HMI Gap: A Festive Final Expedition

In the small town of Villa Cerro Castillo, in the valley below the jagged and fortress-like peaks of Cerro Catillo, we made preparations for our final expedition of the semester. Part of what makes the final expedition at HMI special is that we have the opportunity to earn “Independent Student Travel” or “IST” time. To make this model work we elected a Student Expedition Lead or “SEL.” She held the main vision for our group and actively worked with the instructors to plan what each day would look like. Our SEL coached us to work together as a group to plan out our trip. Each night we gathered to prepare a “Route and Description” or RAD plan. We, as students, were in main control of this expedition.
Hiking in the Cerro Castillo backcountry both stunned and challenged us with its breathtaking beauty and steep, exposed mountain passes. The terrain forced us to use the team-building skills we’d worked up to all semester. We assessed the risk of the scree and loose rocks–putting into practice terrain assessment techniques we’d gathered from a semester’s worth of coaching from instructors. Using our decision-making matrix we decided that it would be safest to cross the furiously windy mountain passes without any breaks. Emboldened by months of hearty adventure, we powered through!  Despite the difficult terrains, we kept our positive attitudes and supported each other throughout the hike. We were rewarded with humbling views of the valley below.  On top of our second pass, we could see Villa Cerro Castillo and an overview of all the rivers and valleys surrounding us. (Personally, I was so appreciative of what I was seeing that I teared up!) Looking back up at the mountains, seeing the places we had been and the trails we took, we felt a deep pride for how far we’d come–both literally and metaphorically since first arriving in Patagonia in February.
After making it through a few difficult days of hiking through mountain passes, we hunkered down to do some volunteer work in the Porteadores campsite. There, we worked with Senderos Patagonia to help clear more camping spaces to reduce the overall environmental impact visitors to the park had on the area. For three days we worked with park employees and learned valuable skills (like how to roll logs downhill!). On day eight of the expedition we headed up the valley we were camping in onward to the Neozelandés campsite, where we planned to complete a 24-hour solo to bring the course to a close. The solo is a cornerstone of any closing to an HMI program. Sometimes students choose to spend a few hours in reflective seclusion from the group and other times–an entire day! Unfortunately, it started raining in the middle of the night so we had to call ours to a close early.  We enjoyed meeting back up and were grateful to be able to stay warm and dry in our tents. We ended that night by making an epic feast from our remaining rations and by playing lots of silly games. That night, a snowstorm hit the higher elevations on the mountains. We woke up in the morning to a gorgeous dusting of powder. This inspired the group to begin singing holiday tunes. On our final day of hiking, we chose to embrace the snowy weather and belted the holiday songs out the entire way down the mountain–it was a definite highlight for everyone!  Now we have the bittersweet final days of saying goodbye to each other and heading back home. Though we’re all excited to see our families, we’ll all miss HMI, Patagonia, the beautiful sights, and the friends we made.