Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)

Part II. REVOLUTION

Chapter 10. SIERRA DE LA VENTANA

Cerro Tres Picos

I had now been several days without tasting anything except meat & drinking mattee. I found this new regimen agreed very well with me, but at the same time felt hard exercise was necessary to make it do so.

—BEAGLE DIARY, SEPTEMBER 17, 1833

SIERRA DE LA VENTANA has roughly one ice cream store for every four hundred residents. Darwin’s primary purpose in visiting this sleepy place—there wasn’t a town or an ice creamery at the time—was to try to climb a nearby mountain. An inveterate hill-hopper, Darwin almost always found joy in climbing. But there was little joy in this expedition. “I do not think Nature ever made a more solitary desolate looking mountain,” he wrote from the approach. “It is very steep, rough & broken. It is so completely destitute of all trees, that we were unable to find even a stick to stretch out the meat for roasting, our fire being made of dry thistle stalks.” The next day he became the first European to explore the highest mountain in the modern-day province of Buenos Aires, the 4,060-foot-tall Cerro Tres Picos.

The mountain shot up over the town from a large private estancia, and in the evening I called the ranch’s tourism coordinator and asked whether I could hike it. “Come early,” she said. “It will take you ten hours. If you don’t leave by nine, you can’t climb the peak.”

Darwin’s guide gave him faulty information, telling him to ascend a nearby ridge that he could follow to the summit. But when Darwin reached the ridge top, he found a deep valley separating him from the highest peaks. He had to scramble down and then up the other side. By the time he reached one of the minor peaks the day was late and he was suffering from cramps in his thighs. He had to give up the highest point, and his frustration spilled out into his diary: “Altogether I was much disappointed in this mountain; we had heard of caves, of forests, of beds of coal, of silver & gold &c &c, instead of all this, we have a desert mountain of pure quartz rock.”

I had spent enough time following Darwin around, reading his journals, and trying to channel his thoughts, that I felt almost certain he was disappointed with the scenery mainly because he hadn’t reached the top. I knew myself; faced with mountain failure, I’d be frustrated, and my journal would reflect that. And I knew Darwin well enough to recognize that, at least in the matter of big bad-mountain climbing, we shared a certain summit-or-bust aesthetic. This would also be my last real travel day on the east coast before I caught a bus back to Buenos Aires to head home, making a good concluding mountain vista imperative.

I determined to reach the highest peak and take in theview. The next morning I hired a cab to drive me to the Estancia Funke, the private ranch that encompasses the range of mountains where Darwin explored. The cab dropped me at sunrise near a cluster of tall trees growing by the back porch of one of several ranch houses. A sign identified it as the tourism office, and I knocked on the screen door. Monica Silva, whom I had spoken with the night before, came out to greet me, accompanied by a porcine black lab that promptly buried its slobbery head in my crotch. I patted it tentatively and it wagged its tail and sat at my feet, drooling on my shoes. Silva looked ready to go for a hike, in nylon cargo pants, fleece jacket, and hiking boots, and she was much younger than I had imagined from her hoarse phone voice. She was tall and tanned, with dirty blond hair and freckles. I saw a card on the door introducing her as Professor Monica Silva. “Physical education,” she said, when I asked if she studied history or geology. She handed me a book of liability forms and a deposit form in case I needed rescue, and while I signed away my life, told me briefly about the ranch.

Rodolfo Funke came to Argentina from Germany in 1877 at age twenty-five, fleeing political and social problems, and met a friend from home named Ernesto Tornquist, who had established himself as a prominent landowner. Tornquist was also a friend of one of the top Argentine generals. A year after arriving, Funke took a solo trip on horseback through the mountains of the Sierra de la Ventana and, unlike Darwin, liked what he saw. Tornquist offered to sell him the land, and Funke bought 3,700 acres so he could start a ranch. In 1940, two years after Funke’s death, the newly founded Hogar Funke Foundation began to transform the ranch by converting seventy-five acres, including the mountain peaks, into a park.

Without expecting much, I asked Silva about the Indians who had lived in the area before Tornquist and Funke divided up the land, and I got the familiar answer. “Putting it all together is very difficult.”

No other tourists had called at the ranch, and when I finished the forms, she explained the climb. “It’s about ten hours,” she said. On a rough map, it looked to be about five to six miles and a 3,000-foot climb to the summit. Counting on her fingers, she added, “You should turn back at one o’clock.” Then she gave directions.

“First,” she said, “you’re going to hike five kilometers to the Glorieta Outpost. You’ll pass two cattle guards on the road, then a yellow house on your right, then go left. You’ll cross a bridge and pass a few more cattle guards, and then you’ll see the sign for the outpost and a gate.” She held up a picture of a small, circular sign on a post, and another of the gate and a cluster of trees around a small green bathroom. I nodded.

“Once you pass the gate, cross the creek. You only cross the creek once! From then on, always keep the creek on your right!” She waited to make sure I understood.

“Only cross the creek once. OK.”

“Good. Keep the creek on your right and you’ll come to a eucalyptus forest. Walk through the forest, and when you get past it you’ll come to a gate. That’s where the trail officially begins. From there, you’ll be able to see a tree with a broken top on the ridge in the distance. Climb toward it.”

She held up a picture of the ridge, with the tree with the broken top circled. It seemed awfully small. I wondered what would happen if the tree’s broken top ever fell off or filled in with leaves again.

“When you get to the tree, turn and climb up the ridge,” Silva continued. I tried to concentrate and found myself jumbling the directions together. “You’ll see a corral at the top of the ridge.” She held up a picture of the corral, a small wooden structure buried in high grass. “Just make sure you keep your back to the corral and hike up to the top of the ridge—but don’t go over it. If you go over it, you’ll go to the wrong peak.” She showed a picture of the wrong peak, which I suspected was the one Darwin reached.

“Is that where Darwin made it to?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “This one on the left here.” She pointed it out on the picture.

“Anyway, when you near the ridge, you’ll see another tree in the distance. Walk toward that and keep it on your left. Once you reach that, you’ll see the peak. From there, you can climb it. Got it?”

“Sure,” I said. She handed me a cartoon map, labeled “not to scale,” with drawings of the creek, eucalyptus forest, broken tree, corral, and other tree.

“Good luck!” she said.

I started walking under the blue skies of a gorgeous early fall morning. Birds twittered in the trees. Butterflies fluttered across the road like falling leaves, blowing in the wind, sunlight turning them translucent. It took about an hour to reach the Glorieta Outpost, where I leaped over the very important creek and scrambled through a field of waist-high grass and star thistles. At the far end of the meadow, the trail wound up into the eucalyptus forest, rising sharply on steps of slippery white quartz and loose pebbles. At the top of the forest I came to the gate marking the start of the trail, a small wire fence amid fields of gently waving green grass. Slabs of rough gray rock punctured the ground in regular geometric patterns, making ridges resembling the backs of armor-plated stegosaurus. The path continued along the ridge toward the tree with the broken top, disappeared over a hilltop, and reappeared where the next hill rose in the background.

I passed the tree with the broken top and reached the corral, where a delicate breeze brushed the air clean of noise. I was well-along on the trail now, feeling much more certain that I would actually be able to carry out Silva’s instructions (after some dark moments down below), and feeling not even remotely tired. The possibility of beating Darwin to the top gave me an extra boost of adrenaline.

At the top of the next ridge a small herd of guanacos eyed me curiously but without apparent concern and allowed me to get within fifty feet before slowly, grudgingly ceding the ridgeline. Darwin reported that if a sportsman suddenly encountered several guanacos standing together, “they will generally stand motionless and intently gaze at him; then perhaps move on a few yards, turn round, and look again.” I remembered Darwin also describing them as inquisitive animals. “That they are curious is certain,” he wrote. “For if a person lies on the ground, and plays strange antics, such as throwing up his feet in the air, they will almost always approach by degrees to reconnoiter him.” I enjoyed the image of the well-dressed Englishman lying on his back, kicking his feet in the air, and rolling around on the ground in the middle of nowhere, so I decided to try it out myself. The guanacos hadn’t gone very far, and readily allowed me close again. This time, as they started to walk away, I dropped my backpack and fell to the ground on my back, landing directly on a sharp, jagged piece of quartz rock. Fortunately the stabbing pain in my back added to my contortions, and the guanacos stopped walking, looked at me with heads cocked, but didn’t approach. They may have rolled their eyes. I stood up, brushed the grass and dirt off and addressed the herd. “Thanks. You guys have been great.”

The shattered rock summit rose like a giant serrated tooth, just beyond the guanacos. FitzRoy had spotted this peak from the harbor in Bahia Blanca, fifty miles away, inspiring Darwin to attempt to climb it. In his journal, Darwin described the highest part of the range as having four peaks in descending order, but I found only three—which made sense, since Cerro Tres Picos means three peaks mountain. “There are so many rocks sticking up here,” Silva later told me. “Who knows what he saw.”

A beaten-down guanaco trail led to the last ascent and then turned up into tumbled rock piles. Using my hands and knees I scaled the steep final portion and reached the top of the peak. Far below, green-brown and olive fields stretched out in a quilt across the land. The fields likely wouldn’t have been there in the 1830s, but I was confident that frustration had clouded Darwin’s opinion of the scenery. “I had hoped the view would at least have been imposing,” he wrote. “It was nothing; the plain was like the ocean without its beautiful colour or defined horizon.”

I felt like I had just one-upped Darwin (who was, by all accounts, exceedingly fit). I also felt like I’d had, for the first time, a full day that was approaching one of his full days. No people for the last several hours, and no guide. No trail to follow, just vague directions involving broken trees and creeks. A long, challenging hike with twelve miles of hiking and plenty of opportunities for teasing guanacos and studying geology. No giant city sprawled beneath me. But rather than wallow in the glory, I wanted to challenge myself further. I’d taken a taxi to the farmhouse that morning, but there was a bus stop at the highway six miles from the ranch. If I walked those six miles, rather than take a taxi, I’d have an even more Darwin-like day of exercise.

This is why, I think, I should not be allowed to make decisions from mountain peaks.

I skipped the six miles down the mountain and arrived back at the ranch house after just under seven hours of hiking. “Wow,” Silva cheered when I knocked on the door. “Did you reach the top?” She asked me about my hike, interjecting barbaro!—or “cool!”—every three or four words. “Que velocidad! Barbaro! Que velocidad! Barbaro! Y alcancaste el pico? Barbaro! Que velocidad!” She asked if she should call me a taxi. I shrugged it off.

“No thanks,” I said. “I think I’ll walk.”

Silva looked dubious. I insisted. “I’m not very tired,” I said.

I hiked away from the ranch, past beautiful farmhouses and open, golden fields. Cerro Tres Picos grew gradually smaller behind me, fading from dark gray to light brown to a hazy purple, shrinking in comparison to closer peaks until it had disappeared. After two hours I reached the highway and sat down to watch the infrequent cars pass by. The sun started to set and the sky turned pink. A fox loped through the knee-high grass, crossed the road, and disappeared into some bushes. I felt an overwhelming serenity bubbling up within me. The last bus of the day came by at 6:45, and with a triumphant smile I held out my arm and took a few steps toward the road. The bus accelerated right past me. All of a sudden it was dark, and I was nine miles from the nearest city and twenty-one miles from my hotel, with eighteen miles and 3,000 feet of climbing already logged. I no longer felt serene.

I thought about hitchhiking, but the cars became even more infrequent. At first a car heading toward Sierra de la Ventana would pass every five minutes, and then it became every ten minutes, and soon, every twenty minutes. Rather aimlessly trudging along the side of the road, just to feel I was doing something, I wondered whether the cars could even see me. Eventually I spotted a sign for a small resort hotel and conference center two miles away, and I set out walking again, tripping over sticks and debris in the dark. I reached the hotel and woke the owners, who called me a taxi. “You walked from Cerro Tres Picos?” they said. “To here? Why?”

Getting trapped in the middle of nowhere was a risk Darwin constantly faced. In one worst-case scenario, he and seventeen crewmen got stuck on a beach within sight of the Beagle, unable to return to the ship because a squall whipped the water too much for a small boat to collect them. Darwin and his companions huddled together on the exposed ground to try and keep warm, and soon ran out of food. They ate seagulls and a washed-up hawk found on the beach and settled in to wait out the storm. “I never knew how painful cold could be,” Darwin wrote after spending the entire night shivering. The next day the wind finally slacked, and everyone returned to the ship.

Coming down from his frustrating day on Cerro Tres Picos, Darwin at least had a camp to return to. And after “drinking much mattee & smoking several little cigaritos,” he rolled out his sleeping bag and began to think a little more positively. He knew, after all, that though he hadn’t reached the summit, he was the first European to explore the mountain range. Accomplishment always made him feel peaceful. Drowsy from the exercise, he dropped off to sleep immediately, and later reported, “It blew furiously, but I never passed a more comfortable night.”

Determined to do the same, I lay down in the grass to nap while the taxi came to find me.