A two-day whirlwind of sad goodbyes with Nicole, happy greetings with Eli and a mad dash to resupply food, lead to a horse-supported return to Cochamo Valley. Thankfully, this time around the trail seemed a less formidable task, considering our previous experience on it. Simply knowing what to expect as we navigated the complicated path provided confidence and we managed the six-hour ride in four and a half.
The four of us were ready to kick off the next five weeks at full throttle. We had six horses, four ropes, two double racks, enough food to prevent starvation and more stoke than a 13-year-old girl at a Justin Bieber concert. We could hardly contain ourselves as we packed for a four-day mission to our advanced camp near Cerro Trinidad. Eli lead the way, twinkle-toeing up the trail while speaking quasi-coherently in various accents of his choosing.
A little bit about our friend Eli that will help clarify things – he has the determination of a migrating tern, the energy and strength of a hunting wolf pack and the metabolism of a hummingbird underscored with the attitude of a playful puppy. In short, he’s an animal – a super fun, unstoppable and playful animal. It’s rare to charge and laugh this hard simultaneously.
With our energy and moods through the roof, we charged the steep and gnarly trail and arrived at our advanced camp in about half of the predicted time. The bivouac below Cerro Trinidad is so close to the granite beast, we used it as a backrest while we ate dinner. With ropes as our beds and smiles on our faces, we fell into a short sleep before our early rise to get our hands into long granite cracks.
Shortly after an early wake up call, Jakob and Paul charged a long and sustained route on the western north face established the year before called EZ Does It. It is a steep 400m route, sustained in the mid to high tens the entire way, and a limit-pusher for the both of them. Highlights include a finger crack traverse around a blind corner, with harrowing exposure below and Andean Condors above – the stuff climber dreams are made of.
Eli and myself started further to the right hoping to establish a new route up the center of the north face. After several hours of climbing stubbornly into the unknown, NANAD was born. It is also 400m in length and follows three pitches of 5.10 corners and cracks to a beautiful 120m chimney and off-width feature (also mid-tens) to a large ledge. From there, two moderate pitches took us to the glorious summit.
Climbing into the unknown was new to me and emotions inevitably ran high. Leading into new territory has a way of penetrating the deeper regions of the climber’s mind: Will I be able to set protection after these next moves? Am I capable of climbing the terrain above? Will we have enough gear to descend? Eli has previous experience in new alpine terrain and was able to give me good advice – just keep climbing up. With that simple and effective wisdom, I kept climbing, keeping fear in check. Sure enough after overcoming my psychological speed bumps, I realized ecstatically that I was partaking in the purest form of adventure I had ever experienced. And so I completed my lead block, handed the gear sling over to Eli, and he eagerly began his own journey into the unknown. Seven hours later we relished the view on the summit. 360 degrees of lush valleys flanked by granite – FA potential in all directions.
Back in our advanced camp, as we attempted to replenish our lost calories with a rationed portion of pasta, we told stories of our respective climbs and made plans for the following day – scoping more new potential lines in Trinidad Valley. We were just getting started …so we thought.
The next morning we made our way deeper into the main valley, already overwhelmed by the amount of rock around us – option overload. We had our sights set on a wall flanking a small and steep gully, since there was not a single established line up it. Half an hour of steep scrambling later we reached our high point and quickly realized that the lines we were eyeing from the valley floor were actually discontinuous and sometimes bottoming fractures. There was potential, but it would require many bolts and more time than we had. We were looking for striking weaknesses and this wasn’t it. Slightly disappointed, but with heads held high, we continued searching. More scoping, a few group huddles and one large can of sardines later, we were left with no new prospects in the area. It turns out that twelve years of climbing combined with the most dramatic basin in Cochamo Valley left few manageable objectives here.
We had only been at our advanced camp for one night and it looked like we were back to square one. After another uncomfortable night (as it turns out, ropes don’t actually double for thermarests), we decided to change our plan entirely. As far as first ascent objectives in the popular Trinidad area was concerned, it didn’t look good. We pulled the plug, eager to rekindle hope in another side valley.
Down at base camp, we took stock of our provisions and realized that in our euphoric haze, skipping around Chilean valleys and drooling over rocks, we had miscalculated some basic provisions and were faced with an unavoidable trip out of La Junta and back into the real world. Eli and Jakob volunteered. With energy levels still high and logistical juggling at its finest, the boys figured out a way to make the trip in only two days and one night, but it required an alpine start and hard, long days in the saddle. They were up for it.
So it was, well before dawn, Jakob and Eli ran an hour up the trail to where we had our herd pastured to catch our two fastest geldings, Ventu and Pancito, as well as our most sure footed horse Estrella for the pack load. Saddled up and en-route down, Eli went through the usual motions of closing a creaky wooden gate behind him while mounted on his horse. Although the outcome was anything but usual: gate closed, horse spooked, rusty nail met hand and they didn’t play nice. Eli watched the blood leak out of his badly gashed palm and a new reality set in: how long would he have to wait until he could sink a hand jam? Palm a sloper? Lock off on a crimp? This trip we all hoped, though the protruding flesh and dripping blood portended otherwise. Hearts sank; morale locked the door and hung the ‘do not disturb’ sign.
Back to the present – we are deep in the backcountry with a deep and dirty wound to clean up. Luckily I have enough med gear to deal with everything but the worst and we cleaned and wrapped him up quickly. I left my tetanus shots at home and this was a textbook situation that called for one. No problem, stick with plan A and continue riding to town to pick up our goodies – just add one stop at the hospital for the injection. And that is exactly what they did – after one night the boys came back from their mission in good form and good time.
So what to do now? We couldn’t climb, but we were keen on exploring the depths of the country surrounding us – of learning about the terrain and the people who thrived here. And we had a herd of horses. We made the decision to begin a self-sustained horse-packing trip into Patagonian wonderland. Despite Eli’s injury, we were thrilled to continue our adventure, even if there wasn’t climbing involved for a while.
Spirits revived: we had hundreds of miles of trails, a free, cartooned tourist trail map and no real destination in mind. We would simply ride 10-20 days, ask every gaucho we passed what lied ahead and see where the country takes us.