Patagonia: Chapter 7 – United We Stand. United We Fall to Our Deaths in a Crevasse

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.

Christian leading the way...

“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.

Team Kuma heading up...

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.

Ahhhh, just like home...

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….

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.

Patagonia: Chapter 5 – Scotch on the Rocks

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.

Best calzone this side of the Northern Ice Shelf. (Photo: Brian Slater)

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.

Rock zen

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.

Nice spot for lunch

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.

Looking back the way we came.

“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.

Knot tying lesson

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.

(Photo: Brian Slater)

In Our Next Episode…Eating, Pooping, and Camp Zen

Most Dangerous Fireworks for 2011…

Richard Pryortechnics

The Whistlin’ Wizard of Eyegone

Boom Laden & The Talibang

It’s Raining Satan

Nipple Pinwheel

Sgt. Redneck’s Gas vs. Match

Deaf-Con 5

Lefty’s Funtime Armageddon in Your Hand

Napalm Sombrero

Garden of Earthly Explosions

Fannypack Nuke

Michael Vick’s Puppy Cannon

She Blinded Me With Magnesium

Have fun. Be safe. USA!

Patagonia: Chapter 4 – Insane in the Moraine

It’s hard to tell when I woke up because I can’t remember when I fell asleep last. Most of the night was in a purgatory of slumber; neither fully awake nor lost on the blissful seas of Nod. I was exiled to this state of non-sleep due to the discovery that Colonel Tom snored. Brian and I do too, but not like this. The sounds issuing from his quaking jowls weren’t human. It was like a bunch of drunken Wookies with throat cancer were using power tools to tear open a hole in the time-space continuum to allow hordes of otherworldly demons through to perform accapella death metal.

Is he dead? Maybe undead with that awful noise he's making.

And it wouldn’t be continuous. It was more like Chinese audio torture. He’d snort in his breath and you’d wait for an exhale, but there wouldn’t be one. (At one point I actually thought he’d had a heart attack because he stopped breathing for so long. Little did I know Brian was on the other side of the tent wondering the same thing.) Then, just when you untensed your ears and relaxed, the exhale would echo through the tent and wake you up again. As the trip wore on, we began hoping he did have a heart attack during those lapses.

Breakfast was quick and consisted of oatmeal with dried fruits and a fistful of almonds. Despite my best salesmanship, I couldn’t get anyone to calve off a chunk of the cheese moon to put on top, so it went back into my pack. And thank whatever godly pantheon you worship that there was coffee. Brian had brought some good stuff from Peace Coffee back home and Christian brewed it so strong it would put hair on your chest and that hair would make a fist and punch you in the mouth. Forget standing a spoon up in it. You could stand up in it. A good jump-start before breaking down camp and getting everything back in the packs.

Ahhh, coffee in the backcountry. And that green sweater and black pants? Get used to seeing me in it.

It was more uphill scrambling today. We started through areas thick with waist-high underbrush that filled in the areas between tall ashen trees stretching their few branches high above us. The wet wood made footing treacherous and it was tough to find a solid place to put your walking pole. At one point we had to duck under a tree that had fallen down a near vertical incline right where we had to clamor up. You just ducked your pack and grabbed slick roots and pounded your boots into the bare soil and grunted up one step at a time.

Fortunately, the underbrush petered out and we started following a musical mountain stream lined with moss so green it was almost fluorescent. The stream happily gurgled directions, guiding up to a massive boulder that had been deposited by the retreating glacier when it got too heavy for even it to carry.

Speaking of things too heavy to carry, Christian decided this would be a good place to leave a cache of our gear and food so we could divvy up Tom’s load better. We’d take what we needed for several days at base camp and, at some point, Alex would come back and bring up the rest of our supplies. What could possibly go wrong? We loaded up on fresh water spiked with Gatorade or Nuun electrolyte tabs and noshed on Clif bars and trail mix while Christian sorted through all our gear.

We were back on our way in about half an hour and I noticed we’d definitely reached an old moraine field. This is where boulders were left as the glacier had melted. Most of them had been covered over with thick bonnets of moss and grass. A few even sported small trees twisting out of their crowns, roots desperately grabbing at bare rock, spiraling down in search of purchase like loose curls over their brows. We wandered left through more open boulders and what seemed like an endless grove of trees about the thickness of a shovel-handle that liked to snag themselves amongst your legs and in your packs as you twisted and ducked and shimmied your way through them.

Then we suddenly burst from the trees and onto the edge of the moraine valley. It was filled with loose stones bleached pale as if the sudden sun shone on them non-stop. To our left we could see all the way down to our starting point on the lake near John’s property. To the right, the rocks marched like silent pilgrims, making their way around a bend towards the glacier’s terminus. We couldn’t see the ice from here, but got our first glimpse two jagged peaks rising in the distance. That’s was our destination.

Is that a good place for your pack, Alex?

We were glad to be out of the forest’s clutches and took a break to strip off a layer and recoat ourselves with sunscreen. Not only were we at altitude in summer, but there is also a hole in the ozone layer in Punta Arenas not much further south, so Old Sol’s radiation is quite fierce here. I made sure to keep troweling on my SPF1000 Gingerspackle several times a day.

Kickin' it old moraine style

I saw something move out of the corner of my eye and turned to see a pack, blown by the wind, begin falling down the rock-covered hill. I took two steps, but it was already out of reach and starting to pick up speed. I heard Alex curse. She had come out from a bathroom break in the woods in time to see her pack cartwheeling end over end, bounding higher and higher, as it made its way several hundred yards down into the valley.

We felt bad watching her go fetch it, but were glad it wasn’t ours. Most of her gear, including her camera, was alright, but her climbing helmet had been cracked in half.

“Well, at least your head wasn’t in it when it cracked.” said Brian.

“I know.” Alex moaned. “I’m just bummed about all the stickers I had collected on it.” Looking at how many there were from places all around the world, I would too.

We began the ankle-breaking dance over the loose boulders down into the valley. Buoyed by the sight of it, I began singing Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Membrane”, but reworked as “Insane in the Moraine”. Brian joined in. Alex, behind us, in the sweeper position, sort of shook her head as we busted out lyrics. She would do that a lot over the next week or so.

We hopscotched a small creek at the valley floor and found somewhat clear land on the other side. After another hour Christian claimed this spot as base camp for our expedition. It would be our base of operations to go up onto the glacier and surrounding peaks from. We were just glad to have a place to drop the full packs for awhile.

Home away from home... (Photo: Brian Slater)

I stretched out my back and looked around; lifting my goggles so I could see it with my own eyes. We were in a little glen full of scrubby plants bearing clumps of white berries. A small clear stream divided the valley. High scree fields rose up on either side of us, but we still had a clear view down the valley to the mountain ranges behind us. And somewhere up ahead was still an ancient living river of ice that we were going to climb.

I sighed and smiled into the sun-filled breeze. The air didn’t smell like anything but pure possibility. This would do nicely. Quite nicely.

In Our Next Episode: Onto the glacier…

Patagonia: Chapter 3 – What You Bring, What You Leave Behind

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.

Heading to the ranch from Puerto Bertrand. (Photo: Brian Slater)


(Photo: Brian Slater)

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.)

A little morning mate with Michael.

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.

This had better be damn delicious if I'm going to carry it up a mountain.

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’ve taken the trouble of googling merken for you here. As well as merquen. Which is delicious. We asked Christian for more to sprinkle on.

“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…

Patagonia: Chapter 2 — Getting There is Half the Fun (And 3/4th the Expense)

Whoever said getting there is half the fun has never flown coach. And they certainly said it before 9-11. As I wait for my cameo role in what’s become the matinee of security theater put on for all air travelers these days, I have one last chance to run over my gear list and make sure I have everything I’ll need to make life comfortable for the next three weeks way down yonder in Patagonia. Actually, I have time to mentally double check the list because the guy in front of me is using a record six bins to put his stuff through the scanner. He’s like a four year-old playing with a train set, clothes akimbo, scurrying along the track in his socked feet. I almost expect him to make a “Whoo-whoo” whistle noise as he pushes them into the x-ray tunnel.

On the plus side, I don’t get a junkscan or bad touch from any of the staff. Except from one of the janitorial crew. Wait, that was middle school. If TSA workers keep saying there’s nothing wrong with these bodyscans, they should wear ID badges with one of themselves on it. “I’ll show you I don’t have explosives up my anus if you show me you don’t” seems like a fairer policy.

Given that we were embarking on a mountaineering adventure (and the shocking lack of Chilean themed airport bars beyond Chili’s), Rock Bottom Brewery seemed like a good place to meet Brian. I’m not sure what we said over that first beer, we may have just giggled like giddy school kids. At least we weren’t one of the business travelers next to us on their way to a metal fabrication convention somewhere in Akron.

The only downside was that I was apparently Patient Zero for some kind of respiratory infection. Runny nose, and a chest full of phlegm that made it sound like I was growing a wet cheese-based bagpipe in my chest. And apparently I bought a rare kind of cough drop that actually induces coughing fits. To top it all off, I had the middle seat on our leg to Atlanta. I did pity the two souls on either side of me. If I’ve accidentally set off a plague of 12 Monkeys proportions by the time I get back, please accept my apologies and I promise I’ll let Bruce Willis kill me if I see him.

From Atlanta, we boarded a night flight to Santiago. We followed down Florida’s dangle, over Cuba, the Panama Canal, and into South America proper. I’d already seen the King’s Speech, but thought briefly that watching it in German while hopped up on Nyquil and red wine might give it a new twist. Instead I tried to doze off in search of my own subconscious cinema. Which, unfortunately, meant I missed crossing the equator and missed the chance to get my virginity back and see if the water went straight down the drain and then reversed direction.

Even though a permanent brown haze of exhaust covered it, we were excited to finally land in Santiago. It helped alleviate the slightly surreal cracked-out feeling one gets on overnight international flights. We then began running a gauntlet that included collecting our luggage (it all showed up), getting an entry visa ($150!), going through immigration (Mmm, new passport stamp), then customs before being released into the airport to check in for our local flight to Balmaceda on LAN, Chile’s national airline. The Santiago airport seemed fresh out of the wrapper. All white walls and gently arcing beams with sunlight streaming through ample skylights.

Santiago Airport. Our trip required just slightly less gear.

We learned we had to get our boarding passes from an automated kiosk before checking in. In our post night flight daze, we realized it was all in Spanish. Brian tried to recall his teenage years growing up in Buenos Aries. I tried to recall what I heard Maria on Sesame Street saying. All of which came in handy later on, because Brian could order drinks and pick up chicks and I could count to ten and say “open” and “close”.

With luggage loaded and tickets for our last flight in hand, we headed to our gate. It was too early for a bar to be open, so we decided to seek out a coffee. Awesome! We were excited for our first real interaction with some Chilean people. Then, we discovered the only coffee place open was a Starbuck’s. And the kid behind the counter spoke flawless English. And none of the bureau de exchange were open, so we paid with a credit card. Okay, not the cultural exchange we were looking for, but, damn, it was a good coffee.

Then it was just a three hour jaunt down the mighty spine of the Andes, which were clouded in, to the Balmaceda. Coming in to the airport, I finally had my first look at Patagonia. High rolling green and yellow hills with Argentina stretching out to my left. When we touched down the jolt knocked my adrenal glands over and spilled a shiver of anticipation throughout me. We were finally here.

It was a really tiny airport, so as soon as we collected our gear and walked through a small doorway we were immediately greeted by our host, two guides, and one other guest who’d signed up for the mountaineering course.

There was Jon Hauf . Owner of the 2000+ acre Patagonia Frontiers Wilderness Ranch that gave us exclusive access to the Soler Valley and the glaciers it held. He was tall and slim with gray hair and precise, yet polite, clipped demeanor. He looked like who you’d expect to be cast as an Air Force captain in a made for TV movie.

“Nice to finally meet you Jon!”

The other student was Tom Ragsdale. A 64-year old retired Marine from Nashville with a drawl almost as big and thick as his midsection. In the same made-for-TV movie, he’d be cast as the crazy general who says stuff like “Then may God have mercy on our souls.”

“Hey, Tom!”

One of our guides was Christian. A German-Chilean in his early 40s with a reassuring suitably scruffy and weather-beaten appearance and laid back demeanor you want in someone who is going to take you up a moving mountain of ice.

“Christian? How are you?”

And there was our other guide, Alexandra. A smoking hot buff Belgian-Chilean elf with long curly hair, apple cheeks and a nationwide rep as a badass climber.

“Well, hellllloooooooo.”

We threw our gear into the back of two pick-ups and covered them with a blue tarp in case of rain. Brian, Christian and I took off in one. I noticed the “town” of Balmaceda appeared to be nothing more than a sedentary herd of abandoned looking shacks all slightly seeming to lean away from the prevailing and almost continuous wind. Within minutes of leaving the airport, we were on dirt roads. We weren’t in the middle of nowhere yet, but I had a feeling this was a shortcut.

All of a sudden I heard Rush’s “Working Man” coming through the truck’s speakers. “I never thought the first music I’d hear in Patagonia would be Rush.” I said to Brian.

“You like Rush?!” asked Christian. His half-lidded eyes opening fully.

“Yeah. I have most of their stuff. Got to see them in concert a few times.”

“Oh man. That ees awesome.” replied Christian in an accent Brain and I would come to imitate in the weeks ahead. He fumbled with his iPod, taking his eyes off the narrow rutted road for far too long for my taste. We soon had most of the Rush back catalog setting the soundtrack for our trip. It was the perfect icebreaker and the three of us took an immediate liking to each other.

We rolled along, raising dust through a variety of terrains. Yellowed hills that peeled back to reveal rock every now and then. Low marshy swamps. Long blue lakes alongside hulking gray cliffs. Brian peppered Christian with climbing questions from the shotgun position, while I just sat in the back seat looking at the terrain come at me and smiling behind my sunglasses.

After about half an hour, Christian peeled away from following Jon’s truck and took us down an even more rutted and desolate side road. “There’s sometheeeng I need to get.” He mumbled under his breath as we arrived at the market of a small village.

He emerged after a few minutes with a six pack of Royal beer. “Nice.” I thought. “We’ll have beer tonight at the lodge. But Christian cracked open three beers and dispersed them among us.

“Welcome to Patagonia.” He said and we clanked the blue lukewarm cans together and drank deep.

I think this trip is going to be alright.

Rush and roadies. Not a bad first 30 minutes in-country. Salud!

In our next episode: Hump Day