My experiences in these past three months have shed light on an unexpected irony. In feeling incredible weakness, my knees buckling under the weight of my pack and my legs burning with each step through the rising snow, I knew what it meant to be strong. In waking up cold and wet, watching, the walls of the tent bowing under the weight of snow, I knew what it meant to get a good night’s sleep. Staring up at Utah’s cloudless night skies, the billion stars dotting every inch of darkness, I understood what it meant to feel small. Splashing in sheer panic as I dove headfirst into a pot hole in the canyon, my whole body paralyzed by fear, I knew what it meant to be brave. In being dwarfed by Patagonia’s grand landscapes, it’s peaks, valleys, waterfalls, condors, and the occasional Huemul, I knew what it meant to feel big. In all of the moments of weakness and fear, I found strength and courage – the good within the bad. All the toughest moments these past months have had the greatest impact. All the good and bad, dark and light, big and small, they inevitably coexist. I cannot be brave without first being fearful. I cannot be full without first being hungry. I cannot grow without first being challenged.
Just a few days ago, HMI Gap 2017 came to an end, and with its closing, we began to reflect on what this experience has meant for us. Of course, so much has happened that it will no doubt take much longer – weeks, months, years even – to fully metabolize its impact. Even so, during the final section of the course, each of us did a 36-hour solo to begin the process of reflection and to distill this experience to be able to say something, anything, when people at home ask, “How was it?”
At the surface, each group concluded their semester with a focus on embracing independence. The Rock group left Chile Chico early on Dec. 3 and traveled nearly the whole day to Piedra Parada, deep in the pampas of Argentina, and fell asleep under the stars and beech trees of the estancia. The next morning, we awoke surrounded by cows and horses, and we headed into Buitrera Canyon to climb. The canyon had 500 foot volcanic tuff walls and hundreds of sport climbing routes. For the next 10 days, we took the skills we had accumulated throughout the semester and put them all to practice.
The result of that was near self-sufficiency, and rather than feeling like we were on an “outdoor program,” it felt more like we were a great group of friends on an amazing climbing trip. We embraced this opportunity and pushed each other to lead challenging climbs. We became more comfortable taking larger lead falls trying more difficult routes. Often, falls represented successes, since falls meant we were pushing our limits.
The Backpacking group was tasked with planning a week-long expedition to Cerro Castillo. Using maps with 50-meter contour lines and limited information, we planned a route through the area that would challenge our physical limits and ability to work as a team. In Patagonia, harsh weather and rugged terrain aren’t considered challenges, they’re just part of the experience, and this final expedition did not disappoint.
Of course, there is one particular day that stands out. It started out like any other day: early wake up, breakfast, pack up camp, start walking. A large river crossing almost immediately got out attention – maybe this wouldn’t be a casual walk in the woods. Across the river, we followed fading trail markers scattered amongst the lenga where two trail markers pointed directly up a rocky snow-filled ravine.
Excitement built as we approached what we believed was the top of the pass, and quickly withered as we spied the actual pass looming over a mile in the distance. We greeted huge wind gusts with hooting and hollering, the adrenaline keeping our morale high. As we crested the pass, relieved to be descending, we simultaneously realized the scale of our ambition: This day was an epic! Below us, a steep and vast scree field gave way to a snow covered drainage. In pairs we traversed the slick snow and loose rocks. The wind gusts tore us from our already unstable footing. Crossing the snow became a slow process, moving carefully, then bracing for impact as gusts moved in. Rattled and weary but finally in the protection of the forest, we continued to camp. Our truly epic day ended with a big warm meal on the edge of a glacial river, flanked by beautiful mountains and flaming sunset skies.
“Whenever roles shift and we step into uncomfortable transitions, there is a chance to find new outlets for the parts of ourselves that may be under-appreciated, or perhaps yet undiscovered; a time to reevaluate the things that have always been done this way, and to follow new inspirations.” I wrote this entry on the plane to HMI, the first day of our semester, and it seems quite applicable in this moment. I have watched each of us grow, discover that new part of ourselves, and follow new inspirations. I have challenged myself to be present, to wake up with an open mind, to be honest, to ask questions; to simply be the person the “world” won’t always let me be, and have had the immense honor of watching each of you do the same thing. Thank you all for giving me the space to explore who I really am in this moment and helping me begin to decide who it is I hope I will become. For giving me more credit than I would ever give myself, for challenging and supporting me. I hope to live a life of courage and compassion. This experience has given me the opportunity to examine what it feels like to be courageous. To stand even with my fear, looking it right in the eye, to confront that unnerving mindset that I must be unafraid.
The details, the epic hikes, the wild climbs, don’t answer the question “How was it?” We’ve each come full circle, back where we started, yet transformed by this incredible journey. It’s left indelible marks on each of us, some epiphanic and other imperceptible, but marks nonetheless. These marks are left by those moments of calm, of exhaustion, of inspiration, of uncontrolled laughter, of fear, and of friendship. Of course, we all had ideas of what our Gap experience would be like and what we wanted to get out of it, but none of us could have predicted all that it offered us. The true test of our independence is how we confront uncertainty, make sound decisions that have real consequences, apply the skills we’ve learned, and support our peers to do the same. And departing HMI Gap to what each of will do next may be the greatest challenge we’ve faced yet.
By Janet Conklin, Jedi Biswas-Diener, Minnie Hutchins, Nora Fried, Chris Barlow and Becca Schild