Sunday, September 28, 2008

Chilean Scree

In December of 1996 I travelled to Termas de Chillán, Chile for a meeting as part of the work I was doing at the time for the National Science Foundation. I flew to Santiago, and then took a flight on LanChile to Concepción, where I got a rental car for the drive to Chillán. The drive was quite long, several hours, but it was through country that was beautiful -- Chile always reminds me so much of Colombia that I never mind driving there.

Chillán is a largish town in the peneplane of the Andes, laid out in a typical Spanish colonial plan - plaza mayor with a church, the alcaldía, etc. - colored half-walls wish whitewashed tops. I could have been anywhere in Boyacá. A small road lead out of Chillán towards the hot springs, or termas, which I took, and soon left the pavement for a fairly smooth gravel road, which would its way through the foothills towards the mountains. In the distance, as a surreal backdrop to the town, was the volcano of Chillán, a beautiful cone with a snow-capped peak. As is usual at high altitudes, it looked a lot closer than it actually was, because the air is so clear. Slowly, the farm clearings were less frequent, and I realized that the seemingly endless pine forests of Chile were all artificial - they have been replanted with European species to replace the abandoned farmlands of the first wave of settlers that have fled to the cities. The native forests of Chile are starkly different from the pine forests - the first thing that strikes you is the stunning number of different types of trees - and the 'roughness' of the leaf cover. A riot of cellulose, thrown carelessly over the steep hillsides, covered in lichen, moss, and creepers. Among these forests were all sorts of cabins for what I guess were winter (June-July) holiday-makers, who wanted to be near the ski slopes in Termas.

As I sped along the road, I saw a dark shape on the road ahead, and quickly realized that it was someone lying in the road, next to a bicycle. I hate to say it, but my first thought was: "ambush," and I brought the car to a slow crawl next to the unfortunate soul - I rolled down the window, and carefully looked at him and at the surrounding trees as I crunched by on the dry gravel. There was no movement - none. He did not look injured, no blood, no scrapes, not even torn clothing, which made me suspicious. I stopped the car, locking my doors, and thought hard about what to do. In the US or Europe, there was no question about what to do. Get out and help. But here... I thought about blowing the horn, and I decided that might help, if not startle the victim, so I sat for several minutes blowing the horn. Nothing. Not from the limp rag on the ground, not from the cabins along the road, not from the dark trees. Finally, I had to leave. What else could I do? I was quite afraid of being attacked, or worse, kidnapped. Perhaps this was Colombian hysteria invading a safe part of Chile, or memories of my Moroccan roadblock experience, but I decided to head off to see if I could find other people to come back with. A few miles farther down the road, I found a police station, and I roused an officer there and told him of what I had found. The police officer headed off back down the road on a horse. I never did find out what happened, but I felt that I had done all I could for the man. I headed on to the Termas and to my meeting, climbing ever higher into the mountains.

The Termas are really a cluster of Germanic chalets centered about a set of hot springs. There is a ski complex for which this all serves as a typical base lodge during the winter, with a set of chair lifts etc. The meeting was going well (it had already started by the time I arrived), and I was simply there to give a speech, and not really to take part in many of the discussions, so I had a great deal of spare time. During much of the spare time, people would wander off on some of the many forest trails for walks. Some of these walks were quite strenuous, as they climbed steep mountain trails that headed off to different hot springs, mud baths, and sulphur pits in the area. Again, looming over all this was the volcano, looking ever so much closer. I took several walks, each longer and longer, seeing how high I could climb in the surrounding mountains - several times I got above the clouds, and was able to see for hundreds of miles over the amazing ranges nearby.

Each time, I could see that the volcano was actually on the next range over, and that a days' hike would easily bring one to the snow line on the side of the mountain itself. I decided to take the next day and climb at least to the snow line, and to the summit if the time went well. I got up very early, before sunrise, gathered some food, my camera, and put on several layers of clothes. Feeling satisfied that I was ready, I headed off, and drove to the bottom of the path that I had found up at the stem baths, headed past the sulphur vents, past the bubbling mud pits, and up far along the trail, until the car was a tiny green dot, and the base complex was a set of small buildings thousands of feet below. I reached the end of the trail within an hour or so after that, and continued up into the clouds, clambering over rocks that were literally shattered from the daily freezing and thawing they went through at his height. It was a beautifully sunny day, and I soon had to peel off my outer layer to cool down. I had brought along some water and some trail mix, which I carefully rationed out as the day wore on. Even though the marked trail had ended, it was obvious other people had come before me -- small cairns were erected along the faint footpath, and here and there there was the careless litter of other hikers. Soon there was snow covering the ground on the more sheltered parts of the path, and soon I had to pick my way across large sheets of it, punching my feet through the upper crust of ice to get a foothold. Above, always over the next ridge, was the volcano, drifting in and out of the clouds. I picked out my path as I came to higher vantage points, headed in the general direction of a saddle that I could see linking my ridge with the slopes of the volcano.

By noon time, I could tell that I would certainly not make it to the summit -- the volcano was a lot larger, and a lot farther away than I had originally judged. What was obvious was that I would be able to make it to the permanent snow line, and cross over to the top of the ski lift, where the rest of the Conference was headed for an afternoon outing. Once they turned on the chair lift for the group. I could easily get home without the exhausting trek back downhill.

As I came over one spectacular set of ridges, I could make out that the saddle was now quite close, but below me. The only way this could be so was if there were a set of steep cliffs between my position and the saddle. As I moved sideways several hundred yards to get a better view of the topography in front of me, I realized with dismay that there was indeed a set of steep cliffs on my previous path, and that there was no immediate way to get from the ridge I was on down to the saddle and across to the volcano without climbing down the cliff face, or traversing an enormous scree slope.

A scree slope is an interesting feature - as the cliffs weather, pieces of rock splinter off and fall down to form piles of broken rock, ranging from pebbles to pieces just heavy enough not to be able to lift. All of this 'scree' formed a steep slope sitting at the angle of repose that started at the foot of the cliffs and dropped several thousand feet into the valley below. I knew crossing scree slopes was dangerous. I knew doing it alone was doubly dangerous. No one at the conference really knew where I was -- one person did know I was on the volcano, but as I was finding out, it was a very big place to look for a very small person. I could clearly see the chair lift, about a mile away (or so I judged, but I was now questioning all estimates of distance), and I knew that the walk back was difficult. The scree slope was about 800 yards across. To make it worse, the clouds had started to come in, and a stiff wind had started to blow. I pulled the hood of my anorak over my head, and tightened it around my face, sealing out the wind, and decided to cross the scree slope.

I slowly started to crawl on all fours, distributing my weight evenly so that I could avoid shifting too many stones. Several times my shoes caught on the sharp edges of the shattered stones, and the disturbed rocks would start to roll, crashing down the slope until they were too far away to see. I made good progress, and was about five hundred yards out on the scree slope when I realized that my blood sugar was getting low, and that I was beginning to get more and more careless.

Then I heard, or rather felt, a sound that made my blood freeze. A very low rumble shook the entire slope, and I felt the scree shift underneath me. I began to think about what the angle of repose meant - that the slope was unstable, and that anything - a careless hiker, for example - could set off a massive rock slide. If the scree face shifted, I stood a good chance of going down with it, and being buried and chewed up by the grinding rocks. I very carefully lowered myself onto the rock face and listened. Only the wind whistled by, carrying a few droplets of rain and sleet. I started to shake with fear, and fought rising panic that was tightening around my throat.

I knew I had to sit tight, calm myself, and either continue or turn back immediately. A, I thought about you and your mother, and how much I loved you both. I moaned and started to cry as I thought about you growing up without me, never knowing how I had died in the Andes, I thought about my mother, who was so sick and how this would affect her. I desperately wanted some miracle to occur, and to be magically transported away from the scree and back to Virginia.

By this time, of course, things were compounding. The clouds had closed in, and the drops had turned into snowflakes - it was now snowing, and I realized that I could no longer see the chair lift, or much of the slope of the volcano. I also knew that the snow was slowly covering up my tracks, and that if it started to snow hard, I stood a good chance of getting lost. I had to make an immediate decision. Trembling, I turned back the way I came, and inched back across what seemed an endless skirt of scree.

I don't know how long it took me to get off the slope, and I have since regretted not taking photos of that last part (I think the film had run out), even if it was to leave some scrap of evidence for people to look at if the camera was found. Needless to say, I did make it back down the mountain to the car, and back to the hotel room and my Conference. I haven't gone climbing alone since, and haven't gone near a scree slope, even when with someone else.

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