Pace students (L-R, top) Daniel Lucke, Paula Sandoval, Matthew Friestad, Will Remhert, Tripp Trimble, Mbiti Williams, Evan Karetsos, Jack Brown, Virginia Hobbs, Sandy Lum (L-R, bottom) Max Creasman, Will Stratton, Austin Kelly, Ben Ginsberg and Veronica Sandoval pose for a picture on the first day of the hike through El Chalten. Photo: Virginia Hobbs

Twenty Pace Academy students, under the leadership of junior dean Grady Stevens, Spanish teacher Laura Agront-Hobbs and school counselor Kacy Brubaker, departed on a late evening flight for Buenos Aires on Thursday, Feb. 28 to begin their ICGL trip to Patagonia. For the next nine days, the students were challenged physically and mentally as they trekked miles of spectacular (and sometimes treacherous) terrain while also witnessing breathtaking scenery from the Patagonia mountains to the glaciers of El Calafate.

The students were warned ahead of time that the trip would be challenging, and it certainly lived up to its billing. Even the preparations for the trip were difficult, from the instructions for packing (the group was only allowed to bring two carry-on bags, each one weighing no more than 11 pounds) to the pre-trip practice hikes on Saturday mornings, designed to get the students in shape for the rigorous trip ahead.

The overnight, 10-hour flight landed in Buenos Aires in the late morning, giving students one day to explore Buenos Aires before flying early the next morning to El Calafate, where the hiking part of the trip began. Buenos Aires proved to be a beautiful city and, despite having only a single day there, the group was able to see many of the sites, including the national historic monument Obelisco de Buenos Aires (Obelisk of Buenos Aires), erected in 1936 to commemorate the quadri-centennial of the founding of the city, and the Plaza de las Naciones Unidas, a park on the edge of the city containing a famous metal flower sculpture reflecting images of the city skyline. 

After the night in Buenos Aires, the group caught an early morning flight to El Calafate which was followed by a long, four-hour bus ride to El Chalten. This was the starting point of the three-day, two-night hiking and camping journey, which the group was prepared for. “I was a little nervous on the morning of our first day of hiking because I knew what was expected of us and I had never hiked more than nine miles in a single day,” said senior Colm Pelletier. With hiking packs on their backs, the group ventured out early that morning for the first hike of their three-day journey, which consisted of approximately 11 hours (and 14.5 miles).

They hiked through an ancient beech forest to the Piedras Blancas Glacier before continuing on to the campsite for the first overnight. That first night before settling into their tents, the group played a group-wide game of Manhunt in the dark with only their headlights. “Even Coach Stevens played the game,” said sophomore Tripp Trimble. The first night at the campsite was bitter cold for most students. “I slept in every single bit of clothing that I brought in my bag and I was still freezing,” said junior Matthew Friestad.

The next morning after breakfast, the group started the second day of their trekking adventure to Laguna de Los Tres, one of the best panoramic vistas on Mt. Fitz Roy. The hiking conditions were perfect at the beginning of the day and the students were able to hike in light, layered clothing. However, the conditions soon turned dire as the group was enveloped by a blinding blizzard at the top of the mountain, making visibility almost impossible and conditions treacherous. The hike in the blizzard was an experience that many students will not soon forget. 

“Rather than complaining or freaking out over the cold, we just laughed and kept on going,” said junior Virginia Hobbs. “The second day of the hike was definitely the hardest for me,” added junior Paula Sandoval. “Not only was it a 12-mile hike reaching 3,871 feet (and after little sleep in the tents), but it was also difficult to see through the blizzard and we had to take cover in a nearby forest waiting for conditions to clear.” The group camped at a different camping site on the second night where, temperature-wise, conditions seemed to be slightly better because the tents were smaller and body heat kept the inside of the tents warmer. 

On the third day of the hike, which consisted of another 12-hour hike, the students were met with another challenge weather-wise. Towards the top of the mountain, a squall of 70 mph winds took over, making hiking a daunting proposition. Although the students attempted to keep a tight line of one in front of the other, many students were thrown to the ground by the fierce winds.  “I almost was blown off the mountain,” said junior Sandy Lum, “before someone grabbed me and threw me to the ground to make sure I didn’t go off the cliff.”

Some in the group seemed less impacted by the wind. “I thought it would be fun to jump in the air and see if the wind would carry me, and it did,” said Trimble. “I landed a good two feet to the right, it was that strong.” When the winds died down, the group hiked past two lagoons, Madre and Hija (mother and daughter) and the students learned about glaciation and formation of the landscape. The scenery and the views on this third day were stunning, as they trekked downhill through dense beech forest to descend toward the valley of the Las Vueltas River. As if planned, a spectacular rainbow awaited them upon their descent.

After the three-day, overnight hike, the students were treated to a day of white water rafting. For some, the rafting experience was one of the highlights of the trip. “The rafting was really amazing because everyone got a chance to play leadership roles by rotating who was in the front of the boat,” said sophomore Evan Karetsos. Others found it fun because it provided easy entertainment as their friends fell overboard in the rapid water. That evening and the next day, the students were afforded much-needed time to relax, explore the area on their own, or to free-trek independently before heading hack to El Calafate.

On the last adventure day of the trip, the group set out early for the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares where they hiked through glaciers wearing crampons strapped to their feet. This allowed them to grip the ice beneath their feet as they trekked. “The glaciers were unbelievable, said junior Mbiti Williams. “When we walked up to it, the glacier looked like the wall from ‘Game of Thrones’ and when we walked on it, we were able to see all the ice caves. I have never experienced anything like that.”

At the conclusion of the full-day glacier hike, the students were welcomed with a cup of glacier water consisting of water over glacier ice in a glass. The guides originally wanted the group to enjoy a glass of scotch with glacier ice, telling the students it was “customary” at the conclusion of the glacier hike, but Mr. Stevens quickly intervened to decline the offer.

The 17 hours of travel time returning to Atlanta gave the group plenty of time to reflect on the previous week and relive some of the highlights. “It was really a once-in-a-lifetime trip that I will never forget,” said Lum. Junior Will Rehmert agreed with this sentiment, adding that “every day of the trip was amazing and memorable.” The group arrived back in Atlanta at 5:50 a.m. on March 10, weary from travel but grateful for the incredible journey they got to experience, thanks to the Isdell Center for Global Leadership, and the memories they would treasure forever.

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