The rental car agent remembered me from the weekend before and seemed to be able to sense my urgency of needing to get out of the city. The process took less time than the last and soon I was heading East up a new road to a different mountain valley. I ended up deciding to leave the Workaway for now and stay in a hostel because the hour metro commute and long work days just wasn’t sustainable. So now I’m shuffling my life between hostel rooms/bunks and rental cars, which probably also is not sustainable but for now it’s working. The past week had been full of work and city smog. I had walked home from the metro, apparently after a protest, on Friday and choked on some remnant tear gas. I needed to get up high somewhere.
I was able to get a reservation into Yerba Loca park, one that only allows a certain number of visitors per day to help protect the ecosystem. I reserved Saturday and Sunday in hopes that I could camp for the night (in the back seat of the rental car) and do at least one big hike. The small engine in the rental car whined as I drove up the steep, narrow switchbacks to Yerba Loca, about an hour from Santiago. I had stocked up on food and planned to spend 2 nights in the mountains since I didn’t have bloods to do on Monday.
The park ranger helped me get sorted when I arrived. I checked in and he confirmed that I was planning to hike Cerro Manchan that day. Between checking out of the hostel, getting the car, getting some groceries, and the drive up… I arrived a bit later than I had hoped. It was 11:30 and the hike I wanted to do was a roundtrip of 8 miles with 6000 feet of elevation gain. I asked him if he thought I could still do it that day and, after I assured him that I hike pretty fast, he said probably. He did say I should have good hiking boots though since there are some scrambly bits, but I pointed to the running sneakers I had on and told him that’s all I had right now. He shrugged and said it’d probably be fine. I had to confirm I was also allowed to sleep in the car, since some places don’t like that. I think he was beginning to understand the chaos of my living situation as he laughed and said, “No problem.”
I drove another couple of kilometers to the parking area and quickly threw my pack together and set off up the trail. The sun was hot and the climate here is so dry; I quickly broke a sweat. The trail, or “sendero” in Spanish, started with a gradual incline up the valley, then the turn off for Cerro Manchan broke off from this main valley trail and zigzagged up a steep hillside. From there it crept along the slope of a small valley. I felt the altitude and gain almost immediately after the trail became steep. My legs were screaming and heart was thumping as I tried to keep my normal pace. But I did have to take some breaks and acclimatize a bit. After leaving the valley floor, the trail reached the main ridgeline. I love ridge walking. I love being high and looking down at peaks and valleys below.
The ridge climbed higher as I walked towards the origin of the valley. I saw the remnants of a dead horse and wondered why it had been up here in the first place. At times the trail was tough (it was rated as difficult) and I wondered why I always seem to choose some of the hardest trails in the parks. Sometimes the difficulty of a hike will also cause me to reflect on difficulties I’m experiencing in normal life, I guess it’s a way I work through them – thinking about hard things mentally while my body is also physically working hard. The past week I had been feeling the inklings of loneliness. I didn’t feel this very much during my traveling because, since I was always moving, I didn’t expect to make connections or have a sense of community along the way. But now that I have been stagnant in Santiago for over a month, a feeling of isolation grabbed hold of me. I was tired of having small talk with new people I had just met, I wanted something deeper. I am fortunate to still be in touch with so many friends from afar, but I missed having my people physically around me. As the trail became more vertical and my legs were burning I thought about how this feeling was solely due to my decisions, and that since I chose to do this, I should accept the consequences. Just like the consequences of my throbbing legs from my decision to summit this mountain.
I reached many false summits. Each time I’d think it must be the top, I crested the high point and saw the trail continue beyond. It was pretty incredible how much mountain was above that valley (6000 feet!). I passed three parties who were coming down from the summit, all were surprised I was up there alone and also told me they close the gate at 6 PM for vehicles. I assured them that I was fine and that I was camping there that night so I could be up there late. Eventually, the trail crossed a narrow section of the ridge that required some scrambling, then some switchbacks up scree to reach the true summit of Cerro Manchon at 12,250 feet.
The view from the summit, or “cumbre,” was absolutely incredible. I could look and follow the ridges and valleys down into the start of the valley where glacial run off started the streams that eventually run the entire length. I looked across to the base of the valley and up at 17,000 foot peaks with glaciers clinging to their edges. The sun was low and threw shadows that made wild patterns across the slopes. Cerro Alto caught my attention as it loomed over the other peaks. I traced the ridgelines and of course wondered how I could get there.
It was below freezing, and the wind whipped so hard that it was hard to see between the hair in my face and my eyes being blasted. Without the gear from my van, I only had a rain jacket and a sweater but the stoke to be up there allowed me to ignore the cold. All of the negative thoughts and frustrations that were bouncing around in my head disappeared up here. After adjusting to the altitude, I love the feeling of being so high. To me, it feels like a slight euphoric feeling caused by a bit less oxygen. I was giddy and happy, and found new energy to hike to other parts around the summit to see different angles into the valley. I knew the next time I came to Yerba Loca, I’d be hiking the lowlands into the valley to look up at those monstrous peaks.
I had summitted at around 4:30 PM and wandered around the summit for about half an hour. Eventually, I knew I’d have to head down, even if it was hard to leave such an intense and stunning place. I retraced my steps back down the scree and across the scrambly ridge. The sun was just about to drop behind the mountains when I decided I wanted to wait and watch it, not rush back. I had my headlamp so I would be able to navigate in the dark, and there was something mesmerizing about the light and shadows that I couldn’t find a good reason not to stay. I munched on nuts and dried fruit while watching the colors change from bright orange to hot pink to a lilac purple. New ridgelines appeared and faded while the colors of the sky changed. I had missed being up in the mountains at this hour.
The sun dropped behind the farthest mountains, I packed up my snacks and began to head back. I was still on the big, main ridgeline so I was high enough that light from the set sun lingered. I gently worked my way along the trail by the light in the sky. A calm breeze wrapped around me and all was quiet. I walked that ridge for maybe another half hour by the light of the sunset. I’m not religious or spiritual, but I couldn’t help but feel like the light in the sky stayed a bit longer for me to find my way. I had friends in the sun and the stars. I actually quite like being in the mountains alone. And I liked that I knew not a single other person was up on that ridge being guided by the sunset. It felt like a secret to have experienced something so beautiful while doing what I loved.
Once I descended from the main ridge line down to the side valley, it was dark enough that I could no longer feel my way along the trail and needed to use my light. The moon rose behind me and was masked with crimson red clouds. At times, some of the trail was a bit sketchy in the dark but I always managed to find my way. However, at one point when I lost the faint trail completely and was scanning the hillside with my headlamp, I did notice another headlamp across the valley… appearing to be pointed directly to me. I hoped it was just another hiker and not someone that was concerned about me. I was totally fine and did not need any help, it was my choice to come down in the dark. I found the trail again and quickly cruised back along the gentle valley trail to the car. A jack rabbit and I scared each other half to death, I ran into some suspicious cows, then sleepy horses, and eventually back to the car by 9 PM.
I woke up this morning quite cramped in the back seat, since in this car the seats don’t fold down. After a short hike to a condor lookout (I didn’t see any), I was repacking the car when I heard, “Kelly?” Shocked because I rarely hear my name, I turned to see it was the park ranger I had spoken with the day before. It was actually him the night before with the headlamp walking the trail on the other side of the valley! He said, at first, he was concerned but then he figured I was probably fine when he saw me moving more quickly when I found the trail again. I apologized for any worry and told him I do stuff like this all the time and should’ve said no need to be concerned if I come back at night. He said it was amusing to watch me find my way down the ridge and no worries at all. He mentioned a few other hikes I should do in the valley, so I’ll definitely be back up here.
On my hike to the condor lookout this morning, I looked back up the valley at the ridge I walked the night before. It looked so high and so far away and I couldn’t help but smile thinking I was walking it with the last light the day before. This life really is something else.
I’m writing this from the trunk of the rental car, enjoying a beer, parked in the Valle Nevado. I drove around the valley for a bit to explore. I think I’ll take a short walk at sunset to the cliff nearby. It’s really incredible here.
Updated map of where I’ve been sleeping, here!