the next morning.

Before we made it to camp though, we had one more hurdle to clear: a bridge taken straight off the set of Indiana Jones. The views were stunning — if you dared to look. Danny, borrowing Elizabeth’s phone, provided death defying cinematography (as well as narration)!

Refugio Grey was situated a stone’s throw from where the glacier calved into the lake, but aside from the location, it was easily my least favorite. By now, we had joined the “W” portion of the Paine Circuit, which brought us in contact (and close quarters) with many more hikers. Grey was a vast camp, with two large buildings, some nasty showers with long queues, and an enormous dining room that even had a bar — and couches.

Couches! We were sooo tired after dinner, I thought I might fall asleep right there and then. The sole exception was John, who seemed to have a limitless supply of energy. While I sank deeper and deeper into the couch, he bought a bottle of Jim Beam and a few Cokes — as well as some bonafide glacial ice! — and stayed up drinking with our porters. (Wanna know what glacial ice tastes like? Like Jim Beam and Coke.) The following morning, he was still hurting less than any of us.

Day Four: Refugio Grey to Paine Grande

Another “rest day,” which meant another 12 kilometers (7.5 miles). But at least we got to sleep in a little!

The porch of our refugio was now a makeshift ER as Danny drained blisters right and left. First Elizabeth, then Catherine, then Freddie. He had a great technique that wowed us all. Using a needle, he threaded a small piece of string through each injured toe. The thread absorbs the fluid in the blister without breaking the skin. It’s genius.

Then Peter announced he had the biggest and squishiest one. Silence. He wasn’t kidding though. His blister was the biggest any of us has ever seen and we quickly took to calling it his sixth toe. Draining it drew a small crowd as other groups and guides came to watch Danny perform his miracle surgery. Overall we were now a full half hour behind schedule. (Good thing it’s a rest day!)

Eventually we ventured out for a short walk to the tip of the peninsula that faced the end of the Glaciar Grey. It felt liberating to leave our day packs and trekking poles behind, if only for a half hour.

The glacier had a blue glow unlike anything I’d ever seen. The ice absorbs all the other colors but can’t absorb the blue, so it’s reflected. We returned to the refugio for a so-so lunch (pasta alfredo) and relaxed before setting off at 1:30.

The hike itself was a breeze. An easy climb brought us to a lookout that provided a view of the glacier calving. We finally experienced a more authentic Patagonian climate, too. The sun disappeared, the wind picked up, and there was even a little rain. Our layers came in handy as we paused to take photos.

From there we descended, took a break at a secluded nook where I polished off what remained of my precious dried kiwi, and ultimately found ourselves in a valley that resembled a dry riverbed. I especially enjoyed this final segment. Simple and peaceful, it led us straight to Lago Pehoe, where we stopped for the night.

Refugio Paine Grande was the largest and most elaborate of our campsites. It had a second floor that Danny described as “the bar with the best view in the world,” and while that may have been a stretch, it was indeed a beautiful setting. On one side was the lake, and looming in the distance was the Paine Massif. We enjoyed quite a few cold beers there while I caught up on my journal and Elizabeth found removing her hiking boots to be “amazeballs.”

Then it was onto Thanksgiving dinner: some sort of ground beef and vegetable mixture atop mashed potatoes (the only trace of home!), a broth masquerading as a soup, salad, and dessert. Uneventful, for sure, but then it was back upstairs to the bar and a nice Carménère 2014.

All that good wine reminds me of another highlight from the day — our game of “Trail Tinder,” in which John, Peter, and I swiped left and right on oncoming trail traffic. Suffice it to say Elizabeth was unamused. I swiped right a lot and probably didn’t help my cause when I explained that I wasn’t picky.

Postcards from Kilimanjaro

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The view from Shira Camp, the second night’s camp at 12,355 feet (3.766 meters).

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Sunset at Shira Camp at the end of the second day.

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The view of the summit from Barranco Camp on our fourth morning. At 13,066 feet (3,983 meters), it’s still more than a mile of elevation to go — and we’ll be standing on the summit in less than 24 hours.

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Sunrise at Stella Point, Kilimanjaro’s crater, at 18,864 feet (5,750 meters).

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Stella Point: you can see the outlines of the crater.

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That’s me shortly after summiting.

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On our final morning, just a couple of hours before we finished the descent, we found ourselves back in Kilimanjaro’s tropical forest.

Kili… one year later

This has been a week of reflection for me — a look back on an amazing journey six friends undertook a year ago with the ultimate goal of reaching the highest point in Africa, the summit of Kilimanjaro. Today marks a year since we successfully completed that trek and returned to Moshi for a shower, pizza, and beer (not necessarily in that order).

I’ve thought about our journey on many occasions over the past year. That afternoon in Moshi we were mostly overcome with a mix of relief and jubilation, but a few days later, relaxing on a pristine beach in Zanzibar, sipping on daiquiris, we began to ponder the nature of our achievement. Even then it didn’t fully set in, and the more I’ve thought about our journey this past year, the more I found that time was essential to gaining a proper perspective on what we’d done.

But back on Zanzibar, what we’d done seemed both awesome and, well, like not all that much. After all, how hard could Kilimanjaro have been if all six of us made it to the top? It reminded me of that old Groucho Marx joke, the one about not wanting to belong to a club that would have someone like me for a member.

The paradox with Mount Kilimanjaro is that it requires no technical training — no ropes, no axes, no crampons. Someone had described it to me as a “long hike,” which I found mildly insulting at the time, but in a sense they were right. Left foot. Right foot. Repeat. Success was never guaranteed, but I didn’t for a moment doubt I had what it takes to make it to the top. There were only two fears that constantly ate away at me. Would I get injured? (A twisted ankle could quickly end my dream.) And would one of us succumb to altitude sickness? (There was only one way to find out.)

A year later, I’ve come to appreciate that Kilimanjaro was epic in every sense. But to get to that understanding, I had to carefully retrace every step.

***

Our journey, along the Machame route, took six days. We stepped onto the mountain at 5,700 feet, met our amazing porters, and set out through a lush tropical forest, led by our guides Honest, Thomas, and Frank. That first day we were far, far away from the snows Hemingway had promised. Within 15 minutes, we were shedding layers (I would spend the rest of the day in shorts and a t-shirt) and after a full day of trekking we reached our first camp at 9,900 feet. Other than the heat, it was a breeze.

Our second day took us to Shira camp at 12,355 feet. After two days on Kilimanjaro, the odd thing was that we still hadn’t seen Kilimanjaro — sure, it was all around us, but our ultimate destination, the summit, was continually obscured by cloud cover. In the evening, as we were relaxing in our mess tent and enjoying some hot tea, this all changed in spectacular fashion. I popped out of the tent, glanced up, turned back to my friends, and proclaimed “I can see the summit.” They seemed skeptical so I added, “And there’s a rainbow over it.” They looked at me with expressions that said they were quite certain the thin air had gone to my head. Nevertheless, they stepped out of the tent and focused their eyes in the same direction as mine. Silence. And then a mad scramble to the tents to grab cameras.

 

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Day three was wet. Very wet. The rain started shortly after we left camp and lasted all day. There’s nothing more disheartening then trekking in a downpour, only to arrive at a wet camp, with everything damp, no place to dry your belongings, and nowhere to hide. I just wanted off the mountain. This wasn’t what we signed up for. (Our camp that night was Barranco at just over 13,000 feet.)

What came next, nothing could prepare us for. There’s no fourth or fifth day on Kilimanjaro. It’s just one long day, the longest of your life. By the time it was over, we had trekked for 29 out of 36 hours (and slept just half of the remaining seven hours).

After climbing the Barranco wall (a particularly steep obstacle that hung over our camp) we would spend the entire day climbing to Barafu base camp at 15,239 feet — the highest place any of us had set foot on Earth (a record that would stand for just a few hours!). We ate dinner and went to sleep at 8:30, awoke just two hours later, scarfed down some tea and biscuits, and began our summit attempt around 11pm. Guided by our head torches, we slowly climbed through the thin air, the bitter cold, and the endless night. (I had never worn so many layers in my life, but even three pairs of socks couldn’t stop my toes from going numb.) We eagerly awaited the occasional break to catch our breath, but after just a few minutes the cold would start to penetrate us to the bone, and we’d have no choice but to start moving again. I tried to remember to drink water from my Camelbak every 10 minutes and eventually every five just to keep the valve from freezing, but despite my best efforts my water supply eventually froze. I was now getting increasingly dehydrated and, to add insult to injury, I still had to carry the weight of my now frozen water supply to the summit.

But never mind all that because around 6 in the morning, just as day was starting to break over Africa, we emerged above the cloud cover to watch the sun rise over Kilimanjaro’s crater. It was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. (I’ll post pictures in my next post.) Known as Stella Point, at 18,864 it’s just shy of the official summit. Many people turn around here, though I never quite understood that, so onward we went. I was running on pure adrenaline for that final push. Though it isn’t as steep, the last 45 minutes were nonetheless grueling. We were tired. Dehydrated. Hungry. And every breath at that altitude was a chore.

Kilimanjaro’s summit is at 19,341 feet. By the time we made it, our beautiful sunrise had been replaced by thick cloud cover that reduced visibility to next to nothing. It was extremely cold. Even our guides couldn’t wait for us to take our photos so they could begin the descent.

Our guides knew something we were about to find out the hard way: that the descent is long and brutal. No one ever warns you about it, but it’s really the perfect storm of pain. (And speaking of storms, one promptly rolled in, forcing us to spend the rest of the day descending through a steady rain.) Why is it so tough? Well, you’ve been trekking for nearly 24 hours straight. Your water supply is gone. Your energy bars, though helpful, haven’t been nearly enough to replenish the calories you’re burning. You’re cold. Descending is also tougher on the body. The steps are longer and come faster. With every stride, your toes jam into the front of your boots. Your knees, your hips, everything aches from the impact of landing on rock after rock, hour after hour. There’s the mental anguish, too. Whatever adrenaline you had was used up reaching the summit. There’s no reward for descending. No one ever pats you on the back and says “Hey, I heard you made it to the BOTTOM of Mount Kilimanjaro.” You’ve accomplished what you set out to do — summit! Now you just want to be done with this. You want a shower. You want a bed. You want a warm meal and a cold beer. None of those are anywhere close. So you keep on descending.

It took us three and a half hours to get back to base camp where we were rewarded with a 90-minute nap. After lunch, we continued down the mountain, covering as much territory in one rainy afternoon as it had taken us days two, three, and four to climb. After one final night of camping, we descended for four more hours and, sometime around noon, crossed the final gate, where I wasted no time buying a couple of cold Kilimanjaro lagers from an entrepreneurial Tanzanian.

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***

A year later, I look back at our time in Africa with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I understand now — in a way I couldn’t when we were all still “in the moment” — the totality of our journey.

I would encourage any of my friends who have thought about climbing Kilimanjaro to follow that dream. As for me, I’m ready for the next big thing. Got any ideas??

LW