Return to Civilization

Hi everyone! After 34 days in the mountains, I am now back in the town of Coyhaique, Chile. I had an absolutely amazing experience on my NOLS Patagonia Mountaineering course! This post will just give you an idea of what my month was like. [Photos in this post- Cam Soergel]

I left the States in early January for Patagonia with nothing but a 40L backpack and a ready-for-anything mindset. After a relatively easy series of flights, I had about 3 days to just chill in Coyhaique. I was able to meet most of the other 16 expedition students in those days. We had a great time walking around the town and starting to get to know eachother, as well as speculating on what the next month would entail for us. Do we have the right gear? What will the weather be like? What food will we eat? None of us really knew what to expect, but we were eager to leave the frontcountry for the Andes.

On the first day of the course, we were picked up from the Plaza de Armas and headed to the NOLS Patagonia branch where we began preparing for our month long expedition. We sorted and packed food, checked over all of our gear, and met our 4 instructors, three from Chile and one from the States. I rented a 100L backpack, and inside of it packed everything for the month- 3 shirts, 1 puffy jacket, 2 pairs of pants, rain gear, a few small personal items, and some miscallaneous camp gear. The following morning we left for the field. We headed about 4 hours south by bus, and after that, never looked back!
The first part of the expedition was primarily spent in the lowlands and valleys, moving through the land of the gauchos, and preparing for the harsher environment we would face at the higher elevations. We dealt with a significant amount of rain, but still managed to cross a few large rivers and begin shuttling our food higher up in the forest through a series of caches. One of the hardest things for me to adjust to was handling the weight of my backpack through challenging terrain, which was consistently between 40 and 65 pounds depending on the amount of food I had. We spent a lot more time below treeline than our original plan had outlined because of the weather, but it gave us the time to really perfect our backcountry living skills like cooking and setting up a tent to withstand a storm.
Our first on snow base camp

Our first on snow base camp

first group summit!

first group summit!

With a break in the weather, we moved out of the dense lenga forest and to our first on-snow basecamp. From there, we summited our first peak, Cerro Negro. We spent hours practicing self arrest techniques on the snow and learning more about glacier travel, practiced setting up snow anchors and rock protection, and also worked on rappelling techniques . We planned on staying there just a few days, but a new storm rolled in, this one much worse than the last. While in the process of ferrying our third ration of food to a new cache, a violent wind began to muffle our voices as charcoal colored clouds began to cover the bluebird sky we woke up to. It was this point in the trip where the group coined the term “tent life”, because we were, effectively, tentbound for what seemed like a never ending storm. When the wind and rain didn’t let up after a couple of days, we resorted to building a snow classroom and snow kitchens covered with tarps.

snow kitchen  photo Cam Soergel

snow kitchen

When the weather got so bad that even the tarp covered snow kitchen was no longer an option, we learned to cook all of our meals in the vestibule of our tents. Each day we wondered if the cola de la tormenta [tail of the storm] would arrive, most of the time with exceptional optimism. Eventually, the weather and overall uncertainty began to wear all of down a little bit. It seemed as if reaching our destination glacier camp would never happen. Somewhere around the 7th day of the storm, the rain and sleet turned into snow. After about one more day, the raging weather from the Pacific Ocean and Patagonian Ice Fields finally lifted. It was time to move to the glacier!

We roped up in teams of five and crossed our first glacier. Huge crevasses surrounded our path as we made our way to the new glacier basecamp that would set us up to have a ton of options for climbing, and we made it there in one sunny day.

sunset from the glacier basecamp photo Cam Soergel

sunset from the glacier basecamp

The days living at this camp were some of the best on the trip. We learned about crevasse rescue, pulley systems, and glaciology. Even though yet another bad weather system rolled through, it was short lived. From this camp, I travelled with a small group and led a rope team across another glacier, around a ridge, and to the summit of Cerro Dedicado.

Summit of Cerro Dedicado photo Cam Soergel

Summit of Cerro Dedicado

Crossing the glacier was a huge challenge that time, because some clouds settled right on the glacier, limiting visibility to nearly whiteout conditions. I probed almost every step in front of me to avoid falling into a crevasse. After gaining some elevation, we emerged above the clouds and climbed some steep snow pitches to reach the summit. I’m at a loss for words to describe what it was like to sit at the top of Dedicado. All of the waiting in tents, enduring the weather, the heavy packs, suddenly became 100% worth the struggle.

Rope team travel photo Cam Soergel

Rope team travel

This is mountaineering. You wait. You struggle. You do everything you can to stay safe and healthy. You hope for the good weather window. And if all of the stars align, you get to experience climbing some of the most incredible mountains in the world.

After some amazing days of climbing from this area, our month long course was suddenly getting very close to over. We had to start our descent. Our route down was different than our way up, but after some of the most intense bushwhacking I have ever done, we made our way back to the land of the gauchos in about 2 days. [Read more about the gauchos and our time with them in my next post!]
The bus picked us up from the same place that it dropped us off over a month ago. We had just a half day bus ride before we’d be back in the “real world”. None of us had a shower, the luxury of a toilet, or a phone for almost 5 weeks. I’m sure we all smelled pretty bad, but all of what we would have previously considered necessities seemed so irrelevant. What we did have, though, was definitely a shower for the mind and soul. Spending that much time away from technology was more refreshing than any real shower could be.  [Don’t worry- I did take a real shower once I got back to the NOLS branch.] Everyone was calm and generally at peace. The mountains are magical place and being able to live among them for the last month has been the most rewarding experience of my life.
from the summit of Cerro Dedicado

from the summit of Cerro Dedicado

I learned a ton of things during this expedition, both in terms of technical climbing skills and about myself and life, and I am still trying to process everything that happened and reflect on it. Getting this post out feels like a good start for me! I will definitely be writing about more details of the expedition- cultural experiences, food, Leave No Trace, etc. in the near future. But for now, it’s all about enjoying some summer air in here in Coyhaique!
More photos (by other expedition members and myself):

Learning about crevasse rescue, with bags filled of snow as our test patients!

Many crevasses to avoid on our path to summit Cerro Dedicado…

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5 thoughts on “Return to Civilization

  1. CARLY this is incredible. You inspire me to be a better and more adventurous version of myself every day. You truly understand what matters in life and I’m honored that you sometimes ask ME for advice. Love you so much and I’ll FT you soon!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Semper Altius: a reflection on leadership | carly joseph | adventures

  3. Thanks for following! Your adventures look awesome! I’m heading to New Zealand in May to do some backpacking. Your post added fuel to my excitement!


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