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)!

Reflections on our expedition in Patagonia

On our way to the peak of a mountain.

My goal on this expedition was to learn more about myself, and the impact I have on others as a leader. I was also looking forward to a challenging adventure and to getting to know some of my classmates better. Though it has been nearly three weeks since we finished our expedition in Patagonia, it is still difficult to distill all the lessons I learned from my instructors, peers and the mountains. We were encouraged to reflect on what we could take away from the experience and how we could translate these lessons to the “front country.” Here is my best attempt:

Highlight: The views! And the final group debrief where I heard how the experience personally impacted everyone in a different way.

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Lowlight: Having to do several steep descents on loose rocks. Not only did this terrain make me extremely uncomfortable and slow, it made me feel like I was slowing the group down. Other students also found the terrain surprisingly challenging.

“It was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be.  I had no idea we would be crossing thigh-deep rivers, bushwhacking, or hiking the ridges and edges of rocky mountains with some seemingly treacherous terrain.  I had to be much more focused and totally in the moment more than I could ever have imagined and at times I got a taste of survival mode.” Lindsey Pete ’14

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Biggest relief: As the student organizer, I was worried about everyone’s health the entire trip, so it was a major relief to me that there were no injuries or major accidents, on either team!

Biggest disappointment: Though I was anxious about inclement weather, I am (a little) disappointed that we didn’t have to face this additional challenge (aka opportunity for growth).

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Biggest insight: As much as I have learned about myself from this experience and my time at CBS, I still have so much to learn about my strengths and weaknesses.

Biggest challenge: Trying to motivate my team when I was leading them to an unknown destination, an unknown distance away, that may or may not be camp-able.

Biggest surprise: Discovering what motivates, irritates, or scares the other members of my team.

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Lessons from my instructors: Each of our three instructors brought a unique perspective to the experience. After a particularly challenging section of bushwhacking through dense, thorny forest, one of my instructors told me he loved bushwhacking because it reminded him that “there is always a way,” both in the wilderness and in life. Another instructor, in explaining how happy she was with her simple yet fulfilling life, reminded me how little I need to be happy, and how important it is to make time in my life for opportunities like this expedition that allow for adventure and reflection. My third instructor read The Station by Robert J. Hastings to us, which was a reminder to me to enjoy the journey in life without worrying so much about the destination.

Sooner or later we must realize there is no one station, no one place to arrive at once and for all.  The true joy of life is the trip.  The station is only a dream.  It constantly outdistances us. It isn’t the burdens of today that drive men mad.  Rather, it is regret over yesterday or fear of tomorrow.  Regret and fear are twin thieves who would rob us of today. So, stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream, go barefoot more often, swim more rivers, watch more sunsets, laugh more and cry less.  Life must be lived as we go along.  The station will come soon enough.

-Excerpt from The Station, by Robert J. Hastings

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Lessons from my peers: Kim Issa ‘14, who called this a “once in a lifetime experience,” noted that “you become very close to the 12 people in your group, the type of closeness it takes years to build in a normal setting. The feedback they give you will be honest and new to you, which is constructive and refreshing.” I couldn’t agree with her more.

From our daily debriefings, I learned that, among other things, I’m not as clear a communicator as I had thought I was. I often assume information is shared when it is not, or project my feelings and motivations onto others. I knew I was indecisive, but wasn’t fully aware of how to manage this, or that I even could manage it, until talking to my peers. I learned that I should trust my team, ask them for help, and then delegate roles more quickly to explore options. I also learned to accept that decisions can only be judged as good or bad once action is taken, but to be confident in my decisions once they are made.

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Lessons from the mountains: This experience was yet another reminder to me that most of my worries are futile. I was worried about blisters, joint pain, being cold and wet, and being the slowest team member. Either I didn’t have control over these circumstances (weather), and therefore they weren’t worth worrying about, or they weren’t as bad as I had anticipated. I can’t believe I wasted so much mental energy worrying about how I would feel when my boots inevitably got wet. When they finally did get wet, my feet were neither uncomfortable nor cold.

 One student put it perfectly:

“It is remarkable how petty stresses of everyday life (e.g., “Will I get a call back from that company?”) can trouble our sleep, cloud our judgment and paralyze our decision-making. Yet, when facing a much more real danger (e.g., “Will I tumble down the mountain if I slip on the next rock?”), we find the strength to set unproductive worrying aside and focus on the next step. If we can face real dangers with calm and resolve, why can’t we do the same for the fabricated ones?” – Anton Chtcherbakov ‘14

Overall, as one would assume, this was a truly amazing adventure and learning experience. I am so grateful that Columbia Business School offers opportunities like this for us to work on our leadership skills.  I am thrilled that I had the opportunity and ability to participate. Not only did I make new friends and learn about myself, but I got to do so in one of the most remote and beautiful regions in the world!

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The adventure begins!

I knew I was anxious about the next ten days when our plane’s engine didn’t start in New York and I was actually relieved, quietly wishing that our flight would be cancelled, and thus the whole adventureTo my dismay, the engine finally started, 4 hours later, and we were off for a ten-day expedition in Patagonia. Fifteen hours of flying and an hour’s bus ride later, we had arrived at our destination: Coyhaique, Chile, albeit short three students and several pieces of luggage.

Patagonia, Chile
Patagonia, Chile

One day later we were reunited with our classmates and belongings, finally ready for our adventure to begin.  Our NOLS instructors divided the 25 CBS students into two teams and we spent the rest of the day getting set up with gear, eating, learning how to set up our tents, pack and navigate, eating some more, and finally discussing our personal goals for the next several days.

Getting advice from a NOLS instructor on what to pack
Advay Jhunjhunwala getting advice from a NOLS instructor on what to pack

Before we knew it, we put on our 50-60lb backpacks and set off for the mountains, overwhelmed with the thought of walking hours on end with so much weight on our backs. We crossed our first river (very carefully and slowly), bushwhacked (timidly and slowly), cooked our first dinner (rather poorly and again, slowly), and set up our tents (you guessed it, slowly).

Hunter McDonald at one of our first 'river' crossings.
Hunter McDonald at one of our first ‘river’ crossings.

Exhausted from all the travel and anticipation, I excitedly jumped in to my tent, and suddenly it dawned on me that I’d be sleeping shoulder to shoulder with three others for the next 9 nights, with no opportunity to shower or change our clothes.

Carlo Dubini cooks a delicious pasta dinner for his tent team.
Carlo Dubini cooks a delicious pasta dinner for his tent team.

The next days were filled with rough and varied terrain, playing in the snow, strained backs, breathtaking views, blisters, revealing feedback sessions, cold fingers, glacier lakes, knot-tying lessons, sore knees, and (almost) always, lots of laughter.

Miles Yourman takes a break from hiking to repair his feet.
Miles Yourman takes a break from hiking to repair his feet.

Our breakfasts progressed from indigestible porridge to pancakes with dulce de leche. Meanwhile, our lunches degraded from trail mix and chocolate bars to spoonfuls of peanut butter as rationing proved too difficult for MBAs from New York accustomed to Seamless. We acquired a taste for mate, and got used to putting on wet socks and boots every morning. I even almost managed to get used to the smell of the socks and boots of my tent-mates (mine smelled brand-new to the end).

Dan Rossi tends to the (finally) boiling water.
Dan Rossi tends to the (finally) boiling water.

I expected to be self-sufficient, but didn’t expect to literally spend half of my time packing, unpacking, fetching water, boiling that water, cooking and adjusting my layers to keep myself warm. I expected day after day of rain, but was pleasantly surprised to be greeted with sunshine nearly every morning.

Another beautiful day in the mountains.
Another beautiful day in the mountains.

I expected long, strenuous days, but didn’t expect that sometimes these days would end at a location that was un-campable, forcing us to gather the energy to push on until we could find a location that was.

Kim Issa, Kevin Clark, and Jessica Basham check the map to make sure they're heading in the right direction.
Kim Issa, Kevin Clark, and Jessica Basham check the map to make sure they’re heading in the right direction.

I expected our instructors to be experts in the outdoors, but didn’t expect them to also be experts in communication, leadership and personal development. All of these surprises enriched my experience and made this a trip and class that I will never forget.

Jennifer Dyck-Sprout taking a break from hiking.
Me taking a break from hiking.

Nearly 40 miles (it felt like 100), and 8,500 feet in elevation later, we reached our destination. It’s amazing to see how much changed in only nine days. We were much tougher mentally, stronger physically, and more efficient with our time. Not to mention the transformation in our culinary skills. More importantly though, we gained insight into our strengths and weaknesses and our preferred leadership and communication styles. And perhaps most impressively, we survived more than a week without our iPhones.

Post submitted by: Jennifer Dyck-Sprout ’14

Adrien De Bontin and Jessica Basham on their way to the peak.
Adrien De Bontin and Jessica Basham on their way to the peak.

CBS embarks on a NOLS adventure

In just under 48 hours, 25 second year students will meet with their National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) guides in Coyhaique, Chile to embark on a ten day leadership expedition in Patagonia.

NOLS is a world leader in wilderness education. They take students of all ages on remote wilderness expeditions and teach them technical outdoor skills, leadership, and environmental ethics. What NOLS teaches cannot be learned in a traditional classroom. The backcountry provides the ideal setting for this unique, experiential education—NOLS classrooms are some of the world’s wildest and most awe-inspiring locations, including Patagonia.

Last year, 11 students participated in the tour, organized by Maya Mandel ’13. They carried 60-lb backpacks, crossed rivers, climbed mountain passes, drank Maté, devoured the dulce de leche treat, handled fatigue and injuries, enjoyed 2-3 sunny mornings, and witnessed first-hand how in such a short time period we learn new skills, adapt, grow, and lead (and become really good at it!). I’m hoping we have the same experience, but without any of the rain!

The reasons we signed up for this are as diverse as the terrain we’ll be encountering. My primary motivations were to experience this remote part of the world and get to know some of my classmates in a more intimate setting. Lindsey Pete ’14 enrolled in the class because she loves adventure and exploring new places and thought this trip would be a great hands-on experience to help her improve my leadership skills.  Anton Chtcherbakov ’14 on the other hand felt compelled to sign up after seeing the incredibly enthusiastic presentation from last year’s participants.

As the start line comes into sight, I have so many mixed emotions. Like Kim Issa ’14, I’m worried about whether my body will be up for the physical challenge.  Like Tyler Walk ’14 and Anton Chtcherbakov ’14, I’m excited to learn more about myself and others through this experience. I’m worried about the notoriously volatile weather in Patagonia, and even more worried about just how much I will smell after ten days of physical exertion and no showers. That being said, I’m trying to keep a positive outlook and deal with each challenge as it comes, starting with the 20 hours of travel between New York and Patagonia.

Jennifer Dyck-Sprout ‘14