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

Part III. DISCOVERY

Chapter 16. BELL MOUNTAIN

From the Pacific to the Andes

The setting of the sun was glorious, the valleys being black whilst the snowy peaks of the Andes yet retained a ruby tint. When it was dark, we made a fire beneath a little arbor ofbamboos, fired our charqui (or dried strips of beef), took our matté & were quite comfortable.

—BEAGLE DIARY, AUGUST 16, 1834

DARWIN’S GREATEST OVERLAND ADVENTURE took him out of the coastal Chilean city of Valparaiso on a late-fall ride through the Andes into Argentina. His enthusiasm for the trip showed in a last-minute letter he dashed off to his sister Caroline in which he laid out his plans for beating the snow in the high mountains (leaving that very morning at 4 A.M.), offered his backup plan (begging for horses to take him to Potosí in Bolivia) and concluded, “I cannot write more, for horse clothstirrups pistols & spurs are lying on all sides of me.”

At the time, there were two passes between Chile and Mendoza, Argentina. The pass called Uspallata was more commonly used, while the Portillo pass, further south and nearer to Santiago, was “more lofty and dangerous.” Darwin, his guide Mariano Gonzales, and an accompanying mule train set out for the Portillo pass. The route took them first through the Maipo River valley, then after two days up a steep ascent of the Andes, which formed a double barrier between the two countries. Darwin climbed the western ridge most of the day, following switchbacks up through bands of snow until he reached the crest. The view from the top repaid the trouble. In a crossed-out sentence in his journal, he wrote that this view, above all others, stood out in his memory, and he penned one of his most beautiful descriptions: “The atmosphere so resplendently clear, the sky an intense blue, the profound valleys, the wild broken forms, the heaps of ruins piled up during the lapse of ages, the bright colored rocks, contrasted with the quiet mountains of snow, together produced a scene I never could have imagined.” Darwin, apparently, had wandered away from his guides for awhile—or possibly they just weren’t interested in the view—and the solitude amplified his emotion. “I felt glad I was by myself,” he wrote. “It was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in the full Orchestra a Chorus of the Messiah.”

The rest of the trip went off smoothly. He made it to Mendoza and then crossed back to Chile a few weeks later via the safer pass. In an April 1835 letter to his sister he wrote, “Since leaving I have never made so successful a journey.” He proceeded to summarize his geological findings, realizing that she would understand little and care less, but his enthusiasm carried him through a long paragraph before he recognized, “I am afraid you will tell me, I am prosy with my geological descriptions & theories.”

Beyond the successful geologizing, the scenery stuck with him. In a letter to his college professor J.S. Henslow, who unlike Darwin’s sister did have a strong interest in geology, Darwin emphasized how much he enjoyed the view. “It is worth coming from England once to feel such intense delight.”

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Portillo is now a ski resort, the most famous ski resort in Chile, where the United States Olympic ski team goes to practice in the North American summer. But I wanted to climb one more mountain. Darwin had trekked through the cordillera near the end of his overland travels, a full three years into his Beagle journey. Rather than drag, the time flew by. The views seemed fresh and new even though he’d now gazed across South America from peaks in every conceivable condition. Darwin kept climbing regardless of what other things he had to do because to summit a mountain was to renew the joy of his journey.

Optimism may be one of the biggest benefits of travel. When you spend all your time in a small area, trekking back and forth to work, getting all your news on the Internet, it’s easy to think the world is a lot worse off than it is. Then you get out in it, even for a short bit, and you get a summit view or find a friendly person who cares about nature just like you do, and then even when you go home you remember: Hey, it’s not all bad. We’re really doing OK. I wanted that view one more time for myself before I left, and I wanted that view for Josh for the first time. Josh had been burning out in an office for the last few years, and he needed that mountain climb whether he knew it or not.

We picked a more accessible mountain. Cerro La Campana, or Bell Mountain, didn’t achieve the lofty heights of its Andean neighbors to the east, but it was the highest mountain in Chile’s coast range, at roughly 6,000 feet above sea level. Darwin had climbed it and enjoyed the way that, from the top, all of Chile had appeared as if on a map. Situated a few hours east of the major port town of Valparaiso, it was also possible to climb the mountain, hike back down, and be back in the city for dinner.

It was a popular trail, but climbing it as we did on the shortest day of the year meant that there were no other hikers around. Which was not to say they hadn’t been there. Hiking through clumps of frail, red-leaved trees, we passed boulders covered in graffiti. The scrawled names, dates, and hometowns—“Houston, Texas, 2003” or “Patty y Miguel, 1996” or “Elvira, 1972”—got more dense as we climbed, until almost every rock had someone’s name and yearbook quote on it.

“Who brings a can of spray paint hiking with them?” I asked—other than, obviously, the group of six from Valparaiso who had left their names in yellow paint on the rock next to me.

“I fully expect the summit to be solid graffiti,” Josh said. He started to point out some more distinctive markers—l ike “The Cure” (1999) and “Metallica” (date unknown). “At least we know the benefit now of always carrying a can of spray paint.”

I grabbed a rock and pulled myself over it. “You don’t see ‘Charles Darwin’ written anywhere here, do you?”

Actually, we did. At the base of the peak, surrounded by more happy graffiti, we found a bronze plaque honoring Darwin’s ascent and placed by the “Scientific Society of Valparaiso, the British Colony and his admirers.” I wondered how Darwin would have rated this memorial, out of all the hundreds of bronze things placed around the world in his honor. He certainly would have liked that it was a plaque in his name that didn’t remember him as an old tormented evolutionist and instead honored him for climbing and adventuring. He would have liked that it remembered him with one of his own quotes, translated from English into Spanish: “We spent the day at the top of the mountain, and the time has never passed faster.”

Time did pass quickly for him, and it wasn’t because his work was so imperative. He’d spent a few days on and around the mountain already and done plenty of geologizing. Once, on a different mountain, annoyed because he hadn’t reached the top, Darwin wrote that, “all purposes of geology had been answered,” so it wasn’t really necessary to reach the summit. (Looming darkness and thigh cramps had nothing to do with it, you see; he had merely concluded his geological studies.) At the top of Cerro La Campana, Darwin didn’t need to spend the entire time geologizing. He was instead taking a moment to restore his pleasure in an arduous voyage, to remember why it was that he’d been so eager to leave England, and to remind himself that with all Chile arrayed below him, “from the Pacific to the Andes,” it really was worth it.

As we trotted down the mountain that evening into the gathering fog, Josh and I talked about reaching the peak versus turning back just short. This had been a real question for most of the day; Josh was still hiking his way into shape, and the day had been short and the climb longer than we had anticipated. Faced with a choice to turn back immediately or reach the summit but face a hike down in the darkness, we both chose to deal with the dark. We needed that triumph.

As we walked down, the darkness that had seemed like such a concern on the way up suddenly didn’t bother me at all. And Josh appeared to be elated. He distilled it perfectly as we reached the bottom. “It’s a lot better for jealousy with my former coworkers to say I made it,” he said. “As opposed to saying, ‘Hey guys, I almost made it to the top of the highest mountain in the coast range.’”

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