Most times when you wake up at 4:30 in the morning, it’s not for a good reason. A bad dream, urgent phone call, or lousy bladder is usually the culprit. But this past week, I had the pleasure of seeing one of the most spectacular displays of natural beauty that these not so young eyes have seen to this point.
The journey started after an epic hike with my Irish crew Vicky and my step brother Adam (that’s another story altogether). After hiking for 8 hours, I hitchhiked back to town. Yes, yes… I have seen Kalifornia and all of the other movies that would make one think to not hitchhike, but down in most parts of South America, especially through many areas with national parks, it is quite common. In reality, I actually felt like less of a traveler since I had gone three weeks without giving it a shot. I made my first experience a short one as it was only a few miles into town from where I stepped from the hiking trail onto the dusty, gravel road. Upon making my decision to hitchhike, I gave myself a 20 car limit, which doesn’t seem like many rejections, but on an unpaved road in a small town, I figured 20 cars could take a while. If I got turned down by all 20, I would wait for the bus that was to arrive in 90 minutes. As I saw the first car approach after a few minutes, I stuck out my thumb and hoped for the best. To my surprise, the car pulled right over, and a woman in her early forties opened the passenger’s door with a smile and offered me a seat. Damn, this is pretty easy, I thought. Why haven’t I been doing this the whole time? She drove me back to town, I thanked her as graciously as possible, and I was on my way to the bus stop after a quick shower. What was up next was more difficult than the 8 hour hike that my friends and I had just completed: a 25 hours bus ride from Bariloche to El Chalten.
After waiting on the corner with a bottle of Quilmes beer for 3 hours due to a delay in the bus schedule, I finally boarded the bus at 1AM, completely exhausted. The exhaustion turned out to be a good thing as it helped to pass the first night and most of the following morning. As I came to my senses the following afternoon, I started chatting up the girl next to me, who was from Israel. I came to learn that she was traveling with two of her friends, who were sitting on the other side of me. After losing a game where I unknowingly had to shout out for all of the bus to hear that my new friend was my queen, I met a few other Israelis who were also traveling together. Upon finally arriving in El Chalten earlier than expected at 11pm the following evening, I jumped in a cab with three of my new pals to a hostel for the night. A full day of sitting on a bus was finally over, but with the help of the cool people I met, it was actually pretty fun.
The following morning, we all decided to hike out to Monte Fitz Roy, which is the crown jewel of the El Chalten region. Reaching over 9,000 feet, the jagged peaks are well known throughout the world for their unsurpassed beauty and ruggedness. Our plan was to hike for about 4 hours past lakes, and across ridges to a campsite for the night. From there, we would awake at 4:30AM the following morning to complete the last 90 minutes by 6AM in order to see the sunrise on top of the mountain. This is a popular strategy because for a few minutes in the morning, the sun hits the mountain just right and gives the peaks a reddish tint that is a sight to behold.
Our hike went great the first day and we settled into camp along with a new bud Rafael, a medical student from Valparaiso, Chile. Our friend Yuval had cards so I taught everyone how to play the game “Asshole”, and then proceeded to become the asshole in the game three consecutive times… typical. After a big meal of rice and pasta, we settled in for a night’s sleep. 4:30 arrived and by 5 we were climbing the mountain. We arrived at the lake right below the mountain at approximately 6. Even in the predawn darkness, the images of the mountain still stood out and commanded respect. Did I mention it was a bit cold on top?
We were all trying to hide behind any rock we could find to block us from the wind. Unfortunately, a few groups beat us to the top and stole the VIP seats so we were left to bear the brunt of the wind’s fury. By 6:45, the sun was already a bit in the sky and we had yet to see the “pop” we were looking for on the mountain. But at 7, the sun rose above a ridge and blanketed the mountain in color that the below video does not come close to doing justice to.
It only lasted for a few minutes, but it made the previous hour of windburn and cold worth every second. Looking at pictures afterward, I kept thinking I was standing in a green room and the images behind me were being projected by a computer… that’s how fake they looked. The peaks are so jagged they look like they’re out of a storybook.
After another hour or so of admiring the view, we made our way back to our campsite, had breakfast, and got back on the trail. Most of the group had plans to leave El Chalten that night or the following morning, and I was intent on camping for another evening, so we parted ways. But not before taking a snapshot of us all. With a group made up of people from the U.S., Chile and Israel, it’s realistic to think we’ll all never spend a day together again. But I’ll make sure to keep the snapshot in the files of my memory when I think of the day I saw Monte Fitz Roy light up like it was on fire.