Oh, Patagonia

“Oh, Patagonia.” It is not the first time that sigh has escaped my lips here in the Avellano region, but it is the first time today. Dave, Ting-ting, Matt and I are crowded under our blue and grey cook tent. It is relatively comfortable within this lightweight refuge, large awkward rocks, cramped sitting positions and a thirty degree slope all notwithstanding. We have hot drinks in our hands and breakfast is being cooked. It is the wetness pounding on the outside of our thin nylon walls that elicits that sigh.

There are a few iterations of that expression.  It’s meaning can change drastically depending the location of its utterance, the intonation used and the speaker’s choice of punctuation. Below I have expounded on a few of the varieties that I have borne witness to over the years. Of course there are more, notably the “Oh, Patagonia…” with a fade out pause at the end. This could often be followed with “I love their sporty tops” or “they have an store downtown” or “their stuff is a bit pricey.”

The one meaning that I am most familiar with and the one expressed by me this morning is one of acceptance and understanding, particularly when said in the arena. In only two words, uttered with a sigh, it can sum up hundreds of pictures, ideas and memories of driving rain, heavy snows, blowing winds cold temperatures, wet clothing, bailing, stuck ropes and epics. It is an expression that says “yep, this is what I expected” or even “yep, this is what I should have expected.” Ripe in those two words are the idea of knowing that climbing in this region’s various ranges is a gamble that people bet thousands of dollars and months or years of their lives on. When the going gets real or gets challenging “Oh, Patagonia” is never very far from my lips. It is the adventure, the challenge and it is what I signed up for. Now, even though it is only day eight of a 25 day expedition, I find myself uttering those words as slush bombs drop off the beech trees and wind whips up and under our trusty little nylon abode.

Oh, Patagonia. Bailing from St. Exupery. (2012)

The same phrase, with the slightly different punctuation often has a very different meaning. “Oh, Patagonia!” is often said with excitement after wide eyed dreamers ask where I am going this winter. To them it is an exciting adventure filled with endless possibilities at the far end of the earth. To them, who utter “Oh, Patagonia!” it is a land of mythical storms, dense valleys, soaring peaks and icy glaciers. Some may follow the expression with a question, usually either, “El Chalten?” or “are you working?” to either of which I may answer yes and to those in the know, each comes with its own baggage and legends attached. Work is long, heavy, wet slogs through Chilean bush to the base of glaciers or peaks we may only glimpse before being shut down by storms or time. The other is of soaring peaks, hunkering in coffee shops, checking the weather and endless granite cracks. Despite not being work, this expedition definitely fits in the former category. “Oh, Patagonia!” is said by those who are still naive regarding the region’s realities.

“Oh. Patagonia” on the other hand is often uttered far from the roaring forties and furious fifties that bring the onslaught of wet, fierce weather to the region from which it derives it reputation. It is commonly said by those who have never set foot on the dry, dusty soil of the steppe or tasted the calafate berry or felt the harsh, unfaltering wind. “Oh. Patagonia” is a statement that unites those whose friends and loved ones have done those things and despite this announced they are making another trip. Those who fight the battle vicariously through sleepless nights and random emails know the costs. They have heard your stories and those of others, they know trials and tribulations that come with a loved one chasing the calling. They know the risks and only want safety and comfort for those whom they care.

Helicopters are only availabe in the mountains of Chalten when David Lama is climbing something.
Oh. Patagonia. A climber being evacuated from the Torre Valley. If only it were this easy. (2012)

The two sentence, flat affect variance on the words is often espoused by those who have saddled up for at least one round on the Patagonian rodeo beast for their chance at eight seconds to glory.  Maybe there is a pregnant, loaded pause after the “Oh.”  To those who answer in this tone visions of rain and wind lashed peaks coated with rime and memories of hard fought battles dance in their mind’s eye. It may still cause their eyes to sparkle but they know the reality, they know the stakes. They are keenly aware that one is suiting up to do battle, to test one self. They make no assumptions, knowing Patagonia’s vast size and expanse. Those who say “Oh. Patagonia” have likely uttered “Oh, Patagonia.”