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THE YEAR THAT WENT SOUTH

27-Feb-2012
By

February in Colorado. The sky was the cold steel grey that forces both a yawn and a shiver. My chance of success was dismal. Indeed, my survival was starting to seem improbable. I pressed ahead because I had no other choice.

“So, who did your homework?” I asked rhetorically because I knew the answer. Nobody responded. “Who wants me to set my pants on fire?” No response.

The seventh-period English II sophomores had banded together to overwhelm me with apathy. Skimming the empty looks in the room, I amused myself by contemplating the paradox of actually accomplishing something with apathy. Paradox. In past years, I would have discussed this term with the kids, given examples from literature, looked at Macbeth’s inability to see the paradoxical nature of the witches’ predictions, etc. We’d have discussed how life presents us with confusing double meanings and how we need to be careful in unraveling them.

Not this year. These kids had beaten me with their sheer I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude. I had, for the first time in my career, started not to give a shit, either. These brain-dead little mongrels couldn’t tell the difference between a paradox and a pair of shoes.

Wait, had I said that out loud? Well, they weren’t listening anyway.

I caught a sympathetic stare from Michelle in the front row. She had done her homework, read the chapters, maybe even gone ahead—but dared not admit it. And she, this very sweet teenager, was feeling sorry for me!

Though every teacher hits a wall from time to time, after months of it, I found the poison burned in my gut. My job felt brutal, and I felt ineffective, so I quit.

My life was uncluttered enough to allow me to give up some comforts very easily, and cast out for new terrain, physical and emotional, even at the risk of finding the grass dead and brown on the other side.

A completely selfish life of climbing fulltime again, not just in the summers, would save me. I was sure of it. This decision effectively dismantled a seven-year attempt to create security. Probably because I was looking for it, the books that I was reading kept telling me to be courageous and to change, not grunt and toil under a weary life. I held tightly to this quote in the opening of Dalva, by Jim Harrison: “It was today—rather, yesterday, I think—that he told me it was important not to accept life as a brutal approximation.”

Would I wake up one day wondering where it all went, thinking, “What a waste”?

Six months later: The beach party turned out to have been a hoax. Or maybe the police had shut it down because they had not been properly bribed. Whatever, we gringos were all trying to get back to town—Montanita, Ecuador—to continue the party in the streets. An overflowing bus was pulling away, my new lady friends from the U.K. on board. In desperation, I ran and leapt onto the bumper, and found a solid pair of crimpers above the emergency door.

As the bus accelerated over the sand, I hiked my flip-flops up on an edge formed by the taillights, and whipped a mantel onto the roof. It was the first time I’d climbed in six weeks. It felt good, maybe better than the buzz I’d been cultivating since noon. I found two local teenagers already up there swilling a cerveza. The surf and the beach blurred past.
==
As we arrived in Montanita, the ladies were impressed, or so I liked to believe, when I hopped down off the roof of the bus. We followed a distant thumping bass to a bamboo shack bursting with sweaty, gyrating Eurotrash with nickel-sized pupils. The party was completely going off. I was a bit out of my league but, not wanting to be a stick-in-the-mud American, joined in till dawn (with the dancing, anyway).

Wait. Wasn’t this supposed to be a climbing trip? I had started my climbing trip to South America in Ecuador. This is pretty stupid because (with all due respect to the handful of climbers I met) there isn’t much rock climbing in this otherwise fine country. My miscalculation was no surprise, really. The whole continent was virtually unknown to me. I had packed the essentials: climbing gear, camping gear, clothes. Ecuador had mountains, I knew that much. I did virtually no research, and did not even glance at a Lonely Planet guide. I just figured I would find some climbers when I got there. If not, I would go somewhere else. I was bound to make mistakes and relished the challenge. I boarded the plane with all the uncertainty ahead of me, and you have no idea how free and powerful I felt.

While I was taking Spanish classes and testing the limits of my liver in Ecuador, my old friend Jim Nigro was in Bariloche, Argentina, on furlough from Exum Mountain Guides, and also wrestling with el idioma de Español.

Something of the climbing-bum archetype, Jim, in his 50s, had been sending almost longer than I had been alive. He was around for early ascents in the Black Canyon and Indian Creek. He had spent most of his life alternating between being a gypsy, banging nails and guiding. It was a path that allowed him to feel a level of freedom to which he had become devoted. People locked into 50-week-a-year jobs tend to envy the likes of Jim, but in return for this freedom, he had traded relationships, steady income and many creature comforts.

Nigro and I had made nebulous plans to hook up and climb near Bariloche, a great little resort town situated on the northern edge of Patagonia. After a month in Ecuador, I looked forward to drying out. In a last attempt to leave the country with a couple of memories that did not include a hangover, I finally did go rock climbing, first at a scruffy granite cliff near Quito, and then squeezing slippery basalt in a town called Baños with Willy Navarette, master guide, and his climbing team. Several pretty poor kids had to share a couple pairs of shoes and a couple harnesses, but they were unbelievably amped about climbing. They reminded me of why I loved it, too.

It was time to move on. Jim had been living large down in Bariloche in a beautiful lake house owned by a friend from the States, but he was antsy to get on the rock. As soon as I arrived, we marched up the trail towards Refugio Frey, situated below the needle-studded ridge on the shores of Laguna Toncek. Though not too high in altitude at 5,600 feet, Frey is very much an alpine venue. The granite is bullet, with featured slabs and cracks.

We spent about 10 days on two trips climbing and camping at Frey. I got schooled on thin slabs and face climbing, which I vaguely remember being able to do back on Lumpy Ridge, before Rifle and Indian Creek ruined my footwork. I was positively spanked on a thin 5.11 face climb, and backed off a 5.10. So much for the Don Whillans’ drink-hard, climb-hard regimen. 

In the refugio, we ran into several old friends from Colorado, including two women from Gunnison. Just out of college, Lynsey Shelar and Laura Chase had spent several months in Nepal on a project to train local women climbers for lucrative guiding work. Now they were simply climbing and traveling like we were. We made plans to climb around Bariloche in the coming weeks.
==
Soon, I met most of the really psyched climbers in Bariloche, including the two mas loco: Lucas “Luquitas” Bonangelino and Lucas Kopke. The diminutive Luquitas was psyched to climb or train all the time. His English was buttered with quotes from Pulp Fiction. The quiet Kopke had learned to climb as a kid by traversing the rounded log siding on his house, and now can hang onto the smallest holds for hours. James Bracken, originally from Silverton, Colorado, also took to showing me around. With all sorts of partners, I had finally put together the climbing trip I had dreamed of while handing out detentions back in Colorado.

This is about the time the quilombo started. After hiking down from our second trip to Frey, Jim and I joined a couple of new friends for dinner in Bariloche. Jim seemed a bit out of it, but we had been up in the mountains climbing every day and doing as many pitches as possible, so we both thought he was just exhausted. But as I got ready to move on to Chile, the black clouds began to gather.

Day One: Jim felt sick and achy.

Day Two: Immobile in bed. Fever. Severe back pain.

Day Three: All conditions worsened. A doctor came to the house, said a bad flu was going around, prescribed medicine, etc. Said flu was probably aggravating Jim’s slipped discs from a previous injury.

Day Four: No improvement. Jim couldn’t keep food down.

Day Five: Second doctor. Decided to fix his back. Gave an anti-inflammatory and painkillers.

Day Six: Some improvement. Jim was out of bed a little, eating, and the fever seemed to have broken.

Day Seven: Fever came and went. We decided that we should probably go to the hospital as opposed to hosting roaming cash-only doctors. We received one more visit for more anti-inflammatories. This doctor admitted that the fever was baffling.

Day Eight: We carefully loaded Jim in a pickup and took off to the hospital.

Jim could hardly bear to sit up in a wheelchair as we checked him in. “The only thing I could feel was pain,” he later recalled. “I was so delirious, I was just fucking scared and confused.” The fact that this hospital was one of the few outside of Buenos Aires with an MRI machine probably saved Jim’s life. As it turns out, Jim had a massive staph infection in his spinal cord (the conus medullaris, to be exact), probably the result of a lingering contusion left over from the herniated disc. Where the staph came from, nobody seemed to know, other than it simply exists on and around our bodies waiting to slip into a cut and attack. Jim was run down and maybe initially did have the flu, allowing the staph to get a toehold and multiply. The prognosis was paralysis or death if they didn’t operate immediately.

I actually went climbing for the weekend after we admitted Jim, before they knew about the infection, and he was out of surgery when I came back. 

==
It was time for a reality check. How the hell did all of this happen so fast? Mistakes? Yeah, we had made a bunch. When Jim first got sick, I had offered him some antibiotics I had gotten from the travel doc. Jim declined, worrying that antibiotics were somehow a cure worse than the disease. I didn’t push the idea, because I wasn’t sure, either. I now know that the drugs were tailored for just such an infection. Next, our American hubris made us distrust a foreign hospital. And did I mention Jim did not have health insurance?

Luckily, the surgery seemed to have been successful. Jim’s recovery would depend on whether or not antibiotics could quell what was left of the infection. The new prognosis was for a rocky recovery, starting with two weeks in the hospital: one that he would spend entirely prone, and the other in which he would be allowed to sit up in bed. It would be six to eight weeks before he walked normally. Initially, even reaching the bathroom would pose a problem. A month would pass before Jim could prepare meals. Traveling home was out of the question for at least six weeks.

So I resigned myself to the fact that I would be in Bariloche for a while. Jim did not ask me to stay. His years of stoic self-reliance ruled that out. But in my mind there really was no choice. I mean this quite literally: I did not make a choice. It was simply part of dealing with the unexpected, which is what I had hoped to encounter on my trip, and which was, for the time being, my life—for better or worse. Jim couldn’t function alone, so I would stay until he could. As it turns out, we both would have a ton of help from all sorts of people who seemed to be waiting in Bariloche for just such an opportunity to be kind and generous.

Lynsey and Laura from Gunnison were still in town and eager to help out, but since Jim was under hospital care, we decided to head out to a sport-climbing area about an hour northeast of Bariloche. Vazhé is accessed by a river crossing and serves up steep pocketed tuft.

On the first day, we ran into some Montana climbers enjoying the low-commitment sport climbing after a tough stint in Patagonia. Around the fire that night, the gringos outnumbered the locals, who were having trouble keeping up with the English slang, which we did our best to explain. After a conversation about the difference between a cracker you eat and an ignorant white boy, Luquitas slapped me with the moniker “Galleta”—cracker/cookie in Spanish. The Montanans thought this was hilarious. Afterward, all of Bariloche seemed to know me as Galleta, a small step towards local status.

On the second day, Laura and Lynsey saddled up on a short, fairly vertical 5.11. A crowd of folks casually looked on and shouted encouragement between sips of mate. Laura climbed into the crux several times but down-climbed and hung. Finally, as Luquitas and I yelled bits of advice, she punched it and took an unremarkable, teensy, weensy, sport-climbing fall, which, despite being short and boring, left her holding her leg and begging to be lowered. Watching her collapse in pain on the ground, I ran over, thinking, “Here we go again!”

Laura sat holding her ankle and squeezing back tears. “It’s not broken. Fuck! It can’t be broken!”

I felt a wave of nausea as she tried to stand and fell.

“I think I feel bones grating.”

After we wrapped her ankle, a burly Chilean offered to piggyback Laura a quarter-mile to the river to soak in the ice-cold water. All of us were in full denial—especially Laura, who kept repeating, “My ankle cannot be broken.” So while she worried by the river, we returned to climbing as if nothing had happened.

==
“I think Jim is going to have a roommate,” Luquitas said a little while later.

The next day, X-rays showed both ligament and bone damage, but the surgeon elected to simply cast the foot and send Laura on her way, a mistake that wouldn’t be revealed until she was back in the States. For now, Laura moved into the lake house to recuperate next to Jim.

Gringo number two was down for the count.

It was time to reassess this wonderful climbing trip I was having. Was there really something else important besides climbing? 

The four gringos shelved the rest of our travel plans for now. Far from being a disappointment, the changes opened up unexpected opportunities. As we spent more time in Bariloche, we realized that traveling from spot to spot—a week here, a week there—is not really getting to know a country or a culture. We now had time to get to know some folks from different walks of life. We were invited to house parties and for home-cooked meals. After my months of furtive glances at the stunningly beautiful Argentine mujeres, I actually mustered the courage to talk to a few—in Spanish!

Luquitas made it a mission to get his boy Galleta climbing as much as possible, so that I wouldn’t totally lose my mind. We built a campus board in his backyard. During the first sesh, we nearly got in a fistfight with a neighbor over the Guns ‘N’ Roses blasting from an old guitar amp that doubled as a boom box. Despite my lifelong loathing of training, Luquitas insisted we hit the board several times a week.

I also joined Luquitas, Kopke and James for quick missions to some of the nearby cliffs. Cerro Ventana offers short, steep bolted routes on edgy volcanic rock. As with virtually all the climbing around Bariloche, Cerro Ventana sits above the enormous lakes that fan out below the Cordillera. Morehaupi is another spot perched above crystal-clear water. This little volcanic crag boasts only 10 pocketed routes, but nine of them are 5.11+ or harder. James and I rounded out the experience with some new routing on the granite of Cerro Lopez. Luquitas also took me on the occasional road trip back to Vazhé, both of us sparring with Pulp Fiction quotes: “Luquitas, tell me again about the hash bars.”

The days at the lake house turned into weeks, and every week was a parade. Carlos, the caretaker, lived just up the hill with his wife, three daughters and a son. This beautiful, generous family took us four wayward gringos in as their own. They constantly came down, usually bringing food, to check up on the two patients. Colorado James drove Jim to physical therapy. Climbers stopped by to do what they do best: spray about climbing (yes, it’s a worldwide phenomenon). Jim’s professors from language school sent notes and gifts. Friends of friends that had simply heard about Jim’s plight sent greetings or stopped by. Soon we were sipping mate with visitors, hosting asados and jam sessions, while Jim slowly got stronger. My 35th birthday came and went.

Through it all, Lynsey, Laura, Jim and I depended on each other and cared for each other like family. 

When it finally came time to leave Bariloche, it had been nearly a year since I had abandoned teaching. I had spent six months adrift in South America. Lynsey and Laura had hobbled on a week before. Jim had courageously survived weeks of pain and bleak contemplation and was nearly ready to get on a plane back to the United States.

==
My climbing trip had been derailed from the get-go, but the journey that replaced it had made me a student once more. I learned (again) that a solely selfish life may be the “brutal approximation” that Harrison wrote about. Jim had reminded me several times that I had no obligation to stop my travels to help him. At times, I harbored resentment. Yet I finally realized that helping was not a sacrifice I made for Jim or anyone else. I did it because it felt right, and ultimately it was enlightening. As people came out of the woodwork to help and my friendships grew, I was rewarded over and over.

Jim’s plight also forced me to think about my future. I certainly could sustain a life on the road: climbing all the time, living for myself. But where and what would that get me in the end? Jim’s lack of security spoke to me. He was facing an uncertain future. Jim would be able to climb after his back healed, but maybe not guide. “I was dope-slapped,” he later said. “There needed to be a change.” 
 
So I thought about teaching again.

I had started teaching because it seemed a noble pursuit and a good career. Teaching feels good and powerful when the students connect. Up until that last year, I actually had been good at it, too. Maybe I was ready to think about it for the fall. 

But then I remembered kids like Tyler.

“Mr. Kalous?”

“Yes?”

“Can we just do nothing today?” A few sounds of agreement from the class.

“What do you mean by do nothing?”

“You know, like, hang out. Talk. Just sit around.”

“Aren’t all those things, technically, doing something?”

Childish semantic arguments have always entertained me.

“Well, I guess. But you know what I mean. Like, we don’t feel like doing anything.”

“But, Tyler, isn’t doing nothing a little boring?”

“Not as boring as what you want to do!”
Ouch.

And then, mi hermano de Bariloche, Luquitas, suggested that Galleta join him—climbing in Spain.

The classroom? It could wait one more year.

Chris Kalous is working on his teaching résumé. Jim Nigro’s surgery was successful. He rehabbed all year, and began climbing again about four months after returning to the States.

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