TRAVEL CONFESSIONS: That Tarn Mountain In Patagonia
Story: Andreea Lotak; Photos: Justin Lotak · 8 min read
I’m not a hiker, really.
My story of summiting a peak ended with a lousy failure, right here in Patagonia, four years ago. It was this obscure mountain, Tarn they call it, which like every other place so far seems to have a connection with Charles Darwin if one searches for it on Google. He went up there one windy, foggy day, and pretty much said it sucked. In his own words: ”The strong wind was piercingly cold, and the atmosphere rather hazy, so that we did not stay long on the top of the mountain”. With that in mind, I went up completely unprepared, still jet lagged and with a hangover from one week of celebrating a new life at world’s end. It also happened to be the hottest day on record in 20 years in the region.
Luckily, I was wearing black, thick, ski pants and a winter coat, and had forgotten my water bottle and hiking poles. At this point, I’m a lost cause and one that doesn’t shine too bright either. Within the first five minutes on the trail, a steep climb from the beach directly toward the sky, I seriously considered I wasn’t going to make it. But my group seemed so fresh and so cool that I was deeply embarrassed to prove everyone’s expectations right so soon after we had started. So I kept pushing, until I lost the trail an hour into it. With one good samaritan staying behind with me, I decided it was time to find a bush, hide behind it and let the urge of throwing up come to fruition. Dehydrated and sweating, I still considered the idea of eventually getting to the top, until I looked up and saw the silhouettes of the rest of the group on the peak. I realized it would take me a different lifestyle, a different mindset, better preparation, maybe some exercise, and probably another hour or two before I could join them up there. Therefore, I made the tough decision of turning around since none of those things would happen any time soon, but not before finding a river from where I gulped water and laid myself on a chunk of ice. A sense of relief came with this decision, alongside the emotional damage control center running at full speed. I was ashamed, but tried to brush it off. I started looking around me to observe the amazing vegetation molded by the force of brutal winds constantly sweeping through this region. Then, down on the beach, I went and dipped my feet for a short moment into the freezing water of the Strait. I was still a winner in my books because there I was, still where I wanted to be, still surrounded by a magical landscape and by playful dolphins saluting the sun from the waves. Yet, another feeling started to seep through, a sense of who I wanted to be, a growing part of me that needed to climb that mountain and many others after.
“It’s beautiful and terrifying at once for my urbanized mind to think that death is not a tragedy, but merely a stage in a cycle. I’m getting more accustomed to this feeling every time I’m out there.”
That’s the beginning of a story that is now my new life. That has been my life since I came here to Patagonia to find what I wasn’t knowingly looking for. My feet and hiking boots have seen many miles since, with muscles more disciplined and the feeling of dying while climbing a steep slope, gone. I’ve been up Mt. Tarn eventually and recently passed by it on our way to Cape Froward. Wilderness has been the host of me for quite a few nights now, with starry skies and unforgiving rains. Yet I still feel like a stranger here, a kid stepping into a mansion whose door was cracked and is breaking every law by entering. Nature still scares me with what Edward Abbey so wonderfully captures in essence in “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness” — it remains unmoved by my presence, it doesn’t care whether I live or die. It’s beautiful and terrifying at once for my urbanized mind to think that death is not a tragedy, but merely a stage in a cycle. I’m getting more accustomed to this feeling every time I’m out there. Recently, while hiking through the Karukinka park in Tierra del Fuego, I saw the bone of a guanacowhich had moss starting to grow on it. I found it refreshing, the thought that I could become a moss garden like so many of the fallen trees around me. The more I get myself into the woods, the less I feel like a foreign object that got randomly blown here by the city wind. Now, after being confronted with most of my fears, I’ve gained the appetite for the great unknown, while the fear of it still takes over from time to time. My heart still jumps out of my chest if at night a squirrel is moving through the leaves and I imagine it’s a bear the size of China. I wonder anxiously at 4 AM while laying in the tent, staring at century-old trees bending over me, whether it will be a branch or the whole thing that will fall over and crush us. And did I already consider the possibility of a brown recluse or some other weird insect taking refuge in my sleeping bag? Those are times when I ponder whether what I feel about being in nature is love and gratitude, or hate inspired by fear.
So, why do I do it? Why did I start going out there to give myself minor heart-attacks, blisters and back pains while carrying my legs and my backpack along muddy trails? Maybe it’s a quest of digging through my DNA to uncover the long forgotten roots of my inner hunter-gatherer. Or maybe it’s a mission to wonder through places that I’m afraid will soon vanish; the thought of losing something essential that I never got the chance to know; the intimacy with a landscape that is larger than time, and yet so fragile. Then, there’s the fact that instant gratification doesn’t really exist here. I have to slowly conquer this space with my legs and with everything needed for survival strapped to my back; become one with the landscape after I’ve gotten my ass kicked. I make my way through an old-growth forest and I feel like finding a lost home where I don’t belong anymore, but which I know holds the story of my origins. I keep telling myself like a mantra that this is the place where we all collectively used to be our best selves. A few enlightened minds have expressed the thought that one can’t love what one doesn’t know. I used to love nature seen through screens of all sorts or discovered in books, but not with the same commitment. The quiet gratitude instilled by seeing a sunrise over a forest canopy from a windy peak is the foundation of a deep, abstract passion that borders a religious mystery. It’s also a space of connection with human cultures from the past and present for whom wilderness was a home that needed it not be tamed or subdued, whose sacred blessing was a source of life and of fulfillment of all humanly needs.
Sometimes, when I’m hiking and it gets lonely and I expect a puma to jump on my back — maybe because my Eastern European origins have blessed me with some dark, dramatic and fatalistic thoughts — it gets tense and I start fantasizing with guilt of the comfort of a quaint town with a taco truck and a large group of people chilling by a fire pit. I think of it swallowing the image of the trail, taming it for my ease. But I would never allow for this to be the rational choice if I were the decision-maker on whether the whole world should go back to being a giant wilderness or become a comfortable urban space with food trucks. I guess this is the closest I can come to an explanation for putting myself through the long marches on solitary trails: it’s the choice that I want to make. Walking through these wild lands is the story that I choose for myself because the fears that sometimes dominate me while being here scare me less than those I experience in a sedentary city life. These marches teach me to come to terms with my limited existence by connecting me with a world older than anything man-made. I’ve joined the ranks of urbanites looking for a cure for their ailments in the quiet, endless landscapes that aren’t dominated by humans. And it works. I doubt it sometimes, I even hate it. It confuses me because I wonder why at this point I’m still not fully at ease with it, or whether I’ll ever be, but it would kill my spirit to stop doing it. That’s why I’ve now chosen a path that will force me to always be tied up to these wild places that are constantly diminishing worldwide.
We need this kind of nature that doesn’t see us for our individuality, but for our wholesomeness as part of a collective of life. It will take our bodies and turn them into something new, blurring the line that separates a human’s importance from that of a guanaco. We need it even when we don’t know it, when we don’t really want to know it because our artificial environments keep us happy. We should want it free of our dominance, so that we can reach out to it for inspiration, education, inexplicable beauty, or cure. So that we can wonder off, and in its dirt find ourselves wholesome.
The view from the top of Monte Tarn. Darwin stands corrected — it's actually a pretty incredible place.