By Joan Larsen
Death. If we are to be honest, passing that midway point in our years, the subject of dying, of death, drifts into our thoughts a bit more often than we might wish. Before this time – well – we felt pretty invincible, didn’t we? Many of us took chances — often more than a little bit risky — but we just knew we would survive. I looked at such times as times of high excitement, as adventure — adventure that added so much to my own life that I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Chilean Patagonia, close to the tip of the continent, was wild and wonderful . . . but so remote that immediate help was a figment of the imagination. There had been tales of the wind there blowing mountain climbers off a mountain to their deaths in seconds. It was a chance you took if you climbed high. But our small group of risk-takers were hikers, not mountain climbers, even if we were hiking upward. None of us had ever encountered winds that could blow you off your feet and through the air either.
Only once – on this day – was I with others so intent on reaching trail’s end in 100 mph wind that they were willing to crawl more than walk so they would not be blown away. We were like a group of ants, huddled together at times, to protect ourselves from the gusts. Half of my fellow adventurers were older than I was – and all playing follow the leader without seeming concern. In fact, nothing was said about the high winds by anyone. We were very gutsy!!!
A story like mine has not been written before or after as far as I know. But I was as close to being blown to my death by katabatic winds while hiking – inches, no more – than anyone I have ever known. The experience has affected my life forever after.
In a place near the very tip of South America lies what is considered earth’s scenic masterpiece, Torres Del Paine National Park in Patagonia –arguably the second most beautiful place on our planet. I had said for years that I would give almost anything to get there. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that there was a chance I would die there. And yet, high on a mountainside, a wind gust – clocked by the newspapers later at over 100 mph – was to blow me completely off my feet and to the edge of a cliff, one with a chilling drop-off that no one could survive.
But three days earlier, skirting the immense Patagonian ice cap, we had entered the park itself. The winds were deceptively mild. The valleys were alive with an assortment of zoo animals, completely so at ease with visitors that they seemed to strike the best pose for the camera. The beautiful, liquid-eyed guanacos, often with 15-minute old babies by their sides, competed with the mountains themselves.
The place seduced me. For three days we stayed in a small hotel, situated on an island with a walking bridge in Lago Pehoe, its windows overlooking the massifs themselves across the incredible pale blue waters. Hiking was wild and wonderful, and – at the time – the place was so remote that only 500 Americans had signed their book in the past two years. But we noticed that the wind was getting higher.
And now – the fateful day. The gods chose to remind us more forcefully that we were in a very wild place. A cloud curtain covered the mountains. The complete surface of the lake was continually skimmed off and lifted in large sheets that paraded past the island. The clouds were swirled sputniks – a formation never seen here. The wind, gusting erratically, would occasionally reveal a bit or piece of the mountain rather seductively, only to cover it up again after just a glimpse, much like the teasing fans of old-time stripper Sally Rand.
Nothing was said about the wind as we fought the gusts, sometimes crawling, over the footbridge to the mainland. The foam had risen above the waters of the lake. The trip members – though far from kids – were stalwart, hearty, and obviously not planning to miss a moment of our final day in this paradise. Our hotel stood at 1000 feet. Our hiking goal was the rock base of the mountains 900 feet above.
We never made it.
As we crested the first rise, the Ecuadorian guide and I turned our backs to the wind to catch our breath. A gust, clocked at over 80 mph, hit us in the back and sent us careening down the slope, completely out of control. At 135 pounds, my feet did not touch the ground. By his grabbing my jacket, we both were able to stop on the flat. Saying nothing, we turned and fought our way up again.
The group had covered some distance, but when we found them, they were strewn like ants over the barren ground, actually crawling forward but unable to make the next rise because of the wind’s velocity. Repeated attempts were made, but the 8-foot rise might as well have been Everest – it was that unattainable. We headed back in fits and starts, each person at his own pace. The katabatic winds coming off the peaks were of such speed and Old Testament intensity that our lungs were sucked dry in a single minute. There were many pauses. We crouched close to the ground.
At one of these “get your breath back” stops I made the near-fatal mistake. You see – the sky was blue, the brittle bushes exhibited no signs of the wind’s intensity, and no sounds indicating hurricane wind velocity were heard. I was lulled into a false sense of security. I was already the last person on the mountain, hanging back, reluctant to leave this place. Gathering my camera, I stepped back from the rise to take one last picture of the astonishing spires in the setting beyond belief.
A katabatic wind gust – moving at more than 100 mph, it was later said – hit me directly in the back, sending the camera high in the air, and propelling me forward toward the precipice at such a pace that I was flying above the ground. I was Icarus running full steam ahead off the cliff, hoping his waxen wings would work. Only I was running above ground, feet not touching, twice as fast as Icarus and I didn’t have his false sense of security.
I could not stop. I instinctively dropped from a height – too close to the edge with this waterfall far below. Ten feet more and I would be gone. I instantly knew that some of my bones were broken. The wind was knocked out of me. The guide returned, saying that we were on a remote mountainside with no medical help. The only way down was to get up and crawl or walk with his help. There was no need. Once I stood, the wind picked me up and propelled me in air down to the van.
There are remote areas and remote areas – at the time this was an unpaved road far from civilization. After a lifetime of travel, I was sensitive enough to know that the 9 others on this expedition had paid highly for the privilege of being there. And so – in the storage area of the van – two boards and a number of window cleaning rags were pulled out and became hand-made splints.
Just so you know, I am a very good sport. As the group hiked and sight-saw our way to the nearest hospital 10 hours on that unpaved road, photos showed me smiling and good natured through the pain. And it isn’t often as it was that evening – at a small hospital in nowhere – when a person has an entourage of ten waiting to see the finished product – the cast. I did not tell them that after 10 hours my entire arm, straightened by the board splint, was now the size of a tree trunk. I was asked to bend it for the X-ray. Bend a tree trunk? For the first and only time in life, I fortunately fainted when the attendant bent it for me. Some things you do remember quite well.
The following day the Chilean newspaper had an account . . . but they also mentioned that 4 homes 100 miles away were completely blown away that same morning. I knew I had been very lucky.
Did I leave the journey to the second most beautiful place on earth? No way. It was a bit difficult to hike with what turned out to be a 1930-style 20 pound plaster cast covering my entire arm, completely unbalancing me at times, but I did the best I could. The other injuries I dealt with. The secret is to keep your mind off yourself I found — and on the other-worldly beauty that is on every side.
When we travel far off the beaten path, we are bound to have adventures and – yes – close calls that we never expected. But then again, we always say that we have had a life so filled with wild beauty and excitement, that we wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
This is just one tale.
My soul can find no staircase to heaven
Unless it be through Earth’s landscape.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”
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