Joey Shonka is a biochemist, amateur herpetologist and writer interested in all things scientific and is currently on a two-year expedition walking from the Panama Canal to the Tierra Del Fuego. While scaling peaks and creating an unbroken chain of footsteps across South America, Joey is joining ASC on our repeat glacier photography and high alpine lichen projects.
Hello from El Chalten, Argentina! The past months have been packed full of intense adventures, rising and falling much like the terrain I am covering!
I headed North from the shores of Puerto Natales to reach the southern border of the Torres del Paine National Park and came to a very tough decision. The park officials informed me of their plans to capture Darwin and relocate him, plans he seemed amenable toward being that after a month of traveling with me he had developed a sense of trust for the people we encountered along the way. I could not allow my friend to be thusly disposed and so spent a day searching the nearby villages for a better option, which came in the form of a young rancher who agreed to board him during my time in the park. As I observed the other dogs of the estate, lounging in lush green grasses and idly chewing on fresh, massive beef bones, a sinking sense of loneliness began to grow inside as I realized that the only reasons I had for bringing Darwin along any further were selfish ones. After speaking with the rancher and relating Darwin’s love of herding cattle I did not need to ask twice if he would be allowed to stay on a more permanent basis. The technical routes and glaciers that followed after this would have been impossible for Darwin to cross and therefore reinforced my decision, but there are many nights my hand falls to the empty space in my tent beside my sleeping bag, hoping to find his soft, furry brown ears.
I spent a week exploring before exiting the park in a tremendous daze, wondering what could possibly follow. I then crossed the border into Argentina at Cerro Castillo and took a cross-country route across the icy passes north to reach El Calafate, circled the Lago Argentina on the eastern shores, cut north across a mountain chain and along the western shores of Lago Viema, finally crossing the largest glacier in Argentina and ascending to Huemul Pass en route to El Chalten.
While the mountains have been extremely severe, and the bushwacking more taxing than any I have ever encountered before, crossing the Viedma Glacier and leaving a line of my travel across an arm of the Southern Continental Ice Field, the third largest body of ice on the planet, this was a defining moment in my life. I can close my eyes and still remember the days of the steady thwapp! as the pick of my axe bit deeply and true, the view between my toe spikes of endlessly undulating blue chasms carved by the steady flow of melt-water, the agony of being within a stone’s throw of the rock wall I wanted to ascend and knowing that there was no possible way to safely traverse the section between it and I, and being forced to turn around into a raging storm and wait a full day…..there will never be a time when this moment does not define me, a time when I forget the unbreakable strength I found within. I will admit, however, on the third day I did pray for some sun!
Crossing the border from Chile to Argentina brought subtle changes into my journey. The potent heat of the aji chile was replaced with the more delicate flavors of chimmichurra, and the short, terse conclusions I had grown accustomed to in Chilean Spanish slowly blended into the flows of cascading Castillion. Everyone I encounter along the way also seems to be enjoying a hot yerba mate. The hospitality and kind, open humors of the people I meet has only seemed to increase as I cross the wilds of Patagonia. Many times I have come across a ranch so isolated that the occupants, much like myself, might meet other people a scant handful of times during a month. It was one such interaction that taught me yet again how to laugh at myself.
Much Love, My Friends.