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Fall 2004 Issue
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Little Things are Big in Patagonia
By Christopher Black

The boat awaits us to go to our first campsite, away from the reletive civilization of Puerto Bertrand and into el Valle Soler.
NOLS Instructors Pat Mettenbrink, Crtistian Steidle, and John Stoddard (left to right) discuss future routes and contemplate the Northern Ice Field, which dominates the horizon.

A tree in the dry and unforgiving northern deserts of Chile has little chance at survival, but I have heard of one tree that is able to grow in the parched soil of this arid region. It was planted in a desert cemetery in memory of those who rest there.  Someone planted this tree where it is not meant to live, where water is scarce, but still it thrives. A sign near the trunk says to give water.  So generous travelers empty bottles of water into the dry earth at the base of the tree. Each small drop contributes to quench the thirst of this lone desert tree. 

NOLS instructor John Hauf told me this one morning as we left his ranch in the Soler Valley in southern Chile.  He is a gringo, a non-Latin, slowly becoming an honorary gaucho, the poncho clad horsemen who have worked in Patagonia for centuries.  The story of this tree is familiar to many of these men, as a tale of hope in a perilous Patagonian landscape where the support of strangers is often necessary for survival.

Chile is a geographically diverse region— there are the deserts of Atacama in the north where droughts choke life dry, the contrasting peaks of the Andes, the miles of fjords and islands flowing into the Pacific, and the isolated farming towns scattered between the cosmopolitan cities of Santiago and Viña del Mar.

Over one thousand miles south of Santiago, el Rio Soler carries the water of the planet’s third largest ice field, through el Valle Soler. Here, el Campo del Hielo Norte, or the Northern Ice Field covers two thousand square miles spreading its icy fingers over the horizon, where dark clouds blot out blue skies. At latitudes so deep into the southern hemisphere, the weather, even the sun, provide for extreme conditions. This exposed landscape was the backdrop for my NOLS mountaineering expedition.

Success alone in these extreme conditions is virtually impossible. A Chilean expedition demands the caring and helpful contributions of others to enable individual and group success.  Just as the lone tree in the desert survives with donations of water from travelers, ordinary people can flourish in Patagonia with a little help from others. 

This lesson immediately became clear to our expedition. In the first few days of hiking, our course began to make significant contributions to each individual’s success.  We taught one another how to “bomb proof” our tents and equipment, we ferried loads to a higher altitude by distributing the weight evenly among the tired backs of the group, we helped each other with balancing loads or a push from behind to move the pack-weight up a steep section of mountain. Each of these actions kept our group moving and surviving just as every drop of donated water kept the lone desert tree alive.

Wick Huffard prepares for the brutally strong Patagonia sun.

By day ten of our course we were at a high-altitude campsite saddled between two long ridges. The clouds began to roll in, eventually limiting our visibility to less than twenty feet and our location on the ridge introduced us to the infamous Patagonian winds—powerful, violent gusts pounding our bodies and tents like angry fists. 

We spent a total of two intense days and nights cowering in our tents. We measured the winds on the ridge at seventy miles per hour. Every gust ripped at our unnatural structures, bending tent poles and ripping flies. One tent collapsed against the force of the winds and each inhabitant had to join other tent groups, stuffing five people into four-person tents.

When confined to an overcrowded tent for an extended period of time, it is important to be, in the words of my tent mate, Dave Vanwie, “brave, strong, and cheerful.” Difficult emotions to convey when even sleeping is frightening and no one knows whether the tent will endure the cold malevolent night, but we worked together and scarcely managed to support our shelter until morning.

We alternated braving the winds and rain to go outside and retie the anchor lines and took turns staying awake in order to support the tent by leaning on the interior cross poles, using our weight and all the strength in our backs.  We spent most of the night either struggling to fulfill our duties or trying to sleep with the pressure of the winds folding our tents into tacos. Somehow we all woke up the next morning laughing and feeling closer than ever. We had worked together, bonded through our fear and survived, chuckling at our bad dreams and disrupted sleep.

One of my tent mates made hot chocolate and bread for breakfast while others assessed the damage to the tent and attempted to repair it. Although we had a destroyed tent pole, the group morale wasn’t crushed by the winds— instead it flourished. We had faced the strong winds and came out smiling.

 A lesson we learned that night is that smiles and laughing are a necessity for human existence, especially if you hope to survive the trials of Patagonia.  Expedition Behavior is crucial for raising spirits and making people feel comfortable in frightening or unsure situations.  There was no one on the trip who understood this lesson more than Wick Huffard.

If a tent mate bringing you your hot cocoa in bed is another little bottle of water for the desert tree, then Wick’s humor and cheerful attitude were water coolers.  No one had more fun on this trip than Wick. Because of him everyone had at least one laugh or felt relieved though the cold nights and early mornings. 

I knew Wick and I were friends when he woke me up one morning with a quick slap across the face, when getting out of my sleeping bag would have otherwise been hopeless.  I awoke suddenly, grabbed him and we wrestled each other out of the tent.  He had known exactly what I needed.

Wick was one of the youngest people on the trip at age 19. He had just graduated high school and like many of us, he came to NOLS to learn some things and to escape some others, but above all, Wick wanted to have fun.

We were all inexperienced gas-stove cooks and could not find a purpose for some ingredients in our food rations, so at the end of our first ration period we had a tremendous amount of food left over.  There was so much food that we spent a whole day between rations experimenting with the leftovers—we made cookies with the extra granola and sugar, and bread with the yeast and flour. Wick, however, took this feast to another level with a double-layered, double-frosted extremely rich chocolate cake.  He spent hours combining the ingredients and building a fire so he could bake each layer separately.  He was so proud of his cake that when it was finally done he brought it directly over to the rest of the group making sure that each group got a piece.  It was one of the most delicious pieces of chocolate cake I’ve ever had and the taste made us all smile, realizing that we could eat like kings even in the backcountry.

Wick’s incredible effect on the group was remarkable.  He always knew the right words to say, whether they came in the form of hilarious jokes or nourishing anecdotes.  Even now that our course is over, Wick strongly impacts my life.  When I heard the news that Wick had passed away after being hurt in an auto accident, it drastically affected me.  My life is better, just having met him.

Other members of our course still think of him today. His special characteristics helped us all to deal with life during the trip and after. “Wick was so great. He definitely put laughter, humor and an interesting kick to our course,” says one expedition mate, Andrea Jensen. Michael Finnegan strongly remembers Wick’s role in our course activities, and sometimes a lack of activities.  “I feel fortunate to have spent the course with him.  Probably one of my most vivid memories is the day we spent sitting around a fire from the time we woke to the time we went to bed,” he says. Only reflection and yerba mate, a traditional Patagonian tea, filled the day.

Spending time with Wick wasn’t about “hardcore” traveling or extreme expediting, but more about having a good time while learning.  NOLS courses are meant to be learning experiences.  The skills are important but the goal is to grow into stronger people and better leaders for the course and way after— to bring the lessons learned on the course into life outside of the backcountry. 

Chile was the perfect classroom—the country is uniquely beautiful, life flourishes without material possessions and teamwork is a necessity. It’s a wonderful place where growth, progress, and strength develop within both its people and its visitors.  The gauchos who live in this climate and the gringos who travel far to experience it understand how Chilean Patagonia can affect those of us who are lucky enough to become familiar with it.  A lot can be achieved without material amenities as long as they’re replaced by the necessary expedition behavior— cooperation and contribution. Give me nothing huge, just a few laughs, a few pats on the back, and a nice dessert once in a while.

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