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On Bushwhacking

The things I learned bushwhacking in Patagonia:

As is consistently the case in the backcountry, there is rarely a single right way to do things. In bushwhacking, this may be truer than ever. There is no easier way to be mired down by bickering than over logs in a bog or by defending one particular bramble over another, or even, as little as I like to admit it, by saying “I told you so.” Sometimes, I did tell you so, but usually even then it doesn’t matter except to my ego, which is substantial.

In the same vein, there are few truly wrong answers, which means that almost no direction is too absurd to pursue. This struck me, unsolicited but necessarily, as I clung to spiny bushes to swing my pack-laden torso over the edge of a perilously sheer cliff, sod sprinkling down to a glacier below. If I hadn’t chuckled to myself at the ridiculous predicament we had stumbled into, I may not have made it. It was, after all, a way. There is no way. Charging thereon into a wall of short but recalcitrant lewa trees, one quickly realizes that retreat is as arduous as advancement, so you might as well barrel on.

“Buckle up, boys and girls.”

Some bushwhacking is like an obstacle course, a physically demanding gymnastics routine of rolls, dives, twists, pirouettes and hops from one dubious bushel to the next. More often, a trap of perpetual cobwebs, bramble, and leaves will have you head down and whimpering forward. In the deeper and darker forests, where the lichen is piled meters thick. Your hood gathers kindling for you, your hand remains at eye level to avoid impalement, and the ice-tools strapped to your backpack pursue nefarious love affairs with the encroaching vines.

Beware the front of the line, where every decision will be criticized and your shortcomings will be laid bare. Listen for waterfalls, squint through trees for ridgelines, follow stumps in a line; all is futile, and everyone behind you can do it better (until they’re in front).

“Fine, you try it.”

But also beware the end of the line, where an innocent pee break might leave you utterly alone in a jungle suddenly looming large and oppressive.

Grace is achievable even with 60 pounds of pasta in your pack, but it is difficult and rarely consistent. One light step, one limbo, one smooth twirl around a sinkhole, all quickly brought to size by a rump-shredding ride down a rocky slope.

The key is in deception. As long as everyone else thinks you’re totally in control, you’re winning. As clunkier expedition members clamber over the fallen trees you casually vaulted, one must adopt a delicate elfin step: a silky stride to assert your bushwhacking superiority. Never question your own route-finding. One nervous glance behind will destroy any semblance of a plan, so charge onward with reckless abandon and pretend that it was easy, even if you see Jesus halfway through that particular moss-pit.

“Oh, I didn’t think it was so bad.”

Sometimes ladders of shrubbery rise up out of nowhere, but I’ve learned to approach these sirens of high ground with skepticism. Like as not it’s simply the wall of the next drainage over, or worse, a self-absorbed little hill revealing only more and more dense dripping forest to the edge of your observable universe. High is dry, but dry might not get you anywhere.

“Stay low, go slow - when in doubt, crouch.”

As night falls and the primeval forest seems to squeeze the very air from your lungs, relax. You’re probably only 100 meters from camp. All those stories about people walking in circles in the woods suddenly make sense when you step on your Clif bar wrapper from two hours ago and are soundly berated for both your sense of direction and your sense of tact.

The whole world is out to get you, but Patagonia is unusually good at it. The best-laid plans, that brazen youthful confidence that we will make rendezvous today, are entirely out of your hands. Don’t plan on getting very far, because you won’t. In this Sisyphean mire, one kilometer might be a hard day’s work.

But then again, getting somewhere was never the point.


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