THIS PLACE OF DARK­NESS

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Dan Mil­ner un­in­ten­tion­ally in­ves­ti­gates the most haunt­ing ques­tion of them all: When do you save your­self rather than some­one else? Only on the world’s south­ern­most sin­gle­track in the midst of a roar­ing tem­pest could this hap­pen to the man known for ad­ven­ture.

Noth­ing dis­tracts from the nau­sea that’s claw­ing at my gut. Not the bit­ing wind rob­bing all

feel­ing from my wet, wrin­kled fin­gers, nor the

shards of sun­light stab­bing through heavy

clouds like a dag­ger rip­ping an oily tar­pau­lin.

A few tri­umphant rays dance across this bar­ren,

god­for­saken moun­tain­side. Any other time this

would be a marvel—but here, now—they of­fer lit­tle

so­lace. I am gripped by the grav­i­tas that one

of our crew is miss­ing. Some­where on this wild,

un­tamed is­land, lost in a swirl of freez­ing fog, hail

and sleet is Clau­dio. We have no idea where he

is, or how he is. I don’t want to even en­ter­tain the

ques­tion of whether he’s alive. I want to vomit.

The faces of my five fel­low riders mir­ror my con­cerns. We peer out from drip­ping hoods, blow into our clenched hands and shout above the gale that’s claw­ing at our last rem­nants of en­ergy. We have to make a plan, and quickly. It’s been a nine-hour death march to get to this point—the last three un­der a bar­rage of hail and snow—and none of us wants to back­track to look for Clau­dio, to pro­long acute dis­com­fort. In­side, I’m wrestling emo­tions: al­tru­ism bat­tling self-preser­va­tion. I’m sure I’m not alone.

Ex­plor­ing the south­ern­most trail on the planet is no place for com­pla­cency, but com­pla­cent is what we’ve been. And now it might have cost us dearly. We’re only five hours from night­fall, brac­ing and grit­ting against an­other mer­ci­less drop in tem­per­a­ture. Our lost rider is not equipped to overnight this des­o­late moun­tain­top—no­body is. We have no cell sig­nal, no ‘sat’ phone and no emer­gency lo­ca­tor bea­cons. Just a rain-sod­den map and a com­pass. I curse my­self for not tak­ing the lead—for not pulling out the ex­pe­ri­ence card and in­sist­ing that we talk about prepa­ra­tion and gear needs, about con­se­quences and whatthe-fuck-to-do-if-it-all-goes-to-shit. But it’s too late for that now. In­stead, last night we drank our body weights in lo­cal ale and dev­as­ta­tion has since fol­lowed each foot­step. Now we’re just four hy­pother­mic riders jug­gling bad de­ci­sions on a re­mote Chilean hill­side. Sur­rounded by dark wa­ter. Known for its wrath. Ironic that the peak we’re now try­ing to cross is called Monte Mis­e­ria, or Mount Mis­ery.

Of course, emer­gen­cies are hard to fore­see and our in­au­gu­ral rides on the is­land of Navarino cat­alyzed our com­pla­cency. Even hang­ing off the re­mote, south­ern tip of Chile, life had been pleas­ant. Six days ear­lier, we mus­cled tires over dry root tan­gles, dust hang­ing midair while wrap­ping through end­less, wind­ing de­scents. Our bare fore­arms had lav­ished in Patag­o­nia’s life­giv­ing sunshine as shad­ows of black-faced ibis skimmed mead­ows of golden grass. Warm and idyl­lic weren’t ex­pected here, es­pe­cially know­ing Patag­o­nia’s in­fa­mous me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal mood swings.

When I first looked into rid­ing this un­com­pro­mis­ing lump of rock, Google belched back a dozen hik­ers’ blogs that res­onated pain rather than plea­sure. But the prom­ise of be­ing the first

riders to dip into the Dientes de Navarino cir­cuit—a 32-mile, rel­a­tively un­trod­den trekking route that winds through its spec­tac­u­lar name­sake moun­tains—was enough to lure me to Navarino. Plan­ning the trip with Chilean friend Javier Aguilar, word reached other riders, and Daniel Franco, Den­nis Beare and Ryan Sti­mac made their pil­grim­ages from Santiago, Chile, Canada and Colorado to join us. On ar­rival we found Navarino’s sole moun­tain biker, Clau­dio Oso­rio, ea­gerly wait­ing. Oso­rio, we quickly learned, had quit his job at the is­land’s hospi­tal so he could come ride with us.

We base-camped 8 miles into the Dientes cir­cuit and pushed our bikes up steep trails walled in by jagged peaks. Laugh­ing at our dif­fer­ences in fit­ness, the group’s bond be­came ce­mented by shared dis­com­fort as sunshine was usurped by hail and snow. And when we fi­nally ex­ited the Dientes trail three days later, we rode high on a sense of achieve­ment: We’d tasted Navarino’s chal­lenges, chewed them and were hun­gry for more.

Mount Mis­ery’s trail was never on the orig­i­nal menu—I’d found no men­tion of it on­line and it wasn’t marked on my map—but it sur­faced dur­ing a meet­ing with the is­land’s mayor,

MOUNT MIS­ERY’S TRAIL WAS NEVER ON THE ORIG­I­NAL

MENU.

Pa­tri­cio Fer­nan­dez, in Puerto Wil­liams. He told us of a lit­tle-used trail that starts from Puerto Toro, the south­ern­most set­tle­ment in the world, and threads its way 20 or so miles to the north coast. Fer­nan­dez had me at ‘south­ern­most.’ I didn’t re­ally care how the trail was.

The next morn­ing, we were in a 30-foot sup­ply boat pass­ing ship­wrecked re­minders of the Bea­gle Chan­nel’s schiz­o­phrenic ten­den­cies. Charts of this re­gion are dot­ted with names that mark the strug­gles of ill-pre­pared set­tlers to this storm-rav­aged cor­ner of the planet— Des­o­la­tion Is­land, Port Famine, Fury Har­bour and of course, Mount Mis­ery. For many be­fore us, this has proven a dark place.

Our boat slows into the idyl­lic, tran­quil bay that har­bors the clus­ter of cor­ru­gated tin roofs and rust­ing satel­lite dishes that is Puerto Toro, pop­u­la­tion: 20. Dense lenga beech trees tum­ble to the wa­ter’s edge, and nes­tled be­tween tow­er­ing piles of crab fish­ing pots an ef­figy of Je­sus cow­ers be­neath a sheet of plex­i­glass. A cara­binero helps un­load our bikes from the boat and smiles with be­muse­ment at our planned route. “It’s a swamp,” he says.

Cross­ing this ‘swamp’ the next morn­ing takes five hours. We granny gear across an en­ergy-sap­ping mat­tress of moss that oozes un­der our tires, skirt count­less pools with wa­ter the color of tar and weave be­tween skele­tal trees, their limbs bleached white as ivory. Oc­ca­sion­ally a branch is knot­ted with an orange rib­bon—the mark­ers lead­ing us safely across this raw wilder­ness. It’s a stark but beau­ti­ful land­scape, and we’re lucky to be ped­al­ing through it un­der cloud­less skies. But that all changes when we reach the foot of Mount Mis­ery.

The clouds gather quickly from the west, un­leash­ing the first drops of rain that have us quickly reach­ing for our Gore-Tex. We sit in the shel­ter of wind-twisted trees, their dark, tor­mented shapes loom­ing over us like sooth­say­ers of doom. We dis­cuss op­tions. “We need to de­cide a cut-off point,” says Aguilar. I counter that it’s too late for that now. Be­hind us is a soul-de­stroy­ing, five-hour slog, and no one wants to re­peat it. While we face a steep hikea-bike to reach the 2,100-foot sum­mit of Mount Mis­ery, we rea­son that once on the ridge­line away from the low­land bog, our go­ing should be eas­ier. Our rea­son­ing hugely un­der­es­ti­mates the whims of this is­land.

The wind slams us as soon as we stum­ble onto the scree-cov­ered moun­tain­side. It scours ice pel­lets across our red­dened faces be­fore sen­tenc­ing them to a fate sealed far­ther off in the saline em­brace of the At­lantic. At Mis­ery’s sum­mit, we re­mount our bikes and be­gin an ar­du­ous grind north. We have 10 miles of ridge­line be­fore the fi­nal drop down to the Bea­gle Chan­nel. Here, in the shadow of a cou­ple of fish­ing huts, at the east­erly ter­mi­nus of the is­land’s one road, Oso­rio’s girl­friend will be wait­ing with his pickup truck. At least that’s the plan. We can­not change it. Once we leave Toro, there is no cell phone cov­er­age, no dwellings and no other trail op­tions. Con­tinue or turn back: Mis­ery is a com­mit­ting call.

En­veloped in swirling fog, the ride along the

CON­TINUE OR TURN BACK: MIS­ERY

IS A COM­MIT­TING CALL.

SOME­WHERE BE­HIND US,

OSO­RIO PUSHES. AND THEN HE IS

GONE.

whale-backed ridge­line north from Mount Mis­ery be­comes a four-hour death march. We’re re­peat­edly blown side­ways off line, and stag­ger to place a foot among jagged rocks—a thou­sand an­kle-break­ing bear traps in wait­ing. Two hours in, we tum­ble from our bikes to seek refuge among stunted shrubs. Beare’s jacket zip snags and breaks. I wring out cold, brown wa­ter from my socks. And again we dis­cuss op­tions—as if we have any. A fleet­ing open­ing in the mist al­lows us a com­pass bear­ing on a ship­wreck we’d passed in the Bea­gle Chan­nel a day ear­lier but it con­firms the worst—that we’re not as far as we’d hoped. Shout­ing over the gust­ing wind and the tack-tack-tack of hail bounc­ing off hoods, Aguilar and Franco ar­gue for flee­ing the ridge­line and de­scend­ing to the coast. It’s a short­cut out of im­me­di­ate trou­ble, but with no trail at the wa­ter’s edge, it’s one that risks us be­com­ing lost among the tan­gle of rocks and thick, im­pen­e­tra­ble un­der­growth. For the first time I feel the true grav­ity of our sit­u­a­tion. I scan my mind for so­lu­tions, but our op­tions are few and not one is good. So we grind on­ward, heads down shield­ing eyes from the blast­ing sleet, fol­low­ing a vague line of trail marker posts that loom out of swirling fog. Some­where be­hind us, Oso­rio pushes. And then he is gone.

We wait. Twenty min­utes goes by but it feels like an eter­nity, and then we back­track to the sum­mit, sur­vey­ing the trail we’ve rid­den. The chill­ing re­al­iza­tion that Oso­rio is lost is fol­lowed by the more gut-wrench­ing de­ci­sion to leave him. We can do noth­ing more and our own bod­ies are shak­ing un­con­trol­lably. Hy­pother­mia is set­ting in and self-preser­va­tion is ar­gu­ing its cor­ner. We need to get to Puerto Wil­liams and raise a res­cue he­li­copter to look for Oso­rio. We need to get off this damned moun­tain.

The icy wind bites deep into my core. I’m shiv­er­ing, ex­hausted and hun­gry. The feel­ing of be­ing pow­er­less in this dire sit­u­a­tion is over­whelm­ing. We’ve made mis­takes, bad calls, ill judge­ments and our piti­less sur­round­ings have cap­i­tal­ized. Amid the un­tamed beauty around us, there is dark­ness. I feel sick. And I’m not alone.

FOOT­NOTE: We ar­rived in Puerto Wil­liams at 11 p.m.—too late to raise the he­li­copter. Oso­rio ap­peared at the fish­ing huts at first light, 12 hours later, hav­ing aban­doned the dead­weight that was his bike some­where on the ridge in the storm, a de­ci­sion that likely saved his life. He de­scended the thick, knot­ted for­est to the shore­line and hugged it as far as the fish­er­man’s huts. Never giv­ing up on his friend, Aguilar was there wait­ing for him. Oso­rio had se­cond-stage hy­pother­mia. It took him five weeks to re­cover his bike from the ridge.

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