Friday, March 4, 2011

Cochamo excellent adventure!

It’s always a worry when you see head torches coming down the mountain. You wonder: are those climbers having difficulty? Will they make it down in one piece? I could see head torches moving about in the far distance. Unfortunately those torches were in base camp, climbers going from hot meals to cozy tents. Damian and I were the ones scrambling down the mountain in the dark.

We wondered if those campers could see us. We later learned that they could see our lights coming down the scree-filled gully several km up the mountain... "those poor bastards!!"

To those who know Yosemite Valley in California, Cochamo is its Chilean wild cousin. It has the same massive granite walls towering up to 1000 metres of clean rock on both sides of the valley; clear mountain rivers, grassy meadows, and a thick cover of temperate rainforest. While Yosemite attracts tens of millions of visitors per year, Cochamo may attract several thousand at the most.

It has the most basic of services: a campground with pit toilets, two water taps, one shed which would fit 30 people to stand out of the rain with an open fireplace where climbers bake bread. There is also a basic refugio, which sleeps 20 people bunk style, but they have cold beer, pizza and fresh bread when you need a pick-me-up. Otherwise, if you want something you have to walk it 4 hours up the muddy trail or put up to 70kg of gear on one of the horses that work the trail.

By the time we sorted gear, we left Ernie at the trail-head around 1 pm. We pushed up the unknown trail into the rainforest which shaded us from the hot sun. The trail was muddy and deeply eroded from the recent rain and the constant use by horses, so deep in places that your shoulders nearly touched the sides and you couldn't see out. Marese felt like a rat in a maze looking for the cheese. There was constant horse manure and soft mud to avoid as we plodded up the valley with heavy packs. The remainder of our gear would arrive by horse the next day.

After 5 hours of plodding, the narrow trail opened out into the grassy meadows of the campground. It’s big enough for thousands of people to camp, but there were fewer than a hundred people there, split between climbers and trekkers. The massive granite walls rise around the campground through the top of the rainforest. A cold, clear, polished stone river runs through the valley and separates the campground from the refugio. The river must be crossed by flying fox, which is exciting at first, but soon becomes a chore to pull across.

Over the following days, we explored the local, smaller crags which are within 30 minutes walk. Those are a mixture of short, bolted, sports climbs and up to 3 pitch trad climbing. The weather varies from spectacular sunny days to a little rain, which we avoid by climbing in the large open caves of Pared Seca, where there are many hard, bolted, sports routes.

Marese, with coaching and a few rests, manages her first 5.10a, and I enjoy warming up on these shorter climbs. My favorite is Apnoea, a 5.10b, 3 pitch, trad crack line, starting with a difficult steep finger crack. The final pitch is an exceptional finger crack on a not-to-steep slab. It's our final climb on the local crags before we head up for bigger wall climbing.

After several days, most of the hot rockers have exhausted the lower crags and look wantingly at the higher massive lines. They pack their kit and make the 2 hour trek up to higher camp to access the big walls. They are all super-keen to tick some big wall routes.

I am the only one who has experienced the big walls of Yosemite and know how much of a commitment they can be, so Damian and I spend an extra 2 days in the valley getting the most climbing warm ups. We drill Daniel from the Refugio for information and pore over the hand-drawn route guide.

It's exceptional weather when we trek the 2 hours up to high camp at the base of Trinidad wall. The rainforest is humid, but shades us from the sun all the way to the big wall. The forest ends 3 metres from the massive wall, which rises at a steep angle for 20 metres, then goes vertical or overhanging to over 1000 metres above our heads. The wall shines brilliant white in the sun and reflects heat to make the high camp very mild and excellent camping.

There is just enough room between the forest and the wall to pitch Damian's tent. This camp has enough space for about 4 or 5 tents, but many climbers just sleep out as the wall keeps you warm and the dew away.

We hear that the other hot rockers ahead of us are despondent after being continuously rejected by the big walls. Nobody has managed to climb a big wall as yet.

We have arrived in time to walk the one and a half hours to the start of the climb and stash our gear. On finding the start of EZ Does It, a 5.10b, we can hear Owen and Rolf on the final top pitches. EZ Does It, is not easy, but named after Eric and Zack who put up the climb 2 years ago. It's 10 pitches up the Trinidad wall, rising about 400 metres and starting up the side gully.

We walk back to camp for a cold dinner, and Rolf and Owen arrive down at 9 pm. They are the first to complete a big wall, and are totally exhausted. They give us good information on the climb and the descent. We have high hopes to complete the climb in good time as we plan to leave camp at 7 am, several hours before they did that day.

I start the first pitch at 8:30am, a slab then into a crack. I miss the fixed sling belay and set up in a crack to bring up Damian. He takes the lead on the second pitch which continues up the crack system. Climbing on second, I am too casual and get ahead of the rope allowing 2 metres of slack out. I layback a crack and my foot pops off the slippery granite. I fall backwards, impacting on my backside and by reflex grab the rope giving me rope burns on my right hand. I feel shaken and I re-try the crack, only to drop a quick draw out of reach. I struggle on the next few moves with painful hands.

I recover my nerve on the next, easier pitch, but we are climbing slowly and think about going down. Damian takes the lead on steeper cracks until he is stopped by a delicate move right. So he sets up a painful, hanging belay just short. I do the tricky move with the extra gear I now have and then set up at the true belay, bring up Damian, and the continue to do the lead into a chimney.

Damian on second, and climbing with our pack cannot fit into the chimney and has to layback, finding it very strenuous climbing. He then takes the lead on the long 60 metre pitch that Rolf and Owen warned us about, a very long and difficult pitch up various crack systems and then finishing with a delicate traverse move. I hear him swearing and breathing heavily in several crux sections on that pitc, so I'm very careful to have out the minimum amount of rope slack just in case he falls - I don't want to take the lead if he falls then gives up climbing it! He later says he was on his limit climbing that pitch and almost came off on the top traverse.

We are still very slow, but should be OK to finish the climb until we make the mistake of taking the wrong crack system. I lead up left on a 5.8 over an easy crack to find a scary, airy traverse into a cave. Then Damian looks in vain for the exit to the cave from the route description, but we can see no way out! We double-check the route topo and see "NO" written on the crack we've taken. We were fooled as the airy traverse and cave fitted Rolf and Owen's description so accurately.

The mistake has cost us 2 hours as I lower Damian back to the previous belay. He places some gear to protect me on my retreat, then it's a scary down-climb for me to reach the belay.
I reluctantly take the lead as I have had enough of this wall, but we're now too high and it's too difficult to bail - it's now 7 pm. I place more gear on this 5.8 pitch than I would have normally and aid up the sharp finger crack. Then I find the real "airy, scary traverse". I fill the tiny holds with all my gear and aid the 3 metres to shove a big #4 then bigger #5 cam as back-up for the final grovel into the cave.

I am shattered and take a long time to set up the belay with the two pieces of gear I have left. I bring Damian up and tell him to pull on the gear to save time. He easily finds the exit to the real cave and quickly climbs the 15 metres to the end of the hard climbing.. I come up and he quickly scrambles up 60 metres, putting in a few pieces of gear. I struggle with the pack in a chimney and then climb past using only the gear I have picked up on the previous pitch. I yell down that the climbing is over and bring him up.

We un-rope in twilight and race to find the summit cairn path. Reaching the top by 9 pm, just as darkness falls. Relieved to find the cairn path, we start the decent with head torches now lighting the way. We lose the path several times and I finally see the double cairns marking the abseil descent at the very limit of my head torch's beam.

Thinking it’s a 30 metre rap, we use both 60m ropes anyway as we don’t want to take any chances. When I finally rap, I find I have to down-climb 5 metres to reach the ground. We slowly down-climb the loose scree in painful rock shoes down the gully. As we descend the gully, we can see the head torches of campers way down in the valley campground.

We don’t want to miss the exit to the gully to the high camp and I am relieved to see a light flicker on as we approach. Rolf has come to find us and leads the way back to camp. We arrive back at 12:05 am.

The next day, or later that day, we feel satisfied that we have done our big wall, so we head back to base camp for a clean-up, beer and fresh sandwiches in the refugio.

After a rest day we walk out to meet Ernie. The track is drier and with lighter packs we make it in three and a half hours. It's a relief to see Ernie after 11 days in the mountains. We stop at a supermarket on the way to the campground and I buy a whole roast chicken and fresh bread, which Marese and I devour. Tomorrow we will eat and relax, but first, my first hot shower for over a week.

Excellent campground in the Valley with Trindad wall in the backgroujnd.

Warming up at the local crags in the valley.

Damian on the top pitch of the excellent 3 pitch Apnoea in the valley

On the second pitch of EZ Does it.

Damian on the horrible hanging belay.

Looking down with lots of air below.

Damian on the top of the 7th 60m pitch, just before we take the wrong route.

Damian on the real scary traverse

EZ Does it runs up just righ of the clouds on the main wall.

Cracks, Cracks


  1. Woowee! A real epic! And a great read!

  2. Thanks Smiffy. Was a bit of an epic. Will be uploading a video so you can see what it was like.