Is it possible to have a memory of a place you’ve never been? Perhaps if you’ve visited in your mind enough. So it is with Patagonia. One of those places that, like names of housing developments, seemed named for something that doesn’t exist anymore. Ahh, but there is a Patagonia. I’ve always wanted to go, but it’s seemed like a long way off. Both in distance and reality. Yet, at the same time, it’s never seemed as far as Europe or Asia which lay across vast bodies of watery void. To reach Patagonia you just had to trace your finger due south on a globe. Getting there seemed almost as easy as letting yourself fall.
Today I find myself at the brink of that delightful descent to the southern tip of the Americas. To the end of the world. And like standing at the edge of any adventure, my stomach is not so much full of butterflies as knot-tying mate-fueled dragonflies made of equal parts excitement and nervousness that keep bumping into my adrenal glands.
My friend, Brain Slater, heard of a mountaineering school down there he wanted to try and didn’t want to go solo, so he asked me to join. I think my exact reaction was “Uhhhh, dammmmit! You know I can’t say ‘no’ to something like that!” And I couldn’t. Brian and I have known each other casually and occasionally for years, but this will be the first time we’ve traveled together. Fortunately, he has a healthy sense of adventure that’s matched by an equally healthy sense of humor. He’s smart. Rolls with the situation. We should be the best duo to hit the area since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Although one thing about Slater has gotten to me. He’s a bit newer to camping than I am, so he’s been in need of new gear more than me. Which means while I’m still using the stuff I got years ago, he’s decked out in the latest titaniumized UFO-reversed engineered stuff. I thought I could contain my jealousy, but the other day he mentioned getting a new inflatable air mattress that could be folded up and put in your wallet and it was filled with down. Down! Mine is only filled with air. Not even goose air. Just plain old every day air. Damn! Why do they make this stuff so durable that it lasts forever?
I’ve been surprised by the number of people who weren’t sure where Patagonia was. Africa? Asia? Next to all the North Face stuff at REI? But you do have to scroll down past all the Patagonia Clothing sites on Google before you get to what is “a geographic region containing the southernmost portion of South America”.
I remember when I first heard what Patagonia was. It was in Mr. Larson’s 4th grade World Studies class. (The same one when I wrote to the Russian Embassy asking for information about their country and getting an enormous package at the house filled with all kinds of gorgeous brochures. I was filled with a sense of adventure and being part of a larger world. My parents were filled with worry that the government was going to label my permanent record as a commie sympathizer.) Anyways, while we were studying South America—revolutions, the liberator Simon Bolivar, Brazil, the Amazon, carnival, we finally got to the Andes. This mountain chain made Chile look like nothing more than a spine running the whole way of the continent. Then, at the end, the dot on the exclamation point, was an area called Patagonia. Land of the pampas. I remember the word. Pampas. Fun to say even now. So is gaucho. The landscape looked like nothing else I’d seen. It’s always held sway over me, lingering somewhere is distant thought. As far away from current day as the actual pampas were from me physically; but still, always there. And there it’s waited, still virtually untouched and as wild as when I’d first learned of its existence.
Besides the stuff of dreams, there are some very real facts about Patagonia I found in my research for this trip:
– The Andes is the world’s longest continental mountain range (4300mi). It contains the world’s second-highest plateau (behind Tibet). It’s the world’s highest mountain range next to the Himalayas as well. The world’s highest volcanoes are in the Andes. (Ojos del Salado is 22,615ft) And the peak of Mt. Chimborazo is located at the point on the surface of the Earth that’s the most distance from its center (You can thank the Earth’s equatorial bulge for part of that). And, yes, it’s where that rugby team in Alive crashed and ended up eating each other. (We’re backing plenty of Clif bars just in case)
-Patagonia contains the largest ice-fields in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica. Which is right next door.
-While the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Ted Turner, and Christopher Lambert have huge tracts of land here, Luciano Benetton is Patagonia’s largest landowner.
– Even though Magellan (Magellan! Dude has spaceships named after him!) first explored the area in 1520, it remains one of the most pristine and unpolluted areas of the world.
– Perito Moreno Glacier, which contains the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water, is one of just two glaciers in all of South America that is growing.
Our plan is to fly about four hours south of Santiago to Balmaceda, drive about half a day, take a boat across a lake and that will be our base for mountaineering for about ten days. Then we’re getting a pick-up truck and heading a bit further south to explore some national parks like Cerro Castillo National Park where glaciers fall into lakes below enormous turrets of ancient basalt. There’s some WTF time built in to explore and revel in the unexpected adventure and then a few days of big city living in Santiago before coming home. (Part of sharing this itinerary is in case we both get our arms stuck under a rock, someone will find us before we have to go all Leatherman on our limbs. Actually, if we both get stuck under a rock we’ll probably die of embarrassment before anyone can get there.)
So now work winds down, you’ve packed and repacked your gear a dozen times and all you’re left with is the anticipation of the unknown. Even though you’ve visited in your mind a thousand times before. Even though you’ve done lots of research and your guidebooks, dog-eared and full of notes, already look like they’ve traveled halfway around the world, there is still much unknown. And that’s why we go to places like this. Hell, that’s why we get up in the morning. That’s why we pick up the guitar or say “I’ll try sushi” or put pen to page or ask that beautiful and funny woman out. Because we don’t know what will happen.
Now it’s time to find out.