After traveling in a car, a train, three airplanes, and a pick-up truck with a serious shimmy, Brian and I were just a 30 minute ride in a rubber Zodiac raft away from truly beginning our Patagonian adventure.
We’d traveled about four hours south of the airport in tiny Balmaceda–stopping only for a quick lunch of empanadas from a roadside shack and to pick up some gas. Which, given the way the empanadas were settling, was redundant. There’s really only one main road along most of Chile’s narrow length, so it was hard to get lost. Equally harder to avoid the epic scenery of the Andes. We hadn’t even started hiking and were already witness to some gorgeous geography.
Now we were in the even tinier village of Puerto Bertrand, which despite it’s sleepy demeanor and seeming to be populated only by wandering chickens and stretching dogs, was a popular base for world-class fly fishing, mountaineering on the Northern Ice Field, and rafting the voluminous Rio Baker. A local Patagone with a bushy moustache and beret met us at the dock and we began loading up the raft. Silent and heading toward distant snow-capped peaks with our motley mix of members, it felt like we were in a remake of Where Eagles Dare.
Jon’s ranch was a scattering of buildings nestled in a small valley where, on any given day, the horses outnumbered the visitors manyfold.
We dodged fresh offerings from the equines and dropped our gear off in a barn-like structure full of climbing and camping equipment where we would bunk down tonight on the wooden floor of a second story loft.
Dinner was in the main house, which felt like a northwoods cabin. There was a spacious kitchen though, dominated by a long wooden table and benches and an old wood burning stove with a water tower sized steel pot sitting over a couple of the burners. Dinner was a mix of vegetables in a cream sauce that seemed to be watered down thousand island dressing that we ate wrapped up in tortillas. Given that most food that wasn’t grown here came from his once-a-month shopping trip about five hours away, it wasn’t too bad. We also had boxes of red wine that I believe was the Chilean equivalent of Boone’s Farm. Boone’s Hacienda if you will.
Later in the night, led by the pale circles of our headlamp lights, we found our way through a maze of fruit trees and rough-hewn wood fences to our building. Jon was a firm believer in minimal environmental impact, so there were no lights out here. We searched through our gear trying to remember where we stashed sleeping bags and toothbrushes that had been packed up continents ago.
It’s always a disoriented feeling when you wake up in a strange land in the blackest part of the night. It happened several times this initial night. The first time was hearing a fierce wind blow rain across the aluminum roof like it was hosting a local Stomp performance. Second was hearing horses whinnying as they fled what must have been aliens or the Chilean version of the Sasquatch (Which I was told, there was none.)
After a hearty breakfast which included our first proper mate session, we went back to the barn to get our gear organized and for what would hopefully be a noon departure. First thing we did was explode our gear so Alex could make sure we brought everything we needed and left behind all that we didn’t. Fortunately, the gear list we were told to follow erred waaay too far on the side of caution. There was plenty we could leave behind. Alex also pointed out some gear she was bringing, like a ‘bom-bear’ Patagonian wind shirt, that Brian and I made mental notes to spend our REI dividends on as soon as we got back. (Alex described anything that was kick ass as being ‘bomber’. But with her accent, it came out as ‘bomb-bear’. A phrase we immediately added to our lexicon.)
We made some last minute decisions on clothing and got all our gear into our bags. They were pretty full. Then Christian told each of us to take a pile of community gear. This included stoves, fuel bottles, climbing ropes, ice pickets, tents, and the like. We managed to find space to put it all. Our packs were now fairly solid loads, requiring proper form and a good Maria Sharapova grunt when lifting it onto your back.
“Okay, now each of you take one of these food bags.”
Christian pointed to three gym bags lying on the floor. Damn. Well, we aren’t going to go far without food. Each bag was packed with smaller bags full of raw ingredients like pasta, rice, soup packets, salami, and…a five pound block of frozen cheese. I pulled out the head-sized block of havarti and showed it to Brian. I know it was head-sized because it barely fit inside my climbing helmet at the top of my pack.
My pack looked like a homeless guy’s shopping cart, but I got everything on board. Both the pack and I creaked under the weight. It had to have weighed somewhere around 80-90 lbs. Just remember to lift with a forklift, not your back.
I should mention, to make this jaunt a little more fun, we’d be doing it in our double-shelled plastic mountaineering boots that had no give in the soles and weighed in at 2.5 lbs each. It’s the hiking shoe Gene Simmons and Frankenstein would design.
Then, with an equal mix of anticipation, excitement and trepidation, we set out across an open pasture. Horses looked up from grazing to stare at us with what I’m certain were smirks on their faces. The fields gave way to marshes where we made our way across the wettest parts on rotting husks of fallen trees. Burnt tree trunks dotted the landscape; artifacts from the first ranchers who cleared the land here, decades ago. From there it began to take a decidedly upward tilt and we were in tall forest, sweating under our loads despite the shade of the trees.
There’s always an adjustment period your body goes through on expeditions like this. I told Brian flat out that the first day is going to suck. For now, though, it was a hard hump. Probably the heaviest pack I ever carried. I don’t even think the most legendary of portages in the BWCA–where I was carrying a file cabinet size Duluth pack on my back and a smaller pack on my front with hands full of paddles and fishing rods–weighed as much this ten-year old child I had strapped to my back.
This is one of the things I like about camping. It forces you to choose what’s most important to you. What will make you the most comfortable. What do you really need to live? If you can carry it, you can bring it, but every ounce is a burden. In this way, nearly everything you bring is a luxury.
Tom was already starting to falter. We were barely into the forest and he was needing to stop every 10-15 steps to bend over and wheeze. Which was annoying when you were forced to stop all your momentum and stand balanced on a small rocky outcrop at a steep slant. After barely an hour, Christian had Michael, an employee of Jon’s from Tanzania who was hoping to be a Kilimanjaro guide, take Tom’s pack for him.
There was no real “trail” to speak of. Christian led us mostly by natural landmarks, steering us along the lines of least resistance. Which isn’t saying much. There were areas of thick underbrush where a machete wouldn’t have been out of place. Other times, we were forced to scramble on all fours up a 70-degree muddy incline trying to navigate around fallen trees and thorn-leaved shrubbery tugging at our clothes and skin for attention. We plodded and sweated upward. Towards the evening I remember lifting my leg to get over the millionth fallen tree and having to make it a three-part maneuver; resting my knee on the trunk partway through. I smiled and looked back at Brian who shook his head an smiled back. This is exactly what we’d signed up for.
We finally reached a level area of thick forest along the bottom of a high cliff with a field of gray boulders piled along bottom. Christian declared this would be camp for the night. He sent Michael back to the ranch as it would be dark soon. Which meant we’d have to figure out some way to deal with Tom’s pack tomorrow. I wasn’t looking forward to carrying an additional load tomorrow. Especially, as we were setting up the tents, Tom started complaining about there not being porters (which was never mentioned or offered in any of the materials) and how he showed up here out of shape (which there was really no excuse for).
While we were trying to figure out the knots he wanted us to use on the tent fly, Christian and Alex set about firing up dinner, managing to make sense out of the dozens of clear plastic bags we piled at the base of a suitably kitchen-looking rock. Christian’s significant experience in the backcountry (he said he spends about 200 days a year in the field) had taught him that if you’re going to reach your objectives you need to keep calories in your system. Plus, he wanted to show us how to live out here, not just survive. So we were treated to heaping plates of rice, mixed with chunks of salami and fresh carrots and onions covered with and cheese (Yes! Whittle that bastard down).
We squatted on rocks and devoured it in near silence after the day’s exertions. There was a nice spiciness to the food that came from what looked like dried red peppers mixed sprinkled on top.
“Christian. What’s the red spice you put in there?” I asked.
“Is it too spicy?”
“No.” said Brian between spoonfuls of rice. “It’s good. Spicy is good.”
“It’s called merquen.”
Brian’s rice almost came back up with laughter. “What?” he coughed.
“Merquen. Why is that funny?”
I grinned. “It’s just that ‘merken’ is…” I tried to find the right words, “It’s a…toupee for your crotch.”
“I knew you guys I would like.” He said.
The night wasn’t especially cold, considering the Minnesota winter we had left–was it really just two days ago–but we still started a small fire and sipped mugs of instant cocoa in it’s glow.
We listened to tales about Christian climbing Denali and why Alex discovered you should never trust Brazilians with your climbing ropes. It wasn’t long before our eyes grew as heavy as our packs. We sorted ourselves out into our tents, trying to find a place for everything. Brian, Tom and I tried to talk for a bit, but even Tom’s booming voice couldn’t keep us awake for long.
In our next episode: Following the glacier’s trail…