Journal Entry: January 18th, 2009
The truth is that I don’t know how to express the amount of happiness I feel right now. It’s a type of happiness so powerful that I am already anticipating tinges of depression to arrive after I leave this experience behind. I know that this is all temporary but I want so much that it never end. This experience is peace. It is understanding. It is beauty. And it is a reality that cannot be successfully described with pen and paper. It can only be lived.
I can hear Xabi laughing. He laughs with his shoulders, compelling giggles to arise from the rest of us. Ana’s smile reveals a complete escape from her former working life. Her spirit has been set free here. It’s dancing among crystal clear rivers and granite peaks. Thiago is teaching me how to enjoy troubles on a wall. I teach him how to avoid them. Zoro sits taciturn, stoic, most likely thinking about the fresh, raw salmon he’ll be sharing with us for dinner—wasabi and soy sauce included. Rudy pours forth Mexican Spanish filled with enough curse words to make a sailor blush. We enjoy it though. For some reason, we all start talking like him. Natalia sits by his side causing the men of the group to make comparisons as to which is more beautiful, the landscape or her. When it comes down to it, they both have their place and both make us feel lucky to be in their presence. Jim, a legend for this season for all his work to develop trails and walls, is up in a brand new valley. Yet, somehow, he still makes me want to be a better man down here.
Across the river are the caretakers of this paradise: Daniel, Silvina, Moni, and Zen. Daniel’s enthusiasm is contagious, and his heart reveals that years of practicing being a good man, have made him a great one. Silvina is connected to this place like the soil is. She grows with it, lives with it in balance, and helps nurture its beauty. Moni is the mother we all need here. She’s also the one we all want. And Zen, victim of a bilingual environment, is still figuring out whether to speak to me in English or Spanish. He realizes though, that rapidly slapping his lips together to spew forth chainsaw noises falls under both language categories. More often than not, he opts for that expression.
Cochamó, as it is now, is more than just a natural paradise. It is a collection of people, good humor, and new adventures that is so pacifying to the soul that it reaches a point of euphoria. I am truly at peace. I am happy.
I miss Cochamó. I wanted to hold on to it for as long as I could. I realize however that it is like trying to hold sand with open fingers. Its time is slipping away. In fact, it has now passed. But I hope to hold it and share it with you through this writing as a means to spread peace; to make you happy; to encourage love and understanding; or just to let you know it’s out there. For me, it was a perfect experience.
Chapter 1: Navidad
Ethan and I arrived on Christmas Eve, lost wise men in search of a kingdom of untouched granite walls, seclusion, and adventure. On that day we landed short of the kingdom itself, but found hospitality and guidance on the way. It came by way of a Chilean gaucho named Ciro. He was sun-wrinkled, dirty, and bore a dark moustache with flecks of grey. His eyes were black under the shadow of his traditional gaucho sombrero. Ciro was the kind of gaucho that scammed tourists, treated his horses poorly, and made crude, sexist jokes. He was to be our way of hauling our gear the 20 kilometers from his house into the heart of the valley where we would find our paradise. But we weren’t headed there until the following day, so he invited us to Christmas dinner.
Around dusk, as the sun set somewhere beyond the snow capped volcanoes, we got a fire started. The dinner was a slaughtered goat, to be slow cooked on a spit for hours. We would be eating a traditional asado, a meal saved for special occasions such as these. As the meat cooked, my travel companion Ethan and I took to sharing beers and spiced wine with the family and another Patagonian traveler, Martin from Holland. The smell of meat teased us until midnight arrived, and we could finally sit down to Christmas dinner.
Ethan commented, “This is the most tender lamb I have ever had”, while I simply chalked it up as the most delicious. Slight inebriation and full stomachs led to bilingual conversations: Spanish, and broken Spanish. But everyone felt at home, warm and welcomed by Ciro’s family, amazing food and tunes played on the guitar. Even after being full we ate more, to simply experience the deliciousness of the food, and to prolong the joy of the occasion.
After the meal, more drinks were poured and family games were rolled out. The three college educated gringos took on a twelve year old campesino in tic-tac-toe. We realized that the drinks may have taken their toll as soon as we were all loosing various rounds against the kid. I’ll admit that I lost the most, a fact that made me understand that I should probably get to bed if I was to have energy for the next days voyage. I am not sure how or when we got back to the tent, but am sure that it involved stumbling, ramblings about happiness, and utter and complete contentment with the festivities at Ciro’s house.
Chapter 2: En Camino
The tábanos arrived in small swarms, black flies the size of my thumb above the first knuckle. They’re more than just nuisances, they’re bloodsuckers, and have a mean bite if they manage to land on you. A single layer of clothes is not enough. They bite through t-shirts, pants, socks, like piercing a needle through cheesecloth. When we made our trek into the heart of La Junta valley, they followed us with ruthless resilience to our swatting, waving, scattering, and fleeing. Even when you managed to smack them with full force, say, on the top of your head, more often than not they would fall to the ground, collect themselves, and then fly away as if they were merely put on a minor detour. As much as I wanted to have compassion for the little creatures and not harm them, after hours of bites and constant buzzing into my face, ears and head, I began to take sick sadistic pleasure in killing them. We would later learn that all the climbers in Cochamó had their own way of torturing the little demons. Some trapped dozens in plastic bottles, others tore off wings and appendages, and some even stuck twigs and leaves into their abdomens but kept the tábano alive so that it would fly away with the impaled object still stuck in it. Once, I saw a flying dandelion go by, no doubt as a foreign intrusion in some tábano’s hind quarters.
The hike consisted of a constant battering of tábanos for the first 8 kilometers. Afterwards we headed into a more forested area, where the tree cover kept them dispersed. The path we walked was an old horse trail used for decades by ranchers bringing their cattle to and from the La Junta Valley to graze. The trails were rutted and clogged with mud, but didn’t have many steep inclines or declines. We cruised on flat terrain keeping an eye out for the occasional horse dropping or filthy suck hole. Occasionally we had to hop rocks or walk rickety bridges to cross rivers. A false slip would soak your shoes. But eventually the trail dried out and we came into open meadows which allowed us to take in the scenery.
Once we stepped foot into La Junta we were slowly able to grasp the wonder of Cochamó. We arrived as Lilliputians entering a great hall of giants. The colossal peaks of solid granite were breathtaking for their mere size and shimmering silver color. But as climbers, we saw them as more still. We saw them as teachers ready to challenge us as athletes and as intellectuals. They held fissures and weaknesses never before climbed by man. They were daunting, compelling, and overwhelming. I felt that I had landed in a place that promised to bring me adventures, peace and stories that I would always recount with pleasure. It brought me that, and more.
Chapter 3: El Paraiso
One cannot help but compare Cochamó to Godliness, for both believer and atheist alike can only hope to describe the place with the use of spiritual vocabulary. It is a land greater than humanity. It is omnipotent because it has existed for eons. It is a heaven on earth in that it bears earthliness to perfection. It breathes peace, serenity, and solitude. It evokes self-reflection and an awareness of nature as a manifestation of God. It is the soul of the world, a collection of dense forests, crystal clear rivers, and granite mountains which soar into azure skies. You do not breathe fresh air in Cochamó, but rather, you breathe the purity of nature as a single life giving force. It is more than just a beautiful place, it is a land that God has stored away to remind us of the harmony of nature.
I felt touched by Cochamó not because I was a climber and there were rocks to be climbed, but because I am a human spirit and Cochamó is the reflection of my maker. Its valleys funnel in a euphoric sense of oneness that makes you present with the world. Never have I been in a place so pure that you can drink directly from its creeks and waterfalls. The sensation is freedom without hesitation, instinct coinciding with consciousness. I used those same waterways to bathe in and found that each submersion into the icy waters was like a baptismal for a soul once blackened by the modern world. I’d arise from the waters a clean, naked being, a man without fear, ego, or worry.
Being a climber however, I cannot negate the fact that Cochamó offered that part of my soul sufficient sustenance for lifetimes. Surrounding our base camp in a green meadow, were beautiful, towering walls beckoning for us to come explore. The most exciting prospects were first ascents, expeditions into unknown cracks and dihedrals, ledges and columns, features that provided weaknesses that would perhaps lead us all the way to the top of several thousand foot rocks. Maybe a thousand feet up you would come across a corner that required a perfect mixture of strength and technique. Or perhaps, you would climb all day only to reach a blank wall with no natural holds to climb. Daniel, the always motivated refuge owner, and I arrived at a section of rock that looked like it would be easy to pass, but upon closer inspection, we found ourselves in wild terrain, forcing us to take 25 foot falls a thousand feet from the ground. The only protection keeping us from flying with the condors was a rope and tiny bits of metal stuffed into miniscule cracks. Most often the metal equipment held…but sometimes it didn’t. Luckily we had back up gear and didn’t mind falls that climbers call “whippers” do to the distance of the fall and the intensity of the catch. That section of rock forced me to try and be better than I am. To be sharp, focused, bold. It also forced me to be humble. We couldn’t make it past that part of the wall, and though we were only a couple hundred feet from the top, we had to lower ourselves all the way back to the ground, without completing the route. I was shut down again on other walls, but instead of seeing it as failure, I reveled in the fact that the rock had taught me so much about my limits, my desires, and myself. With the failures and with the successes, I realized that I just love climbing. If I can be with the rock, getting battered or floating to the top, I am where I should be.
Sometimes you reach your goals though and climb thousands of feet with perfect, cloudless skies all around you. Ethan, who I had spent a few months traveling with in The States before I left for South America, was again on the other end of the rope as we worked our way up the granite colossus of Cerro Trinidad. It was New Year’s Eve. We spent the holiday delicately tiptoeing across glassy slabs of rock, and jamming our hands and feet in rounded out cracks. The effort was long, nearly three thousand vertical feet of climbing, and at times arduous. But when we made it to the top the view of the surrounding peaks brought instant relaxation. We took in the sight of glacier capped volcanoes and peaks stretching across international borders. It was perfect beauty. Sore muscles, cuts and bruises only heightened the experience. We had struggled to know that beauty, and both the struggle and the reward made us better climbers, better men.
A love of climbing easily creates Cochamó as a paradise, but it’s the people that I shared the experience with that made it feel like home. The first half of my time there I was alone with Ethan. He offered me memories of my past in Colorado, and great conversations of both the sober and inebriated variety. We climbed all the days we could together, and got to know Cochamó as a partnership appreciative of the new land. Together we went to Argentina, and climbed in another amazing place which was unfortunately suffocated with tourists, albeit, many of them some of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. However our time was limited and we parted ways there, and I returned to a small group of climbers in Cochamó that quickly became my close friends.
I wondered sometimes what characteristics these people had that made us all connect so well. It was easy to see that everyone had something to offer the group, but it was hard to pinpoint what those things were exactly. I could recognize that they were good people in that they were kind, passionate, and very generous. But they all also had their own unique attributes that made them fit into the experience in a way that made it perfect. Perhaps it was Xabi’s jokes, or Ana’s insight; Rudy’s curiosity about crack climbing, or Natalia’s distinct Chilean accent. Maybe it was Thiago’s belief that everything was beautiful, including having to bail off wet, vegetated rocks, or his climbing partner Zoro’s eagerness to find adventures. Jim was always excited and friendly and made us all hopeful to find new rock. Daniel showed me what it meant to put up new routes in the valley and was a great partner to go exploring with. Silvina, Moni, and Zen breathed good energy, made me laugh, and created a home for all of us. Everyone had their part in the dynamic, and I felt blessed to be able to share in it.
The experience of Cochamó was a coalescence of goodness that is rare in the world. Happiness was so rampant and strong that it blinded us to any worries about money, or time, jobs or responsibilities. By living simply and following our passions, we aligned ourselves with the natural Way. We connected like roots to the earth, clouds to the wind.
Chapter 4: Conclusión
I’ll leave it at that. I’m already disappointed that I cannot find enough words to share the full experience. But such is the awesome, the life shaking, and the timeless. There are moments that exist in our lives that will sit fixed in our memories forever. Cochamó will remain with me like memories of first loves or spiritual epiphanies. It returned me to who I am in my purest form, and through the friends it introduced me to, showed me that that person, the pure me, is a good man. I in turn saw the beauty of those around me, the wonder of virgin, natural lands, and found tranquility in such an unadulterated form, that my soul is irrevocably connected to that amazing place forever.