I suspected the precipitation made too light a sound to be rain and the river sounded distinctly more muffled and my suspicions were confirmed when I stuck my head out of the tent. A reasonable layer of snow on the ground, given the campsite is protected by trees. Wind howling. Snow swirling. I take my stuff to the big tent where we have our meals and Mauricio’s verdict is quick: there will be no pass crossing in this weather, although he urges all of us to pack up so we are ready to go should the weather improve before lunchtime.
And so the waiting starts. Waiting, eating, trying to stay warm next to a fire that has been lit in one of the other constructions at the campsite. We talk to all the others that are in the same situation and we all bond over the fire. There is the Miami crew, the four students from the US, one of whom has his birthday this very day, Matt the British mountaineer who likes technical climbing, but is not game to try this either, the three Canadians and many more. All up probably about 30 people, all in the same position. By midday the situation improves a little, but not enough for Mauricio. Some others decide to give it a try and we have to wait for many hours to receive news via the radio that they made it. More people arrive in camp, having come up from Dickson. Our group will sleep in the big meal tent tonight so we can move faster tomorrow morning. It looks like a veritable orphanage when we lay our mats and sleeping bags out that night, not helped by the fact that the snow has turned into torrential rain, which is leaking into the tent at various points.
Not the best night, but at 5am our alarms go off and we start getting ready. Pulling my backpack up from where it sat all night I manage to pull a back muscle and yelp in pain, collapsing back into a chair. Not exactly good preparation for crossing a pass in horrible weather conditions! I breathe through the initial agony and then have to move slowly to get my stuff together. A few Brufen later and the pain dulls a bit. It has to, there is a big walk ahead of us. It is still raining and the winds are ferocious. We eat breakfast, put on all the clothes we have and head out at 6am before anyone else in the camp has even stirred. The first bit is extremely muddy and slippery, but we are still protected from the wind and make reasonable progress. Once we get to the point where we leave the tree line, the full blast do the weather. I am behind Mauricio who is leading and he has to lean heavily into the wind, not able to take another step. Five seconds later it hits me. I can barely remain standing. The others haven’t even felt the force of the wind yet. Mauricio turns around, shakes his head and motions me to retrace my steps. He deems it too dangerous to cross in these conditions, particularly given our various injuries, added to now by my back. We start the descent back to Los Perros camp, encountering various groups heading up. The first of those are the Chamonix mountain guides, who plow on. We later learn they had ropes and ice axes to take them across. Shortly afterwards we bump into Matt who is racing to catch up with the Chamonix group (he crossed roped up with them). Miami is next and then followed by many others. By 9am we are back in camp for just a quick break. Mauricio’s plan B involves us backtracking all the way to Puesto Seron today, then leaving early the next day to catch the bus at 9am from Torres, take the catamaran across to Paine Grande and hike up to Grey with day packs.
We start descending the same way we came up two days ago, trying to make tracks as fast as we can. It is agony for me and I get increasingly slower towards the end of the two and a half hours of descent. By the time I limp into Dickson I am a mess and don’t even know that I can continue; my back is killing me. One of the guys who runs the Refugio comes out and takes my pack off, tells me to lie down in the grass, obviously already alerted to my condition. A short while later Mauricio helps me inside where i collapse on a couch. Muscle cream is administered (many days later he confesses they used a horse cream on me in the hope it would do something), I am but by the fire, another guy brings me his jacket to warm me up, I get tea in my hands and a sandwich and told to rest and relax and take my time. Not sure what they put in that bread, but after an hour and a half of rest I feel like I might just be able to tackle the remainder of the walking for that day (you will remember that it was 19Ks coming in on that second day). And somehow, miraculously, we all make it back to Puesto Seron, where we limp in at around 7.30pm that night. We are all half delirious during the last few kilometers, but we’ve made it and dinner refuels us. Later we learn that most people made it across, but in atrocious conditions. The Miami crew did turn back, but took a more gradual return than what we did, as they didn’t have the time left to do the W part.
The next morning is far harder, we get up at 4am (not the birthday start I had envisioned!) and hurtle toward Torres to catch that shuttle bus at 9am. We miss it and the next connection with the catamaran is not until 4pm that day. We’ve all become fairly philosophical by that stage and in the end the birthday turns into quite a good day: we have beers, sandwiches and fries at the Hotel Torres where we while the time away. Later we have a snooze at the Refugio in front of the fire and before we know it, it is time to catch the shuttle bus and get to the ferry at Pudeto. Winds are still howling, but we have a great crossing to Paine Grande with beautiful views of the Cuernos (the horns) of Paine. Once we land at Paine Grande we set up our tents at this very crowded site (we are now well and truly in W territory and it shows). Erratic rock has supplied us with additional food for the last two days including two bottles of wine and that combined with the bottle I bought at the Refugio makes for a very convivial birthday dinner. Most Trekkers look at us with envy, given the fresh vegetables and the wine. I sleep like a log, which is not surprising after the events of the last few days and the amount of wine consumed.
Final part to follow.