Patagonia: Chapter 6 — Life in Camp

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.

Chow time in the tent. Photo by Brian Slater

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.

Christian working mealtime magic. Photo by Brian Slater

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.

Coffee anyone? Photo by Brian Slater

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.

Do we call a sleep disorder expert or an exorcist?

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.

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2 responses to “Patagonia: Chapter 6 — Life in Camp

  1. patagonia is supposed to have some of the most fantastic scenery ever. so jealous!

    • They’re not the highest mountains I’ve been on, but probably the most dramatic looking. Stunning beauty in pretty much every direction. You should check out Mount Fitz Roy. Unbelievable.

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