January, 2010

Jan 10


I first heard about Cochamó through the grapevine in Camp 4, the climbers dustpit in Yosemite, in 2005. The vague rumors were of a barely known valley in southern Chile with multiple El Cap sized walls, many of which had only one or two ascents. Five years later we finally arrived in Cochamó; the rumors have long ago been confirmed and the walls have quite a few more ascents now, but the jaw dropping power of the huge granite walls hasn’t been diminished in the least bit.

Many of the comparisons between Cochamó and Yosemite hold true (beautiful granite, lots of climbing potential) but there are some pretty major differences. The most striking of which (besides the weather) is the method of entry into the valley.

In Yosemite, you drive right into the valley floor, craning your neck to see the tops of the walls through the windshield. In Cochamó, the price of entry begins with taking a two hour bus to a backwater town, then walking 6 km of gravel road to the trailhead. From there 4-6 hours of walking on the muddiest, most rutted trail I have ever seen brings you up into the valley proper. It’s only in the last half hour of this slog that you begin to get glimpses of the walls through the thick canopy above you. And those glimpses knock the air out of you: Literally leaving you speechless. You have arrived in a place every bit as awe-inspiring and powerful as Yosemite, but not the tourist meat grinder that the park has become, the Yosemite of John Muir lore. This price of entry may be dirty and difficult but it acts as a wonderful filter; helping to effectively maintaining sustainable numbers of visitors to the valley. Cochamó is barely touched, except for a few permanent structures the valley is completely natural. And the semi-permanent residents are fighting hard to keep it that way.

A few years back a partnership between American and Italian companies expressed interest in buying the water rights to Cochamó so they could dam and flood the valley for hydropower. In response, the residents, headed by Rodrigo (Chilean) and Daniel (American), formed the group Conservación Cochamó. Speaking in terms that the Chilean government could understand, namely tourism jobs and profit, they took their plea up the ladder until it finally made it to the desk of the Chilean president. The then president, Michele Bachelet, recently signed a bill protecting the water rights forever.

But as Daniel told us,

Water is only one part. Cochamó is still at risk. And God forbid the mining companies become interested, because in Chile, the mining companies get whatever they want, period.

For now, Cochamó isn’t a National Park, it isn’t a reserve, it’s not even on public land. It’s just a beautiful valley that is protected by its distance from people and its difficult access.

After spending two days hiking and gawking in Cochamó and a day on either end to hike in and out, we both hope it stays just the way it is.

For more general information about Cochamó check out: http://cochamo.com

To see how you can help with the conservation effort check out: http://www.cochamo.org

Jan 10

Ready to sit still for a bit

About to embark on about 35 hours of bus travel to El Chaltén in Southern Patagonia. Only 3 weeks until our flight back to the US. We were sitting here wondering where the time has gone and why we feel so tired…

I think we’ve worked it out…

Since reaching the Andes we have spent:

  • 20 days trekking
  • 3-4 days climbing
  • 4 days on buses
  • 6-7 days resting or waiting out bad weather ( and gorging on fruit and Dulce de leche mmm 🙂

And yes, I am a nerd.

Jan 10

Trompsing Over Mountain Tops

Three days in on a four-day traverse of the mountain range outside bariloche. This is high mountain trekking at it’s finest. The route passes up and over multiple high peaks, up and across steep snow slopes and today, the 3rd day, spends much of the time traversing a spectacular high ridge line. Standing on this ridge looking down into the bright blue waters of Lago Azul I feel like I might burst with happiness and the excitement of it all. It’s just all too wonderful to absorb at one time. So much beauty everywhere I look that it turns my thought processes to mush, and I start to sound like someone who has just fallen in love for the first time. Diarmuid would be busy slagging me off right now.

Each morning we set off early to catch the snow while it is firmer and easier to walk on. We spend most of the day walking through the mountains, with nobody else for miles around us. Such a wonderful feeling, allowing us to daydream that we are discovering these mountains and valleys for the first time, making the first tracks across the snow and drinking water from the unspoilt rivers and streams.

Of course it wasn’t all sweetness and light. Finding our way gets tricky at times, especially when the only way past is to walk through a lake, or when loose soft snow is covering the usual route with scary cornices hanging overhead. By the end of each day we are exhausted.

We reach our chosen camp spot for the night, which becomes home as soon as our yellow tent springs into action. It’s funny the bond you make with your tent over time, a constant when most all else is variable.

Life becomes so simple up here; walk, eat, sleep. Free time in between is just that : completely free. Time to sit and chat and watch the beautiful world go by…

Jan 10

Está cerrado

Está cerrado. It’s closed. This is a phrase that we’ve heard a lot so far in Argentina. It seems to be the standard approach by the appropriate authorities to dissuade trekkers from treks that might cause said appropriate authorities to mobilize a rescue of said trekkers. The trick, we’ve learned, is to ignore the doomsday warnings and forge ahead with your request. Insist that you have ample experience, proper gear and a strong desire to proceed with the trek. After some time, the authority in front of you will generally begin to smile and then, with no small hint of excitement, tell you all about your intended route. This is how our first trek in the Bariloche area started.

Well, almost. Our trek actually began with us running, fully laden with packs and trekking poles, through the streets of Bariloche on the first day of the new year. We barely made the bus that would deliver us to the start of the trek, the car park at the ski resort of Cerro Catedral. But as soon as you climb from the pavement and onto the the trail, you enter an alpine wonderland. Contouring across fire scoured slopes and climbing higher you find yourself surrounded by golden granite spires. Huge scree fields descend from the ridges, highlighting the distinct treeline. Twinkling, whitecap carpeted lakes shine below you. And all of this transforms Gina and I into little excited kids, running wild in the hills yet again.

“Está cerrado.” The refugiero at Frey was stern. “There is too much snow.”

Pressing for more information, we eventually learned that two Americans had left on our intended route only that morning. Yeah right, closed. Perhaps he had slipped, perhaps he was beginning to trust in our ability but he finally began pointing out the important landmarks on our map, becoming more and more helpful with each passing minute. As we headed out the door, he wished us good luck.

We started early the next morning, figuring that if there was lots of snow on our intended route, it would be better to cross it as early as possible to ensure it would be firm and stable. We walked quickly towards the first snow covered ridge line ahead of us. The constant resistance we had come up against had made us paranoid, would the route be too snowy?

Four and a half hours later, we lounged in the sun, eating lunch at Refugio Jakob. The route was snowy, but not nearly the arctic endeavor we had been led to believe it was. It had been incredibly varied, wildly beautiful and had renewed our confidence in our own abilities. It had also redoubled our resolve to continue with the next “closed” section of the route: From Jakob to Laguna Negra. After a similar struggle that diminished into friendly helpfulness the refugiero at Jakob wished us luck and implored us to let the refugiero at Laguna Negra know we had arrived as soon as we got there (All the refugieros communicate with VHF radios each evening).

Our next leg, as promised, was very snowy. Our day resembled more of an alpine route than a trek: Steep snow slopes, long traverses across scree littered ridges and never-ending descents down bowling alley gullies filled with snow and fallen rock. It was a long, tiring and thoroughly exhilarating day. The refugiero at Laguna Negra greeted us warmly and asked about the route. We confirmed what he already knew from the two that had arrived the day before. There was lots of snow.

We curled together in the tent and fell asleep, before the darkness had even arrived. The next day we’d hike out to the road and get our bus back to town; back to gluttonous meals of pasta, meat, wine and glorious dulce de leche (the golden caramel of Argentina); back to hiding from the weather that was slowly closing in from the west.