Cochamo: Into the Forest

Posted on: February 27, 2008


A walk into the Valle Cochamo reveals seemingly limitless potential for new routes on unclimbed or barely climbed walls. The only question is: Will you find a flawless splitter or a flared and vegetated groove? Will the system end suddenly in a blank face? As Waddy and future ascensionists have found, it can be hard to know until you commit to the brutal rainforest trek. [Photo] Crispin Waddy

Editor's Note: The following Feature by Crispin Waddy documents early development on the walls of Valle Cochamo, Chilean Patagonia's lesser-known gem, in 1997 and 1998. A shorter form of this essay appears as a sidebar in Issue 23's Mountain Profile on Cochamo. Discover more by picking up a copy of that issue, on sale March 1st in our online store and available at retailers worldwide.

Into The Forest

By Crispin Waddy

So far we had little luck finding any climbing in Chile. But in a pension in Pucon there was a small photo on the wall showing a distant view of some interesting-looking cliffs, on a mountaintop above some woods. My girlfriend Nell and I turned to each other—this spot might be worth considering.

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Our interest was roused immediately when, by chance, a local raft guide commented that no one had climbed on these walls, some of which rose 2,500 feet above the canopy. The fickle finger of fate prodded us again when we met a man named Carl, who lived in the village nearest to the cliffs. He invited us to stay, and we accepted.

Our rafting friend had warned us why no one had climbed these walls. We ignored him but soon learned the difficulties involved. The walk up the valley was a hard five hours through rivers, bogs and dense woods. After awhile we arrived at meadows that offered good views of the surrounding cliffs. Cerro Trinidad was the obvious choice—it was striking; Nell and I were as impressed as we were unprepared.

The first obstacle was the Rio Cochamo. On this occasion it was no problem, its liquid emerald flowing no deeper than our thighs. A walk in the flowered fields led to the valley sides and steeper ground. Off we set, for a few minutes at least, till ever-denser thickets of bamboo and trees forced a wandering course. All too soon it became impassable, and we returned, chastened. We made a direct line to the nearest hardware store to get that critical tool of south Chilean life: A machete.

Now with some sturdy horses and a kit loaded for a week, everything was easier—until we confronted the bamboo. For the first few hours we made reasonable progress, perhaps half a mile or so, then we reached a dense field of dead bamboo. I slashed, hacked, sweated and swore like a demented crusader for the rest of the day, progressing only a couple hundred yards and barely getting into more passable ground. We returned to the meadows to lick our wounds.

The old climber's refugio in the center of Valle Cochamo. Arrieros, the local Chilean cattleman, hand-cut the timber to build this old cabin seventy-five years ago, but after a local family abandoned it fifteen years ago and moved to the nearest town, climbers refurbished the house with the help of locals to use as a base camp. Today it welcomes visitor and climbing bums alike to drink its home-brewed Tabano Pale Ale, eat warm home-made bread and hang out. [Photo] Daniel Seeliger

The next day the rainforest became more interesting: huge Alerces towering overhead, hummingbirds flitting about. Thankfully there was no more dead bamboo. The live stuff was far easier to cut. One down-swinging stroke left only a sharpened point a foot above the ground. These points were intimidating when staggering up steep muddy banks with full haulbags in the rain, but that was all in the dimly imagined future. For now we were locked into this bizarre challenge that seemed far removed from climbing. We saw the cliffs occasionally, but we never seemed to be approaching them; from afar they glanced at us impassively.

The route we took, if it had been mapped, would surely have looked like the path of a stoned butterfly in a slight breeze. Persephone-like, Nell had been marking our route with little plastic tags, vital for staying on our "path."

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