Assume Nothing

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Storm breaking over an unnamed peak, Valle Cochamó, Chile.

Storm breaking over an unnamed peak, Valle Cochamó, Chile.

This was our little hiccup of a crew’s third attempt to approach Cerro Trinidad, a 3,000-foot granite dome that looms high above Valle Cochamó, in Chilean Patagonia. Yes, that’s right, our third try at the approach. After days of rain, after lowering our expectations, after crossing the frigid Rio Cochamó three times, we crawled through bamboo punji sticks, shimmied across slimy logs, and stumbled up through rain-soaked flora to the base. Finally, we laid our clammy hands upon a granite wall that, for beauty and scope, rivals anything in the States, save the Captain and Half Dome.

On a map, Valle Cochamó lies 40 miles east of Puerto Montt, Chile, on the northern edge of the Patagonia region. Katie Brown and the Coloradoans Dan Gambino, Matt Lloyd, and I had assembled in Puerto Montt, bused to the coastal village of Cochamó, and horsepacked three hours into the mythic valle. I had heard stories the year before from Argentinean climbers in Bariloche about Cochamó’s endless granite, multiple 3,000-plus-foot unclimbed walls, and aid and free routes up to 20 pitches. They always added that the tábanos (horseflies) were as big as your eyeballs, the weather was iffy, and the approaches would make you cry for mercy. Argentineans can talk shit like no others, but this time their words rang true.

Katie Brown on P5 of Bienvenidos a Mi Insomnio, 5.11a; 20 pitches.

Katie Brown on P5 of Bienvenidos a Mi Insomnio, 5.11a; 20 pitches.

Our revised plan was to recon the first few pitches; we wanted to figure out some of the mysteries scribbled on the community topo down in camp. For example, why did the free-ascent rack call for several knifeblades on one of the crux pitches? Did that mean the buggers had pulled out their protection? As I stood below El Pie, swatting at thumb-sized tábanos with my mouth agape, our modest plan began to unravel: I couldn’t, for the life of me, find the start of the route.

The first pitch had a bolt, or so the topo claimed, so I assumed I could orient off this. In the coming weeks, I would assume many things that would prove laughable. But at the base of Cerro Trinidad on that first mission, I still had an overflowing well of self-confidence, so I crashed through the dense jungle, spotting what looked like a bolt and then dismissing it, over and over. When I reached the base of a long, slightly wet, arching groove, I was about 30 percent sure that, despite not seeing a bolt, I had found Marisco. Katie and crew sat on a nearby ridge, waiting for me to come up for air.

“Chris, it’s getting a little late,” Katie yelled. “I think we should just do the route Dan and Matt are going to do, and come back for this later!” Dan and Matt had elected to try Bienvenidos a Mi Insomnio, an awe-inspiring 20-pitch 5.11a. They, too, wisely planned on getting only a taste, on the first few pitches.

It was already midmorning, and we had to descend the way we’d come. Since I’d forgotten the food bag, we’d had nothing to eat besides a couple bars Katie had magnanimously offered to share. I started to come around and give up my hopes of sending the hardest route in the valley in record time — of gloriously laughing my way up this testpiece, despite the fact that 5.12d was at my very limit. But I still wanted to find it ...

La Gorilla.

La Gorilla.

Chilean climbers, apparently bolstered by reports from an American pilot who’d flown over the area in the mid-1990s, traded stories about the valley for a few years, but it took a foreign expedition to mount the first attack.

In 1997, Crispin Waddy, of the UK, made a recon, supposedly spending three epic days fighting his way from the river to the base of Cerro Trinidad with a machete. Later that same year, the UK climbers Noel Craine, Tim Dolan, and Simon Nadin climbed.

Stirling Moss

In 1998, the true assault began: British and American teams established three routes splitting the 2,500-foot west face (and El Pie). Two teams from the UK deployed, including the return of Nadin, Waddy, and Craine, and pushed long, mixed aid-and-free routes through the roofs capping El Pie. Meanwhile, intrepid American explorers Steve Quinlan and Nathan Martin added Magellanic Clods/Welcome to the Jungle. These grade VI routes, all weighing in at the vague 5.11 A3, revealed the glory and the consequences of new routing in Cochamó. From a distance, the granite looks deliciously Yosemite-like. But up close, the cracks tend to be bottoming grooves, initially heavily vegetated, and difficult to protect. The free climbing is mostly up slabby, desperately flared cracks, and much of the beyond-vertical terrain must be aided. Still, the rock itself is pristine and plentiful, with splitters occasionally appearing.

Over the next few seasons, as word spread of the “Chilean Yosemite,” various European and North American teams showed up pretty regularly, opening impressive routes on several other walls, including Cerro Capicua, El Monsturo, and Cerro La Junta, all more than 3,300 feet. In 1999, the colorful and prolific Jose Luis “Chiquiño” Hartman, from Brazil, began making annual pilgrimages; he opened several new walls by doggedly camping at their bases for weeks and established the only free route on Trinidad’s third buttress: the 12-pitch Alendalaca (5.12a).

Chris Kalous leans into P3 of the 12-pitch Vista del Condor (5.12b), La Gorilla.

Chris Kalous leans into P3 of the 12-pitch Vista del Condor (5.12b), La Gorilla.

The next morning dawned brilliantly clear, and Matt and I set out just behind another team we’d befriended at the refugio: two Yanks and a Chilean. The first few pitches, which we’d reconned weeks before, slipped away in the dawn. Although the not-quite-crack groove climbing had originally sucker-punched us, on this final route, Matt and I made our peace with the flares and started to enjoy this uniquely Cochamó style. Matt, who has redpointed 5.13d in Rifle (not to mention his proj at Pared Seca), returned to climbing kindergarten as he made his way across smooth, exposed 5.10 slabs — a huge grin belying the trouble he was having. The exposure intoxicated him on his first really big climb. I just kept eyeballing the horizon for clouds and re-racking as quickly as possible.

On top, the sight of the surrounding Andes bathed in sunshine reminded us why we love to climb. The staggering potential also revealed itself. More enormous cliffs peeked from previously hidden valleys. We counted at least 10 separate walls that looked 1,600 feet or taller. My altimeter had recorded a 3,445-foot ascent, but just a few rappels off the north face put us on the hike back to our bivy. We arrived just after dark, punch-drunk with fatigue and satisfaction. Cochamó finally had smiled upon us, banishing the memories of boredom and discomfort of weeks past, if just for one day.

Dan, Matt, and I horse-packed out two days later. Although our suffering had been minimal compared to historic Patagonian epics, it had been a trying few weeks in Cochamó, and I finally admitted to the intimidation I’d felt. Yes, the climbing was difficult and heady. The weather was challenging. But more crucially, as Joseph Conrad put it in Heart of Darkness, we had been surrounded by “the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness.” Even so, like that spell that bound Kurtz to the jungle, the three of us decided that the walls we’d spied across the waves of forested hills from atop Bienvenidos deserved a closer look. Too many adventures lurked outside the boat for just one trip. And, as Cochamó taught us, if you get out of the boat, you’d better go all the way.

Despite all the Apocalypse Now quotes, Chris Kalous, these days living in Colorado, is more of a Ratatouille fan.