- 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
Tag Archives: travel
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.
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…
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
“The war is still going on there isn’t it?”
This is the first and most commonly asked question I got when I told people I was bound for El Salvador. The funniest one I got was “Isn’t that where Salvador Dali is from?” While still burnt into people’s minds from its dark days during the ‘80s, El Salvador has been fairly peaceful, in the political sense, for more than a decade. It’s traded civil war for gang warfare that results in some 3,000 homicides a year.
But I’m out of coffee, so…
This trip came to be, like most of mine delightfully do, by chance. I hadn’t planned on going to El Salvador, placing it far below El Capitan and even lower than Chicago’s El on my “things to do” list. But a friend from high school, Tracy Townsend, had crossed my path earlier this year on Facebook. She recently began teaching in San Salvador and sent me a message saying “I have volcanoes for you to climb and an extra hammock with your name on it. When are you coming for a visit?”
As most of you have already come to know, only ask that question if you’re ready for a scruffy redhead with a backpack and goofy smile to show up at your doorstep, tent flap or foxhole.
That’s how I found myself heading to El Salvador. Republic of the Savior. The Rhode Island of Central America (actually it’s about the size of New Jersey). At a mere 150 miles end-to-end it can’t even hold its name on a globe.
With a 5am flight, I gave up on sleep and just rode out the Sunday Vikings victory buzz through the night and chased it with the adrenaline of frantic last minute packing. Yet, when I arrived at the airport two hours early, like a good little international traveler, there was no one there to compliment me on my promptness. The place was totally deserted. In my drowsy haze it was easy to envision it as some sort of Twilight Zone episode with the lone workman clanking away metallically on the scaffolding being some kind of ghost or alien or representation of one of mankind’s maladies. I drifted off into a brief nap before I could figure it out.
I was bounced awake when a husky guy in flip-flops and a pair of those shorts with the strings hanging out the legs that no one ever actually uses for anything hurled his bulk into the end of the row of chairs, nearly catapulting me into the light fixtures. His wife, of a similar build, apparently thought it was a competition and cannonballed her behind into the next seat, but only flung me high enough to get to my feet. Rubbing my eyes, I saw the place had started to come to life a bit. In fact, I was surrounded by young couples in vaguely tropical gear taking pictures of every little detail. Turns out several of them had gotten married in the past week (including a couple who tied the knot just the day before in Grand Forks) and were on their way to honeymoon at a Mexican Sandals resort.
On the plane I tumbled down the spine of sleep while the world heated up from below, sunrise turning the clouds into a glowing orange Bunsen burner. By that time, we were already tenderly tapping our wheels down in Atlanta. The stewardess from Delta went into a five-minute spiel about how they’re committed to service and so happy to be serving us and so glad we’re flying with Delta. It went on so long it began to sound like an apology. I looked around to see if she had accidentally fed us poisoned Spinzers or flew us to Baghdad by mistake.
With under an hour to make my connection I was a tad nervous to discover Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International airport is the largest and busiest in the world. To top it off, my landing gate and departure gate were at two of the terminal’s farthest flung tentacles. But the crowds moved and flowed like we were in a rehearsed music video and I found myself with enough time to get a McGriddle breakfast burrito. I even had enough time to regret getting a McGriddle breakfast burrito.
It was a sparse flight into San Salvador (though not as sparse at the 10:30 to Liberia appeared) and I managed to get a row to myself. Now, let’s kill some of the 45 minutes I spent waiting on the runway with a few fun facts about El Salvador: Let’s see…it has 5.7 million people. It dumped the colón and adopted the U.S. dollar in 2001. The main export used to be indigo, but switched to coffee at the beginning of the 20th century. Over 75,000 people were killed in the 1980-1992 Civil War. You remember the Cold War too, don’t you? That’s even more than the 20-30,000 peasants the military massacred in 1932 to quash a rebellion. Being on the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is chockfull of volcanoes. An eruption in 2001 left 20% of the nation’s housing damaged. That same summer a drought killed off 80% of the crops. 90% of the country is mesitzo (mix of Native American and Spanish origin). If it wasn’t for money sent back from the 3.5 million El Salvadorans living abroad, it’s estimated 37% of the country would be living in extreme poverty. And they have one of the highest homicide rates in the country. Yes, this little country has had some big troubles.
Oh, I see we’ve taken off and the in-flight movie has started. It’s Grey Gardens with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. Ummm, okay. Why not?
We followed the dangle of Florida’s underside, crossed the cloud fluffed frothing waters of the Caribbean, politely brushed past Belize, and stopped short at El Salvador’s Custacatlan airport.
The humidity was a hot wet blanket that wrapped you in a welcome embrace the moment you stepped from the plane. I mean like 300% humidity. As in, how can this be the rainy season when there is no more room in the air for anymore liquid? And why is it, the hotter the climate, the more well-dressed the people like to be. The El Salvadoran men were all in long-sleeve dress shirts tucked into well-pressed trousers and nice shoes. It wasn’t as if I was blending in anyways, so I was going to stick with my shorts. Stick to them would be more accurate.
Tracy had arranged for a driver to meet me at the airport and after getting a fresh stamp in the passport, I spotted an El Salvadoran man with my name scrawled on a scrap of paper.
My tiredness and Sesame Street level of Spanish made for a quiet drive for the 50km from the airport to the Escuela Americana Complejo where Tracy lived. It gave me a chance to sit back and take in some initial sites. Some of it felt similar to other places I’d been, but it was still its own unique place. Telephone poles, trees, and street barriers were painted in red, white, and blue bands from the FMLN party that had won the recent election. Old men in beaten baggy pants, raised their straw hats and wiped sweat from their foreheads as they sat next to pyramids of coconuts waiting to be macheted open to share their sweet nectar. Rusty rumbling trucks coughed up hills loaded with pallets held down by shirtless teens.
This is a poor country, but it looked clean. It had a bright fresh colorful feel to it. White teeth flashed from dark skin. Skirts swayed among roadside stands. Flowers fell from roadside cliffs. Volcanoes slept tucked under ample blankets of lush green.
Tracy and her 12-year old daughter, Aimee, lived at the school in a quiet walled complex with most of the teachers. She had a tidy two-story concrete house with a red tiled roof and a backyard shaded by a prodigious lime tree. The hammock I’d been promised waved ‘hola’ to me in a much appreciated breeze. We’d get acquainted in a few hours as I napped off my jet lag.
Right now, Tracy took me on a tour of the school. It was a sprawling 35-acre campus with wide open breezeways embracing lovely green courtyards filled with hidden sculptures or zen beautiful landscaping or both. The school has about 1,300 students ranging from Pre-K to 12th grade. Classes were firing up in a few days, so the quiet pad of our sandals would soon be drowned out by the universal decibel-defying energy of students excitement and complaints at being educated.
Later that night, after dinner at a nearby restaurant, Tracy and I sat by the pool watching a bat loop over the water, skimming its surface for dinner. We filled in the years and the twisting turns that stretched from us meeting in high school on the debate team to sharing a beer at a school in San Salvador.
I pictured geography and time spinning their distance away simultaneously in my head until it reached here and now. I raised my sweating can of Suprema to her Corona. “To old friends in new places.”
In our next episode…Who Knows What Evil Waits Aboard the Microbus?!!!!