Three days ago on Day 24 (Monday, February 20, 2012) I was finally going to come face to face with Cerro Chaltén (aka Mount Fitz Roy). Several years ago Maggie, Lucas, Lucía and I were at Chaltén’s foot, but the clouds concealed the mountain from us. You would probably recognize Chalten’s contour because the logo of Patagonia, Inc.—the Ventura, California-based outdoor clothing company—bears a striking resemblance to Cerro Chaltén and the surrounded peaks as viewed from the Patagonian steppe. Little did I know that I was going to be looking at Chaltén’s silhouette through a narrow slit of unpainted glass on the window of an ambulance.
The morning at Casa de Piedra was cold and windy. We had a long day ahead of us because we were hoping to reach El Chaltén Village and at least half of the ride was going to be on gravel. We left Casa de Piedra relatively early heading towards Bajo Caracoles where we needed to get gas. Ruta 40 is being completely paved in Patagonia—a decision made by former President Nestor Kirchner (now deceased), husband of the current President of Argentina, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner. The paving work on route 40 is progressing relatively slowly so there are many sections with poorly maintained detours. We reached the sticker-covered gas pumps of the only gas station in Bajo Caracoles to find out there wasn’t any gas. We carry carboys with gas, but we did not have enough to get to Tres Lagos so we knew we had to take a detour into the town of Gobernador Gregores and thus add more kilometers to an already jam-packed day.
The drive through the mostly paved section of Ruta 40 between Bajo Caracoles and the turn to Gobernador Gregores was uneventful despite the strong, gusty crosswinds. We saw what looked to me to be an “albino” guanaco grazing in the company of its “normal” looking conspecifics. We stopped to take a look at the Olnie River—a small stream that is part of a closed basin that never reaches the ocean. Several years ago I collected hydra—the small polyps I study in my lab—from the Olnie. I was surprised to see very little water on the river and wondered if hydra still lived there. At a gravel section of the road we stopped to chat with two cyclists who were taking a break from the loose pebbles and the wind. One of them had been riding all the way from La Quiaca—at the Bolivian border—and was hoping to complete Ruta 40 and then to continue into Ushuaia. I remember thinking that we were going to get there first. We have crossed many cyclists on the road and both Adrián and I marvel at their endurance. Cyclists, we salute you!
Once we turned into the road to Gobernador Gregores things became a bit more complicated. The road was very muddy, full of large puddles, and the bikes were sliding all over the place. At a given point I ran out of gas so we had to pour the content of one of the carboys into my tank. We took the opportunity to eat two badly beaten bananas that we had been carrying for a while. We continued fighting with the muddy road until we finally reached Gregores and were happy to find gas at the gas station—where we had lomito (beef) sandwiches for lunch. We asked for directions to Tres Lagos and were told to take a longer route to avoid the construction detours on Ruta 40. But since the whole purpose of our trip was to follow Ruta 40 we decided against the advice and ventured into trouble. Forty kilometers away from the beginning of the asphalt at Tres Lagos my bike hit a large stone and veered into the loose gravel. I lost control, my right shoe got stuck on the gravel, the hard luggage case hit my leg from behind, and I fell into the ground next to the bike. As soon as I hit the ground and tried to move I knew that my right leg was fractured—I lifted my leg but my foot did not follow. I remember telling Adrián through the helmet intercoms, “me quebré la pierna, me quebré la pierna” (I broke my leg). But we had lost the connection. In fact Adrián came back to look for me because I was not responding to his calls. He drove very slowly towards me looking at me lying perfectly still on the ground (I wonder what thoughts crossed his mind as he saw me there). My broken right leg was resting over my left one so I did not want to move. I finally opened my helmet visor and we talked. I was so pissed! I kept apologizing for spoiling our tip. He was probably very relieved to see me alive. I did not know it at the time but I do not have a single bruise. This was just a freaky accident. I am still pissed!
We started to discuss what to do. I took my helmet off and put my Pomona College wool hat on. I was trembling (and pissed). A few raindrops fell on my face. Adrián unloaded my bike, picked it up, put one of my bags under my head, and then took a picture of me. A few minutes later a car stopped and offered to inform the ambulance service in Tres Lagos about our situation. We knew we needed to immobilize my leg but we did not know how. Finally, a large bus stopped and Pedro, the driver, and Matías, a passenger, emerged and decisively took control of the situation. Matías used his sleeping mat and hiking poles to immobilize my leg—it hurt like crazy when he tightly secured the bundle. Then Pedro and Matías lifted me up and helped me onto the bus. The second bus driver offered to follow Adrián to Tres Lagos on my bike (that had only a broken mirror). I sat on the aisle floor of the bus holding my torso up with my arms on the seats. It took at least one full hour to get to Tres Lagos. At a given point we crossed the ambulance that had been sent to help us. Pedro signalled the vehicle to stop and a nurse came on board to check me out. He asked me a few questions and decided that it was better for me to continue on the bus. In Tres Lagos I was transferred onto a stretcher and taken into a small clinic where two male nurses carefully undid Matías’ wrapping. Pedro and Matías came to say goodbye and wished me luck. Matías whispered to my ear “Remember, your leg is not broken, you would have been screaming if it were”. The nurses taped two pieces of cardboard around my injured leg and then secured the leg to the stretcher bed with two large pieces of molded plastic that looked like a head immobilizer. In the meantime, Adrían arranged for my motorcycle to be kept in storage at a gas station in Tres Lagos. It was around 8 pm and the sun was slowly going down. The clouds and the wind were almost gone. I was finally loaded onto the ambulance and we begun the long road to the nearest hospital in the town of El Calafate. Adrián was following us on his bike. With tears in my eyes I could see the beautiful orange sunset behind the rugged profile of the Patagonian Andes. I would have to wait to meet Chaltén, the smoking mountain of the native Tehuelches, always with puffs of clouds dancing around its sharp peak.