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Susitna Writer’s Voice–Kelly’s first trip, by Ellie Henke

by KTNA Staff ~ May 25th, 2014


Mountain guide Ellie Henke relates a humorous story about an interaction between a young climbing guide and the mule skinners in Argentina.


Ellie Henke-Kelly’s first trip-5-25-14

Several years ago Kelly joined our expedition to climb Aconcagua, which is the highest mountain in the western hemisphere. With a summit just under 23,000 feet, Aconcagua is a big, dry mountain located near the western border of Argentina. Ah, Argentina!  Birthplace of the tango.  Land of the pampas.  Home of the gauchos.

Kelly was in her 30’s at the time. She had dark brown hair, a wide smile, and sparkling eyes. She was the very definition of “cute”.  She lived and worked in China as a representative for a large American company, so she was no stranger to international travel. She spoke fluent Chinese and a smattering of other languages, and she enjoyed traveling the world and getting to know its’ people and its’ cultures. But this would be her first visit to South America.

When Kelly knew she’d be traveling to Argentina she wanted to be prepared for a great experience. All her travel clothes and climbing gear were in order, but she needed to know more about where she was going.  Her evenings were spent perusing guidebooks, dreaming about the outdoor restaurants of Mendoza, sampling Argentinian wines, and envisioning the towering white peaks of the Andes. She also came to realize that her command of Spanish would be entirely inadequate for this trip. She needed help.

Kelly’s Spanish speaking friend Linda came to the rescue.

“No problema!” declared Linda. “I’ll give you two lists of phrases. You don’t even need to know what they mean – just pick a phrase from “List A” and combine it with a phrase from “List B” and there you are. It’ll work just fine.”

The “A List” included phrases such as “Hello, my name is Kelly,” and “Your village is very pretty.”

The “B List” had different phrases, such as “I need a drink,” and “Where is the baño?”

This would work perfectly!

So everyone arrived in Argentina and the expedition got underway. We began hiking up the Vacas Valley, accompanied by a dozen wily mules loaded with our climbing gear. At our first night’s camp Kelly was eager to try out her new Spanish phrases. Who better to practice on than the arrieros.  Now, arrieros are the muleskinners who manage the pack mules, and they are a tough and colorful lot. Most of them ride mules because the trails are too rocky and difficult for horses. They wear wide brimmed gaucho hats, they carry a rope or bolo for catching recalcitrant mules, and most of them have a huge knife lodged in the waistband of their pants. Most of them are also missing a few teeth and are nursing injuries from their encounters with the pack mules. As I said, they are a tough lot, but they are always more than willing to help a pretty lady who wants to practice her Spanish.

Kelly was ready with her lists of phrases. First, pick something from “List A”.

“Estas tan huapo!” – “You are so handsome!”

Then choose one from “List B”.

“No puedo respirar!” – “I can’t breathe!”  Kelly flashed her best smile.

First there was silence. Then multiple arrieros collapsed in helpless mirth. But they were smitten.

The next day we stood by the side of the trail to let the arrieros and the pack mules go past. One of the arrieros spied Kelly. Without breaking stride he reined his mule close, whipped off his red bandanna, and offered it to the pretty “senorita”. Then he was gone in a cloud of dust.

And that’s the story of how Kelly won the hearts of our Argentinian friends. This is Ellie Henke. Thanks for listening.

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