- Earth Day in Half an Acre
- Base Camp 14th Anniversary…
- May I Suggest That May of 2012 Go Engage Itself in Coitus
- Patagonia: Chapter 10 – A Day in Coihayque
- The Worst Part About Censorship is XXXXXXXXX
- Patagonia – Chapter 9: Piscos and Discos
- Patagonia: Chapter 8 – Meanwhile Back at the Ranch
- Patagonia: Chapter 7 – United We Stand. United We Fall to Our Deaths in a Crevasse
- Patagonia: Chapter 6 — Life in Camp
- Patagonia: Chapter 5 – Scotch on the Rocks
I’ve been lucky to have seen some heart-wrenchingly beautiful places in remote areas around the world, but this Earth Day I’m celebrating one that’s closer to home. Because it is home. My own little spot of soil and sand; a wee atom in the great being that’s our Earth.
I’ve seen the full cycle of seasons bring out unique beauties as the Earth’s axis dips us farther and closer to the sun. The drunken drone of bumblebees fat and laden with pollen in the sweet heat of summer. The long winter shadows and wind ripples in the unbroken snow. The silent fireworks as fall leaves spin to the ground where busy squirrels crunch through them. In spring, it’s turning smiling faces and bare limbs to the warming sun and skies so endlessly blue they make your eyes water.
This isn’t the prettiest time for my piece of earth. Bare branches nubbed with buds wave skinny and awkward in their renewed adolescence. And the gardens, free from snow, reveal a long winter’s collection of compost and the tale of a bitter wet fall told in the brown pages of unraked leaves.
It’s a constant and humbling reminder that we humans are really not necessary for the Earth. She was turning organic matter into new dirt long before we got here. Birds still serenaded each other in the trees. She pushed up mile high mountains, carved grand canyons a grain of dust at a time. Polished boulders smooth with the slow patience of glaciers and rivers. Clouds formed and dissipated into rain. All without our help.
Maybe because we’re unnecessary in helping her be incredible and beautiful, is why so many try to assert dominion over the Earth. To prove our worth with how quickly we can turn the trees into paper money. Thinking that, in her destruction, we’ve somehow shown we’re better than nature.
People are always searching for something larger than themselves, not realizing that it’s all around them. Not just in the grand temples of national parks or atop Everest or in some far-flung part of the galaxy. But in the bugs and earthworms under our feet and the silent clouds floating overhead. I’ve always thought churches were redundant when you have nature. There’s no purer, closer connection to any kind of creator you wish to imagine than being outside. Even in my little ½ acre temple of brussel sprouts and dandelions.
No. We’re not needed here. But there is always happiness in that humility for me in knowing that you can help. We have choices to either help or hinder nature. And we make them every day. So in this new spring, when I see buds unfolding into flowers, when lilies wake themselves from underground, and when I brush away the compost and dig my hands into the earth and pull up a tangle of happy earthworms and know that we’ll soon turn this brown bit of earth into a garden that will feed birds and bees and houseguests alike, I know I can do something to help make the earth better while I’m alive. And that someday I’ll join the soil and become part of the processes that were here long before humankind.
So make that choice. Today and everyday. It all starts at home. Because everywhere is home.
14 years ago my friends, Jim and Melissa, and I headed to Nepal. We found our way from Kathmandu to a little village named Jiri at the end of the road. There we put on our packs, raised our eyes to the peaks of the revered Himalayas crowning the distant clouds and started walking. Weeks later we arrived at Everest Base Camp and, from atop Kala Pattar, got to gaze upon Sagarmatha, “Mother of the Universe”, Mt. Everest, the highest point any human could go on this planet.
It was also the start of my own Base Camp. A journey that continues to astound me, teach me, introduce me to incredible new things, places, people and events. And to show me that there are still higher places to strive for, more things to achieve, discover, create, try.
A heartfelt and honest thanks to you my friends, family and loved ones for making all that possible. For teaching me, for including me, for thinking of me, for hiring me, for listening to me, for inspiring me. Even writers much better than I would have a hard time encompassing how truly lucky I feel. I try to work hard to earn that luck.
So please give me the honor of buying you a pint at Dangerous Man Brewing in NE tonight. I’ll be there at 5pm. Hope you can make it, but hurry up, we’ve got a lot of adventures awaiting, my friends. Put on your packs and let’s go. Namaste, you glorious bastards.
April showers are supposed to bring May flowers. But this past May brought three funerals, a break-up, and three weddings. I know, it sounds like the sequel to an ‘90s British comedy starring Hugh Grant. Most of the bad news, however, arrived in rapid succession, literally in less time than it would have taken to get through the trailer.
But weddings are happy, right? Yes, they are. As they should be. It’s just that I had to perform the first of those three weddings. And it’s difficult to stand up in front of a church full of people and convince them about love and celebrating common connections with someone special and bringing two hearts together when yours is hanging in tatters inside your suit coat.
The other two weddings? Well, I would be seated next to an empty plate.
I was honored to have been asked to conduct the wedding of my cousin and his fiancée though. While planning the ceremony I learned they’d met one day while walking around a lake in Austin, Texas. A totally random and unexpected encounter. Which is really how any relationship starts. Even if friends hook you up, there have been infinite choices, decisions, and moments in multiple people’s histories far back to the cave people that effected you being there at that moment. So it’s all by chance.
The question is what you do with it. Because everything, every moment, is a life-changing moment, bringing us a little bit closer to something, a little bit further away from something else.
But even weddings contain the word ‘death’. “‘til death do us part.”. “All my life.” Stuff like that. It doesn’t always work out that way we know. But looking at my cousin and his soon-to-be-as-soon-as-I-say-so-bride…they believe that’s how it shall be. It’s not a promise that it will happen, it’s a statement of how they want it to be and how they’ll try as hard as they can to make it happen. That’s a strong emotion. A scary, powerful, exhilarating, dizzy, giddy, laughing, terrifying, wonderful thing.
And sometimes, wouldn’t you know, it actually fucking works out.
Which, oddly enough, leads me to the first funeral.
It was for my brother-in-law’s mom. My sister married a good man, so we usually just do away with the ‘in-law’ part. His mom was 110% Irish. She was older and you could say she had a full life, but I’m sure she wanted to fill it up even more. At least until the ravaging cancer probably convinced her otherwise. I was asked to speak at the funeral because her husband and sons said they wouldn’t be able to get through it without crying. I wasn’t sure I could either.
At the cemetery, her husband of 53 years knelt down and laid a final kiss on the urn that contained her ashes. Somehow joy and sorrow stood with arms around each other, just as close as we did, at that moment. They’d created a lot of love in those 53 years. A love that would continue to grow in our sharing of memories and the DNA of my little nephews.
Thing is, even if you do everything right like they did, even if you make the right choices, every relationship, every life, every thing will end at some point. That’s just part of the deal we agreed to when we wailed out our first breath in the delivery room. If the thought of something ending scares you from undertaking it, you’d just sit on your couch. But even that would end.
The second funeral was someone my age. Hit by a truck on his bike a few blocks from his house. Duane and I grew up next to each other. In fact, he still lived with his parents. Probably because, in high school, while he was out getting stoned, I was doing research for the debate team. Who knows? A few years ago, I was hit by a bus. All my studying and good choices didn’t help me then. But I lived. There but for the grace of whatever, right?
The third death was someone only 26. Ashley was full of life. A blossoming writer. Not someone meant to be background filler. She had a future. You couldn’t look at it directly because it seemed so bright. Beautiful and witty and charming, she absorbed all life had to offer and radiated it back. Car accident one night. Done. Gone.
I started seeing notices on Facebook and checked her page to read the sad news from her sister. Just below that were posts of her out the night before running down a Boston street with a bundle of balloons. She had no idea what was coming.
Do you think her recent boyfriend or friends are thinking “What a waste of time it was getting to know Ashley. We knew she was going to die sometime.”? Quite the opposite. Because her time was so limited, it’s now even more precious. And we’re even more glad to have had it.
After a friend heard I would be going to yet another funeral this month, she said “Well, all you need now is to deliver a baby at it.” At this point, I would not be surprised.
So what does all this mean? I don’t know.
I do know all of us will die. We’re only momentarily immortal. Relationships. Jobs. Pets. Your favorite shoes. All things go away at some point. All things have their last day. Whether by choice or fate or time.
But it’s just not possible to live every day as if it were our last. We’ll only be right once. And all those other days we need to mow the lawn, chop vegetables, clip our toenails, walk back from the laundry and spend time earning money so we can maybe do stuff like skydive or go on safari in Africa. No, life can’t be one continuous bucket list.
Actually, life is nothing but a bucket list. Why can’t it include more mundane things? That’s life isn’t it? The fact you’re sitting there now reading this on a computer in the middle of this galaxy is the result of so many rare and random chances is something pretty amazing in and of itself. Sure, they’re small moments, but they do add up. It’s not like you have to break down weeping and compose a sonnet about the glory of the universe whenever you see a plastic bag floating in the wind, but, yes, there is grace and beauty in what we call the every day. There are little unsuspecting seconds that gather compound interest in our souls, building a wealth of happiness over a lifetime.
Yet so many people seem afraid of happiness and success. They don’t think the time is right or they’re perfect enough. You and the time will never be perfect. Life isn’t perfect. The imperfect thoughts I’m trying to express in this imperfect story aren’t perfect. It’s amazing how we’ll steel ourselves to accept and deal with the horrible shitstorms life hands all of us at one time or other, yet, when life throws us a serendipitous joy or opportunity we weren’t expecting, we’re all too eager to run from it or find a reason to kill it.
I’ve found that if you ignore bad things they seldom go away, the opposite is true with good things.
Our guts and hearts and minds are often in conflict, but they seem to unify in their difficulty in telling fear and excitement apart. Those emotions both drink deep and drunkenly of adrenaline, increasing our breathing, pounding our chests so hard it reverberates in quivering throughout our bodies. Perhaps we’re often afraid of succeeding, of happiness, because it feels like an end. We won. We did it. Now what? We’d rather pine away at invisible ghosts of possibility than embrace the solid and warm happiness right now and holding and growing that happiness until it’s no longer happiness or you die. Why are so many better at accepting defeat than success?
You don’t always get to choose when bad stuff happens to you. Same goes for the great things. You do get to choose whether you accept them. Both bad and good can be crushed or cultivated by our actions.
My friend Heather McElhatton wrote a book called Pretty Little Mistakes. It’s kind of a choose-your-own adventure game for adults. And the brilliance of it all is that even if you make what seem like the obvious right choices, you can still kiss your new billionaire French boyfriend good-bye and be hit by a falling brick a second later and die right there on the Paris sidewalk. If good things happen, hold on to them because they could disappear any time. If something bad happens, hold on because it could change just as fast.
If you go before your time (which oddly enough is your time) you won’t have regrets, because, well, you’re dead. Regret is for the living. So if you live long enough you’ll find the setting sun casts shadows that point at all those ‘should haves’ and ‘could haves’. And we will all have them, regardless of how happy and successful we are. We will always wonder. All the more reason to be less afraid of what you know is making you happy. Whatever that is. A sport. A friend. A job. A new skill. Maybe it won’t work out tomorrow. Or in a year. Or in decades. Maybe it’ll last until the world ends. Which could be tomorrow. Or in a year. Or in decades. If you don’t throw it away while it’s good you’ll at least know. And then, if you’re able to look back at a very long shadow years from now, your smile will stretch all the way to the horizon too.
So fuck you May of this year. Don’t let the door of history hit you in your 31st on the way out. I hope I’m around to see you redeem yourself in 2013.
I’m not really sure how to end this. Which seems fitting, since none of us know how anything will end. (Except some of the later episodes of Law & Order. Those got pretty predictable. And maybe the Mayans. But we’ll know that soon enough.) So I’ll leave a few blank lines and an ellipsis to give you a running start and let you do with it as you want. Write your own ending. Take it, hold it close, charge onto its field and Braveheart every last bit of joy out of its marrow and give it a happy now, so that if does end today, it’s also a happy ending.
But I hope it goes on for awhile yet. Because I’ve got lots of shit I still want to do. That’s all I do know.
Ready or not, here we go…
What seemed mere seconds after my mattress smacked me in the face, my eyes cracked open like egg shells to see gray light staring back at me from the corrugated plastic sunlights. The wind shook their edges in a continuous tittering laugh. After last night’s game of what I’m sure Christian is calling “Try to Get the Irishman Drunk”, I fell asleep in my clothes. I don’t remember crawling under the covers either. I must have been tucked in by whoever scooped out my brain and replaced it with the rough stones that were now bouncing on the trampoline of my cerebellum.
There was a knock low on my door. Fortunately, the room was small enough that I could reach out from bed and open it. There was Brian laying at my doorstep, stretched out across the narrow hallway, his feet still stuck in the covers on his bed.
“Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” He moaned.
It was a dialect I was currently fluent in. “Rrrrrrrrrmm.” I agreed.
We set into town at a slow amble, our bloodshot eyes, hiding behind the protection of glacier glasses, scanned the streets for a proper looking greasy spoon. This being Sunday, the only buildings that were open seemed to be the churches. At last we came to a place called Restaurant Historico Ricer. It seemed a bit touristy, but we weren’t going to argue cultural exchanges at this juncture. Coffee. Omelet. Meat. Cheese. Toast. Coffee. Bueno. That’s all we needed to understand.
Brian and I were setting off tomorrow to hike Cerro Castillo National Park for a few days, so we had a laundry list of errands to tend to before then. First up, was, well, laundry. The hiking clothes we’d been wearing continuously for the past weeks were on the verge of becoming sentient and rising up against us. We hoped the woman who ran the hostel might offer a laundry service, but through some mishap in language she sent us to the local laundaria. Which was, of course, closed on Sunday.
Instead we turned our small rooms into a ghetto laundry, washing everything out in the tub and stringing our climbing ropes across the bathrooms to hang them on. All those knots were learned were coming in quite handy. The amount of dirt that came out of our clothes, especially the thick wool socks, was epic. I could have started an organic farm in the tub had I wanted.
Our rooms had some really janky looking space heaters that we rolled into the bathroom to act as dryers. They basically were propane tanks with an exposed metal screen that glowed demon red after you lit the ignition flame. A rudimentary faux wood metal border was flimsily bent around the contraption to give it a sense of décor. They were made in China and the instructions were in Spanish translated from Chinese. What could possibly go wrong? We closed the doors to keep the heat–and any possible shrapnel from the explosion—inside.
At some point in last night’s steak-filled-laser-laden-pisco-sour sea, Alex and Christian had invited us over to their place to show us some maps of the mountains we’d be hiking through and help us plan a route. Supposedly there were trails and “areas designated to camp in” but no services or facilities.
First though, we had to find our way to Alex and Christian’s house which was located just south of town past a saint’s roadside shrine and then a wooden fence, not the first one after the curve, but the next one that went up into the hill, just past a farm. We tried to decipher her hand-drawn map on a sweaty crumpled napkin while watching out for cattle and sheep on the road.
We found what appeared to be the road matching the appropriate squiggle on the napkin and turned up a boulder-strewn path that treated our vertebrae like Rubik’s Cubes. The gnawing sheep seemed to shake their heads as we bounced past. We hoped an axle didn’t snap. And we hoped that isolated house up the way was theirs and not a Chilean meth lab with some bald kid playing a banjo made out of human skin sitting out front.
Nope. It was the right place.
Their house was more like a cabin, a hut even, wrought of irregular stones and rough-hewn lumber and bare-branching beams who’s imperfections complemented each other perfectly to come together as a solid structure stilted into the side of the hill. It was really quite lovely. A small kitchen opened up to a living area with a fireplace, while a wooden staircase took you up to the second level bedroom. The cozy interior had a wood-burning stove and was accessorized with climbing exercise gear and photos of high altitude exploits. The fridge was speckled with postcards from far-flung friends and unfinished prose from a dirty Spanish magnetic poetry set. The fuzzy form of Kuma yawned hello from the patio where he was enjoying the view.
We had some mate and poured over their collection of maps, plotting out possible routes with the best views that likely wouldn’t necessitate any additional gear or emergency helicopter airlifts. Down here below the Earth’s middle, February was the start of Patagonia’s winter, so some of the higher altitude passes would likely be filling with snow already. Christian also showed us a copy of a mountaineering magazine that published his first ascent of a peak last year. I remembered him saying that there are so many mountains in the country that most aren’t named.
With still much to do, we bid them adios and headed back into Coihayque. It’s pronounced coy-a-key or coya-keeeeeeee if you wanted to use a Jerry Lewis accent, which we often did. We got a good look at it, surrounded by snowcapped peaks and nestled into the valley at the confluence of the Simpson and Coihayque rivers. Founded by settlers in 1929 the city–officially a commune–was largely ignored by the central government for decades. A main road didn’t open up until the 1980s.
Despite this, there now existed two American-sized supermarkets located, for some reason, right next to each other a few blocks from the town center. After our weeks in the mountains, I think we actually stopped and stared for a moment at the selection and bright assault of colored packaging spanning out in front of us. I love wandering foreign supermarkets marveling at the names and packaging design and this felt a bit like being those kids getting their first peek at Willy Wonka’s factory.
We had plenty of freeze-dried astronaut food in case of emergencies, but since we had the option, we grabbed some dried salami, hard local cheese, peanut butter and tortillas, instant coffee and cocoa. At least we assume it was coffee and cocoa, there was such a huge selection, even Brian’s Spanish was stumped at some of the marketing lingo. In the end, after a long slog on the trail, we’d likely be thrilled to eat whatever it was that magically turned up in the tins.
Since the opportunity was there, was decided to bring along a small bottle of whiskey to fortify us through the cold evenings. Hey, if Shackleton saw fit to do it, we should as well. The choices were staggering and virtually all completely unheard of even to a maltophile like me. Most were a mish-mash of popular booze brands and pop culture references, blended together with a dose of Scottish stereotypes so that you ended up with such irresistible offerings as Fraser McDonald’s, James King, High Commissioner, Long John, Scotch Guard (Doesn’t stain?) and Old Beaver Whi$key (Yes, with the dollar sign). We settled on a bottle of Bruce Douglas. He became our team name, mascot, and battle cry for the adventures ahead.
We stopped at the Ricer again for dinner on the way back, carbo-loading on a fairly decent pizza and cold beer. A small boy, a couple years old at most, was tottering around the restaurant like a mini-maitre d’. He stopped at our table and smiled up at us.
“Hola. Como esta?” I singsonged to him, glad there was someone who likely knew only a little more Spanish than me. His round face broke into a big grin and he worked his unsteady legs back to his parents to share his amazement. He returned a short time later to hand me a small metal racecar. When I said thanks, he patted me on the knee and walked away. Hahaha. It has to be the red hair. Kids are fascinated by it. And this part of the world has a shortage of gingers.
Back at the hostel, our laundry was nearly dry and nothing was aflame, so we sat in the doorways of our rooms and began sorting and dividing gear and food to bring for the trip and what could be left at Alex and Christian’s.
An American named Paul, who was traveling through South America with his wife for three months, overheard U.S. accents and came to talk with us, happy to converse in his native tongue. I remember being jealous. Where do you find women like that? We never did meet her, so it could have just been a made up story. Maybe he had accidentally murdered her over a land dispute deal in Oregon and was on the lam from the law. Unable to accept the fact he’d killed her, he often pretended she was still alive, talking to him in those quiet moments on the road. Eh, who’s to say? I’ll take him at his word.
With another long week ahead, we turned in early. I lay in my tiny bed listening to music on my iPhone until I fell asleep. I’d forgotten how much I missed familiar songs. It was the first time I felt a distance from home on this trip. Each song like a familiar friend catching me up. It was good to hear their voices again.
I awoke to wind-whipped rain pelting the roof. We must be hiking today I thought.
In our next episode: Losing the trail in Sierra Castillo…
Where Base Camp stands…
ANTI-PIPA / SOPA: As someone whose career is making shit up, I’m worried about vague laws with near unlimited potential to make creativity, innovation and free speech a crime. Edumacate yourself here.
PRO-Pippa / Sopa: We find in favor of both sexy royals-in-laws and hot Mexican casseroles and urge you to do likewise. Carry on.
There is a corollary to Murphy’s Law for hikers which states that you’ll experience the best weather of a trip on your day out. For proof I just had to open my eyes. And then immediately shut them at the bright burning orange orb that had finally decided to materialize for the first time since I set foot on this continent. So after all that time in snow and ice and more gray ashen surroundings than Cognac McCarthy packed into The Road, we had to walk through this screensaver on our way out…
Maybe it was the bright heat of the lazy sun and the steady soothing thump of the waves against the hull that made us stare silent and dreamily at the peaks receding behind the curve of cliffs behind us.
Though speech would have been difficult given the steady whining of the small engine protesting against the weight us and our gear. We were all a little reflective on leaving the glacier. Something was ending, but only so that something new may begin.
After tying to the listing pier in Puerto Bertrand, a single fuzzy mutt rose slowly, stretched with a wolf-like yawn and then muttered a halfhearted ‘el woof’ under its breath. This seemed a cue to the town’s chickens to get to work because a second later a mother brought her brood of frenetic chicks out from around the corner of a house to scratch at the dirt road. The dog, with a subtle grin, seemed to propel himself towards us with the gyrations of his tail. After a formal sniffing of our packs and accepting a few ear scratches from us, he seemed satisfied his duty was done and wandered back to his post near the front steps. The ditzy chicks scattered away like nervous aunts.
We headed north on Highway 7, retracing our path towards the airport in Coyhaique to drop Colonel Tom off. Or hopefully to just slow down slightly and push him out. Given that there’s only one real highway throughout the country, it would be tough to get lost.
And given that it was the only road, it was kept up rather well despite the wild meteorological mood swings this part of the world endures. It was still what the States would euphemistically call a “rustic road”. Being so, there soon began a thumping noise underneath the truck that wasn’t part of a Geddy Lee bassline from the continuous Rush soundtrack Christian was playing.
A quick examination of the undercarriage revealed the exhaust manifold was coming loose and would have to be dealt with immediately. That meant stopping in the village of Cerro Castillo and asking around to see if any of the 400 residents could fix it. We drove down the seemingly backstreets of town, trying to locate buildings and see if the residents were home. We ended up talking to neighbors who pointed to other places to try, who then pointed us somewhere else.
Eventually we found a steel shed smelling of petroleum products and metal shavings. The walls of the slightly leaning building were covered in hoses and various parts I’m assuming were for cars. It looked like a steampunk Transformer had exploded inside. The mechanic (I’m assuming he was one because of his tattered dark-blue jumpsuit and fingers stained with grease. But that may have just been from running them through his slicked back hair.) listened to Christian explain our situation in Spanish, nodding slightly every so often, the cigarette in his mouth bobbing up and down as if his head was cantilevered on the end of it. There was one last deeper nod that we took as affirmation and then we all climbed out of the truck and headed to a nearby restaurant to wait.
The menu at the café consisted of mostly sandwiches with various combinations of carnes, huevos and queso. I was a little hungry, so I ordered one. It was not prepared for the Patagonian interpretation of ‘sandwich’. Out of the kitchen emerged a Frisbee-sized Ritz cracker piled with hunks of beef and a few veggie looking objects floating through a thick smear of white cheese. Then cover it with another Ritz Frisbee. Picking it up was not an option. I ended up eating the insides and leaving a good portion of the top loaf alone. It was so bready I had to order a second Dolbek to wash it down.
By the time we drained our second round, it was time to go and collect our repaired vehicle. We were on our way again.
At the airport we said our good-byes to the Colonel and bit our tongues until they bled. I’m surprised I haven’t heard of him getting high on pain pills and anti-psychotic medication and sailing a boat ablaze with cheap rum into a Buddhist orphanage. Then suing them. Ahhhh, just as well. Or more likely, just a matter of time. He was truly the anchor of our team. As in a dense heavy object that drags you down.
Brian and I collected our rental truck and followed Christian into Coyhaique where we checked into the Maria Esther hotel/hostel he recommended. Brian’s Spanish was pretty good and I think the woman who ran the place took a liking to him. Every once in awhile she’d say something and look at me and I’d just nod, sending my eyebrows up my forehead in what I hoped was the universal expression for “Ahhh, yes. Of course.”
After an actual shower (our first since we arrived in the country) with caliente aqua that was actually caliente. we wandered into the downtown area. Coyhaique has about 50,000 residents and most of them seemed to be coming in or out of two huge grocery stores right next to each other on the edge of town. It was near five on a Saturday so everything was just beginning to shut down and people were hustling through the streets with bunches of plastic bags bursting with goods.
Popcorn and peanut vendors were on every street corner. Dogs too. They seemed to be strays but they looked well fed and were rather polite. We weren’t growled at or begged on once. We made up a route through the main pedestrian mall lined with small stores and into the town square. This was a big hangout with teens. Sitting sullen with measured disinterest in clusters and texting on benches or clattering skateboards on any uneven bit of concrete. Young boys snickering after girls, not quite sure why they were laughing nervously, just that it seemed like they should. Some things are universal.
About 8pm, Christian and Alex came by to pick us up for dinner. It was odd seeing them in their non-wilderness civvies. Christian had even trimmed his beard back. We piled into their SUV, the back of which was dominated by the fuzzy form of their baby: Kuma. A giant roly-poly akita. I think they brought him along as their car security system. It also meant they had to fold down the back seats, so we rode in the back with the loveable beast.
After a short drive we mostly spent trying to keep Kuma from crushing us, we stopped at Lito’s. With its unadorned door and unassuming sign, we would have walked by had we been on our own.
It was a small place that, as soon as you walked in the front door, put you in the middle of the dining room. It looked a bit like a ‘70s western style basement bar. Dark, heavy patterned carpet, thick wooden tables and a bar with an eave of wood slats towards the back. We followed the waitress, weaving through tables into a long narrow side dining room that may have recently served as a backroom storage area.
But we weren’t here for ambiance. This being Patagonia, beef was what’s for dinner. We all ordered steaks. But we started with ceviche and, my god, is that an actual salad?! The steaks arrived embraced by a slice of bacon and smothered in a mushroom gravy. They were done fairly raw, so your spuds turned a light pink from the juices after a few minutes.
Afterwards they took us to one of their favorite discos. We found space at the end of the crowded bar on the main floor. Across from us, on the other side, were a group of older men who looked like what Crocodile Dundee might look like if he went out to a disco. They just seemed a bit out of phase. Alex called them the Forever Youngs. They were the original local landowners (and now very rich men) on the prowl for trophy wives. As I said earlier, some things are universal.
I wanted a cocktail and went for something called a John Collins. It tasted more like a Joan Collins. So super sweet and vinegary it should come with an insulin chaser. After that I stuck to the beer. And there were a variety to choose from: Dolbek, Baltica, Cristal, and the very tasty Austral. Yes, this would do finely.
Several of Christian and Alex’s friends from NOLS were there. NOLS is a world-renown school that teaches outdoor leadership and technical skills. They have have an impressive reputation. We oohed and aahed over their tales of spending six months at a time out in the field: two months kayaking, two months camping, two months mountaineering.
“Okay, let’s go.” said Alex. Brian’s watch read about midnight. A good night out for our first day back in civilization. But instead of leaving, she led us up the stairs to the disco on the top floor. It was a small curling staircase, but it may has well have been a wormhole, because we walked out at the top in a whole other dimension. Bass pressed against you like a drunken sorority girl, huge fans of green lasers exploded from several areas of the smoky dance cavern like Terminators had invaded a Pink Floyd concert. Death Star sized disco balls hovered over the rhythmically writhing masses briefly crusting them in diamonds from the starlight of strobes.
Brian and I just stood there.
“It won’t really get going for a couple more hours yet!” shouted Alex.
So we stayed for several more hours downing rounds of Heinikens and piscolas (pisco and cola) and plain old pisco and letting the music pummel any worries or problems into fine dust that got trampled under the feet of the dancers. Even though we had spent the past two weeks with our guides, in this new setting, it seemed like we were old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. We shared new stories and old jokes, arms around each other, glad to be back to a place we’d never been.
We left sometime before sunrise, hugging the patient and fuzzy Kuma in the back all the way to the hostel. Brian and I shushed each other like teenagers sneaking in after curfew, trying not to trip on the slippery foyer mats or hit shins on the steep narrow steps up to the second floor in the dark. We fought the urge to break out in song. For some reason the keyhole on my door kept changing locations, avoiding my best attempts to insert the key. I heard Brian fall into his room just across the hall as I finally got my door open. The bed, happy to see my lead-lidded eyes and crooked smile, rose up to meet me.
In our next episode…Wasting away again in Coyhaiqueaville
The wind hounded us throughout the night from all directions, flinging wet clumps of snow as it banged into the tent. Through the dark hours, one of us would feel a side of the tent get heavy and smack it with an open palm to clear it from the weight of the built-up slush that threatened to collapse our shelter around us. It broke free and slid to the ground with a satisfying wet crackle. But, for the most part, after the day’s long climb, the howling was just a lullabye and we slumbered deeply.
I awoke staring at the inside of my sleeping bag drawn tight over my face, the swirl of my visible breath, and the sound of Brian going “Duuuuuuude. We got a little snow inside the vestibule.” I sat up and saw that the entire front of the tent, where we stored our boots and some extra clothes and gear had been turned into a miniature version of the glacier. Luckily we had bagged our stuff well enough to keep it dry, but we had to brush several inches of snow away to get at it.
Brian and I stumbled out of the tent to check the scenery, which had been erasered away to nothingness by the frozen white. Christian stuck his face out of his tent, looked around and shook his head.
“I appreciate you trying to make us Minnesotans feel at home, but knock it off already. “ I grinned.
Christian shook his head again and repeated what had become the unofficial motto of our expedition. “Things could always get worse. Until you’re fucked.”
While we huddled over bowls of oatmeal and instant coffee, Christian and Alex flopped halfway into the tent to discuss our plans. There were some peaks we wanted to go after, but the recent heavy and wet snow made them a pretty sizable avalanche risk. Christian said we could go up and take a closer look, but he wasn’t optimistic. We agreed we’d head back down to the treeline and they could do some classes with us there. The renewing pitter patter of near frozen rain on the tent sort of answered for us.
We immediately set about breaking up camp in the freezing rain. Knots on the tent stays that had been pulled into singularities from the cold and wind resisted being tugged apart by fingernails and creative cursing alike. After a few minutes your shaking fingers refused to help very much. This is where smart and consistent pack management comes in handy. You know where everything is, where everything fits and if something is missing. Within the hour our gear and homes and food were all reduced into back-sized bundles and we headed out from the valley.
I turned around for one last good look, squinting against the wind and prismatic blobs of snow the storm threw against my goggles. The peaks were obscured behind a whirling mass of white, but, for a brief moment, I saw three dark peaks, rising as waving fingers, before disappearing back into the void.
At the mouth of the valley, the snow had changed to a mild drizzle. We could at least now see the loose uneven rocks we were walking on, but they were no less slippery. But by now the clunky Frankenstein mountaineering boots and the heavy pack—lightened somewhat by less food—had become an extension of my body.
It was a short hike, by this trip’s standards, to where we would call camp tonight. We stopped by the mammoth boulder we had left our cache at on the way up. Locals called it Heart Rock because, well, here, take a look…
The rock gave us a sheltered spot to cook and build a fire. There was a stream babbling nearby. And it was good to see trees again. From a distance our tents looked like a pair of bright orange animals foraging for food among the narrow trunks vested with shags of pale green lichen.
We did a quick class on how to properly set anchors for climbing and then made dinner. It was a massive one, since it was better to eat the food than hump it all the way back down tomorrow. I could get behind that logic. This was also the Last Supper for the cheese moon. We sent it to its melty demise atop heaping bowls of meat-filled tortellini.
As we sat around the fire nibbling chocolate and trading tales, I pulled out a small plastic bottle of Jameson I’d brought along to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Alex and Christian looked at me oddly and I thought they were upset because I’d wasted pack space on something like booze.
“What…” he began.
“It’s for St. Patrick’s Day.” I said, perhaps a bit of apology crouching in my tone, just in case.
“I carried in my pack. But now we all get to share it.”
“What…were you doing saving that for so long?” he finished.
The bottle made a couple laps with cheers and toasts at each stop. Its sweet wooden burn filling me with as much golden heat as the fire was.
It was hard to believe this part of our trip was almost over. It only seemed like we were meeting everyone at the airport a few days ago. This had begun to feel like home. These routines, these surroundings, were now the familiar ones. It happens on most extended trips–without me knowing exactly when–but I love when I recognize it. Life is more immediate and simple. Each day has an undefined purpose, but one that reveals itself nonetheless by the time you earn your deserved sleep.
I wasn’t feeling so poetic in the morning when the drizzle started up again right after breakfast. Remember all the muddy hills and fallen logs we had to navigate getting up to base camp in chapter two? Today was that in reverse. The rain was making everything eel-slick. Rocks lept up to grab your ankles. Logs pushed your boots away. Cricks had puffed themselves up to boisterous streams; emboldened by their new-found strength, they had begun bullying their banks, pushing them back into the forest. In the damp cool rot, colonies of bright-capped mushrooms popped up almost in front of your eyes where before there had been nothing.
Eventually the trail flattened out and I never thought I’d be so thrilled to see horse poop, but it meant we were close to the ranch. As we neared the edge of the property, a few horses trotted across the open field to greet us. I wasn’t sure if their tossing heads were a hello or a laugh at how tired we looked.
Back in the bare-boned shelter of the barn we were at last able to put our packs down. This circle now felt complete and it was time to celebrate. John welcomed us with hot mate and cold cans of Cristal Dark Lager and fresh-picked fruit from the farm and popcorn drizzled with balsamic vinegar and honey. Our voices rose festively as we reflected on the past week as if it were years ago.
We strung up our wet and dirty gear like captured battle flags and put on clean dry clothes. I shucked off the mountaineering boots and put on my regular heavy-duty hiking boots. They felt like ballet slippers. Not that I know what those feel like, but I’m guessing. They were so light I actually broke out into a jig.
Before the next round of beers took effect (I secretly wished they would have named them Dark Cristal Lager), Christian delivered one last class on pulleys. Pulley systems are especially useful for things like pulling a body out of a crevasse. Since we were now safely off the glacier, Christian instead had us rig systems to pull a case of beer to safety. Also very useful to know.
John rang the big metal triangle dinner and we sprinted to the main house through the downpour. That was to be our shower for the night. Dinner was full of cheap box wine and local cheese and bread and roast vegetables and beef and plum liquor. It felt good to sit on a cushioned seat next to a roiling stove while the rain came down overhead.
We laughed our way back to the barn by the bobbing wobbling beams of our headlights. John had shut down power for the night, so we raided his fridge in the barn for more beer and drank it by the headbeams.
Bed was still on a mat on a hard surface in a sleeping bag, but having a bit of space and a real ceiling over my head felt like a luxury. I chuckled one more time at what we’d been through and what still lay ahead and fell asleep with snapshots of the past nine days flipping through my mind’s eye clearer and more amazing than most dreams.
In Our Next Episode: Everybody disco!…
Okay, it’s hard to whip up a cliffhanger (literal or otherwise) when I’ve been back from the trip and all over television and radio for months now and still have all my limbs and the same number of friends I went with. In fact, I came back with more. Friends that is, not limbs. But I didn’t know that at the time.
Today we were actually going to walk up the steep slope of the glacier and try to get to a ridge into the valley behind it where we’d have a view of the Northern Ice Field. Which is where the White Walkers from Game of Thrones live I believe. We’d be roped together, working as a team, each responsible for each other’s safety. We were clipped in to the main rope with carabiners on our climbing harnesses. On either side was a knot called a prusik that was basically a friction brake you could use to halt the rope from going out. You were also connected to the rope by a safety harness we’d fashioned from nylon runners. This also provided an easy and safe way to hoist you out of a crevasse if you were unconscious.
We began the now familiar walk up the valley, past the neon blue lake and zen balancing stone. Then up the wet hill of rock. We could see the snowline of nearby peaks had crept down slowly and steadily over the past week, a silent harbinger of the approaching winter. In fact, small flecks of snow were already tapping our shoulders as we made it to the top of the first rise.
We sat by a gigantic boulder waiting for Tom and our patient sweeper Alex to reach us. The palette was all moody greys, pallid whites and crushed blacks. The rocks slowly turned into clouds, sky and earth blending, as the storm spread over the mountains and swept down the valley. I finally understood why Christian teased Brian and I for our assortment of mostly green, black, and brown clothing. After living in nothing but bland shades of a winterscape for months at a time like he’s done on trips, you’d really appreciate a bit of color. Not to mention it helping you stand out in case of an avalanche or something.
We approached the glacier on the right side where Christian pointed out a series of moulins. (Not to be confused with this or this.) These were holes worn through the ice by the running water. Basically, a slippery wet tunnel to frozen hell if you fell into one. The first seconds might be like an exhilarating Slip N’ Slide, but then you’d break some bones on a rock and get wedged somewhere in the dark where you’d have a bit of time to place bets on whether you’d die from drowning, freezing or bleeding to death. Christian told us about one guy who fell into one and they found his body over a mile away in the river the glacier drained into. Wheeeee! Watch your step.
There were also crevasses here we had to hop over. They weren’t very wide, a couple feet across, but they seemed to go down forever. We could see the bright blue of the glacier ice reflecting up from below and hear the echoing trickle of water from their depths.
Christian picked a safe spot for us to start from and we began breaking out the ropes and getting our rigs and harnesses set up. It was approaching lunchtime, so since we had our packs open, Alex dug out a bag of almonds and our block of cheese, which had been whittled down from the size of a small moon to a space station. She gouged off what looked like a bar of soap for each of us. You’d laugh at eating it back home, but after the climb up here and the cold weather, we gladly devoured it.
We took turns double-checking that our knots were well dressed, our carabiners locked, and everything had a back-up system and we were ready to go.
“There’s on more important thing.” Christian said with a smile. “Every team needs a name. We will be Team Kuma.” This was the name of he and Alex’s Akita they’d talked about on the trip like it was their first-born child. It also means ‘bear’ in Japanese. It seemed appropriately exotic and badass, so we agreed, though Brian and I briefly lobbied for Team Merquen. Christian used the tip of his hiking pole to scratch the name in the snow with an arrow pointing our direction of travel and stepped forward. I thought he did it for fun, but realized when you were stretched out on a mountain in foul weather, it could be confusing about where to go or who’s steps you were following, so it was probably a good idea.
I was second in line, so I was kneeling feeding him rope. It felt like I was trolling for yeti with him as bait. In a minute or so the loop for me to clip in came along in the rope and I yelled “Zero!” This was the command to stop. “Clear!” was the call to begin movement again. It seemed like a strange choice of words, but they were short and distinct from each other, so you could distinguish between them in the wind and over distances as your team was strung out over the glacier.
I clipped myself in and checked to see Brian was ready to start feeding me out the next section of rope. “Clear!” I yelled and stepped out onto the ice myself. I could feel the weight of the rope tugging me backwards and the crunch of fresh snow under my boots. I followed right behind in Christian’s prints in measured steps.
“Zero!” This was Slater. I repeated the yell up to Christian. He clipped in and began following behind me. We repeated the process with Tom and then Alex at the rear.
I realized I’d been holding my breath for some time now. We were all very quiet and serious as we walked. Taking steps gingerly as if our feet hurt. The only sound was rock and ice breaking free from surrounding peaks and the echoes of its rumbling laughter bouncing around us. I let myself be distracted by the sheer rock face off to our right. It was a massive gorgeous rippling gray and black wall. Solid soulless smoke it seemed to be pushing itself up, reaching up to eat more of the sky with its jagged peaks.
It was an odd sensation being out here. I’d walked on snow and ice before, frozen lakes and rivers, but you felt really exposed on the glacier. Like you were a target for Mother Nature with nowhere to run.
We started to work in a leftward arc. Above us was a bank of ice ripped open by numerous crevasses as the ice stumbled down the incline. We wouldn’t be going that way. Instead we started a steep climb up towards the ridge. Christian, who was normally very laid back he was almost vertical said with the utmost seriousness “This is a no fall zone! There will be no mistakes here!” The fresh wet snow made the footing precarious and he reminded each of us to make them better for the next person by kicking your boots in nice and level, giving those who followed a firm stair step.
We weren’t at any crazy altitude or going at a fast pace—in fact we were going rather slow and careful—but Tom kept yelling out “Zero goddamit!” every few minutes so he could catch his breath and bellowing at Christian to go slower. Any slower and he’d be stopped. This also made it more dangerous for everyone because it was difficult to keep proper spacing in the ropes. You didn’t want to go so fast that you’d pull the person behind you off balance or so slow that you got tangled up in slack. You had to work as a chain. And our chain had found its weak link. Even the ever-professional Christian looked back at me and let out a few choice curse words into the wind.
We worked our way from the ridge around the far side of the valley and down the other side. Once again, going downhill was probably trickier than up. We made sure our steps were deliberate, digging in our heels and shuffling sideways as necessary. In short order, Christian led us back to our starting point and we began reeling each other in one after the other until we were all back on solid rock.
The snow had graduated to a full-fledged white out. The rock face to the right had disappeared as if it never existed. Soggy silver dollar sized flakes clung to everything, building up in your hood, on your hat and pack, turning your gloves into sponges. We quickly broke down our gear and coiled ropes. The storm followed us all the way down and back into our campsite, which we reached by early evening.
Like the ground and our tents we were now totally covered with snow. All of us were cold and wet. Christian said he would get dinner started. I asked if he wanted any help, but when he said no, I didn’t object.
The storm would shake us all night long, reminding us it was outside. It came knocking against the walls in every direction, the wet tent fly making dancing amoeba shapes as it pressed against the inner wall. We had to shake the poles throughout the night to keep the ice from building up on it. We heard thick solid sheets crack and crunch onto the ground when we did. It was as if the glacier had followed us back and wanted to walk on us.
But for now it felt heavenly to strip off the outer layer of gear and slide into the insulated pants and jacket and the welcoming cocoon of the sleeping bag. Alex brought us some mugs of coffee and cocoa and…are these Oreos?
They were! How they survived in her pack uncrushed this whole time is a miracle I’ve yet to figure out. “I was saving them for a special occasion.” she said.
“I think this qualifies.” I thought, zipping deeper into my bag and thinking the creamy chocolate cookie I was crunching on was the best thing I’d ever tasted in my life.
In Our Next Episode: Sure I’ll try some of your homemade plum brandy….
There’s an odd dichotomy one experiences on an extended backcountry trip. Your world gets larger as you’re unbounded by sidewalks or cars or office cubes. There are no screens that shrink the world down to a glowing rectangle. Your view is infinite sky, timeless mountains and unbounded horizons. Time is dictated by giant forces of nature like planetary rotation making the star that is our sun appear to rise and set. Yet your world also gets smaller as all the essentials for survival fit inside your tent or pack. As your necessities become fewer, your pleasures and luxuries become simpler, and thusly, more frequent.
I love when this new rhythm begins. You know where everything is in your pack. You have crystal clear communication with your body; how it will react, what it needs. Details seem to multiply like wildflowers, but moments, while passing freely, seem to slow enough that you get to experience each of them to its fullest. Inconveniences are few because there is nothing you can do about them. Problems are challenges because you have to find a solution or live with it. Those are your options. Some things that would leave you seething at home just bead up like dew on moss and roll away.
Most of the next many days were like this as we stayed close to camp learning all we could about mountaineering. There was a lot of rope work. We’d be tied together on the glacier; each of us depending on the other to arrest a fall or react properly in an emergency. It’s a classic “strong as your weakest link” situation. Christian and Alex had us do drills across the valley, feeding rope to each other, working on fashioning chest harnesses and clipping in and managing excess rope as we traversed between imaginary safe zones.
We’d also take short hikes to check out new views from other ridges. Hell, sometimes you’d go to refill your water and find yourself just listening to the stream and watching the long strings of green algae dance in the current. I didn’t bring an iPod or even a book. Just a pen and a small notebook as my only distractions from the moment.
Friends like to hear about the climbing ice crevasses and getting lost in scree fields and fighting off pterodactyls, but a lot of you have also been asking what day to day existence was like. I thought this was a good point in the journey to address some of those questions. So pull a comfortable rock up to the fire and pass the mate gourd…
What did you eat?
Water never had to be filtered. We were just downstream from the glacier after all. Which was a godsend. Nothing worse than coming back after a long day on the trail and you have to go balance on a stream bank in crappy weather trying to work a filter as your hands turn white.
There was no dehydrated astronaut food, but most dinners were based on some kind of dried rice or pasta. It was supplemented with instant sauces and vegetables that would withstand the hike and weather (onions and carrots mostly). Meat came from huge nightsticks of salami. And then nearly everything had a coating of cheese sliced on top of it.
The key with dinner was to get some warm fatty carbs in you. Not only to replace the massive calories you were burning most days, but to help keep body temperature and spirits up as well. It was nutritional as well as psychological. There was an ample spice assortment, though Brian and I opted for a good dusting of merquen on most things. I remember bringing a small assortment of spices along on the Everest trek and it saved almost any meal. Even eating boiled potatoes you’ve been trying to keep warm tucked inside your jacket for most of the day tasted like pomme frites drizzled in truffle oil in the cleavage of a French supermodel when you could sprinkle a little flavor on.
Breakfast was usually instant oatmeal with a buffet of dried fruits and nuts and sugar and instant milk you could add to it. We kept shouting out to Christian what Star Wars characters we wanted our pancakes made in, but to no avail. Coffee was a must. We’d often brew up several pots throughout the day. Lunch was never usually a planned meal. Perhaps a couple handfuls of trail mix or some crackers and a hunk o’ cheese whittled off the mighty Havarti log. While hiking we’d gnaw on energy gels or bars to keep us going. I had a couple packets of leftover peanuts from the airplane that came in handy.
Alex and Christian handled most of the cooking chores, which was new for me. I’ve always done it myself. And it’s not like you’re going to go an watch Sportscenter until you’re called for dinner. After realizing Brian and I actually wanted to help rather than sit around with our thumbs up our asses like Tom or some other clients, they let us lend a hand. I liked Christian’s philosophy of teaching people how to “live” in the wilderness, not just “survive”.
Col. Tom however, didn’t like the food. I have no idea what he expected we’d be eating—it was far better than I usually treated myself on most trips—but I gladly ate the leftovers he turned his W.C. Field’s shaped nose up at. No wonder he seldom had the energy to make it through a day. Honestly, after humping up a mountain all day, bark would have been delicious.
How did you poop?
Perhaps naturally, next to food, this was the next thing people wanted to know about. The answer, without going into great detail, is very well thank-you.
But here are some details anyways.
Practicing a ‘Leave No Trace’ policy meant, when Nature called, you grabbed your ice axe and a large Zip-Loc we kept in a pocket near the tent door containing a roll of TP (which we came to discover is rare in Chile), a lighter and a small bottle of hand sanitizer.
Then you’d stroll into the woods until you were out of sight, find a squattable spot and dig a hole with your axe. Then you’d enjoy the amazing view until your business was done, light the paper on fire and cover the hole back up, being careful not to get any on the axe blade (especially if it wasn’t yours). Above the treeline, it was a bit more problematic finding a place that was level and somewhat out of view. You’d seek out a boulder that hopefully provided some wind protection. Then you’d decide whether to look out on the beautiful view of the valley or back up at its walls, so you could see any boulders that were rolling down your way. I don’t even want to think about having had to go while on the glacier. When Nature calls, it’s not like you can let it go into voicemail.
We didn’t bring a ‘green tea bottle’ to use if you had to cut a whiz at night. Instead, this meant finding your headlamp, getting your boot liners on, scooching down to the tent vestibule to put on your boot shells and then wriggling out of the tent, waking everyone else up in the process. Or, if you’re an ass, like Tom, you’re a big puss and pee in the vestibule where we store some of our gear. Brian and I were close to putting a boot in his wrinkly backside and knocking him over into his own puddle of piss when we saw him doing that. That’s beyond bush league. That’s George W. Bush league.
What was the weather like?
Like weather anywhere, it varied depending on the day and our location throughout the month we were in Patagonia. Dangling as it does down on the far side of the planet, March was the start of fall for them, so it was never shorts and t-shirt weather; though in Santiago we did enjoy some 80-degree days while friends back home were keeping warm from pure rage after shoveling out from another blizzard.
Speaking of home, Minnesota is a good training ground for Patagonian weather. Especially as far as its ability to change in a hurry with uncanny unpredictability. Up in the valley, you were never quite sure what was going to come over the mountain or around the next bend, blown by the legendary Patagonian winds that seemed to be a living thing. Fierce and seemingly able to ignore the laws of physics it blew any which way it felt like. Usually all the time and seldom at your back.
Chilly, but not cold may be the best way to describe the temperature. But coming from a Minnesota winter, you were ready to handle any cold. As long as you could stay dry, you were usually comfortable even when hanging out in camp. We basked in plenty of sunshine, but also had one night when it snowed about 6” on us. It stuck to the tent like frozen napalm and we had to smack the inner walls throughout the night to keep it from collapsing the poles. The wind snapped back at us, cracking any loose fabric like a whip.
How did you sleep?
A good air mattress and a warm sleeping bag were all it took for a good night’s sleep. I had a synthetic bag rated at 20oF and that worked stellar. Most nights you had a wool cap on, but were pretty stripped down in the bag. We’d tuck any damp clothes inside hoping to dry them with our body heat during the night. You were usually tired and full of food, so sleep came soon after dark most nights. Especially when you’d fill a water bottle with hot water and stick it down by your toes. Mmmzzz. Just make sure you put the cap on tight.
We were like a three-pack of hot dogs in the tent, but not uncomfortable. Everyone stunk somewhat after awhile, but not to a degree that made us think anyone had turned into a zombie. But it was a race every night to try and fall asleep before Tom began snoring. As I mentioned before, it wasn’t a human snore. It was like someone put a bunch of drunken bears in full battle armor into a bowl made out of chalkboard slate and randomly shook it up throughout the night. Brian and I deemed it a cruel punishment for either of us to have to sleep next to him, so we put him in the middle where we played a game of elbow tennis most nights, volleying his jowly rumbling mug back and forth whenever he started his unholy Ambien-fueled nocturnal symphony.
How did you not kill Tom?
The only reason was because it would be a crime and morally reprehensible. Even though any court in the world would have let us off with just a wristslap. Or more likely a high five. And partly because we figured he’d eventually collapse of a heart attack in the middle of bellowing one of his stories about getting into a fight with Buddhist monks or crashing his sailboat while drunk and his body would just slide into a crevasse where he’d remain frozen for thousands of years until alien scientists thawed him out. Then they could kill him with some sort of testicle-directed laser.
Brian and I sensed our guides were likewise annoyed with Tom’s foolery and we followed the only proper course of action: which was to bite our tongues until they bled. First off, we’re in the middle of nowhere. There’s no place else for anyone to go or get away. Secondly, we were soon going to be roped together on the face of a glacier, which meant we had to work as a team. To sum it up, there was nothing to be gained by bitching, so we smiled and shook our heads and hoped for a piece of ham-sized cholesterol to block up his aorta.
I’m being overly dramatic of course. Well, slightly. But had you been there….yeah.
But speaking of being roped together and going up glaciers; it was time to put all our training to the test tomorrow.
Oh, and if anyone has any question about gear we used or anything, just shoot me a message.
Last night, for dinner, we learned how to make calzones in the backcountry. Christian mixed up the dough and kept the yeast alive by tucking it inside his jacket while we chopped up the salami, cheese, and onions that would make up the filling. Alex rolled out the dough with a fuel bottle on a plastic map and we fried them up in a hot skillet.
It wasn’t exactly Osteria Francescana, but crouched down on my haunches, licking spicy grease off my fingers, and looking around at the sun setting behind the mountains, I was grunting like a very satisfied Italian caveman.
In the morning, we noticed some creature had wandered through camp and shat equidistant between our tents. It seemed to have a very berry heavy content to it, which ruled out anyone from our party. Or did it? We fenced it off with rocks and did a mini-CSI: Patagonia investigation and determined it was likely a puma or a fox. But we couldn’t be certain. You can’t exactly dust for feces. Whatever it was, it was a bold move wandering into the heart of camp and dropping a dos. I preferred to think it was some sort of ancient mythical Patagonian devil yeti beast that I immediately dubbed La Poopacabra.
After breakfast, Alex took off to get the cache of gear and food we left behind yesterday. The rest of us decided to take a walk up the valley and meet the glacier in person. We loaded up a bit of food and spare clothing for the day in our packs–which felt ridiculously light—and headed up around the bend.
It was a lot more rock-hopping up the stream at first. There was nothing around for centuries. Occasionally we’d hear the distant rumble of ice calving off the glacier or a boulder freeing itself from the confines of a cliff, otherwise there was only the sound of our boots scraping across the stones. Well, that and Tom’s seemingly bottomless supply of stories involving either crazy relatives or suing people or a combination thereof.
We marked the morning by the broad level line of sun edging down the side of the valley to our left. It was a broad sheet of warmth and color just out of reach, oozing its way teasingly downhill towards us. We were glad to bask in its glow when it finally overtook us suddenly like a silent explosion.
Eventually, the valley opened up into a small lake. Well, more like a broad unshaped pooling in the stream. It was so blue it looked like it had been run through a Photoshop filter or was from an alien planet.
It felt good to walk on the narrow strip of level sand its shoreline offered us. We refilled our water bottles here and drank deep of its pure clarity. How can something without a taste taste so refreshing? I remained gladfully amazed that we didn’t have to stop and filter our water every time we needed a drink.
There were several giant rocks–some the size of cars, others approaching duplex dimensions–that the glacier left balanced precariously on sharp points. How many centuries had they stood in that pose? Would anybody or anything be around when the endless caress of wind and water finally and dramatically laid them to rest? What are the odds it would happen right when we were standing under them thinking this? Best to keep moving.
Where the lake ended, our way began going up steeply. It was still boulder strewn, but there were parts where the rock had fallen free and you could see the solid face of the mountain, scrubbed smooth by the scraping weight of ice and moving water. The sound of falling ice was louder here; rising above the constant trickle of the stream that flowed somewhere under the rocks we were scrambling up and over.
We continued up until we found a rock big enough to take a bit of shelter from the wind, which now carried flecks of white on its cold breath. I dug into a Raspberry Chocolate Honey Stinger Protein Bar that was something like gnawing a patio paver made of honey. I assume what made it so hard was all the teeth embedded in it from other people trying to eat it. Christian quietly pulled a leftover calzone out of his jacket and smiled as watched us gnaw on our various energy bars and gels.
“Does that calzone place deliver?” I asked.
“Yes. But we closed for lunch right now.”
From there it was a short hike up over a ridge and we were at the foot of the glacier. It wasn’t a dramatic face calving off house-sized pinnacles of azure ice into an ocean as whales pirouetted out of the water to Yanni music. In fact, on first glance, it just sort of looked like a snow-covered mountain. But when you looked closer, you could see gaps from hidden crevasses and long cracks in the ice that went down hundreds of feet. You began to see the shape and frozen flow of the glacier. It had the appearance of motion to it. It came down from the peak at the left, bending around and slogging to a stop at our feet. And few feet had ever been on this particular glacier.
“Do you want to go for a walk on it?” Christian asked casually. Hahaha. And here I was raised to believe there was no such thing as a stupid question.
Even though I’d left a winterized world of snow and ice I’d grown weary of back home in Minnesota, I relished the first crunch of it under my boot, here, down near the opposite end of the world. After a few steps, I realized I was holding my breath. We followed with exaggerated caution in Christian’s footsteps as he led us across to the other side and up a small incline to get a peek around the bend. Up until now, my new ice axe had only been used to dig a hole for me to crap in the woods in. Now it got to fulfill its purpose, chinking softly through the icy crust of the latest snowfall.
I think Brian may have giggled. Me too.
The way down wasn’t any easier. Stepping down from jagged rock to loose rock was something felt all the way up through your legs and lower back. These mountaineering boots don’t have the “tactile feel” my climbing shoes do. Even my hiking boots had more feel. So would the deck of an aircraft carrier for that matter. They had as much give as a Tea Bagger at a Congressional budget hearing.
The weather had started to turn colder and full of flurries as we descended. We ran into Alex, successful in her return to the cache, just past the lake. Like kindergarten kids returning from the first day of class, we bombarded her with stories of what we’d seen and done. “Was it bomb-bear?” she asked. “It was muy bomb-bear.” Brian and I said.
With the snow starting to come in a bit sideways and the wind picking up to a full sprint through the valley, we spent the evening in our tents with Alex teaching us a variety of knots we’d need to know to get roped together on a climb team.
They ranged from a simple square knot to the Figure Eight on a Bend, the Clove Hitch, the Water Knot, the Prusik, and Nefzawi’s Knot. Wait. That last one was from another trip.
By the time chow was ready, the snow had stopped. We sat around near the kitchen rock gobbling it up from our plates. Tonight’s feast was meat-filled tortellini covered in tomato sauce and, yes, cheese. We covered it all with ample amounts of merquen until we couldn’t tell if our noses were running from cold or heat. I was glad I’d found room for my pair of Mountain Hardware Compressor pants. They felt like walking around in a comfy sleeping bag.
We lounged, fed and contented, amongst the moss and against rocks drinking tea and scanning the blackening skies for shooting stars. Brian and I stayed out later just to see what the stars looked like here. In this latitude. At this altitude. The swollen moon interfered with the constellations, but made up for it by casting a new light over the terrain that felt like you had peeled back an invisible layer and were seeing it for the first time.
I had my stocking capped head tilted way back, my mouth agape, so any escaping breath drifted up and became a veil in the moonlight. I imagined myself out in space, looking back at the planet and down to where we were. Then I looked toward where we’d started, far beyond the equatorial curve of the Earth’s belly. We were a long way from home. Yet no place felt more like it at the moment.
In Our Next Episode…Eating, Pooping, and Camp Zen