Cochamo: Into the Forest


One of the first foreigners to spy Cochamo's climbing potential was American John Foss, who paddled down the Rio Cochamo (pictured here) in 1996 and took photos of the rock. He shared his slides with American climbers Steve Quinlan and Chris Ann Crysdale. Quinlan and Crysdale attempted to enter the valley, but were thwarted by dense bamboo thickets. A year later, their friend Waddy and his girlfriend Nell Doust would bring their machetes to the task. [Photo] Courtesy of Daniel Seeliger

Another night passed, and our frequent river inspections finally showed signs of promise. Upstream there was a shallower place where a wandering line of shingle banks appeared crossable. The grey water still was flowing horribly fast, but we opted for a go. Stripped to the waist, our rucksacks loosely over our shoulders so they could be abandoned if we had to swim for it, and both armed with a sturdy stick, we stepped into the freezing river. It felt horribly committing. In the middle of the river our shallower line turned downstream, and we had a gripping few minutes stumbling slowly down the middle of the river without getting any closer to the banks, hardly able to stand. At times I held Nell against the pressure of the water, my feet scrabbling against the moving riverbed. We emerged, finally, from the harrowing current.

Several hours later Carl's roaring fire was a welcome relief. He had actually come up the valley with some spare horses when we failed to appear, only to turn back when some ill-informed passer-by told him he had seen people answering our description walking out days before.

A week later we had a rendezvous in Patagonia, and there we remained for a while. Noel Craine, Simon Nadin and the infamous Strappo were attempting to climb the windward side of the central tower of Paine. About once a fortnight the wind dropped enough to consider climbing, then promptly picked up again. Endlessly they plodded up some gully that led back to their wind-blasted world, like overenthusiastic aeronautical engineers. What crimes they had committed in previous lives I don't know, though the penance seemed severe to me.

We told them about our El Dorado. It's a strange thing: if you announce that you've found a valley surrounded by 2,000-foot-plus unclimbed cliffs, where the sun (nearly always) shines, no one really believes you. I guess it sounded too good to be true—the climbers' equivalent of "instant millionaire" letters that swiftly end up in the bin.

We needed some climbing support, and more importantly, we needed more gear: ropes, aid gear, portaledges. However, they were committed to their project, so eventually we left them to it with a vague agreement to meet up in Cochamo after they had finished their climb.

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