HMI Gap: An Extended Journey through Patagonia National Park

Wilderness Group (F-Trek)

Written by Michael Kao and Graham O’Connor

Imagine waking up in the backcountry, wrapped tight in your warm sleeping bag that has now become your home for almost three months. The birds are chirping, the Austral spring sun is shining, and the pregnant guanacos (wild cousins to the llama) are giving birth. Ah yes. These are the true signs that we are immersed within nature.

That was day one of twenty-one days spent on our first Patagonia expedition through what is in the process of becoming Patagonia National Park, making it the longest expedition ever attempted by an HMI group.

Like all auspicious starts of a successful expedition, something had to go wrong right off the bat. In our case, our stoves went on strike on the first day and refused to burn any fuel. Luckily, the magnificent and friendly neighborhood program director, Chris Barlow, endowed us with new isobutane stoves that worked like a charm.

HMI Gap student getting water from a pristine river in Parque PatagoniaWe spent the following days adjusting to the maps of Chile, which depict larger areas but suffer from a lack of detail (we now have tremendous gratitude for the efforts of the USGS, recognizing that not every country has done such a detailed geographical/topographical survey of their entire landmass). This was the source of much exasperation and angst  experiential learning and a crucial reminder that although we’ve gained a fair bit of experience over the past two months, Patagonia is a new environment filled with new challenges.

Despite the challenging navigation, we enjoyed the many wonders of Patagonia, ranging from condors flying mere feet overhead as we trekked across windy ridges and grassy plains to majestic glacial lakes (which looked suspiciously similar to giant pools of Arctic Freeze Gatorade… but we digress).

HMI Gap group at the glacier lake, Patagonia National ParkWe spent our first week making our way towards the fabled “Glacier Hut” and when we arrived, we were greeted with hospitality, hard work, and most importantly, a malfunctioning outhouse. At Glacier Hut, we slept indoors as a community, underwent gritty trail work, and started our course on Wilderness First Aid. Will and Mike spent their free time exploring the nearby lake formed by glacier water, and climbing as close as they could to the ever-present roaring waterfalls. Graham, Tamir, and Ally spent their free time reading and bonding over sitcoms while the rest of the group played games, shared many laughs, and enjoyed the refuge that the hut provided as the harsh winds of Patagonia raged throughout the night.

On the 22nd of November, we had our own backcountry Thanksgiving celebration, with traditional staples like mashed potatoes and gravy along with some creative substitutes like pear cobbler and quinoa stir-fry. There’s no setting quite like the backcountry that makes you truly grateful for the little things. It feels as though every time we venture into the backcountry it becomes more and more apparent in how we take solace within each other throughout the heavy rain, icy snow, hard hitting hail and whiplike winds. Whether it be in the extreme cold of the canyon waters in Utah or under the searing sun out in Chile, there is one thing that we all are grateful for; how much we have grown. Each and every one of us has matured, become accustomed to the brashness of the wild, and grown as a community of eight teenagers ready to take on the world.

HMI Gap student Lago General CarerraOne of the many highlights of the expedition was the opportunity for a student solo night near the end of the expedition. Students departed from the main camp at 8:30 PM for their own isolated campsites and returned at 6 PM the next day. For each student, the experience was unique and deeply personal; some students opted to fast for a day as they meditated or wrote poetry while others simply basked in the breathtaking landscape of Patagonia. After spending the past two months in 24/7 contact with our small clan of 8 students, it was a strange, yet welcome, experience.

Despite a few difficulties along the way, we managed to rise to the challenge each time things didn’t go quite as we had anticipated, and overall, the trip was a smashing success.

As we write this blog post, the group is already preparing for our final 7-day student planned expedition in the Cerro Castillo region. Although our time together as a group is nearing its close, we’re all looking forward to the promise of adventure next week and the many memories that we will share for years to come.

Until next time,