A walk into the Valle Cochamo reveals seemingly
limitless potential for new routes on unclimbed or
barely climbed walls. The only question is: Will you
find a flawless splitter or a flared and vegetated
groove? Will the system end suddenly in a blank face?
As Waddy and future ascensionists have found, it can
be hard to know until you commit to the brutal
rainforest trek. [Photo] Crispin Waddy
Editor’s Note: The following Feature by Crispin Waddy documents early development on the walls of Valle Cochamo, Chilean Patagonia’s lesser-known gem, in 1997 and 1998. A shorter form of this essay appears as a sidebar in Issue 23’s Mountain Profile on Cochamo. Discover more by picking up a copy of that issue, on sale March 1st in our online store and available at retailers worldwide.
Into The Forest
By Crispin Waddy
So far we had little luck finding any climbing in Chile. But in a pension in Pucon there was a small photo on the wall showing a distant view of some interesting-looking cliffs, on a mountaintop above some woods. My girlfriend Nell and I turned to each other–this spot might be worth considering.
Our interest was roused immediately when, by chance, a local raft guide commented that no one had climbed on these walls, some of which rose 2,500 feet above the canopy. The fickle finger of fate prodded us again when we met a man named Carl, who lived in the village nearest to the cliffs. He invited us to stay, and we accepted.
Our rafting friend had warned us why no one had climbed these walls. We ignored him but soon learned the difficulties involved. The walk up the valley was a hard five hours through rivers, bogs and dense woods. After awhile we arrived at meadows that offered good views of the surrounding cliffs. Cerro Trinidad was the obvious choice–it was striking; Nell and I were as impressed as we were unprepared.
The first obstacle was the Rio Cochamo. On this occasion it was no problem, its liquid emerald flowing no deeper than our thighs. A walk in the flowered fields led to the valley sides and steeper ground. Off we set, for a few minutes at least, till ever-denser thickets of bamboo and trees forced a wandering course. All too soon it became impassable, and we returned, chastened. We made a direct line to the nearest hardware store to get that critical tool of south Chilean life: A machete.
Now with some sturdy horses and a kit loaded for a week, everything was easier–until we confronted the bamboo. For the first few hours we made reasonable progress, perhaps half a mile or so, then we reached a dense field of dead bamboo. I slashed, hacked, sweated and swore like a demented crusader for the rest of the day, progressing only a couple hundred yards and barely getting into more passable ground. We returned to the meadows to lick our wounds.
The old climber’s refugio in the center of Valle Cochamo. Arrieros, the local Chilean cattleman, hand-cut the timber to build this old cabin seventy-five years ago, but after a local family abandoned it fifteen years ago and moved to the nearest town, climbers refurbished the house with the help of locals to use as a base camp. Today it welcomes visitor and climbing bums alike to drink its home-brewed Tabano Pale Ale, eat warm home-made bread and hang out. [Photo] Daniel Seeliger
The next day the rainforest became more interesting: huge Alerces towering overhead, hummingbirds flitting about. Thankfully there was no more dead bamboo. The live stuff was far easier to cut. One down-swinging stroke left only a sharpened point a foot above the ground. These points were intimidating when staggering up steep muddy banks with full haulbags in the rain, but that was all in the dimly imagined future. For now we were locked into this bizarre challenge that seemed far removed from climbing. We saw the cliffs occasionally, but we never seemed to be approaching them; from afar they glanced at us impassively.
The route we took, if it had been mapped, would surely have looked like the path of a stoned butterfly in a slight breeze. Persephone-like, Nell had been marking our route with little plastic tags, vital for staying on our “path.”
Numerous natural waterslides in the forests
surrounding Cochamo’s cliffs make for fun rest-day
activities. After heavy rainfall, however, these same
rivers can flood, and stories abound of climbers
stranded on the approach or the return from a route. [Photo] Courtesy of Daniel Seeliger
In the afternoon of the third day, something strange happened: we saw the cliff. There, through the trees, nearby, finally reachable. I charged off to have a look. It appeared to be a couple hundred yards away, and I was sure that I could find my way back. Big mistake.
It was not a problem getting there, and my first impressions were positive. The rock was solid and clean; there were beautiful lines to try; it was all completely untouched. But time was ticking away. We had no bivy gear and didn’t fancy a night in the woods. Are there pumas around here? What else?
It took more and more worrying, wandering and shouting to get back to Nell and the end of the path. It still amazes me how hard that was, and as I look back I genuinely feel that I gained a better insight into the primal fears of being completely lost. Once reunited we were swiftly on our way back down and negotiated the lower, and fortunately easier, parts of the path just as night fell.
Both wrists knackered from all the cutting, we did not climb right away, despite more superb weather. We rested for a week and visited American friends rafting on the Fuetalefu further south. After a brilliant week of R-and-R we were back and psyched to climb.
Grant Farquhar on the first ascent of Sundance (VI 5.12a A2+, 900m), west face, north tower, Cerro Trinidad, the first big-wall ascent in the valley and the second ascent of the formation. Shortly after Farquhar and his partner Simon Nadin completed their route, Noel Craine, Dave Kendall and Crispin Waddy completed their Ides of March (VI 5.11 A3+, 900m), which is to the left of Sundance. Waddy brought Nadin to Cochamo, but it was difficult at first to persuade his friend that he had found a climbing El Dorado.
[Photo] Simon Nadin
Our first goal was to have a decent look around. We could scurry along the base of the cliffs in both directions, allowing a good look at most of the main cliff, and there were gullies that appeared to lead to the top. These, as it turned out, were more deceptive than they looked. The first led, after about a thousand feet, to a frighteningly unstable boulder chocked in a narrowing. We tiptoed back down and set off up the next. This started as a casual scramble that got gradually harder and steeper all the way until, at the top, we were soloing up easy scree-covered slabs in a position of extreme exposure. The fear of knocking loose rocks onto Nell made it especially tense, and with some relief we gained easy ground. Unfortunately, a deep rift barred safe access to the slightly higher main summit, but it was a perfect day, and the view was amazing.
Neither of us fancied returning the way we had come, so we set off down what we now called “death gully 1.” From below, the chock’s obvious instability had been terrifying and disastrous, but from above all appeared safe. It was disarmingly easy to send tons of boulders crashing to the talus below, but the gamble paid off, and as shadows lengthened we found safe passage back to our tent.
By now we were taking it for granted that the sun would shine every day. The next day we woke to a flood. Water cascaded down the face and sprayed fans of water off ledges and into space. Everywhere we glimpsed waterfalls through the swirling clouds. After a day we gave up, abandoned our gear and set off on the long trek to Cochamo village.
The river, of course, was raging and totally impassable. With little hesitation and no difficulty we broke into a little hut, which was to be our home for three days. A stock count was necessarily brief because the grand total were some scrapings of rancid butter off a wrapper and a sachet of sweet chili sauce. Some sort of musty brown powder in a plastic bag in the roof timbers was teased into mysterious chapattis, but despite the array of condiments, little was edible. Tiny unripe crab apples growing outside weren’t much better.
On the second day I plodded back up in the still-pissing rain to pick up the dregs of a lentil stew that had been scattered in the grass as we struck camp. One day’s chore becomes another day’s luxury. What a feast we had.
One of the first foreigners to spy Cochamo’s climbing
potential was American John Foss, who paddled down the
Rio Cochamo (pictured here) in 1996 and took photos of
the rock. He shared his slides with American climbers
Steve Quinlan and Chris Ann Crysdale. Quinlan and
Crysdale attempted to enter the valley, but were
thwarted by dense bamboo thickets. A year later, their
friend Waddy and his girlfriend Nell Doust would bring
their machetes to the task. [Photo] Courtesy of Daniel Seeliger
Another night passed, and our frequent river inspections finally showed signs of promise. Upstream there was a shallower place where a wandering line of shingle banks appeared crossable. The grey water still was flowing horribly fast, but we opted for a go. Stripped to the waist, our rucksacks loosely over our shoulders so they could be abandoned if we had to swim for it, and both armed with a sturdy stick, we stepped into the freezing river. It felt horribly committing. In the middle of the river our shallower line turned downstream, and we had a gripping few minutes stumbling slowly down the middle of the river without getting any closer to the banks, hardly able to stand. At times I held Nell against the pressure of the water, my feet scrabbling against the moving riverbed. We emerged, finally, from the harrowing current.
Several hours later Carl’s roaring fire was a welcome relief. He had actually come up the valley with some spare horses when we failed to appear, only to turn back when some ill-informed passer-by told him he had seen people answering our description walking out days before.
A week later we had a rendezvous in Patagonia, and there we remained for a while. Noel Craine, Simon Nadin and the infamous Strappo were attempting to climb the windward side of the central tower of Paine. About once a fortnight the wind dropped enough to consider climbing, then promptly picked up again. Endlessly they plodded up some gully that led back to their wind-blasted world, like overenthusiastic aeronautical engineers. What crimes they had committed in previous lives I don’t know, though the penance seemed severe to me.
We told them about our El Dorado. It’s a strange thing: if you announce that you’ve found a valley surrounded by 2,000-foot-plus unclimbed cliffs, where the sun (nearly always) shines, no one really believes you. I guess it sounded too good to be true—the climbers’ equivalent of “instant millionaire” letters that swiftly end up in the bin.
We needed some climbing support, and more importantly, we needed more gear: ropes, aid gear, portaledges. However, they were committed to their project, so eventually we left them to it with a vague agreement to meet up in Cochamo after they had finished their climb.
Pau Milla on the trail to Trinidad. Though Crispin Waddy macheted the trail into existence ten years ago, it is still a bit rougher than the trails in Yosemite. [Photo] Roger Molina
A few weeks later Nell and I were back in our little camp at the base of the wall. Though I was itching to try the main face of Trinidad, we decided that we should try something easier first, to get a feel for the rock. So we found ourselves at the base of Pared de Gorilla, looking up at a slabby crack. Two or three pitches later it was obvious that we had underestimated the line. The cracks were rounded, dirty and difficult. We gave up. But as it turned out, we were in good company: later Simon Nadin, a former World Cup climbing champion, failed to get up it too. In fact, he aided a section that I had freed. Without other easily accessible lines to try, we turned our attention back to the main prize. Cerro Trinidad has many brilliant lines, but none are as striking as the central corner system, which looked reasonably doable for a competent team.
The first few pitches we led relatively easily, on good, clean rock, to the top of an obvious pillar, from which a pendulum led to the base of the main corner system. This is highly reminiscent of the pitch below the roof on Salathe: just longer, more flared and more open. As a result, it ended up becoming known as the “Huber Corner,” after the brothers who seem to wander casually on El Capitan. However, on this occasion Nell and I just had a brief look, as it was obviously not going to be possible in a day, and without fixed ropes, aid gear or portaledges, it was too much for us. We decided to abseil off, leaving the ropes in place, in the hope that the others would arrive soon. But there was a slight problem. We had 400 feet of rope and were around 600 feet up. A little lateral thinking, involving all our gear clipped into a scary daisy chain and a huge pendulum, led to rising ground and we were down. But now, of course, we had no gear at all, and no way of knowing when to expect our reinforcements.
Back in Patagonia, the A-team still had failed to placate the wind gods. They got within one pitch of easy climbing and retreated for another lengthy thumb-twiddling session. Meanwhile the constant flapping wore through their highest fixed rope, leaving them unable to reach their high point, where all their gear was hanging. Coincidentally, we had the exact opposite: perfect weather and insufficient gear. Beaten by the wind, they came to see what we had been raving about, bringing a few assorted pieces of gear and tales of woe.
Simon and Tim Dolan ferreted around and, among other things, were the first on the summit of Cerro Trinidad via a two-pitch HVS from the top of a gully on the left. Noel and I set off up our route, armed with some polypro hawserlaid rope that we had acquired from a local store, for fixing. Luckily there was an easier crack system on the right wall of the “Huber Corner,” so we could avoid scaring ourselves hanging from its flared cracks. But it’s still there for anyone with the ability, and it would be superb. Noel initially led into a wide chimney, which closed at its top. After this, steep cracks took us, in three long pitches, back into the corner. We moved to a ledge, where I was trying to work out which way to go and Noel was deciding whether to go on at all. He had been in Patagonia for many weeks, and he was running low on enthusiasm. So we went back down.
Meanwhile, someone was playing with matches in the woods.
Noel decided that he wanted to go home, and the next afternoon he set off, following the others who had to leave a few days earlier. Nell and I were once again alone at our private big wall, but not for long. Noel reappeared, wide eyed, and, pausing only long enough to tell us that we were about to be engulfed by fire, disappeared up a treeless gully. He had walked within a short distance of a forest fire before seeing it through the trees, and he hightailed it back to us, knowing most natural phenomena travel at the speed of galloping horses. Nell and I climbed a little way up some slabs to check the progress of the fire. It was still far away, though spectacular even at long range. As the fire approached, whole trees would heat up and explode, before joining the general blaze.
We spent the night in the gully, working our options and eating the remains of our food. This meant we didn’t have enough for another attempt, and, with our distant home lives beckoning, we had no option but to leave it for a year. Home, though, was 12,000 miles away and on the other side of a large fire.
Cerro Trinidad (1720m), where Waddy and his friends
put up some of Cochamo’s first recorded climbs.
Waddy’s Ides of March (VI 5.11 A3+, 900m,
Craine-Kendall-Waddy, 1998) is shown in red. Today, the
well-macheted trail to Trinidad means that most
visiting climbers have concentrated their attentions
on this wall, rather than on the multitude of others
that still lie behind trackless rainforest.
[Photo] Daniel Seeliger
The thing was, our path had been hard and slow to cut, and the fire had burned away the bottom half. To cut around the perimeter and down would take days with a machete, which we no longer had with us. So we set off at four in the morning–so we wouldn’t be caught in the heat of the day, which we thought might restart the fire–down the familiar path, until we arrived at the thigh-deep ash. Surprisingly, it was passable, and down we went, through the unrecognisable landscape.
A year later Noel, Simon and I were back, and again we were separated from our food by a flooded river. “Manana,” the Chilean horsemen had promised, several days before. Also there were Dave “Diver” Kendall, Grant Farquhar and the American contingent, Steve Quinlan and Nathan Martin. Fortunately Steve, with whom both Noel and I had climbed in various places around the world, had the foresight to bring fishhooks, so we ate trout fresh from the river, caught on bamboo rods. Finally, manana arrived, along with our supplies, and the river dropped. Soon we were all at the base of the crag, having followed a much more direct path cut by Steve and Nathan. The start of ours had disappeared in the fire.
Diver joined Noel and I as we re-climbed to our high point. The team on our right, comprised of an ex-world-sport-climbing champion and a raving psychiatrist, made similar progress on a (mostly) new line, as did the American team on our left, on a completely new one. After a few days we were back on the ledge at our high point, with one difficult-looking pitch to go before the angle eased off. Night was falling, and the curious condors were no longer flying past. The other teams were camped on their routes at similar heights.
During the night the clouds thickened, and we became concerned that a storm was brewing. If it rained as I had seen it could, and without decent bivy gear, it could have been very dangerous to be stuck on the wall. So we three descended once again. The others watched us and wondered, unconcerned about the weather. Both teams topped out the next day, in reasonable weather, as we cursed from below.
The following day the weather was threatening, but we now knew that it was only one pitch to easier ground, as Simon and Grant’s route had joined our line. So Noel and Diver went up first to start the next pitch while I followed behind, dropping the fixed ropes. But when I got to the stance there had been no progress, and there was debate about abandoning the route in the face of ever-worsening weather. With no fixed ropes, that would be that. I held my breath as Diver cast his deciding vote and so began the crux of the route. Scary aid up rounded cracks and runnels led to a safe belay at the limit of rope stretch. Thankfully I had been barely aware of the ever-darkening skies while inching upward. Now free climbing, Noel romped up the top respectably hard pitches, and we were up. Relief.
It was the Ides of March 1998, so the name was easy. And the soothsayer, whose career was dependent on his prescience, had already warned Julius Caesar about it.
Condors are a frequent inspiration to climbers engaged in Cochamo’s routes. Their ten-foot wingspan makes them the world’s largest birds. [Photo] Courtesy of Daniel Seeliger