Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Death on Ice

There is nothing worse than spending a birthday that makes you realize how debilitating aging can be. The night we checked into the hostel, Ron wanted to book the Glacier Trek. Trying to remind him we walked the glaciers in Tierra de Fuego was not good enough; he felt a need to do it here too. Okay, fine! After looking over the tours, we decided on the half day tour. If there were a quarter day or even an hour tour, those would have been my preferences, but not to be.

At 2:30pm we are in line for our tour at their office to turn in the voucher, receive further instructions and on to the torture, ah, I mean the fun of exploration. Like a fog that lifts when the sun fights through, the remembrance that in my quest for efficiency, I left my wallet at the hostel with the voucher in it. I leave Ron in line, I run back for it. By the time I return to the tour office, I am so winded the thought of suicide seems like a viable option over continuing the day. If I had access to a carrier pigeon to bring the voucher to Ron, it would have been a done deal, but since I didn’t I did not want him to miss out on the tour.

It is 3pm, the starting time of our tour. We are issued with neck chain with different colored plastic tags hanging from it. We are first issued socks and boots, sorry, you are not able to wear your own footwear for liability reasons. Turn over the yellow plastic tag for these. Next are the over wear pants, an insulated pair to guarantee your warmth. You are not allowed to wear jeans at all; if you came with jeans, you have to remove them before putting on the over wear, making them now all purpose pants in your case. Turn over a green tag for these. A red belly bag is what you get next. If you have a single strap bag with you, it is a no go. You have to use the red bag. However, what is in the bag already is what I thought they said were tampons. This seemed really strange, but I thought perhaps they were used for severe blood loss due to bodily injury. Nope, that was not right. When they repeated it later, they are called crampons. They looked like my first pair of roller skates, but with major angled spikes. They slip over the boots, are tied on in a peculiar way, but are great in gripping the ice.

Now it is on the bus for a fifteen minute ride, two buses full. When we get the area, we can see the glaciers on the distance. Our guide asks how far we think it is to the glaciers. Some guess a couple of city blocks; others think it is a ½ mile. My guess is too friggin far regardless. Then we receive the answer: 2 ½ kilometers. Fortunately, I never really learned metric. If I had known how far that was, I would have trekked back to the bus right then. It is not a lovely peaceful walk along a well worn path, but climbing over rocks of assorted sizes from large landscape rocks to gargantuan boulders. These 2 ½ km feel like twenty. I realize that this is the exact reason I never joined the military; there is too damn much exercise involved.

When we get to the end of the public area, this being the area that is considered safe for the common tourist who is not decked out like Sky King, we break into smaller groups. They are divided by activity level: Easy, Moderate, and Adventurous. We could not hear where each group was supposed to be, so I just looked for the group with the most children under ten years old and joined them. Who would have guessed they were all part of the junior Olympics training group?

Now as a group, we cross over the yellow lines that now signify, you had better be prepared. You are now out of the safety zone. I am a Capricorn, the mountain goat, yet I don’t do well with mountain climbing at all. The boulders and rocks continue in a somewhat path, though about as smooth as a volcanic crater. Where does EASY enter into this? Easy to me implies smooth pathways with a maximum incline of 10%, not rocks, pebbles on steroids, and mini-boulders on an incline of 60%. Toward the back of the pack, I start huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf in the three pigs’ story. The difference being, I did not have enough air to blow out a match let alone a straw, wood, or brick house. The guide asked if I were okay. When you see someone doubled over about the same shade of blue as the glacier and heaving, do you really think they are possible okay? He asked if I had asthma. That is one thing I have never been checked for, but the chances are good. My brother has it and never smoked a day in his life. The offer was given to return and get a full refund. As tempting as it would be, I knew Ron would not continue if I didn’t. Not wanting to be a quitter and not to spoil it for Ron, I kept going.

We hike for another hour before we get close to the glacier itself. I was huffing and puffing so hard, my eyes kept fogging up. This was really weird since I don’t wear glasses or contact lens. At the edge of the glacier, we were to find a smooth rock to attach the crampons onto our boots. Now it is time to walk the glacier. There were spots where one previous guide had axed steps into the ice for others to climb. Some of these steps were so high a few of us needed a stepladder to reach them. Three of them required us to use ropes to hold on to as we climbed these icicle staircase. More strenuous exercise, more wheezing and gasping. I felt like someone hooked a vacuum to my mouth and sucked all of my air out a once. Again the guide shared his concerns for my well being. This time he wanted me to stay right behind him. I replaced the 6, 8, 9, and 10 year olds who were supposed to stay directly behind him. Now I was the favorite. In times past, my heart has always gone out to THAT ONE who could not keep up, who had problems along the way, and now I was THAT ONE. The embarrassment and shame of it all. Up, up, we climbed to the top of the glacier. While others were looking at the sights, I was watching my life pass before my eyes. I was certain I was going to be kept on ice until the mortuary helicopter arrived for me. At the pinnacle, I had hope that my survival tactic was going down being easier than going up. I was partially correct. Because we did not retrace our way going up on the way down, there were surprises. We had to wedge ourselves through a narrow crevice formed by the glacier. There were a few who were a bit oversized, so for them getting through was a challenge. My goal was to keep my camera safe while walking sideways.
There was a young Japanese woman, her Scottish husband, and their daughter as part of our group. The woman used those hiking rods the whole way, but when we started to descend, she panicked and literally froze in place. Her husband was busy watching the child, but the wife wouldn’t budge in spots. I was ahead of her, so had to coax and aid her most of the way down the glacier. It was a bonding experience. It was also a bit healing for me to go from THAT ONE who held up everyone else to THAT ONE who came to the rescue of a fellow traveler.

By the time we reached the spot where we could take the crampons off, I felt like my birthday week had passed by. From up high it looks like a short walk back. You know that feeling when you really exert yourself, on the return you say “Well returning was a lot faster that going.” I am here to tell you it was not. Climbing down over that pile of rocks and boulders was more treacherous than going up. It is easier to lose your balance and fall forward.

For reasons not shared, they only had one bus for us to return. Twenty of us had to stand. Who should be on the bus already seated was the crude, rude, obnoxious young man who was on our bus here. He is the one I wanted to pluck. The guide told him to give up his seat for the younger kids to sit. His response was “Where am I supposed to sit then?” The guide, being about the same age, told him he was old enough to stand on the way back.

It was not until 8pm that we returned to the tour office, another twenty minutes to shed our gear piece by piece to receive the colored tags back. Our tour price includes free entry to the hot springs. These are heated glacier water pools “in a lovely natural setting”, but we were too exhausted to make use of it tonight. Anyway, they close at 10pm and we had not had dinner yet. That meant a trip back to the hostel for wallets, back to the grocery store, and cook dinner. We called it a night by 11pm after finishing dinner, cleaning up, and watching an episode of Eureka. Happy Birthday to me! I survived another one. The next time someone suggests an energetic activity, someone please give me a lethal injection if I should happen to agree to join in.
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