2016, El Chalten, Travel

The “Emergency” Exit

I guess it was/is inevitable. An unplanned trip back from some remote/far off part of the world. The logistics have been half worked through. I can get back to NH. The rest will, with some work and the almighty dollar, fall into place.

My head rests against a hard, plastic corner of the plane wall. I am northbound from Patagonia, flying over the pampas, en route to Buenos Aires. Late afternoon light shines through the exit row portal, casting it’s brightness in a circle on the seatback in front of me. I stare ahead, my gaze lost in the light with thoughts swirling in and out of my mind, none stopping, none becoming permanent. I can’t say I expected this to be my first funeral in a long time and I can’t chase the nagging doubt out of my mind that it may not be the last.

It was mid morning in El Chalten and I was making sandwiches and thinking about ways to find climbing partners for the coming 12 days. Bread, beets, tomatoes, salami, fresh arugulla and other fixings were spread out before me on the wooden table. That was when I noticed the email. It must have come through earlier. “Hey” it was subjected and it was from my brother. Somehow I knew, once I read it, even before I finished it, that I needed to go home, I needed to cut my trip short. I guess I was glad that Jake was gone, it made my primary instinct of being with my family easier to achieve, or maybe it was the converse. Maybe Jake having left made me want more to depart and be with my family.

I thought about my resources and my options. I thought about how I did not even know Kyle. I thought about how distance and time had taken their toll. I thought about the last time I had seen him, at a Christmas gathering a handful of years ago. I thought about his Dad, my uncle Dave. I thought about how similar they were. I thought about my uncle finding his only son lying lifeless in bed, I thought how people shouldn’t die that young. I thought about my father, my grandmothers and grandfather and the inevitable losses that will come with my mother, aunts, uncles etc. and hoped it wasn’t the start of a flood, though I could feel a flood of different sorts streaming down my cheeks.

El Relincho’s refugio/cocina or kitchen was mostly void of people at that hour of the day. It was beautiful day and most were in the mountains, either hiking, trekking or climbing. Campground hosts Max and Matias were making sandwiches a few tables away. I knew that the kindness and generosity of these two could be one of my biggest assets. Behind me a Brazilian couple ate cordero sandwiches and drank Coke. Elsewhere a lone European played a game of solitaire.

I grabbed some items, chatted with the two campground hosts and headed out the door. Josh emailed me back. Storm coming this weekend, don’t make too many plans right away, he said. It can take a few days to get out of here, so I’m starting now, I replied and headed toward the bus station. I needed transport to the airport, a change of flight to Buenos Aires and a change of itinerary to Boston.

The Las Lengas airport transfer came easily enough; I hit the ticket counter just past the siesta hours and got a reservation for the morning. The telephone calls to LAN and United were not so easy in achieving however. The locutorio proprietor arrived right on time, twenty minutes late. So after a bit of waiting and working through dialing the correct numbers for an international call, I got a static filled connection to offices in Miami. I was working my way out of El Chalten so I had called LAN first. With only one lost connection and a 65$ credit card payment I was booked on a flight to Buenos Aires at five the next afternoon. United, which I generally find has decent customer service, was not so easy for me however.

The 24 hour United number was only available to U.S. and Canadian callers and the number for callers from Argentina had “normal” business hours. Since the 8pm hour fell outside of those call times, I was unable to connect with United to change my flights. Uncertain as to what to do next, I made a trip to the quickest, cheapest and most reliable internet that I knew, la panaderia. Soon I was eating empanadas and sipping Quilmes and chatting with Anna, who was working up in WY. Kindly, she agreed to try to contact United from up there and look into a ticket change. I silently wondered, once again, what it was I did to deserve such friends. I sent her an email with some details and hoofed it back to the locutorio where the young man behind the counter simply gestured to an open booth as we made eye contact when I walked in (it was my third time in the establishment in the past two hours.) I called Anna to finish up with more specifics and proffered the remaining credit card balance to her as personal payment; “buy something online or whatever” I said, only half kidding.

Hanging up the phone and walking out of the locutorio I felt a sense of lightness, a weight lifted off of my shoulders. I had given it a try, mildly succeeded and had a friend half way around the world once again, helping me out. I set out back to the campground to pack and organize.

Making a call to United from the B.A. airport
Making a call to United from the B.A. airport

As I sorted and schemed with my pack and duffle bags, my two British neighbors walked in fresh off a new route on Aguja Bifida in the Torre Valley. Then sure enough, the California gentlemen came in too; it seems people were winding up their stints in the mountains, coming back from climbs and adventures while I alone, with a heavy heart, was starting a new one.

We chatted, I offered the obligatory congratulations and we made plans for dinner. Inside the refugio I talked with Matias and Max and tried to settle up my camping bill, which they dismissed with a wave of the hand; “for you Jared, nothing” they said with smiles. I used their system to check for emails and found a few from Anna: first: system down, call back later, then on hold for 3.5 hours, next was $1600 fee departing on 23rd, then nothing seems ideal. She had reached a dead end. I send along my thanks and my offerings of gratitude, telling her I would take it from there. I felt the heavy weight once again, slowly press down on my shoulders, one so much different than my usual shouldered load. I wanted a beer, or three. I turned from the desk to go find the Brits at Porter only to see my friend Josie walk through the door. Suddenly the night, still in it’s infancy, didn’t seem so gloomy or the weight so heavy. At least not in that moment, though the idea of missing out on sharing a Patagonian ascent with her was still to come. I welcomed her back from the mountains and suggested we go find some place to get a drink. We stepped outside and I told her about my change in plans. After securing a few items at the tent, we headed out to find the Brits somewhere down the road.

The Quilmes at the Porter turned into a Quilmes at the La Vineria and more Quilmes at the La Vineria turned into Quilmes, empanadas and country music at the Rancho Grande and that turned into 4am.

The six o’clock alarm came early, but the buzz was still there, so showering and packing was easy, though there was still lingering doubt about how I would get out of Buenos Aires. I’d figure it all out in Calafate.

Calafate had to hold all the answers. It sure held all the time. I had about four and a half hours between my shuttle arriving and my flight departure, surely I could make some telephone calls and talk with an agent. Once again, I overestimated my ability. First it was obtaining monedas for the pay phone, then it was making a connection with the Argentina United office, which in the end, due to my inability to navigate the phone system, was ultimately unsuccessful. In the end I succumbed to needing a plan. I priced one way tickets, found one with a 24 hour full refund period and purchased it. I told myself I would get to Buenos Aires and talk with an agent at the ticket counter. I’d figure it all out in Buenos Aires. There I would have answers.

The travels still seem uncertain as I write this while lounged on the hard, tile floor next to a Coke machine at  Aerospace Jorge Newbery Buenos Aires’ national airport. The thoughts still come and go in rapid succession, eliciting an ensuing roller coaster of emotions. Sadness, regret, fear, disappointment, uncertainty, anticipation, hope, love and so many others randomly find their way into my conciousness and disappear just as sporadically. The resulting tears and wistfulness All I know is I will catch a bus to the international terminal and find a ticket agent before the refund period on my newly purchased flight expires. Seems I will have to wait till morning for that to happen however. What is certain is that at some point in the next several days, I will be with my family. I will reassess priorities and focus on something other than myself.

Despite the tears that come and go as I write this, I find some solace in friends. From the British sarcasm and humor to someone being on hold for three and a half hours for me to the smiling faces, food and caring questions to the hint of adventures and things to come all helped bring levity and smiles to an otherwise sad, introspective night. Wether it was intentional or not makes no difference. To be so far from home and find people who can help me in so many ways, helps me believe in the power of kindness.

Some were new, some were old, but all shared a moment with me that I wished never happened, but all helped me make the best of it. And for that, I can’t thank you all enough.