“I was hunting volcanoes and I was traveling solo.”
I left my base camp on the black volcanic beach of Pichilemu and drove inland – straight towards the Andes Mountains. I was hunting volcanoes and I was traveling solo.
Apart from an icy river of glacial melt, the steep sided valley was bone dry when I entered it. It felt like I was driving into a vertical desert. Above me, only the heads of the volcanic peaks were shrouded in snow. I stopped on the border of Chile and Argentina and set up camp at the base of a ring of cliffs. I went to sleep that night, thinking I was camping on the snow line. But as dawn broke, a storm swept in covering the central part of Chile and dumping a meter of snow in a few hours.
Suddenly, I was a 25 kilometre drive, ABOVE the snow line. I awoke to find that my campsite was already covered in a thin layer of snow. Stuffing my tent into the car, I managed to drive a short distance, but as soon as I hit the first incline, the wheels of my little rental car spun helplessly and I slid backwards. I was stranded more than a mile off the access road.
“We can’t help you!”
The snow was coming down thick and fast as I ran for help. By the time I reached the main road, the storm was in full force. Freezing cold and hungry, it was the police who eventually picked me up. “We can’t help you!” they said. “You have to wait until the storm passes.” So they drove me the 25 kilometres down to the nearest settlement where a local family took me in. For the next 3 nights my base camp became a tiny room next to their tool shed.
Each day I hitched a ride back to my stranded car to review my impossible situation.
The single track that I had driven in on, was now waist deep with snow. The rental car was stuck in deep snow and if it snowed again, the car might well be trapped for the rest of the winter.
I had only a week left in Chile and I wanted to surf again before leaving. I was in a jam and my head was spinning.
That’s when I met Cesar. I called him “El Camino Maestro,” which means; “The Road Composer.” With skills akin to artistry, he made a way for me in the wilderness. I hired “El Camino Maestro,” who used a huge front end loader to carve a road through the deep snow to reach my stranded vehicle. We dug a space around my car so that “El Camino Maestro” could rope it up and spring my car from it’s icy prison. After 3 days I was finally able to leave the Andes and get back to the coast.
“I’ll plan an emergency exit in advance.”
That night, as I sat in the darkness warming myself in the glow of a coal fire and listening to the buzz of silence, I felt humbled and overwhelmed with gratitude.
Reflecting on the experience, I realised that I learned a hard lesson that I wouldn’t have learned if I hadn’t been stranded. I learned that, when the weather changes at altitude, your situation can go from idyllic to life threatening in a very short space of time. In the future, when I go into the vertical extremes, I’ll plan an emergency exit in advance.
I was able to fly out of Santiago on schedule a few days later, but not before scoring the best waves of the entire trip. There were just two guys out. Myself and one of my all time surfing hero’s in flawless 6-8ft waves.