At 30 years old, I am yet to discover what going with the flow means exactly. If I am not busy executing a plan, you will likely find me in the middle of hatching one. When I decided I would hike 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, I knew it would be impossible to be in control the entire time, however. So I prepared mentally.
Fire closures? No problem, we’ll find an alternative route. Current too strong to cross? No big deal, we’ll just turn around. Injured? When our bodies heal, we’ll continue. Whatever the trail would throw my way, I was ready to take it on and adjust my plans accordingly. Oh, how wonderfully flexible I thought I had become.
Just when I believed I had mastered the skill of expecting the unexpected, my newfound stoicism was put to the test. Words like travel ban, coronavirus, self-isolation and lockdown quickly made their way into every conversation. In the blink of an eye, an ever-growing list of temporary measures was put in place, with the word 'temporary’ still up for definition.
While researching the Pacific Crest Trail, I had read thru-hikers’ testimonies of post-trail depression, yet none had warned me of pre-trail despair. The kind that results from quitting your job, uprooting your life, and preparing mentally and physically, only to wake up to a world you no longer recognise.
In the face of adversity, my coping mechanisms of choice tend to be lists and scenarios. Only this time, the nature of the crisis did not allow me to rely on my old ways. As I found myself stuck in limbo, I scrolled through my pre-trail mental prep notes:
While these lessons are now brought to me by COVID-19 instead of by the trail, they ultimately remain the same. And so, I try to apply them to my new circumstances, as it is looking less and less likely that my feet will touch the trail anytime soon. Other concerns will have to take priority, while we collectively overcome unprecedented hurdles and hope that better times lie ahead. So for now, I wash my hands, set my mini goals and embrace the suck.
As we get off the bus in the Brecon Beacons National Park, we are instantly blown away. By the vast hills, sure, but mostly by Storm Dennis, wreaking havoc all over the UK. Water gushing down the slopes has turned the hostel’s driveway into a small stream and by the time we walk the 300 metres to the reception, we are properly soaked.
“Oh good, the bus is still running then,” the bubbly receptionist sighs in relief as we check in. “I just sent a lady to the bus stop. She got too scared to drive all the way to Cardiff and popped into the hostel. Poor thing.”
The Mountain Weather Forecast printout on the counter does not sugar-coat our predicament. We are to expect a windy, showery day, with high likelihood of gales and snow fall on the tops. Chance of sunlight: none. “Oh, it’s looking grim out there,” the hostel owner confirms.
When rain covers break free
We decide to confront the weather gods nonetheless and attempt a shorter loop by Craig Cerrig Gleisiad. The first kilometres are pleasant enough, but as we commence our ascent, a gust of wind sends our backpack’s yellow rain cover flying down the valley. Our cue to descend.
Unwilling to admit defeat, we complete the lower circuit in the pouring rain before dragging our body weight in drenched clothes back to the hostel. There’s only so much rain gear can take.
After hiding out for a few hours, we force our sorry feet back into soggy boots for a quick evening walk. As we follow the river, the destruction becomes clear: trees toppled over, swathes of land washed away and meadows with the texture of sodden carpets.
"You'll have to make a judgement call"
The news of flooded towns and ongoing evacuations pours in the next morning. Luckily, we appear to have been spared, so we set off for the high point of this trip: summiting Pen y Fan, the tallest peak in south Wales at 886 metres.
The elements are kind, allowing us to reach the top of Corn Du – Pen y Fan’s slightly lower twin brother – in little over an hour. “You’ll have to make a judgement call,” three veterans resting just below the summit warn us. “Pen y Fan is across that exposed ridge, but the clouds are coming in fast.”
As we evaluate the situation, a father and his ten-year-old son approach: “This little one just walked across without a problem, it's wide enough.” Heartened by his words, we cross cautiously and leave the snowy patches behind as we continue our loop down the valley.
After hail comes sunshine
Our bravery is rewarded by a display of rainbows popping up left and right. Even the three hailstorms battering our faces on the way back fail to dampen our spirits. When we finally hit the trail leading back to the main road, the unthinkable happens: the sun breaks through the clouds for a heroic finish.
We are overtaken by a frisky pooch on our way down, sprinting left and right in what can only be explained as an attempt to break the sound barrier. In the parking lot, we strike up a conversation with the owner of said little ball of energy and are offered a ride to the hostel.
“One of you will have to crouch in the back with Monty, though.” My pleasure. A poor attempt at not ruining the trunk with my mud stained clothes is cut short with a wink: “Oh, don’t worry about that. This is my son’s car.”
I first learnt about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) by the deserted ticket booth at the back entrance to world heritage site Petra. Living in Amman at the time, I was walking a section of the Jordan Trail when a bearded hiker asked: “Is this where we show our Jordan Pass?”
Mitch had travelled from Australia to thru-hike the Jordan Trail as a warm-up for the PCT. Having spent the last couple of nights by himself in the desert, he seemed happy to have found some company. When he told me about his aspiration to hike all the way through California, Oregon and Washington for five months, I thought he was out of his mind. My five-day stint from Dana to Petra had seemed rather heroic to me at the time; five months, on the other hand, unfathomable.
And yet somehow here I was, standing in line outside the U.S. embassy in London on a cold, but sunny morning a year and a half later. After handing over my documents, I queued for the final hurdle: the visa interview. The consular officer smiled sympathetically at the young couple in front of me, struggling to contain their toddler’s inexhaustible energy reserves.
When it was my turn to approach the window, her smile quickly turned into a frown.
Her blank stare made me wonder whether I was conveying my desire to walk all the way from Mexico to Canada adequately enough. “We will fly to San Diego, make our way to Campo and then walk for 2,650 miles until we reach the Canadian border,” I rushed to clarify, without appearing to alleviate any confusion.
Fortunately, the wish to travel the length of the United States on foot is insane enough for it to have to be true. So after a multitude of questions, her verdict was reached: “Your visa application has been approved and will take three to five working days to process.”
And just like that, my attempt at thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail became a reality.
Sometimes people call me fearless. They probably don’t know me very well. Worry might as well be my middle name. I am the kind of person who has already weighed the pros and cons of five potential scenarios before something even happened. Checking under the bed was a nightly routine for longer than I care to admit and overcoming my fear of picking up the phone took the better part of my high school career.
People meeting me today also assume that I must have always loved hiking. That, my poor parents can confirm, is definitely not the case. In fact, some days I still wonder whether I just excel at tricking myself into believing that personal growth through suffering is fun – ignoring the pain, discomfort and exhaustion that appear to be regular by-products of my escapades.
So how did I become the avid hiker I am today?
“Are you running away from something?” my friend Bassam once asked me after a weekend spent walking in the hills together. The truth is, I quite possibly was.
Ten years of volunteering and working in the humanitarian sector had left me feeling disillusioned. The activism I had once poured my heart and soul into suddenly seemed void, messy and meaningless.
And then there it was. During my time in Amman, I found the Jordan Trail. Or rather, it found me through my friend Katy, who I regularly accompanied for day hikes. Before I knew it, the trail became the place where I could escape my anxiety and budding identity crisis.
Yet more than a distraction, it also provided me with a new purpose. And so, I got hooked on leaving the city behind every weekend to work towards a clear and attainable goal: walking the length of Jordan.
I soon discovered that compulsive thinking and worrying get paused when hitting a trail. In hiking, I found the most powerful antidote to the curse of busyness, allowing me to feel free and see more clearly. It empowered me in ways I was not expecting and reminding me of how simple life can be when we choose not to complicate it.
As Ton Lemaire wrote in his book Met lichte tred: “The walker is freed from the duty of productivity and efficiency, and freed from the eternal time pressure that in normal live narrows and impoverishes the experience of the world.”
Hiking is no longer just an escape to me. Rather, it is a way to experience beauty and adventure, a way to redefine my relationship with the world around me. Five months of living in nature therefore seems just as worthwhile an objective as any other, which is why I am committing to thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with my partner Fadi this year, all 2,650 miles from the Mexican border to Canada.
Do I feel ready? Not really. But being able to embark on this adventure is an absolute privilege, so I choose to feel grateful rather than nervous as I pack my bags and count down to April 30th. Canada, I am on my way.
“Don’t worry, mom. Yes, at the hostel. No, it’s not raining,” Fadi reassures his mother over the phone while we devour our falafel sandwiches. The sun is shining and street life in Wadi Musa – the town next to world heritage site Petra – runs its leisurely course.
In the morning, we will depart on a four-day trek to complete my last 90 kilometres on the Jordan Trail. But first, we need to drop off water and food in the desert. We arrange to meet with Abu Samra, an acquaintance of an acquaintance, whose jeep will take us to the three sites where we hope to camp. A prolonged quarter of an hour later, he shows up.
Contrary to earlier claims, he quickly appears not to know the places we discussed. Miraculously – or, as some might say, alhamdulillah – we manage to reach two sites before the sun goes down. Frustrating, but nothing that can’t be solved by dragging a few extra litres of water with us along the way.
A walk through time
We adjust the straps of our backpacks and zigzag between the many day trippers and carriages through Petra’s narrow siq leading to the Treasury. From there, a side path takes us all the way up to the High Place of Sacrifice, where we admire the 360° views of the surrounding mountains.
As we descend into the valley, the hustle and bustle of tour groups and souvenir vendors instantly drowns out. Instead, we now follow the sound of a flute until we find the musician on a stool in front of an ancient temple. Time for tea.
Just like his ancestors, Qasem herds goats on the rock flanks. He proudly points to the structure of trenches and wells carved into the massive rocks. The Nabateans – who inhabited Petra during the classical antiquity – were more than aware of the importance of water. An impressive network of waterways supplied all districts with the blue gold from reservoirs higher up.
We march on through surprisingly green valleys and climb over crumbling mountains. Having lost track of time, we shift into higher gear, but still arrive at our campsite well past sunset. As soon as we dig up our hidden stash, the barking starts. Seconds later, four guard dogs from a nearby Bedouin camp surround us. A convincing wave with my hiking pole does the trick: the growling transforms into tail-wagging. Our presence is tolerated.
We start the day at 5:30 with knees that don’t want to come along for the ride. Deterred by the prospect of pulling up the tent in the dark again, we carry on. Slow and steady wins the race and despite the GPS duping us into an additional three kilometres, we reach our camping spot as the last rays of light slowly disappear behind the mountain.
Victory tastes sweet until we realise our mistake. When hiding our second resupply bag at barely 300 metres from the campsite two days earlier, we had failed to account for the mountain now separating us from our dinner. A thorough terrain study brings relief, however, and the mountain is circumvented. Baked beans and instant noodles never tasted so good.
Stubborn desert flowers
Jordan’s beauty is underestimated. I ignore the pain in my ankles and take it all in: the hills and valleys, the red canyons, the desert sand, the volcano stones and the flowers that stubbornly bloom in their arid surroundings.
Just before setting up our final camp, we cross the annual thru-hike organised by the Jordan Trail Association. Nineteen participants from all over the world are taking part. More tea is offered, as well as a whole bag of fruits for the road.
After dinner, we are staring at the smouldering campfire and breathtaking starry sky when a jeep approaches. Two men in dishdasha walk over to our tent, blinding us with their torches. I feel my senses sharpen as various scenarios flash through my mind. False alarm. The duo appears to be looking for their friend Abu Sabah, who lives in a nearby village.
Tea, tea and a little more tea
Our legs seem to have adjusted, so we sprint through the valley. A few kilometres before reaching our destination, we have the pleasure of meeting the legendary Abu Sabah. Receiving us on a mattress around the fire pit in his Bedouin tent, he orders two young boys to prepare the tea. The animated chatter from the women’s section behind the curtain quickly increases in decibels.
Whenever a guest from the village enters, all men stand up out of respect and every passing truck on the dirt road stirs up a lively debate on who is sitting behind the wheel. Everyone knows everyone in the desert.
The rusty sign outside Humeima’s visitor centre marks the end of my time on the Jordan Trail. After 652 kilometres, I have crossed the country on foot. We have a celebratory tea with Ibrahim, the ruins’ guard, whose solitary job consists of greeting the handful of visitors.
An hour later, Abu Sabah’s son shows up to give us a ride back to our car. "To Petra, correct?" And with a simple Inshallah we fly at 130 kilometres per hour over the narrow roads towards the Rose City.
After catching the overnight train from Tbilisi, Aseel and I roam the streets of Mestia, feeling sleep deprived and less than ready to commence our four-day walk through the Svaneti mountains in northwest Georgia the following day.
Having heard that guesthouses in Adishi – the most isolated village on the trek – tend to fill up quickly, we ask our hostel owner in Mestia for help. A call to a guy named George is promptly made and before I know it, the phone is shoved into my hand.
“Hello?” “Hello, this is George. I will say something to the man who is with you and he will write it down in Georgian. Take the paper and give it to Elisabeth in Adishi.” “Ok, madloba.”
A breath of fresh air
Armed with a piece of paper ripped from a notebook, we leave Mestia’s main square behind in the morning, cross the bridge and start climbing. The trail takes us over grasslands with beautiful views of Mount Ushba and then through forests. I catch myself greedily taking extra deep breaths of fresh mountain air, which feel more cleansing than ever, having spent the past two years inhaling the exhaust fumes of Amman’s chaotic traffic.
After sitting down for a break in a meadow overlooking Mount Tetnuldi, we follow the ridge for a while to eventually descend into the Svaneti valley, crossing fields, pastures and villages. When we reach Mulkhura river, we dabble through the mud and meander between cows and creeks until the bridge to Zhabeshi village is in sight. After our first Georgian home-cooked dinner, we cross the guesthouse's creaky wooden floors and dive under the thick blankets in our stuffy room.
The day begins with two hours of climbing through a dense forest. When we reach the cable car of Tetnuldi’s ski resort, we follow it further uphill until the trail turns right, leading us to an open area with colourful wildflowers. It is still early and with Adishi only an hour away, we kill some time over coffee in the makeshift trailer café at the top of the slope.
When Adishi appears around the bend, an arrow reading ‘Elisabeth’s guesthouse’ points us in the direction of a large blue-painted wooden house at the bottom of the village. “Are you Elisabeth?” we ask the woman in the garden. “We have a letter for you from George.” Full of anticipation, I hand her the smudged sheet of paper. A smile quickly brightens up Elisabeth’s face: “Awwwww, George! Are you friends of his?” “Well, not exactly, but can we stay at your guesthouse tonight?”
Grateful for George’s kind words securing a roof over our heads, we join the ever-growing group of hikers from all over the world arriving at the village’s one and only bar to discuss the adventures on trail thus far.
When our fellow guests make their way to their rooms after dinner, Elisabeth secretively whispers to Aseel and I: “come, to the kitchen.” We oblige and follow her through the courtyard to the separate cabin, where we find the town’s young and old hanging out. An elderly woman puts another log into the central wood stove’s crackling fire, when our Dutch friend Niels stumbles in, equally puzzled.
With all invitees present, Elisabeth walks over to the desktop in the corner and soon after, Pink Floyd blasts through the small speakers. “My favourite band!” Elisabeth’s monopoly over the modern-day jukebox is fleeting and after a few songs, Pink Floyd is forced to make way for Rihanna. “Come on girls!” Elisabeth’s younger aide shouts at us while shaking her hips with conviction on the kitchen-turned-dance floor.
As the temperature rises, the gang makes its way to the local bar where the karaoke machine is hastily attached to a laptop to serve as the sound installation, bonus points for the disco lights. Having burnt more calories to the Spice Girls than on today’s hike, we hit the sack a few hours past bedtime.
"You dance well to Beyoncé"
We wake up at dawn to face the Adishi river, encouraged by fear-mongers, who had made its current sound legendary over the past two days. If we did not cross as early as possible, the glacial water would rise to our chest, or so we had been told.
When we reach the riverbanks, the stream appears to be only ankle-deep with many other hikers wading through barefoot or paying local horsemen for a ride across. As we sit down and contemplate removing our shoes, a voice descends from on top of a horse: “I remember you. You dance well to Beyoncé. Half price for you and your friend.” And so we cross the river cowgirl style, tempted by the prospect of warm, dry feet.
A rhododendron-lined mud path takes us uphill for the next two hours, until the Chkhunderi pass rewards us with out-of-this world views of the Adishi valley and glacier. From there, the trail heads straight down into the opposite valley, where we follow the Khaldechala river all the way to Khalde village, a ghost town we learn was razed by the Russian army in 1876. Its guesthouse – run by the only remaining family – tempts us with coffee.
When we finally reach Iprali, we learn that our little caffeine break has cost us a place in the town’s handful of guesthouses. Along with several other unfortunate latecomers, we are picked up by a guesthouse in a neighbouring town.
"We're sorry for our roads"
Alas, last night’s detour means quite a bit of road walking in the morning until our path crosses the trail again. We join our fellow hikers for a section through the forest before hitting the dusty main road to Ushguli, where mini-vans and cows wrapped up in a slow dance of co-existence.
After a quick drink in the town, we catch a shared taxi back to Mestia and surrender to the driver’s eager honking and manoeuvring on the bumpy, winding roads. “We apologise for the state of this road,” a sign from the Georgian Traffic Department reads. Well, consider yourselves forgiven.
It is close to midnight when we get off the bus at the Desert Highway customs checkpoint. While the bus continues south, Katy and I need to get to Rum village tonight. From there, we will start our hike early morning to arrive on Aqaba's beach three days later.
The officers’ amused looks make me suspect that two blonde girls with large packs must not be a daily sighting. “A bus to Rum? You must have missed the last one, but you can wait and see if one passes by.” Two desk chairs are rolled up and soon we find ourselves hanging out with the men in the terminal, indulging in fresh dates from their family farms.
When asked why my bag is so heavy, I show them the tent, food and six litres of water. “That’s why my belly is so big,” one of them nods. “I drink a lot of water!” The men burst out in laughter, but before long regain their focus on the gravity of the matter: “But, will you be going without a man? How will you find the way?” “We have our GPS.” Silence.
As the only thing passing by seems to be time itself, we give up on waiting for a bus. The officers help us hitch a ride with a lovely family heading to Disi and off we go.
Our good friend Khaled
“Where are you staying?” the father immediately asks. Our plan of pitching the tent in the outskirts of the village at night likely won’t sit well with him. In my two years in the country, Jordanians have always been very protective of me. To not worry our driver, Katy promptly responds: “We’re staying at my friend Khaled’s house in Rum.”
Khaled – a Bedouin whose desert camp Katy had stayed at two years before – is our closest contact in the village. “Great, give me his number so I can let him know you are on the way.” After quickly refreshing Khaled’s memory, Katy hands over her phone and Khaled is notified of our forthcoming arrival.
When the road splits, the family leaves us at a police check point a bit before Rum and wishes us well. Not much later, we are ushered into a second car and oblige to our driver’s request to call Khaled again. “Khaled, I have your foreigners, you better pay me or else,” I overhear, but before I get the chance to panic, he laughs: “Oh, don’t worry, Khaled is my friend. I am just messing with him.”
When we get to the village, we find Khaled waiting for us in front of his house. I feel embarrassed for the way we have disrupted his evening and am expecting some questions about our sudden arrival. Khaled doesn't hesitate, however, and offers us a place to sleep in his office. No need to walk out of the village and set up our tent in the dark. He even offers us some extra blankets to make sure we will be comfortable. Hospitality at its finest.
"Take my gun"
After a short night, we set off into the desert. The whole village seems to be looking out for us and several jeep drivers offer us a ride back: “Where are you going? On foot? Without a man? You will get lost. Do you have enough water? Come back to the village with us. No? Then take my gun with you.”
With a friendly pass on the opportunity to accidentally shoot myself in the foot later, we plod on through the soft sand, startled only by a snake shooting for the dunes. When we reach Wadi Waraqa late afternoon, we set up camp, collect firewood, rehydrate our rice dinner and enjoy the silence.
A Saudi village in Jordan
We descend into the valley and locate the well that is indicated on our map. When Katy pulls up the rusty bucket, a yellowish liquid spouts through the holes. Emergency water at best.
We follow the narrowing valley until Titin appears on the horizon: a sleepy Saudi town that ended up on the Jordanian side of the border after the two kingdoms swapped land in 1965. We are greeted instantly by bleating goats and chickens scurrying left and right. Not another human being in sight, however, and we must find water before continuing our hike into the arid mountains.
Eventually, a young man in dishdasha passes by with a toddler. He guides us to the only shop in town and rushes off to find the shopkeeper. Soon, our new best friend unlocks the metal door and shows us his wares: five shelves displaying biscuits, rice and canned goods, and a fridge filled with soda.
We cannot hide our disappointment at the lack of big water bottles, so the shopkeeper offers to refill our empty ones in his house. When we insist on paying him, he refuses steadfastly. Instead, we purchase a feast of Sprite, Pepsi and canned tomato sauce to liven up our cold soaked couscous.
For the next hour or two, we escape the hot afternoon sun on the doorstep of his shop, admiring photos of his Saudi bride. “I drive down to see her every chance I get,” he says, holding up his passport chock-full of Jordanian border stamps as proof. The entire male population of Titin passes by to great us. One elderly man has his eyes firmly fixed on my hiking poles and, after a quick demonstration, is delighted to give them a go.
When it's time to wake up from our food coma and continue, we quickly realise we have underestimated the scramble required to reach our campsite. The final ten kilometres bear witness to a stream of exhaustion-induced curse words, as I move forward on autopilot. The little energy I have left, is spent on declining the friendly herder’s offer to let us sleep on his farm five times. When we arrive, I am too tired to eat, but ever so grateful to no longer be on my feet.
Over the hills to the industrial site
The spectacular scenery more than compensates for the effort spent clambering over the spiky peaks the next morning. As the Red Sea emerges in the distance, the finish line is in sight.
The real difficulty starts when we leave the mountains behind and enter the industrial site that separates the desert from the beach. For several kilometres, we plough our way through heaps of trash under the scorching sun. Despite our best efforts at stretching whenever we can, every inch of my body aches.
When Aqaba’s surf hotels finally appear, my feet sigh in relief. The most refreshing plunge in the sea washes away the sweat, the tears and the extra layer of skin on my big toe. We did it. We crossed the desert, manlessly.
Of relentless wind and surgery on the breakfast table: Hiking the W trek in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine
“Welcome to Punta Arenas,” the guesthouse owner exclaims as she greets Nicole and I with a hug and a kiss. As a western European for whom physical contact is reserved for special occasions, Chileans’ expressions of hospitality through touch still catch me off guard. I used to think my culture’s social reservedness could be blamed on the weather, but the calor Patagonians radiate so close to the South Pole once and for all puts that theory to bed.
After a stroll through Punta Arenas, we catch the bus to Puerto Natales, where we trim the content of our backpacks until the scale reflects the desired numbers. Do we have enough food on us? Will we be cold at night? Will the wind knock us off our feet? We will find out soon enough.
A slap of wind in the face
In the morning, we make our way to Torres del Paine, Patagonia’s most famous national park. The bus drops us off at Pudeto, from where our journey continues by catamaran to Paine Grande. Hiking the eleven kilometres to Lago Grey had sounded like an easy feat, but the wind soon humbles us and turns every step forward into a personal victory. My sunglasses are whisked away, but spotting the first blocks of ice floating on Lago Grey makes the battle worthwhile.
The night is short. I shiver in my embarrassingly thin sleeping bag, while I listen to the soundtrack of ice chunks breaking free from the glacier and plunging into the lake. In the morning, we get to see the spectacle with our own eyes. The light reflecting off its ice fields gives Grey Glacier a blue appearance. When our limbs start to feel numb, we retrace our steps and head back to Paine Grande.
Clenching my bottle filled with boiling water between my grateful toes, I doze off comfortably. Around 3 AM the wind sends us a wake-up call. Something feels different. But what is it? Our tent stakes are still in place. Then what feels off? One look at the roof provides the answer: a metal tube connecting our tent pole has snapped under the pressure of the wind, slashing through the outer sail, with the pole now pointing straight up to the stars.
A starry, starry night
Responding with a thick layer of duct tape in the morning, we head towards Los Cuernos with our fingers crossed, taking in lovely views of the lake as we slowly walk uphill. After carefully inspecting several sites at Los Cuernos, we pitch our tent close to the rock in a shielded area, or so we think.
Tonight will be the ultimate test for our improvised roof before we hike up to Campamento Torres. The exhaustion kicks in and I sleep like a baby. Until 4 AM, that is, when a particularly loud blow forces me to open my eyes and I find myself staring at a beautiful, starry sky. Our tent sail is gone with the wind.
As I rush out in search of the missing piece of fabric, Nicole attempts to reassemble the tent poles that have once again come undone. “I refuse to risk my life out here,” our neighbour shouts as he sprints past, clinging on to his collapsed shelter. “I am going to sleep on the floor of the refugio.”
I finally locate the sail and start heading back when I hear Nicole scream. The broken metal tube has gashed her hand. As she runs off to the refugio, I stand next to the remnants of our tent, dazed and confused. Do I stay behind to keep the rest of our stuff from blowing away? No, I need to make sure Nicole is alright.
A trail of blood drops guides the way. It is worse than I thought. When I walk in, our neighbour is already helping Nicole clean out the wound, but her pale face tells me she isn’t well, so I knock on every door until a staff member with a first aid kit is found. “Yes, the wind can be very strong here,” he confirms matter-of-factly as he administers a bandaid. “Last month, it blew over a tour bus.”
We spend what’s left of the night on our mats in a shed next to the refugio. Sleep remains nothing more than wishful thinking, however, as I can’t help but check whether the corrugated roof is still in place with every gust of wind traveling from the lake to the mountain and back.
Surgery for breakfast
After breakfast, Nicole still feels nauseous and weak. In the middle of a national park without road access, our options are limited, so we decide to hope for the best. When we are ready to set off, a fellow hiker suggests that the doctor who stayed at the refugio last night could take a quick look.
The idea of peeling off the bandaid again doesn’t immediately excite Nicole, but she accepts the offer. “Yep, you need stitches right now. If you go out with a wound that deep, it will get infected in no time and you might even lose your hand.” Wait, what? “Don’t worry, I’m a traumatologist.” Before we have even begun to digest his words, a full-blown surgery kit is pulled out from his backpack.
The breakfast table is transformed into an emergency room: blue cloth, mouth mask, headlamp, anesthesia, needle and stitches. I hold Nicole’s hand and in a pathetic attempt to distract her, I casually comment on how gorgeous the mountains look. A little loopy from the anesthesia, she is having none of it: “Doctor, you’re hurting me! Doctor, are you sure you’re a real doctor? Don’t put this on YouTube!”
We hit the trail an hour later, good as new thanks to the swift intervention of our new best friend. Our initial plan of climbing up to Campamento Torres to admire the park’s iconic torres at sunrise is officially off the table. Instead, we head for the much less inspiring Camping Central down in the valley, where we rent a sturdier tent for the night.
We drop off our bags and in a desperate move to still catch a glimpse of the torres, we stubbornly start our ascent, foolishly ignoring the thick clouds already gathering at the top of the mountain. After two hours of climbing, the rain and mist serve us another lesson in humility. No tent, no view, and no dry clothes. We laugh off our pitiful attempt with a warm drink before heading back down.
No pain, no fame
At night, someone knocks on our tent sail. “Is Nicole here? The staff at Los Cuernos let us know you were coming. There’s a hotel down the road where they can take a look at your hand.” With nothing better to do, we might as well.
“Hola, the girl from the campsite sent me here,” Nicole explains to the receptionist, whose eyes instantly light up: “You’re Nicole!” How she gained celebrity status overnight becomes clear when he turns his computer screen our way and shows us the surgery photos circulating on the staff's group chat. Even in a national park with hardly any phone connection, word travels fast.
In the morning, we indulge in our cappuccinos while waiting for the bus to take us back to Puerto Natales. We may not have seen the torres del paine, but leave the park having learnt an important lesson: camping in winds of 100km/hour might not be the best idea after all.