Patagonia: Reflections on the Best Trip Ever

It’s been almost 6 weeks since we got back to toilet paper, heat and the comforts of New York City living. I don’t think any of us miss dipping our hands in the cold streams to fill the drom with water or the twenty minutes it took to boil water before we could even start to make our meals — but there’s a lot we do miss. We had our reunion lunch on Friday, January 30 and it was clear that, if nothing else, we missed each other.

It was hard during the trip and immediately following it to really reflect on our experience. In the moment, we were all too consumed by thoughts of how we’d get through this bush, when we’d take a water break, how we’d get down this cliff, where we’d set up our tent to avoid sleeping on cow dung, what we could make for dinner other than cheesy pasta… you get the idea. It’s amazing how different (and liberating) it is to remove the stressors of the real world and literally think about nothing but, “Where will I put my food next?” Now, we’re all back to the real world — our heads swirling with thoughts about interviews, new first years and Thursday’s after party — but it was important to take the time to get together as a group and reminisce.

At our reunion lunch, being just enough removed from the adventure, we were able to reflect on our struggles, triumphs and lessons learned from the trip. Having written papers about our goals for the class, feedback from peers and our achievement of these goals, we shared excerpts with each other — many lessons we had talked about on the trail, but some we had not. Paraphrased, here are some of our collective reflections:

  • I came to recognize the importance of self-care; understanding my needs and meeting them, before I was able to help meet the needs of others (“in the event of a change in cabin pressure… put on your air mask before assisting others”)
  • I used to think that resilience was about not caring, forgetting about something and moving on from it, but I came to realize it’s the exact opposite. Resilience is about caring, caring deeply, learning from something and growing, having the courage to care so much that no obstacle is too great.
  • We all wanted to complain at some point, but I tried to be conscious of what I complained about. We all experienced the rain, so whining about being wet only brought us all down. But when I had a personal need, sharing that allowed the group to help me solve it. Some complaints are best left for my journal, and some are important to say aloud. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  • I didn’t realize how much impact my choices, my behavior and my attitude could have on others. It would have been easy to choose to be negative when times got tough. Instead, we all consciously made the decision to bring others up instead of letting ourselves get dragged down.
  • Life moves fast… if we don’t take the time to enjoy the sights, we might miss them.

In addition, we also learned a lot about our own leadership style — as a designated leader, as a peer leader and as an active follower. We learned how to use our style to motivate and support others, how our style is perceived by others, and how to work with other styles that may be quite different.

I’m confident that our group will continue to reflect on these learnings in our ‘front country’ life, in addition to savoring the memories of our adventure and enjoying the beautiful pictures — see a few below. (Photo credit: Yingtao Sun)

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One of our few hiking days on a ‘trail’… and a great view of our 60 pound packs.

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So many stars in Patagonia, though it was quite late before it got dark enough to see them — the sun set at about 9:30 and rose at about 4:30.

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One group climbed up this, the other climbed down…

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When it wasn’t raining or snowing… mornings looked like this!

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!

Patagonia: Can we bring toilet paper?

Jennifer Rhodes ’15

Global Immersion Patagonia brings 28 students on a 10 day trek through Chilean Patagonia. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) instructs the course while we are in country, but the 28 of us are the leaders. We will each spend a day navigating through the “wild,” determining when and where to stop to eat and sleep, and motivating our tired, cold, wet, dirty peers.

In preparation for the course, we’ve had three class meetings. At the first, we learned basic orienteering skills — and confirmed there won’t be google maps in Patagonia. Our second class involved a Mt. Everest simulation and discussion about safety, challenge and risk. In the third class, we talked about ecotourism and businesses in Patagonia. We also spoke with a representative from NOLS who talked us through everything on our packing list — with tips and tricks for traveling light, wearing clothes for 10 days straight, and walking through rivers staying as dry as possible.

All along, the Patagonians (as we affectionately call ourselves) have been breaking in our hiking boots, doing (at least a little) physical training, and planning and plotting how our basic (and not so basic) needs will be met in Patagonia. We’ll be carrying everything on our backs, not showering, and cooking outdoors based on rations (that don’t include coffee or chocolate). And no, we can’t bring toilet paper.

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Practicing our human pyramid (not sure why…)

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Physical fitness training in Riverside park… sorta

I leave tomorrow, but will check in again after we’re back on the grid (and clean)!