Monday, October 28, 2013

Splitboarding the Refugios of Bariloche Part II: San Martin (Jacob)

Part II of the Splitboarding Patagonia series, continued from Part I: Refugio Frey

Refugio San Martin / Jacob

I don't know tu madre well enough to verify this statement, but I assure you this is a complimentary comparison.

The next trip Fernando recommended was to Refugio Jacob (officially Refugio San Martin, but after getting puzzled looks whenever I asked mountain people about it I quickly discovered that it is universally known as Refugio Jacob. Why? No idea.) when I stopped by the Club Andino the week following my Frey adventure and pointed on his map to the pretty, snow-covered ridges I had seen from the top of Cathedral and asked the best way to get there. The trek to Jacob involved a longer hike and a taxi ride to the trailhead.

The night before I planned to leave friend-of-a-friend Yuki arrived in Bariloche following a month of hitchhiking north from Ushuaia after a 6-month stint in Antarctica (see, those of you who think I am crazy, I can only aspire to be as awesome as Yuki). Not wanting to miss out on hearing some of his stories but also not wanting to miss out on a weekend of splitboarding, I talked Yuki into joining me for part of the hike up. And by "talked into" I threw out the idea and he immediately jumped on it.

Me and Yuki on the trail to Refugio Jacob

So on Friday after my Spanish class let out, we hopped a bus to the point where we were supposed to catch a taxi, and decided to hitchhike (because, inspired by Yuki's greatness, paying for a taxi seemed megalame). Which mostly meant walking. And walking and walking and walking. Occasionally vehicles would pass us, but they didn't seem interested in dealing with a girl with a big backpack and a dude carrying--for no apparent reason--a snowboard (Yuki generously offered to carry my snowboard while we hiked). After 40 minutes or so along dusty gravel road a dump truck pulled over and motioned us in. Or rather motioned us on, as in, "Go ahead, hop in the back of the dump truck!" which Yuki understood but I did not, as I climbed up into the cab despite the driver's protests. I explained where we wanted to go and he rolled his eyes because it wasn't anywhere near where he was going and we had just delayed him by a good 5 minutes due to my inability to navigate the ladder into his cab, but he drove us a kilometer further down the road before dropping us off at an intersection.

And we were back to walking, and walking and walking. About a kilometer before the trailhead, a carful of young guys pulled over, rolled down their window, and asked if we were lost. I didn't think I was lost, but walked over with my map to verify where I thought we were just to be safe. He pointed us in the right direction but then asked, "why the snowboard?"

"I'm going snowboarding," I replied.

"There's no snow."

"There is in the mountains."

"No, there is no snow."

"No, really, there is."

"Definitely no snow. Snow all gone. All gone," my friends were making increasingly grave hand motions.

The conversation went back and forth like that for a while before the guy driving finally shook his head and asked if one of us wanted to get a ride down the road, he couldn't fit both of us. I wasn't about to go without Yuki, so we opted to walk. The driver shook his head again, raised an eyebrow, and wished us luck before driving off.

Pretty sweet and totally safe bridge on the way to Jacob.

I was worried that maybe there really was no snow. That it had all melted during the week. But I had made it that far, and wasn't going to turn around at the trailhead, so on we walked, Yuki regaling me with his awesome stories of his adventures as we did.

An hour or so later, having convinced me to make Puerto Williams my next stop after finishing my Spanish lessons (thank you a million times over for that recommendation, Yuki!), Yuki turned back in order to make it back to Bariloche in time for a meet-up with my friend José with whom he was going to stay that night before continuing on hitchhiking to Buenos Aires and then...Bolivia? So we hugged goodbye, I strapped on my board, and continued.

Pretty trail.

The extra hour and a half of walking meant that I wasn't sure if I would make it up to the refugio before dark, but I kept up a good clip and thought that my chances were good as I hiked along a stunning turquoise-blue river. I listened to my learn Spanish podcasts on the way until the going got steep, then switched to music, and my MP3 player's random function apparently decided that today was a banjo day.

I hit the waterfalls just below the refugio at sunset, and stopped for a bit to eat a snack and watch the spectacular light show. I hiked the rest of the way to the refugio in the snow in the starlight and thoroughly surprised the refugieros (a dad and his sons?) and their dog (the only souls there) when I finally arrived in the dark. They invited me in for tea and dinner, but I was too tired to eat (a mistake), so I drank the tea and chatted a bit, then pitched my bivvy sack and passed out.

Waterfalls below Refugio Jacob at sunset

I woke up the next morning as the refugieros headed down the mountain with their dog, leaving Ari, the youngest and the cook (thank you thank you for leaving the cook), behind. Ari was off on his own adventure that day and suggested that I join him, but I had already set my heart on a nice-looking line I had spotted in the starlight the previous night. I lost an hour trying to make my way through the bushes and over the creek above the waterfalls before finally stumbling across an unmarked path with a bridge that crossed the creek. Duh.

The plan: hike up that nice diagonal white line to the ridgeline, snowboard down other side, climb back up and snowboard down something cool on the other side, etc. Reality: Impassable Jungle of Bushes and a river crossing, followed by low-blood-sugar-induced crawling up the hill.

I didn't make it far up my chute on skins before I had to switch to crampons. It was a slow slog up the hill, taking 2 1/2 for a stretch I had optimistically thought would take less than an hour. I was wiped out when I got to the top, but dance partied, had lunch, enjoyed the view, and then dropped off the other side of the ridge, which looked beautiful.

View off the other side of the ridge above Refugio Jacob

The snow was terrible. I bit it almost immediately. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, glanced down at my board, and OOOOOHHHH SHIITTT the GoPro was gone! My heart dropped, and I quickly scanned the hill when, off to my left, I spotted a GoPro-sized object bouncing rapidly toward a cliff below. I mentally calculated its trajectory and speed vector for about half of a millisecond, decided I might be able to intercept it before the cliff, and shot off to catch it.

Bounce bounce.

I got below it and hit it with my board just as I crossed its bouncing path, launching it into the air, and I dove and caught it, sliding and stopping about 20 meters from the cliff. I shoved it into my pocket and scooted off to the right out of the cliff danger zone. I sat down, re-attached the thing to my board, and, heart now thoroughly jump-started, I continued down the hill.

Video of the snowboarding, including the GoPro bouncing down the hill

In retrospect I could have just let the damned thing go over the cliff and would probably have been able to pick it up from the snow beneath, but that didn't factor into my millisecond decision.

Those are not the cliffs I almost went over.

And then I boarded down, camera rolling, and "enjoyed" what could only be generously described as a "marginally satisfactory" run. I then skinned most of the way back up another ridge before cramponing the rest. Getting down from the ridge was a trick, involving some rock climbing with the splitboard on my back that I'd rate at around a 5.3 (super-easy if you're a rock climber climbing with protection and no snowboard on your back, scary as shit with the board on) to get down to snow. Once safely planted in snow, I boarded back down the other side on slow slush, then into a gully that I knew was snow bridged over a creek but it was that or fight through a mile of thick bushes, so I crossed my fingers and bombed it, bracing myself for a swim and stopping just in time to avoid going over a rocky waterfall.

Crampon damage to my ski pants

I had told Ari that I'd be back by 5pm (why didn't I say 7?) and it was already 4pm, so I had no time to hike another line and maybe actually get a good run in. I kicked myself for the late start, the hour spent trying to cross the creek, the snow ascent, for not following Ari up what was probably a much shorter climb to the top, for not eating enough food the day before (I was feeling pretty tired and drained), and for picking lame lines. And then I spent an hour fighting my way through the thick bushes that rimmed Laguna Jacob back to the refugio.

Once again I returned to a refugio that was fuller than I had left it, including two quiet Argentine girls and a separate group of four wild friends from Bariloche who, between them, had schlepped up a liter each of rum and whiskey. They insisted that I join them (they didn't have to insist hard, given the rum and whiskey), and we drank as I struggled to understand the fast and stoned conversation. Meanwhile, Ari was prepping dinner, starting with fresh bread, made-from-scratch in the refugio. The meal arrived: warm bread (ooooh, I loooove hot, fresh-baked bread; if I were to make my own version of Maria's "My Favorite Things" song, hot fresh bread would be one of the Things), soup, and pasta with sun-dried tomatoes (lovingly re-hydrated in water heated on the little refugio wood stove). Delicous. And I was SOHUNGRY.

Ari baking bread in the refugio kitchen at Refugio Jacob.

Ari, if you're out there, I know you are like, 10 years younger than me, but will you marry me and we can live in a mountain hut together and make and eat gourmet meals every night?

The crazy drunk/high friends proved too difficult for my tired brain to understand, so after a few more shots, I excused myself, crawled into my bivvy sack, and nestled into a snowbank. I was there for all of 3 minutes (and almost asleep) when suddenly Fernando of Team Bariloche appeared, said a bunch of stuff I couldn't understand, laid down in the snow next to me, and spooned my bivvy sack while talking nonstop about god-knows-what. He occasionally asked questions about the bivvy sack, my sleeping bag, my snowboard, and whether there really only was room for one in there. Yes, there really is only room for one, I kept replying.

This is my bivvy sack.
Seriously, only room for one.

It's not that he wasn't attractive, it seems this continent is full of Fernandos who, so far, have all been glorious specimens of Man and very nice to boot. But I was pretty sure that this Fernando was legitimately crazy (and not just Argentinian crazy), I was really tired and couldn't understand most of his blabbering, and there really, truly was not room for another human in my bivvy sack. Eventually Crazy Fernando got cold, kissed me, and stumbled off in the dark.

It was a "Hello, stars, I am in Argentina! People here are fucking crazy and I love it!" moment. And then I passed out.

I woke up early the next morning having slept like a champ after loading up on Benadryl following the cheese-laced meal of the night before, and found my sleeping bag iced over. It had been so cold that night that the condensation resulting from my being a heterotrophic organism froze the second it left my sleeping bag and hit the cold air inside my bivvy sack. When I moved, the thin crust fractured, but holy shit, it was so cold that my sleeping bag iced over.

Ice on my sleeping bag. Formed inside the bivvy sack.

I got up and hung everything up in the sun to melt and dry off while I had breakfast, chatted with Ari, and packed. Just as I was about to leave, my friend Crazy Fernando showed up (he may be crazy, but I was relieved that he apparently made it back inside and didn't freeze to death in the night). I showed him how the splitboard worked and let him try it out before strapping it onto my pack and heading out.

The hike back was lovely, and I spent it listening to more Spanish podcasts. I ran into Papa Refugiero on his way up the trail with a group of 40 some students. Too. Damn. Many. People.

The views on the way down were beautiful.

I arrived at the trailhead at around 2pm hopeful that, as so many people had promised, my petite blonde (I am officially no longer a redhead--the sun has bleached out my hair to a just barely perceptible strawberry blonde. Even if that hadn't happened, I have been informed that I would still be a rubia = blonde and not a pelirojo = redhead unless I was in possession of truly red--like cherry red--hair) lonesome self would have no problem hitching a ride back to town.

But nope.

I hiked the whole damned way from the trailhead back to the bus stop, passed over by at least a dozen vehicles, all with plenty of space. I got a whole lot of odd looks, but no takers.

Was it the snowboard, which probably made people think I was completely, totally out of my gourd? My scruffy, filthy appearance? The smell?

My filthy, filthy self after getting back after my trip to Refugio Jacob

But my feet hurt, and I had run out of water and was hungry and hot, I had welts on my hips, and please? Somebody? Anybody??

In total, it was just over 20 miles of hiking with the snowboard on my back for a whopping two shitty runs.

Of course I couldn't wait to go back out.

Continued in Part III: Refugio Italia (Laguna Negra)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Postcard Contest 2: Bariloche

Holy wow, just saw that the blog has had over 2100 visits! And it's been a month since the last one so...time for another postcard contest. Which from now on will happen more frequently, Promise.

I spent last weekend camped outside a magical place called Refugio Frey, a hike-in mountain hut in the middle of a place I saw described somewhere as sitting in the palm of God's snow-filled hand, fingers extended upward as rocky pinnacles that form a cirque around the Refugio. During the summer (hell, even now, despite the snow and cold) it's a mecca for rock climbing. I had a most excellent time splitboarding everything in sight before the arrival of a crowd of physical education students and a fierce windstorm made me beat a "too many poeple, help!" retreat early Sunday morning.

Refugio Frey at sunset. My snowboard had good dreams that night.

This coming weekend, in order to access the terrain visible in the left of the photo below, I plan to go to a somewhat more remote refugio inside the same Nahuel Haupi National Park: Refugio San Martin (Jacob).

This week's question: 

Which very large volcano that sits on the border of Chile and Argentina should I be able to see from the mountains this weekend? 

Bonus points if you come down here and climb it with me.

Standing at the top of  the ridge across from the Refugio at Las Tres Marias, looking out over Laguna Nahuel Haupi.

Again, first person to leave a comment here with the correct answer gets a postcard! You do have to leave your name so I know how to contact you and get your address.

Disclaimer: I can only send you a postcard if I am able to get your mailing address. I will announce winners when I have internet access, which may be as long as a week after the contest is announced, so be patient! Also, I make no promises as to when I will send the postcard. But, at some point, I will send it, pinky swear.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Splitboarding the Refugios of Bariloche Part I: Frey

I spent my weekdays in Bariloche diligently attending an intensive Spanish course, doing my homework, doing my work-work (finishing up manuscripts from my Ph.D. work), and doing other responsible things like feeding myself and putting together job applications. The minute I was released from Spanish class on Fridays, however, I split for the hills, and spent my Bariloche weekends with my splitboard in the mountains.

Note: A "Refugio" (= refuge) is a mountain cabin, [sometimes] manned by mountain folk (refugieros/as) to provide food (or a kitchen), water, and shelter in remote places to people playing in the mountains. In most of Argentina, they are run by the Club Andino mountaineering club, and usually involve a dining hall and kitchen on the main level, a large attic stuffed with bunks or mattresses for housing sleeping guests, and an attached or nearby toilet facility.

Refugio Frey

The most famous and popular of the refugios around Bariloche, people who have never been to the area have heard of Frey. Refugio Frey sits at the end of Laguna Toncek which fills the bowl at the bottom of a hanging valley surrounded by insanely toothy granite spires. I saw it poetically (and perfectly) described in one blog post by snow writer and Utah Outside owner Jared Hargrave as "the palm of a god hand below fingers curving skyward"It is a mecca for rock climbers, unsurprisingly, since my first thought when I saw the spires around Frey was, "hot damn, bet those would be awesome to climb." It is also a favorite of ski mountaineers due to its easy access from the backside the Cathedral Alta Patagonia ski resort, and also because the steep chutes, narrow couloirs, and broad bowls surrounded by the granite towers poking like claws out of the snow make for quite a winter playground.

Refugio Frey at dusk (graininess = high ISO setting because it was dark, but check out those spires!!)

So it was an obvious first stop upon arriving in Bariloche.

I was a little nervous, this being my first solo splitboard tour as will as my first time out with a bivvy sack in non-summer conditions. I spent the nights before going reading an avalanche safety book to brush up on long-forgotten tests and details, and agonized over what to pack.

But Friday afternoon rolled around and I packed my sandwiches, packed my backpack, waited 40 mins for the bus to the trailhead to show up, and arrived at the trailhead only to realize that I had lost my sunglasses at the bus stop back in Bariloche (my first of many lost pairs of sunglasses on my South America trip). So I did some quick shopping at the little shops at the base of the ski resort--which had closed for the winter but was still hosting tour groups and was thus not completely shut down--and finally found some affordable cotton candy pink hipster shades at a pharmacy.

Me with my awesome new pink sunglasses.

Finally I was off. The ski area had shut down for the season the Monday prior to my arrival in Bariloche, and no wonder. Temperatures were balmy, the hills were starting to brown, and there was no snow on the bottom of the slopes. So there I was, hiking in a t-shirt and capris, through miles and miles of dry, dusty trail, all while carrying a snowboard on my back. I looked--and felt--insane. Some two hours later of climbing slowly up and around the side of a hill while listening to learn Spanish podcasts to keep myself entertained, I still hadn't seen any sign of snow, and was beginning to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake, or if Fernando at the Club Andino was home laughing, having sent me on a wild goose chase.

But then I turned a corner and suddenly saw a snow-draped spire framed between the trees and I gasped. Ooooooooohhhhhhh!! My pace doubled. Soon afterwards I met two hikers coming in the opposite direction carrying their skis, and they said something which I thought was "it was good!" and then "only another 40 minutes!" which gave me another burst of energy just as the trail started to get steep.

Why, hello, pretty.

I felt every gram of my 60-pound pack and my legs were burning and blisters were screaming with every step. The promised 40 minutes came and went with no sign of an end to the climb or anything that looked even remotely like where I thought I was going. It eventually dawned on me that 40 minutes for them--going downhill--would not be 40 minutes for me going up. It was over an hour later as the sky was turning pink before I finally spotted the ridgeline, and then the antenna of the hut. I climbed and climbed and finally staggered up to the door looking confused (I had never been to a refugio before and had only a vague idea of what they were and no idea what refugio protocol I need to check in? are there hours? are people going to be asleep in there? will they hear me if I knock?) just as the sky went dark. Someone saw me and the refugiero, I'm going to call him Gordi because I don't remember his name but know it sounded similar to Gordo, but wasn't (Gordo means "fatty" in Spanish, which would have been an ironic nickname for the wirey refugiero) came outside, helped me with my pack, welcomed me, made me a hot meal, and gave me a beer.

God bless you, Gordi.

Beer and soup at the Refugio Frey, Night 1

I slept that night on a wooden platform under a sky bright from a full moon and reflections on the iced-over lake. I had to burrow into my sleeping bag to sleep. Despite the light, I didn't wake until hours after sunrise. I quickly ate one of my sandwiches for breakfast, divided my things into "snowboard' and "not snowboard" piles, packed for the day, and then set off. Gordi joined me, glad for an excuse to get out of the hut.

Woke up to this view from the bivvy sack

Picking my way around the lake was another example of my inability to traverse on my splitboard. It wasn't long before I ditched the skins, put on crampons, and started to hike up the slope, first to a little lake (Laguna Schmoll), and then up the final ridge of the Cathedral. Gordi stopped near the top, put on his skis, and headed down, after asking me what I wanted to do and I pointed in a general direction and asked him what he thought and he replied, "for me, it's all scary". He handed me his radio before he left and told me to be careful. It was sweet, and reassuring knowing that I'd be missed if I didn't come back that evening. I watched him, then finished hiking to the top to enjoy the views while eating another sandwich.

Enjoying the views from the top of Cathedral

I strapped my board on, took a deep breath, and pushed off. The snow was crusty, but good, fast and manageable. I rocketed by Schmoll and down the second ridge, decided my run was way too short, and hiked up another ridge for another go. This one was steeper, and even more fun, and since I still had plenty of time before evening, hiked up a third side of the valley.

One of the chutes I boarded. It was sweet.

By this point the temperatures had really climbed, the snow was very wet, and my skins stopped sticking to my board. After a few frustrating attempts to re-apply them so I could climb, I gave up, tore them off, threw the board on my back, and started post-holing. I soon had to stop again to put on crampons when the snow got harder and the way steeper. The going was slow. I cursed my splitboard the whole way up, thinking "Why the hell did I haul you and all your trappings all the way up here only just to haul you on my back at the end? I should have just brought my good board." But my mood quickly changed.

Toward the top, "Club Can't Handle Me" came through my earphones, and I had to stop and dance a little, and then ran to the top, and stopped and danced some more. No really, I did.

There's a back story here. The song was put on my MP3 player two years earlier by my friend Vicky when I told her I needed better running music. I never listen to pop, electronic, or hip-hop, and that's what she loaded me up with. Whatever, the beats were better for running than the rest of my limited music collection. But "Club Can't Handle Me" became my Power Song when one day while out on a "short" trail run, after months of physical therapy after struggling with an injured knee and not being able to run more than a mile or two at a time, this song came on and it was so funny, so happy, and so perfect for the moment that I ran a whole 8 miles and felt no pain. From then on it became my "Oh hell yes I can do this" song. Right before my thesis defense, I had this playing on repeat as I set up and paced the lecture hall waiting for people to arrive, mentally substituting "thesis committee" for "club" in the lyrics.

So when the song came on, I really did have to stop and dance. And decided it was the perfect way to mark the tops of all of my splitboard climbs in Patagonia. Hope you like it. :-)

All those lines are mine. Ignore the wet slides...

Once the dance party on the mountaintop was over, I ate another sandwich (I came prepared), then boarded down the steep couloir I had climbd up, skirting cliffs and a waterfall before coming to a stop at the very bottom in the bushes above Laguna Topeck. The snow was great spring snow and the boarding was awesome, but I had stupidly forgotten my GoPro at the hostel that weekend so you'll just have to take my word for it. By the end of the ride, I had a crowd watching, a group of physical education students who had arrived that afternoon and were tromping around in the snow and who had spotted me on my way down, so I returned to the refugio a minor celebrity.

Inside Refugio Frey

Meanwhile Gordi had returned from going out looking for me because it was getting late (despite there still being plenty of light) and he was worried because, as he later told me, "I thought maybe you went over the other side. I mean, usually people come back early. The snow is bad there, but I thought, she sleeps in a bivvy sack. She's a crazy woman. So I thought maybe you went."

Gordi then insisted that I sleep inside the refugio the coming night because the wind was howling and was supposed to pick up; when I hesitated he scolded me and said "no charge! but you sleep inside!" and put me up in the attic of one of the outbuildings. For dinner I sat with him and Santi, the other refugioero, in the kitchen and drank wine with them while the students partied.

My soup in Refugio Frey, Night 2 (love you too, guys)

Exhausted, I excused myself at around 11:30 and crawled up to the attic, where I slept soundly despite the wind shrieking and threatening to tear the roof off. I woke up the next morning next to a lost-seeming Canadian guy who explained that the refugieros had told him to sleep there to avoid the wild students but had warned him, "there's a pretty blonde girl up there, but she's crazy." I'll take that reputation.

Refugio Frey at night

Continued in Part II: Refugio San Martin (Jacob)

Monday, October 14, 2013

On love and volcanoes

Supplemental Material

First, before spilling my guts in a sticky mess of vomited words, the GoPro video from splitboarding the sh*t out of Villarica.


Where my previous post was all about feeling my strength, this one is about the Achilles' heel that has brought me, over and over and over, to my knees. I wrote this post while sitting on a bus to Argentina with a heart that broke at the foot of Vólcan Villarica in Pucón.

Vólcan Villarica viewed from the adventure town of Pucón

Hello Villarica

My arrival in Pucón was innocent enough, having showed up with nothing but volcanoes on the mind, intent on climbing Villarica, the 2860 meter high volcano that visibly gargles a lake of lava, and that looms behind Pucón, as if to make sure the town stays pressed to the shore of Lago Villarica vs. making a midnight escape to the south.

Technically, you are only allowed to climb Villaríca under the escort of a certified Chilean guide unless you are a card-carrying member of a mountaineering society (I am not) and get special permission from CONAF (Chile's Forest Service). To get to the base of Villarica, I would have to hitchhike, something that is modus operandi in Chile but that I feel (illogically) nervous about. Although I had been assured I could both find an early ride up to the mountain (“A blonde girl like you? Two seconds, someone stops.”) and sneak around CONAF, I was made nervous by images in my head of:
(a) being kidnapped and stuffed in a trunk and cut up into little pieces while hitchhiking,
(b) being stopped and questioned by CONAF rangers who I wouldn’t be able to understand or communicate with, and
(c) getting caught in some sketchy mountain situation while all alone on a volcano made me think that maybe it would be best to follow the rules and find a guide.

I stopped by half a dozen guiding outfits around town, asking about randonee tours, and haggling for discounts. A combination of “I’m a student,” “I have my own equipment,” and “I’m a bright-eyed smiley girl who would love swap mountain stories with you” got me down to $60 at one shop, and I decided that was worth the ride, the company, and the not being stopped and questioned by CONAF rangers.

Climbers headed up the flanks of Villarica

Two days and a miserable bout of sudden-onset travelers diarrhea later, the weather cleared and it was time to go. I obediently showed up at 6:30 am to a dark, empty shop, not joined by the owner until 6:45 (Chilean time…I should have known), and didn't actually leave until 7:30 when we phagocytosed another group with their own set of guides when the rest of the group I was supposed to be with never showed up. There were only three of us with skis: me with my splitboard and two guides from the other group, one of whom had skins and the other hauled his all the way on his back. I quickly latched myself onto to the randonnee skier—Diego—and although he wasn't technically my guide and I not technically his client we quickly left the pack of walkers behind as we scooted our way up the mountain.

The climb

Diego and I bonded as we climbed, chatting, telling stories, and teasing each other.
Diego: “Are you okay?”
Me: “Yes, fine.”
“You are sure?”
“Yep, great.”
“You are not tired?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Una chica muy fuerte. Strong girl.”
Diego: “You need sunscreen, mi gringa.”
Me: “I just put on sunscreen, I’m fine.”
“Okay, but if you cry later I will be angry.”
“If I cry later, I’ll owe you a beer.”
“Two beers.”
Diego: “Why do you do this?”
Me: “Do what?”
“Climb volcanoes.”
“I dunno, I like it. Why do you?”
“I’m a man.”
“The hell is that supposed to mean?”
Diego: “You like this?”
Me: “Yes, wow, it’s beautiful.”
“The volcano. The views. It’s beautiful.”
“Yes Diego, you are beautiful.”
“Oh thank you, I am glad you think so.”

View of Llaima from the side of Villarica

I found out that Diego was 28 years old, grew up in Pucón, spent his childhood wanting to leave, left, and then came back to start a guiding business with a friend. That he was the middle child with an older sister and younger twin brothers. That he had climbed Villarica 700-some times, over 100 times a year as a guide, and still loves it. That he likes to ski, fish, and ice climb. That his favorite food is asado, or maybe salmon. That one time he camped on the summit with a group of terrified German geologists that he had guided to the top while the volcano was actively gargling lava (with a great photo of him leaning over the crater’s edge, bright red lava in the background). That he likes Pucón but it’s a little too crazy for him, and someday he hopes to buy and live on a farm outside of town like his sister. The man was living the dream.

And then we arrived at the summit, “Welcome to my office,” said Diego.

Summit Posing 1
Summit Posing 2

We had lunch, I walked around and took photos, and we sat and listened to the grumbling bowels of the mountain while waiting for the tour group to arrive. I had picked my line down, off the smooth, steep Eastern flank of the mountain, and I strapped on my board. Then Diego disappeared, having been called to duty to escort his “official” group back down the hill, and was replaced by Nico, the ski-carrier. I was happy to see Nico, impressed by his dedication to hauling his skis all the way up the mountain, but sad my buddy Diego had left before I could say goodbye. My plan was to haul ass down the mountain and hitch the first ride back to Pucón in order to try to catch a ride back to Malalcahuello; the weather forecast was good for climbing Lonquimay the next day and I was anxious to get back.  My friends Ursula and Janine said they might be around until the early afternoon and could maybe give me a ride.

The descent

All regret was erased the second I launched off the rim of the summit. The snow was excellent spring skiing, the whole side of the mountain virgin snow. Our two long, beautiful lines were still visible from town when we got back, at least if you squinted right. After reaching the bottom, Nico and I snuck onto the chairlift for a poached run and then sat and watched people throw flips and tricks off of a huge jump while waiting for the first of rest of the group so we could head back down to Pucón. I caught my stress level rising as the clock approached 4 pm with my bus leaving at 4:30. The first group of walkers arrived, and the truck careened down the mountain road to drop me off at my hostel an impressive 20 minutes later, but it still wasn’t enough time for me to re-pack my stuff and schlep everything to the bus stop. Missed.

Rock climbing outside Pucón

But I had good consolation: the guides were having an asado, and I was invited. I had barely had time to shower when I heard Nico stomping through the hostel yelling, “Kay! Kay!” (Carie being a name that non-English-speakers find impossible to pronounce) and I was whisked off to go with the guys to buy meat for the asado.

And there at the carniceria was Diego, cleaned up and, without the ridiculous turban he had been wearing during the climb, transformed from my goofy guide buddy into a strikingly tall, dark, and handsome man. I realized all this when I ran into the store to say hi and he swallowed me in a giant hug, kissed me on the forehead, and said, “Carie, I thought you had left me!” and I melted. Completely sucker-melted into a gooey mess of holyshitIhaveacrush. From the look on his face he must have felt the same, having seen his “chica muy fuerte” climbing buddy into a chica muy linda with brushed hair and street clothes that made me look significantly less androgynous.

And a few hours later at the asado when Diego handed me a beer, we Salud-ed and took a swig, and he pulled my face to his and kissed me deeply, I knew I was lost, that the fuse had been lit to a powder keg of hurt with a whole lot of potential for intense feeling and no foreseeable potential for anything but a sad ending.

Stray dogs playing on the shore of Lake Villarica. HDR.

The downfall

I have a hole in my heart a year and a half old that, while no longer hemorrhaging blood and life, is far from healed.  There were a lot of things about this trip that scared me. Traveling alone, hiking alone, snowboarding alone, being alone. Those fears, faced and proved unfounded in quick succession, are now gone, replaced by a confidence and regained sense of self that a decade of dating co-dependence had eroded. But falling in love is the one fear that I didn't want to face on this trip.

There are many types of heartbreak. There is the heartbreak felt when pain touches someone you care about, and the heartbreak that comes with the realization that you were a cause. There is the heartbreak of the loss of love, with degrees of severity directly proportional to both the intensity of the love and the insensitivity of the parting. There is self-inflicted heartbreak, empathetic heartbreak, heartbreak from loss of all kinds, heartbreak from rejection, heartbreak mixed with wonder and joy in the experience of something truly beautiful. The heartbreak that put a hole in my heart was the bitter kind: a cocktail of rejection, shock, a loss of dreams, a loss of faith, and betrayal by a person who I had given my whole heart and trust. If heartbreaks were earthquakes, the one that put the hole in my heart would have flattened mountains. It flattened me.

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone who has never had their heart badly, brutally shattered to understand just how real and traumatic that pain is: the sharp electric bursts that feel like being stabbed over and over in the heart, the constant appetite-extinguishing clenching of the gut, the crying headaches, the exhaustion from insomnia, the muscle pain from body-shaking sobbing, the nightmares, the package of a misery so fierce it takes a physical form. And long after the initial trauma, there's the suffocating ache that lasts for months, the constant feeling of a bruised heart, a symptom of chemical withdrawal from the hormones that loving relationships release as real as any drug withdrawal. Then there's the emotional trauma, the demons that lodge themselves in your head and play a repeating record of, "you are not lovable. you are not good enough. you are worthless. you deserved to be discarded."

Waterfall at Termas Geometricas, a line of natural thermal baths outside Pucón that I went to with Ursula and Janine. HDR.

The memory of that hurt so real that the only thing I wanted was to die in order to escape it is still fresh, and so love—and the heartbreak that seems an inevitable eventual consequence—terrifies me.

So I caught the first bus out of town the next day and cried the whole way to Malalcahuello. Compared to the other, it was a gentle heartbreak, but it still hurt: a mourning at the reminder of what I am not capable of, of what I can not have. I was deeply relieved to arrive back at the Suizandina with “family” and people and volcanoes to distract me. And distract me they did, and I was happy again.

The return

But I had two valid excuses pulling me back to Pucón: a legendarily beautiful passage to my next destination (a 3-week Spanish course I had finally booked in Bariloche, Argentina) that required an overnight stop in Pucón, and plans to attempt to climb Lanín with new friend Melitta.

The base of Villarica from the forest area outside Pucón. HDR.

I could have showed up quietly, avoided the powder keg, but there were also the messages: “Carie mi amor, come back, I want to see you,” and my sucker-melted still-broken heart sucker-melted again. When my bus arrived in Pucón, Diego was waiting, a little dressed up and even more handsome than the last time I saw him (in contrast to me: sick with a head cold, sore and blistered and limping from the hikes the previous days, wearing clothes ripped and ripe from climbing, on a heavy day of my period, and feeling generally disgusting and unfit for human contact).

Over the 30-some hours of fun, food, joy, mountain biking, rock climbing, and “stay here” conversations that followed, my heart melted further into the sort of sticky gooey mess that unhealthy still-broken hearts turn into when presented with someone nice, attractive, and charming who does all of the fun things you love with you, and then calls you “mi amor”. My hard-won feeling of strength and independence crumbled.

Snow. Climbing. Mountain biking. Asado. Breathtaking scenery. Helluva combination.

The only thing that kept me from saying, “I’ll stay, please love me” and sliding all the way back to where I was before this trip, helpless and broken and angry and dependent, was my Spanish course that I had booked in Bariloche, which was the piece of iron in the icy slope that the logical half of me was able to cling to as a reason to overrule my broken sucker-melted heart and say, “no, Carie, you are not staying here, you are going to keep moving forward until you heal and are whole again, and then you are going to live a while healed and whole. And then, maybe then, when you've stood a while at that summit of wholeness, can we talk about strapping on skis and launching into love again.”

Bus stop = crying stop at this beautiful river on the side of Vólcan Lanín. HDR.

The end

So I’m back on a bus, grateful for a row of seats to myself where I can sit and let the tears that need to fall run out without anyone looking at me funny.

Oh, heart! How do I fix you? The mountains have done so much for my body and soul, but the hole in my heart doesn't seem to be getting any smaller.

Helpful: breathtaking views on the road from Pucón to Bariloche

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Una chica muy fuerte: feminist realizations on Volcanoes Lonquimay & Sierra Nevada


The past month of mountain adventuring has won me a lot of confidence. I didn't bring my crampons and ice axe on this trip because when I was leaving I thought, “Little me, all alone? I'm not going to do anything where I would need them.” I underestimated myself.

In the two weeks between leaving Concepción and arriving in Bariloche, I spent six days on my splitboard, climbed 3.9 volcanoes (Llaima, Villarica, Lonquimay, and Sierra Nevada), hiked some 50 miles in the snow. I survived a bout of explosive traveler’s diarrhea, nursed a bad cold and over 30 blisters, as well as open sores on my hips and a body black, purple, and red from welts and bruises.

I spent most of these two weeks in borrowed mountaineering boots and crampons, and yes, I still know how to use an ice axe. I don't need a boyfriend by my side to do big things; I'm doing more and bigger things alone.

Mountain therapy. Succeeding where years of couch-therapy just had me doing somersaults inside my head.

Me on Sierra Nevada. (Photo by Melitta)

In these two weeks, I've been called “Una chica muy fuerte,” “Eine kleine kämpferin”, and “tough”. And I am. I've always been physically strong, but right now I’m in maybe the best shape of my life, certainly of the past 10+ years; a solid ball of muscle, runner-up-of-mountains, a pack-carrying climbing machine.

And this pack-carrying climbing machine got her ass kicked by a woman who, if I needed more proof that my ovaries don't make me less of a human, provided it. Meet Melitta: in her deceptive cute blonde package probably the strongest, toughest person I've ever been in the mountains with. Period.

Volcán Lonquimay

The heartache felt on the road from Pucón to Malacahuello dissolved the minute I walked into the dining hall at Suizandina (which Frank aptly nicknamed the “happy hut” because I was so happy there), which felt like coming home, complete with dropped bags and warm hugs from my “family” there. The evening was made sweeter by my introduction to Melitta, an Austrian mountain guide on a solo ski touring adventure around Chile. The Suizandina family had decided that, as two nice young woman mountain-lovers traveling alone, we needed to meet, and it surprised nobody when we became instafriends.

Malacahuello, home of ridiculously cute llamas, among other mountain-loving, friendly creatures. HDR.

The next morning, the two of us caught a ride to Corralco to climb Lonquimay (my volcano #3). Our ride was an older mountain pair with the same plan: Chilean U. Conception Materials Science Professor Michel Ignat and his French wife, a retired x-ray technician. The two were in their late 60’s, having moved to Chile after having met in a mountaineering club (a common thread of many couples I met at Suizandina and something I’m going to have to give a try when I finally settle somewhere for a while) and spent most of their careers in France. This was his 4th attempt at Lonquimay having had bad luck in the past with weather, equipment, etc.

Lonquimay as seen from the top of an Aurucaria forest at the foot of neighboring volcano Sierra Nevada.

Melitta: knocking off another mountain like it was no big deal.

Melitta and I chatted on the way up about mountains, life, and love while rocketing up the flank of the mountain. We were well-matched until the going got steep and I started to struggle with the traversing and slippery snow on my essentially edgeless splitboard. At one point where slush met ice, I slipped and slid headfirst a heartstopping 50 meters down the side of the mountain, grinding up my hands and bare arms on the slushie-like ice crystals that made up the upper layer of snowpack as I clawed at the snow trying to halt my slide—yet another reminder that holyshitIneedskis. While Melitta rocketed ahead, I took a half hour break to eat a sandwich while I slowly stopped terror-shaking. Then I strapped the board onto my backpack, put on my crampons, and headed back up. Not long later, Melitta came skiing back down, having already summitted (me thinking: “damn, girl!”), checked on me, then skied down to take the Ignats' backpack in order to help them make the top, too. When I made the top, I was barely into my second sandwich when she arrived—essentially her second ascent of the volcano for the day.

I had a girl crush.

Me + Melitta on the Lonquimay Summit (animated gif...hopefully worth the load wait)

We decided to rent a car together and spend both of our final free weeks knocking off as many remaining volcanoes as we could. Problem was, both of us having started at opposite ends of Chile, there wasn't much left that one of us hadn't already done, and as two independent women used to our solitude and independence, it became clear that as much as we liked each other and were well matched (or rather, she's a professional badass and I can sort of keep up), it would probably work better if she headed north to hit Chillán and a few other spots on the way and I continued my southward journey.

Sierra Nevada (the one in Chile)

But not before climbing another volcano: Sierra Nevada.

Sierra Nevada as viewed from the flanks of Volcán Llaima.

Sierra Nevada from the Suizandina breakfast room.

Sierra Nevada sits between Llaima and Lonquimay and had been giving me funny looks all week as the mountain visible from the Suizandina breakfast room. Unlike the perfectly-formed conical whiteheaded stratovolcanoes Llaima, Villarica, and Lonquimay, Sierra Nevada sits like a sleeping beast, all points and shoulders and cliffs.  It was something I didn't want to leave Malacahuello without getting closer to. When I returned to Suizandina from Pucón, I was greeted by Sergio, the owner from whom I had borrowed crampons, mountaineering boots, and ice axe for my trip up Villarica with a "Carie! I have a present for you." That present was that he was going to escort me to Sierra Nevada.

So after spending a rain day getting some work done and videos processed at Suizandina, a very antsy Melitta and I jumped in Sergio's truck for the bumpy ride to the foot of Sierra Nevada.

Melitta greets a friend met on the road to Sierra Nevada.

Sergio's truck made it as far as it could on the muddy mountain road. The rest we'd have to walk ourselves. (Photo by Melitta)

Melitta ready to hit the trail...the first several hours of which were wading through mud with our ski equipment on our backs.

The friend of Sergio's who was going to guide us through the forests that surround Sierra Nevada was "probably too drunk to move" (Sergio's words) when we stopped by his house to pick him up, so we were on our own. And we got lost, each of us taking turns choosing the wrong path until we finally hit the right one. By the time we popped out of the forest (which at the end turned into an Araucaria forest--the monkey puzzle trees again, which was absolutely surreal) and caught our first view of Sierra Nevada at 2pm, I had long given up on actually summitting and was just enjoying the being outside. So I took my sweet-ass time enjoying a nice relaxed lunch while taking in the spectacular scenery.

(Chile, I can think of some places on this planet that could stand to take a few of your volcanoes. You have enough, you wouldn't miss them, right?)

Sierra Nevada from our lunch spot at the top of the Araucaria forest.

Sergio takes a blister break on the shoulder of Sierra Nevada, Lonquimay and Tolhuaca looming in the background.

But I had underestimated Melitta. The woman had a hunger. So, while Sergio waited for us, the two of us kicked on the booster rockets and made a sprint along the ridge, racing to make the 5pm turnaround time we had promised Sergio.

There was a cold, biting wind, but I was sweating hard, pushing myself because, yeah, I also wanted that summit. And sweet lord was it worth it. Because the best part was when I dropped the backpack and board (= sail in the high winds), pulled out the ice axe, and ping crunch crunch ping crunch crunched the final ~100 meters to the top.

Hiking to the summit, board on my back and crampons on for the final climb. But check out those volcanoes! (Photo by Melitta)

And we made it. Close to 7 hours of hiking, climbing, and skiing later, we had made it. And it was real effing cold, so we took a few quick glory shots before our hands started to ice over, skated down from the summit as quickly as we could with our axes and crampons, strapped on the skis (Melitta) and board (me) and enjoyed a brief but epic powder run on our way back to Sergio.

And then we hiked down as the sun set over Chile, turning the volcanoes and clouds into piles of pastel sugar around us.


By the time we returned to Suizandina I was done (in a happy way). Exhausted, blood sugar level redlined, absolutely satisfied with the day and with life in general. My ass had officially, thoroughly, delightfully been kicked. I ate everything. Drank everything. You'd think I'd just run a marathon. Melitta looked like she could do it again at least another three times, then stop for a snack, and then climb Everest...without oxygen or sherpas. A heroine for the mountain books!

Summit!! Hellz yeah! (Photo by Melitta)


This trip has officially made a feminist out of me, a feminist in the sense of the classic Cheris Kramarae quote:

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.” 

Women are born strong, and we are strong. Women like Melitta are proof of that. But we spend our lives being told we are smaller, weaker, fairer, more fragile, more vulnerable, less competent, less capable, that our dreams are less valid, our horizons restricted, our needs and desires and roles doled out to us by the environments in which we are raised. Where I grew up, women played sports and were expected to be strong and tough in addition to beautiful and smart and kind and savvy. I was raised to carry my own weight, make my own path, dream my own dreams.

But then something happened, and it wasn't just puberty.

Aaand this little bit made all of the board-schlepping worth it. (Photo by Melitta)

I think the first time I recognized the cultural influence of gender role expectations was during a high school exchange in Germany. I was bored to tears by the segregated gym classes where the girls did stretching exercises and light gymnastics and watched with envy as the boys played soccer. Compared to the girls there, I was an oaf: my biceps the size of the average girl's leg. This was particularly ironic, since my stereotype of German woman was that of East German 'roided-out powerlifters, so I had spent the months before my exchange doubling my workout routine so that I wouldn't get my ass totally handed to me in the weightlifting competitions that I was sure would be a regular occurrence. When I told people that back home I was on my high school's soccer team, I was written off as "probably lesbian" (so, fine, I went and played soccer with a bunch of new, lesbian soccer-playing friends). What was normal for the girls I grew up with (playing soccer) was considered the exclusive domain of men in an otherwise progressive, Western country.

While sexism is somewhat more subtle in the U.S., it got to me and wore me down without me realizing it. Subtexts even from family members that, as a woman, ultimately the only purpose to my education was to find a suitably educated spouse to father my children and provide for my livelihood. Boyfriends who told me that the only reason I got X fellowship or was accepted to Y university or Z competitive program was because I was a woman, not because I had put together a good application. Boyfriends who told me that I was not smart enough to make in the world on my own. And most subversive of all, my ceding certain tasks and responsibilities to the men in my life rather than doing them myself.

Me + Melitta on the summit of Lonquimay.

It takes a while to unlearn all of that, but bit by bit I've been doing it. A few years ago I taught myself how to change the oil on my car (fun!) and then, part by part, rolled up my sleeves to learn how to test and take care of my things so that now I can go to the mechanic and not take any bullshit about my battery needing to be replaced. A year ago, I took off on my first solo backpacking trip and it was liberating to prove to myself that I still knew how to read a map, and to realize that when I plan a trip I don't wind up in -20°C weather with no lighter with which to cook the dinner I just schlepped up a mountain. In August, I defended my Ph.D. thesis, something little voices in my head had said for years I would never do/didn't deserve/wasn't smart enough for; much to my surprise it went well and was fun, and now I'm a doctor of science, which is pretty badass.

Although it wasn't my intention when I set out, so far this trip has been all about staring down the fears I have about my own limitations, most of which, I'm realizing, are in my head. As it turns out, I'm a woman, which means that I'm a human, member of a race of strong, clever, resilient, and brave primates, and I can make my own fire, bang out my own tools, hunt down my own buffalo (someday...).

I've climbed back into the driver's seat of my own life, making my major decisions not based on what someone else wants to do, or thinks I should do, or thinks I can do, but what I want to do.

It's pretty awesome.

And what I want to do right now is be in the mountains. All the mountains.

Me + splitboard on Sierra Nevada, beautiful Llaima in the background.