Worthwhile Distractions

Lines and bags in Santiago

Aside from general insanity, climbing mountains requires a specific mental state. The best mountaineers can ignore fatigue, ignore discomfort, and remain completely focused on each step, each movement of their body. It is not an inherent trait; it must be practiced like anything else. I find that packing bags, buying food and traveling to the mountain help me enter this necessary frame of mind. These activities are subconscious indicators of the impending climb. They bring focus and readiness.

Penguin watching, floating in the hotel pool, eating breakfast buffets, napping has the opposite effect. Lethargic days repeated don’t prepare your body for continuous exercise in cold temperatures. The ever lagging state of readiness that we now endure, broken occasionally by touristy field trips and lobby powwows, is actually becoming an obstacle in itself. Patience is a virtue that every mountaineer will, at some point, be forced to cultivate. For us, that time is now.

Touching the Indian’s toe gives me good luck and ensures I will return to Punta Arenas. 

We wake early each morning, hoping that a ringing phone and Dave Hahn’s voice will signal that the windless weather required for landing on the blue ice runway has finally arrived. So far though, too-comfortable beds, hot showers and savory deseyuno have not been interrupted by rushed departure. Complacency, the climber’s worst cerebral virus, is setting in.

To break the cycle of inactive waiting, I went for a run yesterday morning. Assaulted by rotten maritime odors, I followed the newly created esplanade until it became a construction zone and I was forced to jump over open manholes, dodge wire fences, balance along concrete dividers. It was Sunday but there were still workers drilling holes into the fresh sidewalk. Rusty yellow machines had pressed salty garbage heaps into corners, red plastic bags half covered in rocky soil and sand, rough archaeology that made the place feel like a post-dinner kitchen, utensils and leftovers strewn carelessly about, waiting for someone to clean them up. The workers were trying to clean up, you could tell, but the in-betweeness was almost worse.

I bolted left, away from the water, and into a neighborhood of squat buildings with many iron gates, dogs barking behind the bars, wanting to run with me or after me. I could smell barbecues, a sweet asada odor, perhaps corn and definitely meat. Sunshine elbowed through clouds, got a sight of my neck, followed me for a while like a spotlight on a criminal. People glanced, never stared, as I passed.

My run was not long. I didn’t want to get sore. My loitering blood flow had moved on with my heartbeat. I returned to the hotel room—white walls, queen beds, ocean view—stretched, grabbed a towel, went to the pool.

Dos Penguinas Magellanicas

To occupy the afternoon, the group traveled to a penguin colony called Turis-Otway, about an hour drive over washboard roads through terrain so long it could only be Chilean. We passed a copper mine, Brent explaining the greenish-yellow hues as a sign of geothermal activity along a fault line—he is a hydrologist, a professional water taster as he calls it. The tour guide, a white bearded, jeans-wearing Chilean with a rueful smile named Ramon, pointed out conejo and rhea in the windswept pastures along the side of the road.

When we arrived at the penguin colony and dismounted from the still vibrating van, we could hear the penguins. The cacophonous braying sounded Jurassic, but entering the teeming park, I saw that the penguins—they were all Magellanic penguins—were actually quite tiny, about the size of a few month old baby.

“They sound like crying mules eh?” said Ramon.

A penguin baby hiding beneath walkway

A ripe odor, much like the one I had smelled while running on the beach, floated amongst grass tufts, hillocks of bright flowers, dark earth, like fog clinging to a morning shore. We spent hours snapping photos, reading informational signs, cooing at the charming, cute penguins. We would have stayed longer if Ramon had not gently barked for us to return to the car. Although the sky was still bright, it was already 7:45pm. This far south in January the sun doesn’t set until almost 11pm. We had plenty of daylight, but we also had hope that we would be flying in the morning and the washboard road that brought us here still required negotiating.

I think everyone was distracted a bit by the field trip; it took our minds off the uncooperative weather, but only momentarily. Dinner, hotel showers, soft sheets didn’t remind me of our impending ice-capade. Warm clothes piled in the corner, my puffy down jacket, my astronaut-worthy boots were the items that brought me back to reality. Falling to sleep with a full stomach and warm toes was easy. Perhaps my last thought, as I closed my book, turned out the light and pulled the sheets up to my chin, was: I hope I get woken in the morning by a phone call instead of an alarm. And I’ll be hoping for the same thing tonight.


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