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El Valle Cochamó

When I first heard about Cochamó from a climber and friend in Washington state, it sounded like just the sort of lore that would float around campfire circles, akin to ‘the one that got away’ among fisherman and ‘the gnarliest digger ever’ among crusty mountainbikers. But unlike so many stories that come second-hand or have that certain taste of exaggeration, as my friend went on he slowly filled in some of the details that began to bring this magical valley to life in my imagination. Towering faces of steep granite domes; set deep in the Chilean rainforest; of the class of granite monoliths that make up some of the world’s most iconic climbing destinations (think Yosemite, Squamish); only recently developed with new routes ripe for the picking; a paradise of long splitter cracks and sustained multipitch freeclimbing - the allure was understandably potent. As a relatively recent convert to a seeming cult of dedicated climbers, a pilgrimage to a land so holy as this seemed to promise nothing less than first rate adventure, but maybe adventure of the type that could cost those foolish enough to overstep their limits.

As a destination for tourism, the Cochamó valley (as differentiated from the nearby coastal village and river that share its name) like much of southern Chilean Patagonia sees mainly Chilean hikers and backpackers, college-age kids from Santiago and your few international mountain folk who seem to seek these places out as natural habit. During the summer season, the three to four hour hike into the valley sees ample foot traffic in addition to horses run by the gauchos to carry gear and lazy people. Even during its short summer season, torrential rains are not uncommon and toward and beyond the edges of that season unbroken stretches of rain can be counted in weeks instead of days. As I’ve been told, the first adventurers that sought to climb Cochamó’s walls never reached their base, stymied by unforgiving thickets of vines and bamboo, no doubt the forbears to a unique and hearty brand of suffering.

Acutely aware of my inexperience two years since my introduction to climbing, I arrived in the valley after bailing on loose plans with friends to climb in el Chaltén, home to some of the most beautiful and daunting granite spires on earth. With Chaltén known for bad weather and crowds, Cochamó seemed to promise less spending and more climbing, a recipe for which my ears were keen. It also sounded less scary and committed, which, I’ll happily admit, also weighed on my mind.

Within my first week, however, I was to be assured of the potential consequences of mistakes in these Patagonian environments, whether on spires among glaciers or on domes in the rainforest, when a friend took a fall on the fifth pitch of a 22-pitch route the length of the Nose of el Capitan in Yosemite (~3000ft.), ‘Bienvenidos a mi Insomnia’. After sustaining a compound fracture of his tibia and fibula (read: broken ankle with protruding bone), Nico was the beneficiary of a remarkable display of community and teamwork as two dozen climbers and hikers rallied to carry him four hours back down to the base of the valley for a helicopter evacuation. I had already been struggling internally with how to find, and walk, the line between rational and irrational fear, a line that seems notably grey sometimes in climbing. Understandably, Nico’s fall came down as a vote for a conservative interpretation of things.

As my weeks in Cochamó went on, I managed only a small sampling of the routes those walls had to offer. Feeling that my skills, experience and strength left me just at the threshold of being able to appreciate the style of climbing, sometimes I felt encouraged by my climbing on a route while at other times I lacked the confidence to partner up with climbers whose experience averaged a solid decade on mine.

Before I left Cochamó I helped with two more rescue and helicopter evacuation efforts and was out of contact for three more. It was an unfortunate theme for my first season in such an awe-inspiring place, but an unmistakeable one. Those experiences have worked toward furthering a set of ideas that have been central in bringing climbing from being simply a fun activity to being something that bears heavily on my life as an impetus toward humbleness and self-knowledge and a corresponding respect for natural environment.

In considering how to portray this place, so too have I been brought to stop and reconsider habits toward enthusiasm and social media spray. Occasionally referred to as the ‘Yosemite of South America’, one could only imagine the harm that could come to this valley with those levels of impact, attention and tourism. As I grow as a climber and as we continue to grow as a global community, places like Cochamó seem to beckon for us to take time to consider ourselves in relation to our surrounding and respect these wild places, or potentially suffer the consequences.

A view from the campground with Cerro La Junta in the background, and Cerro Capicúa peaking out further back still, while cows and campers make themselves at home in the foreground.

Mariana admiring the view of Cerro Arco Iris across the valley

Elsa leading a slab pitch at the start of Aleta del Tiburon

A long exposure as two climbers (headlamp lights left of center) begin a long series of rappels from the top of Al Centro y Adentro in the Amphitheater at 11pm. The roughly 45 degree ramp of darker rock to the right is La Aleta del Tiburon.

Leif poses high up in the Amphitheater on a beautiful day.

Often the Amphitheater fills with clouds while the lower valley remains clear, but this morning enjoyed an inversion and a view over a sea of clouds and granite

Nico, monitored closely, awaits extraction. His climbing shoe had to be cut away and he was fortunate to have trained medical professionals among the climbing community that helped with his rescue.

Vianney making sure Nico is properly hydrated before we started the hike down to the valley floor.

The roofs of Todo Cambia. Note the climbers in shadow in the center, preparing to pull the second roof. The route then heads right of and behind the sharp vertical corner/arête of light colored rock instead of through the third roof.

Cerro Milton Adams at sunset.

Logan, the Washington climber who first told me about Cochamó, returned this year to clean and open a route he made the first ascent of on aid two years ago, Al Lado Del Corazon. Here, Logan follows Cooper up a section of mellower climbing a few hundred feet up. The route starts on the blank slab beside the left most water-streak in the background.

Lia enjoys the view from Café Verde, a partially vegetated ledge half way up Al Lado Del Corazon. I was really excited to help with some of the cleaning and opening of the route, a first for me, and later Lia and I climbed fixed ropes and aid climbed above Logan and Cooper during their attempt to free climb the route (free climbing as opposed to climbing with aid gear, still using ropes for protection in case of a fall). Note the hand carved sign on the wall above Lia to welcome people to Café Verde...

Logan attempting to free the final steep crack on the headwall at the top of the route. His attempt was unsuccessful but the pitch seems doable, although steep and technical, an overhanging fingercrack deserving of a 5.12 grade.

Sunrise viewed from Cerro Arco Iris illuminates Cerro Trinidad and the Elephante, with a reflection off the Rio Cochamó at the bottom of the valley.

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