Two years ago when I went down to South America to climb, the Cochamó valley in Chile made as much of an impression on me as any place I’ve visited, maybe ever. Soaring granite walls draped in lush rainforest, climbing routes that worked their way thousands of feet up the massive walls, the nearest roads hours away hiking, granite that would challenge me in all of my favorite disciplines of climbing - this was exactly the type of place I wanted to test myself and grow as a climber.
But as one new to climbing in this context, Chilean bigwall glory seemed ever so slightly elusive to me. After struggling to find the right partner and climbing the moderate routes a few times each, I managed a good taste or two of the climbing I had been eyeing for so long and vowed to come back for more. I told myself two years - two years to get stronger as a climber and allow for the financial realities that prevent international travel every year, two years seemed reasonable. This year, while working full time and building out a van in my remaining time, with my ladyfriend’s return home scheduled from her graduate program in Germany and travel plans on the horizon, again it occurred to me that this would be my fated two year anniversary. How often do we make promises to ourselves and risk leaving those promises broken and neglected? This was an intention I meant only to work toward realizing.
As the winter neared and a reasonable endpoint presented itself for the job I had been working at a local climbing gym, a certain sense of personal obligation surfaced and I got the rash idea that I could fit in a trip down to Chile between the time I quit my job and Coral’s arrival from Germany. Like two years ago I scheduled my flight for New Years Eve but this time I got a return ticket as well, for the day before Coral was scheduled to touch down in Boston, which would leave me about five weeks exactly.
As soon as I had my ticket booked I got in touch with my friend Vianney - a French climber who had become one of my best friends during my trip two years ago. I was well aware of his similarly simmering obsession with Cochamó and, as I had guessed, he was planning his fourth consecutive season in the valley. He got a chuckle that I would book my ticket before even knowing who would be around; chalk it up to optimism but I knew I would find someone to climb with this time, and indeed I would.
Vianney and I met in Puerto Montt and spent a day or two organizing supplies that we hoped would last us a month. Initially we thought we could hire one horse to carry our food into the valley and that we would hike our climbing gear in ourselves. Once we were packed, however, one horse’s capacity of 120 pounds would prove wildly insufficient so we hired two, leaving us still to hike in with packs on our backs. But we would eat well!
Having spent the year dealing with injuries and financial realities, undertaking building out a big van into a camper and getting a job to pay for the project, the days I had spent on rock outdoor were pitifully few. More to the point, those days I spent on rock were on short crags mostly around New England and a far cry from the vertical oceans of Chilean granite I was looking forward to. I knew that the sort of mental conditioning that made exposure to heights manageable goes away without regular use, and I knew that this meant I would find myself facing some very basic fears when I got back on the rope and back on the wall. While fortunately I was in good climbing shape from working at a climbing gym, it was clear that the only way around the problem of conditioning to exposure that was to get high off the ground, get really scared, and keep going.
As climbing will do, without fail, I felt humbled and powerfully so, left to doubt my basic abilities and rebuild my comfort and confidence to heights I had worked so hard to achieve previously. Having a patient and trusted friend for a partner made this process infinitely less painful to endure, and so we went, up the walls each day where fear and confidence together lay in wait. Not just driven to tick off one climb after another, Vianney’s own goals for the season included as much in the way of new route development, stewardship for the place itself and appreciation for the local community, all influences that enriched my experience beyond measure. In addition to exhausting days of climbing established routes and cleaning and equipping a new route that Vianney and other friends of ours has started work on the previous year, rain days left plenty of time for catching up with friends in the community over, drinking one maté after another in our carefully tarped camps.
In due time the exposure to heights became more comfortable again and I managed to climb some of the biggest and hardest routes of my life with friends old and new. Vianney’s initiative led to my second cordero, or sheep roasted on a spit for hours over wood coals, a local tradition that a trip to Patagonia might be incomplete without. A day of games and festivities the day before I was scheduled to depart helped underscore one of the major realizations of this trip - that as stunning and awe-inspiring as those massive walls of granite may be, the community and people that love this place contribute equally to what make me yearn to come back again. And I will.
Horses laden with our food and gear are prepared for the hike in under Rudy's watchful eye.
Massive granite monoliths emerge from the surrounding rainforest.
Vianney questing off from the anchor on some classic Cochamó terrain - nearly featureless slab high off the forest floor on one of our first routes of the season.
Vianney and JB inspecting our work after a day helping open sections of a new route.
Vianney ascending fixed lines while working on the new route.
Formations in the Amphitheater shrouded by clouds.
Vianney digs into a dry-bag full of food in his quite comfortable rainforest living room.
Andres, a well known Chilean climber, leads through one of the more aesthetic pitches of rock climbing I've done.
Leif and Ana work to repair Ana's stove during a rest day.
Leif follows a pitch of wide crack climbing on a new route opened by friends of ours.
Vianney rappelling off the bottom of the same route on a different day, when adverse weather conditions made for an adventurous outing on the walls.
Ana enjoys some arête climbing on a clear afternoon.
Vianney airs out an arête higher on the ridge.
Leif and JB pose on a summit ridge.
From that summit ridge we found ourselves lost in the views into the neighboring valley.
Leif takes a walk along the ridge between two valleys.
A view up at one of the walls from a cobble bar in the river.
Horacio slaughters and skins a goat for us to roast the next night.
Horacio's house had quite the view.
During a day of games and festivities at the end of my stay, kids, climbers and other locals joined in for a game of tug of war.