Hidden within the heart of the Patagonian Andes lies a monolithic valley with many secrets to be discovered. Cochamó Valley, a jungle-like environment with steep bamboo laden hillsides that crest to massive granite domes, is considered “the Yosemite of South America.” That is, Yosemite without the onslaught of mini-vans and ice cream cones. The faint and weak of heart are quickly weeded out in the rugged eight-mile hike to access the valley floor.
My husband, Jordan, and I stumbled on a YouTube clip of Valle Cochamó last February searching for a location to satiate our wanderlust for climbing adventures and international travel. Nine months later, we stand at the trailhead eager to reach our long-awaited destination. Three planes, two taxis, and three days of travel bring us to the coastal town of Cochamó from our snowy cabin in the Central Cascades of Washington.
The moment is surreal as Cochéla, a native Mapuche huaso (cowboy), loads a packhorse with 60 kilos of climbing gear, camping gear, and gourmet backpacking food. We saddle up as well, our packs stuffed with camera equipment, Spanish/English dictionaries and phrase books, a couple boxes of wine, plus everything else the horse cannot carry. Careful loading of the horses is important for safe river crossings and grueling rocky ascents.
Deep ruts and thick green landscape signify the copious amounts of annual precipitation. Each twist and turn of the trail brings stunning views of cascading ribbons flowing from unseen heights above. The swampy grooves give way to expansive pampas where we catch our first glimpse of the granite domes, like ramparts, encircling the valley below.
Drenched and muddy, we reach the grassy meadow that would be our home for the next ten days. The dripping rain transitions to a mystifying fog over the valley floor. Cochéla excitedly signals for us to follow him. I catch a few words, something about crossing the river. We follow him through a grove of trees and reach the bank of Rio La Junta where two ropes span to the other side, holding a wooden cart. He hoists the bottom rope until the cart is in hand, smiles broadly, and explains with big motions that the refugio is across the river.
Refugio Cochamó is a rustic bed and breakfast ran by Argentinean climbers, Daniel and Sylvina. The couple also own Camping La Junta, the more economical choice for dirt bag climbers like us. The refugio is home to the one and only guidebook for the valley, a collection of hand-drawn sketches and written descriptions in four beefy portfolios. Every afternoon our homework consists of Jordan tediously drawing replications of the sketches and I haphazardly decode approach, route, and descent descriptions.
The most painstaking description we pour ourselves into is for the 9-pitch Cinco Estrella, 5.10d, located in the Anfiteatro. To reach the base of the route is a four-hour vertical hike out of the valley floor. Details were immensely important to document, as we would be entering a swirl of granite with thousands of misleading cracks and lines. Hours later we emerge from the refugio, exhausted with details.
“Beeeep,” the alarm rings. It’s 6:00 a.m., time to get going. Sleeping bags are shoved into packs and breakfast is quick oats and instant coffee. Instant coffee is not by choice; it is the Chilean standard. The air is frosty with morning dew, great for beginning the vertical ascent. The trail switches back and forth across the mountain, climbing gently past waterfalls. The landscape distracts from the heavy load in my pack, consisting of: a harness, climbing shoes, helmet, sleeping bag and pad, extra clothes, three days of food, stove, cookware, and fuel, complete with the twin rope on top. Every 2,685 cubic inches of my size small Gregory Alpinisto 50 is being put to use. My hips, neck, and shoulders are grateful to the lightweight design with comfortable hip padding and shoulder support. Free from the quirky agitation caused from my older climbing pack, I was able to ascend much quicker without being tempted to throw anything, including myself, off a high precipice.
At 10:00 a.m., we reach the sign for Los Banos. Sweet, we may squeeze in an extra climb today. From the sign, a faint climber’s trail supposedly leads to a bivvy underneath a massive boulder. There is no sign of said bivvy. We continue up the main trail, searching a la derecha, a la izquierda. Maybe I mistranslated? So we hike back down to the sign, blazing through immovable thickets of dense bamboo. Still nothing. My stomach rumbles and a faint throbbing pulses in my head. Finally, we locate the dry creek bed and notice a whisper of a trail to the left, leading us to the Fogon Selknam, a Swiss family Robinson-style bivvy site. Tucked behind the camouflaged boulder, the site is invisible to the main trail. Inside, there is a maze of activity. The sleeping quarters are underneath the boulder as described. Wooden slats are spread across stones for benches and tables. Scraps of wood are nailed onto a tree, beckoning climbers to gain the 40-foot summit to catch the view of the Anfiteatro.
In fashion with the rest of the trip, we conquer one micro challenge at a time, moving steadily forward. We blew our chances of harnessing up for the day, so we spend the afternoon exploring the remaining approach to the climb. The trail is the creek bed, water levels fluctuating with snowmelt. Hopping from one rock to the next, we feel rejuvenated. Our voices are the only ones echoing against the sheer granite walls.
5:00 a.m. New day, spirits are high. Our feet dance across the stones, thankful for recognition in the darkness before dawn. At the base of the climb, details are impossible to decipher. Our picture and sketches of the route description does not match any of the detail on the actual rock in front of us. Reluctant to begin off course, we pace up and down the talus field looking for the route. Time slips away, as we agree on a starting point. Jordan winds up the wall, traversing to a patch of rotten flakes. Deep breaths and concentration steady him upwards. I follow his path, wide-eyed that he came through this junk. Doubt floods my mind as I try to picture the sketch of the route from the refugio. Nothing feels right.
Pitch two is cleaner rock and a better line on top of a dihedral. The route description we have in hand does not match our climb until the top of pitch 4. Relief is short lived. Pitch 5 is a puckered 30-foot unprotected 5.10C on facey slab, leading to the 5.10d crux on pitch 6. I don’t breathe normally again until we cruise up the last two pitches and stand smitten by the beauty of creation on the top of the Anfiteatro. We bask in the sunshine and gulp down the views, hoping to retain the details of the moment.
Racing the clock, we begin our rappel down Excelente mi Teniente at 6:00 p.m. calculating to be finished by the cloak of 10:00 darkness. Ratty anchors and rusty lockers clench us to another series of prayers and thanksgivings as we descend 500 m from the top. Utterly exhausted, famished, and thirsty, we slink back to bivvy paradise where a cozy bed, Ramen extravaganza, and streams of water await.
The next morning we rise with a song of contentedness in our hearts. All the pieces that we sought—exposed climbing, unparalleled vistas, solitude, and connectedness—culminate in the stillness after the storm. Unlocking secrets from the Valle Cochamó is not an easy undertaking, but the challenges make the journey sweeter.