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.

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