Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Enduring Patagonia, a book recommendation

"I don't come to the mountains because the world is any better up here.  I come into the high mountains because I am so much better up here.  Down in the normal world I seldom have life under control.  The details escape me.  I muddle in confusion.  Solutions are not apparent.  A lead bar of stress sits in my gut and motivation is a struggle to summon.  That stress is more debilitating than the fear I find here in the mountains, the cold alpine fear that impels me to hot rages of action.  Here in the mountains I ride the limits of my human potential.  I feel no doubt about the possible courses of action.  I know what to do, how to do it, and I set about doing it.  Here, I do not stomach compromise.  I have become, like Jim, a goddamned, unrepentant alpinist, and our lives are victories, for we do not live like slaves."

A great book!  If you think this quote makes absolute sense, then the book will be absolutely captivating.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Vermin + Canyoneering = Good Fun

It was a few years ago when I was working at a Climbing gym, the Ben Lomond Climbing Center which was also my home away from home and the place where my extended family visited daily, that an idea was hatched to do a little canyoneering in Zion National Park, the mother of all canyoneering destinations.  I had done a fair amount in the past so by default I was elected the trip organizer although my partners were equally as capable so that was a mere formality.  

All things being considered the canyon went off without a hitch.  We dropped into Pine Creek which was a rather moderate technical route but one that promised a purely spectacular experience.  It was lean, dark, wet and cold with dizzying rappels amidst flying buttress style arches and chockstones and log jams to inchworm around.  On the continuum of fun for canyoneers it ranked pretty high.  That coupled with the fact that the first rappel was mere feet away from the bumper of ones car made it low hanging fruit.  Perfect for our intentions.

Somehow on this adventure an unknown quantity was introduced into the group.  Of the five people descending the canyon, myself and three others were patrons of BLCC and well known to me.  One of my friends invited another individual who was a total novice to the vertical world which I wholeheartedly welcomed to the foray, generally enjoying the chance to share my passion with others.

Towards the end of the canyon my friend's friend had withstood most of the challenges quite well and I was duly impressed.  On only a few occasions had she shed a tear or two before taking the plunge down one rappel and then another which was actually her only option given the nature of canyoneering.  Once you start doing multiple rappels and pulling ropes you are basically committed to finish in the direction you are going.

She was a good sport for someone who knew not what she was getting into.  The real challenge for her came later when we were enjoying a delicious spread prepared by our gracious hosts who were the parents of one of our group members.  For me it was an unusually comfortable arrangement with free boarding inside a cozy house with thick slabs of bacon awaiting my hungry chops in the morning.  For her it was another test of her tolerance for adventure in terms of her New York vegetarian idealism.  Things got entertaining after one too many comments about eating meat for every meal when our host decided to share how a nuisance like a skunk is handled in Glendale, UT.  Eradication included a 55 gallon drum full of water and a pirate inspired plank with a tempting morsel at the end of the line.  If the design worked correctly, the critter would creep further along after its prize until the carefully weighted device gave way to physics and PLOP!  Down went the the skunk, treading water for as long as it possibly could.  The water served the dual purpose of finishing off the vermin as well as diluting the almost guaranteed stench it would create.

I suppose when you seek out adventure you are almost always in for more than you bargain.  A healthy sense of humor goes a long ways and some flexibility too.  It also never hurts to be considerate to the people you are imposing on.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Grass Is Always Greener

Thunder Mountain, Red Canyon UT
I have been as guilty of this as anyone else.  Guilty of believing for one reason or another that I have to travel to far off places to experience the exotic.  I have news for my fellow Utahns.  You and I are smack dab in the middle of one of the most exotic places in the world.

For those of you that have lived here for any amount of time, you might laugh at this but you are merely suffering from a case of "the-grass-is-always-greener syndrome."  To prove my point I have one simple test.  Pick up one of your favorite travel/adventure magazines and flip to the back.  There you will find the ads trying to lure you to the most exotic places like Machu Picchu, Thailand, Mount Kilimanjaro, etc.  And listed alongside all of those locations is Utah, not surprisingly.  
Birch Hollow

I realize that by definition "exotic" implies foreign or distant but just know that Utah, as a destination, is considered one of the most exotic places by everyone else in the world.

This doesn't stop me from wanting to buy a one way around the world ticket and take a year or two to see everything else.  In the meantime though, Utah makes the ideal base camp.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

And Now For Something Completely Different

It's a well developed and poignant idea.  Thank you, Mr Cleese.  It is worth committing the time to watch, or if you just can't bare it then skip to the soccer skit for a laugh.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Wasatch Scrambler

The following is a brief breakdown of ratings based on the Yosemite Decimal System (from wikipedia) up to the point when you begin subdividing what is traditionally considered roped climbing. 
  • Class 1: Walking with a low chance of injury.
  • Class 2: Simple scrambling, with the possibility of occasional use of the hands. Little potential danger is encountered.
  • Class 3: Scrambling with increased exposure. A rope can be carried but is usually not required. Falls are not always fatal.
  • Class 4: Simple climbing, with exposure. A rope is often used. Natural protection can be easily found. Falls may well be fatal.
  • Class 5: Technical free climbing involving rope, belaying, and other protection hardware for safety. Un-roped falls can result in severe injury or death.                            
Seems like a pretty straight forward explanation, that is until you tell people you went scrambling.  Often the initiated climber looks at you rather strange.  For many, a scramble is the unwanted portion needed to access the more desirable 5th class rock climb or it is an unfortunate low angle break in what would otherwise be a classic, 5-star route.  For the non-rock climber it seems to mean you strayed off the hiking trail and up some dirty hillside.

Looking south from North Thunder Mountain
For me scrambling is a chance to pare down the amount of technical equipment needed, enjoy the adventurousness of the sport, and hone my alpine skills.  Last year I made a concerted effort to find and ascend several of the better Wasatch scrambles.  I was not disappointed.

The degree of difficulty and the amount of risk you opt for is entirely your decision, as is the case with all climbing really.  My only recommendation is to bring what you know and a healthy sense of adventure.

The following is a list of routes that I ticked off my list last year which I highly recommend.  With the right attitude I think you will find them intrinsically enjoyable and great preparation for bigger goals.

  • The Jagged Edge (5.4 ) - A very pleasant surprise in Ogden!  Great position on the mountain and fun.  The cruxy sections have good rock quality and are just spicy enough to keep it exciting.
  • Geurts Ridge (5.5, II) - The west facing spine of Mount Olympus that keeps coming and coming with sections of exposure and the company of goats.  It finishes on the South Summit . . .and then a knee rattling descent down the normal trail.
  • Hypodermic Needle (Steep Snow, IV) - Off of North Thunder Mountain, this is one of the prized back country descents for skiers.  Timing is everything to catch conditions right since it is not a rock scramble but rather a snow climb so crampons and axes may prove handy.  I included it in the list because it embodied my overall goal.  This is the most beautiful location I have visited in the Wasatch.
  • South Ridge (5.4, II) - This is the prominent ridge on Mount Superior just across the street from Snowbird.  It is another one desired by local ski mountaineers but in the summer it is a very pleasant scramble with sections of good exposure and access to several major summits.
  • Mineral Slabs (5.2, II) - Beautiful, remote feeling within a stones throw of BCC road (literally).  Remarkable low angle rock and stunning views.  Our descent had something to be desired but that can be improved on.

A couple similar routes I did in the previous year:

  • Stairs Gulch (Moderate Snow, IV) - Bring your best route finding instincts and a smile.  We glissaded Bonkers into Broads Fork for the descent. 
  • Devils Castle Traverse (4th Class, II) - Setting is everything here.  It almost makes you forget the chossy rock.

Rock climbing guide books often only briefly mention many of these options.  The Internet provides the following useful resources.  

Snapshot documentaries

A picture of Pigeon Spire I took while climbing the Kain Route on Bugaboo Spire.  The Bugaboos are one of those truly amazing places in the world.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Riding the fence on wilderness B is giving me slivers

On the issue of "wilderness B," I am definitely on the fence, sort of, but not really.

I consider this a shameful place to be when I should be riding my bike instead of the fence.  My attitude has never garnered me much favor among my mountain biking peers but that seems to be a general theme in my life so, what the hell.

For those who don't know about "wilderness B," it is a proposal to re-engineer or interpret the Wilderness Act of 1964 to accommodate bicycles.  In 1964 mountain biking wasn't even a part of the conversation since it didn't really exist and therefore a debate has emerged about whether or not it is in accordance with, or in conflict with, the spirit of the law.  As an avid mountain biker and outdoor enthusiast it begs the question about why I am on the fence and to that there is no simple answer.
East Fork Valley, Wind Rivers.  Poorly digitized old film photos.
Let me start with a basic explanation about why I support it.  I don't think there is that much unresolvable conflict between current user groups and cyclists, they are often one in the same.  There will always be purists who think otherwise.  More importantly though is the idea that "wilderness needs no defense.  It only needs more defenders" - I know, I know, again with the Abbey (he did provide the title for my blog after all).  I think we are at a critical crossroad in the conservation/preservationist movement in this country and the "drill, baby, drill" mantra needs a little balance (and by that I mean a lot).  A few more deep ecologists wouldn't hurt the conversation and in the bike community there are certainly a lot more fence sitters than just me.  Why not tap that human resource?

On the other hand, does the introduction of bicycles into pristine wilderness qualitatively change it from being wilderness?  This is where things get tricky.  My personal view is yes and no.  Biking is still a human powered activity, albeit mechanical.  There is also a lot of evidence to support the idea that it is less damaging in terms of erosion than pack animals and even foot traffic by some accounts.  
Steeple Peak 5.8, Deep Lake area.  Classic climbing.
So what is it that I oppose really?  For me it has very little to do with the bike itself or the act of riding it, but rather the precedent.  I am concerned about the slippery slope.  If we allow bikes now, then what?  And then after that what?  I know a lot of mountain bikers who aren't happy riding through flat, uninspiring terrain to get to the beauty of a ride (hikers too for that matter).  Wilderness can and should encapsulate greater ecosystems.  Consider current trends.  As more people recreate in the outdoors, roads become more prevalent, more are being paved, and then more extend deeper and deeper into the wild.  In the hustle and bustle of modern life, will we shrink the distance needed to travel to get to the meat and potatoes of our outings?  If so, this will compromise the notion of the ecosystem as a wilderness.  Also by adding new "advocates" we might actually be increasing the number of proponents for quicker access to remote places rather than defenders of preservation, and if that happens we effectively undo the spirit of wilderness.  I will cease examining the slippery slope short of asking who is next in line after the mountain bikers.
Erratic rocks near Wakashie Creek.
In further defense of wilderness I can't help but point to one of my favorite destinations as an example, the Wind Rivers.  These mountains embody my personal experience; expansive, remote, wild, unforgiving, and largely left untouched by modern technology.  During my first visit there I recall driving several hours on paved roads followed by a lengthy spell of suspension testing, washboard dirt roads, and then a couple of days of arduous, although spectacular, backpacking before I reached my final destination.  I felt distant and detached.  It was wild.  I even recall several years later going all the way around the world to Monte Fitz Roy in Argentina in search of that wild experience and thinking to myself how much more remote the East Fork Valley of the Wind Rivers felt.  It is truly something unique and special.

So where does the bear shit in the woods in the Wind Rivers?  Ultimately for me it is against "wilderness B."  Sorry mountain biker friends but man never knows when to say when.  Give him an inch and he'll take a mile.  There aren't miles and miles of wilderness to give.  Sure the "drill, baby, drill" folks will tell you otherwise, but in their view resources are practically endless.  They are entitled to that perspective too as much as I am my own, but they also aren't going to be the people who truthfully labor through the difficult pros and cons of this debate.  They have one view and one view only.  I at least begrudgingly relinquish one of my favorite hobbies in favor of another, more deeply held belief.  Sacrifice has to amount to something.
Looking over Haystack towards the Cirque of the Towers from the summit of Steeple Peak, 12,040'.
Don't fret though my "wilderness B" supporter friends.  I am all ears in this discussion if you can convince me that the slippery slope doesn't exist.  Until then, I have to err on the side of caution.  Maybe future wilderness designations deserve an entirely new consideration, one including "B" status ... but things do get mighty slippery, mighty fast, especially once one set of well intended folks move along and the entitlement of another group prevails.

About the Wilderness Act

Wilderness B advocates

Contiguous Ecosystems

Saturday, February 9, 2013

My Five Things List

I hate lists!  

I always have "things to do" but I don't make any damn lists.  I don't make lists because if I can't remember what I need to do then, 1) I am either way too busy for my own good or, 2) my mind has slipped far enough that it doesn't matter anyway.  


*  Satire:  Catch-22, Dr Strangelove, Vonnegut, and movies like those of the Coens focused my humor and insight.

*  My bicycle:  As a kid it made my world a much bigger and more exciting place.  It epitomized adventure and extrapolated into so many future endeavors

*  Zion National Park:  The first park I visited and my most memorable feeling of awe.  It provided me the motivation to keep seeking new vistas.

*  Brit:  My dog who taught me the meaning of companionship.  

*  Family and friends (often one in the same):  All the places I go and things I do wouldn't matter much without people to do it with.

Other worthwhile lists:

A cool blog documenting an attempt to complete all the routes in Fifty Classic Climbs of North America by Steck and Roper.  Make sure to check out the videos menu.

and this is a good one:

One of the more educational lists (Thomas the Train has a filthy mouth).

seems as good as anything to list:

and if the lists I approve of are all hedonistic, well . . .

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Sky is Falling

Stolen internet photo.
I think everyone has their own "sky is falling" theory and right now it seems more apparent than ever.  I used to enjoy snickering at others from afar as they donned their matching outfits and raised their arms to the sky, waiting for a free ride on the tail of a comet.  They were weirdos after all, a spectacle.  But now it seems normal people are caught up in, and acting out on, their own apocalypse scenario.  So what gives?

Foreign terrorist elements are plotting against me personally.  They are in the bushes lighting their streak marked, underwear bombs.  Since I have no women or children to speak of they must be after my bikes, after all that is the only thing of value I own.  Shit those bikes are expensive manifestations of my over-indulgent, Godless American greed.  I have it better than most though since the terrorists are easy to recognize.  By definition foreigners look and act and speak differently.  Plus the beady look of Jihad in their eyes gives them away.  

My neighbor has it much worse than me.  His own government is targeting him.  A plain clothes FBI agent casually reads a newspaper while parked inconspicuously across the street.  But my neighbor is no idiot.  In his underground doomsday bunker he is stockpiling an arsenal for such an event (luckily his emergency response protocol generalizes well to mutated, swine flu zombie attacks).  Somehow I think the tactics he acquired as an insurance salesman won't save him from a bulletproof van full of liberty hating ATF tyrants.  Like anyone with red blood flowing through their veins, he is prepared to go down in a hail of lead-filled glory, forsaken by his militia who have yet to punch the clock at work and race home to his rescue, only to find that they are one breakfast burrito too many from fitting into their surplus Kevlar.

And then there is the toxic ooze I am expected to drink from my faucet.  That shit is flammable.  I will surely die from either dehydration or leukemia if I can't move to an off-the-grid Montana compound first.  I can take comfort in the fact that before my tap water does me in I will be eaten alive by the last ravenous polar bear riding an errant iceberg released from Canada to the once plentiful deserts of Utah turned fracking sprawltropolis during a freak, climate change, weather event.  I can also take solace in the remaining moments of my life knowing that the inversion abomination will once and for all be washed out, affording me my last breath of fresh air.

So really, what gives?  People are bat shit, fucking crazy!  I am not saying that any of these concerns (among many many more) are without merit.  Terrorism . . . we all witnessed 911.  It still gets me chocked up every year when PBS shows those horrific documentaries in remembrance.   We shouldn't live with that kind of worry.  And the 2nd amendment . . . I come from a family of hunters.  It is a good, wholesome, family activity which provides sustenance and a chance for generations to connect when opportunities are scarce.  In addition, having the ability to protect yourself from a home intruder is a brave and dignified response to a life threatening situation.  Environmental degradation . . . if you live in the Wasatch Front all you have to do is step outside and go for a jog to figure out how bad that is (especially this winter).   We all desire a world where we can breath and eat and drink and recreate in our own backyards.  Kids shouldn't expect asthma.

I'm sure a lot of people will dismiss the above examples as ludicrous - straw-men if you will.  Admittedly they are ridiculous but that is the point.  These are barely embellished conversations that real people are having and these people aren't even the crazy Heavan's Gate folks awating Hale-Bopp.  These are our neighbors and coworkers and friends and family members.  These are the people who need a little perspective taking before any real problem solving can happen.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Agree or disagree, the debate hasn't moved much in 40 years.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Quintessential '12 (slideshow)

Amidst a bunch of craziness, I still managed to get out and play.
Here's to hoping we all find fun in 2013!

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Bavarian Christmas in Chile with a foreigner.

Exhausted, utterly satisfied, and a bit reluctant to see it all come to an end, I was less than 24 hours away from boarding my flight home and leaving my adventure behind.  My trip was an experiment that I had created in which I was both the lab rat and the researcher, flawed as that method may be.  

I always believed in my ability to land almost anywhere in the world and get around and more importantly enjoy it, but it is one thing to be confident in yourself and quite another to put it to the test.  The likelihood of my success was founded on two premises: 1) that I possessed the problem solving skills to make things work, and 2) people are generally good and helpful in a time of need.  Fortunately for me, each of these ideas proved to be true, more so #2 than #1.  Sure the location I chose was tame, relatively speaking, but it fit my criteria.  I wanted to go far away to a foreign speaking country of which I was barely (if at all) conversant, somewhere a bit on the wild side, and I wanted to arrive without a single contact or reservation to rely on, just a backpack and a general idea of where I was going and what I would do.

My chosen destination was Patagonia, the southern region of Chile and Argentina.  As a rock climber I had read a number of stories and seen enough remarkable images to inspire the level of wanderlust needed to attempt this experiment.  From Salt Lake City I boarded one flight after another, through L.A. then Lima and Santiago and Puerto Montt and finally Punta Arenas where I finished about 24 hours later.  Immediately I realized that my fish-out-of-water tale was about to begin.  Lima and Santiago are big international airports and politely offer English translations to all their announcements.  That was not the case anymore in Punta Arenas.  Now it was time to start problem solving in order to find a bed to sleep for the night.
Puerto Natales
One of the least clever ideas I devised to help when communication was difficult included taking a pen and a memo pad to simply write down what I meant to say.  Once I figured out where a hostel was, I would pass this paper and address to a cab driver and presto.  Ha!  As it turned out most of the cab services at the airport had some kind of affiliation with various hostels.  Sure the driver knew the address that I presented to him but it wasn't until 15 minutes into the commute that I realized, based on a crude city map in my Lonely Planet guide, that we weren't going where I wanted.  We had a conversation, half in English and half in Spanish and none of it well understood by either party, before he turned the van around and drove another 20 minutes out of his way.  The funny thing was that he dropped me off about three blocks away from my destination, intentionally I'm sure.  

So my resourcefulness was only marginally effective and not entirely foolproof.  I hoped that I wouldn't test those limits any further.  

At the hostel, which was a quaint little home, I introduced myself to Sebastian, the owner who was a young German man motivated by a sense of adventure and entrepreneurial instincts.  Following a trip of his own to South America he married a Chilean girl and took up residence in Punta Arenas, using his house as a hostel while he started up a tourism/guide service.  He was very courteous.  Too courteous in fact as he informed me that his place was completely booked but he would gladly accommodate me in his kids room.  He pushed the baby crib into his own bedroom and rolled out a sleeping bag on the floor next to it for the older child.  I now had a place to rest my head for my first night in Chile but the kids mobile hanging from the ceiling didn't calm my nerves enough for a good night sleep.  I tossed and turned wondering if I really knew what the hell I was doing.

Downtown Punta Arenas
The next day went pretty much the same.   I didn't have much planned beyond orienting myself to where I was.  Punta Arenas is a beautiful city with over 100,000 people.  It sits on the shores of the Straits of Magellen with enormous boats coming and going, often in route to Antarctica since it is the last major seaport leaving the continent.  The downtown is full of large stone buildings and churches ornately decorated in a very European style.  I learned all of this as I launched multiple reconnaissance missions about town, each time venturing further and further from the hostel.  

On one mission I passed by a sporting goods store and decided this would be a prime opportunity to find fuel for my camping stove.  It was essential that I purchase some.  In just a couple of days I would not only be in a foreign country, but I would be in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country. . .alone.  I was happy to find what I needed inside and pointed to the canisters behind the counter for the clerk to see.  She handed me one and then spit out a long string of words that left me glassy eyed.  I was positive she was telling me the price and I had studied my numbers in Spanish for this eventuality, but because 1 US dollar equalled approximately 630 Chilean pesos, we were talking about very large numbers that I didn't know well.  Chileans speak very fast too and their words tend to trail off unfinished sometimes.  I held out a handful of paper money and she took what she wanted and I my fuel and we parted company

A few minutes later I found myself sitting in a fugue on the beaches of the Straits of Magellen, worried.  Very worried.  I couldn't go through the next month just holding out handfuls of cash.  My belief in premise #1, the ability to problem solve, was dwindling fast.  I poked at jellyfish and collected shells from crabs and other strange aquatic creatures until I crossed paths with another English speaking gentleman.  This kid was in his early 20's, from London, and fresh out of drug rehab.  As a part of his treatment program he was headed to Antarctica to ski.  He nervously revealed that he had never skied before.  I suddenly felt much better.  As he wandered off I reached into my pocket and counted how much money I had and did the math.  By my estimation the clerk took an appropriate amount which confirmed premise #2, people are generally good and helpful.  I still needed another canister of fuel in order to complete my first backpacking trip so I returned to the same sporting goods store and pointed and grunted "otro" as she smiled knowingly and gave me what I needed.
Magellanic Penguin

From this point on I began to relax into a routine.  Occasionally there were little hiccups in my plan, as was to be expected, but nothing reared its ugly head higher than the incident with the cab driver or the attempt to purchase fuel.    The hiccups were remarkably small too in comparison to what I set out to experience.  I saw things that I would only see by traveling very far away like penguins, guanacos and rheas.  The mountains I backpacked through were undoubtedly some of the most spectacular in the world and due to good fortune, the infamous Patagonian weather cooperated, only blowing me off of a bridge on one occasion.  

But really it was the cultural exchange that I valued most, the opportunity to see how people in other places live.  In so many ways it appears different on the surface but they are just like you and I, struggling to put food on the table or roof over their heads and to simply be happy.  Some of the language barriers became a source of great amusement as I lumbered through phrases and words.  I learned quickly that Germans know 3 or 4 languages and were helpful translators in a pinch.  With a gentleman from France and one from Australia, I shared one too many whiskeys on the rocks using ice chopped from a freshly calved glacier that was plucked from the water as we floated by in our boat.  Bife de chorizo is delicious.  The Argentines know how to cook a cow.  They also know how to party at 8 in the morning during the Copa Sudamericana.  And then there was one particular Israeli guy who hated every waterfall we hiked passed and needed to express his contempt.

All in all the trip couldn't have been more successful.  Back in Punta Arenas with less than day to go I figured I would book a room at Sebastian's place again, hopefully not displacing his children a second time.  It seems that Sebastian ran a pretty successful business.  All of his rooms were full again but much like before he had a solution.  The couple staying in the guest room were from Germany and Austria and they shared a cultural connection to Sebastian.  He insisted on asking them if I could take the extra bed in the room they had reserved.  After a month of cavorting about South America I felt pretty confident I could find a place to stay that night and didn't want to cause any trouble but he quickly had his renter, Tobias, on the phone, asking for his approval.  It seemed like it was ok.
Moreno Glacier
I sat in the office making chit chat with Sebastian for a few minutes, basically gloating about the month I spent in Patagonia when he commented that Tobias was on his way over from the hostel and pointed.  I turned and looked out the picture window only to witness this monstrosity of man crossing the street.  Surely he was 8 feet tall.  The quintessential mesomorph with a clean shaven head and a super orbital ridge to rival any Cro-Magnon man.  I tried to introduce myself when he arrived with an outstretched hand, but Tobias just reached down and effortlessly shouldered the over sized pack that I had wrestled with for the past month.  I wasn't entirely sure why he was carrying it.  At a brisk pace we marched across the street and I thanked him profusely for letting me share the room.  In broken English he indicated that it was fine and he had just been discharged from the Austrian Special Forces.  This was his first night in town and he merely wanted to be with his fiance who he hadn't seen in 6 months.  Yup, and I was about to take the spare bed in their private room that night.

By early afternoon everyone had congregated at the house and the mood was much more convivial.  It was the eve of Christmas eve and the Austrian and Germans were reminiscing about their favorite holiday traditions.  Sebastian commented on how he brought his incense burners and carousels from home but had never set them up.  Then the topic of beef stew came up.  Apparently this was a very big deal.  It was hard enough for me to follow the Spanish parts of the conversation but now it was in German and a plan was being hatched and abruptly finalized.  They were going to show the American how Germans celebrate Christmas. . .in Chile.

Everyone quickly cut loose on a task like a football team breaking huddle.  Sebastian dug out old dusty decorations and the newly reunited couple gathered ingredients and chopped vegetables.  I desperately attempted to offer my services but I was sternly rebuked.  Somehow I was the guest of honor and for what?  Crashing their reunion?  Needless to say I had to offer up something, I mean, this monster of a man carried my bags across the street.  The least I could do was buy him a drink.  And that was it.  

While they busied themselves getting the celebration ready, I wandered down to the supermarket.  I had spent most of my time in Patagonia in small towns shopping in tiny markets which offered only the basics.  Punta Arenas was a full scale city with all the ambitions of growing bigger and this was a very modern grocery store.  Anyone who has shopped for wine in the States knows that Chile and Argentina are huge wine producing countries and this store reflected just how big.  The wine to bread isle ratio was skewed at about 3:1.  It became very clear what I would contribute to the party.  
Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine

I knew virtually nothing about wine though.  There was red wine and there was white wine and I get more amorous when I drink wine than I do beer.  That was the extent of my knowledge.  Just then I overheard someone speaking with too many vowels that were all run together and in a stroke of genius I thought to myself, ask the Frenchman.  Sure I was stereotyping but nevertheless I approached the stranger for advice on choosing a wine.  His eyes lit up.  He told me to stay put and he would be right back.  In under a minute he returned with his arms full of at least ten bottles and he proceeded to tutor me on the subtle hints and best pairings of each one.  This guy was amazing.  It turns out he was visiting Chile on a wine tasting extravaganza.  I listened carefully and thanked him for his help as I chose two bottles and a baguette and hurried back.

By the time I returned to the hostel, it was aglow with Christmas lights and the air was rich with the scent of incense and a hearty stew.  It didn't take long to pop open a bottle of malbec and pour everyone a glass with a toast.  As we drank and waited for the stew to finish, I learned that this hulking man who terrified me at first was actually one of the nicest people alive.  He left his military service to pursue his dreams to become a photographer.  As we drank his English either improved or my listening skills did.  His fiance, Sarah, was living in Buenos Aires while finishing her PhD.  She swore like a sailor and cracked me up.  

The beef stew was spectacular.  It had a spicy mustard base and full of carrots and potatoes and peas.  Following dinner Sebastian and his wife put their kids to bed and returned with more bottles of wine.  In the center of their house was a miniature atrium that could accommodate the entire group with standing room only but fresh air aplenty.  That far south in the Southern Hemisphere the sun sets very late during the end of December.  That coupled with great company and the flowing wine made it almost impossible to tell time.  I think I reluctantly turned in around 3 or 4 am.  

And that was how Bavarians celebrate Christmas in Chile with a foreigner.  That also further supported my notion that people are generally good and helpful, premise #2.  

8 am came way too fast the next day.  I called for a cab and with a mighty hangover embarked on 28 hours of airplanes, airports and delays which made me question premise #1 again, my problem solving skills.  I guess I eventually made it home so the experiment was mostly a success.
Cerro Torre