Lost in the Andes: Breathtaking Story from a Traveler Carl Madsen



Travel Inspiration
Diving in Galapagos. (Taken by Carl Madsen)

This is the part which is probably the most interesting to us all! First of all, we are interested to hear what is your favorite type of traveling?

I like to travel however I can ! They’re all individually rewarding in their own way. Whether it’s an international flight (living in Australia, every country is overseas), a multi-day road trip or just an hour drive to a nearby national park, I just love to get myself out there.

What was your longest trip?

My longest trip was my study exchange to Sweden for 6 months, where I found myself out and travelling more than at the university!

Living in dorm accommodation with a huge variety of different people facilitates going on trips almost every weekend – whether it be longer trips around Europe or shorter ones around Sweden. Through all the places I went during my time there, and all the amazing people I met, it has definitely stuck with me.

What is the most wonderful place you have ever visited?

Iceland, hands down, no contest. It’s such unlike any country I’ve ever been to and is incomparable in its magic. If you’ve never been there, I would say go as soon as you can! A couple of friends and I took solid advice and rented a car to drive around the lone highway that circles the land – it has the most alien landscapes I’ve ever seen, that change and flow with every turn of the road. You can be driving through a snow-covered land, solid white as far as you can see, and 10 minutes later moving through brown and green fields, imposing mountains to your left and horses galloping on your right. Pink sunsets, vivid auroras, whiteout blizzards. It’s simply awe-inspiring!

Travel Inspiration
Vivid auroras by Carl Madsen.

What was the most memorable or challenging story from your trips?

I’ve definitely run into a lot of obstacles in my travels, but the one that sticks with me the most would have to be the short time I spent in Chile. I was flying home to Melbourne from Quito, Ecuador, and my flight had a two-day stopover in Santiago. It was my first time in the country so I decided to make the most of it – I looked for a few different day trips in which I could experience the country, but at such short notice everything was fully booked. Still eager to get out of the hostel, I searched around for some day hikes, and found one that would take me to the summit of Cerro Pochoco. It’s a smaller summit on the edge of the Andes, about a 30-minute taxi ride out of the city – a 500 meter elevation, 4 hour round trip (3 up, 1 down), perfect! The only shoes I had were a beat up pair of sneakers with no traction, and a pair of dress boots which hadn’t been worn in. Not wanting to blister my feet, I opted for the sneakers, but packed the boots – just in case. But with the boots, and my camera bag (with a 250 mm lens) I was only left with enough room in my backpack for a 600 ml water bottle. I figured I’d tough it out anyway. So off I went. Caught a taxi to the base, found the start of the trail and started my ascent.

Now I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an experienced hiker, and this was not the walk-in-the-park kind of trail I was expecting. Trail constantly disappeared and reappeared, and the first quarter I was literally climbing on all fours up a 30 degree ascent, getting any grip I could on rocks and plants as the ground was layered with loose stones and dirt. But I managed to get through that part, even with my baby-smooth shoes, and continue on. My lack of fitness at this point after a month of studying and relaxing in the Galapagos came into play, and I found myself constantly stopping and appreciating the view of the city, which also meant I regretted bringing such a tiny bottle of water. As I progress through shrubs, dirt and cacti, in a stroke of luck I unexpectedly find a large patch of snow on the south side of the mountain! My throat couldn’t have thanked me enough, I scooped up enough to fill my water bottle, and continued on through some near rock-climbing phases of the hike, and finally reached the summit.

It was beautiful! There was a spanning view of Chilean Andes, through snow, rock and grass, with Santiago city visible in the distance. Looking to the horizon greeted me with a beautiful haze as the mountains faded off into the distance, with the sun slowly starting its descent into a glowing sunset. I spent some time up there taking a lot of photos and having a great time, completely alone as I’d only passed a couple other people descending the trail a couple hours ago.

Wait a second. “Why is the sun so low for 4:30 PM?”, I asked myself. As it turns out, which I didn’t know at the time, my phone’s clock was off by an hour. So when I thought I had an hour and a half before it got dark, I really only had 30 minutes. As I started to realize that with no lights anywhere close, it would get very dark up there, I started to get a little worried. I realized I needed to get down to the street as quickly as I could, I started to quickly walk my way down the trail. Until, that is, I got to the extremely steep set of rocks I literally had to climb up to ascend. After slipping around for 5 minutes in the shoes I was wearing, I pulled out my dress boots, wished my feet all the best for what was to come, and tried again. Very slowly and carefully I got down – I knew that if I slipped there’d be a high chance I’d be lying on the mountain with a broken ankle hoping someone would come by in the morning. I finally made it through that bit, but the time lost meant that the sun was getting too low for my liking. So, I started jogging.

Travel Inspiration
View to Santiago. (Taken by Carl Madsen)

Now, on the way up, the trail was very on and off – there’d be parts where it’s clearly worn, and others where it disappears for 20 meters or so through some bushes. Taking it slowly meant that I’d be able to concentrate on following it, but after 10 minutes of jogging down this mountain I’d realized that I was no longer where I was supposed to be. I looked around, nothing. I backtracked, nothing. I had no idea where I was. Looking in worry at the sun, I decided to just get down as fast as I could anyway. I could see the city lights way off in the distance, so using that as a guide I kept going. I jogged along the face of the mountain. I climbed along the sides of jutting out rocks, a flurry of cacti beckoning from the two meter drop below me. At one point I slipped, and slid about 10 meters down the valley of the mountain before my digged-in fingers managed to latch onto a rock.

This was not what I had expected when I hailed a taxi that morning. Dirty, bloodied, sweaty and exhausted, I looked at the now-setting sun and decided to just enjoy it. I realized it was going to get dark, I still had no idea where I was, so why not just sit back for some time, cool off and enjoy the moment.

It was dark, I could hardly see anything, I was cold, I was alone, I was lost – I was pretty scared for myself at this point, wondering if I’m ever going to get home. Then I remembered – how did I not think of this earlier? My phone flashlight! I whip out my phone, ready to do this, and… 30% battery. It was an old phone, had been dropped too many times, so I knew it wouldn’t last long. I’d been lost on the side of this mountain for over an hour at this point, and I was just ready to get home. Invigorated by this new hope, and racing against the clock, I went off jogging again. Constantly slipping, shoes filled with stones, I dodged cacti and rocks, guided by the lights of the city and whatever safe slope downwards I could find. And then, the ground changed. It leveled out and became firmer. Against all odds, I had miraculously and unexpectedly walked right back onto the trail again. I simply could not believe it. A wave of relief hit me like I’d never experienced, I turned my light off and just sat down for 5 minutes looking at the stars with a tear in my eye.

Ready to once again begin my descent with newfound confidence, I was faced with a bit of a conundrum – on one hand, I wanted to move quickly whilst I still had battery in my phone (18%). On the other hand, I wanted to move carefully because there was NO way I was losing that trail again. I opted to try and do both. I ran down the trail, but as mentioned earlier, it disappeared and split a lot, which was intensely compounded by the lack of light. So I came up with a strategy – I would run the trail, and double back to confirm if I wasn’t 100% positive. Every time I wasn’t sure about something, I scanned the ground with my light looking for footprints. If I couldn’t find any, I’d double back until I did. This was all going great until my phone, as expected, ran out of battery. Crap. I sat and waited for my night vision to kick in, but it still wasn’t good enough to discern the pathways through the bushes. So I pulled out my last resort – my camera, which still had plenty of battery. I popped open the flash, and walked slowly forwards whilst taking photos. Take a photo and scan the landscape with the flash, wait for the glare to subside, jog forward a little bit. Take a photo, wait, jog forward. Take a photo, wait, jog forward. And then, all of a sudden, I saw the entrance gate by the street.

Travel Inspiration
Sunset in Chilean Andes. (Taken by Carl Madsen)

I don’t think I can really describe the mixed feelings of accomplishment and relief that hit me when I first stepped onto the street. I sat down for a good 10 minutes just reflecting on what had just happened. And the 45 minute walk towards the city to hail a taxi was nothing in comparison. I was alone, no street lights, broken glass-topped fences, dogs howling, but I walked those streets with the confidence of a thousand men. I finally saw a cab, and when he dropped me off I bought a bottle of coke at the local store and drank it right there in the street. I was covered in dirt with torn pants and scratches covering my hands and arms, sweating in 6°C weather, minus one hostel room key, enjoying a slice of home in complete and utter disbelief.

Well, this is what we call a breathtaking travel story! Could hardly imagine ourselves in this kind of situation. Compared to this, getting lost on the road is just a fun activity, isn’t it?

But let’s move forward. We have a lot of questions left!

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