Right foot, left foot, trekking pole. Right foot, left foot, trekking pole. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I was slowly crab-walking my way across the Rio Soler, two clients tucked behind me in a conga line. The frigid water was well over my crotch and I leaned heavily over my pole to resist the surprising amount of force generated by the seemingly sluggish flow.
We were almost on the far bank when my foot skated on an algae covered stone, slipperier than a room full of politicians. Suddenly, I was plunged beneath the water. An instant pulse of adrenalin soon gave way to the grim realisation that I was unable to resurface. The weight of my pack was keeping my head below water while my feet and hands frantically scrambled for purchase.
Luckily, the client immediately behind me had diligently listened to my briefing and had never relinquished his grip on me. He hauled me backward, freeing me from the river’s deadly embrace.
I was tired. Not the kind of tired you’d expect after a long run or after a hard day of cragging. Not the kind of tired that a good night’s sleep could fix. This was a deep, persistent fatigue, both mental and physical.
That year, I’d worked as an assistant guide on several expeditions in Alaska and Patagonia. By this point, I’d been on the go for some eight months with only a handful of days off, most of which were spent traveling between the hemispheres. The botched river crossing was not only an obvious indication of impending exhaustion, but an omen of things to come on what I would eventually name “The Second Worst Journey in the World”.
Although my tale probably doesn’t even scratch the surface of tribulation in comparison to Aspley Cherry-Garrard’s famous Antarctic sufferfest, it was for me the very worst expedition I’ve participated in over the course of a decade spent largely in the field. Sure, I’ve had bad trips before – I’ve outlasted apocalyptic hell storms, slogged dozens of miles only to be shut down by poor snow conditions, undergone savage death marches whilst carrying loads that would cripple a draft horse… but this trip was in a league of its own.
Never before had I worked with a team that was so useless, dysfunctional and fundamentally broken. These guys were about as compatible as children are with chainsaws. Three of these characters had traits and idiosyncrasies that, whilst troublesome in some ways, were tolerable. The real spanner in the works was the fourth client, a young lady whom I’ll call Lunchmeat in order to protect her identity.
Lunchmeat was a real piece of work. She was the absolute antithesis of Darwin’s Law, and the fact that she was not only alive but had somehow made it to the Northern Patagonian Ice Field was absolutely inexplicable. She was constantly bewildered by the simplest of instructions, had a tendency to lose important pieces of equipment, and most frustratingly of all, was lazy and slow. She was the ultimate test of my patience, and that of her teammates. Her inability to perform with even a modicum of competency divided the group and crushed its morale. They were less of a team than a reluctant gang of squabbling miscreants. They were kind of like the Dirty Dozen except that they never banded together in the final act.
A typical and somewhat fateful event occurred one evening at The Keyhole, a narrow pass that forms the gateway to the Ice Cap:
“What are you doing?” I asked Lunchmeat in utter disbelief.
“I’m eating dinner,” she replied dreamily.
“Yes… but you’re eating it with an ice screw,” I said. She was using the hanger of a Black Diamond Express to shovel cheesy pasta into her face.
“Yeah, well, I lost my spoon, soooooo….”
I fashioned a spoon from the plastic cover of a Rite-In-The-Rain notebook and admonished her for her lack of concern for her personal well-being, not to mention that of the group. I explained that the use of an important, potentially life-saving piece of equipment in such a flippant manner was bad juju. I wish I could say this event was an isolated incident, but the entire trip was characterised by similar moments.
Shortly afterward, having forged our way onto the vast, white expanse of the Northern Ice Cap, we established a camp in the lee of Cerro Largo. This long, glaciated massif stretches north for several kilometres along the spine of the glacier, our only protection from the onslaught that was to come. A vicious Patagonian storm soon began to rage and lasted an entire week.
Such trials are enough to break the spirit of all but the hardiest adventurers. The wind was unrelenting, and the snow accumulation needed round-the-clock attention, with sometimes two or even three people outside digging at once in order to prevent our camp from total destruction. It was the scariest time of my life, and that includes a tour of Afghanistan.
As the apathy within the clients grew, their efficiency in shovelling dwindled. I distinctly remember one moment where I heard one of them brushing the snow from the fly of our tent. This put my mind at ease. I reasoned that if he had time to perform such a superfluous task, the walls and trenches outside must be relatively clear and perhaps the wind was weakening. My dig shift followed his, and I was appalled and terrified to see that the opposite was true – that the wind was blowing harder than ever, that the snow was beginning to flow over the walls and that we’d soon be buried alive. I cursed his name and dug harder than I’d ever dug before.
In the midst of this maelstrom, and despite our encouragement to the contrary, the group had been too lazy to cook meals or melt snow to create water, thus contributing to their malaise. Lunchmeat urinated in her sleeping bag some three times, but the best was yet to come.
When the storm finally abated, I emerged from the tent to enjoy the novelty of a bluebird sky. What I found was a like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Lunchmeat had clearly engaged in the gastro-intestinal equivalent of the bombing of Dresden. I have never in my life seen so much human shit spread over such a large area. It literally covered the camp from top to bottom. I’m not sure how that’s even possible, but there it was.
Turns out, she’d continued to eat from the ice screw after losing the make-shift spoon I’d given her. It had developed rust, which she’d consumed and consequently expelled with gusto.
The remainder of the group was livid. They’d had enough, and so had we. We left the Ice Cap having gained nothing more than bad memories and hurt feelings.
That was three years ago, and I’ve only just come to grips with how that trip affected me. For months afterwards, I would try to write about the event, attempting to wring some catharsis from the chaos. But I was unable to spin the event in even a remotely positive way, unable to find the silver lining. And then, as these things do, it came to me in a moment of clarity.
I was scheduled to work another Ice Cap expedition after “The Second Worst Journey in the World” but I was a complete wreck. By all reports, the trip that I should have been on was absolutely phenomenal, but I simply couldn’t bear the thought of another slog up the Soler Valley and another brutal trudge across that malevolent white wasteland. I returned home a broken man, physically and emotionally depleted. It was time for some serious soul-searching and a savage appraisal of my career choice.
Was guiding right for me? Was it what I really wanted to do? Could I put myself in that same situation again, a situation where I’d be responsible for people whom I wouldn’t even trust to cross the street without adult supervision? I began to realise that an outdoor career with any prospect of longevity would need to be forged on my own terms.
This train of thought set me upon a new path. I sought an alternate means to not only experience climbing and the outdoors, but to share it with others. This pushed me deeper into the world of adventure writing. By turns, my work improved until it became published in various outdoor magazines and books. It was the genesis of the website you see before you. I eventually returned to guiding, and I still occasionally take the odd mountaineering expedition, but writing is my true labour of love.
This was the gift that “The Second Worst Journey in the World” gave me. Upon realising this, I was finally able to make sense of that godforsaken expedition, finally able to appreciate the necessity of it. Like all challenges, it shaped me. It is one of the key events that made me who I am today.
I don’t subscribe to the theory that everything happens for a reason. I think that some things in life are arbitrary and uncontrolled. But I do think that if you look hard enough, there’s something to be gained from even the most dismal of circumstances. In truth, those are the moments from which we learn the most.
It’s always darkest before the dawn, they say. Funny how these things work.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.