A Lesson from Patagonia
An on-going experience in Patience
by TJ David
It’s 7:45 am and I’m standing on a deserted street corner. A light rain falls through the misty air as I peer into the headlights of the on-coming traffic. I motion toward the cars with my thumb as their shadows pass me. The puddles are growing into small lagoons now between the snow banks and slush piles. Each raindrop adds to the pools in the street and they threaten to spill over into the sidewalk soaking my shoes in an icy slush bath. I constantly watch the waking water. It’s ripples offer a calming, rhythmic pattern of peaks and troughs with the vibration of each passing car. I stand comfortably under the flickering street light, waiting the coming day.
It had been snowing all night in La Cumbre, a neighborhood above the city center of San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina and a buzz of anticipation could be felt in the air as I prepared to head off to sleep. I’d spent the previous day skiing at Cerro Catedral, a local ski center about 20 k from the neighborhood I was staying in. The snow was good, really good. And only a few glimmers of sunshine on the hill that day meant lots of good skiing was left for the following morning. Exhausted, I watched out the apartment window as the snow fell and accumulated on the ground in wide, fat flakes. I noted this was the first time in any of my three previous visits to Bariloche that I had ever seen it snow in the city. Tomorrow would be great.
Four or five days of misadventures had already had me feeling a little anxious. A late ski after a late night costume party. Nosotros eramos los ninjas. A long, dark and rain-soaked trek to Refugio Frey promised the possibility of an epic day but ultimately culminated in no skiing. Fierce winds and rain to the top of the mountain, all night, had swept clean any chance of an epic powder day, or any real skiing. A bit different than last years #vanlife trip. Then there was a decent but very late start at Cerro Catedral a couple days later that revealed some of the potential the area had and kept me hooked, baited me to stick around, to stay patient. A last minute cancellation of a randonee ski race that I hoped to participate in after convincing from friends followed another day of bad weather. Another late start ensued and I’d nearly had enough of the tranca mentality of my Patagonian compadres that I thought paralleled my own mentality, but this was different. “I just want to ski,” I thought, move my legs, my body. I wanted to something before noon. I wanted to try a little harder, give it my full effort and attention. Even if it meant making lemonade out of lemons. Needless to say, things were looking up as I drifted off to sleep with the falling snow.
The following morning came with rising temperatures in the city, and my slow walk down to the bus stop below La Cumbre was met with slush where snow had accumulated all night. The humid air seemed to want to burst with a downpour of moisture at any moment, and although comfortable and still carrying the anticipation of the upcoming powder day in the forefront of my mind, I was hoping my plan to get to the mountain would work. It had to work. I’d felt I had given so much already and today was my day to get something back.
With my thumb out, I watch the oncoming traffic for any sign of a possible ride up to Cerro Catedral. I had already committed to the lengthy process of getting to the mountain hours ago. The quarter to 6:00 wake-up. Copious amounts of rich mate to fuel my eagerness to get to the ski hill. I packed an extra of everything for the wet 30-minute walk down the hill from La Cumbre to the bus stop. Two pairs of socks, extra gloves, plastic bags around my boots to keep the water out. Two waterproof Flylow Polartec jackets. It’s a full ordeal I don’t normally have to go through at home in Aspen. But I’m in Patagonia. Elevations here are similar to the mountains of Vermont, coupled with the moisture of the Pacific Northwest. You can probably get the picture that when it’s wet here, it’s very wet.
My plan to catch a ride up to Cerro Catedral isn’t exactly fool proof. Hitchhiking, although a standard way of getting around this part of the world isn’t without its difficulties. I’d spent over 3 hours the previous day just getting home from the mountain with the same method. One that ultimately resulted in an over 10k walk back to La Cumbre in the rain. I stay patient. The minutes pass slowly. The steady flow of headlights in the darkness of the early morning is promising. “Surely someone will stop,” I think to myself. “Plus, I have a bus to the resort that supposedly passes by this exact spot,” I remind myself as I shift my position, ready enough for a long wait. I’m feeling good with my plan, I’ve got plenty of time, plus I have the bus…I wait, patiently.
The minutes turn to hours, and the rain briefly shifts to snow. Huge flakes engulf the air and a euphoric emotion emulates in a big smile across my face. My positive energy doesn’t manifest in a ride and a stream of cars pass without giving me even a glance. Busses not headed to the resort come and go and I begin thinking the bus I need must not be running today because of the bad weather. Dawn is breaking and the hour is approaching 9:00am. I’m supposed to be meeting a friend at the resort at 9:00 to shoot photos and I’m starting to grow impatient. He doesn’t have an Argentine phone and I feel bad that I can’t message him saying I’ll be late today. “I hope he doesn’t wait” I think to myself.
I’ve been waiting more than an hour and a half for a ride when finally my bus appears. As it heads towards me I stick my hand out to flag it down but it becomes apparent he isn’t slowing down. In fact, he’s speeding up to gain momentum to climb the oncoming hill in the wet, slippery weather. As he passes me shaking his head in a clear “no I’m not stopping here,” he connects perfectly with a growing pool of water in front of the sidewalk. The tires sink into the deep puddle with such precision and speed that the oncoming tidal wave is simply unavoidable. As I step back in a futile attempt of avoidance I instantly dunk both my feet in a pool of slush behind me. Before I can balance myself, the tidal wave connects perfectly, nearly knocking me off my feet. Looking up to wipe the water from my blurry eyes, a laugh dawns my lips, the situation is all too comical. But before I even have a chance to get myself together, I realize another bus is coming my way. And it’s all but too late. There’s no chance of avoiding this one. The coordination couldn’t have been better between the two drivers and I’m completely taken by surprise. As the tidal wave connects directly with my face, it blows my hood back, taking my hat with it. I’m shocked. Soaked to the bone.
Not only was I already wet from standing in the rain and snow for hours, but as I look down over my clothing I see I’m completely soaked. The Polartec is saturated beyond its waterproofing capabilities. My pack is drenched. My gloves like a sponge. Thoughts of the epic powder day that would soon be my reality quickly fade as my hands become too cold to thumb a ride, and my feet so wet I can’t imagine trying to put them in ski boots. I keep trying as the sky opens up again in another rain shower but doubt sinks in. I think about paying the $300 ARS and calling a taxi up to the resort to salvage the day, but it just doesn’t feel right. Too forced. “The universe just doesn’t want me to ski today,” I think to myself as I turn back to walk up to La Cumbre, 45 minutes, in an epic walk of shame to the friend’s apartment where I am staying.
(When things finally line up, but you don’t really know the line nor trust the one track…still one of the best runs of Patagonia, 2016)
I thought of buying my ticket for the next bus back to Mar del Plata right then and there. Warm weather and a beach. Anything but more rain, long commutes to the mountain, wasted money and time played like a broken record through my head. My 45-minute walk back up the hill that morning confirmed what I’d started to feel. Total defeat. Five or more consecutive days of less than ideal ski conditions had started to truly get the better of my “go with the flow” mentality. Frustration threatened to spoil the entire trip and I was ready to just say screw it, go home and prepare for another ski adventure later in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter. Preferably one where no moisture of any kind was part of the 10-day forecast and I could actually get up high somewhere, with a little #humanpower.
As I sat in the living room of my friend Inti Fernandez’ house listening to the rain, my thoughts came back to my previous years #vanlife trip to this region. The trip where I thought I’d learned a little something about patience, where I’d learned the “secret” to skiing in this part of the world. “How far I’d regressed from the previous year,” I thought to myself as I stretched my legs out, looking over a pile of ski gear on the floor I was contemplating packing up for my trip home. But things didn’t feel right. Something felt undone. The idea of leaving without a great day of skiing was just too hard to accept.
Perhaps it was just stubbornness, an unwillingness to accept that I wouldn’t get a great day in Patagonia this year. Or maybe it was a bit of inner looking that resulted in my decision to stay a few extra days. To wait things out. To stay within the flow of events instead of step outside them. To see how things would culminate within that flow. To see how I could meet the moment I was looking for. It was out there, I knew it. After all, I had the time…I didn’t exactly have the cash to burn, but I was already there. I had to reset myself, lose any expectations for what I thought the skiing would be like this year in relation to the previous, and just see what happened. “Something would give,” I thought as I settled into my routine of drying out my ski gear. The methodical practice of placing every item, each piece of camera gear, even the smallest items like my chapstick had to go next to the radiator. Everything had to be dried out. Using the moment to think about the following day, I re-envigored myself and prepared for another long journey to the mountain the following morning. Fortunately, this one would result in what I’d been waiting for, that one great day.
Each year, each trip to this area brings a new experience. These experiences come with lessons both new and old and new additives that cumulatively enrich my experience. My life. Retrospectives that help me grow. I only had to step inside myself to realize the equal necessity of mental endurance to physical endurance here in Patagonia. This year more than ever, the wet weather and lack of sunny days were ripe to turn the most patient into patientless. But these situations force us to go beyond what we think we’re capable of. To grow into better versions of ourselves. To maintain our determination and to understand that the moments that bait us, that keep us playing this circular game of seeking the perfect alignment of light and snow with time and place in space exist out there. They don’t simply come to us as we go through the flow of life, but must be met somewhere out there. These moments, they intersect our lives through the direct result of combining passion with effort, patience with comfort in failure, and the motivation and perseverance to continue to try again, and again. Perhaps, the key ingredients of my life lie right here in another lesson from Patagonia.
Big thanks to:
Inti Fernandez, Maia Ines, Miles Clark, my partners: Kästle Skis, Flylow Gear, Corbeaux Clothing, Aspen/Snowmass & supporters: Julbo USA, Discrete, Dynafit, Backcountry.com