[This story was first published in the Climbing Life in Alpinist 50. We are republishing it now in conjunction with Chris Kalman’s social media guest postings, to celebrate his work with us as an intern–Ed.]
The story of Cochamo can start anywhere. But since the trail is where all climbers now begin their adventures, that is where this story will begin. The path was likely cut by the Mapuche, “People of the Land,” or by their ancestors, some of the first known human inhabitants of Northern Patagonia. For thousands of years, indigenous people lived sustainably in these forests, leaving little signs of their civilization beyond the paintings of hands and animals on cave walls–along the narrow trails they traveled. They gave Cochamo its name, which translates into English as the place where waters meet or divide. Today, Cochamo can mean many things. There is Cochamo the county, Cochamo the town, Cochamo the river, and Cochamo the tract of land that encompasses a vast array of granite cirques, forested valleys and clear tributaries. Within this latter designation is La Junta, the site of Refugio Cochamo, and the base camp for all climbing trips to the area. La Junta, Spanish for “the joint” or “the union,” probably refers to the confluence of two rivers. But La Junta is also a confluence of peaks and valleys; of rainforest and glacier-carved amphitheaters; and in many ways, of past and present.
From the mid-1500s to the 1800s, the Mapuche fought to keep the Spanish, and then the Chilean and the Argentinean settlers, out of the territory that became known as Araucania, of which Cochamo is a part. Eventually, the Mapuche were defeated in battle, and new owners began taking possession of their land. Over time, Chilean huasos and Argentinean gauchos transformed the modest path across the Cordillera Andina into a cattle trail leading from the Argentinean steppe to Chile’s southern port, Puerto Montt, where they could send livestock up the coast to be sold in the growing city centers. Today, a dirt road leads up to Paso El Leon–a remote pass upon the long spine of the Andes, which stands like a border between two worlds. From here, following the setting sun, the trail drops abruptly into a network of rifts and ridges, punctuated by lakes and alpine summits. Thick stands of bamboo-like cana colihue and quila rise amid a relentless sprawl of mosses, lichens and bromeliads that crawl up tightly packed trees. The Alerce grows tall and ponderous; some of these conifers predate the Spanish empire by thousands of years.
After more than a century of use, the trail is so eroded that the mud cliffs on either side can rise as high as twenty feet. The western half of the trail, which wanders through Chile’s Valdivian rainforest, is in many places composed of one-to-two-foot-deep trenches of mud, clay, rainwater, and horse and cow manure. The walls pinch claustrophobically close, and the slop sucks at your feet, eliciting a feeling I can only describe as being passed through a jungle’s intestinal tract. When it’s raining, and it often is, the mixture of sediments and feces can become deep enough to top a pair of hip waders. It takes deft walking and horse leading to navigate.
As you continue moving west along the historic journey, the furrows deepen. Beyond Lago Vidal Gormaz, the Rio Cochamo spills out into its deep valley like a blue ribbon, pausing in crystalline azure pools where it bends and oxbows. Along the river’s rugged banks, beaches of sun-bleached sand and round stones gleam. The jungle sprawls relentlessly up sheer walls of rock, covering them like a green woolen blanket. While the mountains and hills plummet more and more dramatically, outcroppings and escarpments of white granite begin to stand out against the endless canopy. Pale giants emerge, like ghosts of mountains, splitting and uniting the forest and the sky.
Upon crossing the Rio Traidor, the Rio Cochamo bends again around Cerro Trinidad and El Elefante, depositing you in the open meadow of La Junta. To the north and south, gargantuan cliffs rise in four separate valleys. The forest pushes up long gullies between sheer buttresses like blades of grass in an overturned ribcage. To a seeker of granite big walls, it is clear that you have arrived at Valhalla, Heaven, whatever you want to call it. But for weary gauchos and their hoofed charges, this place was little more than one more stop along the way– the last before the end of the journey. They grazed their horses and cattle in the fields, passed a rainy night or two in a small refugio, and then continued another twenty kilometers to the town of Cochamo, a quiet fishing village of dirt roads, brimming gardens, ramshackle houses and an old wooden church.
I first set eyes on Cochamo in 2010. My friend Grant Simmons had called me soon after reading Daniel Seeliger’s area profile in Alpinist 23. We scraped money together and bought tickets without doing much research. About halfway up the trail, just as I was wondering if there would ever be rock anywhere, the dense trees opened up in a brief pasture, and I saw the walls. For much of the rest of the hike, we didn’t speak. I don’t think we could have. The reality of Cochamo felt overwhelmingly wild. On top of everything you see, there is also what you don’t see: cars, parking lots, cell-phone towers, power lines. There is just the laconic stillness of the forest’s midday slumber. The birds are hushed; the breeze doesn’t penetrate the canopy. Beyond the trail there is only mystery and towering stone.
For most visitors, the hike into Cochamo takes from four to six hours. By the time you arrive, you feel more like an explorer than a tourist or a rock climber. A camaraderie emerges among mud-soaked wanderers. Climbers seem less individualistic and less competitive here. Over mate, beer and wine, you get to know the arrieros, the horse packers who ferry loads up to the valleys; the people who run the hostels and restaurants in town; and the team that maintains Refugio Cochamo and Camping La Junta with the Seeliger-Verdun family.
Over the past four years, I’ve gone up and down the trail more times than I can recall. During (or after) long spells of rain, the experience can be miserable, and even dangerous. I’ve swatted endless tabanos and carried unfathomable amounts of muck on my arms, legs, packs, shoes and clothes. I have certainly, from time to time, wished there were an easier way. But I love the smell of the strings of horses; I love crossing the clear rivers on rickety bridges and stepping stones; I love the first glimpse of white granite when the forest breaks; and I love getting back to my friend Claudio’s house at the trailhead at the end of a long journey. The trail into Cochamo feels more like a portal back in time than a simple path from A to B. The path delivers you from cars, roads, airplanes, guidebooks, Internet beta and well-trodden classics to a vertical landscape that still pales into the unknown. The depth of the experience lies in the intangible–not in things themselves, but in the relationships that emerge between them. The light on the Rio Cochamo in the morning; the mist rising among the pasture and the cow pies; raindrops falling from corrugated roofing in perfect monometer, like koans from an old Zen poet’s pen. None of these things alone is it. And none of them isn’t it.
There’s a popular story that when the naturalist John Muir arrived in San Francisco by boat in 1868, he disembarked and promptly began begging passersby to show him the way to “any place that is wild.” Whereupon he was pointed in the direction of Yosemite, which, at that time, still was. Muir, who’d just walked from Wisconsin to the Florida Everglades, sailed to Panama and then up to California, now continued on foot through the Santa Clara Valley until he reached the top of Pacheco Pass. Ahead, beyond the fields of golden flowers, rose the Sierra Nevada: “so radiant,” he wrote, “it seemed not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city.” Forests, deep violet in the distant haze, rose to an opalescent band of snow. It is no wonder that he stayed there, intent on exploring a shining landscape of reflected sun and moon, of giant waterfalls and ageless stone–with no scars of urban development in sight.
Cochamo, many climbing writers have said, is the Yosemite of South America. It’s hard not to make this comparison. Both are enormous valleys with granite big walls. A thousand meters tall, Cerro Trinidad dominates La Junta just as El Capitan soars above Yosemite Valley. The cracks and flakes of Las Manos del Dia and Al Centro y Adentro bring to mind thoughts of Astroman and the Rostrum. On a sunny rest day in Cochamo’s “Camp Farm,” scruffy hippies lounge about, pointing at unclimbed lines, just like the famous 1960s pioneers of Yosemite’s Camp 4. It still feels like the Golden Age here, although the surrounding woods seem centuries older. But if you’re really going to push the Yosemite analogy, you have to accept a certain flexibility of time and space. Cochamo is not Yosemite now; it’s Yosemite then.
In modern Yosemite, the unknown is harder to come by. The masses descend on the Merced’s glistening shores and gather in El Cap’s crowded meadows to stare in awe at its unfathomable grandeur. Nature–or something like it–is delivered to passengers in an interminable procession of cars and tour buses from the comfort of their seats. For every squirrel, deer or black bear, there is a car and a parking place. For every campsite, there is a permit. To enforce each rule and regulation, there are rangers, cops, a court and even a jail. More than a hundred years after becoming a national park, the Valley is a land of tent cities, hotels and resorts; of smoke-choked campgrounds and bear-proof trashcans; of grocery stores, movie theaters, bars, restaurants and streetlights. The resultant experience is better described as Disneyland a-la Swiss Family Robinson, than wild. Here, humans no longer coexist with their natural surroundings as they once did. The Valley’s last Native American village was destroyed in 1969, its remnants enclosed in interpretive displays and gift shops. Yosemite is a tourist destination now, and its main veins are the roads that facilitate effortless access to the Valley’s heart.
Although the numbers of visitors to Cochamo increase every year, La Junta will never have the crowds and infrastructure of Yosemite so long as there is no road into the valley. Our means of travel shapes the emotional and spiritual attachments we affix to the landscapes we see. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit notes, “The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it.” The walk into La Junta puts you in a state of mind that a drive could not. You feel the rainforest encompass and lay claim to you; you lower your mouth to the cool, clear streams; you wait and wait and wait for those walls to appear, and when they finally do, their presence resonates with every inch you have traveled to get here. I love Yosemite and Cochamo both, but I love them differently. If Cochamo now is Yosemite then–then surely the missing link between Cochamo now and Yosemite now is the trail, the road and the space between.
The Space Between
At first glance, much of Cochamo remains relatively similar to the land the Mapuche occupied millennia ago. There are only a few buildings in La Junta’s open meadows where most people set up their base camps, and some primitive toilets in the high valleys. There are tents, fire rings, cattle, and a few scraps of trash. From some of the summits, the signs of modernity are faintly visible, less as eyesores than as curious aberrations. In 1924 much of the terrain surrounding present-day La Junta was owned by Sociedad Agricola Pucheguin, a corporation of six businessmen. The Fundo Pucheguin, as it was called, encompassed more than 200,000 hectares of arable pasture and forests–and many of the alpine cirques of granite walls that climbers frequent today. Throughout the twentieth century, settlers began occupying the low-lying lands, eventually gaining legal title to small parcels granted by the Chilean government until they occupied about half of the land. Until recently, investors largely overlooked the other half: the high valleys, which had little to no utility for farms and homesteads.
Then, in June 2008, the Chilean power company Mediterraneo S.A. obtained water rights for the entire Rio Manso, the next river south of the Rio Cochamo, to be used for hydroelectric power, at a cost of $45 million US. The resultant project is expected to include more than sixty-three kilometers of high-tension power lines and 211 electrical towers. Two of these towers, 150 meters high, will raise the lines for about three kilometers across the Estuario de Reloncavi–the turquoise bay enfolded by mountains and deep-green hills, where the small towns of the Comuna Cochamo sit and residents watch the sunset.
While this particular plan doesn’t directly affect La Junta itself, similar ones have come close, including another major hydroelectric plant on the Rio Cochamo proposed by the Spanish company Endesa. The grassroots organization Conservacion Cochamo protested the project, with support from many national and international nonprofit groups. Cochamo’s Mapuche community, according to a report by Mapuexpress, denounced the Rio Manso and Endesa projects as bad for the environment and as a violation of their indigenous rights. Although some of the wild areas of Cochamo are now designated as a “Site of Touristic Interest,” that status doesn’t protect them permanently from logging or from industrial-scale tourism. And one of the owners of Mediterraneo S.A. now also possesses most of the land around La Junta, including Trinidad, Anfiteatro and El Monstruo, the valleys and walls where the majority of the climbing routes exist.
It’s fair to say that any significant development there would require constructing a road. The idea of a road to La Junta, and its purported boons or burdens, divides local citizens as an island divides a river. Some are in favor because it would raise the value of their property and facilitate access to their land. Some are opposed because it would inexorably change the sense of place and the way of life they have known for so long. Eliana Sandoval Alvarado was born in the town of Cochamo more than seventy years ago and has spent most of her life there; she feels strongly that “progress destroys not only the environment, but also culture.” Her husband, Pedro, described La Junta to me as “just a bunch of rocks…good only for tourism,” which “does nothing to protect culture.” By bringing more visitors, a road would undoubtedly support the development occurring in small towns throughout rural Chile. But the slow pace of life, local agriculture and aquaculture, and traditional values might not withstand the influx of thousands of visitors each season all looking to buy souvenirs, pump gasoline, and eat and sleep in town.
In some ways, establishing a road to La Junta to create a popular national park could help protect that area. Tame though Yosemite may be, the ease with which one comes face to face with the Valley’s incredible humbling glory can bring a profound notion of nature–if not wildness–to each and every visitor who travels there. These vistas may help produce lifelong conservationists. Surely the views from La Junta could be just as beneficial to the long-term well-being of the environment, even if they do come from a rolled-down window. The culture of Cochamo would never be the same–not for the arrieros who make money packing loads for climbers to La Junta, not for Pedro and Eliana. But wouldn’t a national park still be better than a hydroelectric dam?
The difficulties in answering this question lie in the diversity of the feelings it’s likely to elicit. A businessman, a congressman, an environmentalist, a gaucho, an arriero and a climber may all feel differently. But if conservation, worldwide, is to move in a positive direction, we must also listen to some of the people who have lived in wild places the longest, and who know them best. In Cochamo, that would be the Mapuche–People of the Land, who today make up around 10 percent of Chile’s population. In the famous essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” the American historian William Cronon describes how the Western idea of “wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not.”
Since the nineteenth century, in several countries, this dichotomy has sometimes contributed to the expulsion of indigenous people from their lands–in order to create a fantasy of “untouched” nature for visitors, an artificial vision of the wild that often appears glassed-off and commodified. Within this context, tourism can all too easily develop into another form of exploitation of the land. In The Practice of the Wild, the Sierra mountaineer and poet Gary Snyder argues that to “live fully and creatively together with wildness,” people must learn to see it as part of themselves: “To resolve the dichotomy of the civilized and the wild, we must first resolve to be whole.”
Leonel Lienaf, a modern Mapuche poet, explains that the Western concept of separation between people and nature has no meaning to traditional Mapuche: “When people speak of az mogen, which is ‘way of life,’ they generally mean the reality, the way you live as a person, but this immediately involves your relationship with the territory you inhabit, how you fit into the territory in order to live, not how you adapt the territory to your way of life.” Each feature of the earth– a tree, a giant rock, a river, a mountain–has its own protecting spirit, a ngen, that must be respected. While some of their ancestral lands have been restored to them under the 1972 and 1993 Indigenous Laws, others remained threatened by hydroelectric dams and industrial logging.
Since the 1990s, conflicts between Mapuche people and Chilean authorities over mega-development projects have resulted in both peaceful protests and violent confrontations. To many Mapuche, a centuries-old sense of place–the natural resources, the unique character and sacred beauty of the land that sustains their culture–is at stake. At a 2003 environmental conference at the University of Victoria, Maria Theresa Panchillo explained, “The Mapuche people believe that we are the guardians of our magical forests.”
Cristian “Mono” Gallardo is the only person of Mapuche heritage I know who lives in Cochamo. He works as a campground host, carpenter, architect, construction worker, guide and horse packer for Refugio Cochamo. He is a good climber, and a good friend. In the winters, when everyone else who works and lives in La Junta leaves, Mono stays on as the Refugio caretaker. It rains incessantly at the lower elevations and snows in the high valleys and on the peaks. I imagine La Junta,on a rare sunny winter morning, looking like the French Alps poking up out of French Guiana. The short days and harsh weather keep away most visitors, and Mono goes long weeks without seeing another soul. It is a testament to his love of Cochamo that Mono not only stays there in winter, but that he says he enjoys that time of year. When I asked him how he would feel if someone built a road into Cochamo, his eyes seemed to turn inward, deeper and deeper.
As the sun sets on Cochamo, the walls remain bathed in radiant splendor. Trinidad, Capicua, Arco Iris, Atardecer. All of Cochamo’s granite giants hold onto the dying embers of daylight, reflecting the sky’s fiery hues. The sun dips down behind the trail, past the trailhead, beyond Cochamo and the Estuario de Reloncavi, and into the Pacific Ocean. At last, the walls glow ghostly white, as the moon rises and the stars poke through the darkness. Cochamo, and perhaps everything, appears most beautiful during the last golden hour of each day. The otherworldly pink glow comes at a time of vulnerability.