Words by Vikki Weldon. Photos by Vikki and Jo Bulmer.
Standing knee deep in the river, I stare bewildered at the blood dripping from my face onto the rock below me. It takes a few drawn-out seconds to realize that the blood is coming from the bridge of my nose. As I clasp my hands around my face, it takes me a minute to come back to reality. What just happened?
I turn around to see my partner, Jo Bulmer, staring wide eyed and open mouthed at me. As I take my hands away from my face, everything widens just a little bit more. Great, I think to myself, I just smashed my face. Wading back towards Jo, she guides me back to the river’s edge. It was our first day in Cochamo, a granite paradise nestled within the Patagonian Andes of southern Chile. Jo and I were on our way to do a short multi-pitch on La Junta, the nearest granite dome to camp, and the namesake of the campground we would be staying at for the next two weeks. We came to a river crossing, and I began to hop sure-footedly along the row of rocks that led to the other side. I didn’t account for the invisible slime that covered the wet rocks, and in an instant, I had slipped and fallen face first into the next rock.
Soaking wet and feeling dazed, I heard a sound just above me. My eyes found a group standing next to the tyrolean line strung above the river that Jo and I had completely missed. I watched as a woman in the group bent down and scooped up a little white poodle, placed him in her lap, and casually crossed to the other side. Jo let out a burst of laughter, and I couldn’t help but join in. Welcome to Cochamo.
Having planned to spend the entire month in Cochamo, we were dismayed to find a weather forecast of unrelenting rain just prior to leaving for South America. A flurry of reorganization found us headed to the Argentinian climbing paradise of Frey for the first two weeks. There we topped out mini Patagonian towers of golden granite every day, experienced a small taste of tent destroying viento, and enjoyed the camaraderie of a host of international climbers. It was heaven.
A promising forecast sent us scurrying back to Chile and prepping for two weeks of granite wonders. Cochamo is a climber’s paradise. Nestled within the Los Lagos region of the Llanquihue province of Patagonian Chile, the Vallé Cochamo consists of sheer granite behemoths that rise above a thriving, lush rainforest. There are no roads leading into the valley, rather it is a century old cattle trail, cut deep into the rainforest alongside the Rio Cochamo that allows access into the granite playground.
Arriving in the sprawling green meadow of La Junta campground was akin to stepping foot into a fairy tale. Campers lounged in the sun soaked fields, while horses and cows grazed next to the small refugio that acts as a kitchen and gathering point. The dark granite of La Junta towered over us on the north side of the valley, while across the river lay the stunning granite triplets of Trinidad Norte, Central and Sur of the Valle Trinidad, neighbouring the impressive curving Anfiteatro. Further to the west lay the soaring slabs of Arco Iris, the granite behemoth that acts as sentry to the valley. It was as if Squamish and Yosemite had made sweet Chilean babies together.
The next day, we set off early to the Valle Trinidad. With heavy packs once again, we soon learned why climbers nickname the area “Approachamo”. A minimum 2-3 hour approach only gains you access into the valley, with many climbs demanding an even longer approach from the bivy sites. Most climbers plan to spend a number of days up in the valley, only coming back to the La Junta campground to rest and restock food for the next mission.
Over the next week, Jo and I focused on climbing the classics in Valle Trinidad. The 15 pitch “EZ Does It” (5.10d 455m) started us off with fun, sustained climbing and the occasional soaking wet offwidth to the summit of Trinidad Norte. Over the next week, we put in a solid attempt on Cochamo’s first free climb, “Alendalaca” (5.12b 440m) on Trinidad Sur, and enjoyed the engaging and unique pitches on “No Hay Hoyes” (5.11a 210m) on the Gorilla. The highlight of the Trinidad climbing was indeed “Los Manos del Dia” (5.11+ 500m on Trinidad Central). From technical slab, a wild curving flake, a most perfect hands crack, to a high burley offwidth crux, this route absolutely had it all.
After a successful mission to the Trinidad valley, Jo and I found ourselves back at La Junta, lazing about in the lush meadow and scheming up our next step. Our eyes were drawn to the topo of “Positive Affect” (5.12b 975m), the king line on Arco Iris. From everyone we had spoken to, it was a plumb line, weaving its way up incredible rock. Consisting of 19 pitches, it would be Jo and my longest route. A slow and easy morning the next day, we climbed only the first 5 pitches in order to bivy on the massive King Ledge.
Waking up with the sun, Jo and I cleared out the cobwebs with a handful of easy pitches before the difficulty and the angle of the rock kicked it up a notch. Every pitch was a 50-60 metre rope stretcher, ranging from technical stemming dihedrals, to grovelling offwidths (glad Jo led that one!). As the day wore on, with perfect, crisp weather, each pitch left us a little bit more exhausted. It wasn’t until around 7pm that evening that we reached the crux of the route, pitch 18. I began handing the gear to Jo. Staring up at the never-ending dihedral, I could see Jo’s body sag. She was tired. So was I. “You got this Jo Jo,” I murmured to my partner. An onsight of the route no longer possible after foot slips from the both of us, the pressure was gone but the drive to try hard remained. Starting up, the first few moves transferring from the petering crack to the smooth granite of the dihedral were shaky. Within a few feet though, Jo found her groove. I watched in awe as she fought her heart out, pulling out all the stops to push past my line of sight. I crowed with excitement when I heard a faint shout signalling to me that she had reached the anchor. A proud onsight of a hard pitch. I couldn’t have been more psyched.
We topped out just after 9pm, as the sun ducked behind the mountains. Gazing out into the valley, I glanced at the encroaching clouds with worry. The forecast had called for rain overnight. Setting up the anchors for rappel, I crossed my fingers that we would be off the wall before the weather hit us.
The first 10 rappels went quickly, but soon darkness fell upon us, along with the first of the rain drops. Soon the heavens opened, leaving us soaked to the bone and our ropes a hundred times more cumbersome. Our pace slowed dramatically as we worked out the knots in our water-logged ropes, tossing them into the rivulets of water that ran down the wall.
Rapping off the King Ledge, I found myself near the end of our 70m lines with no anchor in sight. The darkness confused me, the rain didn’t help. I had missed the anchors. Ascending a wet line with prussic cords is no easy task. What felt like over an hour later, I spied the anchors with a shout of triumph. Poor Jo joined me minutes later, shaking from exposure. We reached the base of the wall, only to find that our mellow slab approach had turned into a nightmare maze of waterfalls. Over two hours later, we stumbled onto the main trail back to La Junta. Heads down, and hoods up, we trudged wordlessly back to camp.
After stumbling into our tent, Jo mumbled sleepily, “I think my phone is broken. It says its 6 o’clock”. I numbly checked my phone. “Nope,” I replied, laughing, “It’s 6 am”. Almost 24 continuous hours on the move.
The next few days passed like a dream. Cramping muscles, soaking gear, and drizzly weather kept us from any more climbing for the remainder of the trip. Only too happy to laze about at camp, we met a number of climbers who were happy to discover our safe arrival after having watched our headlamps inch their way down Arco Iris at night. Wherever I go, the climbing community never ceases to amaze and inspire me at their overall inclusiveness, caring and warm nature. The climbers of Cochamo were no exception.
My pack full to the brim, and my boots tied up tight, I spun slowly, soaking in the stellar 360 degree view one final time. Cochamo had been generous to us, sharing its adventurous nature and high quality granite, taking only a small amount of blood in return. I rubbed the small abrasion on the bridge of my nose. Seems a fair trade to me, I thought, smiling. Perhaps next time, we could give back in a larger way. The endless possibilities up the bright granite domes were outstanding. There are many new routes to be created here. It’s only a matter of time before I’ll be back.
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