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Apr 29, 2020

A Half-Baked Trip that Ended with a Magical Eclipse

Mark Jenkins and his pal set off for a little-know summit in the Andes that was in the zone of totality. (Photo: Brian Fulda/Stocksy)
Corona Of The Sun During A Total Solar Eclipse

As every seasoned traveler knows, the most meaningful trips are the ones where everything goes wrong. Take, for example, climber and longtime Outside contributor Mark Jenkins’s recent quest to witness a total solar eclipse from the top of a 20,000-foot peak. A veteran of historic expeditions including an attempt on the North Face of Mount Everest, a first descent of the Niger River, and a bicycling odyssey across Siberia, Jenkins was in the mood for something different. So he recruited his old pal Large, and the two of them set off for a little-know summit in the Andes that was in the zone of totality. From the moment they landed in South America, their plans went comically sideways—again and again and again. Were they cursed, or was this the adventure they both really needed?


This episode of the Outside Podcast is brought to you by Lake Hartwell Country, a region in the mountains of South Carolina that’s one of the best adventure playgrounds anywhere. To learn more about all the activities to be had here, from hiking and cycling, to horseback riding and camping, go to LakeHartwellCountry.com

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast. 

Michael Roberts (host): Hey everyone, before we get started, I want to take a moment to encourage you to subscribe to the print edition of Outside Magazine. It’s the engine behind the Outside Podcast, providing us with some of our most adventurous stories, including the one you’ll hear today.

Like thousands of other small businesses and media companies, Outside is facing the harsh realities of a sudden and unprecedented economic crisis. So if you enjoy this podcast—and want to enjoy a great magazine delivered to home —please subscribe. We’re offering special pricing now at OutsideOnline.com/summersavings. 

Now, let’s get on with the show.

Mark Jenkins: It's not actually the misadventure you’re searching for -- what it's actually all about is rising to the challenge. Finding something unexpected happens and you have to think on your feet. You have to improvise, you have to make good decisions or you die.

Roberts: That is Mark Jenkins, talking about the nature of wilderness expeditions. If you’re not familiar with Mark, he played a very big role in Outside Magazine in the 2000s, when he wrote a regular column for us called The Hard Way. Based on what you just heard him say, you won’t be surprised to know that his job was to chronicle his journeys to remote destinations around the planet: war-torn mountain ranges, unexplored canyons, a literally forbidden lake in Tibet.

I’m Michael Roberts, and I met Mark in the summer of 2000, shortly after I began working for Outside. He was like a real-life action figure—a climber version of Buzz Lightyear, with a square-cut jaw, a barrel chest, and unending supply of … well, let’s call it self-confidence. In one memorable event, I watched him challenge an Outside editor to a pull-up contest in the middle of a restaurant that had a conveniently located metal trellis. Mark won. 

Being asked to write The Hard Way column was, for Mark, the chance of a lifetime. In the late 90s he’d been writing for another magazine when Outside’s then-editor, Hal Espen, called him up...

Jenkins: And said, come work for us. I don't know what you're paid, but I'll double it. And you get all expenses to go anywhere in the world every single month. Hard one to turn down. 

Roberts: Mark hard earned it. He’d grown up in Wyoming, where he developed a unique combination of mountaineering and journalism skills. He started out climbing his home state peaks but soon found his way to Yosemite, and then international destinations. In 1984, two years after he’d graduated college, he was part of a team that completed the second American ascent of Tibet’s 26,285-foot ShishaPangma. A couple years later, he was on an expedition that attempted a new route on the north face of Mount Everest.

Along the way, he started writing for local and then regional newspapers, then became a stringer for Time Magazine, based in Africa. Over the years, he completed some historic expeditions, including the first descent of the Niger River and bicycling across Siberia. 

Mark’s writing stands out for being both muscular and intellectual. He is the rare powerhouse athlete who can craft a powerful story. And as is often the case with Outside contributors, his best tales are about the trips where all kinds of things go wrong. 

Jenkins: Expeditions are a step into the unknown. You hear people say like, I'm going to go climb Rainier. I never have said that. I always say I'm going to attempt something. Nature is a very unforgiving place and things go wrong. And that's the moment at which your character and your style and your soul will come out. I just find that the mountains force you to be the best person you can be. And sometimes they crush you, sometimes they kill you

Roberts: Ok, but not every great misadventure story is loaded with life or death consequences. In fact, sometimes it’s the milder misguided journeys that offer the most lasting lessons. Which brings us to Mark’s latest feature for Outside, about his rather curious quest to witness a solar eclipse … from the top of a peak in the Andes. 

It all started a few years ago, when there was an eclipse in Wyoming, and Marc decided to check it out. He drove out to a bluff in the central part of the state and watched the sun disappear. 

Jenkins: And I was in the zone of totality. Now this is special because that's when you do get a moment of complete darkness. And I have to say it was strange and provocative and kind of entrancing. I was in a prairie and there are lots of critters out there. You got rodents and birds and everything went quiet and it did get cold. And it was a very interesting and unusual feeling and it kind of captivated me. And I thought, from a mountaineers perspective, I wonder what it'd be like to experience a total eclipse, to be in the zone of totality, but to be at high altitude. Then I looked at when would the next eclipse be, and by golly, it's actually passing over the Andes.

Roberts: More specifically, on the evening of July 2, 2019, the eclipse would be passing just north of Aconcagua, the highest summit in South America, at about 23,000 feet. So Marc started poking around for an ideally positioned mountain, where he could enjoy the view. 

Jenkins: I found a peak called Majadita, where the eclipse would pass directly over. It was in the zone of totality. And I thought that might be an interesting experience. That might be fascinating.

Roberts: He also thought it might be a fun kind of first. Humans have been living at high-altitude for thousands of years, of course, though, not that high.

Jenkins: But most of them probably would have never been up at 20,000 feet where you need plastic double boots and a down parka just to survive. So I thought, well, maybe it would be kind of a challenge and be very interesting to be, if not the first, to be one of the few humans in the last 200,000 years that witnessed an eclipse from a high altitude. 

Roberts: Mark reached out to the Alpine Journals that record most mountaineering expeditions to see if anyone had reported seeing an eclipse from the top of a big summit. No one had. 

Jenkins: Then I got a hold of NASA; I went through their eclipse logs and tried to basically cross reference any expedition that anyone had done in the last hundred years to see if they could have even seen an eclipse and I couldn't find anything.

Roberts: So he had his plan. What he needed next was a partner. 

Jenkins: It was very hard to find partners for these sorts of half-baked, spur of the moment, off the cuff expeditions. But I have a number of friends who are kind of willing at any moment to throw down, and this is another unusual aspect I think of adventurers who are true adventurers at heart, is that they recognize the value, and they will put off other parts of life, work, family, making money, to go in debt, to go do something crazy someplace else on the planet. 

So I was thinking, who am I going to ask? Well I've got this buddy, his nickname is Large. That's right. Large, as in very large and he is. Physically, he's over 200 pounds and he's solid muscle. He’s just a big strong guy. That's not where he gets his name from. He has the biggest heart of anybody I know. I mean one time I was just going down to go ice climbing with him a couple of years ago and I was just picking him up in the morning like you do with any of your climbing buddies or your adventure buddies. And he’d made me a carrot cake cause he knew my birthday was this weekend. I mean what kind of guy makes another guy a carrot cake?

Roberts: Large does sound like a sweetie: he grew up in Wisconsin and now runs a forest preschool near Denver. By the time Mark called him, the eclipse was just a few weeks away. But Large was in. So they bought their plane tickets, and soon after they landed in Santiago, ready to roll. Kind of.

Jenkins: So we are in Santiago airport. We've already bought tickets to La Serena, which is a place on the Chilean coast. And we're planning from there to try to find some kind of truck or something like that up to this mountain.

Roberts: That plan was based on the relatively small amount of research Mark had done before leaving Wyoming. He’d gotten the names of some contacts in Chile who would be able to provide fuel for his mountain stove. When he and Large got to Santiago, Mark called them up and started describing the trip. 

Jenkins: And they said, what are you going to do? I said, well, there’s this peak over here. And they said, how are you going to get there? And I said, well, I thought we could just rent a truck or you know, hitchhike. And they said, that's completely snowed in. You won't get within 50 miles of the mountain. (laughs) So the trip was almost over. And we're thinking, how can we salvage this thing? And I have to say that this was the beginning of a series of mistakes. The whole expedition was just a series of mistakes.

Roberts: Mistake number two came rather quickly. The guys realized that their only option for salvaging the trip was to take a series of buses over three days: first north, then over the mountains into Argentina, and finally wrapping around the other side of the Andes so they could approach Majadita from the East. 

Step one was jumping on a local bus from the airport to the main bus station in the city.  

Jenkins: And we get to the bus station, jump off, and forget that we've left a huge duffel bag under a pile of other people's stuff on the bus and the bus takes off. And we certainly can't do the expedition without a tent, without our double boots, all this sort of thing. So it's a huge rookie mistake. 

Roberts: Mark jumped in a taxi to chase the local bus down, while Large stayed back with the rest of their stuff. 

Jenkins: So we're driving for miles and then the taxi driver is right beside, in the front of the bus, almost trying to cut off the bus saying, Hey, you gotta pull over, you've got to pull over. And the bus drivers like, what the hell are you doing? I'm going to run you over.

Roberts: Eventually, the bus stopped and Mark grabbed their duffle. Shortly after he got back to the bus station, he and Large met a man who introduced himself as Merlin the Magician. It was an odd encounter, and yet another hint that the journey they were taking was not going to play out as they had imagined.  

Jenkins: We’re waiting in line, and we see this guy walking around and he looks very unusual. First of all, he's wearing red rock climbing shoes, just walking around. Then he's got these very glittery neon Lycra tights, and then he's got this massive, purple shaggy coat, like a bear coat. He also has this droopy seven dwarves cap on. It looks like some kind of magician’s thing. And then his face, it's just hair everywhere. This massive black and gray beard.  And he’s standing in line to get on the bus and we're looking at him and he suddenly says, Hey, you guys eclipse chasers?

 Before we even have a chance to answer, he’s shaking our hands really vigorously. He goes, I am. I've chased him all over the world. Did you know that eclipses are this indescribable spiritual power you experience? Did you know that they're intimately connected to ancient horoscopes? He said it's stronger than crystals. It's stronger than pyramids.  Can you believe that? It's stronger than Ayahuasca. And then he goes and talks about half an hour about burning man.

Roberts: Mark absolutely did not consider himself an eclipse chaser. Neither did Large, who only really joined the trip for the climbing. In fact, before they met Merlin, they only had a vague notion that there were people who spent much of their time and money traveling from one blackout to the next. Only later would the guys come to understand that there’s a whole industry that serves eclipse junkies... with packaged tours, complete with chartered buses and private concerts in the zone of totality.   

Before flying to South America, Mark had focused his eclipse research on the ancient beliefs surrounding the celestial event. He got really into it. 

Jenkins: Every culture has some kind of myth about why eclipses are happening. The Maori in New Zealand, it's an attack from the demons. The Vikings believed that it was these two wolves eating each other. The Chinese thought it was a dragon that was devouring the sun. Actually, one of the ones I really liked is the Sa Huỳnh of Vietnam thought eclipses were caused by a very hungry frog. I just loved that one. One of the best though is Australian Aborigines thought that the moon and sun were husband and wife, and that a total eclipse was like coitus on a cosmic scale. 

Roberts: As Mark points out, many of the traditions surrounding eclipses were violent, some involved death. A lot of this came from people not fully understanding what was causing the sky to suddenly go dark, or when it might end. 

Jenkins: Now one of my favorite stories was about this Sumerian leader named Esarhaddon and this is 600 BC. And he's like, you know what I'm going to do? Every time we have an eclipse, cause I don't know if it's going to be permanent, I'm going to put a false King on the throne, cause he doesn't want to take the blame if the sun never comes back. He's like, this can't be on my shoulders man, cause I know what will happen. So he found this guy, probably pulled him off the street, and said, Hey, you want to be king? Of course, who doesn't want to be King? And Esarhaddon basically just changed his clothes. It's very Shakespearean, right? He becomes the beggar on the street wandering around. Of course, the eclipses don't last that long and after two or three minutes, it's quite clear that this eclipse like all others is going to end. So the King goes back, takes over his throne, and has the faux-king executed. Poor sucker. 

Roberts: On their bus rides, Mark started to get the feeling that in this eclipse story, he might be the sucker. 

Jenkins: But Large and I are looking out the window. And I have to say the landscape looked a hell of a lot like Wyoming: high plains and dusty. And the thing is that starts scaring us was it’s windy, like incredible wind, winds that were rocking the bus. So I started having this sense of foreboding to be honest that we have bitten off way more than we can chew. 

Roberts: When they finally made it to Las Flores, the town in the Argentinian desert that was their new planned starting point for an approach on Majadita, he was feeling even less optimistic. 

Jenkins: We throw our bags off and we are in a dust storm. The dust storm is so bad that we can't even open our eyes. We have to shade her eyes and then we run over to the side of the gas station. Cause the wind is so horrible. And we were a little shocked to be honest, cause we can't even see where we are. 

As people come through using my little Lonely Planet Spanish dictionary, I start asking people, what road can you take to go into the Andes to get up close to the Majadita? First of all, none of them have any idea what Majadita is. It's just another little bump on this spine of bumps that's outside this desert kind of western town. So we ask again and again and again and eventually to say you're going to have to talk to the cops.

Roberts: This is about last thing Mark and Large wanted to do, having had bad experiences with the police in other countries. But they didn’t really have a choice. 

Jenkins: So eventually we march over to their barracks and we present ourselves and say, we're climbers, we're here to climb this mountain, Majadita and we want to do it for the eclipse. And they're like watching this telenova, and we're in this little tiny barracks room and, they look at our heavily stamped passports and are just kind of like, whatever, we don't really care about you guys. 

Roberts: At this point, Mark played his last card. Using the barrack’s internet connection, he pulled up some of his magazine stories about climbing Mount Everest and other big peaks. 

Jenkins: That’s when they took us seriously. And then they brought in some kind of a commander who told us with basically no equivocation that you can't get up there. It's impossible. That road is closed. It's closed all winter. It's deep and snow and there's nothing you can do.

Roberts: We’ll be right back.

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Roberts: Faced with what seemed like another trip-ending moment, Mark and Large refused to give up. Eventually, they convinced the commander in Las Flores to let them pay some of his soldiers to drive them up into the mountains in a jeep. They signed some papers absolving Argentina from any responsibility for their safety. 

Jenkins: That was a coup. That was one of the few coups on this trip. I have to tell you, cause everything else starts to fall apart. 

Roberts: Their next challenge was that the commander had been telling the truth: the road was snowed in. The soldiers took them only halfway to their planned base camp below Majadita before deciding the snow was too deep to keep going. 

Jenkins: So they just stopped the jeep and threw our duffle bags out and said, good luck. Literally. Buenas suertes. (laughs)  We're at least 20 to 25 miles away from the base camp and we've got a lot of gear. One of the funny things that one of the soldiers says to me is like you're going to see how bad it is. And I'm like, I'm a climber. What are you talking about? He said, no, the wind is seriously bad. It's like the devil. El Diablo.

Roberts: Mark and Large slogged along for a few miles before making camp in the middle of the closed road. That night when they went to sleep, there wasn’t a breath of wind.

Jenkins: And about midnight we hear this train and we're like, that can’t be a train. It's so loud. It's like having an ear right next to the tracks. And then the wind hits our tent. And the first gust almost terrorists are four season expedition tent off the top of us. I mean it was unbelievable. I mean, we are estimating the wind was probably 80 miles an hour.

Roberts: In the morning, they began the gruelling process of ferrying their gear to the base of the mountain. The wind was directly in their face and there was a foot of snow on the road, which made it impossible to carry everything at once.

Jenkins: We've got to drop our pack weight to like 40 or 50 pounds and do carries -- carry up one day, drop it, come back down, carry up next day, drop it. But the wind is so fierce that the wind would knock us backwards, knock us on our backs when we're in a foot of snow with a 50 pound pack.

Roberts: They kept at it for three days, making excruciatingly slow progress. Mark eventually came to a harsh realization: there’s no way they’d get to the top of Maja-dita in time to see the eclipse, which was now just a few days away. Even worse, if they kept going, they’d miss the eclipse entirely, because of their position in the shadow of the Andes.

It was time for a big decision. 

Jenkins: I said Large, we either can leave and catch the eclipse somewhere or we can stay and we can climb this mountain, but it's going to take days. It could take 10 days and we'll summit, but we will have completely missed the eclipse. And this shows Large’s heart, I think. And this is probably why we call him Large. He knew how I was feeling after I explained this. He knew that I'd come down to see the eclipse from a high altitude. I hadn't come down just for this mountain. The cliff did matter to me. To him, it didn't really And I said, we either get to climb this mountain or we get to see the eclipse. We don't get both. What do you want to do? And he said, let's see the eclipse. And I know he did it entirely for me. That's Large in a nutshell.

Roberts: The guys beat a retreat, scoring a jeep ride from a military outpost back to Las Flores. There, they found a guy who was willing to rent them a Toyota Hilux, a tough truck about the size of a 4Runner. 

Jenkins: We don't have maps, we don't have a GPS. We just head back into the Andes further north thinking we're going to climb a peak.

Roberts: And they did. After banging along a two-track path that had Large building multiple rock bridges over a stream, they car camped at 10,000 feet. The day before the eclipse, they scurried up loose scree to the top of an unnamed summit at about 16,000 feet. 

Suddenly, glory was at hand: for the day of eclipse day, their plan was to climb an even taller peak. 

Jenkins: We think, alright, we've salvaged this. We can't do Majadita, but we’'re going to be high. We're going to climb a high mountain. We're going to be able to go 16, 17, 18,000 feet. We're going to see the eclipse. It's going to be just like we planned.

Roberts: And then the wind returned with a fury. This time it did destroy their tent. 

Jenkins: The fly was ripped right in half and we get up that morning and the Hilux is rocking in the wind, and we're screwed.

Roberts: Or maybe not. The eclipse was coming at 5:00pm, but the guys had gotten up well before dawn. They figured their only chance to witness the event was to get out of the mountains and onto the open plains.

Jenkins: So now we've got to drive at twice the speed through these creeks. And let me just say that we did have to take that vehicle after the eclipse to an autobody shop.

  

Roberts: They got down to Las Flores, and with little time to spare, headed out to a bluff called Bella Vista. 

Jenkins: And as we get close to this area, we start running into these big camps, with like three or four dozen huge tour buses and they're all fenced off and they've got guards and you've got to have a little ticket. So you can't get in and get the free beer and get the concert and watch the eclipse because these people have all paid 10 grand to get there.

Roberts: They continued on to the end of the road, to the free viewing area where locals had clustered. 

Jenkins: There's so many people on horses, walking, driving their trucks. There are some tour buses there and they're all around us. It's just this phenomenon. And there’s so many people that it’s raised this dust level, just like this haze of dust, red dust, has risen up in the valley below the Andes. Everybody's waiting and everybody's got their little 1950s eclipse glasses on right. They’re sitting on the top of their hoods. They got these little glasses on their two year olds. Everybody's found a pair of these things. And as soon as the moon starts to eat the sun, everybody starts howling and clapping and it's kind of fun. And we got a band going and we got people playing brass instruments, whipping and hooping it up, just like this is the party, right? 

And soon as you got that complete total darkness, everything went silent. Everybody did not say a word; the babies didn't scream; the dogs didn't make a noise. We were around thousands of people and it was dead silence. And for two and a half minutes, everybody is just in awe of this, this extraordinary event.

And then as the sun starts to come back out after two and a half minutes just a sliver, right, everybody starts clapping like you're in this incredible opera. Like it's this planetary sort of entertainment. And it takes another half an hour for the Fort to be over with. But there was this sense of a communion, I have to say. And I know that sounds kind of goofy, but when we were there I felt like this is pretty incredible. 

And after the whole thing, I'm sitting there with Large and we're kind of like, pretty quiet and I say Large, do you think we’re eclipse chasers? And Large is like, hell no, we're failed mountaineers. 

Roberts: That was Mark Jenkins, talking about his quest to see a solar eclipse at the top of the Andes. You can read his feature story about the journey in the June print issue of Outside magazine, which will be out in early May. If you want to have it delivered to your doorstep, subscribe at OutsideOnline.com/summersavings.

This episode was produced by me, Michael Roberts, with music by Robbie Carver.

This episode was brought to you by Lake Hartwell Country, a region in the mountains of South Carolina that’s one of the best adventure playgrounds anywhere.  Learn more about this unique destination at LakeHartwellCountry.com

We’ll be back next week.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.