Ask anyone that knows this area and they’ll tell you – hardest part of the circuit is John Gardner Pass, hands down.
We knew ahead of time that today was probably going to be our most difficult. Knowing it beforehand and being there in the moment doing it were totally different universes, though. Fair warning: This may be a slightly longer post than normal as day 4 of our trek was pretty significant. It holds the trophy as both our hardest day and our favorite day in the park.
Alarm went off well before sunrise. Gotta get in a solid breakfast. Plus it was nice to get moving because Los Perros was one of the coldest campsites – very windy, isolated, at elevation near some smaller glaciers, etc. The forests were a welcome refuge against the constant wind.
There were about 40 to 50 people in the Los Perros campsite, and it felt like EVERY ONE of them was in the kitchen at the same time as us. That room was packed arm-to-arm on the benches, everyone boiling water to have something hot before the climb. We heard one guy say he’d slept in the kitchen because his tent was no bueno and he was freezing. Yikes! Luckily, our tent is awesome. Here’s the small porch at the campsite at about 5:30 AM….gear everywhere, backpacks galore.
The crazy part (or at least one of the crazy parts) of John Gardner Pass is that they close it at 8 AM. That means you HAVE to start the hike before then. It’s nuts! Now, I’m not sure if that is every day, or if they base the closure time on the weather and wind – seems likely – but regardless, I’ve never seen an 8 AM trail closure before. Weather foreshadowing, much? HA, we were gonna be in for it.
Our day was essentially split into 2 parts. The ascent and descent of the mountain pass was the first, and then the trek from the Paso ranger station (our unofficial halfway point) to Grey refugio/campsite. The total mileage to complete for the day is 9.3 – not so bad, right?
WRONG. Putting this into persective, the second half of our hike past the ranger station was 4.3 miles with a 1,300 ft mostly steady decline. But the first 5 miles? 2,050 feet straight up followed by an immediate descent of 2,460 feet which should be renamed Death to All Knees.
We got the full force of Patagonia on our hardest day. A giant thunderstorm that turned into sleet and then became a snow storm at the higher elevations in which the wind just continued to grow. From a distance, it was hard to see where our trail led because the clouds enshrouded it. The only thing we really knew was the trail seemed to go up, up, and away.
The edge of the tree line came pretty quickly. Once that happened, though, we lost the protection of the Lenga trees from the elements. It was about this time that we decided to put on our insulating layers (aka down coats) underneath our rainjackets. First time yet on the trek that we’d needed allll the layers. And on a steep ascent, if you’re putting on MORE layers rather than removing them…that tells you something. Very thankful we did that early.
It’s funny, David and I are plenty familiar with snow in a variety of circumstances. We grew up in the midwest, for one, and are also pretty frequent alpine skiers in the Rockies, so we’ve been on many slopes and lift chairs in intense weather conditions. On a lift chair, you just sit there. On the slopes, you go with gravity – downhill. This was more similar to hiking up to Expert Terrain at the top of the mountain, where the storm is most intense. Brave the blizzard and the rewards are well worth it.
Most of the people from the campsite were in front of us and no longer in sight through the sleet blowing in your face, so you have this sense that it is just YOU and the mountain. It’s paradoxically comforting and terrifying. Terrifying because all you have to depend on is your physical strength and everything you can muster up in your mental state to get you through this storm and this mountain that is just the next level and beyond. But then, that same line of thinking is comforting because you know that you can, unquestioningly, depend on yourself to get you through this because there really is no other choice. Put one foot in front of the other and keep going.
We took breaks by turning our backpacks into the wind so it wasn’t whipping against our faces, and also remember to take in the majesty. It’s not everyday you get to be on your feet within a stormcloud.
(Even saw some really beautiful ground dwelling birds that only live in mountain highlands! Grey-breasted Seedsnipes. So cool! We came upon them suddenly and they ran away hooting pretty quickly.)
This was raw. Step by step, pole by pole, all the while getting belted with rain, wind, and sleet as our clothing did the best it could against the elements. Just look for the next thing painted orange and go in that direction! The coldest part of both of us was our hands, as the gloves we brought were windproof but not waterproof (facepalm). I lost feeling in my hands more times than I could count.
At different points, both of us felt fear creep in. One of the natural human survival reactions when the odds appear against you. Too cold, too wet, too tired, too vertical, too hard, too much. I thought I saw the top of the pass and a little shelter in the distance at one point. It was just a big boulder and the trail continued up. A little while later, David thought he saw the top of the pass in the distance and we were relieved. Then we got to that rocky crest to find more inclining mountain path of snow and sleet covered rocks. I remember hearing him say “Oh my God…” right in front of me and I just knew.
At a particularly weary point after that, we set our bags down on a snowy rock for a break and shared the last couple pieces of a Toblerone. Freezing fingers kneaded themselves and brought feeling back. We chewed and gazed at waterfalls the entire length of a mountainside. Not for the first or last time came the silent acknowledgment that we were here in a place on Earth that few humans get to be. And we drew strength from the mere fact that we would do this together.
To all professional mountain climbers out there: Respect.
After putting a pin in the dumb thought that I may get frostbite in one of my soaked fingers, I unknowingly tapped into the strength of a human when confronted with the savage of the wilderness. This is very difficult to describe if you haven’t experienced it. I imagine it is kind of (to a much smaller degree) how a state of spiritual enlightenment feels. For one, all fear is gone. It is a place of tranquility where things like doubt, insecurity, and worry do not live. In retrospect now, I think you come to this state of mind because you are weary, pushing yourself to the edge and giving it everything you’ve got, and knowing that you have to draw on strength unseen. You accept, and you do. It’s one of the calmest and most appreciative mental states I’ve ever had…stillness in a wild, crazy-ass mountain storm all around.
Strange, right? Or maybe not so strange.
We knew when we hit the top. The wind actually blew us back a few steps down the mountain. Couldn’t look straight ahead for too long. It was a flat bit of land with only cloud in the distance – a good sign because that would finally indicate descending land.
The trekking poles we had to use to PULL our bodies across the pass against the wind. Absolute insanity. The thrill of having reached the top was pure adrenaline – had to yell at each other at the top of our lungs from like 2 feet away. Came to find out later after looking it up that it had been 60 mph winds up there. WHAT?!
A picture started to form ahead of us. Distant mountains, far off and in the sunlight. We could see the edge of the storm in the direction we were headed. And if that wasn’t reward enough in itself, the most spectacular sight stopped us dead in our tracks.
Glacier Grey, filling the valley and your eyesight as far as you can see…bathed in the sunlight with a fully-formed, complete rainbow over it.
It was our storm’s end.
I just CAN’T EVEN with this place. We were not prepared for how colossal Grey is. As great as these photos are, they still pale in comparison to being there in these moments after what we had just done. Magnificent. Sublime. It could have warmed and thawed the heart of the Night King.
That rainbow stayed there. As we descended, we just kept looking up and loving how steadfast it was. It finally disappeared about an hour later. An HOUR. Patagonia rainbows > All other rainbows. They’re pretty much a daily occurrence down there, and it is MAGICAL.
Soooooo the descent…..it sucks. Again, the distance was around 2 miles, and in that mere blip of a distance you go down ~2,460 feet. Monumentally steep downhill going, tired bodies with heavy packs making it slower going than normal. Oh, and it was muddy and slippery from the rain, too. Borderline undoable? HA, not for us, not today!
Most of it was giant, steep steps oftentimes longer than the distance from my foot to knee. Cool.
Lots of cursing. Exclamations of wanting to punch whoever this John Gardner was in the face. Making sarcastic comments at the tons of signs that way “Caution: Risk of falling.” We didn’t think going down would be physically harder than going up. We were wrong.
I don’t think our knees, quads, calves, or low backs would’ve survived without the trekking poles as extra feet. They were clutch. And (another bright side) our weather had now become scattered forest sunlight with no wind! Whole new side of the mountain = whole new world.
It became apparent at some point after the pass that we were soaked inwardly head-to-toe. Socks, underwear, bra, you name it. The water had been blown into us steadily and for multiple hours from every angle, so it was really just a matter of time. Finally reaching the Paso ranger station meant a blessed lunch break and change into dry clothes – YES! But oh wait, still have 4+ miles to go…dangit.
The ranger and some other park staff told us the trek to Grey from that point was “muy tranquillo.” Personally, I think the Chileans have a different idea of what constitutes a tranquil path. Muy tranquillo, in my mind, is a flat trail with some beautiful scenery and some cozy twists and turns. This trail was NOT muy tranquillo! If they were comparing it to what we had just did, than literally ANYTHING could have been muy tranquillo! Crazy Chileans…I have a feeling they’d rate some black diamond ski trails in Colorado as greens (can’t help but kind of love it, though – it’s like they’re natural-born badasses).
Anyway, we pulled ourselves up by our wet bootstraps (but now with dry socks) and set off to Grey campsite as the sun sank. I just didn’t think too hard about it.
As if I haven’t already been speaking in enough constant dynamic by this point (kind of sorry, but not really) here’s a few more scoops of that ice cream: The sights of hiking alongside Grey Glacier are unbelievable. To your mind, it almost looks fake! You have to stare and take it in because it is just. that. Beautiful. We’d be walking for a while and it’s on the peripheral and your brain just kind of auto-assumes it’s a body of water…and then you catch sight of it and do a double-take after seeing it again and laugh with incredulity.
It is really special to be in the presence of this giant. And these thoughts are also energy fuel. When you’re running on close to empty, it’s amazing what you can find to use as drive. The snowstorm felt like days ago at this point.
Glaciers like Grey are game-changing. Period.
There are 3 really sweet and semi-frightening suspension bridges on this stretch that span beautiful gorges over streams running towards the glacier and its adjoined lake. The bridges would have signs in front of them saying “Max: 2 Pers. ” or “Max: 4 Pers.” which makes you think, oh good, this seems safe….
So much power and adrenaline in a single day. Probably a record bodily production between the two of us.
That last mile and a half was, simply, very rough. Every muscle in my body from face to pinky toe was sore. I don’t know how it works for everyone else, but when I am exhausted, my two natural defense mechanisms that come out are tears and anger. So I found things to be pissed at in between bursting out in tears. David kept laughing at the ridiculousness, so he got a lot of the anger directed at him. At some point I lost control of the sounds I was making and was just kind of panting/groaning/moaning while snotting on the sleeve, all the while punctuated by hysterical laughter. Near-ish the campsite, these two guys behind us looked like they were gonna try and pass us and I (of course) got tired-angry at them and decided there would be no more people passing us TODAY. By some act of God, I led what can only be described as a silent, fury-driven power trek into camp for about 3/4 of a mile in which I ignored all soreness and fatigue.
You never know what you’ll find within yourself out in God’s country. It can often surprise you what’s been there all along.
Bonus: Made it to camp at 8:50 PM, ten minutes before they turn off the hot water. We wouldn’t have had hot showers that night if not for powering through the home stretch with the walk-of-fury. The gal cleaning the women’s told me she was trying to close them 5 minutes early, to which I croaked out “Por favor…?” Then she saw my face. She knew. She let me shower. It was glorious.
Started the hike before sunrise, ended it after sunset. Definitely pitched the tent in the dark that night. It happens. I think our dinner was rice with something? Maybe just flavored rice. We were too tired to cook anything else. Oh, and a little Bourbon as an added reward.
This day was one of the hardest of our lives. We saw so many shades and hues, felt a lot of ups and downs across the board, and discovered things that have no name. We asked for Patagonia and we GOT Patagonia. Real life, wild and wonderful and worth every second of the challenge. I wouldn’t change a thing. I said it before, I’ll say it again: Game-changing. These are the kinds of highs you don’t forget and which bring you perspective as you move forward with your life. Captivating, in every sense of the word.