The Trial Trails

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

Emily & Jesse: Frogs are jumpy little creatures. Do you know how to boil them so they don't jump out? You put them in a pot of room temperature water, then slowly increase the heat until the water is boiling. As the heat increases they become accustomed to it and never try to escape. Before they realize what's happening, the waters too hot and it's a little too late - they're screwed.

Emily: We are the frogs in this story. Welcome to the Trial Trails. The odds were most certainly never in our favor.

Emily: Our first 48 hours of hiking and hitchhiking were glorious; although cold at night, we had beautiful sunny skies in the day, and our campsites were perfect. We got pretty lucky with our rides and we were feeling good going into day three.

Jesse: The idea of hitchhiking and hiking through the wilderness of Patagonia seemed like a romantic dream to me. From the moment I first got the idea from a hostel worker in Huaraz, Peru I knew that this adventure was going to make or break our world trip. I knew in my heart that there were going to be soaringly highs highs and dangerously low lows. This first hike met both those expectations.

Jesse: A little background - I personally had a little camping experience from the Cub Scouts (like the boy scouts, but for elementary school boys) and a few canoe trips with my grandfather. These experiences in camping would have trouble filling a teaspoon. Emily went on her very first overnight camping trip in Huaraz two months before. So I did as much research about camping as I could, but the problem was that I just didn't know what questions to be asking. Like, for example, is the pass… passable?

Jesse: Our goal was to walk from Villa Traful to Villa Angastora. We wanted to complete the walk in 2 days or 2.5 at the most since snow and rain were coming. I wanted the experience be as positive as possible so Emily, who is still a bit on the fence about this whole walk off into the woods idea now that the hitchhiking has started, views this type of adventure positively. A bad experience early could color future hiking poorly. Last but not least, I wanted us to be safe so we can come back from the trip and continue hiking.

Jesse: Not too much I thought, but important objectives. We start positively bright eyed and bushy tailed as we practically bounce toward the trail. We only make it about 50 meters before we stop for a sign. It tells us the length of the hike, and has a map.

Emily: After we packed up camp and hopped the fence to cross the road, we made our way over to the trail head board. This image below is what we found. I'm not sure if you can see it well enough or not, but in small writing was the phrase, “May-October: exclusively with a mountain guide.”

Emily: It was Friday, October 13.

Emily: I didn't even know the date at the time of the hike; I just looked back at our calendar while writing this post. I guess Friday, October 13th should have been a warning sign that things were about to turn south.

Jesse: Emily and I read this and immediately thought weeeellllllll it's almost November… less than a month. We will be fine, let's go explore! And off we hiked.

Emily: Frogs like cool water, and the decision seemed crystal clear to us. It was almost November right? We were pretty fit and felt confident that it was close enough. We didn't ask the park office anything the day before, but they also didn't mention the trail so it should be fine.

Emily: Some background - all we knew about this hike was nothing other than it was a good trail from the Huaraz hostel worker. We saw on MAPS.ME that there was a trail that went from our current spot, looked like you slept somewhere at an established campsite at the top of the mountain pass, and then continued on to Villa Angostura, which was our next destination. We didn't research anything before we left since we just found the trail on the map and hadn't had WIFI (Or any service) since then.

Emily: What did we know? The board told us that the hike was 26km, took two days, had a steep incline, crossed a river 5 times based on the map, was a high difficulty hike, and was only supposed to be done with a guide right now. But at only 13km each day, it couldn't possibly be that bad.

Emily: So we decided to go for it. Grab the frogs and give them a big pot of cool water to relax for the day.

Emily: One thing correct about the trail head's board was that this initial hour incline was steep. I'm talking, almost on hands and knees a few times steep. We stopped frequently, but were determined to get to the waterfall at the top of the first section.

Jesse: The initial accent through massive trees with dead branches thick on the ground made the forest feel alive in the midst of a tree graveyard. It just seemed impossible that so many the trees could be alive with the carpeting of dead-fall beneath their arching canopy.

Jesse: Once up our initial climb in elevation the dead forest ended and large spreading trees with lots of under growth shaded the river we had been following. Right as the path turned, the river rushed down a canyon. The new forest type, waterfall/canyon rapids, and a view of the mountains beyond combined to create a surreal moment of happiness to have made the choice to hike and a feeling that the possibilities of beauty to be found in the mountains were limitless.

Emily: I should mention here that we had everything we owned on our backs since this was a direct, not a circular route. We have learned since that whenever completing a loop trek, meaning that you end in the same place you start, we leave as much as possible behind in a locker or hostel storage room to make our packs as light as possible. But we didn't have that luxury or even know that this was a thing, so when we reached the waterfall we were in need of a much deserved break.

Emily: It was gorgeous though. The waterfall was a fall and seemingly a rapid all in one, boasted clear blue colors, and was seated with snow covered mountains as the backdrop. Mountains we would be climbing, but didn't know about at the time.

Emily: The landscape kept changing and we felt like we were even in an African jungle at some point and that a large animal may roar around the corner at any moment. This also may have been because we were listening to Shane's playlist and were blasting a song called Lions at this point.

Emily: The map showed 5 river crossings and according to MAPS.ME, we were getting close to the first one. We assumed that there would be a little bridge, or large rocks spread in the river to aide in crossing, but when we got to the first river we were pretty confused. Maybe the water was just extremely high for this time of year and was covering the path across the river? The frogs begin to enjoy a slightly warmer feel to the water.

Emily: We walked up and down the bank for a while searching for the crossing point but kept coming up empty handed. We eventually decided to change into our Chacos sandals, roll up our pants to mid-calf to cross. The water was freezing; it was all glacier melt from the snow we were seeing ahead on those mountains. Crossing was exhilarating though. We were becoming true hikers.

Jesse: Our first stream crossing wasn't a surprise, the lack of a bride or rocks to use as a crossing were. I left Emily to search for a crossing near her and I hiked up and down the banks looking for a place that we could cross without getting drenched. This wasn't one of the nice manicured trails I've seen before. So we took off our boots and strapped on the sandals, crossed and congratulated ourselves on braving the ice melt. One crossing out of five completed.

Emily: A quick change back into our boots and we we kept going for a while. We weren't going slowly, but also weren't rushing since we only had to go 13km today, easy peasy.

Emily: We eventually came to our second river crossing, but this river seemed, let's say, larger than the last.

Jesse: The second crossing was even larger and deeper. We wasted little time throwing on our sandals and I jumped in and made my way to the half way point little island. Emily joined me and told me to get moving since her feet were so cold! (The water was so cold it hurt the bones in our feet.) I was trying to determine the best path, but her pressuring me flustered me so I jumped back in. What a mistake, almost thigh deep in I've water I realized I was going to have to take my pants off to make the crossing and not get wet. Back to the island I hollered that I was freezing to death and should have taken my time! Emily knew how to calm me down though, she brought out the GoPro and videotaped me crossing so I would have something cool to show people later on. Two of five down, three more to go so we kept our sandals on.

Emily: Jesse crossed first again, but after rolling up his pants over the knee and still not being able to cross without getting wet, came back, took off the pants, and got ready to cross in boxer briefs. I realized my jogger hiking pants weren't going to cut it, so I crossed in my underwear too. This water was colder than the first river, but this is new! Crossing without pants would sure make for a good story later on. Oh you have no idea… The frogs seem happy, splashing around enjoying their day. They don't have any idea either…

Jesse: At the third crossing the current was even stronger and the water even colder. I made it across relatively easily, but Emily froze up half way through when she almost tripped over a rock. The look of fear on her face sent a bolt of terror through me and I tried to make my way back to her. As I neared her she mastered herself and met me half way. Once we reached the shore we decided to always hold hands when we crossed streams. The current in the river was so strong at points that I had to help her navigate the waters and push through.

Jesse: Once we crossed our fifth and final stream based on the trail sign we were surprised to find a sixth. Emily pulled up maps me and stopped counting the stream crossings after 8 more.

Emily: It was pretty late for lunch, like 2PM, but it wasn't a long distance so we found a gorgeous spot by the river and enjoyed a leisurely lunch. Up until now, we were just following the river instead of our MAPS.ME app, because we were real hikers, not those that checked a digital map every few minutes. At the end of our hour long lunch though we realized we should probably check the app, and to our dismay, were only a third of the way there. We still had four hours of daylight though and that was plenty of time to hike 8-9km.

Jesse: At lunch we reviewed our trail… and my we weren't making near the time we thought we were. We were having a blast, but decided we definitely needed to pick up our pace. Also we realized that the campsite wasn't clearly indicated on the map, but we found a marker that looked likely… Both of these situations are red flags, but we were undaunted. We were young fresh and full of energy! Might as well be invincible.

Emily: We quickened our pace and decided to check the app a little more frequently. There's more than 5 river crossings? That's strange.

Jesse: The higher we climbed the more the landscape changed around us. At one point Emily and I were speed walking through 8 to 15 foot tall maze like stands of bamboo listening to one of Shane's playlist screaming and yelling to the music in our excitement. We practically jogged down the trail jumping over off patches of ice through a jungle like forest.

Emily: The app showed that the next few river crossings were pretty close, only 500 meters to 1.5km between each one, so we should just keep our Chacos on to save time changing shoes after each crossing right? I've also switched in my zip off pants by this point so I can get down to shorts for the crossing and roll the back down to pants to cover the frigid skin of my lower body immediately after each crossing.

Emily: The landscape keeps changing and the path is getting much more dense. It's harder to find our way in some sections, but we are still having a blast, bracing the water each time and conquering our way to the next.

Emily: Wait is that snow on the path? “Jesse, this is so funny, no one is ever going to believe this! Take a photo!” The frogs are so relaxed in the pot's warm water at this point that they don't realize they don't realize what's happening.

Jesse: Emily and I are the frogs. We jumped into the hiking water. First the trail is labeled as closed, then there are rivers to fjords with nothing to use as a crossing, the campsite isn't clearly marked, there are small patches of ice on the path in the shade, there are larger patches, eventually whole sides of the river are covered and last both sides are covered in snow. The realization we were in boiling water came over me slowly.

Jesse: We had hiked late into the day and hadn't seen flat ground much less ground not covered in snow in hours. The spot that we thought must be the camp grounds was not very far, only a few kilometers. Unfortunately the path had been completely covered in snow and the going was harder and harder. Emily was starting to lose energy so I scouted the trail ahead when the path lead across step sided banks of the river. To make matters harder smaller streams feed into the larger river. These streams cut 10 to 20 foot deep ravines across our path. We couldn't make it down the intended path so I went up elevation to find paths over the ravines.

Emily: The river crossings just keep coming, but we've turned on some pump up music and are determined to reach the campsite. It's on both the trail head map and MAPS.ME so we feel good about there being one.

Emily: I'm not sure which crossing number we are on at this point, but at some point, the landscape got too intense, our feet so cold from the glacier river water, and the snow got too deep that we had to change into our boots after each crossing. Crossing number 14? I'm not quite sure which one we are on, but we decided to put our camera away, you know, in case it falls in the river or the snow and gets damaged.

Emily: The trail markers are becoming extremely difficult to find on the trees and it's clear that no one has been on the trail this season yet. How do we know this? Because there aren't footprints in the snow. Or should I say leg prints since the snow is so deep that we are now walking in snow on top of bushes. Jesse is now knee deep in snow trailblazing and I am thigh deep, trying my best to follow in his massive steps that he is trying his best to make small enough for me to follow in.

Emily: We talked about going back to where we ate lunch since it was the last flat spot we had seen in hours that wasn't covered in snow, but it was getting later and if we turned around now, we wouldn't make it back to that spot before dark, and the thought of crossing the river that many times again was unthinkable to our frozen feet. The distance to the campsite seemed closer than the lunch spot anyways, so we kept going holding on to the hope that we were making the right decision. Why did the frogs choose to go in this pot of water in the first place?

Emily: We were still having fun despite the cold. Again, what a story this would be! Eventually it dawned on us that maybe the campsite would also be covered in snow and on a steep incline like where we were hiking. It was an established campsite though, so it had to have flat-ish ground for tents, and I guess we would be learning how to pitch a tent in the snow tonight. We mentally added how to set up a tent in the snow and on an incline to our growing to do list of camping things to Google the next time we got WIFI.

Emily: I won't detail everything from the next two hours, but we werent in a good spot. We did some pretty dangerous things to find that campsite. The trail forward was on such inclines we couldn't follow it in the snow and not fall into the river. We couldn't cross the river since it had become larger and we would do anything we could to avoid having to put our feet and legs back in that river. Our toes were so cold from snow soaked boots and the ice melt that we couldn't possibly put our Chacos on again. So, we found a few places to cross that we probably shouldn't have. We slid down slush in a few spots that made climbing on hands and knees a requirement while we grabbed on to vines and climbed out of ditches. We also crossed our third to last river point over an ice covered fallen tree; we did anything at this point to avoid skin contact with the river. I was supposed to cross first but I got scared and let Jesse go. He couldn't turn around at this point, but I've started crying. Not because I'm nervous to fall myself, but I'm so terrified that he might fall. I'm slightly irrational at this point and can't help thinking about losing him and thoughts of serious injury and death are crossing my mind. I know that if he did get hurt, I would have to leave him to get help and go back the way I came in the pitch black, leaving him in 3 feet of snow to fend for himself. The water has begun to boil.

Jesse: These crossings were extremely dangerous and scary. We had to use fallen logs or lower ourselves down steep banks by digging into the snow to find hand holds.

Emily: We make it across the fallen tree. Two more crossings to go and about 1-2km left. We think the sun has set at this point, but we can't really tell because the river we keep crossing is in between two large mountains. Even if it hasn't set yet, it's beginning to get dark and we are scared. We eventually reached what we thought was the campsite only to find out it was a peak, so we decide that the next semi flat looking patch of land we see, we are stopping and setting up camp for the night. We talk about it and neither of us has seen a spot like this for over two hours, but we keep going, we have to. We didn't even care if there was snow on a spot on or not, we just needed it to be flat enough and far enough from the river and streams that we wouldn't have to worry about drowning in the middle of night while alseep in the tent.

Jesse: The path back was covered in snow and not a foot of it was level for hours. By now both of our boots were soaked through and our feet were really cold. We knew there had to be a camping area some where forward and decided to forge ahead and look for any spot that looked level. I led the way making footstep holes in the snow for Emily to follow while she looked for trail markers nailed or cut into tree trunks. We trugged forward with growing anxiety and fear. The trail was only growing steeper and the snow deeper. Both Emily and I were putting the best face on the situation and were trying to keep our cools.

Jesse: The trail took a sharp dive down to the river. The snow so deep we were walking up to my thighs and almost Emily's waist. The hiking trail stayed on our side of the river, but on the opposite banks what looked like the promise Land waited. But this crossing was going to be brutal. We would have to change into our sandals in the snow with wet feet, then crunch our way through the snow Banks I to the coldest yet snow melt, then up a second ice bank.

Emily: We see a spot across the river after probably 30 more minutes; it's past 7:00PM and we are desperate for a place to set up camp for the night. There's no way to get across without taking off our boots and putting the Chacos back on. Hypothermia is a real concern, but survival instincts (developed from all 3 nights I've ever camped in my life) are screaming to suck it up and cross. The spot isn't flat by any means, but it's got less of a slope than everywhere else around us and it's not covered in snow, so we cross the river one final time.

Jesse: We forced ourselves forward to make the crossing and the cold hurt even more than I had thought it would. I went first and was the first to realize that the promise land was a fake. All of the flatish ground was really marsh wet with a steady stream of ice melt. This discovery was soul crushing. Emily came up to me in near tears from the cold and laid out a poncho for us to put back on our soaking wet shoes and socks. Which is much harder than you would think when you can't feel your toes.

Emily: The patch of grass that looked like home, was now hell. It may not have been covered in snow, but rather was covered in snow melt, a 4 inch think muddy patch that had water consistently flowing down every inch of it. The water is now at a full boil.

Emily: Panic and dark seem to be filling the air at the same rate, and I'm freaking out. Do we keep going to the campsite on the map and take our headlamps to hike once it gets dark? No, the trail markers are barely visible with all the snow in the light never mind in the dark. Do we go all the way back to our lunch spot? No, we counted a total of 19 river crossings and couldn't fathom doing that again right now. Jesse went one way and I went the other, frantically searching for flat-ish, dry ground. I started screaming Jesse's name so he would hear me and come back. I found a dry spot; it was about 8x8 feet, and although certainly on an incline, it was the only dry patch of ground anywhere to be found.

Jesse: This side of the river had less snow the whole hike, so after mastering a moment of real panic, I set off uphill to look for drier ground. Emily called me back when she found a little patch of dry ground in the shape of a rough triangle. One top side was rock ledge, the other was a little stream and the bottom was the start of a snow bank. This little spot was an answered prayer. While it wasn't particularly flat it had everything we needed.

Emily: We hug, Jesse apologizing, me sobbing, relief overcoming me that we had a place to sleep for the night, but I quickly pulled myself together and told him we could cry later, it was time to set up camp. We probably had everything set up in record time, and although it doesn't really look like it in the photos, it was getting pretty dark. There was even a baby stream next to our spot that we used for running water to cook dinner. It was a quick meal, followed by holding onto each other tight knowing we weren't alone and that we had to make a plan for what to do next.

Jesse: The sun had set and half light was all we had to set up camp. We sped through set up and ate dinner inside the tent talking in relieved nervous giggles.

Emily: You might laugh, but it never once really occurred to us during the day that turning around was an option. I mean turning around was an option, but neither of us really considered it. We had such a singular focus to get where we were going that logic went out the window.

Emily: What was done was done though, and after dinner Jesse immediately started talking about his plans for tomorrow.

Emily: I can't quite describe what I was feeling at the moment. I was relieved that we found a spot to sleep, depelted of energy and weary from such a long day, knowing that tomorrow would probably be more difficult, and angry at Jesse and feeling guilty for feeling that way. I was pretty quiet as we lay in the tent, pushing ourselves up from sliding down every now and then, just listening to his plans for the next day. It occurred to me, I really believe it was God putting the thought in my head since turning around today wasn't a thought I had, that maybe, just maybe, we should turn around tomorrow and go back the way we came. At first he didn't like the idea at all. Pride and determination made him want to keep going. I felt defeated too and a small part of me wanting to keep going. It sucked that our first real hike was such a disaster, and the thought of making it through on the other side promised such a feeling of victory.

Emily: But we had to face reality. We had no idea what was on the other half of this hike. Snow, that's for sure.

Emily: After he let the idea sit for a few minutes, we bit back on our pride and decided to turn around the next morning and go back the way we came. We were going to make it. Simple, but not a thought I had for many moments over the past few hours.

Emily: I was still angry, but it was just as much Jesse's fault for not researching more about this hike as it was mine. Neither of us had any experience, and probably should have listening to the warning on the trail head and not gone on the hike in the first place. I will say though that I've never felt more like a team before in all of our relationship. We have had some really low moments where things seemed pretty bad, but we were partners today and had each other no matter what.

Emily: I would still need a few days to emotionally and physically recover from that hike once we finished, but we made it back the next day in one piece. (My knee still suffers though from tendinitis I developed from following in Jesse's leg prints through the snow that were just too spread out for me to follow in for such an extended period of time.) At some points during the hike I thought that this would be my last hike.

Emily: It wasn't though, and the hike from hell (what we called it for the next three weeks) re-branded itself into the Trial Trails. God had our backs the whole time, and we had each others’.

Emily: It's a good thing my spirit animal is a cat because I definitely used one of my nine lives on that mountain pass. We might not have passed the pass, but we passed the Trial Trails and it's grown to be one of our fondest memories of the entire trip.

Jesse: The Trial Trails were definitely a failure as far as hiking goes, but on the way down I felt a fire burning in me to learn more about hiking and to become better. Nothing worth doing is easy and real hiking up and around massive mountains is both physically and emotionally draining. Emily would face an emotional slump for a couple of days but she bounced back wonderfully, and our feelings of success were made that much sweeter by knowing how far we had come since our first hike.

Emily: Don't worry after reading this either, we may not be professional mountain men, but we've gotten significantly better at hiking and camping since then. We had nowhere to go but up.

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