Before 7 a.m. the next morning, Du Chaudron hands me coffee as I pull out tent pegs. Each day, these rituals get faster, more second-nature. Homemade bread carried from Ranquilco is toasting over an open fire — a piece of which I’ll soon smother in a caramel spread called dulce de leche. Soon we’re climbing the valley bowl beyond the vegetation line toward the next pass. At the top, Manterola stands on her horse’s back, arms crossed, as together we soak in what’s next.
Single file, the descent begins down the massive scree slope to the Desecho Valley floor. It’s mesmerizing, like driving in a snowstorm. My brain struggles to make sense of the perfectly smooth and precipitous drop to my left. Imagine cutting down and across a 450-metre-tall pile of gravel, but with bigger rock pieces. Eventually, I look only straight out and up.
At the bottom, we untack the animals and for the first time, let them go, no tethers. Young insists they will be safer and happier to tackle what’s coming the next day. Soon Angus, Brian, Bandero and the others, mules included, trot gleefully a good kilometre down the valley. I’m shocked that my control issues aren’t, well, out of control. Instead, it’s liberating to release these wondrous creatures and trust that we will get them back.
At sunset, we stretch out on saddle blankets draped over logs and rocks around the fire. My darling tent mate, Judith Bratt, teases me in her British lilt about the duct tape Young found to hold on the soles of my beaten old Blundstone boots. Some of us have washed up in the nearby spring, while others still sport the day’s “dustaches” proudly. Manterola carries a blackened kettle of boiled water and passes a dried gourd filled with mate tea. Each of us takes our turn sipping from the metal straw called a bombilla. Then one by one, we ponder the things in our lives that brought us to this campfire deep in the Patagonian Andes — 10 grateful specks under a dazzling starry sky.
The next day, Young rises early to round up the animals, now many kilometres down the valley. From the elevation of our campsite, I watch this show of horsemanship unfold.
When they’re back, we break camp quickly, tack up and ride out. Halfway across the meadow, Waks raises her hand. We halt and gather round her.
“This is the apex of our journey,” she says. “Over the next two hours, we will climb to almost 8,000 feet [more than 2,400 metres], the highest point on the trail. And we’ll start turning back toward the estancia. It is our tradition to ride this section in silence,” she continues solemnly. “We want you to absorb this moment and to be fully present for a trail that will command your full attention.” Her meaning is soon clear.
Two hours later, past the massive scree slope and over the spine of another higher pass, across a trail half the width of Rolo’s load and dropping off to one side farther down than I care to imagine, and finally beyond one last brutalizing climb — at the end of all this, we stand on what feels like the top of the universe.