About five years ago, I was traveling through Argentina with Yuval, and we made a week long stop in Bariloche, the threshold of Patagonian Argentina. It looks like a postcard — bucolic streets and charming restaurants, glistening cobalt lake, fringed with snow capped mountains — and it’s besieged by tourists. Bariloche is a mecca for all sorts of hiking and biking and other such outdoorsy pursuits, and so the droves of tourists are largely of the granola eating, trek pole toting, fit and weathered sort. I’ve never seen so many outdoor stores in one place before or since. Nor so many chocolate shops. The streets are swimming in chocolaterias. Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Homer daydreams about a land of chocolate? It’s just like that.
While I was content to hover around the chocolate fountains and spend evenings eating steak and drinking Malbec, Yuval was itching to join the outdoorsy people in the mountains.
We agreed on a short and “easy” two day hike.
However, by “easy” Yuval had meant “we’re going to climb the leviathan of mountains”.
The hike to the base camp was quite nice; the trees cut the wind and it was just cool enough for comfort. We walked along the river, through expanses of bamboo-like trees that looked really out of place but are actually native to the region, called colihue in the indigenous language, Mapuche. The area is called Parque Llao Llao, named for the orange spongy spores that look like golf balls and were everywhere. A fungus infects the trees which react by swelling up and creating a tumor on the branch. The tumor produces fruit, the orange sponges, called llao llao or “Indian bread”. The llao llao can be eaten raw, but the Mapuche typically add it to their homemade alcoholic drink, chicha.
When we arrived at the base camp, which was already dotted with a few tents and hikers settling in for the night, I thought that we were finished and I was congratulating myself on a job well done. But — to my boundless delight — it was just the beginning of the ascent to the top of the mountain, upon which was the whole point of this excursion: Lago Negro (the black lake).
We trudged steadily upward for a preposterous amount of time. The summit was a mirage; it remained stubbornly at arm’s length for hours. Lactic acid seared holes in my muscles, I stumbled over the rocks that littered the path, and practiced my cursing in Spanish. I had approached my breaking point. Now above the tree line, the wind howled ferociously and tried its best to throw us off the mountain. A crust of effervescent snow flanked the mountain side. A waterfall spouted from an adjacent peak like water poured from a teapot.
And then. And then: Yuval asked a woman making the descent how much longer we had to go. She said thirty minutes. I could have cried. Yuval patted me on the shoulder and made a lighthearted comment about the snow and I had a vision of chucking a snowball at his head. A parasitic fungus of hatred bloomed within me, necrotizing my thoughts. I hated the snow. I hated the other hikers and their stupid poles. I hated Yuval. I hated my backpack that was cutting grooves into my shoulders. I hated my shoes. I hated the people who made my shoes. And I bloody hated this godforsaken mountain.
“We can always turn around and go back to camp,” offered Yuval, helpfully.
“No!” I spat back at him, “We can’t come all this way and not make it to the top.”
He rolled his eyes and murmured something about me being insufferably stubborn. I wallowed in my sour mood, rolling around in it like a dog in a fetid puddle. And I decided that I wouldn’t let this loathsome mountain make me cry; I would reach the top.
And reach it I did. Lago Negro was tiny, dark and wind tossed, a puddle in the mountain’s navel. The wind was vicious and cold; it was like sitting in a wind tunnel filled with broken glass. We ate huddled beside some tortured looking trees, and I stretched out my screaming muscles. And then we went back down the mountain to make camp, with me in a much better mood. That night, the wind roared all around the tent, and it was like falling asleep inside a waterfall.
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I learned, from a friend of mine who runs marathons, that the hate spasm I experienced is perfectly normal, and to be expected whenever doing some sort of prolonged physical activity. This is wonderful news. With my six day trek in Kyrgyzstan fast approaching, I’ve been thinking back to the Lago Negro debacle and wondering whether I’m jumping in over my head. And while I almost certainly am jumping in over my head, now that I know to anticipate the hate spasm, it won’t be so appalling or discouraging. And I know that it will pass.