I was in Patagonia with four friends to do some climbing and filming on the eastern flanks of Fitz Roy. The weather had been obstinate. It was early season, cold and snowy, even in our protected forest camp. So snowy, in fact, that after a short hike from camp we had to ski to the base of our climb. We dug a snow cave at the top of the glacier near the base of Fitz Roy’s east face (4,000 feet higher than our base camp) where we cached food and gear in hopes of a break in the bad weather.
After a month of slacklining and drinking tea, the weather turned. The team left for the snow cave the next morning, but I’d come down with a bad stomach bug that night and decided to try and rest and follow later in the day. I stayed in the tent as long as I possibly could, then dragged myself out and shouldered my pack. I’d stashed my skis under a boulder on the shores of Laguna de los Tres, where the glacier’s meltwater drains.
Between waves of nausea and exhausted rests, the short hike seemed endless. I finally reached the boulder, pulled out my skis and looked down at the anemic-looking ice. I knew it didn’t have much life left in it, but I could make out tracks from the team’s crossing that morning, stretching to the far shore. I looked at the craggy hiking along the exposed bank. I looked at my huge pack, and again at the smooth, flat ice in front of me. Then a wave of nausea swept over me and all sense of self-preservation was lost. I got my skins on.
Testing the thinning ice at the shore, I inched my way out gingerly, gaining confidence as I went. Right about then, a friend who was guiding a group of Japanese tourists popped her head up over the moraine on the shore I’d just left, and we joked a bit about the size of my pack and that mine would probably be the last crossing of the season. We said goodbye with a laugh, and I resumed my careful ski along the slushy surface.
As I worked my way along, I gazed up at the steep glacier, dreading the long slog up to the snow cave. Just then, smack in the middle of the lake, I heard a crack and in an instant I was sinking. Pinned. Stuck. Screwed. My skis had gone from a light-and-fast ticket across the lake to deadweight anchors. I stopped sinking once my pack hit the slurpee-like water. I looked at the shore as the weight of my situation fully sunk in. Swim or die. I dunked my head under to reach my bindings and get my skis off.
I lifted them one at a time onto the slushy ice, then used them to break a swimming trail through the frigid water. Slowly, slowly, I made my way towards the shore. After 30 feet or so, I hit some thicker slush and mantled onto the surface for a second before gurgling back into the frosty lake. But I was hopeful – maybe I wouldn’t have to swim the whole thing. A few feet later, I got onto my knees again and the ice held. I froze in hesitation but knew I urgently needed to cover some ground. Trembling like an aspen leaf in the breeze, I teetered onto one ski, and then the other, before it burbled through the softening slush again and disappeared. Frantic now, I yanked my foot from the blue abyss and “skateboarded” myself on one ski towards the shore, the ice cracking and breaking in my tracks behind me. I made it to the one alcove in an otherwise vertical shoreline and ripped my wet, freezing clothes off. Luckily it was still sunny, and luckily I had packed spare clothes in a trash bag.
As I flopped my shaking, naked body onto a sunny boulder, something caught my ear. I looked up and could make out a line of Japanese seniors on the shore, clapping and waving their arms like excited soccer fans. I cracked a smile and weakly waved back. I looked the other way at the glacier. I was glad to be alive – but even more glad for a long slog up that thing on one ski to get warm again.