Reconnaissance in South America
The flight from Toronto to Santiago was a cold, restless twelve hours of tossing and turning in my seat. It was an overnight flight, so the sky was dark until we flew into Chilean territory and then we saw the dry expanse of the Atacama Desert stretched below us. I was unfortunately on the right side of the plane - looking west, so I couldn't see the upper spine of the Andes on the left. That was too bad because when we circled around the airport in Santiago, the smog was so dense that the young mountain range rolled away from view as if it had mere hills instead of some of the tallest and fastest growing mountains in the world. If I had seen them in the north, where the sky is so clear that the world's most powerful astronomy telescopes reside, then I likely would have been blown away by the stark contrast between the flat, salty desert and the rugged, white mountains.
I had heard that the landscape around Santiago was spectacular. The oldest city in Chile is surrounded by two mountain ranges: the Andes are to the east and the Chilean Coastal Range, much smaller and browner than their eastern counterparts, to the west. But as Los Angeles was, Santiago was settled in a basin where the Pacific winds rush up to the small brown hills on the west and die at the feet of the mountains to the east. Combined with the clatter of the old diesel bus engines that dominate the city's roadways, smog is as present in the air as empanadas are available on every street corner. One can't get away from the thick, brown air unless it rains. It apparently had not rained in Santiago any time recently before I arrived. As a result, the warm spring temperatures and the dirty air made the normally snow-capped giants seem tame and modest compared to their reputation. While I was looking for rock, snow would have made the scenery much more pleasant.
My first impression of the climbing community in Chile was not a good one. Within minutes after dropping my bags off at a friend's apartment, I stumbled on my first climbing shop in South America. One of my main goals for the trip was to establish connections in the climbing community so that when I moved to Chile in February, 2010 I could hit the ground running by getting outside in the southern summer. I've met a lot of people both in the US and Europe where the communities are open and well established; while there are people who will always want to keep the experience to themselves, I've found most climbers on both continents to be friendly, helpful, and, if anything at all, social. Sharing beta, gear, beer, food, and even partners has been the norm for me. Naturally, I expected things to the be the same in Chile, too.
- Store Owner: "Hola!"
- Me: "Hola, disculpe, no hablo espanol."
- Store Owner: "English?"
- Me: "Si, thanks."
- Store Owner: "What can I do for you?"
- Me: "I'm new here and just kind of checking things out."
- Store Owner: "Ah, well, we have all the gear you need."
It was true, they had a fair amount of gear. It was a small shop, so they didn't have everything, but one could easily buy a rack if one needed to. But I wasn't there necessarily to buy a rack. I was there to meet climbers.
- Me: "Yeah, good stuff, good stuff. So, where does one go to meet climbers around here? I hear there is a gym. Is that a good place?"
- Store Owner: "Yes, but you have to be good to go there."
- Me: "OK, I'm not great, but it's just a gym right?"
- Store Owner: "Eh, people don't like to climb with beginners."
- Me: "That's fine. I've been climbing for ten years now. I don't mind sport, but I prefer multi-pitch trad. I'm hoping to get up into the mountains, and maybe make a trip down to Cochamo."
- Store Owner: "Yes, but, it isn't good for beginners. We do classes if you want. We can take you anywhere. Our guides are good."
- Me: "Thanks man, but I'm just looking for people to climb with, that's all. I don't need a guide. Are there any guidebooks?"
- Store Owner: "No. No guidebooks. You have to hire a guide."
- Me: "I have to hire a guide? I can't just go out on my own?"
- Store Owner, with a smile: "Well, you can, but how will you know to get there if you don't hire one?"
That pretty much summed up my experience in talking about climbing with the folks who work in the industry down there. It's all about the money. Now, I have plenty of friends who guide. For some, it is their livelihood. I have no problem with people hiring guides. It's a legitimate service that provides good information to people who may want that. In fact, I was so desperate to climb at one point later on the trip that I considered hiring a guide just so I could get out and touch rock (time both required that I hire a guide if I was going to climb and prevented me from actually climbing), but to have to hire a guide just to learn where the crags are is, in my mind, stupid. There isn't a climb shop in the US that wouldn't tell me how to get to such'n'such crag if I wasn't local to the area, and there isn't a guide who wouldn't offer the same info, even if he or she was working at that moment the question was posed.
I figured this was just a snobby store, so, to my surprise, when I saw another store just down the street, I decided to stop in and try my luck there. Fortunately, the two men inside seemed friendlier, but they were only willing to tell me that there were two gyms in town, not one, and generally speaking where they were located (directions were out of the question since only one spoke a tiny bit of English and I speak even less Spanish than that). As for finding the climbing community?
- Store Employee: "We offer trips."
- Me: "Thanks for the info."
I had a bit more luck at the main climbing gym (I later learned that the second climbing gym was a series of bouldering walls in the middle of a shopping mall - not gonna happen for me thanks). Diego, the owner and the only English-speaker there, was very friendly. He showed me the gym, talked to me about trips (at first he mentioned his guided trips, but when I said I was just looking for climbing partners he loosened up a bit and admitted the regulars at the gym did, in fact, go climbing for fun and not always for money), and even talked to me a bit about route setting in the gym (Hey, I may need to make some extra cash while I'm down there, so why not?). I was making progress, and at least I felt there was an opportunity to meet people, but I was hesitant, too. I sensed the smell of elitism in the chalky air. He was nice, but two other people at the gym definitely were not. "I'm just looking to climb," I groaned on the inside. The ego game is one I am neither good at nor willing to play.
The situation was the same in tourist wilderness playground that is Pucon (about 10 hours south of Santiago, and home to the still steaming volcano Villarica - so close to town that the fire department has gas warnings instead of forest fire warnings and the travel guidebooks say, "If you hear the sirens - RUN!).
Everything so far was about making money. Again, I can understand that. I honestly appreciate how hard it is to earn a buck and what it means to put food on your table, but I was frustrated with the lack of community in Chile. Everywhere I went I found nothing but roadblocks. No one wanted to simply go climbing. And because the rock seemed to accessible in places, I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to learn about the private property laws and if I was going to have to break them in order to climb - ALONE!
Things took a bit of a turn upward once I went even farther south to Puerto Varas. Puerto Varas is a pretty cool town. It is situated on a lake with two smoking volcanoes standing sentinel seemingly next to each other on the opposite end of the lake (BTW - mountaineering, particularly climbing active volcanoes, is the real climbing business down here. Rock climbing certainly exists, but it definitely takes a back seat to mountaineering to the point where guidebooks barely exists if they exist at all, most sport crags have only a dozen or so routes despite the fact some could have hundreds, and trad crags are so obscure that one could climb a hundred first ascents at a hidden cliff only to discover the cliff is a weekend crag jaunt for people who only climb four times a year). This was one of the towns I wanted to thoroughly check out because of it's proximity to Cochamo Valley, which is known as the Yosemite of South America. Cochamo has about a half-dozen 1,000-foot granite walls, hundreds of established routes (many big walls), and thousands of first ascent opportunities. But unlike Yosemite, there is no road to get there. One must endure the (easy) four-hour hike to the refuge, which has several big walls on it's side of the river, before one can even see the bigger domes that line the other side of the Rio Cochamo (yes, Tyrolean traverses are required to get over the river to get to some of the climbs). On top of that, there are plenty of decent nearby crags / walls such as: Valle de los Condores, Metri, Termas de Chillan, and Torres del Brujo - all of which are loaded with sport and trad climbs and FA opportunities. This was a town where I hoped to make some good climbing connections, and I was luckier here than I was anywhere else.
The French-speaking hostel I stayed at (refreshing because I actually speak French and was becoming exhausted trying to learn and speak Spanish), understood my problem. I explained to the guy that I wasn't looking to buy climbing partners but to find them instead. He sent me to a friend of his who he said was a guide but, if I told the guide the hostel owner's name, the guide would be more open to talking about finding climbing partners. He even said Ernesto, the guide's name, would be good to find accommodations through, too. So I went and spoke with Ernesto, and he was freaking awesome:
- Me: "Hey, Niko at Casa Margouya sent me here. I'm not looking for guide service, and I apologize for that, but I'm possibly moving here in a few months and I'm just hoping to meet some people who want to go climb."
- Ernesto: "Just climbing partners?"
- Me: "Yeah, I know, sorry. I know how much people want to sell their guide services here. I really do understand that. I'm just trying to meet people and go climb, that's all."
- Ernesto: "No problem. Here is my card. When you get here, look me up. I'll introduce you to some people and maybe you'll find a place to stay, too."
- Me: "Thanks, man. It's a pleasure to have met you."
The only downside to Puerto Varas is that it was too rainy (a common theme here, it turns out. It rains a lot). I didn't have time to see another rainy and cloudy town (the weather was the same for my somewhat wasted few days in Pucon), so I hopped on a bus the next day to Bariloche, Argentina. Thus, I don't have any photos of Puerto Varas or the surrounding area. I really wanted to hike into Cochamo for a couple of days on this trip, but I had neither the time nor the wet-weather gear for the hike. Still, the promise of good attitudes and plenty of rock left me happy to know that there was a place I could turn to when I finally settled in Chile.
One very refreshing thing that I did learn from an American who was living in Puerto Varas (and has been for 10 years and is now setting up a brewery in town - thanks so much Chester for your help and advice!) is that Chileans are both very reserved and very commercialized. They are reserved because they have a history of being ransacked by foreigners (several of their initial and large settlements were burned to the ground several times over when first established and reestablished and reestablished again, etc.), or, in more modern times, economically and politically more powerful foreigners meddling with their economy (Spain and it's imperialistic global companies) or government (think: Pinochet). At the same time, Chile has a very stable economy that can, according to many of the Chileans I spoke to, do much better than it does. As a result, Chileans are economically ambitious, even though they are socially reserved and this makes for an interesting dynamic where they want to sell everything they have but they simply aren't that good at it. While the two personalities operate independently from each other, when combined, as I had experienced while searching for a climbing community, Chileans can come off as being down right cliquey and unfriendly.
- Chester: "So it isn't you, dude. It's them. But don't worry, once you're in, they're pretty cool people to hang with, just like anyone is anywhere else in the world. It just takes a bit of time for them to get used to you."
Things were looking up now. My first week was frustrating, but despite having only spent one night in Puerto Varas, I felt as if I had reached a turning point there. I took this hopeful attitude across the border with me to Bariloche, Argentina and I was rewarded big time.
Alas, while Bariloche was without a doubt the most spectacular place in the world I have ever visited (yes, it blows away Yosemite, Acadia, Moab, Colorado, the Swiss Alps, Chamonix, Scotland, and Greece), I spent more of my time taking in the views than I did trying to make contacts. I went for a bike ride with an Israeli guy and two British gals, did a lot of walking around, and a lot more sightseeing than I did thinking about making contacts. I regret a little not searching out climbing companies (as I noted above, if I had more time then I would have hired a guide just to get out), but I'm at peace with that because I know the reason why I wasn't willing to hire a guide anywhere else: none of the other locations inspired me enough to part with my hard-earned cash. While I did finally make a climbing connection Santiago (thanks again Chester!), I won't hire a guide there because, meh, it's not worth it. Pucon? Forget about it. If I ever make it there to climb it will be a matter of coincidence and timing. Puerto Varas? Maybe, but I haven't seen enough to think it is worth it. Plus, I've already met people who are simply willing to climb. Sure, once I end up living in Bariloche (and that is a goal of mine, at least to live there during the warmer months anyway), I'll want to make the same connections as I do anywhere else. But this place was so beautiful, so spectacular, so unbelievably untrue that it almost feels an honor to be there. I'd happily pay my way to meet people in Bariloche. I hope I don't have to, but if I do, fine. Just climbing there is going to be a special story to tell.
My final stop in South America was La Serena, Chile. It took me 26 hours by bus to get from Bariloche to La Serena (and I ran out of Chilean Pesos, and it was Sunday so I couldn't change over my Argentinian Pesos, and I had lost my ATM card in Bariloche - no, it wasn't stolen, I left it in one of those stupid ATM machines that asks if you want another transaction at the end before it gives your card back, so I was HUNGRY!), but it was worth it. A climber friend of mine had mentioned La Serena as a good bouldering town that is right on the beach. It is definitely a nice town, and despite the fact that I really despise bouldering, I may end up spending the winter months in La Serena to avoid the colder weather down south and the lousiest smog season in Santiago. I am, after all, moving south to write, so putting up with crappy weather is not a necessity. In short, I can move, so I will at my own pace. And that made me realize that despite the difficulties I had communicating, making friends, eating, travelling, and spending money (yes, gringos will be charged more than locals), I have a plan not only for writing, but for living and climbing, too. It's a great feeling to be filled with such anticipation. I haven't felt like this in years, to be honest. I'm genuinely excited, and I can't wait to share my climbing experiences down there with everyone in North America, just because I want people to come down here and see what I saw: pure beauty and endless opportunity.
Greg shares a Blog with his friend Jeremiah "Jello" Meizis. Click here to see Greg and Jeremiah's Climbing Blog. Click here for Greg's Route Index