“For the next guy’s coffee.” -The last Patagonia Post

It was the end. We had climbed to end of the “W” and beyond. Hiking through forests, that again recalled the Lord of the Rings but the lush forested parts, Campamento Paso was the climax. We made our way up past the cliff face of the Gray Glacier where tourists like to kayak during calm winds. Then pushing on, had conquered the laddered canyons and streams to the base of John Gardener Pass. 

It was the apex, the accomplishment, the last push to the finish and we had pushed. The winds that were running sustained speeds of 65 MPH the previous day, were only slightly abated today as we weaved in and out of the tree line and down the face of the cliffs. And the sun, which had provided the warmest week in 30 years two weeks prior, was nowhere to be found. Temperatures barely broke 50 degrees and for the first time all week we could see breathe with each step.

After stopping for a picture on high ground, we headed to the campground for lunch before beginning the trek back to Refugio Gray, Paine Grande and the catamaran out to civilization. This camp was rougher than the rest as it was beyond the main W trekking circuit. Hikers here were emerging from the backside of Torres del Paine and it’s 4-5 days of hiking beyond the reach of any support or services. They were tougher, dirtier and smellier than anyone we’d encountered during the week. They would soon be able to enjoy the comforts of the campground showers after a 4hour trek south. But until then these weary explorers only had the park ranger to comfort them. As we arrived he came out to meet us. And again, as like the 5 days before, he greeted Roberto like he was the mayor and I was his friend.. (His name was Roberto as well.)

Roberto lead me to a little table under the shelter where a couple of guys were trying to flirt with a couple of girls. I guess when you all smell the same, the only play you’ve got is to tease about a willingness to share your last Hersey’s chocolate bar. I really wanted to listen in, but at the same time didn’t want anyone to see my lodge-made bag lunch, revealing my status. We were only there on an “up and back,” but they were on the final steps of a true expedition. (There’s a pecking order, even among the stinky)

I sat quietly in a corner, trying to avoid the drizzle and the damp, trying to understand the concept of going back. The damp seemed to go clear to my bones…and with each moment deeper still. It was the end. It was done. It was everything I’d hoped for, but…I suddenly felt…sad, cold…and alone. I was tired, the feeling was unexpected and given the moment, I even remember being worried that it would last. But it didn’t.

He seemed to appear out of nowhere, Roberto the Ranger with 2 steaming cups of glorious Nescafe instant coffee- with plenty of coffee-mate and lots of sugar. I don’t know as though I’ve had anything taste quite as good. He smiled, was gracious, and was so excited to serve us. I can’t really describe how happy this made me.
Leaving us cradling our cups of gold, my buddy Roberto, seeing the astonished look on my face, grinned, winked and said, “I’ve built long time.” Huh? He explained that, for a number of years he had been stopping at this camp with trekkers both on the “W” and The Circuit. But while the ranger does have a tin shack, he really has pretty meager supplies. So with every stop, Roberto would take time to visit, share the news of the trail and would skim from his supply stash and leave a gift. And since it was only the 2 of us that day, despite how little he had, he repaid that kindness.

The feeling of loneliness was gone, and as we gathered our things to begin our steps down the trail, I tried to process the complexity of the simple moment. To be thought of, cared for, to have reached the end of my journey and found a kind soul waiting…I was moved. 

It was extraordinary, but as I thought about it, common. In fact it’s been the story of my life. People, without much, who have gone on ahead, through trial and struggle, and because of a relationship, have been generous, kind, encouraging, and challenging. The dairy farmer I worked for, Robert Guptil, who forgave my failures and told me I could do anything. The piano teacher, Lana Jones, who never let me slide on my lack of discipline, but told me I had beauty inside of me. My family who loved me, friends who believed in me and professional partners who gave me a chance. My life and professional success, while driven by effort and perseverance, has been held together and made sweeter by the generosity of relationship. It makes me want to give back all the more.

So as I slung up my pack for one of the very last times, I handed Roberto all the snacks and bars I could find. He smiled at me as I said, “Give this to the Ranger, it’s for the next guy’s coffee.”

Patagonia - "Where's Your Mountain?"

I almost didn’t catch it, and being buried within a string of spanish words thick, flip and fast as a telenovela, I can’t believe I did. 

After hiking hard up through the French Valley and basically running back down to Campimento Italiano, we paused long enough to grab our full packs and head out for what is the easiest portion of the W trek, the trail to Paine Grande Refugio. Mostly flat and “patagonia flat” and I thought we’d just roll on. As we moved on from camp, the river fell away and the lush green trees and shrubs disappeared as well. It wasn’t very long until we entered what can only be described as the road to Mordor.

This seven mile stretch, while fairly easy, was also coming after running full tilt for the previous 4 hours. The thought of being done, and the belief that this part would be over quick, I set a pace that wasn’t really reasonable. At one point we stopped for a break, and flopping back against our packs, Roberto broke out a snack, smiled at me, and said “you know Miguel, I am not IronMan!” We both lost it. On this day we had pushed hard. He pushed me, I pushed him and the mutual respect found in our laughter was sweeter than any chocolate in the bottom of a trail mix bag.

The fatigue we felt was well earned and like any sojourner on a trek, while hard and taxing, it was a badge of honor and accomplishment. Unfortunately, no feeling of accomplishment could buffer against landscape that seemed to consume any sense of happiness like an unquenchable monster in a child’s story. We’d reach the burn.

Just one year before, campers ignoring the no fire policy in the park, started a forest fire that consumed 1/3 of Torres del Paine. The trail to Paine Grande ran through the middle of it. Walking for 2+ hours through burnt forest and charred earth is daunting enough without the realization of what this area looked like before the fire. At one point I asked Roberto if he knew the Lord of the Rings. He nodded and said, “Frodo felt like this!” 

Still pushing to beat the posted trail time, we marched on through stronger head winds than I’ve ever experienced (they were topped the next two days) as we made it into camp. Tired and sore, we were both done and yet were still so far ahead of most other hikers on the trail. After a shower and a brief nap, Roberto and I met up at the bar in the lodge to hang out before dinner. As we walked up the stairs, we were greeted by the cadre of guides and porters that embraced Roberto as if he were mayor. They rode and ribbed him for the deep fatigue they could see in his eyes. And then then nodded to me to ask who I was. That’s when I heard it….”Mi Amigo, Miguel.”

For four days I had been “Mi touristo, Miguel.” They’d ask about me being alone, and I’d make the joke… “Si, solo gringo” But not tonight. Or for the rest of the trip. For the remaining two days Roberto introduced me as Mi Amigo. I was no longer a client, I was a friend. He told me that I had trained him that day as much as he trained me. And it was a guide’s joy to be able to be on the trail with people who hiked as hard they did. 

Mi Amigo…

The bonds of struggle. My grandmother used to tell me about a verse in the Bible, “As iron sharpens irons, so one man sharpens another.” I now understand it.

It’s amazing to me. Working on things that are difficult and being with others- both are experiences that most dependably turn people into friends, yet are experiences very often avoided. “Why try something new.” “If ain’t broke don’t fix it.” “I work best alone.” 

I’ve got to tell you, being on that trail and walking those miles, we couldn’t have done it as strangers, it really took becoming friends.

So, lonely, dull, in a rut, discouraged…Maybe it’s time to do something that scares you. Where’s your mountain and who are you climbing it with?

Day 4 - ...and all I felt was whole

By day 4 Roberto had figured out that I liked going fast.  Other hikers made jokes, “Did you notice there were mountains out there while your were running?”  We had found our rhythm and it was a rush to see how much you could beat the posted trail time.  You couldn’t miss the sights as they confronted you around every corner, but part of the fun was seeing how hard we could push.  

Roberto had been letting me take the lead, bringing up the rear, like a good guide keeping track of his “tourist’s” steps, timing, fatigue.  He basically let me set the pace the first three days. But it was now day four, and he was going to show me what speed looked like.

As we left Cuernos Refugio, instead of giving me the big smile and “Vamonos” (lets go) as usual, he took the lead.  And it was a lead.  I thought I’d found my hiking gear the previous days but this was a whole new level.  He was rolling.  I kept thinking to myself, so this is true Patagonian pace.  I could see that, though it had been many years since he’d been a porter hauling gear from camp to camp, the speed was still there. 

(These porters are guys hired to carry packs larger than themselves, full of supplies between camps as there are no roads or easy access.  In fact, at the Chileano Refugio the first night, two of the guides were talking about the porters who carried up the refrigerator for the lodge after the old one crapped out.  No lie, we met some of these guys running with towering bags over their heads. Amazing.)

With the porter in Roberto in full hustle mode, it was all I could do to keep up.  Then suddenly I saw what this was all about.  A larger group of hikers, what I call “the country club retirement set,” had gotten out of camp about 30 minutes before us.  Needless to say, to be stuck behind them trying to get to the French valley was not going to be fun.  Roberto had already considered this.  He had figured out the exact pace it would take for us to catch up, pass them and do this all on the shore before we began our climb up to Camp Italiano.  He had it timed to the minute, and as soon as we were where he wanted us to be, he gave me the lead.  The whole time I never once assumed there was any real reason other than him wanting to go fast.  I should have known that there was intention behind it, but blocked by language, it was better for him to just show me than trying to get me to understand.  How often I assume things about people by what I see instead of trying to discover a deeper motive.  

Las Torres from day 2 was like being on Mars.  Striking and stark.  3 granite towers jutting skyward like sentinels to Middle Earth, Day 3 was like snuggling into the base of Cuernos on the shore of a glacier lake.  Very different.  And now one day later to be running up into the French Valley, an area carved by glaciers and the resulting rushing river, strained my understanding.  The dramatic variations of climates and sights in such as small space as Torres Del Paine makes me understand why National Geographic called this place one of  the 50 places to see before you die. 

After beating the hike time to Italiano by nearly an hour, we dropped our full packs, stripped back to day-pack and began our run up the valley.  Hiking in the open along side the rushing river was invigorating.  I was really in awe.  I just kept smiling and saying the same thing over and over. So much so that it became Roberto’s imitation of me.  In his think Chilean accent, he’d put on an American accent as best he could and say, “Wow, Wow..Amazing.”  Wow wow amazing…that was all I could muster most of the time.  

If not dramatic enough, we began hearing what sounded like a shot gun.  It was the the hanging glacier overhead giving way and avalanching down the face of the mountain.  Like a massive waterfall of snow we watched multiple breaks and cascades of ancient ice surrendering to the summer heat.

I once asked my friend Sue to describe an amazing trip she and Mike had taken to Italy.  She paused and said, “It’s funny, my memory is more of a feeling than a memory.”  That describes the French Valley for me.  Stunning views.  Contrasts.  Extremes.  Feeling fully alive.

After reaching the final mirador (lookout) we ate lunch and then I told Roberto we should see how quick we could get down.  He smiled….and then we ran…I mean…ran…He set this amazing pace and it was like being in the zone.  Another hiker told me that night that we looked like we were flying and right on the verge of being out of control.  It’s funny, it never felt out of control.  It felt like it was in slow motion.

Smiling like a fool and flying down the valley we met some climbers coming up and something unexpected arrested me.  They were all wearing earphones.  Earphones are pretty common everywhere in our plugged-in culture.  I’m as guilty as anyone.  But it wasn’t until this day that I realized two things.  One, I had not seen people wearing headphones ‘till now. And two, despite my usual need for a soundtrack to everything, I never considered blocking out the sound around me.  

No phone, no network, no mail, no music.  I was suddenly aware that something crazy had happened.  Day by day, things had been stripped out of my life until suddenly, I was alone in my head…it was me, the mountains and God…and in the absence of the noise, all I felt was whole.

 

Day 3 - It shows up somewhere

The view from Cuernos Refuge

The view from Cuernos Refuge

The lodges or refugios in Torres del Paine are barracks style which means multiple bunkbeds per room. One of the first things you learn after day one is, the lower bunks belong to those who don’t dawdle. You get in early, you get to pick your bed. While we were in plenty early on the first day of hiking, I didn’t yet know about calling dibs. That, mixed with the pleasure of the fact that Chileano Refuge has triple high bunks, made even the middle of the night bathroom run adventurous.

Roberto said breakfast was 8AM, but I would come to learn that, unlike other international cultures I’ve visited, where time was flexible and usually late, he was always at least 15 minutes early. After a while it became a game to see if I could get there before him. I never did. He was always there waiting with his trail French Press and thermos of hot milk. As a OneSeed “thing,” they insist that their clients get good coffee to start the day, and not the instant Nescafe that is the coffee of choice almost everywhere down here. So, not only do you walk to breakfast to find someone waiting for you, he’s there with fresh pressed coffee and milk. Suddenly this wild rough adventure through Patagonia doesn’t sound so rough.

This second day on the trail is what I call an in between day. At the “downstroke” parts of the “W” trail are days of trekking between refuges, so you can hike the next day to the mirador (view point). We were going from Chileano to Cuernos.
Making our way down to the valley to then climb up into the nestled comfort of Cuernos, it was amazing how the landscape changed in simply a matter of a few hours. The barren expanse of our tower run the previous day was now replaced by valleys, bushes with berries and glacier carved lakes. It was a day of mostly Patagonian flat. Up, down, up, down. 

There was lots of trekking not much talking. We’d chat over the name of berries, the different types of rock that made up the imposing peaks but that was the limit of our conversation. While we definitely bonded over the week, the effort that his english and my spanish required, limited our chitchat on the trail. With one exception- during the previous day Roberto had referred to the mountains has “his office.” I had made a big deal of it. So coming up on one view in particular, I suddenly stopped and turned to him and said, “Roberto, your office has the best view I’ve ever seen!” Without a seconds pause he looked at me straight-faced and said, “Thanks, but I have a hell of a time washing the windows.” I almost fell over laughing.

Amazingly, the 40 lb. pack began to disappear. It had been such a thrust of the previous morning, it was surprising to find it vanishing. How quickly our body adjust to burdens. Things that we take on with great intentionality quickly become after-thoughts. This is both a blessing and curse. It felt great to find a rhythm, to feel a stride coming on. Unfortunately, the lack of struggle, now that the pack had become part of me, came with it’s own price. By the end of the day, while my whole body was feeling good, a seemingly unrelated pain started. Two quarter sized hot spots on the back of my heals. I’d never had blisters in all the hours I’d hiked and broke in my boots. I was really frustrated and didn’t understand why. Then Roberto explained it. “It is your pack. Your back has forgotten it, but your feet cannot.”

Your back has forgotten it…isn’t that the truth. I mean it’s a good thing when we build up strength. It’s a good thing when we aren’t overcome with our burdens. It’s good to not be fixated on the weight we carry trying to care for the people and sitations of our life. But the problem is, that while we may become inoculated and adjusted to the initial discomfort, something else inside has to take up the slack. The wear and tear show up somewhere. 

I couldn’t escape the analogy. My heals were as far from my pack as possible, seemingly unrelated. But the added weigh had turned the back of my boots into the fulcrum of my activity. And Roberto recognized, it wasn’t what was on my feet, it was all about what was on my back. I could have changed shoes everyday, it wouldn’t have helped. Changing shoes was solving the wrong problem. I kept thinking about all the times I try to fix things in my life by solving the wrong problems. I fixate of fixing things that aren’t broken. I buy new shoes, make new resolutions, push my self to work harder to get to a different result.

In the end Roberto told me there wasn’t anything to fix. He said all guides get blisters the first weeks of the season from hauling packs. All you can do is take your time, be kind to your feet, and listen to your body…it’s carrying a great load. Eventually, your strength will match your burden. Take your time, care for yourself, listen to yourself…which one of us was the professional coach?

Day 2 - Buena Vista

For all the gifts God gave me that I use well, talking, thinking, smiling, etc… there are gifts he gave me that I misuse too. For example, my StrengthsFinder themes of Command and Activator, they can inspire…or…do something else. True story, I had actually put only 400 miles on my road bike when I did the 550 mile California Coast Classic. Now, I worried about every mile I didn’t ride before hand, and I made an honest effort, but in the end, I had actually trained less than the total I was about to undertake. So what made me think I could do it- Command Activator…I believe and so I will and I won’t rest till it’s done. Keeping that in mind…

As we left Las Torres Refugio on Monday morning, Roberto asked, “Listo?” (Ready?) I slung up my fancy schmancy pack and for literally the first time, experienced what it was like to strap 40 lbs. to your body and start walking. In the weeks leading up to now I had got my 5k runs back up, I’d been hiking on Saturdays, I’d made an intermitten effort to watch my diet, but I still wasn’t sure I was back to my pre-stress fracture form. And I’d been so preoccupied on the distance, that it never occurred to me to try my hikes with a pack. I now understand why the SEaL candidates run the Coronado dunes in full pack, weeks before BUD/S. A pack is a whole different situation.

We’d gone a quarter of a mile and the waist pad was cutting into my hips enough that I suddenly questioned the sainity of the approximately 90 kilometers that lay ahead. And if not hard enough, suddenly all those really great voices in my head came out of nowhere to affirm me in my assessment of my clear insanity. For the first time in longer than I can remember, I legitimately wondered if I could actually do this.

“Just don’t stop.” This is all I could think. “and don’t think about the fact that this is still the flat.” During what would become our morning breakfast briefing, Roberto had introduced me to three crtical Patagonia terms: “Flat,” “Up Up Up,” and a new term I’ve come to understand all too well, “Patagonia Flat.” The first two mean what you think, it’s flat…it’s up up up…very self-explanatory. Patagonia Flat is what large portions of this week ended up being, stretches of incline followed by stretches of some decline before more incline. The net elevation increase ends up being deceivingly small, but only because the down cancels out the up….hence…Patagonia flat. I’d been told this morning, we’d be Flat, Up Up Up, and then lots of good Patagonia Flat, before “really big Up Up Up.” As the flat turned into the up, my legs went blissfully numb and suddenly my childhood Mt. Katahdin training kicked in. Good foot placement. Breath, use your arms. Just don’t stop. Make it to the top of the ridge before asking a question. That will give you a break, you’ll figure out what to do next. 

After about 48 min, Roberto told me to stop for water by the sign. I was a sweaty mess. Trying to hide my worries, from a guide, who I was convinced, was dreading having to haul my body down the French Valley Glacier in the coming days. I decided to ask a sideways question about my pack. Three strap tugs and a Roberto adjustment later, and the hip pain was gone. Hey smart guy, practice what you preach!!! I constantly tell people, failing isn’t the problem, its failing for not asking for help that’s the issue. All my posturing had prevented me from getting the help I needed. I told him I hand’t wanted to ask. He smiled and said with his amazing accent, “You can ask me anything…I’m not just pretty face!” I about died from laughter.

Then something incredible happened. I asked him how we were doing? He smiled, “bueno.” “We usually have to stop 3 times by now. We are very fast. I can tell in the first 10 minutes if someone is trekker or not, or if they have too many ”office days” to be able to climb. You a real trekker, you’re not afraid to try.” It was like something happened inside me, no lie. It was an A, a gold star, a pat on the head,….I don’t know what, but a 12 year veteran Patagonian guide just told me I was a good trekker and suddenly I was. Well not suddenly, the only difference between that moment and the excruciating 45 before, was what I believed. I knew he was right. I had grown up outside. I understood treking. I had been hiking. I had been running. Now I was obviously not good at fitting packs, but the rest was there. It’s funny, who I was was was really there all along, it just took someone I trusted, and wanted to impress, to call it out.

It was different from there on out. I discovered there were expected hike times on all the trails for what’s called the W circuit that we were hiking all week. From this moment on it was not only about climbing to the points and reaching our destination, but how much we beat the posted time. I suddenly didn’t just want to finish the W, I wanted to own it, decidedly.

That night as we made camp at the Chileano Refugio, as a solo tourist, I ate with Roberto and some of his other guide friends who were leading other types of hikes and groups. As he recounted the fact that we’d come in a full hour+ under for the day, I couldn’t help but feel proud. The towers and views we’d taken in on our first day were truly some of the best nature had to offer, but as I went to bed, the most encouraging view was the one I had of myself; truly a buena vista. On to Cuernos in the morning.

Day 1 - The Road to Patagonia

3:00 AM came way too early, especially since bedtime came way to late. The travel, the packing, the thinking….it all added up to an 11:30 bedtime that was a killer when I realized it was 3:00 and time for my taxi.

A bleary eyed race through graffiti filled streets and I was deposited at the airport by OneSeed Expeditions Country Director Sergio, with directions and encouragement to have a good time….oh yeah, and I’d know my guide Roberto by his OneSeed shirt and the fact he was a true Patagonian man and would be wearing the round crocheted hats of so many Patagonian coyboys. (Oh yeah, I think I failed to mention, not only is this a trek of Patagonia, it’s a solo trek! The other people in my group made changes or didn’t confirm and I got notified that unless I had a problem with it, I’d be alone with my guide for the whole week. Not one to turn down a 1-1 guided tour of the Patagonian wilderness, I agreed!)

Roberto did not disappoint. Meeting me at the airport, after my 3+ hour flight, (A little trivia, Chile is separated from the rest of S. America from the worlds longest mountain range. If in the US, this range would run from Arizona to Alaska….so it’s a long flight.) He walked me through our week together in his thick Chilean accent. He had maps, pictures, ipad shots. I’m glad I’m good at accents, but I’ll admit to a little concentration in the first few moments. Enough so that he looked at me a little concerned by my intense look. He said, “Are you just tired?” I assured him I’d be fine. I knew we’d be fast friends. He was not only a professional guide, but an expert at the birds and plants of the Antarctic Region of the Magellan District of Chile. Lord knows how I love good trivia.

While waiting for our bus the wind howled and I had to remind myself that it’s summer down here at the bottom of the world. At the same time, this bottom of the world expanse is actually no further south, that the major cities of Europe are to the north. It’s geography and legendary status, given to it by early explorers like Magellan, have helped to maintain it’s stature as a land of giants and the toughest of people. A reputation well deserved.

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As we rolled for three hours into the howling winds, my mind recalled eastern Montana, if the Montana plains were also right beside the bluest ocean you’ve ever see. Roberto informed me that this area is predominantly estancios or ranches, mostly for sheep. The golden grassland goes farther than the eye can see and is why it’s the foundation for the district flag, a flag which in this land garners more pride than the Chilean flag. The few trees I did see were permanently humbled by the wind and seemingly kneeling in prayer. However, the grassland wasn’t always so prominent, as early ranchers had burned away all the forest to clear it for grazing. The things that make sense at the time.

A quick stop for a bus change in Puerto Natales, a sea port with a statue to the pre-historic Sloth that was found in a cave near by, and we were off to Torres del Paine national park. The thing about travel is meeting the world. There were trekkers from Japan, Chile, Canada, Australia, France and me. All on the bus, making our run down the dusty roads to the park entrance and Los Torres Refugio which, after 12 hours of travel, would be my stop for the night. Right at the rim of the park, I’d get settled, have dinner and the trekking would begin in the morning. As I looked up at the mountains and the peaks of the Torres that would be our first challenge in the morning, I was more than a little apprehensive. I wish I could tell you some super human thing happened that suddenly made it all ok, but it didn’t. I was there, alone, (Roberto was off to his tent, I was in the lodge.) I was tired, I just realized my camera was stolen from my pack on the flight from Santiago, and I was staring up at a labyrinth of mountains, lakes and glaciers that would be my home for the week. I kept thinking…what was I thinking? Whatever I had been thinking, it didn’t matter now, I was here. I broke out my iphone for photos for the week, got my bag ready and in the morning did what I usually do when I don’t know what to do…I took one step at a time.