Learning in the backcountry
VAIL — Unlike Vail resident Christian Kloser, most mountain locals — even the most outdoorsy of the bunch — can’t say they’ve spent 80 nights sleeping in a tent.
What’s more, most can’t say they’ve survived 80 days of tent camping amid a nearly three-month stretch of backpacking, sea kayaking, glacier trekking and mountaineering. That was how Kloser, 19, spent the majority of his winter while on a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) trip to the Chilean Patagonia earlier this year.
The three-part trip included 28 days of sea kayaking over 140 nautical miles, a 31-day mountain expedition crossing three ranges and covering 115 kilometers and a 10-day self-guided backpacking trip. It encompassed adventures like nearly getting blown off a glacier, bailing team members out of crevasses, cobbling together directions from Spanish-speaking Chilean cowboys and feasting on mystery meat.
“Some friends of my parents had done (a NOLS trip) back when it was much more common to do this,” said Kloser. “It looked like a cool experience, and it fit what I wanted to do, and I got school credit for it. I’m glad I did it and would like to do more long backpacking trips in the future.”
By land and sea
Kloser, a Vail native and accomplished endurance athlete, said it was the first trip of that magnitude he had ever done. Previous expeditions included smaller trips, such as middle school camping trips and backpacking excursions with a local outdoor nonprofit, so he wasn’t sure what to expect from the semester in Patagonia. From the outset, NOLS staff helped students prepare for the trip by looking at their physical regimen and recommending a training plan. They looked at Kloser’s mountain bike and Nordic ski racing and recommended even more strength training so he could carry heavy loads.
However, when he arrived in Chile, he was struck by how manageable the physical demands seemed, and the range of outdoor experience the other 16 group members had — but then again, most people don’t grow up skiing, mountain biking and competing in mountain sports from the time they can walk.
Not that Kloser found the trip was easy by any means. The goal of the NOLS courses are to teach students to become proficient in the outdoors as well as be able to lead others, and the entire experience is meant to be instruction and testing all wrapped into one. The expedition started on Jan. 22 with 28 days of kayaking the mystical inlets and fjords of Bernardo O’Higgins National Park in southern Chile with the guidance of three NOLS instructors
The major challenges of the kayaking weren’t the rough waters or working with a new group — it was staying dry and staying warm.
“It rained 90 percent of the days we were kayaking. When you got out of your the boat, the first thing you did was set up a tarp so you had a dry spot. We had to find campsites along the way, which was interesting because it mostly meant stopping at inlets, setting up tarps and moving with the tide so we didn’t get swept away.”
From the water, the course transitioned to mountain terrain as the 15 students traveled across the San Lorenzo massif. Throughout the 31-day mountain expedition, Kloser and his course mates experienced bushwhacking, river crossing, third and fourth class terrain, snowfield, icefalls and snow-covered glaciers. The trip crossed 115 kilometers and covered three mountain ranges — the group moved slowly, carrying packs that varied from 50 to 100 pounds, depending on how many rations they were carrying.
For Kloser, one of the completely new experiences was glacier traveling — terrain on glaciers can be dangerous and unpredictable, since the glacier is constantly moving like a river. The group traveled using crampons, ice climbing equipment and avalanche probes. At one point, one member of the group even fell waist-deep in a crevasse, but fortunately wasn’t injured. Glacier conditions can be incredibly violent as well. During one night, camp was hit by such high winds that many of the tie downs on their tents snapped.
After adventures that included scrambling up steep pitches, traversing narrow ridges and sleeping in rainstorms, the group finally completed the trek. The mountaineering portion was followed by shorter self-guided 10-day expeditions, where the students broke into smaller groups and were able to choose their own trips. Kloser’s group choose a trip to an overhanging glacier, a more relaxed time during which the group got to meet some ranch families and gauchos, or Patagonian cowboys.
The outdoor classroom
The semester included, of course, much more than outdoor instruction. The students learned a good deal about Patagonian and Chilean culture, tried local foods (Kloser got his first taste of horse while at a ranch asado), and picked up some Spanish.
And while 19-year-old boys aren’t usually known for their stellar cooking, Kloser became quite the master of backcountry gourmet during his expedition. With not much else to do after they set up camp, the group would spend evenings making elaborate (by backcountry standards) meals with their meager rations over MRS stoves. They made calzones once, lasagna another time and even a chocolate cake over the rare campfire.
Still, backcountry eating is backcountry eating, and they had to get used to being often hungry and never full.
“It was funny — it was a big privilege to be the one to scrape off the bottom of the pan at dinner, and it’s not very much at all,” he said. “Now when my parents tell me to eat something, the joke is, ‘Maybe, if I was starving on a glacier.’”
Kloser said he’s also picked up some valuable leadership lessons that he’ll carry with him as he competes in mountain biking and Nordic skiing the rest of this year and as he continues studies at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction next year.
“At the beginning (of the semester), I was pretty frustrated by the pace, but I learned to understand how it is for other people and how to work with people instead of pushing them along,” he said. “It’s the difference of taking weight from someone, sharing rations, or encouraging and helping them get over some obstacle. I really learned some leadership skills from the whole program, which is even more the focus as opposed to just the backcountry experience.”
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