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A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers

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Adventure Travel

Mar 09, 2017

32 Days Alone: Silvia Vidal’s Patagonia Big Wall

This is a tale of isolation, patience, grit, happiness, pleasure, and uncertainty.

WRITTEN BY

Silvia Vidal

It usually takes Silvia Vidal half a year to recover after an expedition. However, after climbing a wall called “Serranía Avalancha” in the Chilean Patagonia, it took a lot longer. It wasn’t one of her run-of-the-mill epic climbs, but an incredibly intense adventure.

It always takes my body half a year to recover after an expedition. But when I returned home after climbing a wall called “Serranía Avalancha” in the Chilean Patagonia, it took longer. It wasn’t just a climb, but an intense adventure. It is hard to recount what I experienced there, and once you begin narrating the story, you simultaneously put it away in a drawer of memories.

The approach was hard because we had to use machetes to pass between the reeds and forest trees (in the Valdivian jungle) and make landmarks in order to find our way back. In such thick vegetation, you don’t see much beyond a few feet. Your passage is barred constantly, by rivers, both broad and narrow, by the 300 kilograms of equipment, and by the food and the boat that must be carried. For this approach, I hired two Argentine climbers (Dani and Dante), who helped carry the load.

On the second day, we reached a lake, at the other end of which stood the wall. I decided to establish my base camp here. My approach team returned at this point, and for the next month and a half, I was totally alone—no cook, no photographer, no climbing partner, no visitors…no one. Total solitude for a long time.

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Silvia Vidal establishing Espiadimonis (A4/6b, 1500m) up Serrania Avalancha, Patagonia. Photo: Silvia Vidal

I spent the first two weeks fixing 350m of the wall and watching the rain fall. These days were a prelude of what was to come, as I had to stay inside my tent for most of the time and could climb on only a few days due to the heavy rain. I also needed to row from base camp to the base of the wall, and sometimes it was too windy. I am not an expert rower and I can’t paddle straight.

When I first reached the wall, after several tries, I was forced to leave my haul-bag in the boat. I had packed it without calculating the terrain, assuming I would find a good spot from which to haul it off the boat. But on the vertical rock such spots did not exist, and the bag proved to be too heavy and the manoeuvres too awkward.

I spent all of the first day climbing the initial section of the great wall, which turned out to be 1,300m in its entirety (plus 200m of easy terrain to the very top).

That first day I climbed under a drizzle, and when I returned to the boat at night, my clothes were totally wet. This became a routine pattern during most of the nearly two months I spent there.

Luckily the sun would come out occasionally, and when it did, I was able to dry off. It was crazy how quickly the weather could change. One day could be sunny with a temperature of 28ºC, but the next day could be snowy and freezing. Although it mostly rained and the temperature was never that low, the constant humidity still made me feel very cold.

Finally, on 8th February, I moved from base camp to the wall with the intention to remain there until I either got to the top or was forced to rappel down for any reason.

I was well informed about what I could encounter on this trip. I was aware of the jungle and the approach, of the wall that rises directly from the water, of the weather conditions, and the very real possibility of climbing big wall style.

I had been warned that trying to set up portaledges on the wall was not a good idea because of the “waterfalls” that make it dangerous. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that “rivers” flow down the wall when it rains. And so I chose a line with more roofs because this offered valuable shelter. While Camp 1 on the wall was well protected from the rain, Camp 2 was fully exposed, and therefore I suffered. Once I was beyond the roofs, I was drenched with water falling from all directions. I spent the nights on the portaledge dressed in my Gore-Tex jacket and pants, inside a bivouac bag, and still water made its way inside my sleeping bag. I felt like I was in a swimming pool.

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For several days, I watched the storms and jets of water streaming down the face from the portaledge. This sight was the cause of my despair. Then dawn would break into a sunny day, and everything would acquire another color—blue. And then it was time to climb again. And so, I kept climbing and kept progressing. Fortunately, I had food for the 32 days that I spent hanging on the wall. Sixteen of them were days of total inactivity, but as I had expected there to be so much rain, I had brought more food and less water. This allowed me to hold out for such a long time on the wall.

I never bring any kind of communication device during my expeditions. No radio, no phone, no Internet. This leaves me totally isolated. If I am going alone, it is because I want to be alone and feel alone. To bring a phone would have changed my commitments and my entire experience. This is a personal choice. It also comes with disadvantages, like making a weather forecast unavailable. And this makes things a lot harder when you need to plan a summit ascent. Your chances of success are diminished by the lack of information.

On the 28th day on the wall, after ten days of continuous rain, I had to weigh my options and decide to either end the climb and rappel off the wall, or continue upwards. I had no idea when the weather would change. During the previous ten days, I had been optimistic, thinking that the next day would bring sunshine. But as the days passed, I started to worry and eventually had to make a decision. I was stuck at a 1000m from the ground. I couldn’t climb but I also couldn’t quit the route as I had all my ropes fixed above the portaledge. If good weather came, I needed to decide on either climbing up to retrieve my ropes and beginning a 3-4 day long descent, or continuing with the climb to the top and then rapping down. Too many days and too much uncertainty!

Finally it stopped raining and I was lucky to be able to reach the summit and also to rappel down, but not without trouble, as I had to twice cut a rope that got stuck during the descent. I must apologize for the gear that I left up there. Everything else, from the wall as well as base camp, excluding the rappel belays, were removed. It took me 3 days to rappel down the route with all the equipment. Due to the characteristics of the wall and the route’s line (which included roofs and traverses), the descent was very complicated. It was made even harder by the large haul-bags and the solo manoeuvres, which took that much longer.

The face plunges into the lake and to reach the base of my route you have to use an inflatable dinghy. Photo: Silvia Vidal
The face plunges into the lake and to reach the base of my route you have to use an inflatable dinghy. Photo: Silvia Vidal

I recovered the boat, inflated it and started rowing across the lake, back towards camp, back “home”. The next day I started the walk out with the first of the five 25kg bags that I would carry down. I had badly injured my knee after so many days laying on the portaledge and with my overall weakness, I began to complain about the weight of the load. The descent took me seven limping days to complete.

When I got to the first river it was totally impassable. The water level had increased due to the rains. If it continued raining, as it was at the moment, I would be unable to cross and this would be a big problem. Without really thinking about it, I returned to base camp with the intention of continuing with the loaded carries and then seeing what would happen. After some days the rain stopped and I was able to cross the river, but, again, not without difficulty. I had to cross back and forth nine times in order to ferry all the equipment.

Once I got everything on the other side it started to rain again. This worried me because I still had to cross the main river, the one that was at the end of the trail and close to the road. That one was much larger and wider. With all the haul-bags lined up along the final river, I tried to cross it. But the river had risen too high. Forced to leave everything just 100 meters from the car after seven days of hard work and destroying my leg, I felt very sad. This was difficult to digest, but I was glad I had at least arrived so far.

I was thinking of what I should do when suddenly I saw a blackhoe that had begun to cross the river. The driver signaled me to approach. A group working on the road had seen that I was in trouble and so they decided to help me. I couldn’t believe it. This was the first group of people I met after so many weeks being alone and they were helping me without any knowledge of what happened. This increased my faith in human beings. I was put up inside the cabin. This was an unbelievable situation – I felt as if I was watching a movie.

There had been situations of no return, isolation, moments of uncertainty, and several other difficulties to face. All these tested my patience, among other things. But, because I had a desire to be there, there had also been many moments of pleasure, happiness, surprise, and excitement that made me feel comfortable. And doubt and uncertainty were necessary to increase this desire. In such an intense experience the tough moments only deepened the sense of challenge. And a challenge is very motivating. This wasn’t just a climb. It was an intense adventure.

Feature illustration by Naveed Hussain

This story was part of the Features section of The Outdoor Journal Summer 2015 edition of the print magazine

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Adventure Travel

Jul 04, 2018

Become the Bear! Tackling Middle Aged Life the Bear Grylls Way.

This story originally featured in a print issue of the Outdoor Journal.

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WRITTEN BY

Jamie East

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Bear Grylls is probably one of the most famous adventure celebrities in the world. Aside from all his adventures, Bear also shares his survival skills with anyone ready to pay for it. One such chap was our middle-aged writer Jamie East, who usually preferred watching other people take risks from the safe distance of his television. Until he decided to go out there himself and get dirty.

Well, there’s something liberating about jumping into a freezing, fast-flowing river with all your clothes on. It’s the kind of thing that, as a child, you told yourself you’d do all the time once you were big enough and your parents couldn’t tell you off. Yet staying on the precipice at age 39, all I can think of is, “Is this jumper dry-clean only?”

This is what life does to you. It sucks the adventure from you quicker than a Dyson in a bag of sawdust. Before you know it, you’d rather sleep than live, drive than hike, sink into the sofa than swim.

I suppose this could be classified as bare survival. You exist but don’t live, and I’ve decided enough is enough. What would the 12-year-old Jamie, who got sent home from school for falling down a ravine he thought he could clear in one leap, say to me if he could see the 39-year-old me? “Man up!” probably. “Your clothes are stupid?” most definitely.

Bear Grylls is the man we all aspire to be. Hard as nails on a mountain ledge, soft as grease at home with his kids. The fire in his heart burns brighter than Krypton being destroyed, and he’s harder than a 60-foot working model of optimus Prime made from diamonds. He also embraces the outlook on life we all wish we had time for had those damned IsAs, smart phones and creamy pasta sauces not gotten in the way. Thankfully for those of us with a terminal case of lazy-itis, we can see how the other half live over at the Bear Grylls survival Academy from the bleak Scottish Highlands or the luscious surrey forests in England. Run by Grylls and his team of ex-paratroopers, the survival Academy is an ideal introduction into a world of skills and endurance we think we’ll never need. Be honest; how many of us truly believe that there will come a time when we will be skewering a rat for dinner or navigating a 23,000-acre highland with only the stars to help? But these are skills that used to be second nature to us humans. If there weren’t people like Grylls to show us the way, there are a lot of people around the world who wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale of the time their car broke down in the Australian outback, or when they had to make a snow cave that provided those few vital hours of warmth on a mountaintop. Whether we like it or not, the knowledge could prove life-saving.

A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.
A tent set up for participants during the 5-day Survival in the Highlands course in Scotland.

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The Academy offers several options tailored to your needs. You can opt for a 24-hour experience in Surrey either alone or with a family member older than 10. Although only 10 minutes from the motorway, such is the Surrey countryside that you could be in Montana for all you’d know. The dense forest makes for a real wilderness experience. The deep rivers you’ll be crossing, the rabbits you’ll be gutting, the trees you’ll be stripping to make shelter, and the ravines you’ll be shimmying across really do give you a feeling of being alive. A 20-minute run is considered a “big thing” in my house, so spending days in the real outdoors felt invigorating. I felt alive!

I’m not an all-rounder though. I found some of the requisite skills completely beyond me, navigating by starlight was one. My brain is just not wired to untangle that kind of data.

I used to think I could point out the north star in a heartbeat. Nope. The north star isn’t the brightest one. Nuts.

“The North Star is, in fact, the one perpendicular to blah de blah de blah babble babble wibble waffle.” That’s how that sentence sounded coming from the instructor’s mouth: just a stream of nonsense about ploughs and bears. It doesn’t look like a plough. If it looked like a plough, I’m pretty sure even I could find it. But it doesn’t. It looks like a slightly wavy line of stars that is buried among 200 billion other stars. It makes finding a needle in a haystack look like finding an elephant in an eggcup, so if I’m stuck anywhere in the world (and I mean anywhere: La Rinconanda, the Kerguelen Islands or just past the BP garage near my house) without Google maps or a TomTom, you may as well kiss this writer’s sorry ass goodbye, because I’ll wither away in a puddle of my own dehydrated tears.

Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.
Jamie had to eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river and set traps and eat rabbit he skinned with his own bare hands.

But there are things that must have been festering in my subconscious all these years, like a coiled snake ready to unleash, on an unsuspecting world. For instance, I could light a fire that is neither at the end of a cigarette nor underneath a pile of half-frozen burgers. I mean a real fire created by nothing but flint and dried bark. It’s a panic-inducing task, and I’m not ashamed to say it took me nearly 40 minutes. As my instructor, Scott, told me, it’s all in the timing. Put on too much too soon and you’re buggered. Too little too late and, yup, you’re buggered.

Instructions for making a fire without matches or anything a sane human would have within arm’s reach
You need the slightest feathers of bark piled up like Candyfoss. You need your spark. Mine was from the flint on my Rambo knife. The very second that spark takes hold of one of your bark feathers, blow very gently. If all goes well, that will turn into a largish smoldering lump of smoke. If it doesn’t, go back to the beginning. You now need to start throwing on more feathers of bark, a fraction larger than the one before, before moving onto dried-out twigs no thicker than a hair on a baby’s ear. Eight hours later, you have a fire that could singe your eyebrows from 183 m. Well done!
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse - a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.
Soon to be survivalists learning how to free rope traverse – a basic zip-line technique that can be used for water crossings and emergency evacuations.

So, if ever I do go missing near the BP garage by my house, just look for the massive fire right next to the petrol station. Well, I may need to think that through a bit more.

The Scottish Highlands course that is offered is similar to this, apart from a few key points. It goes on for five days and takes place in one of the most remote places in Britain. It’ll probably pour down with ice-cold rain for the entire trip, and you’ll have to eat rat and cross a river in your underpants. Apart from that, exactly the same.

Spending time with this team baked common sense into my brain. The lessons easily transform into mundane, everyday life. The buzz phrase of the trip is “Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance.” out in the highlands, this means, “If you don’t prepare well, you will likely starve and die.” At home, this translates to, “Use a tape measure, or your shelf won’t be even.” The sentiment is still the same. Don’t judge me.

You should know what you’re getting into, of course. This is a Bear Grylls branded experience, after all (and all the equipment says as much). You won’t be expected to drink your own body fluids, squeeze drops of moisture out of elephant dung, or decapitate a rattlesnake with the sole of your boot, but you will feel as though you could if you were the last man on Earth. I did eat maggots (crunchy and nutty), drink from a muddy river, set traps and eat rabbit I skinned with my own bare hands. And do you know what?

I’ve never felt more alive or more connected with the world I selfishly pillage on a daily basis. I’m not alone, either.

People the world over have sought out the Grylls way of life. Upon his return to the US, my fellow survivor Caleb said “my hands are shredded, my nose is stuffed, my throat is raspy and my body is tanked, but I am alive now more than ever. It was everything I hoped for: an empowering learning experience.

Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.
Crossing a freezing river in Surrey during the 24 hour family course.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. After the aching had subsided, and the clothes were washed, the niggling feeling that I was approximately 3 percent more of a man than I was before I began, just wouldn’t leave me. It still hasn’t.

I didn’t imagine that sleeping rough, eating worms and swimming in rivers could possibly have this much of an effect on my psyche, but it really has. I’m not saying I could rescue someone hanging off a cliff, or survive in the jungle for more than a couple of hours. But if you get the chance, breathe in the air, sharpen that stick and venture out into the big, wide world. Just remember to take a compass with you. I swear those stars are out to get you.

Photos by Discovery Channel, Jamie East & The Bear Grylls Survival Academy.

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