Patagonia: Out of the wild

The electric wires stopped running at least 10 kilometers from where we entered Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo – making it a little challenging to blog. So here’s the belated recap of the trip…

Our class of 28 students traveled almost 6,000 miles (but only two time zones) to Coyhaique, a small town south of Santiago, Chile, where we entered Patagonia. Coyhaique is home to the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) base camp for the Patagonia region. NOLS runs outdoor leadership classes throughout the year in many different parts of the world, typically offering 30- or 80-day courses in camping, mountaineering, sea kayaking and more, including a “semester abroad” opportunity for college students. (Yes, an entire semester, no shower.)

After one last dinner of pizza and beer, and one last sleep in dreamy hotel beds, the class arrived at base camp early on the morning of December 13. We reviewed our gear, rented and bought what other gear we needed, divided our group gear among our tent teams, learned how to pack our packs, and perhaps most importantly, had our last meal of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. Then, with our 55-70 pound packs, we rode a bus to the entrance of the park and the adventure began.

The two teams of 14 students and 3 (AMAZING!) instructors each planned to travel the same route, but in opposite directions. Some days we walked on trails, other days we bushwhacked through the dense lenga tree forest and crossed rivers up to our knees; some days we walked uphill all day, other days we went up and down and up and down river drainage after drainage. Each day we were awake early to boil water, make breakfast, tear down camp and hike all day. When we arrived at the “X” at the end of the day, we’d find a good place for camp, pitch our tents, set up our “kitchens” and make dinner (cheesy pasta was a team favorite, but pizza, pad thai and risotto bolognese were also on the menu). With all the work to be done to get our basic needs met, there wasn’t exactly time for sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories.

The “peak” of the route was a pass, or saddle, in the shadow of Cerro Castillo, with snow-covered terrain on one side and a steep boulder field on the other. On Day 1, it seemed impossible that we would get to this point, but both teams made it triumphantly. We all took some time to reflect on the incredible journey we had so far, and what we were starting to learn about ourselves and our own strength – physically and mentally. The way down wasn’t exactly “easy” but after what we had accomplished, anything was possible.

During our route we encountered all types of terrain, temperature swings from 80 degrees to 25 degrees, sun, rain and snow. At times, we thought there was a NOLS instructor sitting in a control room somewhere watching for when we got comfortable and sending obstacle after obstacle our way. (“Oh, it’s warm and dry, let’s send in the horseflies.”) Every day was different, and every day was rewarding. Every day we were faced with a different challenge, and every day we were proud of our ability to tackle them, while maintaining high spirits and learning something new. On our last night, we shared what we would take with us to our “front country” life – it was amazing how many lessons were transferable to our very different world of excel spreadsheets and conference calls.

After 9 nights with no electricity, we returned to the land of cellphones and Internet. We eagerly checked in with friends and family (we made it!) and exchanged stories (and wilderness recipes) with the other team. We enjoyed one buzz-inducing glass of wine and asado at basecamp before heading to our hotels for multiple showers and pillows! Most of us made it back to our families in time for the holidays or on to our next adventure.

I know I’m still reflecting on the experience that we had – I miss sleeping 4 inches away from my amazing tent mates, but I don’t miss waiting forever for the water to boil for hot drinks. We have a reunion class in a few weeks, after which I’ll share more about what everyone learned on the trip. Until then, Happy New Year to all – may 2015 be filled with many memorable adventures, like this one!

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