Athlete Versatility and an Impromptu Trip to Patagonia

Road to Chalten photo Jessica Baker
Road to Chalten photo Jessica Baker

by Jessica Baker

Staring into the sharp, immaculate granite spires along the Chalten Massif of the Patagonian Andes, I feel pangs to climb these towers of perfect alpine granite. Yet, it is the end of a big winter in Argentina, not yet climbing season, and I am here with ski boots on my feet and a pair of skis for descending the numerous large snowfields, glaciers, and peaks that surround these impressive granite walls.  The landscape taunts me to ski it, to climb it, to explore.  It is at once calling to me to attempt these ascents and descents and scaring me to the core.  This is a feeling that I cannot come to terms with no matter how hard I try. And yet, the landscape is so inspiring that I am sure I will be back for more in the future. I am so excited to be here and explore this terrain.  For an athlete that does it all this is what I would call an alpinist’s mecca.

I am here in Patagonia because my friend and fellow professional athlete/guide Kim Havell invited me on a last minute backcountry ski trip through Patagonia from Bariloche to El Chalten.  Once she suggested the trip, I had exactly eleven days to figure out how I could possibly make this work.  Coming straight off a big summer of guiding alpine climbing in the Tetons, I was just beginning to wind down.  But the offer was too good, I had to try and make it work.  With an extremely supportive husband and some last minute logistics with sponsors and travel, it came together.

I threw myself into some base fitness and ski sessions at Mountain Athlete and started packing for the trip.  As I prepared, I thought about the ability to take on a spontaneous trip of this nature, and what kind of athlete it takes to be successful on a mission of this sort. My conclusion; it takes a versatile athlete to make this work.  And what exactly makes an athlete versatile?  I was hoping I had it because I hadn’t been on skis for over 5 months, and most of my training had been for the recent climbing season.

We had two full weeks to ‘get it done’ in Patagonia, and other than a few days of travel in a van along Ruta 40, we spent the rest of the time hiking up and skiing down the peaks of the Patagonian Andes.  Our days weren’t grueling per say, but no less than 10 hours of physical exertion per day, so I wouldn’t call it easy either.  A typical day would start at 5:30 am be hiking by 7am toward our destination.  We would then scramble, bush wack and speed walk with our skis on our backs for the first 2 to 6 hours, then we would usually hit snow line and start skinning or boot packing up from there for another 3 to 4 hours.  The ski descents were usually faster than the approaches, but snow line was nearly 2000 elevational feet above our camps, so we still had some work to do on our way down.  All in all we skied a lot of terrain in varied conditions, anything from frozen ice to perfect corn spring skiing.  Our trip was a big success in so many ways.  And after all the physical exertion, my thoughts on what made it all work with so little sport specific training were this…

All training is cumulative

I grew up playing a plethora of team and individual sports of which I trained hard for. I started skiing when I was 5 years old. I excelled at alpine ski racing and trained and performed at a high level for over 14 years. I started backcountry skiing when I was 18 years old. I started climbing and training for climbing when I was 19 years old.  I have been training base fitness and sport-specific fitness at Mountain Athlete since 2009. I have always taken my training seriously and dedicated countless hours towards it. I know my body has the ability to adjust to whatever my physical needs are at the moment.  I may not be the fastest, but I will get it done.

The Mental Edge

Patagonia ski
Kim Havell hikes to the next ski objective. Photo Jessica Baker

When I train in the gym, or with intent in the mountains, there is a huge benefit that perhaps is overlooked at times… the mental toughness and ability to work through challenges, discomfort, and complicated situations mentally.  Some of this comes from experience over time, but I must attribute a lot of this towards my training, specifically at Mountain Athlete. Coach Shaul has always been a strong believer in mental toughness and has trained us accordingly. I can think of many thresholds I had to breakthrough during training such as 1500 weighted step ups for time (I had to count the entire time); the 24th minute of constant movement on the climbing tech board, pumped as hell, just trying to hold on mentally more than physically; the announcement that we have an additional 4 rounds to go when you through the hell workout was done… and on and on.  I cannot force myself to go through these scenarios on my own, but the training does.  It is incredible how it has translated to my time in the mountains.  There is an edge that I have gained mentally, and it makes all the difference when it comes down to it. When it is my eighth day on skis hiking up another mountain, and I am feeling fatigued, and we have another 2 hours to the summit, that mental edge kicks in, keeps me going, and enables a successful summit.

A strong set of Skills

A skill set does not come quickly, it is learned over time with patience, practice, and persistence, and is ever evolving.It is gained within a mindset of life-long learning.  The skills you acquire are a culmination of your life’s work to this point forward, and yet you are still a student. As Socrates once said, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” The ability to utilize your skills, evolve with them, and continually learn can take you a long way, especially in the mountains. In Patagonia we were continually re-evaluating our surroundings, route finding, determining necessary gear for the conditions, making critical decisions for our safety, utilizing technical systems, etc.Without these skills and ability to evolve in the environment that we were in, it would not have been a safe or successful backcountry ski trip.

Continually Active in diverse ways

There is no such thing as straight off the couch.People are successful in their physical endeavors because they maintain their physical fitness in some way shape or form. During my summer alpine guiding season, I did not have time to get into the gym every week, but I logged over 130,000 uphill vertical feet and over 350 miles of travel over a 4 month period. In addition to my guiding, I would occasionally get to the gym, go climbing/bouldering, mountain bike, and do yoga.  I think all of these physical activities gave me enough fitness to jump into a backcountry ski trip in Patagonia on a whim.

I believe all these points collectively add up to make a versatile athlete.And it’s by way of this versatility that my backcountry ski trip in Argentina was such a success and not such a sufferfest (although I look forward to my next sufferfest in the gym ( ;).Happy training!



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