Words and Photos By Emily Hopcian
*dinggg dinggg dinggg* At 4:30 a.m., the drawl of my alarm wakes me from a cozy summer slumber. I rub my eyes and burrow into my comforter. I don’t want to get up (does anyone want to get up at 4:30 a.m.?) yet I know a sunrise hike in the mountains, a meditative morning on my own, will be worth it.
So I cast my comforter aside, put on my socks and slippers, and carefully climb down the stairs from my lofted room to brush my teeth and wash my face. I pull my hair into a ponytail, change into my hiking clothes and boots, grab my backpack and walk out the door of mi casita.
Cool Patagonian air greets me. While the forecasted high for today is close to 90oF, the summer nights and early mornings are quite chilly here in Bariloche, an Argentine city among Andean lakes and mountains in northern Patagonia. I zip up my jacket and walk to the remis office in my neighborhood to catch a ride to the trailhead.
This morning, the dawn of my 28th birthday, I plan to visit Refugio Lopez, a mountain hut on Cerro Lopez at the west end of Bariloche. This isn’t my first rodeo with Lopez. I’ve hit the trail twice before with plans of meeting the refugio, but due to deep snow on one occasion and a friend falling — not seriously injured but scraped up — on the second, I have yet to befriend the refugio. The hike to Lopez isn’t terribly demanding, but as is the case with all the refugios here in Bariloche, it takes time. So today I set out, once more, with Lopez on my mind.
At the trailhead, I pull my headlamp from my backpack, slip my hands through the straps of my hiking poles and start climbing. Save for a stream nearby, the morning is still and silent. Far above the trees, a full moon and shield of stars promise to stick with me until sunrise, though they’ll weave in and out of the trees as I hike. I work to kick fear aside and appreciate the rarity of this moment, which is easier said than done. There’s a reason this moment is rare. Being alone in the dark in the woods at the base of a mountain is a bit terrifying.
Far above the trees, a full moon and shield of stars promise to stick with me until sunrise, though they’ll weave in and out of the trees as I hike. I work to kick fear aside and appreciate the rarity of this moment, which is easier said than done.
The first hour is a steep, uphill climb. I’m familiar with it in daylight, but in the dark, the trail that weaves upward through these dense woods seems to tell another tale. I focus on my steps and my breathing. Every few paces, I look up, casting the glow of my headlamp on the trees as I look for the dots of red paint that mark the way.
Just past Roca Negra — a small mountain restaurant between the trailhead and Refugio Lopez — I reunite with the furthest point of the trail known to me. Everything looks, and feels, far different without several feet of snow warming the ground. It’s at this point that the trail evens out. I embrace the relief from the uphill climb and admire the ever-growing morning light.
I marvel at this time with myself out in nature. While there are certainly moments of fear and concern in hiking solo, there are also moments of magic, especially when you have the trail to yourself at sunrise during high season.
So with the sun giving light to the day, I take it all in. I swim in the freedom I feel, not only on this solo hike but also in the way I’ve chosen to live my life. I savor the close connection I feel with the natural Patagonian beauty that surrounds me and also with myself — my mind, heart and soul. There’s something indescribably intimate about being alone in nature, about disconnecting to connect and moving with the pace of the natural world.
I bounce along, talking with myself, and before I know it, I’ve reached the refugio. I sit atop a rocky outcrop just below the hut — taking in the peaks that surround me, the valley below and the lakes and slivers of land that lie at the foot of it all. The air and water are calm. I eat a scone that’s crumbled at the bottom of my bag and drink some water. I watch as the sun officially rises above the mountains to the east, take a deep breath and revel in the moment.
For me, on this particular day and on this particular hike, I’m reminded that the things we seek are often much closer than they seem. No matter the depth of the snow or slipperiness of the trail, we’ll never know just how close we are unless we continue to step onto the trail and put one foot in front of the other. One step at a time.
You see, life is a series of steps. Some light, some heavy. And while we can’t always see exactly where we’re going, how long it will take or how we’ll get there, it’s important to keep stepping onto the trails that matter to us — honestly, intentionally and respectfully. On the dawn of my 28th birthday, as I sit outside Refugio Lopez, I absorb the warmth of the sun and the unique beauty of the steps I’ve chosen to take in my life, realizing that — for better or worse — those steps have led me to this moment of peace, solitude and content in one of the more special places I’ve come to know.
Distance: 6 kilometers
Time needed: 4-6 hours roundtrip
Elevation gain: 770 meters
Interested in hiking in Patagonia? Check out Karen Wang’s piece, Hiking the W Trek.
About the author: Emily Hopcian’s hunger for travel, outdoor adventure and new challenges landed her in Bariloche, Argentina, where she lives and works as a writer and story strategist. A Michigander at heart, Emily is happiest playing in water, exploring the backcountry and embarking on road trips — especially with LBK, her deaf cat, as copilot. Find her on Instagram and read about her adventures on her blog.