“Welcome to real life backpacking,” my boyfriend Tibo says as he takes a small sip from a half-empty water bottle. Heat waves reflect on the empty highway and I gaze in both directions, hoping for traffic. A hawk circles high overhead, and I imagine the view he must have of the river valley below.
We are in Valle los Condores, Chilean “pampa” located between the city of Talca and the Argentinian border. My massive backpack rests beside me, loaded down with climbing, camping, and fly fishing gear. I arch my back and stretch, relishing the lightness in my body without its weight. “Thumb!” Tibo shouts, and I jump to attention, trying to put on a friendly face. It is another miner's truck, passing between work sites. They are forbidden to pick up hitchhikers, but lifting a thumb costs nothing. I imagine how we must look, two goofy gringos coated in a week's worth of sand and sweat, begging for a ride in the middle of nowhere. The driver stares at us as the truck burns past and I throw my hands into the air. “This isn't the worst scenario ever,” I say, “If I just wasn't so damn hungry!”
In almost three years of travel this is my first experience hitchhiking with so much gear. We are in transit to Santiago, having just finished a summer working for a canyoning company in Pucón . We are now heading north to visit friends and swap our warm weather clothes for skis. A week ago we arrived by bus and got lucky hitchhiking the 20 miles into the climbing area.
Thumbing for rides with so much gear is complicated, and on the way in we were also laden with bags of food and fuel. The “pampa” is similar to a desert, with rocks, sand, little plant life, and intense wind and heat. Although the landscape seems barren and dry, several beautiful lakes and rivers flow through the heart of the valley, creating oasis for animals, birds, and fish.
We set up camp close to the river and used rocks to a build a wind shelter and cooking area. Each morning we took time to practice yoga, drink coffee, read, and relax. Then we set out to climb, following shade until the sunset painted the sky and hunger drove us back to camp . We spent the week almost entirely alone, rising with the sun and exploring the valley's endless labyrinths.
Tibo and I have taken many climbing trips together, within the Rockies, Alps, and Andes mountains. In all of our experience camping in tough conditions and trying hard routes, our story in Valle los Condores is unique in one special way: we ran out of food. When we prepared for this trip we bought what we imagined would sustain us for about a week in the back-country, based on what we could physically carry or cram into our overflowing packs. But because we decided to take a climbing detour in the midst of moving everything we own, we were unable to fit snacks and managed very little fresh produce. Climbing trips are physically and emotionally demanding and although we took our time to rest and recover, we started burning energy from the moment we arrived. Exposure to the wind and sun alone left me feeling exhausted, like I was taking a beating from Mother Nature with no escape.
We rationed our food supply and ate well for breakfast and dinner, although I almost always finished wanting seconds. The real problem was in the afternoons. At midday I would start to feel the hunger creep in, first faintly gnawing at my insides and then transforming into a grumbling monster, screaming for nourishment. Sometimes the sensation passed and I forgot about eating until the next more intense craving drove me to split a whole apple with Tibo. I have been fortunate in my life to come from a country with continuous access to food. Even in tough financial situations I have always been able to scrounge up something to eat. Rationing food in the wilderness is another kind of survival, when each bite means one less for tomorrow. The first couple of days were the most difficult, but our bodies adjusted and by the fourth day I felt healthy and cleansed. I noticed my senses sharpening and felt more connected with my body, focusing more on muscle groups while climbing or stretching. Not to say that I wouldn't have accepted a churrasco sandwich at any moment. I was ravenous!
Something I have missed in South America is access to healthy energy snacks, like Bricks Bars or other easy sources of protein. Dried fruit and nuts are great but expensive here and don't satisfy like an energy bar. We have found a few sugary bar brands in Chile but nothing organic or able to fill our hunger. It took me a long time to realize the importance of combining food with prolonged exercise. I used to ski all day without stopping for lunch and arrive home ready to clean out the cupboards. Random crabbiness and sluggishness are also typical side effects of a hungry metabolism, and it wasn't until I started carrying snacks that I realized their significance in the mountains. I don't like to overeat while climbing, but sometimes a bar, chocolate, or fruit is all I need to motivate on a project. Our nomadic lifestyle is forever teaching the value of maintaining fitness and a healthy diet. We live for mountain sports and have to pay attention to our health in order to avoid accidents. Going hungry on a trip may be just another part of the adventure, but sometimes it might mean the difference between success and injury or illness. These are the lessons we learn from experience.
I rub my shoulders and reach down to hoist my pack up and onto my back, reminding myself to use my legs and butt to lift the weight. I can hardly get it on without falling over, and it takes me a few staggering steps to get going. We trudge along beside the guardrail, stepping over cacti and constantly glancing into the river bed below. The hawk continues to scout above us, enjoying a view that we can only dream of. I hear the faint rumble of a vehicle in the distance and turn to see a worker's bus, one which commutes miners back to Talca. We don't even bother to stick up a thumb this time, knowing that this kind of private shuttle won't bring us any luck. But as the bus gains ground behind us it miraculously slows to a stop and the driver opens the door, waving us on. We step up and pile our backpacks onto a few empty seats as 50 or so Chilean miners stare at us and joke about our dirty luggage. One of them offers us an apple and a yogurt as we collapse into our seats. I gratefully accept, once again amazed at the kindness of strangers. Our free two hour ride back to the city is comfortable, but the adventure isn't over yet. By nightfall we'll be navigating our bags through the Santiago metro system. I cringe at the thought but know that as always, everything will work out in the end. In any case, at least we can find some snacks in the city.
Born and raised in Montana, Sarah maintains a wandering lifestyle and currently resides somewhere in South America. She enjoys deep tele turns, knitting, catching trout, and playing with golden retrievers.