For our pack trip he's brought along Pablo, the estancia's house manager, and Francisco, a former homeless urchin from the nearby village of Cochran whom Juan Luis has more or less adopted and made into an accomplished gaucho.
Riding horses is the one outdoor activity in which I can claim some superiority over Yvon. He sits atop a horse in a crabbed posture, wondering, I always imagine, where to set up his rappel. I remind him to keep just his toes in the stirrups and his heels angled down. We're wearing hiking boots with lug soles, and bailing out could be a sticky problem.
It's my 30-second riding lesson, a payback to Yvon for his 30-second crampon lesson as we began our ascent of Mount Rainier and his five-minute kayaking lesson just before we headed into Class III water near Jackson Hole. On that occasion the river was swollen with runoff, and we hadn't gone far before I turtled. As I shot down the stream, hanging on to the boat with one hand and swimming with the other, Yvon paddled over to hear what I was shouting. He got wide-eyed as I said, "Hey, we forgot something: life jackets." Fortunately I am a strong swimmer with a high threshold for foolishness.
The estancia horses are strong and steady as we climb more than 1,500 feet up narrow trails and steep banks into a canyon framed by towering rock walls. Above us are nesting sites for the famed Andean condors, the giant birds with 10-foot wingspans. By noon we've reached a gaucho campsite and, as we have to be back on the road tomorrow for flights home, we dismount and set up a comfortable base. No freeze-dried mac and cheese or PowerBars in this country: Francisco unwraps a lamb quarter and sets up an asada as Pablo uncorks a robust red.
Yvon and I set off to explore the canyon, which is divided by a fast-flowing river with no natural crossings. Working our way up the west side, we come to a furious little tributary and, with some effort, rock-hop across the fast, deep pools. Somehow – and this happens more often than not on our excursions – we get separated as Yvon ambles off in one direction and I in another. I make my way through a mossy stand of old-growth beech trees until suddenly I am on a substantial rock slide, big boulders that have tumbled off the cliff. I start across until I remember my friend Aron Ralston, the climber trapped in Blue John Canyon for five days until he cut off his arm and managed an epic escape.
Having documented Aron's ordeal in a two-hour prime-time broadcast, I am all too aware that should I be similarly trapped I'd die like a pathetic weasel. So rather than take that chance, I retreat to the little tributary and the rock-hopping crossing. Alas, my launching boulder has taken some extra waves, and as I step onto it for the graceful leap across I go ass first onto its slick surface and into the icy stream. And so does my camera, with the only clear-weather pictures I had.
Yvon shows up back at camp about an hour later. I had been secretly hoping he'd encountered a similar problem, but nope, as usual crossing the stream was routine.
By dusk, the lamb was almost cooked through. In the twilight sky first eight, then a dozen, then 20 condors began a lazy ride along the updraft, their wings carrying them by the sheer cliffs and down the canyon. I raised a glass of Chilean merlot to their primal origins and quietly vowed to return to this spiritual place. I fell asleep in the crisp night air wondering, Will Yvon and I ever leave the sleeping-bag portion of our lives completely behind?