The summer of 1998 was a good one. I worked for the City of Ft. Collins in the GIS department, made good money and recreated a lot (big surprise I know). To finish it off, my dad flew up and we embarked on the corps of fishery. It was a non-stop, 2 week fly fishing trip from Wyoming to New Mexico to celebrate my graduation and upcoming trip to Chile. When October rolled around I boarded a plane for South America by myself with a metric ton of gear. I didn’t speak the language and really had no idea what was going to happen. I just knew that I was meeting NOLS in Puerto Natales in a few days.
My trip was eventful to say the least. My first flight to Miami flew directly into the path of hurricane George and was the last plane allowed to land at the airport before they shut the entire thing down. Needless to say I missed my flight to Santiago and had to spend the night in Miami. What a lovely town that is. Especially when you have no money and you stay in the most dilapidated hotel in the city. Just pure joy that evening. After 24 hours of bliss I boarded a plane for Chile and I was ecstatic. Now I had 8 or so hours to really work on my Spanish. Yep, I didn’t really know a lick of the native tongue. I had take a couple years of Spanish in high school but nothing since.
After landing in Santiago and navigating to the terminal that would get me on the plane to Punta Arenas I promptly lost the only Spanish/English dictionary and phrase book that I had. Now I would be jumping in with both feet! It was so cool to fly into Punta Arenas. It is on the straights of Magellan and the plane flies out over the straights to make its approach. After all of the history lessons I was actually seeing things I thought I would only see in books. I mean holy crap, this is THE end of the world in a southern direction! Just one more leg of travel before I can relax for a couple days.
The bus trip to Puerto Natales is invigorating. The “highway” between the two towns is really only wide enough for one vehicle so when you meet another traveler you both hang one set of wheels off the pavement and stay on the gas. Probably not as nerve wracking for the smaller vehicles as it is for the massive bus. Every encounter feels like you are going to flip over.
Puerto Natales is a really beautiful little town on the edge of the Torres Del Paine national park. I got off the bus with literally no plan for where I would stay or any good way to speak to anyone. Fortunately for this cracker the Chilean people are absolutely wonderful. They don’t speak much if any english down that far so we did a lot of pointing and gesturing and within a few minutes I was in a car headed somewhere. Really not sure where but it seemed like it might be a place I could lay my weary head. Sure enough we pulled up to a small but very well kept house and my host led me inside. She showed me to a room and motioned for me to drop my stuff and make myself comfortable. Through more gesturing and pointing at things she made it clear that I would be expected for breakfast in the morning. As she closed the door the reality of the situation hit me. I was MANY thousands of miles from home, I could not communicate easily and I had no idea what I was doing. I was STOKED!!!
Morning came and I opened my door to a world I had only dreamed about until then. My new Chilean family was eating breakfast, the kids were dressed in their uniforms for school and they waved me to the table to join them. I had purchased another dictionary so I had the ability to look up words but it was slow. The family served me my breakfast and coffee and immediately started speaking to me like I knew what they were saying. They were relentless. I was giggling to myself because I didn’t have any idea what they were saying but I felt like family.
A day passed and it was time to meet my NOLS group. I was excited because I would be able to speak english again and this was exactly what I wanted to do with my life at the time. A big expedition into the wilds of South America! My NOLS group was awesome. We had kids from all over the US and Mexico and our instructors were incredible. We packed all of the food and gear for 75 days of travel in the southern Andes and loaded up on a bus and headed out. I can still remember the feeling of anticipation washing over me. It was like some crazy drug. To say that I was euphoric would be a massive understatement.
We started our semester in sea kayaks in the fjords down near the straights of Magellen. After 30 days in kayaks we met our re-supply boat and grabbed our backpacking/climbing gear and headed up into the Patagonian mountains for the next 35 days. To finish our semester we did a 10 day small group expedition with a group of 4 people and no instructors. To write about that trip in detail would take up a book on its own so here are some bullet point highlights.
Longest day moving : 22 hrs
Highest wind recorded : 80 mph
Number of consecutive nights spent in tents : 75
Number of days that it rained : 65
Number of people who quit : 4
Most people in one 3 person tent for a night : 7
I could continue but the take away message is that it was one of the most memorable and wonderful times of my life. I saw places that a very small number of humans have or ever will ever see and learned about myself and my true limits better than I ever could have by staying “safe” in the US.
As the NOLS trip concluded I needed to get north to Mendoza Argentina to meet my group from CSU to climb Cerro Aconcagua. Aconcagua is the tallest mountain in S. America and the tallest outside of Asia. It comes in at 22,834 ft above sea level. The tallest thing I had climbed up to that point was a 14eener in Colorado so I was a bit nervous but again that nervousness manifested in excitement! I traveled alone back up the continent and into Argentina and landed in Mendoza on Christmas eve. I was carrying 2 massive bags of gear that weighed in around 70 lbs each and had no idea where my hotel was. It was 11 pm and I wandered through the streets looking for the Rincon Vasco. I finally found it and drug my bags up 2 flights of stairs to my room. Far from tired I headed back down to the streets looking for a place to eat and relax. My spanish was getting better but I ended up finding some British climbers and sitting down for a beer and a Lomito with them. A lomito is one of Patagonias greatest gifts to this world. It is a sandwich made of a thin beef steak, eggs, cheese, onions, fries and anything else the particular restaurant puts on it. While it might not be good for your waist line, it is FABULOUS for your spirit!
Just as I am biting into this slice of heaven the clock strikes midnight and the town explodes into celebration. Fireworks are going off, people are yelling, kids are in the streets, it was total mayhem! “What the heck is going on?” I ask my British buddies. “Its Christmas now!” Holy crap, this is how they celebrate Christmas down here? It was fantastic! The celebration lasted a long time and I joined right in. Everyone was drinking and partying all over town. What a different way to celebrate Jesus’ birth!
My team from Colorado showed up a day later and we got down to the business of stocking up and packing for a big climb. Groceries were purchased, bags were packed, mules were procured and up into the Andes we went. Not only were we going to climb a big, BIG mountain we were taking a route that even our leader had never been on.
The Guanaco valley breaks off of the main valley heading towards the route up the Polish glacier and winds around to the back of the mountain. Our ambitious goal was to follow that up and then over to the high camp on the main route with ALL of our gear and then descend the main route back out to Plaza de Mulas. This would require us carrying everything to 19,600 feet instead of having a base camp where we could leave some big bulky stuff. One of the other challenges would be that none of us had ever even seen the route. My buddy Pat had a rough description of the route from a guy name Rodrigo. It basically said “Go up and right to the normal route.” Kinda like “Go that way really fast, if something gets in your way… TURN!” Yep, I am old enough to reference Better Off Dead.
As we climbed, the lack of air began to take its toll on the team. It is amazing how hard it is to do simple things at 19,000 ft. Fortunately the only ill effect I had was fatigue. No headaches, no sickness (thank you parents for good genes). Summit day dawned and we climbed out of our relatively warm cocoons into the freezing cold pre dawn air. The summit push went really well and we were all standing on top by 11:30 am with the biggest smiles I have ever seen. The feeling of accomplishing something that hard is something you can’t explain. No words will ever touch the elation I felt standing on that summit. Between my NOLS semester and the climb I had officially pushed myself beyond any previous conceived notion of my limits. I was hooked!!!
The descent and trip back to town were uneventful and safe. We were all riding a high and it was amazing. While I don’t connect with those folks very often anymore, we share something that only hardship and conquest can produce.
My climbing team left to head back for the U.S. and now I was waiting for my sweetheart. Ruth was traveling all the way to Santiago by herself and would arrive at 8:00 am after having left the states the previous day so she was going to be tired. What better way to relax and get some rest than to jump on to a rickety (and when I say rickety I mean SKETCHY) train heading south to Patagonia? I will remember her face as she got off of the plane for the rest of my life. It was like that first breath you take after being underwater for a little too long. My LOVE!!!
In perfect Ruth fashion she took the news of the train trip in stride. We jumped aboard and found our seats. The train would travel all night and arrive in Temuco the next morning. We caught up on all that had happened and spent time just being together. It was spring break and the train was filled with young kids heading on vacation so there wasn’t going to be much sleeping. Then all of a sudden, around 1 am, CRASH!!! The train jolted and then slowed to a stop. We looked around outside but it was a very long train and we couldn’t see anything. A couple of the kids in our car ran towards the front of the train to figure out what had happened. When they came back I asked them what was up and they told me that our train had hit a car. WHAT?? Oh no, we are going to be here forever. Then, 15 minutes later, just as suddenly as we had stopped the train started back up and away we went. No announcement over the speakers, nothing, just back up and running. Welcome to Chile Ruth?!?
We got to Temuco, slept some and then headed into the Conguillio National Park to do some back packing. That park is a magical place. It is filled with these crazy trees called Monkey Puzzle or Araucania trees that can only be described as Dr. Suess trees. They rise out of the surrounding forest branchless for about 60 or more feet and then have this massive tuft of branches at the top. A lot like a truffela tree. The park is also punctuated by a steaming (yes I said STEAMING) volcano and dotted with the bluest lakes I have ever seen. As Ruth and I sat one evening near camp looking out across this amazing landscape I looked at her and asked “Will you marry me?” She responded oh so romantically with “Are you serious?” Are you kidding me? Am I serious?? “Yes I am serious” I exclaimed! “Yes!” she said at last and just like that I had managed to change my life drastically once again on this trip! The euphoria of the moment was wonderful! We were ecstatic!
We packed up our gear and began the walk back towards civilization. A little while later she looked at me and asked “Is there a ring or anything?” I stammered as I responded “Uhhh…. Yeah…. I sort of … didn’t really think of that.” Another example of Morgan using the Ready, Fire, Aim approach to life. Fortunately for me, she didn’t care and we used the opportunity to shop for a ring down there that would end up meaning a lot more than some giant rock purchased in some generic jewelry store back in the states.
The rest of our month in Chile was fabulous! We traveled all over the place and saw things that few people have seen and shared experiences that have shaped who we are and our marriage. I think that traveling like that in a foreign country is phenomenal for a couple. Especially one that is getting ready to spend the rest of their lives together. If you can live in close quarters, smelling bad and with no money for a month then you have a head start on what it will be like AFTER the honeymoon!
So lets recap:
First trip out of the US
First real trip alone
First time sleeping in a tent for more than a week
Didn’t speak the language
First time climbing above 14,000 feet
First time being on a train that crashed
Yep, that was one heck of a trip. Stepping out of my comfort zone in such a huge way and not dying really did a lot for my confidence. I believe it is probably what had the most to do with giving me the confidence later in life to do and try so many things including becoming an entrepreneur. I think everyone needs to spend time outside their own personal comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be massive, even just a few minutes a day. It is the only way you will grow!
Hope you enjoyed a quick run through one of the events that really shaped who I am today. Stay tuned for more soon. I am headed to my home state for some racing tomorrow and will be gone for a while. Maybe I write something up about the trip!