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The Incredible Hulk

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017

A few years back, I climbed my first alpine route with my two good friends Kevin and Rachel. To be honest, I didn’t really even know what an “alpine” route was defined as. I asked Rachel and she replied with “It’s defined as a route that you can’t just walk to from the parking lot. You know, a rout that takes multiple days to finish. Hike out to the middle of nowhere, camp, climb, and camp again before you hike back to your car. It’s a higher risk as you are typically out of cell phone range. You have to rely on yourself and whom ever else is with you.” I asked Kevin the same question and he replied with something like “I don’t know. Titles aren’t too important.”

The hulk is the northern most big wall in the sierra range of California. It is situated about an hour north of mono lake (outside of Yosemite national park). Rachel, a PhD in high altitude genetic adaptations, back to back marathon runner (that’s one on Tuesday and then one on Wednesday) had done a decent amount of alpine climbing in the sierras before but had never ventured to such an ambitious big wall (very tall climb). Kevin, kind of an all around bad ass who had been a race car driver, chemist, construction manager, long range backpacker (30+ days out in the back country), and solid 5.12 climber, to my knowledge, had never been on an alpine climb before. I, had been on my first crack climb only a few months before, but had been sport climbing for a few years up to about 5.11b in the gym and 5.10c outside. Needless to say, I was the weakest link to our team. Oh and may I just mention that both Kevin and Rachel have less than 5% body fat (they are super ripped). I’m, well, pretty average, you’ve met me right?

We parked in the lot at upper twin lakes in mono village resort at 1pm on Friday. The altitude was 7,100 feet and we would be ascending up to our base camp of ~10,000 feet. We didn’t know if there was any water near the hulk so we carried in about 1.5 gallons per person along with all of our food, camping gear, and climbing gear. I carried the majority of the water since Kevin and Rachel were carrying the two trad racks of climbing gear as well as two 70 meter ropes (heavy, heavy, heavy). We later found an alpine lake within a 10 minute walk of base camp. Of the small amount of hiking I had done with Kevin in the past, he had always been able to breath through his nose while leaving everyone else in the dust and carrying the heaviest pack. Rachel is a ball of energy who will literally walk circles around you, pic flowers, and make fun of you in a way that is so intellectual, you can’t help but admire. On this hike to base camp, I found both of them taking breaks while I did all I could to keep up with the lightest pack. Rachel brought a pulse-oximeter with here which is a little device that clips onto your finger and measures both your pulse as well as how well your body is putting oxygen into your blood (a tool she used during her PhD years). As we got to base camp, Rachel measured her pulse-ox and had a low resting heart rate of 70 with an oxygen saturation of 90%. Kevin, naturally had a pulse of 60 with an oxygen saturation of 95%. We cheered as he read his stats aloud. My pulse was not exactly resting at a rate of 98 beats per minute and an oxygen saturation of 75% (my body was not loving the altitude).

As Kevin and I were setting up camp the night before our climb, Rachel springs into action and pulls out a bunch of fresh (and heavy) vegetables from her bag along with two quarts of coconut milk and seasonings. Kevin, being a vegan, was ecstatic. Rachel said “Well, I thought I would cook us all a good meal before out big day tomorrow.” The three of us cheered in this magic moment. This was very Rachel, similar to the time she hiked to the top of a steep boulder field and pulled out a watermelon from her backpack just to get a rise out of us. Kevin and I were totally impressed in her willingness to lug the extra ~10 lbs up to base camp (which is a lot bigger of a feat than you will ever know if you have never lugged a 65 + 10 pound pack up 3,000 feet of high altitude hiking). That night we feasted on fresh veggies under the stunningly bright full moon which peaked behind the 1,100 foot white granite tusk known as the hulk.

The next morning we would hike out to the base of the hulk in the dark so that we could start our climb at first light. The route we chose to climb was “b line” which was a less popular route on the hulk which is 7 pitches of off-width crack rated 5.10- and a total gain of 1,100 feet. For those of you less familiar with climbing, off-width crack is climbing up a crack in the mountain that is too wide for your hands and feet to jam into, but not wide enough to stem your arms and legs across (with your entire body inside of the crack). The result is an awkward “half your body in, half your body out of the crack” style of climbing.

Kevin started climbing up the first pitch as Rachel belayed him and I jumped up and down to try and stay warm at the base, freezing. Rachel and I were in thick down jackets and to my memory, Kevin wore a flannel long sleeve shirt (he’s also impervious to the cold for some reason). Next I would follow Kevin up the first pitch and my hands were so cold that I could not feel my fingers. This is specifically important because you judge how good your grip is on the rock (and how likely you are to fall) based on the pressure feedback you get from your fingers. No feeling; no idea if you are going to fall or not. Luckily this is only really important for the first person up the mountain who is the only person who is vulnerable to big falls (thanks Kevin).

I pushed with my whole might and barely made it up the first pitch. Rachel followed behind me and we all hung with feet dangling roughly 200 feet off the ground on the sheer face of the hulk. For me, this is the single best part of climbing. Not the accomplishment, but the ability to be in a place that only a few hundred/thousand in the history of the world have been. That and the view is so unique. I’m not talking about looking out across the hundreds of miles of peaks, I’m talking about the odd disposition of dangling your feet from your harness with your friends in a completely odd space that you should not ever have been able to get to without the help of a helicopter. That and the complete silence that only nature knows. No other outside stimulation, just cool fresh air, views, and friends.

Our real journey had just begun. We were in high spirits and 900 feet of climbing was ahead of us. Kevin began to climb the second pitch in full morning light while I belayed him as Rachel passed out in her harness. She woke up and said “Wow, I must not have gotten much sleep last night.” She shivered in her heavy down jacket and snuggled up against the hulk. As we continued to progress up the mountain, the belay stations became progressively larger and larger. By the forth pitch, we were walking around on a ledge the size of a kitchen whilst the sun warmed us for the remainder of our journey. Things were looking great. As Kevin was flaking (de-tangling) the first rope and I belayed Rachel on the second rope, he mistakenly knocked a baseball sized rock off the ledge and yelled “ROOOOOOCK!!!!” to Rachel so she could spot and dodge the rock hurling down at terminal velocity and enough kinetic energy to easily break her neck if it struck her helmet. The rock zipped down and missed her by an uncomfortably close six feet. It continued to speed another 700 feet to the base of the hulk and stuck with a force that echoed throughout the granite spires. It sounded like a large bomb had gone off. We paused with a sigh of relief as she yelled that she had not been hit. This scenario happens to even the most careful climber from time to time.

To balance out this unfortunate event, I will have to mention that Rachel mistakenly un-clipped Kevin from the climbing anchor, on two separate occasions. There was a large jumble of ropes and climbing gear and I’m just glad he was paying attention :)

We got to this one pitch toward the top where there was a lie back finger crack (just look it up) and as I followed Kevin I saw a very large spider crawl into the crack in which I would be jamming my fingers into. I said “Awww mannnn!” as I slapped the rock near the spider infested crack, hoping to scare all residents out of their rightful home. The slapping must have worked as I progressed up the mountain with no bites.

We checked our watches and realized that we were going to have to pick up the pace if we were going to make it to the top before dark. Kevin began to lead pitches with both ropes so that he could belay both of us up simultaneously to save time. For those of you who do not climb, this is a totally safe technique (if done right).

We ended up making it to the top of the hulk just in time. We were in the “alpine glow”, a surreal experience that few can say they have been a part of. What is alpine glow? When you are in the mountains and you see a far off mountain range glowing golden in the sunset, bright like a burning star as you yourself are sitting in shadows of another mountain; that which you stare at in awe, that is alpine glow. We basked in it for a few minutes, knowing that we could not stay for long. This is one of those space walk moments where you wish you could spend a lifetime in it’s rarity, but you must be willing to let go of it and leave it where it belongs, in rarity.

We walked down a steep and winding stairway that looked like it belonged in the lord of the rings to a rappel site. Just for a moment, we hesitate before re-entering the space ship. We tied both 70 meter ropes together to be on the safe side because we were unsure of how far the rappel needed to reach. We rappelled into darkness as we were on the shady side of the hulk. For something as routine as a rapel, it was kind of a scary moment for some reason. By the time we got to the bottom we were in total darkness. We still need to make our way down the 900 or so feet of scree (loose gravel and boulders). As we began to make our way down, Rachel yelled “stay together so that boulders can’t get too much speed.” The idea is that if you started a boulder a rollin’ it would still be going slowly and your friends would be better able to dodge it. This was hard work getting down. Easy to slip and slide in the ink black darkness. We might as well have been on the moon with only headlamps to pick our lines. I was exhausted from the full day and chose to go down half of the decent sliding on my butt where there were loose gravel spots. Anyone who has been hiking with me knows that I am really good at slipping when going down hill. After a few hours for me (and one hour for them) we made it back to base camp, exhausted and ecstatic. Hugs all around, though there were a few close calls, it was a satisfying day. For a very lucky few, this day would be seen as routine, but I’m fairly certain that we came out of that changed. Closer, of course. Bonded by experience.

The next morning we hiked back to our car after taking a series of silly pictures with the hulk ( you know, the same type any self respecting teen would take at the base of the Eiffel Tower).

Roughly one year later, I would climb angels crest with Kevin, a 13 pitch 5.10c 3,000 foot route up “The Chief” in Squmish (a climber’s wonderland) British Columbia, Canada. But that is a story for another time.

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Easter Island

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

Easter Island

If you are after a set of surreal surprises, this might be your first choice. Think of Hawaii mixed with Chile. Where there would be a family having a luau in Hawaii, there will be a family having a luau but singing Polynesian songs in Spanish. Weird right? Another thing, I thought this place would be full of locals who loath tourists, as Hawaii is typically subject to, but the locals here couldn’t be much nicer. They are happy to see you. Even in the water.

I went for a walk to get my bearings and happened upon a surf spot. Excited to see the familiar formations, I ran down to the water. Awwwww, it sure would be nice, I thought. But I don’t have a board or fins. As it so happens, there was an enterprising young man who had all the equipment I needed. Board, fins, fin socks and even a rash guard. But I don’t even have any sun screen for my face (this was so spontaneous.) Of course, he gave me some of his own.

I paddled out in the turquoise blue water, temperature 80 degrees. The surf was 4-5 feet, peeling both left and right. The bottom, volcanic and dotted with the occasional turtle. The spot was equally lined with bodyboarders and surfers. I chatted with a 15 year old kid who was bodyboarding. He said that both sports were equally popular and respected on the island (what a thought, equality in the sea. Something we haven’t ever really had in America.) Hajive had only been bodyboarding for one year and he was already great. I blamed it on his location of perfect playful surf year round. I also met an Aussie who no lives in Poland. He is the third pilot I’ve met on my journey. He flies a falcon class private jet. Seats 8 and sleeps 6. With a 9 hour range, this little bird flies higher and faster than commercial jets and has Avionics that blow Commercial jets out of the water. His boss is on vacation with his family and they are flying all around the world. Today Easter Island, Tomorrow the Galapagos. The day after that, Miami. Pretty cool life to live. And he doesn’t have the normal setback of a corporate pilot (being on call for 3 weeks at a time) because the boss is Swiss and is extremely organized. He knows 8 weeks in advanced what his schedule will be which lends to a sustainable marriage and family.

One of my room mates is a jerk and he is from Italy. I though I’d mention him because he just got out of the shower (after spending 1.5 hours doing god knows what. Last night his alarm went off for 2 hours strait before he finally got up to turn it off.)

After a spontaneous surf session, I attempted to find my way back to my hostel. Something was about to catch up with me as I began to become lost. I had been traveling so casually for so long that I had become lazy. Who needs to remember the name of your hostel anyway? I found myself attempting to ask for directions to a hostel who’s name I didn’t bother to remember. How hard could it be? In broken Spanish, I said the following “Do you know where a hostel is that starts with a letter K in the first word and starts with the letter T in the second word of the name?” The problem was, I didn’t remember how to say “Letter” “Word” or “Starts” in Spanish.

Three hours later, I found myself speaking with some concerned neighbors who wanted to know exactly why I was wondering around in their back yard. But they didn’t meet me with American arms. They gave me the benefit of the doubt and attempted to send me on my way. Eventually I found an Internet café that I used to look up the name of my hostel. Four hours later, I was home, with a laugh. In case you wondered, the answer is yes, there is only one town in Easter Island, and it’s pretty damn small.

The next day I thought I’d have a hike to the top of the local volcano. I went in the afternoon when the island would be a bit cooler. Much to my delight, I didn’t see a single tour van, but I took the coast. I repeated my wander through people’s back yards strategy and got to see a ton of beautiful coast line that I am willing to bet most visitors don’t ever get to see.

It was a single journey, much the same as my trip as a whole. I was met with stunning electric blue that can only be found in the Pacific. In a sense, I was home. Who ever said this place was a barren waste land certainly hasn’t been here. “But all the trees are cut down. That’s the whole point of the island. The people destroyed the natural beauty in order to transport the statues to and from each site.” is what I could imagine hearing from some smarmy jerk at some future Christmas party. Some jerk who thinks he can get away with claiming to be cultured because he reads national geographic ever so often. And no one ever calls him out on it, because they pay attention the the international community even less. Well I’m here to say that the whole place ISN’T a waste land. It’s a lush paradise here. Tons of trees and greenery can be found in parts of the island. And it is a lot drier than you would think for an island in the Pacific. There aren’t any mosquitoes in the island and there tends to be a beautiful breeze that blows through it’s entirety during most hours of the day. It rains every day for about 30-45 seconds. And did I mention that the people are amazing?

As I made my way up the volcano, 3 car’s full of locals offered me rides. On the third, I was quite tired, so I accepted the offer. Expecting to pay this unmarked taxi, I reached into my pocket at the end of the ride, but the man took no interest in payment. I walked around the sacred grounds for the better part of 2 hours all alone. The golden sun swept across the fields of barley as I gazed across the vast expanse of the Pacific from 1500 feet above. There was an energy here that one must not attempt to explain or describe, only encourage others to experience. Here I was again, in one of, as far as I am concerned, the wonders of the world, with nothing else around, but me. This ME I had learnt to listen to over the past year of exploration. This me that was not just what fit into what I came from. This me who my previous world has yet to meet.

I turned around to make my way back into town as the sun was setting. Expecting a 3 hour twilight that I had received whilst as low as Antarctica, I figured that the two hour walk back into town was not going to be in total darkness. Of course, a Chilean family offered me a ride back into town. They were both teachers who Lived in Santiago. They looked for my hostel as I at pop rocks with their 4 year old daughter in the back seat. Eventually they found were I belonged and dropped me off. Not a bad day at all :)

This whole hitch hiking thing was growing to be a great way to get around, but the next day I shared a rental car with a few English kids and a Kiwi. We went all around the island to check out the Moai (the statues which make this place world famous). I’ve got to say that I’m not a big ruins person. I am not really into staring at some broken pottery and relishing it’s importance a thousand years ago. I look at beauties very literally. Wow, that wave is really blue. That fish is sleek. And so on. I like to say that most of the ruins I have seen are called ruins for a reason, they are ruined. But here is different. The Moai are incredibly aesthetic in their own right. If someone told me that a guy generated the design with a computer 3 years ago, I would still think they were really freaking cool. They just look so impressive.

Another thing that one might find impressive is the abundance of horses here. In packs that appear wild yet well kept, their rich brown color sticks out in high contrast with the electric shock of the pacific. At any point on the island, you can witness these majestic clusters galloping like it’s their job. Roads shut down during rush hour for these packs and it is well worth the wait.

If you are a horse guy (Bud), then you would love it here. You can easily get a ride on this island, and if you could speak Spanish proficiently (Bud), then you could probably easily negotiate a few one of a kind days with the local cowboys, herding these guys.

But I had something left to do before I could go. I had to get into this electric blue. I elected to go on a dive for the high price of $60. I chatted with one of the dive operators who asked me a few questions about my experience. I told him that I had been on 50 dives, which is almost true. When he asked me when my last dive was, I had to give a bold faced lie. “3 months ago was my last dive” , times by two and add a month for accuracy. “Do you need to see my certs?” “Nope, I believe you” in true Easter Island fashion.

We took a small boat out to the dive site which to my glee was the site I had gazed upon a few days before all alone at 1500 feet above the sea level. The dive master said that the visibility would be somewhere between 40 to 60 meters, 80 if we were lucky. “Eighty?!?!?!” That’s twice as clear as any thing I’ve ever been in. When you think about it, the water is so pure here because there isn’t anything around for the better part of 3000 miles to provide sediment. The ocean drops for thousands of meters in each direction once you get away from the island, so any sediment from the island itself is typically vanished into the depths of effectively infinity.

When I dropped my face into the water I was greeted with a color just past blue. It was so deep and rich that my brain had trouble classifying what exactly it was. I thought back to when I was a kid trying to pick out a color for my font on the computer. It was almost as rich as purple. I’ve settled on violet as the color, but I guess you will just have to take my word on it. Swimming in the sea of Ultra Violet, I found myself ignoring the formations and fish, to stare off into the color.

Easter Island is the type of place which proves what type of a traveler you are. If you are interested in getting the proverbial pictures in front of the Moai, this place will keep your interest for only a day. If you know how to get excited about a place, then a week might seem like a rush.

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Antarctica

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

I write this post a full three days after my return to South America, yet my head is still spinning. It’s perpetual motion like the Drake Passage which leave it’s mark, or should I say, take it’s pound of flesh with persistence. I uncoil my power cord, realizing that I haven’t bothered to commit this ritual of regularity in many months. It can only be likened to a first time mother that pays full price for name brand diapers, somehow thinking it will make a difference in her worshiped’s development.

Wow, where do I start?

When we first boarded the boat, the hotel manager looked at us with a bit of disgust and asked “Are you on this boat.” Baffled, I looked at one of the crew members and asked them if that was a trick question. “Uhhhh, Yeeeeessss. I am in fact standing in front of you….” My multiple backpacks destroying the fragile first impression of five star luxury. “Do you have a ticket?” “Why yes I do…” A thick smile pours over the hotel manager’s face. “Welcome!!!” It was official, I was a backpacker on a vessel that was a minimum of $8,500 buy in. The top passengers paid $20,000 but since there was a recession roaring back home, I was among a few lucky backpackers who picked up a last second deal for $3,990. Once on the boat, the crew didn’t know the difference, but the initial presentation of baggage and lack of wrinkles gave it all away. For the next 10 days, we would be dining on 3 course meals, guzzling down fine wines (or Coke) , and learning what that third fork was for on the table.

There was a heli-pad on the top of the boat, just below that was the restaurant, below that was the gym, and below that, finally was the sauna. Just dial 600 to get the bridge and speak directly with the captain if you like. You dial 500 to get the front desk (ya, it operates like a hotel.) Turn on your flat screen and watch channel ten for the live feed of the front of the boat. Channel 12, 14, and 16 cycle through different movies every day. Check out the library or the conference room if you want the most comfortable couches ever. Any boat that sails iceberg saturated seas commercially is required to have a double hull. There is an on board doctor in case you are feeling sick, 6 zodiacs up top, loaded via two cranes. Enough submarine life boats to fit every passenger.

But it isn’t all roses and ponies. Our room was damp and lingered of musty musk of the sea. In true backpacker fashion, we never bothered to complain and were left with a ambitious mildew on day 8. And let’s not forget that our beds were on a swivel. A bar ran down the center length of the mattresses which allowed the mattress to rock and roll side to side with the motion of the boat. Somehow this was meant to offset the particular placement of our room (center bottom). From a physics point of view, we had better seats to handle the drake passage than the poor schmucks who paid $20,000 to be in a room on the 4th floor surrounded by windows. Sure they were in the middle of the boat (great for the front to back motion saturation), but the higher you were, the more the side to side motion would show. Who knows if there was any water left in their whirlpool spas by the end of the second day.

We had a port hole in our room that would remain bolted shut with a thick metal plate for the first two whole days for safety reasons during the drake passage. The word Drake would never be anything less than a shaking, drilling sensation for the rest of our lives after this trip. The drake passage officially starts just south of cape horn. Legendary for it’s robust weather; this is where the Atlantic mixes with the awesome power of the Pacific like dynamite tossed into a barbecue. This combined with the third deepest ocean floor and the world’s largest ice field (by far) make for memorable crossings during the best parts of the year.

The two days we spent on the drake passage were witnessed under heavy influence from motion sickness pills. We felt lethargic, antisocial, and just generally not ourselves. We didn’t want to throw up, but this wasn’t much better. The end of the drake brought blue sky’s and a beautiful sunset. The next day we were greeted with the blue seas doing their best impression of black. A thick snow fell directly into the darkness. But before that, we had to pay, what we perceived as our proverbial pound of flesh.

The boat lurched forward, yanking all silver ware to the bowed floor. The waiters stood at 30 degree angles to compensate, not so much as spilling a drop of red wine. The Sheff prepared steak tar tar as a sort of cruel joke. We went up to the bridge to speak with the captain. The boat had 17 degrees of sway in each direction. The most the captain had ever seen was 47 degrees, to which he so candidly shared, terrified him. He was in the middle of a hurricane off the coast of Buenos Aires on that day. If you think 47 degrees is bad, the boat is built to recover from a 67 degree roll. At this point it’s contents and passengers would be collected firmly against the corner between the ceiling and the centrifugally elected wall. All these stats made my imagination go wild. Rodger (our expedition leader) recalled of when he was in a ship 2 years ago on this very trip that got stuck in a category 4 hurricane for 24 hours in the drake passage. Windows were lost that stood some 60 feet in the air. Waves crashed clear over the bow of the boat. The passengers were on lock down. This return passage came so pertinently after a last day in Antarctica which included heavy partying and drinking. The entire boat endured with the exponential misery of a hang over. For any of you who are wondering what a class 4 hurricane consists of, it lies between the wind speed of 130 and 155 miles per hour with 18 foot storm surge. Out at sea, that means top to bottom swells of up to twice that. The scale only goes up to 5 in case you dare. “And, what do you do to survive that?” “Slow down the speed of the ship, and try not to blow all the way to Africa.” Rodger was only partly kidding.

(Side note, while typing this, three days later. The last paragraph literally invoked a seasick burp and a queasy feeling. I think they call that “recall” in psychology. Like getting sick every time you smell banana after growing up with banana flavored tooth polish in the dentist’s office. Greg will eventually read this back home and know exactly what I mean.)

But we earned it, right? On to the good stuff.

Antarctica is, on all accounts, is the most beautiful place on the face of the planet. This journey runs with the flawless flow of a top shelf Rollex. The captain navigates our ship so finely that it kisses an iceberg twice our size. On call, 3 varieties of whales, 3 varieties of seals, and three varieties of penguins. It matches the three course gourmet meals that we receive three times a day.

There was a word that I burnt to bits on the trip, Majesty. By all accounts, no one warned me of how grand this place is. It will ruin any idea of snow and glaciers if you come here. I found myself, for once not saying, “When I was in……” during any part of the trip, because it just isn’t comparable to anything else I’ve ever done.

On the way back, through the Drake, the first night, we in fact achieved gale force 11 winds (twelve your officially in a hurricane). On the way over we only got to gale force 4-5 and the worst that we had heard of from fellow backpackers was gale force 9. The captain, in his 47 degree roll was only in gale force 14 (Hurricane 3 level). Thick snow fell of the black sea as we roller coasted up and down magnificent swells. I pound my fist on the table “Hey, where the hell did my second and third fork go?” sarcastically “What are we, poor now?” As I raised my voice even further “I Paid 2000 pesos (equivalent of roughly $500 USD) for this trip and I had better get my monies worth.” This part I made sure to say loud enough for the $8K-$20K crowd to hear. I regally glanced back to absorb their collective disgust. There is nothing better than making a top shelf traveler feel cheapened by the presence of a backpacker. All of their power from exclusivity, taken in a single statement. What a prick.

(My stomach is still motion sick, and I deserve it!!)

But wait, where was the meat of this story? I talked about getting there and going home, but not a bunch of being there. Well, some things I am going to start saving for my book. The stories on this trip are not going anywhere. I’ll remember them firmly for life.

After 10 intense days of bonding, we had a crew. A pack of people in the right place with plenty of time. A lucky ten to join an exclusive club. No one quite understands what we went through. We will all attempt at such stories as this post and fall clear of the mark which accurately portrays what must be lived first hand.

My posts draw commonality in themes such as freedom, taking every moment by storm, making time, the slam of silence, the power of trust, and the backpackers dilemma. But this punch line comes in a new sliver of respect. I respect goodbye, and goodbye is, in this moment, the highest form of respect I can receive.

The night grew loud and we celebrated our return in the local pub. The music pounded as old friends polished inside jokes. Glee flooded the room’s ambiance. Just then, in the hight of it all. I faced my dilemma. I knew that the morning brought solitude and new beginning. All of these friends, would be gone. All would part their respective ways, crush anything resembling a comfort bubble. But this was not my first rodeo. I’ve learned this lesson before. I’m hardened, but I still hate the concept of goodbye.

We made our promises to stay in contact, as you do, but the next morning each and every one of the people still in town, independently paid a visit to my dorm room to quickly say goodbye. This is an effort that I have long discounted as a formality, but in this moment, it could only be taken as a deepened sea of respect.

Credence Clear Water seeped through the walls of my dorm from the lobby of my hostel. It wasn’t even something that I would have associated with home, but it was American as I had heard in some time. I sighed as the tunes swayed my mood. I once noted the danger of waking up to music. In the first moments of the day, before you can settle into your coat of armor, the song can stir the soul. This is where you are delicate. I stepped into the shower. The water rained down and activated the rocking of the drake. “Breath, Stretch Shake, Let them Go” came to mind as a life lesson learned in Europe some months ago. But the million dollar question persists quietly….. “What will this mean for when I finally return?”

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The Call

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

It’s too expensive. The opportunity cost to too great. For $4,000 I could be in India for half a year. For $4,000 I could fly around the world with 16 stops. For $4,000 I could spend 2 months in Borneo training to become a professional SCUBA Diver. For $4,000 I could also become a Professional Sky Diver. For $4,000 I could fire 16 bazookas! Now that I’ve been traveling for so long, I don’t think of numbers as abstract place holders. I think of them as experiential opportunities. I now know too much about what life has to offer. It’s not that I didn’t have the money. It’s that I didn’t see the value.

Antarctica is known as the 7th continent. A box ticker’s dream. Would we all be going so nuts if it was simply an island? Would so many backpackers gladly go home several months early just to have been to somewhere that so few have seen? It’s all about scarcity right? If you are diving with a thousand fish in the sea, you will surely ignore them once a turtle swims bye. God forbid a deer prances past a pack of puppies. The crowd would drop the poor dogs on their heads to catch a glimpse of something that you can’t actually do anything with. This is scarcity at it’s best. If dogs were scarce, there would be $50,000 expeditions to see them. “One came right up to the car for a whole hour!!!!” “We pet it and it barked at us!!!” “One even jumped into my lap and licked my face!!!” “I would have paid twice as much in a heart beat!!!” “Out of this world, the most amazing creature I have ever seen!!!”

These would be the true quotes slathered on the walls at the tour agency if dogs were scarce. But they aren’t. In fact, in South America, they are left in the streets to die. But a bunch of penguins, that you can’t touch, and don’t even interact with you some seals, and a few whales? Ya, lets jump on a boat at the rate of almost half a thousand dollars a day to see those things.

I’ve got to tell you, spending loads of cash on things that I can do in my 60’s is not my idea of a smart idea. Now is the time I should be trekking through jungles. Now is the time I should be jumping out of planes, eating spaghetti 6 days in a row, sitting on a bus for 36 hours, snowboarding down a volcano, tearing shit up, jumping off of cliffs, and leaving as big of a mark on this planet as humanly possible! Antarctica is something that I could do at anytime. Sometime when $4K is not a big deal. Let’s save the easy travel for when I have bad knees and take pills to keep my cock looking like an ironing board. (Wow, I’m a little carried away at the moment. Please excuse me on MY BLOG. I’m just saying….)

Ya, it’s prudent decisions that got me here in the first place. I saved like a squirrel. But that’s not entirely true. The reason I am here is because I took a chance. If you just save all your life, you have a number. Something abstract, and utterly worthless if never “cashed in”.

I chatted with Tomer. “Hey if you want, I can fill this room with ice and penguins. I’ll do it for a tenth of the price. It’s stupid. It’s a boat, a bunch of ice, some animals that you can see right here in Ushuaia, and the pride that you have been to the 7th.”

We went on this rant of justification for a few days as people in our hostel departed and returned on various boats bound for the 7th. People who came back all said “You should do it.” “It was the highlight of my 1 year trip.” “The most amazing thing I have ever done.” “If I had any money left, I would go again tomorrow!!!!” Sure, they are saying that. No one in their right mind is going to admit that it was “Ok”. It’s like bragging about how much better your herpes are, now that you have switched medications. It’s just not something you want to admit in the first place.

I had a heart to heart with myself and realized that it was more of a bragging point. I wanted to be able to say that I’ve been to every continent in one year. Ya, I was a box ticker. I wanted to stick a flag in it, and call it a day. If it were just another island, I wouldn’t be considering it. I will do it, but not this time…..

A few days pass and I feel at peace. Then Paul gets back from his trip there and shares his pictures. Paul, a 38 year old English ex lawyer, turned commercial pilot, is as enthusiastic a person as I have ever met. I would not trust his endorsement of something in a million years. He would be a great sales man. But his pictures just can’t lie. In an instant, my 2% sureness that I would go on the trip, turned into 55%. Right across the street from my hostel was where you can book the last minute trips to Antarctica.

I took that 55% and walked across the narrow street. In the course of about 15 pases the following dawned on me: The whole reason I am at the furthest south town in the world in the first place is from having the Nike attitude of “Just Do IT”. Decisions don’t always have to be prudent or even efficient. I’ve been living hard for the past year now and this is the only excursion that has stunned me. For once, something comes along and has me declaring “too big” “not in the budget”. But that’s not what I came out here to do. And maybe there won’t be any Antarctica left by the time I am 60. Maybe I’ll be hit by a bus the day I get back from my big bad “almost everything I wanted to see” trip around the world. I’ve been preaching on a blog for an entire year about how the word “can’t” is really code for “I’m afraid” or “I don’t want to take the chance”. It’s time that I practice what I preach. It’s time to stick to what I’ve become. It isn’t an issue of scarcity, it’s an issue of principle. There is value out there on that big ball of ice. An extra $4,000 can do a lot of things, sure, but if repacked, it might remain a number forever. But most of all, I’m simply not the “should have” type of person anymore.

I shove open the door to the shop in a posture similar to an animal disputing territory. Walk up the the agent’s desk and slam my fist on the table “Dates! Lets see them!” I blurted out, as my veins surged with adrenaline.

Moments later I walked back into the hostel with both firsts raised victoriously. I stopped in the large common room and roared “I’m fucking going to Antarctica!!!!!!!!!!” People mostly looked shocked at my volume selection, but they were not aware of the symbolism at hand.

On January 28th, I will board “The Antarctic Dream” (an ice breaker bound for Antarctica for 11 days). This is the EXACT one year anniversary of when I left home to embark on a journey whose impact on my life I could never preemptively fathom. This represented everything that I had learned. All the leaps of growth and the new me. You don’t go to the end of the world just to turn around, go home, and wait another 40 years to see what comes next. I’m starting MY New Year off right.

Fuck it, I’m going to Antarctica :)

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The W (Conclusion)

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Gauchos are their names. Mountain Cowboys. Their load, supplies for the Refugio, high in the mountains. The only way to get food, propane, and other supplies to these places. This was why the price of everything in the Refugios could be easily divided by the number 4 in order to find it’s true value. This was a business for the Gauchos, they must have been paid by the trip. Silently they plow up and down the trails at a speed that you wouldn’t believe possible. No warning cry when they burst around corners. They seemed to ignore the lively hoods of the people who would eventually be buying the goods that sustained their lively hoods.

A string of 4 barreled around the corner as I practically dove into the face of the mountain. I spun around to watch in amazement as other trekkers essentially did the same thing. I didn’t have any room for terror as my heart was full of amazement. I thought of how Bud, my horse riding, cowboy lifestyle emulating, step father would have absolutely been bouncing in joy to observe such a display of machismo, skill, and dedication to a dieing art form.

The horses were loaded up with 25 and 50 gallon tanks of propane. On the way back up the mountain, I hoped they would be carrying something a bit less explosive. I think the Refugio needs some more corn flakes.

We arrived to the final camp site and I made sure to find a spot that was flat to avoid the sensation of falling all through the night. I settled at a spot that was about 6 feet from a babbling stream. What a funny situation. People pay good money for CDs with tracks of this very sound. I laid down in my tent for a quick nap and never heard the stream once. I was tired. Tired enough to switch my ears off. We ate dinner early this night because we were going to wake up at 3:30 am the next morning to catch the sunrise in the most famous viewing point in all of Patagonia. Search in Google Images “torrez del Paine” and you will undoubtedly see thousands of pictures of the granite spires with reach 2500 to 2800 meters in height. According to lore, the towers turn red when the sun rises for about 30 seconds. This is of course, provided that there isn’t a cloud in the sky (a very VERY rare thing in Patagonia).

The logic was that we would wake up and look into the sky. If we didn’t see stars, we would not bother with the 1 hour vertical hike in the middle of the dark to see the red towers because there would be bad weather. Clouds block the stars, we go back to sleep.

I had the job of waking Tomer and Yael up to tell them weather or not I see any stars. 3:30 comes and by the time I got out of my warm sleeping bag to tell the two that I didn’t see any stars I felt like an idiot. How the hell did I agree on this. How was I stupid enough to freeze my ass off.

“Tomer, no stars.” “Really?” “Ya and it’s freezing out here.” “No, wait a second….. Fuck.” “What?” “I see a star…..damn it, there’s another one….. come on, let’s go.”

Tomer eventually came out of the tent to say that he would go, but Yael would stay. He brought a stove and coffee to make something warm while we were up near the towers. It was a good idea. One that would have surely skipped if I were alone. We also brought our sleeping bags and mats to try and stay warm.

We stumbled and fumbled around in the dark for 45 minutes before we finally made our way to the top. Surprisingly enough, we were not met by hoards of box tickers. We were the only ones up there. We were far ahead of schedule as well, so we started to boil the water. Other’s trickled in, but never broke into double digits.

As the sun came up it was blocked by clouds that were nearly a mile away. Shortly after that, the towers were engulfed with clouds that would hide the site almost completely. “Well, I guess you could say “Welcome to Patagonia” about this little morning.” Tomer said. We were absolutely freezing, even with the sleeping bags, all of our warm clothes, the mats, and of course a cup of hot coffee in each of our hands. Just when we thought about staying around for a bit, we had some Patagonian salt shook onto our wounds. Hail began to pelt us as the temperature dropped even further.

“Ok, time to go.” I said but just as we began to pack up a rainbow cut across the fresh sunlit sky. It went over the rock formation just to the side of the towers. It was the most well defined rainbow I had ever seen. “Well, that’s not bad.” I said. Swiftly after I had though “I’ve seen it all” A second rainbow formed just a few meters on the outside of the first. “Ok, now I’ve seen it all.” I said, “Should, we wait for a third? Come on, a unicorn could be on his way, but I’m still freezing.” Tomer said in a bit of wisdom.

As we made our way back to the tents, we were awestruck in what we somehow managed to climb in the dark, carrying all sorts of equipment.

After we packed up the tents for the last time, we walked back to the site in which the bus would pick us up to take us home. Tomer filled me in on every thing from the fact that all Israeli flights have air marshals, to every apartment building having a safe room in it capable of surviving an indirect hit from a rocket, to his take on Palestine being a problem that no one really wants to tackle (not some sort of mortal enemy), to the fact that the Sheckle (the Israeli currency) is one of only 8 currencies accepted in international banks, to how to pick out an Israeli traveler based on the clothes that they wear, to how to cleverly test if they are from Israel with a mistakably international “Hiiii” as a greeting.

We talked for hours (actually 5 days) about all sorts Israeli things. Let’s just say that coming off of that mountain, I decided that I need to see this place that is so culturally interesting.

When sitting on the bus back to Puerto Natales, I was beaming with accomplishment. Most people slept as I tried to sort out all of the positive energy pulsing through me. I could have been out there for another 5 days. I was conditioned and remarkably resolute. This whole trekking thing was growing on me. I could see myself turning into one of those nuts who swims the English channel or something. Confident in my abilities, I wanted more.

CHECK OUT THE PICS CLICK HERE

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The lag

Monday, January 18th, 2010

I know that it’s been a while, but I’m in a place that is weather dependant and I’ve agreed to catch up with the blog as soon as it rains :)

Shouldn’t be more than a few days

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The W (part 3)

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Ok, so that took longer than I though to Write and Post, but I am back.

The this night was new years eve, and we were exhausted. We ate dinner quickly and went to bed at 9:30pm. I was elated. I had finally broken free from the inevitably disappointing holiday. I’ve lost count of how many new years count downs I’ve experienced from inside a car at a red light, because we were rushing over to the next party with the concern to be “at the right place” for the count down. It’s classic advertising theory at its best. Experience minus expectation equals either a surplus or a deficit of satisfaction or dismay. This is the reason I tend to avoid festivals and major events as well. Going into something with impossible expectations leaves me feeling ripped off. We can all agree that the highest highs in all of our collective lives are those that snuck up on us on an unsuspecting and random night. My favorite moment from my first visit to Thailand was when I was nearly slapped in the face by a baby elephant in the streets of Chang Mai. It certainly wasn’t a few days later when I was riding a similar elephant who I had waited in line for.

So that’s two very unorthodox major events: a Christmas of hitch hiking to the top of a volcano and a Stress Free New Years. The next day was scheduled to be our longest day of hiking. We were to visit the French Valley and it’s beauty. As we were making the steep assent, Tomer had an idea “This looks good. I just feel like a leprechaun here. Honey, get the camera ready. Alex, please hold the cross traffic at the front, I’m not saying you can’t watch yourself.”

Tomer has a philosophy, “You body isn’t getting any better and when I am 70 I want to have some pictures to remember what I am.” He had posed naked in over 10 epic locations before including the overcrowded Machu Peachu of Peru and Lake Titi kaka. The wind swept through the frost bitten French Valley as hanging glaciers fell in the distance. Tomer was “balls deep” in the event as 2 women passed by out photo shoot. It was a beautiful waterfall that was framed by chocolate mountain ridges. As one could presume, I had quite a laugh.

It was time to move on and I had learned something important about my body. When hiking uphill, as a decent pace, I need only wear a t shirt. Anything else, even in cold and windy weather, will leave me in sweat. Oddly enough, I am quite comfortable in the cold as long as I am moving. Rain, wind, and cold are not too bad when you are jaming up a hill. In fact, Tomer thought of starting a clothing company that is called “up hill” and instead of selling some sort of Goretex parka, we would just sent someone to a steep hill and instruct them to climb it.

We sat and watched the hanging glacier fall and I had the ingenious idea of heading for the next camp site early. We walked and walked over mountain passes with turquoise views of glacial lakes below. The wind, as promised, swept through the lakes, lifting up thousands of gallons and chucking them into the mountain side in a manor that could only be described as Biblical. We walked in awe with the slight suspicion of an eminent apocalypse. I stood strong with my trekking poles as the guest mane their best attempts at murder in the first. It was certainly cheating. I was a land octopus with twice the balance and points of contact as any mere mortal. Tomer and Yael were having a harder time.

These poles, in an up hill situation, let you push off with your arms and climb with all fours. These poles in a down hill situation, give you as much balance and points of contact as crawling on all fours. These poles, while crossing rivers, are the equivalent to holding tow peoples hands. These poles would have been great for my Mother in the uneven streets of Buenos Aires. These poles are cheating. These poles are going to end up in my Mother’s Christmas Stalking next year :)

We arrived at the next camp site in night nick of time. This was because we cut the French Valley hike in half. The camp site was small and there were really only 4 decent spots left. When we set up our tents, there was a light drizzle and once we finished, it began to pour. We sat inside of the smoldering refugio peering out the window, warm and dry as 30 other trekkers (who had hiked the entire French Valley (the center of the W) frantically searched for 28 make shift camping spots. Their Goretex past the point of failure, it was a miserable sight to see, but I was warm and anticipating a hot meal. Since it was raining, we chose to eat at the refugio for $20. The meal was a meager 3 inch, bland sausage sitting on a bed of mashed potatoes. It was really offensive, but we were dry and warm, and happy.

After dinner, I took a hot shower in the refugio (a benefit of paying $8 to camp there). We went to bed just after that. Settling into my tent, I could hear the shock and “confusement” of even later arrivals who tried to negotiate the impossible of camping in a tiny, oversaturated, site while the rain pours down. I could not have been happier for leaving the French Valley early.

Later that night, the wind (that which was referenced to as biblical and premeditated earlier that day) made it’s approach on our camp site. Now it’s important to understand that wind is easily deflected my densely packed trees, but it still sounds like it will rip you in two. All of the camp sites on the W are protected from the wind by a grove of trees, or a sheltering ridge. But the wind ripped through the grove in waves. You could hear it coming for 500 meters away. The building was a sensation that lends itself to the moment after skidding tires or the point in which a fist aimed for your face reaches the end of it’s cocking motion. Truth be told, this dead moment of anticipation can only be endured by most for only a single skipped heart beat. That’s why it only lasts a moment. You simply can’t afford to skip too many. The adrenaline fuses with your heart and the pumping resumes in a frantic game of catch up. Horror movie producers seek to extend this anticipation for 90 minutes, but always fail.

This is the wind that will take you right out of your intelligent mind. Such terror, yet my tent seemed to barely move as the wind finally made it to the camp site. This was madness, I was holding on for dear life. Sound had taken precedent as the only sense. Never mind the sense of touch. To make things worse, in a rookie mistake, I had set my tent up so that my head would sleep in a downward angle. Imagine water boarding. laying back at a decline as the “wind” roared all night. It was time for my hero. Phil Collins! I took out my ipod and use Phil to vanquish the mind altering wind. I worked, but only so much. I still knew what was outside, so I didn’t blast the music too loud, in case there was a sound that I needed to hear to save my life. A “Watch out!” Or “Run for the Hills, the wind is invading and stealing the small children!!!”

The moment approached when I needed to pee in the night. I got onto my knees and unzipped the door. In a prayer position, I shamelessly peed on what was my front porch in camping terms. There was no way that I was going to go out into that death field. As it turns out, Tomer had the same bright idea (and fear).

The next day, there were stories of people who didn’t have the benefit of the trees who had their tent blow away completely in the night. This day was the 4th. By now, I was a highly adjusted hiker. I was no longer sore, I was conditioned. I felt as physically fit as I have in the last year of travel. My legs were rock hard, blood thick, and heart strong. All of this, as I would learn, had little effect on a string of 4 galloping horses charging down a narrow, steep, and cliff stricken trail approaching our final camp site.

For the Conclusion of the W, tune in Later :)

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The W (Part Two)

Monday, January 4th, 2010

I stepped inside of Katie and Garret’s Bubble (a power couple from Seattle who I had met on the Navimag about 5 days before.) So, you guy’s mind if I tag along? “Not at all. We can provide a little boiling water for you :)

It was set, I was to walk with Garret and Katie, I was going to follow them along for the first 5 days and then go back while they finish the entire circuit (an extra 2 days (one of them involving snow up to their knees). They were 28, high school sweet hearts, married since they were 22, and too bright for their own good. We had a last supper of sorts at their hostel including roasted chicken, salad, and boiled potatoes. It was to be the best meal we would have in the next 5 days.

On the way to the entrance of the park, Katie and Garret expressed the desire to skip a portion of The W in order to make their 7 day trip a bit easier. In true backpacker fashion, I elected to go with a different couple at the last second who were planing on completing the entire W. In a quick negotiation, I had switched over to Tomer and Yael, an Israeli couple also the age of 28. Although I would have loved to spend more time with Garret and Katie, the Israelis would prove to be a far more culturally enriching experience. Over the course of the next 5 days, I would grow to understand Israel and Judaism to a level that most Americans will sadly never get the opportunity to gain.

To begin with, Tomer is a 28 year old computer science engineer who works in video. He is hilarious and I forgot his name twice before it finally stuck. He remembered my name the first time I gave it to him. He is the type of guy who has to touch you while talking. He puts his hand on your shoulder to open a sentence. This is his 4th trip to South America and he is interested in Not doing it “The Israeli way” this time. You see, there are very specific traits that an Israeli traveler takes on. Yael is much more quiet, but usually what ever she has to say is funny in a brand it’s own. She works in Pharmaceuticals (I think).

Saying that they had heavy packs would be a complete understatement. They brought enough food to sink a ship. 12 eggs, 5 oranges, 4 tomatoes, 2 onions, one kilo of rice, a proper salt shaker, a proper glass of olive oil, a full sized can on peas three canisters of gas (3 hours of cook time), and believe me, the list goes on. On top of that Tomer had invented a new way to cary his 4 bananas by emptying a 5 liter jug of water and cutting a slit in the middle to clear the meager circumference of the mouth. This clipped onto the outside of the pack.

To go back a bit, the first time I met this power couple, they were starting a movie in my hostel in Bariloche. The next day, we sat down again and they insisted on feeding me. It was the Israeli version of 3 cups of tea (2 cups). During the first day of the hike, Tomer began to spill the beans about the Israeli travel syndicate. He began his first two or three revelations with the phrase “Since you are practically family now, I’m going to tell you ……” I can’t promise or certify that all Israelis would be this warm and welcoming, but I sure hope so.

This particular national park is known for it’s horrendous weather. Compete with rain, snow, sleet, and a gale force wind that takes the life of at least one park goer each season. The problem is that a gust can pick a full grown man (and his pack) up and off of one of the vast expanses of cliff that the park specializes. The recommendation from the experts at the lecture were trekking poles (like ski poles only a little more rigid). I figured, why the hell not, so I opted into renting a pair. This would prove to be the best $20 that I’ve spent in a long time.

The weather during the 2 hour bus ride into the park was auspicious but left us suspicious that it might be the last that we see of it. We were advised that the ice field in the park dictates the weather and it will tend to act how it likes despite what other neighboring weather systems might suggest. It is the third largest ice field in the world (Antarctica is the first.) The plus side is that weather doesn’t tend to hang around, so if it is raining, it usually will stop before you can even unpack your beloved Gortex.

We started hiking and I instantly saw a pattern forming. A little break here, a little break there. We were not going anywhere. We had 5.5 solid hours of hiking until we were to hit our first camp site. Tomer loved to ask what time it was. It was his clever way of asking “are we there yet?” He knew what the estimated times were on the map, so he could determine, quietly, how much further we had to go. Only 15 minutes into hiking and he had asked for the time 3 times. Then there was the survey of the cross traffic. Every person who walked by, Tomer would ask how far we were from a certain point on the map. Of course, people are imperfect in these estimations and would give a spectrum of times. You see, when you have to stop to ask someone a question, you have to stop. Then he would freak out if someone 10 minutes down the trail gave him an estimate that increased in time. It was as if he was concerned that we magically went backwards. No amount of logic and reason was going to cary that oversized pack to the camp site. He was stuck, no amount of patented Israeli thinking outside of the box would make this trip any shorter. He needed brute force. Blunt brawn, and the stamina of an ox. Does an ox have stamina?

Our first leg of The W was Glacier Grey. From an aerial view of a map, this would be the western most side of a W. This portion of the park was wild and rugged. It had jagged granite peaks, hidden lakes, wind swept trees, and of course, a unforgettable glacier. The weather remained perfect at the moment. It was a sunny day without a cloud in the sky. Before we made our way around the bend, there were large omens blue omens floating down the lake. Pieces of her majesty.
Tomer pointed out the glacier at first sight. I look far past it to a distant mountain range that is lit by the sun. But much closer was the obvious leviathan. We had a laugh. After 5.5 hours, we agree to stay at a closer camp site for fear of not making it to the original site before dark (10:30pm). Here we get our first taste of the worshipers (a flying creature the side of a gnat, with more aggression, but no ability to bite.) “They just hover around you and then dive bomb into your face.” “It’s like they are worshiping a shrine or something.” Tomer comes in with a pristine observation “They are ignoring our food. But do you know what they eat? hair!”

I walk down the the water front where there are tons of icebergs and daringly stick my hand in the water. The water is glacially grey as I dip. Surprisingly enough, it is not even as cold as a mountain stream. This partially explains the rational of the crazy German girl who decided it was a good idea to jump into the lake earlier today.

We set up our tents (mine takes much longer, due to the lack of my experience. In fact, when renting the equipment, the clerk said “just take that out back and set it up to make sure everything is in working order.” I walked to the back of the shop and dropped the bag onto the grass. What the hell am I supposed to do now? I came back into the shop after 5 minutes and said “I’m sorry, is there something I should be doing now. This thing is just a bag. I’ve never done this sort of thing. Do you think you can come out and show me?”) I successfully bent 3 of the light weight aluminium tent pegs while trying to hammer them into the granite saturated soil.

Tomer laughed. He had been on dozens of treks, the longest of which being 17 days in Peruvian jungles. Like a first chance, call it beginners luck, it began to rain the moment I sat down in my fully built tent. It continued to lightly rain through the night and I learned first hand the lesson of touching the inside membrane to the outside rain cover. In the night, I had stretched out, pressing my feet into the foot of the tent. I woke up with a wet sleeping bag up to the knees. I was worried that there was a hole in my tent until Tomer explained the technology.

The next morning we went down to the bay that all of the ice bergs gathered in. getting a closer look, the bergs were tightly compacted almost dry in a sense. They resembled a jigsaw puzzle. We had a big day ahead of us so we kept moving. This day grew more and more tedious as we stopped everyone who walked bye to ask how much further we had to go, so I suggested we not ask, because it wouldn’t make us any closer. Then the idea of a teleporter was brought up. “I mean, I don’t have the technology just yet, but I can sell you the option for the future right now. Or how about just a big promenade thats down by the lake? It’s much more beautiful. I just can’t stand wasting energy going up and down. It’s just so inefficient.” Tomer spit out in disgust. “And what the fuck is the time anyway!!!!” He shouts as I nearly fall to the ground laughing. Essentially screaming “are we there yet!”

That night we get to town and I resolve to put a trash bag around the foot of my sleeping bag as I go to sleep. I wake with wet feet once again even though it didn’t rain and make the assertion that the plastic bag trapped all of the moisture in the air. Remember, Patagonia maintains about 70% humidity in this season.

Again, more tomorrow….

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The W

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Coming into Puerto Natales, we were greeted with hale. As we waited to get off of the Navimag, the weather changed 3 times between sun, wind, and hale. This was in the course of 40 minutes. Welcome to Patagonia.

I still hadn’t found anyone to hike “The W”, a 5 day trail in Torrez del Pine National Park. By now there were several couples who I had considered tagging along with, but I prefered not to be 3rd wheel. One couple offered me to hike along, but they were surely out of my league since they were considering a 9 day route. I went to the free lecture that my hostel put on in search of information, but even more importantly companions. I sat in the back of the room, observing 20-30 people sitting in front of me. I looked to see if anyone was alone there. I began visually sorting the couples and it didn’t look good. I thought I could just use math to find someone to hike with (at this point I was counting the room and looking for an odd number. Much to my dismay, it was even. The moment had come.

The lecturer said “Does anyone have any questions?” I raised my hand in the back of the room. “If anyone is looking to cut down on cost and weight of equipment, I am hiking alone tomorrow and am interested in teaming up.” 15 couples all look back at once with a “Don’t look at me.” Glance.

Yuck, I just realized that Patagonia is stricken with couples. This might take a little self-inviting. If this were anywhere else that I had been, I would have a 8 person power group of lone travelers. While we are here, I might as well go over the different types of couples that exist in the world of traveling. It wont take long. There are only two types. Those who are happy to chat with other people (these are the folks who will invite other travelers out to dinners, excursions, and even the next vacation. These are the folks who can be found at opposite ends of the room, having independent conversations with new and exciting people.) And then there are the scum. Those folks who would prefer it if there were no other humans on this planet. “We are just trying to have a personal experience.” These are the couples who you will see, sitting next to each other (looking particularly unhappy) and usually micro planning out the next 60 days of their trip in the common room. With an enormous map spread out across the expanse of the only table in the room, they look annoyed that people are even in the same room. Sure they will talk to you, but just enough to get you the hell off of their back. These are the folks who also have to be touching each other at every second of the day. New people are surely a cancer to their most important goal of building their insecure relation-shit through “travel”.

Ok, that took a bit longer than I promised. Moving on. Carrying a tent, stove, food, pots, and clothes all alone is wildly inefficient (and expensive). I came up with a masterful plan (that I would be teased about for the rest of the trip) that I would bring a tent, sleeping bag, clothes, food, and gas with me but then rely kind hearts for the use of a stove and pots to cook with. I figured that EVERYONE in the park would be fully loaded with gear, so if I brought a bunch of Coup-a-noodles with me, I could just barrow someones gear to boil water. No clean up, just a hot meal in under 10 minutes. I brought only dry food. Cereal bars for breakfast, cookies and chocolate for lunch on the trail, a bunch of bread buns to stay sane, and coup-a-noodles for dinner. I got a bunch of people in the hostel telling me that I didn’t have a balanced diet. I asked them how that was (loving the notion that even a rocket scientist usually hasn’t a clue when it comes to food science.) “Well, you don’t really have any protein in your diet. What about fruits and vegetables?” I would reply with, “I’m just going away for 5 days. And I am hiking the whole time. Truth be told, I just need fuel. I need as many calories as I can get my hands on. This is the only time that cookies and chocolate are a good thing. Oh, and there is protein in the noodles. Thats what they are made of, eggs and flower. Eggs are protein last time I checked. And the fruits and vegetables are just in a diet for the nutrients that they contain. Your teeth don’t fall out from scurvy for at least a month. Come to think of it, I could eat Jello for the next five days and live just fine. Actually, I could eat nothing as long as I drink water, but who wants all that pain.” (I’m writing this post after the hike, and believe it or not, I am alive :)

I rushed all around town, scrounged up a pair of long johns, gloves, and a beanie. Oddly enough, in the center of the trekking universe, there were only a few, very poorly stocked, outdoor shops. Stress began to pump through my veins for fear of the weight on my back for the next 5 days would be huge. I had never been backpacking out in the wilderness before.

As it turns out, I managed to fit everything in my pack on the very first try. Then the crucial moment came when I slung the pack onto my back……. it was lighter than it usually was when I walk around from city to city. I felt victorious! I had survived packing for something that I had never done.

I felt so relieved “I feel accomplished enough. Who needs to hike now?”

for part two, tune in tomorrow!

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Almost Close Enough

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

We boarded the 350 foot ferry in Porto Montt, a ratty city that really only serves as a port. We all arrived in the check-in building a good 4 hours before the ship was scheduled to set sail. By stroke of luck, I was in close proximity to two couples who seemed like fun. One was from England and one was from Seattle. This made for a grand total of 4 nice couples that I would know on this ship. The first two I met over a week ago, one in Pucon (from England) and another in Bariloche (from Israel). The Israeli couple proclaimed that they would be the only couple of their kind on this boat. They made this prediction based on their confidence in the predictability of their race. They were right. And I was proud of them for breaking the mold.

I knew things were going to heat up on this boat. I knew that bonds would be made based on the artificial environment that we would be living in for the next 4 days. What if you had to be around the same 200 people for 96 hours, on a boat? But to tell you the truth, my luck had already changed in Puerto Varas, where people seemed much more open and kind as a majority for the first time in South America. I hoped that this deliberate desolate direction would bring folks that were welcoming of others. I was surprised it took so long to ring true.

Fair weather travelers, those are the ones that stick to their pre-set groups and their lonely planets guide books. But something was distinctly different about South America; something that I couldn’t put my finger on. And then, like an omen, a late twenties dutch man said it plain and simple. “They are older.” Of course, why couldn’t I think of that. “By the time that most people travel to South America, they have already been on a bunch of trips. They aren’t as lusty over the rush of meeting other travelers.” Yes but does this mean that I am also less enthusiastic about meeting other travelers? I don’t think so, but it is possible that I am in fact getting over it, but don’t even realize how my signals have changed.

Nope, I think that since my progression of continental take overs have been in the same trip, that I still appreciate a good conversation with a random person.

We board the boat and our sleeping quarters seem like a identical labyrinth, but somehow, I seem to find a way to find my bed after the third night. We go through good seas and bad, many meals and many laughs. Cold days and steaming hot patches of sun. We even pass a glacier that is 90 meters tall at the face. But there were exactly two moments that I wish to never forget. The first of which takes this title.

The first day’s sun set took a particular behavior that I have never quite seen. As a matter of a miracle, on Christmas Day, I almost got to touch a sun set. Now what do I mean by that anyway?

How many thousands of peach and purple, red and yellow cloud soaked skies have you enjoyed in your gifted life? Probably in the hundreds if you open your eyes every once in a while.

Now how often have you almost been able to reach out and touch those clouds? I cam within what seemed like 50 feet in fact. Did the boat fly? Nope, thanks to the Patagonian weather systems, you can easily have high clouds in the distance and extremely low ones right next to you. The high clouds blocked out the sun completely, but light made its way across the sky and the low clouds above out boat caught them like a catchers mitt.
Gentle peach cotton candy stretched over the boat like a warm blanket. The whole sky dark, it held it’s breath for the blanket to protect us from the onward squall.

The second moment was another one of my world famous all alone moments, but this time it was by mistake. This time, after a rousing game of South American bingo; after the dance floor was too hot to stay inside for; I stepped outside to get some air. I made my way towards the front of the boat in what I believed to be the darkness of 10:30pm. Much to my delight, as I reached the front of the boat, I saw a bold faced cry from the coming sky. This Day Was Not Done.

There was life to be lived. Yet the rest of the world seemed dark, the coming stage a mile ahead, in the raging fjords was bright with black and white contrast. The local sky was covered with a thick blanket of night as the future barrel of our paths was vivid with a down pour in the left and staggeringly sharp cliffs to the right. Everyone was either inside dancing or sleeping when I came upon this dramatic scene. It was silent in this moment, sans the eerie huming of the radar 20 feet above me. I found myself caught in the same trance that a vampire might have induced on its prey. Infatuated just enough with the scene, to ignore the eminent downpour as well as the ice inspired air. Too perfectly unique to ruin by runing inside to share; I took a selfish posture. This moment was all mine.

Not since Turkey have I seen such a masterful use of black and white. These two moments and these two moments alone, made my Navimag trip unforgeable.

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