A brief encounter with a fellow traveler turns into a wrenching "What if…?" scenario as a young man goes missing after setting off for a hike in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.
"Ronan did not board his bus home and did not collect his luggage in El Calafate. Since then, there has been no activity on Ronan's bank accounts and he has missed his internal and international flights. The family and friends are extremely worried."
I was at my worktable in my Buenos Aires apartment, making revisions to my book on tango, when the incoming email caught my attention. It was from a Marsha Donnelly who wrote that she was a good friend of Ronan Lawlor, who had been missing for nearly a month since he entered Torres del Paine National Park in Chile on November 18.
Of course, I remembered Ronan—the lively young man whose name I could only bring up later by thinking Conan, the Dragon. The whole eleven–day trip to Patagonia was fresh in my mind. Ronan, my traveling companion Dan, and I got off the bus together in Torres del Paine. I had assumed that the tall, slim Ronan with sandy–colored hair, wearing Ray–Ban shades was German. But at Laguna Almargo, where we alighted, I heard the distinct lilt of a brogue.
We had nearly two hours to get acquainted with gregarious Ronan who was eager to see the wild backcountry in the park, albeit on a limited time budget. He was 28 and a chemical engineer headed to Australia where he would start a new job in his field.
Marsha's email broke my concentration for work so I went to a Web site set up to receive information about the "missing hiker" and smiled at the many photos of the familiar lad. A profile described his five–foot–ten–inch frame and his eyes as "greenie blue," a phrase I could hear Ronan say. "Very sociable and outgoing." Yep, yep—he was exuberant, not at all Teutonic. When I told him what I did for a living—write—he exclaimed, "Wow, I've never met a real writer before!" which I found surprising—he was from Ireland, land of so many Nobel laureates in literature. But I didn't doubt his sincerity.
He told us how he managed to hop a flight to the Galapagos and had loved Bolivia, Machu Picchu, Rio de Janeiro, and in fact, had no bad reviews about anywhere. He was a skilled mountain climber, so I asked if he had bagged Mount Aconcagua, in Argentina, the highest point in the Americas at 22,841 feet. "Nah," he said, and told of summiting a lower, equally challenging peak, Mount Villarrica, a snow–capped volcano in Chile's lake district.
I chuckled reading Ronan's travel blog as he reported his snorkeling adventure off Ecuador, where he "nearly swallowed half the ocean with fright" when he spotted a white–tipped shark. There were photos of Ronan with his cousin, Grainne, a Celtic beauty; toasting with a caiparinha; playing guitar; wearing a native sombrero; sitting at a piano; deploying his kayak; posing atop a smoking crater; and standing near a blue glacier. During the two hours of our acquaintance, I felt I had seen all these sides of this seasoned traveler. And I worried about him, the way I would about any of my many nieces and nephews his age.
Rewinding memories of goodbye
I answered Marsha's email right away with all the useful information I could muster. She called me from Ireland within an hour and we went over it all again, with her apologizing for the bother, my apologizing for not having more details. Much of what I told her she already knew: he had left most of his baggage back in El Calafate (Argentina), in the same hostel where Dan and I were staying. He had only a small backpack in Torres del Paine. We had all hopped the van ride from Almargo to the Refugio Torres del Paine where Dan and I would lodge for the next three days. But Ronan, bless his energy, set out that same afternoon to get to the Towers, the park's namesake attraction. (Torres means towers and Paine, Pie–ee–nay, is transliteration for the indigenous Nandu people's word for blue.) From the Towers, Ronan would double back to Refugio Chileno and spend the night. The next morning, he would head out to complete in a few days on the popular trail called "The W" for its shape.
It was near 5 pm at the Refugio when Ronan turned to bid us farewell. Since I had hiked to the Towers the previous March, he asked me "How long did it take you to get there?" I laughed and said, "A good three hours but, at your pace, you'll be there in an hour or so." I looked at his solid, sturdy frame, and added, "Only the last part is a bitch—a real demolition site with a nearly vertical pile of boulders. Be prepared to scramble."
We said warm so–longs, good lucks, and here I can't recall for certain, but I think, I hope, I gave Ronan a hug because he was readily affectionate and because living in Argentina for the past year, I had learned to embrace everyone instead of shaking hands, even if I knew them for five minutes.
When Marsha and I hung up, I forwarded her email to Dan, who was back home in San Francisco. He replied that it didn't sound good. I didn't like his pessimism so I sent Ronan's photo to my Mom, who believes in miracles and prays for special intentions during her daily rosary.
I hoped Ronan's disappearance was due to his exuberance—the way young men can get caught up in an experience and time slows down and they forget to call their girlfriends or home. Perhaps Ronan was lost somewhere in the huge backcountry of Torres del Paine—in which case, I didn't for a moment doubt his resourcefulness. Or maybe he was off intoxicated on that famous shamanic herb, ayahuasca, that turns all your thoughts into 3–D hallucinations with which you must do battle. Of course, I had to admit that this latter possibility was not the Ronan we met.
Anyone could get lost in Patagonia
In the days following Marsha's email, I couldn't imagine what might have happened to the astute Ronan in the great wilds of Patagonia whose topography in my mind is, though desolate and huge, broadly open and shallow. It does not impose itself on my memory like, say, the precipitous Sierra Nevada high country. A geographic region that straddles Chile and Argentina, Patagonia, like Amazonia or Appalachia, is hard to precisely pinpoint.
By most accounts, it starts around the "waist" of cone–shaped South America, below Argentina's west–east flowing Rio Colorado, and tapers down the continent to Cape Horn, near the stem–end of the earth. It encompasses Tierra del Fuego, the Andes, deep lakes, sprawling ice fields, numerous glaciers, and cloud–studded skies. Chile's much–perforated southern portion, which looks more like a tight fleet of islands than a coherent land mass, and Argentina's pampas, which resemble "oceans" of grassland, comprise large swaths of the region. Anyone could get lost in this Land of the Big Feet, named for apocryphal giants, patagons, that Magellan spotted during his explorations here.
The morning after the day Ronan headed off into the sunset, Dan and I set out on the same trail to the Towers. It was a spectacularly beautiful day in meteorologically moody Patagonia as we climbed the rolling pampas steppe. An hour out along the trail, we reached Refugio Chileno, where Ronan should have spent the night. I had hoped we'd run into him and learn what he thought of the Towers. But it was late, and that firebrand was probably on his next leg—through the Valle de Francia. Dan and I continued up the trail until we reached the trail's five–mile mark and the final 1/2–mile scramble over jagged boulders. I told Dan about the courageous man on my first trip here, who appeared to be in his late sixties and who had fallen on the side of his face. He received a deep gash that would require medical attention, but his friends bandaged him with conspicuous wads of gauze, as he was determined to summit.
As I checked the Web site daily for updates on Ronan, I recalled other forbidding features of this extraordinary terrain, like the constant avalanche of snow falling off the face of Almirante Nieto. In full view through the picture window of our refugio room, the sun–hammered snow cascaded like waterfalls. And there was the fiercest wind on earth, which during our visit showed its ferocity only once, pummeling us like rag dolls. Had it sucker–punched Ronan?
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