Our very good friend Eli Simon, owner of Atlantic Climbing School in Maine has been working on his own blog posts. Here is his description of 16 days on horseback in the Patagonia wilderness.
16 days, 6 horses, 4 dudes, and 50 sleeves of cookies, what follows is an account of one of the most amazing adventures of my life.
On January 17th we left the comforts of our base camp. We left our teepee, our climbing gear, and anything that wasn’t essential to our task at hand. Our itinerary was vague at best. We would ride south for about two weeks. Stopping and going as we pleased and fully engaging ourselves in the simplicity and wonder of exploration on horseback.
Our departure being only a few days from my incident playing catch with a nail, I was quite useless during the packing possess. Luckily Daniel, Paul, and Jakob are turbo handy and we weren’t slowed down at all by my huge lobster claw hand.
Before I dive into the details of the expedition, first, I will take some time to describe our beautiful heard of horses.
First, there is Cash. Cash is very much like a van. Big and comfy, although slow and not super agile. This abnormally large mammal has a silky black coat and big eyes that you would expect to see on Eeyore the pouty donkey from Winnie the Pooh. Cash is a great riding horse and packs like a dream. His gait is very much like a waddle, as if his largeness is getting in the way of his walking. He loves people, but not as much as he loves food.
Pancito: If Cash is like a van, then Pancito is like a Mazda Miatta…well, that car sucks… he’s more like a Suburu WRX. He is fast, agile and seems to never fatigue despite his small stature. As the smallest member of our heard, which he certainly does not play the part, he never takes any crap from any of the other horses. Pancito does not like to go to work in the morning, but once he is there, he is employee of the month.
Estrella: Born and raised in the very mountains that we rode, Estrella is very much like a grandmother who has lived her entire life on a farm. She is a super hard worker, but is also mellow and wise. She is as sweet as homemade jam, but as tough as middle-aged nails. She is one of our two mares and she is a wonderfully dependable companion.
Ventue: Picture a Disney movie depicting the wild, wild west. Now picture the proud horse the protagonist would ride. This should give you a pretty accurate image of Ventue. Big, bold and beautiful; Ventue’s uncut blond mane shimmers in the Patagonia’s sun…Ventue is the man…enough said.
George: George is like a third string quarterback on a winning football team. He is very loyal and dependable and very good at what he does, but he does not get the credit that he deserves. George has a beautiful reddish-brown coat and a strong back. He is always the first horse to greet us when we retrieve the horses in the morning.
Maggie: Do you remember the movie, Mean Girls? Maggie is like the horse version of one of them. She is a beautiful mare with a big attitude. The rest of the herd seem to always be looking to fall into her good graces with little success. As the lead mare, Maggie plays the role well, but is still learning from the others in the ways of the mountains.
Armed with this amazing herd and about 150 pounds of gear we headed south into the unknown. Well, unknown to us anyways, we would be following a series of trails that have been used by locals for hundreds of years. We had a terrible map that was more of a cartoon drawing of the area than an actual map. It didn’t depict certain geographical features that we deemed important, like lakes. Despite our Fisher Price map, navigation was never too much of an issue; especially considering our only goal was to go south.
On day one we rode from our base camp to a place called El Arco. It is named after a beautiful natural granite arch that rises above a river with a waterfall running through it. This section of the trail was pretty burly and we were all exhausted after about five hours in the saddle. We found a nice pasture just across the river and set up camp.
This process, as well as breaking camp, would become almost automatic for us over the course of our 16-day ride. Setting up camp would consist of: first, taking care of the horses (unpack loads, food, water, check shoes), then, taking care of group gear (set up stove, lay out pads and sleeping bags, gather water), and finally, addressing any personal tasks (sewing holes in socks, bathing).
Once we had camp set up, we all went down to the river and Daniel and I did some fly-fishing with no luck. We returned to camp fishless, ate dinner and went to bed.
Day two we woke at 7am and began the casual morning routine of breaking camp. This would with out fail begin with instant coffee and oatmeal. Next, we would put away all of our food and sleeping gear. Once every thing was put away, Paul would begin the task of repacking all of our gear into four big bags that would ride on the pack horses. With a tiny hand scale he would make sure each bag weighed the exact same to ensure a balanced load for the horses. As Paul masterminded the packing, the rest of us would retrieve, brush and saddle the horses. Next we would load the two pack horses (usually Cash and George) and get ready to go. Most days we would be on the trail between 9:00am and 10:00am.
Day two turned out to be the most challenging terrain we would encounter. Super steep and muddy we were constantly forced to walk our horses. The trail had grown in in many places, so we were constantly being stabbed by bamboo, which was trying to regain its rightful territory. At one point in the day Daniel was launched of the front of his horse but luckily was unharmed. The rugged terrain made the going quite slow but by the end of the day we went over a high pass and down into a beautiful meadow at the foot of Lago Vidal. Riding into this field after such a rugged day was a huge relief for us, as well as for our horses.
Day three we rested at Lago Vidal. Our horses were psyched and so were we. We spent the day swimming, fishing, reading, making empanadas and re-shoeing two of the horses.
Day four was terrific. We rode on mellow terrain close to the lake for only four hours until we found a pasture that we liked. We set up camp surrounded by wild flowers and had a wonderful night beneath the stars.
Day five was another great day. We rode for about five hours and camped close to a village called El Mason, which consists of one house and one store. During the ride my horse Pancito got stung by a bee and freaked out almost sending me for a tumble into the bushes. In the evening we had some rain and we passed the time by wrestling and playing backgammon.
Day six we rode into El Monson and saw a road for the first time. We wanted to avoid riding on roads so we needed to cross the Rio Manson to get to the trails on the other side. We asked some locals the best way to do this and they told us that we would have to hire a small boat for our stuff and swim the horses across. We arranged for a crossing the following day and spent the remainder of our sixth day consuming more then a little bit of bread, chocolate, and wine.
On day seven we packed up early and hit the road. Our plan was to ride for four hours until we were to meet a man on the side of the road. He would then took us to a boat and help us cross the river. We were skeptical that this “man on the side of the road” would be there, but sure enough after four hours of riding in the baking sun, there was a dude!
We descended to the river and packed all our gear into a tiny motorboat. One by one, we swam the horses across the river. I had never seen anything like it and I was blown away. The river was wide and powerful and one of the most beautiful shades of blue I have ever seen. Soon we were all on the other side of the river and Zoylo Gillardo “the dude on the side of the road” invited us to stay with him and his family on his farm. We graciously accepted the invitation and rode the fifteen minutes to his farm, not knowing that in doing so we would step back in time about 100 years.
The Gillardo’s farm was magical. Completely isolated from the rest of the world by a huge river, this farm produced and provided everything this family needed. There were baby animals running around everywhere, which included: pigs, sheep, goats, cows, horses, chickens, geese, and ducks. Huge pastures of grazing cattle bordered beautiful orchards of apple, plum, peach, pecan, and walnut. There were countless gardens bursting with ripe vegetables. It was everything a farmer could ever dream of. We set up our camp underneath a massive pecan tree and before we even had all of our stuff unpacked we could smell meat cooking. Like four cave man, we dropped what we were doing and headed over to the main farmhouse. There in the front yard was a giant fire slow roasting an entire goat on a stick. For over two weeks we had been eating like birds and now we had the feast of a lifetime in the making. We sat around the fire and began chatting with this frontier family that consisted of Zoylo and his wife, their son Daniel, and their cousin Javier. Each year they make 600 liters of a home made hard cider called chicha. They are quite proud of this fact and equally as excited about making us drink a ton of it!. Well before the goat was finished, everyone present was quite sauced up. We laughed and told stories of our time on the trail. Soon the food was ready and we all went back to being caveman again. I can honestly say it was the best meal I have ever had in my entire life; a perfect combination of the people, the place, and of course the food. We continued to eat, drink, and laugh late into the night
The first part of the morning we lay under the pecan tree quite hung over and did nothing as the Gillardo family went to work cutting the hay fields, apparently unfazed by our night of what I considered to be heavy drinking.
We eventually crawled down to the lower fields and helped cut the hay for the winter. These guys didn’t have a new John Deere tractor…but what they did have was two huge oxen!
It was amazing working with such massive animals. We spent the rest of the day pitching hay, first onto the ox pulled trailer and then into the hay loft. I would say the four of us were as effective during this process as one of them. Regardless of our Yankee inefficiencies, I am sure they appreciated our help and they showed their gratitude by once again preparing us a huge feast; another evening of food, laughter, and chicha (none for me though, even the thought now makes me ill).
The following morning we got to help milk the cows, which was amazing but way harder then it looks. We thanked the Gillardos for their hospitality and once again we hit the road.
The next two days were very cool. The side of the river we were on was much more remote and much less traveled than the other side. This was very apparent in the condition of the trails. A few times we got lost and had to back track but all in all we had two great days on the trail.
At the end of the second day we stopped for lunch and we re-shoed Pansito. During this prosess Daniel held Pacito’s foot up so we had better access to his shoe, but Pansito wasn’t pleased and forced his foot out of Daniels hand. During this quick movement one of the nails from the shoe cut a big four-inch gash down the middle of Daniel’s hand. We cleaned and covered his wound and decided it was best to stay put for the night and cross the river the following morning.
The following day was pouring rain and we packed up camp and went looking for a shallow spot in the river where we could cross. After an hour ride we were brought to a wide section of the river that looked fordable. Daniel, now with his big lobster claw hand, led the way and we all followed hesitantly into the river hoping that it was as shallow as we thought. By the middle of the river the water was up to our shins and the horses were leaning hard into the current to keep from being swept away. I was super scared and my heart was beating out of my chest. I was relived as the water began to get shallow again and soon we were all standing on the other side with our hearts pounding, our adrenaline pumping, and tons of rain falling on our heads! Despite being cold and wet this was just the type of adventure we were looking for! We rode for four more soggy hours into a tiny town of 100 inhabitants called Segundo Coral. One can only reach this town by horse or on foot and it’s isolation and sustainability was amazing.
We followed a sign for fresh bread that led us to a small farm. Here a tall, skinny gaucho greeted us. He said he would pasture our horses and let us sleep in his tool shed for a total of $16.00. He invited us inside his house so we could dry off by the wood stove. It was perfect. It rained for two days straight and for the majority of that time we could be found in front of their wood stove. We played a ton of backgammon, read and eat delicious home cooked meals. Each day we got a peek into the lives of these amazing people.
On the third day we went through the now seamless process of packing the horses and we were soon on the trail once again. This was to be our last day of riding as we planned on making it to the town of Cattaratta by night fall. Here we would hire a truck to transport the horses back to Cohamo, where we would begin the long process of selling our herd.
The last day on the trail was long and we were confronted with some more rain and some route finding issues. After eight hours we reached a small farm in the town of Cattaratta and our horseback ride was officially over.
The following day we piled six horses, a sheep, Daniel and Jakob, and all of our saddles tack and gear in the back of a truck and we headed back to Cochamo.
During the week that followed we managed to sell all six of our horses to wonderful locals. It was hard to see them go but they all have nice homes and great owners.
With the horses all starting a new chapter, so did we. We resupplied with tons of food and headed back into the Cochamo Valley for 10 days of climbing new routes on beautiful alpine granite!
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