On Not Knowing My Own Strength (and Angry-Crying a Little)

The woman told us the hike to Refugio Lopez was easy. I’ve taken her on it, she said, gesturing toward her daughter, who was maybe 8 years old.

We had just been told that the Patagonian hike we wanted to do, up to the hanging glacier on Cerro Tronador, was extremely treacherous, that we should only go if we were very experienced at hiking in snow. It had been a hard winter, she said, and there was still a lot of snow. I have no doubt that my Minnesota-born husband Colin would have attempted it had I not responded with an emphatic NO.

There wasn’t much snow on the path to Lopez, she told us. We’d be in it for an hour, hour and a half, but it wouldn’t be bad.

A day later, I see three possible explanations for her blasé attitude toward this hike: 1. Her English wasn’t as good as it seemed. 2. She was totally messing with us. 3. Patagonian definitions of hike difficulty and amounts of snow are so vastly different from those in the southern United States that it’s like comparing apples to oranges.

I would characterize the hike to Lopez, even without the snow, as difficult to nearly technical. This was definitely the hardest hike I have ever done. I never understood trekking poles before. Now I do. I also understand what those wide discs you can put on the end of your poles (the ones I didn’t bother bringing) are for.



We did eventually make it to the refugio, a reddish building perched on a ridge with no electricity and only a small wood stove for heat. The last leg to get up there was basically a crawl, a snow scramble, and I angry-cried all the way.

There’s more to the story about the refugio—the Argentinian ski bums we met there, a cat, a dog, and some cows. But the point of this story is this:

If I had known what I was getting into, I would not have gone.

If I had known upfront the difficulty, the snow, the exhaustion, the cold, I would have said no thanks.

But if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have gotten to watch a climber and skier prepare an incredible meal while playing air guitar to Led Zeppelin and Rush. I wouldn’t have met the cowherd dog we encountered on the path who made me miss our canine babies both more and less. I wouldn’t have seen the incredible views of the indescribable beauty that is the lakes in and around Bariloche, ringed with the Andes mountains. And I would have continued to think what I can still barely believe isn’t true: that I was not capable of such a trek.

My counselor told me there’s a joke among therapists that if anyone knew what they were getting into with marriage, no one would ever do it. That’s true for hiking, for marriage, for education, for (I imagine) having children, for any number of things—heck, it’s true for life in general. If we knew the pain and grief we would feel over the course of a life, we would probably say no thanks, or play it so safe that we barely lived at all.

If you had told me it would be worth it while I was angry-crying up that snow scramble, I would have screamed frighteningly imaginative obscenities at you. But the next day, after sleep and food and once we were past the snow and looking out on a blindingly gorgeous vista, I knew it was worth it. On a more basic level, I suddenly saw what I couldn’t see in the snow: that I would survive this and be stronger for it.

I’m not always going to be able to remember or convince myself that something is worth it or, in the case of a loss or tragedy, survivable—at least not the end right in the middle of it being really hard. Neither are you. And I don’t think we have to be able to, not in that moment—not when the separation is fresh or the labor pains excruciating or the addict just checking in to detox or the dissertation-induced insomnia making you feel subhuman or the depression and anxiety at their most suffocating. All we have to be able to do is put our heads down, push forward, and wait for more to be revealed.

And maybe angry-cry a little.

Published by Sarah Howell-Miller

"I believe in kindness, also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when it is not necessarily prescribed." {Mary Oliver}

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1 Comment

  1. I love this entry. One of of the lessons that the Marine Corps teaches is that there is nothing you cannot do. Life managed to temper this a bit, but I still have confidence enough to make the effort. After this climb, you will probably never face another hike / climb without supreme confidence that after facing down this one you can face down every one. Watch your step!

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