"There lay one and half days food for 15 people. Our only feasible route out was to backtrack right to the start of the trek; two week’s walk away. The days that followed were hard."
In 2003 I did one of the most formative things of my life. I joined an expedition to Region XI in Chile, which is a beautiful area in the south of the country, of mountains, wild valleys and remote communities. Three particular weeks of the quarter year duration of the expedition stand out the most. A team of 15 of us were making a linear trek from Lago General Carrera, up the Avellanos river to its source and then over a mountain pass and out to the next village. There were no roads anywhere on the route and so importantly, we had arranged for a resupply of food for the final week to be brought up by pony train to the far side of the pass.
We spent long days walking with heavy bags, loaded with our tents, cooking utensils, clothing and two week’s worth of food rations. It was tough, rough walking; sometimes along faint paths and frequently fighting our way through pathless woodland, scrub or bog, but always breathtakingly beautiful. In the evenings we set up camp wherever we could find a flat space, gathered firewood, cooked together and rested. After a week we arrived at a remote farm, miles from the nearest road and spent a day resting before continuing up the valley the next morning. As the valley narrowed, we were forced to cross the river several times daily, which was fast flowing and demanded respect. I have never been more efficient at putting boots on and off since!
Two weeks in we camped at the source of the Avellano river, ready to cross the mountain pass to our rations re-supply the following day. It was a steep climb up to the pass out of the treeline and through the volcanic grit which lies on the higher land in that area. We hadn’t expected to hit the snowline and as we progressed onwards, the snow became deeper and deeper. Soon we were knee deep and people were starting to struggle. Given our reliance on firewood for fuel, we couldn’t afford to become benighted on the pass and after thorough discussion, we turned around and retraced our steps back to that morning’s camp spot exhausted, late in the evening.
There are times when a wise leader has to make tough decisions with the longer term in mind. We were ravenous after our exertions and so it was challenging to be asked to empty all the remaining food rations from our back packs into a pile on the ground. There lay one and half days food for 15 people. Our only feasible route out was to backtrack right to the start of the trek; two week’s walk away. The days that followed were hard. We eked out our food, eating very little; but at least we knew the route and it was mostly downhill. River crossings came and went, we were tired and emotional.
And that is why I remember so clearly the lunchtime we were all sat in a long row on a fallen tree trunk, exhausted and dejected, when one of the group gave up his chocolate ration for the day so that the rest of us could all have a tiny piece each. Such a small act yet still vividly memorable 17 years later. There were many acts like this through the first week of the retreat trek – words of kindness, understanding and literally shouldering the load of someone’s backpack when they needed a rest.