Paseando por Chile

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I believe in bamboo. And relentless downpours, gale-force winds, impenetrable fog. Harsh conditions taught me how to rely on myself and others in the wilderness of Chile.

The most most physically and mentally draining month of my life came to a close with the most physically and mentally draining 2 days of my life. One of those days was February 14th, 2010. I spent my Valentine's Day spooning with six other dudes in the dank, cold air of the Patagonian rain forest.

The first day were full of optimism. As we trudged out of camp, saying goodbye to our instructors and friends in the other group, our jaws stood agape at the raw beauty of the Patagonian Andes. We made quick headway through the first few meadows, and the 50 pounds on my back didn't seem so heavy as we talked about getting out the mountains and onto the open ocean for some kayaking. At the altitude we were at, my gaze was on par with the massive, snow-capped peaks across the valley. Sheets of ice the size of multiple football fields hung precariously over jagged cliffs, where ribbons of pure water fell thousands of feet into the forest below. I followed one of these waterfalls to where it seemingly disappeared into a tangle of green. I knew the river were supposed to hit sometime the next day was down there somewhere, but I felt a pang of intimidation and dread knowing full well how thick the woods were. We have some work ahead of us, I thought to myself.

We made quick work of the high ridge-line, where vegetation was scarce, and I found myself singing with joy for the first time in weeks. Full of Bob Marley, sun-induced musical inspiration, I took point for the first half of the day. I began leading our group through confusingly terraced sections of earth where a wrong turn could lead to a fall over an unfriendly cliff. The realization dawned on me that I was responsible not only for getting myself home, but my buddies as well. Now conscious of my place in the group, I jumped through the forest with newfound confidence, knowing that every step was taking us closer to the road.

My good mood was vindicated when the previously impenetrable fog dissipated before our eyes as the sun neared its zenith. We sat down for a quick lunch and watched the sun do its work, as our path was gradually uncovered in front of us. Landmarks previously only known to us as contour lines and altitude markings were suddenly very real, and I let out a shout when we found the road. Suddenly we were all yelling with joy as we noticed the sun reflecting off of cars the size of ants — the first signs of civilization any of us had seen for almost a month. The anticipation of a roof over my head, a chair to sit in, among other comforts of "the real world" was overwhelming. It was also painful to see just how much distance we have left to cover — an impenetrable wall of green from where we stood to the road, with about seven kilometers left in our journey. We eventually decided that is was time to descend the shoulder of the ridge, with the intention of following an unnamed river to the road.

As we lost altitude, the forest began to close in around us, and I could tangibly smell the moisture in the air. We started to hit groves of bamboo, so thick I could no longer see the mountains across the valley. We found ourselves immersed in shadow at four in the afternoon. There was no path through the rock-hard shoots, and Cole, a big, burly 24 year-old from Texas took point as we bull-dozed our bodies through the grass-on-steroids. My now hungry, walking-weary body was continuously battered by the stalks as they slingshot back at me, leaving welts up and down my arms that are still visible nine months later. The bamboo groves were interspersed with fallen 3000-year-old giant cohue trees, and after an hour or so of climbing over these obstacles, it became impossible to discern terra firma from the thick layer of downed flora. We discovered it was actually easier to "tightrope" walk along fallen trees than it was to wade through chest-deep plants. I put thought into every move I made, testing rotten wood for footholds and trying not to imagine the fifteen-foot fall through the undergrowth to the ground. Time seemed to slow as my weary body jumped and fell through terrain so steep we had to turn towards the mountain to kick in steps. My friend Peter brought up the idea that the ravine might end in a 300 foot cliff, but looking uphill, it was impossible to think we could reverse the deadly-steep ground we had covered thus far.

As the sun dipped behind the mountains, I slowly grew terrified as I realized we were about to be walking in complete darkness, with only the sound of the river to guide us. The ground planed out, but the bamboo had turned into one massive, torturous, green maze. I thought about being stuck in the bamboo forever, its shoots grabbed me, goaded me into giving into their still power. I had pushed my body to its utmost limits, and my mind felt detached from my body as I dragged my perpetually soaked boots through the swamp. I crawled through the mud to get myself and my oversized pack under huge trees. It was pitch black, and the only things keeping me going were the sounds of the river, my friends ahead of and behind me. I realized that if I simply placed one foot in front of the other, while putting my discomfort aside, I could depend on my body to get myself home.

Suddenly, I heard a thud, and I shined my headlamp up to find Cole sprawled out on the ground, with his back resting against some bamboo. We all dropped to the muddy ground, and decided that, after 14 hours of walking, we could no longer physically move without jeopardizing ourselves. There was no room to set up tents; we were literally stuck in the bamboo, with the river endlessly torturing us with its persistently beckoning babble. It was so cold that night I had to actually spoon with my buddy Mills to get what warmth we could. It took all the willpower I've ever mustered to pack up my things in the freezing dawn air, and start pushing through the forest again. One foot in front of the other, and no one else could do it but me. And we found the river sometime that morning, and after three hours of walking and wading downstream, we sat the orange tent-bag on a wooden stick that signaled the other groups presence. That was the most pure feeling of joy and relief I have ever felt in my life. My body was a battered wreck, but feelings of warmth flowed through me as I lay on the rocks basking in the sun. I looked back towards the ridge and up at the glacier, sharing in the knowledge with my friends that we had all made it through one of the toughest ordeals many of us will ever experience. I looked at the bamboo with a newfound respect. The petty problems in life disappeared — the little things were replaced by an instinctive self-awareness and self-reliance only revealed to people who have been tested by the unknown.