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'If trek hadn't been challenge, it wouldn't have meant so much' MORE than 16 months Arts Editor Karen Price joined a host of trekkers in; Arts Editor Karen Price joined a host of trekkers in Patagonia to raise money for Cardiff's Velindre Cancer Care. Here she reveals all about the mammoth journey, which featured snow-capped mountains, very cosy dorms... and endless bamboo forests.

MORE than 16 months ago I was among a host of names to sign up for Cardiff's Velindre Cancer Centre's trek in Patagonia.

As someone who loves walking and was keen to see the South American region where the Welsh settled 150 years ago - not to mention the fact it was raising money for a brilliant local cause - it seemed like a no-brainer.

So my friend Carolyn Hitt and I spent a year fundraising, bought all the gear and embarked on some training walks.

But nothing could have prepared us for the day when we joined a group of 50 trekkers - led by comedian Rhod Gilbert and also including BBC Wales weatherman Derek Brockway and James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore, of the Manic Street Preachers - and headed off for our challenge.

After around 36 hours in transit we finally touched down in Esquel, and after a night's sleep our challenge began with a hike up Craig Goch, exactly 130 years to the day when the Welsh settlers climbed the same mountain and saw Cwm Hyfryd (beautiful valley) for the first time (20 years after they had initially arrived in Patagonia).

We were joined by local dignitaries, schoolchildren and today's Rifleros (many of them descendants of the original riders), who came on horseback as we wound our way through the dusty tracks.

As we took in the uninterrupted views at the top, an Argentinean flag fluttered in the breeze and a lone trumpeter started playing the Argentinean national anthem ahead of the Welsh national anthem, both sending shivers down the spine. There were readings and dancing from the schoolchildren as these two nations stood united.

While this historic day was part of our itinerary, the real trekking challenge began a couple of days later in the national park near the town of Bariloche.

Before we were sent out into the wilds, we were all given beautiful "guardian angel" pendants made by the mother of Rhian Grif-fiths, a 25-year-old who sadly died from cancer. I wore mine on a chain around my neck for the entire trek.

During the first day in the national park we walked around seven hours from El Tambo to Jakob Hut (our home for the night) and the first part of the journey took us through lots of green woodland and more stunning mountains. After spending a while fitting my rucksack, I found myself at the back of the group in very good company indeed - with our trek leader, Rhod, his wife, Sian, and their friends.

"I lead from the back," he joked, as he checked and double-checked that my rucksack fitted just so.

The afternoon found us mainly ascending through woodland before crossing a high bridge over a very impressive waterfall and then clambering up rocks - no easy feat with a rucksack on your back.

When we reached the top, the ground was covered in snow and we could see the wooden hut, where we would be staying, in the distance. It was like a scene from a Christmas card.

As we played card games and shared some laughs, the isolated hut (complete with roaring fire and views across a lake to die for) was certainly a novelty - the seemingly endless hike to the outside toilet less so.

We didn't get much sleep that night as we were divided into two cramped dorms.

This was rather unfortunate as the following day was our most gruelling of all and saw us getting up at 6am for an 11-hour trek from Jakob Hut to Casalata Valley, which covered around 20 miles.

With around 50 people fighting for space at the breakfast tables, trying to sort rucksacks and match their boots from the pile in the porch, it made for a chaotic start to the day.

We started out by ascending a snow-covered mountain and it was just a couple of hours in when we were facing a steep descent. Having previously broken my wrist, slipping was one of my big fears. How I envied those who literally ran down the mountain while I used up so much energy concentrating on staying upright. By lunchtime - perched on rocks overlooking a lake - I was already feeling tired and yet we were barely a third of the way in.

As we hit a bamboo forest, where we had to stay focused at all times or risk being tripped up by the dreaded canes, I was lagging behind.

The rest of the day was full of ups and downs - both physical and emotional - as we clambered over fallen tree trunks, ducked under branches, balanced on slippery logs, waded through icy lakes, pulled ourselves up muddy banks and slid down many more, all with rucksacks on our backs. This wasn't hiking, it was an assault course.

As exhaustion set in, I pulled my sunglasses on and wept quietly to myself before giving myself a severe talking-to as I clutched my guardian angel - I COULD do this and I WOULD do this.

People had put their faith in me and handed over sponsorship. My friend and fellow trekker, Carolyn, and I had received an incredibly generous PS22,000 in donations for our joint fundraising pot.

I also thought of those battling cancer - dealing with the tough terrain of the Andes was nothing compared to what they were going through.

I then sang and hummed my way to the day's finishing point as the guides and my lovely fellow trekkers gave me encouragement.

Luckily, I had a good sleep that night in a comfy bed so I was up just after 6am, and while my thighs felt like lead, I was determined to put the disappointment of the previous day behind me and carry on.

After losing some of the load from my rucksack, I boarded the bus with my fellow trekkers for Pampa Linda. This morning was truly glorious as we wound our way through woodland paths towards another lake, where we took a short break in the sun.

Sixtysomething trekkers Elaine and Denise, both truly inspirational people, decided it was time to approach our famous counterparts, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore of the Manic Street Preachers, for a photo before Elaine burst into a rendition of their hit You Stole The Sun From My Heart - a trek highlight.

After lunch we had a fairly long ascent but fellow trekker Sean gave me words of encouragement when I briefly faltered, and by the time we reached the mountain leading to our destination - Roca Hut - I was full of energy.

Climbing in the fresh snow which crunched beneath our feet as the sun beamed down was a wonderful feeling, and when we reached the hut after seven hours of trekking we received the greatest reward of all - a 360-degree view of the valley. I just wish we could have bottled it. That night we gathered on the decking for a singsong. The strains of Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and Calon Lan were echoing around those mountains for hours.

That night we had another brief sleep in a dorm, but I awoke feeling energised for our last trekking day - even if it meant a steep descent of a snowy mountain, which was the very thing which wiped me out two days earlier.

Fellow trekker Chris, a young actor who grew up near Blackwood, walked ahead of me, and all the way down the mountain he was there to lend a hand when things got tricky. One thing's for sure, the men on the trek were absolute gentlemen, and while I'm all for equality, it was chivalry that I needed when stuck on a mountainside!

Throughout the descent we had glimpses through the trees on the snowcapped mountains and every now and then there would be a distant rumble as a mini-avalanche occurred.

In the foothills we seemed to spend an eternity trudging through swampy waters and balancing on wet logs, as well as dodging more of the dastardly bamboo. Today's big challenges included crossing more narrow bridges - one without sides - and I felt triumphant when I almost ran across one of them.

After about five hours we passed a memorial to members of the Argentine Gendarmeria who died there in a plane crash in 1952. Just minutes later we were met with a picturepostcard view of Lago Frias, our trek's finishing point.

With a last-minute surge of energy, Chris and I sprinted over the finishing line. As all of the trekkers passed the post, exhausted and elated, we hugged one another as the significance of what we had done sank in.

When we caught a boat across Nahuel Huapi Lake to Bariloche as the earlyevening sun shone down, a wave of emotions hit me. I knew the trek wouldn't be a stroll through the park, but despite putting in hours of training back home it proved far more strenuous than I'd ever imagined. However, if it hadn't been a challenge it wouldn't have meant so much.

During our celebratory dinner we were presented with our medals, but the biggest reward was learning that the Patagonia trek had raised around PS500,000 for Velindre Cancer Centre thanks to our generous supporters, which is more than any of us could have hoped.

Everything about Patagonia will stay with me for ever - from pushing myself to the limit and seeing the most beautiful scenery to trekking with some amazing people, many of whom had lost loved ones to cancer or fought the disease themselves. It was a challenging, emotional and rewarding experience and I'm already planning my next walk in aid of Velindre - Sam Warburton's Winter Walk, a 5km circular walk starting from Y Mochyn Du in Cardiff on December 28 at 11am. Hopefully, I won't encounter any bamboo!

For full details of the Winter Walk, visit http:// www.velindrefundraising.com/winterwalk

CAPTION(S):

The very cosy sleeping arrangements in the girls' dorm

Trekking through the snow

Karen and Chris descend from Roca Hut

On top of the world - almost - with fellow trekkers
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 17, 2015
Words:1667
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