I’m sitting in a restaurant enjoying an Argentinian Malbec from Mendoza while waiting for my flight. I have been delayed a few days due to an injury sustained during the Petzl RocTrip in the Piedra Parada over the weekend. Sitting in the Buenos Aires airport heading home fills me with mixed feelings. I am eager to seek medical attention in the States but sad to leave this beautiful country. I have been here just over a week and realize I have barely scratched the surface of what this country has to offer. My time here was filled mostly with adventure and friendship, things I will not likely forget any time soon. Here I will share a few of the most memorable moments and impart some travel words of wisdom.
Happy reading and I hope you enjoy my story.
The Rush to SDF
It’s Monday November 19, 2012 I have just returned to my temporary home in Kentucky after spending a week in Salt Lake City for a work conference. I have been on the go and very busy for some time prior and Argentina has been the long awaited break I have been looking forward to. I am driving to the Red River Gorge to unpack then repack and repeat the SDF airport experience the next day. This time, I’ll be traveling with a fellow climbing colleague, Nick Duttle. Nick has been staying with me in Ky and we are both excited to go on this Petzl RocTrip. Nick and others spent time there this spring bolting and preparing the place for the event. We are anticipating over 1000 attendees. It will be the largest event for Petzl, to date!
I have recently joined the Petzl team but will be paying my own way down. I don’t care. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a pure vacation and South America is a region I had yet to explore. I was ready for the adventure and upon reflection consider that this attitude helped pull me through some of the most challenging situations I would find myself in.
The adventure starts with Nick and me scurrying to make the flight out of SDF (Louisville, KY airport) on time. We left the Red River Gorge a little later than anticipated and had to run a few errands before the airport, which included losing time to a wrong exit. Fortunately, we are both well-travelled and know some tricks to save time. In this case, our ‘trick’ was to drive straight to departures and check in, then park the van. Note, security does not like it when you do this. J
Having made our flight, we make due with the air travel and food options. It’s at this point that we learn something is up in Argentina and therefore the food has been double stocked. Nick and I don’t clue in until we arrive in Buenos Aires that an airline strike has happened. Apparently the airlines decided to piggy back onto a Federal strike against the government president Christina Fernandez Kirchner. Apparently Christina is not well liked in Argentina and the people are ready for a change. Her term is nearing an end but she is trying to change the law that would allow her to remain in office for another term. No bueno. Anyway, our taxi tells us it’s a public Holiday and that no one is working today. Nice one, taxi driver. We believed him, too, until we met up with Jon Cardwell at the AEP airport and learned the truth.
After hours in the ticketing line trying to rebook our flights, Nick and Jon start running all over the airport to find alternate transportation for us. The earliest the airline can get us there is Thursday night but if we take the bus, we can get there by Thursday morning. The Roctrip starts Thursday so we definitely want to be there by then. We decide to take a bus that afternoon. The busses appear to be running (fortunately) and we have accumulated two more persons in addition to ourselves. All of us are headed in the same direction so we team up and set out together. The trip is forecast to take 25 hours. I didn’t realize that this meant, mostly non-stop. There are a handful of drivers who have boarded the bus with us and except for a handful of stops along the way to pick up or drop off passengers, we drive straight through pulling over onto the shoulder from time to time to switch drivers. The bus doesn’t even stop for fuel. In fact, if we were awake or hungry and wanted to get off the bus for a pee or food, we had to be super fast or the bus would leave us behind. Nick nearly was left behind twice and Jon, once. The bus doesn’t really stop or slow down when they realize you are running towards them. At one stop, Jon sat his newly purchased cup of joe on the ground and bolted for the bus leaving his coffee behind. All of us on the bus used the buddy system to account for everyone but in these cases, we were running down the stairs from the upper deck seats to alert the driver that one of us was left behind. The driving crew must have had a few good laughs at our expense, but in the end, we managed to keep our crew together.
The bus ride is long, but we entertain ourselves with cards, the bus shows several movies (all of them American), and some chatter or naps. When night falls, we find ourselves driving through a really bad storm. Except for the torrential rains, gusting winds throwing the bus about, and the lightening, you wouldn’t know that we were driving in different conditions than when we started. The driver of the bus kept a steady speed, even blowing past semis to the point that when I awoke to witness the driving, I figured it would be better for me to fall back asleep and pretend I didn’t know what was going on. It was too scary to watch the bus screaming past cars and trucks and narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic. Meanwhile, inside, the bus turned into a Sauna. It is hot and humid up there so much so that Nick has taken off his shirt to sleep. By the time I wake up in the morning, conditions have returned to normal, the storm has long past, Nick has a jacket on and I groggily attempt to stretch my sleep time as long as possible. It’s nearly summer down there, I remind myself, so the sun rises super early…earlier than I’d like to be awake. Afterall, it’s only been 14 hours on the bus by that time and I want to sleep through more of the drive while I can.
The bus feeds the passengers, but the food is meager and not everyone enjoys the options. I didn’t find the meals dissatisfying but I was fortunate to have brought some RAW bars, almonds and water with me. It’s enough sustenance until a stop we get late where I pick up some junk food. Mostly we grumble from time to time about needing food and set our sights on our final stop, where we hope to take in a proper meal before heading down to the RocTrip.
On the bus we have made some new friends. Hérnan is going to the RocTrip but meeting friends just south of Bariloche. He has been with us for quite some time (since Buenos Aires?). He runs a guiding company and knows a lot about the various climbing areas along our bus route. Hamzah is originally from Morocco but is now living in Germany. He’s come just for the Roctrip and is super enthusiastic to have met fellow climbers. He stays with us for most of the trip. Elizabeth is the only one not going to the Roctrip but she is friendly and headed to Esquel with us. We let her join in on our travel adventure and leave her in Esquel shortly after we arrive. She’s going to be doing a month long South American trip and has plenty of time to meet up with her friends and colleagues.
Esquel – Happy Thanksgiving!
We arrive in Esquel and could transfer directly to the bus to the Piedra Parada, but we are not prepared. We do some interneting and then book a hotel for one night so we can shower, eat and most importantly shop. We needed some basic supplies of fresh food, fuel and Jon needed a sleeping bag. After the purchases, we ate a Thanksgiving dinner Argentina-style—meaning a lot of grilled meat. We crash for some much needed rest (real rest, not the semi-resting that was happening on the bus) and when we wake it’s
plenty of time to catch the 7am bus to Piedra Parada—only we find out the bus actually doesn’t leave until 9am. L We could have slept 2 hours more, but the extra time allows some to internet, some to socialize and some to walk the city in search of money and last minute goods. Here in Argentina, one quickly learns the word Tranquillo, even in dire situations. I also learn that things like the strike earlier in the week are just a sign of what life is like in Argentina and I’m up for the adventure. Here, there is no rush to anywhere. We’ll get there, I’m not in the least worried.
One thing to be grateful for on these bus rides is the opportunity to see more of the Argentinian countryside. Jon and Nick remarked several times how certain stretches resembled New Mexico. I couldn’t agree more. The terrain was varied from desert landscapes I’ve come to know from my time in Nevada to the Alpine-scape of Bariloche that reminds me of Vail but with a massive Rio at the heart of the town. The Piedra Parada is in a desert valley with canyons of Smith rock-esque
type rock surrounding them. It is vast, the country is huge!! 25 hours from Buenos Aires isn’t even tip-to-tip of Argentina. It’s like driving from Seattle to Chicago. I had no idea it was that big. And, we were heading further south, to the 42nd parallel, which would equate to Oregon/CA border or close enough here in the North. They are just coming into the Summer season so the days are long. Sunrise is before 6am and sunset is after 9pm. Twilight lingers well into 10pm. It’s like being transported to Seattle for the summer all in a matter of hours. We arrive at camp around noon with plenty of time to set up our tents and head into the canyon to climb.
The hike to the climbing takes forever, or at least it feels that way after hauling heavy bags around and sitting for 25+ hours. It’s timed at about 40 minutes to the Calvera, which is at the very end of the canyon, if you head directly there. However, it is more likely that you will stop some along the way because there are many lines established throughout. There are arches, caves, towers, slab, vertical and steeper climbs each with a unique and varied style to it, including tufas!
Back at camp, the event has created a mini city complete with a bank to exchange Argentinian Pesos into the local Piedra currency. We are set up on a Ranch that only saw cattle and sheep roaming on the grounds with limited camping permitted prior to the event. Now, there’s a stage, a bar, stalls of food, a medical tent, local TV coverage, entertainment, picnic tables, showers, ‘running’ water, etc. Life in the camp is simple. I am living in a tent near some friends. The showers are nearby so washing up daily isn’t an issue. Food is also not a problem and on
the first day that I am waiting to exchange currency, I meet a group of people from Brazil. We spend some time together and they introduce me to a local Argentinian cuisine called Choripan. Yum. Empanadas are another Argentinian staple of which I ate plenty. Inexpensive and simple, baked or fried, meat or veggie, this is the go-to food anywhere and anytime. Asada is another specialty and on the last night, there is a massive grillout that had us carving out our meal from within a box of grilled meat. It was very primitive but oh so tasty! (my apologies to my vegan and veggie friends and many, many thanks to the animals for feeding us that night).
A link to a YouTube video that showcases the climbing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmPbUjJIOtA
During the trip there is an exhibition where the athletes get to climb and the attendees show up and spectate. This would turn out to be the beginning of the most adventurous part of my time here. I line up to attempt one of the climbs and although I tried to relax, I was very nervous climbing in front of all of those people. On the climb, I slipped and took a big fall a little awkwardly that I got rope burn on the inside of my arm. Not psyched to try again, I lower and let my belayer, Marcos, try the route next. Marcos will clean the route since the exhibition has been long over and it’s getting late. Nick and Jon leave for camp and we tell them we’ll be shortly behind them. Marcos cleans the route, we begin to pack up and as I am adjusting my pack, I look up and recognize one of the Brazilians I had been hanging out the night or so prior. In that same instant, I take a step forward to join everyone on the hike out and immediately stumble onto something. I lose my balance and fall hard onto the object and then fall to the ground.
My leg hurts, sharply, and I grab it like anyone would who has stubbed their toe or had their funny bone hit. I wait for the stinging to ebb but it doesn’t. Everyone around me stops and I hear voices asking me if I’m ok. I am huddled around my leg starting to wonder the same thing. I tell them to give me a minute and I force myself to pry my hands away from the leg and lift my pants to have a look. One look at the gaping canyon dug out of my flesh by a petrified tree stump and I know that I am most certainly not ok. There is no blood and I am thankful for that. My friend, Marcos, is there and he grabs another friend and runs off to find the medics. Another friend has some gauze and wraps the wound to keep it protected from the elements. I ask another friend, Mariana, to hold my leg while I get bundled up in coats and put my puffy pants on to stay warm. I am definitely going if not already in shock. I have convulsive
tremors with intense pain in the leg. I am really scared to have to deal with this and the implications of such an injury in such a remote area. I try to breathe through the pain and
converse with those around me to distract myself from my situation. It feels like forever before the ambulance arrives and I am taken back to the medical tent. There is a brief moment when loaded into the Ambulance where they are about to take me by myself with a medic with whom I can not converse due to the language barrier. I have a moment of panic and tell them to get Marcos. They open the doors in time to fetch him and he jumps in and joins me. I relax and allow myself to cry. The tears are partly from the pain, partly out of feeling sorry for myself and partly a release from the intensity of the situation in which I’ve found myself.
I am usually pretty tough when it comes to injury but seeing my flesh flayed to the bone coupled with the uncontrollable tremors and not being able to do anything about it, had me feeling helpless. I was now at the mercy of the rural medical doctor, Enrique. I have no idea what credentials he held or whether the patch job he was about to embark on would be good. I knew he would stitch me up, but the quality of the stitching was important to me. I need my leg for climbing, running, and other athletics and I knew I had to let go of those concerns and just let him do his job. The best I could hope was to get back to the States for proper care as soon as possible.
I lay on the table for another seemingly endless amount of time before they came over and gave me a shot for the pain (a general analgesic), then they proceeded to clean out the wound. I’m pretty sure they flushed it 4 times, but it was difficult to watch everything. Marcos was my eyes and voice during this time. He was awesome!! I was very lucky to be surrounded with friends through the whole thing. While I didn’t get a good view of what was going on with my leg, everyone else did. I was told the doctor pulled the skin back at one point and I could see everyone cringe a little. It must have looked gross. J Finally, Dr. Enrique gave me some local anesthetics and that part of my leg went numb. From there, I didn’t feel a thing he did to the wound. I just lay there finding relief and finally being able to release Marcos from my death grip. He walked me through everything the doctor was doing and having had stitches in his arm a few weeks earlier, I felt he kind of knew what to expect and he comforted me appropriately.
The Doctor is IN
Then, another of my Brazilian friends arrived: Sebastian, the German medical resident studying in Brazil. Dr. Enrique had used up all of the antibiotics and pain meds the day before for someone who had bashed their knee and was transported to a real hospital somewhere north. He said he would have more the next day but Sebastian insisted I start on them straight away. He went back to his tent and brought some supplies. Now it is like having two doctors caring for me. He reassures me that the stitches were done fine and that I’ll be ok soon. Everyone is great and bringing me water and food and mostly just being with me. I feel like I’m coming down off some scary ride as the adrenaline wears off. I can’t walk but Nick, Marcos, Mariana and Sebastian are there to help me along. We sit at one of the town square benches for awhile, my leg elevated on a stump under the table. The trek back to the tent seems to take forever. I can barely hold myself upright as Nick and Marcos alternate carrying me. I am nervous about the night, should anything go wrong, I’m not next to anyone I know and I worry that no one will hear me. What if I need to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom or worse, what if I go into shock and something goes wrong with the leg that I need help and no one will be there? I decide to take the risk of sleeping alone anyway and by morning, I’m relieved that nothing went awry during the night. I do my best to collect myself, make breakfast, etc. Things are taking me a bit longer than normal, but otherwise, I am able to get around thanks to some trekking poles from Marcos. He’s on his way to the Chaltén after the Roctrip so he has mountain gear with him
as well. I am once again, lucky. I have all day to tear down my tent and pack my things. I was supposed to leave that night, but I will instead stay one night more in the house in our little city since I am now taking a different bus directly to the airport in Bariloche the following morning. This will save me the hassle of managing my bags, switching buses and finding a hotel in Esquel for one night. Nick and Marcos are not motivated to head out climbing straight away so I have help from time to time. I even get to lunch with them on the beach in the sun, which was super relaxing.
BBQ and Party
This is the last day of the Roctrip and I am, therefore, not going to miss much climbing. Still, while everyone is out climbing, I’m left in the little village to take in the various forms of entertainment. Many locals have come to our little town, probably for the free BBq later that night. There are kids running around everywhere and several Caballeros in traditional Argentinian garb. First there were youth on the horses, then they were swapped out for the adult men each having a turn to try to ride the wild one. The Caballeros would ride alongside the man riding the bucking bronco. Some men were pulled from the horse before he was thrown off and others rode until being thrown. All the while, a commentator would speak loudly about the event, counting seconds until the men were bucked off. The one to stay on the longest, presumably wins.
While this bucking contest was being held, I wandered the grounds a bit to explore the fire pits that had been established for the night’s BBq. I could not believe the number of animals that had been slaughtered for this event. In a way it was a fantastic site because I enjoy eating meat, but at the same time it was a bit of a shock to see how many animals were up for consumption that night. I reflect on why people say ‘thanks’ before meals and consider it a good practice in honor of the animal that gave his life to nourish me.
After awhile, people start returning from climbing. There is a 400 person line to be served but the athletes have their portion brought to the house in a cardboard box. People get arm deep in various cuts of meat trying to carve something out for themselves. It’s a very primal experience. Everyone is chewing, gnawing or otherwise handling their food. I smile looking around at all of us. It’s a good thing we live in these conditions and experience them together or someone on the outside would think we were crazy. I mean, there really isn’t an eloquent way to eat under those circumstances. Just go with it and enjoy! That night was one of the best nights of the entire event. Sean Villanueva gave a slideshow about climbing in Venezuela then Said and his band performed late into the night. No one slept, or if you tried, you didn’t sleep well.
Under the Stars
That night the stars were plentiful and I couldn’t help but study what I thought was the constellation Orion. Orion is a winter constellation in the Northern Hemisphere but apparently is also a summer constellation in the Southern Hemisphere. For some reason, I thought it would not be visible at all. I stared at it long and hard trying to figure out it’s orientation. It was definitely the same Orion I was used to but I was perspectively challenged to capture the difference accurately. I also looked for the southern cross, the southern Hemisphere’s beacon in the sky and any other constellation that might stand out. The universe is so vast and awesome that I could have slept outside staring up all night just watching them seemingly go by.
Morning comes and it’s time to leave. I join a host of others enroute for Bariloche where I will catch a flight to Buenos Aires and then head back to the States. I have a lot of support from my fellow travelers for my bags and helping me attempt to make my flight. The bus, on the other hand, has no such agenda and stops at a café where we are fed even though I am more concerned about making progress to the airport than eating. Tranquillo comes to mind and I settle back into my adventure. The group splits up, some continue by bus via the scenic route to the airport, others, including myself, take a cab directly for the airport. We arrive around 2pm and despite the flight delay, I cannot check in. The desk gives me a hard time and without thinking through my reaction, I offered up my situation to which the airline responded by not allowing me to fly for 2 more days. They were worried for swelling and could not make any special accommodation for my leg. I was also worried about being immobilized on the long flights but I really wanted the leg checked by someone I trust in the States. Therefore, I tried everything I could to see if I could make my flight, but in the end, I learned that I did not have the right information to pull it off. For example, Global Rescue is available through The American Alpine Club had I not let my membership lapse. Ooops!
A few more days in Argentina definitely wasn’t the worst outcome from this situation. In fact, when the hotel I had arranged fell through, I ended up at the Hostel Patenuk with other friends. I didn’t stay there, however, because it was dingy and there was no way to bathe. I could not get the wound wet and I wanted some place a little nicer if I was going to be lounging around for 2 days. Hostels are great when you only need a place to sleep, in my opinion. Since I couldn’t walk with my luggage all over town and I already had to walk to the Hospital to get the sign off from a Traumotologist that I could fly in a couple days, I simply inspected the nearby hotels as I walked by and took one a building over from the Patenuk, called The Hotel Cacique Inacayal.
the pharmacy and the main strip for shopping; free buffet breakfast; TV with a variety of channels to choose from (some English programs, too); and most importantly a clean bath tub where I could bathe and keep my leg from getting wet. Cleaning the injury site felt more sanitary in these conditions than at the hostel and I really enjoyed my stay, especially the welcomed rest.
Traveling back to the States was uneventful. Logistically, it just took a long time. Fly from Bariloche to Buenos Aires, take a bus between the two airports then take the flight from Buenos Aires to Dallas, Tx and continue travel until I end up in Seattle 30 hours later. The only snafu was when I changed my destination from SDF (Louisville, KY) to SEA (Seattle, WA). Despite taking every precaution and planning the last transfer so I wouldn’t have to switch airports in Dallas, I still managed to screw it up. *shakes head* I swear that I have made sure I only need to switch terminals only to arrive at the ticketing station to learn that indeed my tickets are for the other airport. *sigh* I flag down a cab and head for Lovefield. I have plenty of time between flights so this is not a matter of time, it’s just a matter of inconvenience. I’m trying not to walk all over the place carrying my bags and this little detour does not help. But, I have a very interesting cab driver that morning. His name is Mohammed and apparently he’s been waiting for me all his life. J
It’s now a matter of a few hours before I am on the ground in Seattle and only a bit more before I am ‘home.’ I’ve been on the phone with Microsoft’s 24 hour health line trying to find a doctor to look at my leg as soon as I land. The best I get is a Nurse Practitioner visit to my home. These people were awesome, btw. Every layover I had, they were calling me just as I had told them to. Every step of the way I was talking with medical professionals organizing their visit. When I landed, the nurse practitioner called me right on time and headed straight for my home where he arrived only 20 minutes after I did. I couldn’t ask for better service. He took my vitals and everything looked fine despite that I had been feeling nausea for the last 2 hours. Naturally, after he left the symptoms got worse and the injury site turned red. I was doubled over in pain for most of the night, running a 99.2 fever. I was in my long johns, sleeping bag and had the heat up but I was still chilled. Fortunately, my sister has a lot of experience with these kinds of things having raised 4 children, 3 of which are still home. She wakes me in the middle of the night to be sure the fever isn’t worse. It’s not and I try to sleep. I have promised her that I would go to the hospital if the fever got worse, but by morning, the fever broke. The leg was still irritated and my nausea had not lifted but at least the fever was gone.
Meanwhile, Nick had returned to Ky and was on his way to the New River Gorge. Another friend of ours, Jimmy, had been staying in the house in Ky. Jimmy shipped me my work computers and a pair of jeans. I was very thankful when they arrived Friday noon. I could at least work while I was fixing to stick around Seattle a bit. Monday I was to see the orthopedic doctor, the one who a year ago did the surgery on my shoulder. After this meeting, I learned my leg was infected despite the antibiotics I was taking. I was put on a new round of antibiotics, given some pain killers and told to try not to aggravate it so it can heal. My colleagues at work pretty much sent me home to rest Monday so I stayed home Tuesday and Wednesday. All of my travels have been put on hold until the leg infection clears. Climbing is also on the back burner, though I am trying to do what I can. Fortunately there are gyms nearby that I can visit and socialize.
After this incident there were a few things I noticed that I did not tend to this time that I usually have done in the past, a few oversights that should not be missed in the future. These are things I pass on to you, a sort of adventurers travel check list:
- Make sure you are up to date with all immunizations/boosters (like Tetanus)
- Always travel with antibiotics. Ask your doctor to prescribe you some for your trip, explain where you will be going and they will know what to give you, as a just in case.
- Consider medical evacuation insurance (especially useful for anyone going out into remote areas or into terrain that is particularly suspect for care should you get hurt). Make sure you understand global coverage for international trips.
- Carry your insurance card, and verify with your medical insurance provider what they will cover, particularly for international travel
- Register with STEP (if a US citizen) for Government assistence in the event of an emergency. https://step.state.gov/step/
That about covers it. I’d do it all again, even if it meant having the same injury. I absolutely loved this adventure from start to finish: good times, scary times, good friends and new adventures. This was a trip that made me feel alive. I realized how incredibly happy I could be living out of a jetboil and tent, wearing the same clothes for days, climbing and just living life. The trip somehow made me and my problems feel small, even my injured leg. I appreciate how much I can enjoy my life and how little it has to do with anything other than myself. No amount of clothes, food, shelter or career can have this impact for me. I wish everyone could have this kind of experience for themselves. Maybe it’s not Argentina, maybe it’s not this adventurous. Just have an experience that is out of your comfort zone and be willing to see the discomfort as an adventure!
Thanks for joining me on this journey through my trip recap. I hope you enjoyed reading it.
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