Survivor: Patagonia

on May 31, 2011

Adventures take shape in many forms.  And from adventures there are usually lessons to be learned.  I recently took part in a program offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School, which takes people of all ages on remote wilderness expeditions, teaching technical outdoor skills, leadership, and environmental ethics in some of the world’s wildest and most awe-inspiring classrooms.  I was able to spend 80 days kayaking and mountaineering all over Patagonia.

Looking back on 80 days in Patagonia, I was exposed to hundreds of mini-adventures that bring the entire sea kayaking and mountaineering course to life.   Days are full of these mini-adventures.  It wasn’t just the acts of paddling at sea or ascending a peak that deserve attention in the backcountry.

Setting up tents and preparing meals in a windy and rainy world kept me on my toes.  A tent doesn’t survive the Patagonia backcountry unless it’s out of reach from rising tides and appropriately secured to the ground with 12 to 14 heavy anchors.  We constantly hunted for the largest rocks, heaviest tree trunks, and anything else tough enough to withstand the winds and untamed waters.  Over time, I learned how to leverage every campsite’s natural assets and set up the most practical anchoring systems in the least amount of time possible.  A poor camp leads to a poor dinner and poor night’s sleep.  It was critical to honor all of these daily mini-adventures to make our actual movements on sea and land a success.

In early January, our lead instructor emphasized “Inefficiency equals misery.”  These words were simple and powerful, and they shaped how we approached our days.  I worked hard to create and improve my own systems for doing things.  Packing became a science.  Self-care was a fixed set of routines.  Decision-making followed clearly defined criteria for managing the sea, land, weather, and human factors.  Being systematic led to more predictable and comfortable days in an unpredictable and uncomfortable environment.  As I became more efficient, I essentially created more time for myself to admire the land, prepare and share food, and plan ahead for the next day’s route.  Efficiencies in meeting my most basic needs allowed me to be more creative, inventive, and resourceful with the rest of my time.

At sea and on land, we relied heavily on charts and maps to frame our routes and guide our decision-making.  We divided routes into smaller legs, set our sights on land features that offered the best protection and viewpoints during breaks, and determined communication strategies to keep everyone informed of progress and changes to planned routes.  While paddling and hiking, we were exposed to real-time elements and new information on land features that call for flexibility in the original route plan.  We modified routes and communicated changes hourly.  The final X rarely changed, but how we actually arrived there often looked different from our original drafts.

As our routes evolved with the changing conditions, our leadership evolved as well.  Briefing and debriefing were critical tools in our leadership journey.  We stayed disciplined and exercised these tools daily to make sure our team learned from key successes and challenges.  I really value briefing and debriefing, and I think the best learning organizations are committed to building these tools into their routines.

Leadership and teamwork tend to be complicated social experiments.  They don’t have to be.  In my experience, successful leadership and teamwork consist of three things:

  1. People who know how to take care of themselves.
  2. People who deeply care about supporting other people.
  3. People who see the best in the worst situations

One of the most important aspects of a successful journey in Patagonia – and in daily life – is building a tolerance for uncertainty and adversity.  Tolerance is one of the National Outdoor Leadership School’s key leadership qualities, and I’m surprised it isn’t featured more often in other leadership models.  We relied heavily on mental toughness and an ability to laugh at all of the unexpected bumps in the road.  I wiped out a lot!

After Patagonia, I know what it’s like to hike from 9am to 6pm without a dry skin cell on my body.  I spent 66 hours straight in a tent with three other people because a weather system pinned us down with rain and sleet.   In those moments – and in all difficult moments – we have powerful minds that either break us or boost us.  Most of the world lives through a lot worse than those uncomfortable hours, and when we participate in teams that push past discomfort, we almost always push ourselves to places we haven’t been before.  Luckily for me, in this case, it was peaks, glaciers, and isolated beaches.

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