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A Tale of the Towers (part 1)

Barney. A name that, to most people, means a purple dinosaur. To some, it is the name of Neil Patrick Harris’s iconic character in How I Met Your Mother. But to me, Barney will always be that guy. You know the one. The bastard who wouldn’t share his peanut butter.

The theme of this week’s update is abundance thinking.

Those who know me well will also know that I am a big fan of the 7 Habits methodology. Habit 4 – think WIN-WIN - particularly resonates, as it was also the core philosophy of my late father. It goes to the idea that society – and a culture of competition – aligns us with a win-lose mentality. For me to win you have to lose. Think of rich and poor, competitive sports, even romantic relationships. It’s an eternal tussle, where sharing is for suckers, and compromise is weakness.

Covey thinks differently. He believes that a philosophy of abundance is the answer. Where resources are not limited, and if we find a mutually beneficial solution, we will create the kind of momentum that leads to bigger and better things. This is in stark contrast to scarcity thinking (the core philosophy of our current government), where the pie is seen to be limited, and the game is to get myself the biggest slice possible. This is prevalent across the world in political systems and power plays. And it’s sad.

But back to Barney. Let me tell you about this guy.

My buddy Chris and I were all set for the biggest adventure of our epic trip across South America. A friendship that had started in Guatemala and had endured over six months of on-and-off traveling together, was now going to face its sternest test and its greatest shared experience. Hiking the icy wastelands of Torres del Paine national park, in southern Patagonia.

The Blue Towers are three magnificent peaks clustered together. They are framed by a glacial lake on one side and an endless glacier on the other, and the 9-day circuitous trek around the towers is one of the world’s epic hikes. Because you take all your stuff with you, including your tent, the going is hard. The distances are long, the weather goes from icy winds to snow to sunshine in a heartbeat, the nights are frigid and the terrain is hectic. There are huts in certain places, but mostly you sleep in a tent. There are no resupplies, no exit roads, no support. You’re on your own, buddy. That’s why most people elect to do the W, the shorter and better-provisioned hike that just covers the front end of the park.

So we, being idiots, decided to try and do the route in 7 days. Because, you know, that way we would need to carry less food.

We should’ve thought about this harder. Shopping for the trip we bought actual fruit instead of dried fruit (stupid), skimped on the gloves (they didn’t keep up our hands warm, got wet and icy, but they did look biker cool), and…second biggest mistake of all…didn’t get enough chocolate.

One thing we couldn’t find in the town stores was peanut butter. Chris is from Colorado and I’m from Cape Town, but we shared a love for the beautiful nut condiment. Peanut butter, in my opinion, is proof that God exists and wants us to be happy. But we couldn’t find any, and we were happy to tackle the trail without it.

The bus dropped us off at the start, and we were on our way up to our first valley. In those days, as backpackers, social systems were open-source, and some random dude fell into step with us. Welcoming chap as I am, I started to talk to him. His name was Barney, he was from England, and he had the same walking plan as us. “Well hang with us,” I said. “Sure,” he replied.

And he was actually ok the first day. We walked up to camp, he came over and had dinner with us (we had some wine for the first night which he gratefully accepted, and some crackers), and it looked like we had made a new friend.

On day 2, however, I smelled a rat. It was a helluva long day, as we were trying to squeeze two days into one. The fruit was heavy, the winding road next to the river was never-ending, and towards the end, an icy wind by the lake froze our nuts off. But that was all sideshows. The star of the day was Barney.

He started the morning by telling me how much he hated Australians. Then he decided to double down when I defended Aussies (I actually know a few good ones) by telling me the South Africans he met in Mozambique were the worst people in the world, and by the way, Johannesburg is the worst city he’s ever been in. Uh-oh. Digging deeper into his backstory, he had traveled extensively…but when he went back to his normal life in England, he worked as a PRISON SECURITY GUARD and, for fun, he refereed soccer matches. Basically made a living from people hating him.

I let him pull away ahead a bit, and whispered to Chris. “I don’t know about this guy, bud,” I ventured. “Nah he’s fine,” said Chris, confidently.

Lunchtime, exhausted, we sit down. We eat our fruit, glumly contemplate the extra 10km we intend to walk today and sit in silence.

At this point, Barney opens his backpack and takes out his massive jar of peanut butter. He makes himself a sandwich from heaven and eats it with relish, the open jar of peanut butter just sitting there. Tantalizing. Inviting.

Only an idiot could have not noticed our covetous stares. But Barney chose to ignore it. No invitation to share the goods was forthcoming, so I finally hinted: “We were looking for some in town, where did you find it?” He had brought it in Santiago, he proudly explained. But nope. He was going to eat that f*cking treat all by himself.

Things were made worse by my inner struggle. You see, I was carrying the chocolate. Two small bars of Cadburys, which meant Chris and I could only have one little tiny block each meal, and we would still run out two days early. This was, again, just not good planning. On a normal day, when I am parking my butt on a chair in front of a laptop, I can polish off a big slab just for fun. I love chocolate! Now imagine how your body craves sugar on these hikes, and the sheer self-discipline I had to exert not to wolf it all down right there. But I was accountable to my buddy, and somehow I kept it together.

We kept on walking. When we finally got to our campsite, enduring icy cutting winds of the way, we found we were sharing it with three Israelis, two Frenchmen, and a lone Canadian. As we were setting up tents, one of the Israelis happened to accidentally stumble over a tent peg of Barney’s while he was setting up. He gave the poor guy a massive tongue lashing.

Later, the Israeli came to us when Barney was out of ear sight and enquired about our friend’s attitude.

“No no…not our friend,” I pointed out. And I started wondering how we could shake him.

Chris, to his credit, did better at shrugging off Barney than I did. The next day was our biggest challenge yet – the temperature dropped even further as we hit the rainforest up the pass (skirting our first big glacier), the skies opened up and rain belted us, soaking us to the core, freezing my fingers inside my sexy biker gloves. Also, our hut seemed to never arrive. I split from Chris and Barney halfway, they were slightly faster than I was. This also allowed me to “enjoy” the walk in silence. But man, it was hard.

When I finally arrived at our campsite, nestled below a towering mountain of ice and seated just beyond a frozen lake, I was cold, exhausted…but happy. It was one of the hardest days walking I have ever had to do. Chris had set up our tent, and he, along with about 10 other intrepid explorers, was huddled around the fireplace inside of the tiny common area hut. There were clothes hung up everywhere. We had all gotten soaked, and the warm inside of this area was our sanctuary from the bitter cold. It was a night of shared war stories, as a tired but happy crowd from all over the world could reflect on being as far out there as one could be. On the slopes of a rugged mountain, days from any proper road or rescue support…we felt like our only little band of explorers.

That night was the coldest of the trip. The wind, the rain, and Chris and I, to this day, reflect on the coldest night of our lives. In the morning, we were still cold. And tired. Our clothes and gloves had not fully dried overnight, but we put them on anyway. It would be understating to say we were slightly craggy. Once again, Barney accepted coffee from us… but had his peanut butter sandwich alone.

My temper was rising. And we were about to face our toughest challenge yet, the pass across to the main glacier. As we packed up and set off, storm clouds gathered…and heavy snow started falling. It was going to be a long day…

Next week, I’ll tell you how this all played out.

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