2017, Chaitén, Expeditions

Washing Machines

20 January 2017 — “Well we know that we have the wring cycle for when you are done” I yell out to Josie as she ventures into the swift, deep river. Despite her proximity to the shore, she is already thigh deep and leaning hard into her pole. The wring cycle was a technique we got quite practiced in on our previous foray up the valley. We take our sopping wet clothes, twist them a bit, put one end onto a rock, step on it, then twist the fuck out of it till there was only room for fat, knotty kinks and no room for water. A quick shake out, to flatten, then back on to “dry.” At the least, our pants would need the wring cycle after this crossing.

“This is the heavy duty clean cycle” she says back with a laugh, making headway, sideways. Midway through though I see her start to grimace and concentrate. The current pushes. She pushes back, bearing hard into the fresh cut staff. Two more hard fought steps and it appears she is through the worst of it. I see her face relax. Then she is on the shore.

Now alone on the opposite shore I have to face the same challenge.

I step in and feel the cold, deep water push first through the nylon of my shoes, then push against the upstream part of my gaiter, wrapping it close to my leg, then with another sideways step, the water breaches the gaiter and rushes in from the top, surrounding my knees, thighs and higher. I focus and move slowly. I look for each step. I look for the big rocks to brace my feet against. The clarity allows for precision but it is deceptive with depth. The current pushes hard at my waist. Now at my belly button. The thin, fully extended trekking pole quivers with the rushing water. I am stable in the tripod, when leaning in to it. I am not when I move it. It takes two hands to move. One high and one lower. I must move it quick, in a precarious balance of too far forward or not far enough. I feel the balance being upended. The river is pushing me over backwards. Somehow I remain up right. I move left. Slowly. It gets deeper. I feel the rocks move under my feet. They start giving way. For the first time in my life, I think, “I might swim here.” And almost as tacit acceptance of it: “well at least there is nothing downstream.”

The washing machine on the gentle cycle. The line of cairns shows previous dropping water levels.

We hadn’t use the eddy method on this or any other crossing yet this day; they had all seemed straight forward. It was still early in our journey, soonish after the most recent rains had stopped, and since we were going to get food, our packs were light; there was little weight to hold us down. Our camp’s location combined with the Rio Alerce’s meandering path could realistically and frequently combine to isolate us from descending the valley. The immense expanses of sweeping stone slabs collect and pour all moisture straight into the river. There is little to no forest floor absorption for the majority of the area on which rain could fall in the watershed above us. All of this leads to rapidly rising water levels with seemingly insignificant amounts of precipitation. Combine that with our camp’s location on the river’s north shore, the same shore on which our cache several miles down river is on, and the river carving into steep granite slabs in between and we could get cut off from a quick retreat. We had a bit of forewarning in terms of incoming weather forecast and therefore were hopeful that the river would continue to drop throughout the day. Even if it didn’t, our cache below could sustain us for days, albeit without sleeping bags. Either way, we wanted all our stuff up high so we could sustain ourselves without water level worry.

Another thought comes through a split second later. This one of more resistance. “Nope, not now. Not. Gonna. Happen…” I fight harder. I kick backward and search, with my foot, for a bigger rock. I feel it and lean in harder on my scarily thin, vibrating trekking pole. I pause and breathe. It is deep. I look up at Josie and shake my head. I lean forward and bump/move the trekking pole left. My feet follow one at a time. The pressure against my waist and stomach eases ever so slightly. “Fuck, I coulda shit my pants in here and they woulda been washed clean by the time I got to the other side” I say, continuing our line of washing machine banter.

“I think I nearly peed them in there” she responds, grinning.

“Yep, that was strong.” I am out of the current, in an eddy and climb up onto a log to get out of the water. I feel the big saddle bags of water in my pants as they drain and build up above the gaiters. I pull at them and get the water to drain down into the gaiter and shoe, my legs dangling as I straddle the large, ancient, water worn log.

“Maybe we should think about using the eddy method on that when we return.”

“Yeah, sounds good.” I hop off the log, squat down and build a small pile of rocks at the water’s edge. “You know, just to check to see if the river is down when we get back.”

Knowing we are in for more, we forego the Wring Cycle, point our noses toward our food and stride across the rocky river bank into the slowly clearing afternoon.

Featured Image: Jared Spaulding making a lower water crossing of the Rio Alerce.