An MBA Student’s Patagonia Quest: Going Where No Wheelchair Has Gone Before

Before the year is out, Alvaro Silberstein, MBA 17, hopes to become among the first to navigate three iconic routes in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park in a wheelchair.

But if he has his way, he won’t be the last to do it. He plans to leave his $8,000 trekking wheelchair behind for the next adventurer.

“We want to raise awareness, and increase visibility of people with disabilities—people who are active, who have challenges, and live life to the fullest,” says Silberstein, a native of Santiago, Chile, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident at age 19, losing use of his legs and some control of his arms and hands. “We also want to work on making the parks more accessible in Chile.”

From Dec. 18 to 24, Silberstein will follow three classic trekking routes at the southern tip of the Andes in Chile: a very difficult hike to the Mirador Base de las Torres and hikes to Refugio Los Cuernos and the Grey Glacier Lake.

His 26-lb chair, made by French manufacture Joelette and purchased through a crowdfunding campaign, is the same model some have used to reach base camp at Mt. Everest.

Silberstein’s crew will use the chair’s handles and ropes to help carry him up and down the steepest inclines. The team will use horses to carry gear in the park, which is known for its beautiful glaciers and lakes, sharp peaks, and wildlife.

Silberstein began planning the “Wheel the World” expedition six months ago, assembling a 12-member team that includes experienced mountaineers, disabilities experts, and a physical therapist who specializes in spinal cord injuries. Three others are joining to document the trip: a Chilean outdoor filmmaker and two photographers. Silberstein has received sponsorship from several companies.

He’ll also be accompanied by fellow MBA student Matan Sela, MBA 17. Silberstein said Sela was the first MBA classmate who asked if he wanted company on the trek, and that since then he’s had to turn down several other classmates who offered to come along to help.

The idea for the trek came to Silberstein after he returned home to Santiago during a break in his MBA studies, and realized what a contrast there was between disability access at home, where many of his friends had visited Patagonia, and Berkeley.

He says he chose to do an MBA at Berkeley-Haas in part because of its history at the forefront of the disabilities rights movement. He knew that navigating daily life in a wheelchair would be easier than it was back home, but he was surprised to find that he also had easy access to the region’s natural wonders: Muir Woods, Lake Tahoe, and Yosemite.

“I was amazed that I could even rent a handbike in Yosemite,” he said.

Silberstein, an industrial engineer, has always been athletic and is a lifelong nature lover. A former member of the under-19 Chilean national rugby team, he has continued to pursue adaptive sports, and to enjoy getting outside after his accident. For the past four months, he’s been training for the trip at the campus gym and outside on handbikes.

His says his parents, who have never visited Patagonia, are a bit nervous about the danger of the climbs and the weather—it’s summer in Patagonia but the temperatures can still be extreme, with snow and rain, and gale-force winds.

“We are taking all of the measures to do this in a safe way,” Silberstein says.

The locals in Patagonia are excited about the trek, which has been covered by Chilean news outlets, Silberstein says. After the trip, he plans to create a blog that details how to use the wheelchair on the routes, and inspires others to visit Patagonia.

“When I had my accident, one of my biggest concerns was not being able to enjoy traveling and to enjoy nature because it would be different,” he says. “But I’ve realized everyone can enjoy nature, and I want to inspire others to do it as well.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Silberstein’s trek was the first-known on this route in Torres del Paine in a wheelchair. We have since learned that a similar trek was made in 2014.