A Place Off the Map


Thirty-three hours before Jonathan Leidich ’92 arrived at Reunion last May, he set off on foot from his ranch at the end of the earth. Leaving behind the mountainous terrain in southern Chile where he runs Patagonia Adventure Expeditions, he walked for an hour to the banks of the Colonia River. He rowed across in a 12-foot aluminum boat and made two more river crossings on foot through knee-deep water, before he reached his all-wheel-drive Mercedes Unimog—a truck that can handle Chile’s mud bogs and pitted dirt roads. From there, he drove for 10 hours to the Balmaceda Airport outside Coyhaique, flew to Santiago, caught a 10-hour flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport, flew to Boston’s Logan, and drove a rental car the final two and a half hours to the Williston campus.

Over those 33 hours, across more than 6,000 miles, his world transformed from an ecosystem of glacial ice fields, old-growth forest, high alpine shrub-land, and marshes—all in the peak of the Southern Hemisphere’s autumn—to New England’s temperate spring. For the 1992 graduate, the trip was a way to “close old circles, and open new ones.”

Leidich’s return to the States approximately traced a trek that he made 24 years earlier in the opposite direction. At age 19, fresh out of Williston, he left Santa Fe, New Mexico, and hitchhiked alone to Chile, on a quest to “find a place on the globe where humanity’s expansion over the planet ended, and where wilderness—unadulterated wilderness—began.”

He convinced a fellow Williston classmate and accomplished climber, the late Bean Bowers ’91, to meet him in Santiago, Chile, and the two of them made their way to the Colonia Valley, where they attempted to scale summits of near-Everest height, which dwarfed those they had climbed back home. Humbled by the sheer scale of the landscape, they made their way back to the U.S. “with our tails between our legs.” Leidich tried college (Colby and the University of Colorado, Boulder) but found his classes unengaging. At age 23, a lightbulb went off. He realized his life’s purpose dwelled in Chile’s challenging landscape. He said to himself, “This is my mountain.” And so he thumbed back down to South America, to the place where civilization ends.

For the past two decades, Leidich has made his home in that vast, sparsely populated region of Aysén, in the Andes range, inland from the Pacific Ocean. He started out as an outfitter offering rafting trips on the Rio Baker, Chile’s most voluminous river, stopping cars on the highway to make his pitch. He eventually bought his 2,500-acre ranch from a local couple who Leidich says were the first humans to hold a title to that land. His seven-million-acre backyard is studded with mountain peaks, many topping 14,000 feet. Out on the ice sheet, white and blue glaciers feed pure, cold rivers. Pumas and foxes prowl the forests, and locals travel on horseback. Here, within the bounds of Chile’s Laguna San Rafael National Park, stands the second-largest mass of ice outside the poles, a remnant of the massive Patagonian Ice Sheet, now split into the Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Fields. The area has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Leidich stands trim and tall, hands rough from climbing and ranch work, his pale-blue eyes intense but friendly below cropped, greying hair. At 19, he had an independent streak partly fueled by an ambition to be on the cover of Climbing magazine and the desire to conquer peaks and rivers. Now, at age 43, his perspective has shifted. He focuses inward, on creating “competence” to provide something seemingly simple for himself, his staff, and his guests: three meals a day drawn from the ranch’s resources (with occasional 22-hour round-trip treks to the grocery store).

At Rancho Sol de Mayo, Spanish for “Sun of May,” Leidich hosts about 20 travelers per year, ages 7 to 76, for excursions that last between 10 and 90 days. His team of local workers and transplanted employees guide visitors along a 100-kilometer trail that the team cleared, connecting 10 camps they built. Groups prepare meals from scratch around a fire: filet mignon from cows raised at the ranch; potatoes, pumpkins, and fava beans grown on his farm; charcuteria and cheeses; smoked pork ribs and Columbian corn bread.

When not hiking and feasting, Leidich and his guests monitor and study the glaciers and local hydrology, sending data about the ice fields to universities around the world—the University of Kyoto, MIT, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Colorado, and the University of Chile, among them. For Leidich, this scientific research is what takes his business beyond traditional tourism and toward higher goals: education, wisdom, and even spiritual discovery. As his company’s website says, “We are not your typical outfitting service. Our trips are symphonies of sight and sound, science and art, physical challenge and spiritual release.” Guests have described the trips as “life changing,” and Outside magazine named one of Leidich’s trips a “Best Winter Adventure.”

We caught up with Leidich at the Wildcat Lounge, under the Reunion Tent, and asked him to tell us more. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

How did you end up choosing Chile as your destination?

Following a childhood dream that I had since I was 12 years old, when my mother gave me a map that she found in a trash can outside the school she taught in—a geopolitical map, beautiful, of South America. On the map, Chile had the most space with a natural environment—including the world’s third-largest continental ice sheet— that had the fewest number of human names on it. I needed to get to a place where there were no footprints, where there were no thumbprints, where there was the least amount of human history.

Did you speak Spanish? 

Beer and bathroom, that’s about it. That wasn’t my strong suit when I was studying at Williston. And the reason I was attracted to this area was because when I went to the library, or anywhere I would research, I could find nothing on it, and that was the sign that it was for me.

Describe the people who come to your ranch. Are they hard-core mountaineers?

It’s not for hard cores. Guests are in incredible shape mentally. It’s more of a mental conditioning and a willingness to try than it is a physical reality.

Do the guests do some of the scientific work?

Oh yeah. Everyone does. They love it. We change out our time-lapse camera cards so we have time-lapse imagery of glacial movements and glacial dynamics and weather. We have GPS devices installed on the glaciers measuring vertical velocities and losses, ablations, and horizontal sliding and movements. We need to change out the batteries, we need to reprogram the computer, we need to download the data loggers. On our treks that we do with visitors, we’re going to get more utility out of it because they’re paying our bills, but we’re also adding to science and creating deeper knowledge, and we can invest in students so they can understand their world better.

Are you concerned that by showing people this place you will inadvertently ruin it?

You take people, dress them in Gore-Tex, put them in a jet airplane and fly them around the globe, and then give them everything all the time. If I explode that in terms of mass and scale, I will end up ruining what I’m trying to preserve. That’s where the other oxymoron of “wilderness management” comes in — “guide to adventure.” How can you be a “guide to adventure” if adventure intrinsically has to have in it the unknown? As soon as there’s a guide, you’ve ruined the adventure. The human history of the valley in which I live is 100 years old. So 100 years ago, the first human walked into the valley. For the first 75 years that I wasn’t around, a total of 47 people ever went there. So you can see how little human impact there has been on this valley. Since I’ve been there I’ve taken about 579 people there in 25 years. About 20 people a year. It’s by invite only. This is not a product you can buy.

Really? You screen people? 

I’ve got a natural filter. I’m really hard to find. And if it’s word of mouth, and we meet, and it’s the right trip for you at the right time, and the right thing, it’s good. And it has to be the same for me. I’m trying to get out of that economic paradigm of more, more, more, and say no, enough is enough. It’s really challenged me to define what enough is, and be really sensitive, because what I’m trying to do is get rid of the word ownership in human language and exchange it for responsibility. I don’t care who owns what. I care who’s responsible for what. That’s my view of how I can be a steward to the ranch: how well I concentrate on the quality of the relationships of everything in my world, rather than the quantity of things in my world. Tourism is necessary because it’s an economic motor and it generates jobs. It puts beans in the pot. And in order to make change, we have to be able to create jobs. But tourism is not a be-all end-all. Science comes in because I wanted to give empirical value through knowledge of the place. Knowledge is absolutely worthless if it’s not useful. As soon as there’s a utility added to knowledge, that becomes wisdom. And it’s the wisdom that I’m ultimately after.

It sounds as if there’s an element of spirituality in your work. 

Yeah. It’s 100 percent spiritual and it’s zero percent spiritual. It’s 100 percent intellectual and it’s zero percent intellectual. It’s 100 percent physical and it’s zero percent physical. And it’s all of those all the time. Let me put it this way—where I live, some of the mountains don’t have names. A lot of them haven’t even been mapped. And I love the fact that I don’t have to name them, and that they exist. Just them existing takes me back to my religious studies course at Williston on the third floor of the Schoolhouse, and the one thing that stuck with me was that the highest level of Taoistic existence is the uncarved block.