Christmas in the Cochamo

December 22nd

I laid in bed for a while, listening to the rain tink on the roof of Savannah. I wasn’t feeling very motivated for the 13 km hike into the Cochamo in the rain. Still a bit sad from the feeling of a premature goodbye, I used the rain as an excuse to stay in bed for a bit longer. Soon though, the inevitable restlessness and my feeling of urgency to live life caused my legs to start squirming and my heart to pound faster in excitement and I knew it was time to start making moves. My pack was already packed from the night before, I just needed to start walking.

I was followed into the valley by a thunderstorm. At times it felt like I was hiking in the night with how dark and ominous the forest was while thunder cracked above. My rain gear held up decently, despite getting thoroughly soaked, though I was starting to feel the water seep down into my pant legs around kilometer 10. Three kilometers later, as I finally reached La Junta, the storm broke and I could finally see some blue skies. I met Juan, Mono, and Juan, the current staff at La Junta, as I rung out my hair and shook off the puddles on my jacket and pack. I couldn’t help but stumble my way across the campground to my site, #81, as I stared up at the towering domes surrounding the valley. It was simply stunning.

I found the most secluded campsite I could find. It was far from the field where everyone else seemed to choose to camp, in a circle all facing each other. My site was tucked away in the trees, next to the river, far from the communal kitchen area or covered picnic sites where you could build a fire to cook. I set up my tent quickly, since it was still sprinkling, and dove in. It had taken me about 3 hours to reach La Junta from Savannah, and after making camp it was already time to catch some Z’s.

December 23rd

I decided to hike up to Trinidad, a popular climbing area, then up to the lagoon in that valley. This meant I would need to cross the river using one of the carts on a wire. The wire for the cart was slightly downhill from the start so hopping onto the cart was like a hopping onto a horse chomping at the bit, it was ready to go! I rocketed almost all the way across the river before it lost momentum, then used the rope to haul myself the rest of the way across. When I hopped off, I felt like I had just gone on a short amusement park ride. I walked along the river for a bit, then cut through another campground and made my way to the trail. Once on the trail in the forest, I broke through cobwebs and was happy that it meant I was the first to head up the trail for the day; I was ready to be on my own and leave other humans behind.

I busted my ass up the steep switchbacks through the forest. At times it was like a jungle gym where roots were used as both hand and foot assists. I was amazed that a forest could even grow at this gradient! I threw off my layers and was thoroughly soaked with sweat from the heat and humidity trapped in the forest. Soon though, I reached the base of Trinidad. From here I could see a climb I have on my mind to do someday, EZ does it. The walls were massive. I was sort of glad I decided to just do a scouting trip this time up there, I’ll need to be pretty strong before I come up there to climb. My legs felt strong from all of the trekking recently, but it had been about a year since I did any climbing and my arms felt like limp noodles as I gawked at the towering granite above.

I scrambled across the granite, still wet from the recent rain, to the other side of the ravine. It was still stick though and I felt like a gecko scampering my way across. I followed the ravine up and through a beautiful forest. The trees weren’t backlit by the sky, but rather the gray granite walls. I got a lot of soakers hopping logs across the lagoon before I found a boulder to scramble up on top of to take in the sights. The lagoon was more snow than water and I was amazed it was the source of the huge waterfalls I saw below. I took off my socks and boots to dry out and snacked on some manis (peanuts) and other random stuff I found in Savannah and mixed together for a lunch (granola, dried fruit, seeds, sugary candy, etc). Soon though the wind brought a chill and I needed to head down.

I ran into some boys heading up the trail as I descended the ravine. I heard “son of a bitch” before I saw them and I was intrigued to say hi. The first chico just got his first soaker. They all spoke perfect English and the first boy told me he was going to jump into the lagoon to swim. I smiled and nodded and decided to let him see that it was mostly snow for himself and not ruin his fun. I later saw two climbers’ packs at the base of EZ does it, though I didn’t see the climbers themselves. A quick romp back down the forest and I was back at the little jockey cart. It was a bit less fun hauling myself up across the river, but I still found the cart pretty novel and the experience interesting.

I took a little siesta in my tent, because well this is 31, then watched the sunset behind the mountains. I had intense stress dreams that night about work and past relationships and even about a tree falling on my tent where I literally rolled off my sleeping pad to avoid the apparent death in my dream. Perhaps my brain felt like this was a safe place to deal with the stress I had been feeling but ignoring. Mountains are my medicine and happy place, so it could be that it is also a safe place to deal with these feelings of stress or fear.

December 24th

I slept in until around 9 AM. This trip ended up being an adventure of both trekking and resting. I had pulled the hood of my sleeping bag over my head to cover my eyes apparently and woke up to find a very bright and sunny day. Within the hour, I packed my daypack and signed in for my hike. I actually hated this, and “forgot” to do it the day before. But since I needed to pass the campground booth for this hike, I signed in as if in a summer camp, to tell the staff I was doing the hike up Arcoiris (rainbow) mountain that day.

I busted up the forest on the opposite side of the valley from the day before, again happily breaking through cobwebs knowing I’d be the only one up there. My legs were a bit angry with me, but they felt strong after the trekking in Argentina. This hike was considered one of the most difficult ones, with some interesting via ferrata type rope obstacles. The rocks were still wet and slick from the rain, which added to the spice of the exposure. It actually felt a bit like caving, but without a harness and just hand over hand rope work. A fall or slip would most certainly mean careening over the edge of the mountain. The first few sections of rope were more just a guideline, but the following sections would have no way been part of a trekking trail without a fixed rope. After the rope there were a few rebar steps, then another system of ropes and knots to help haul yourself up the steep muddy banks of a scrappy forest clinging to the edge of the mountain. From there, there were another few fun root and rope obstacles. Then a final section that even had me scratching my head if it was a good idea as the route the rope went up was some slab which now was a little waterfall after the rain. It went though and I was happy to scramble up the remaining part of the trail with lots of lizard friends.

I was literally chased up to the first mirador (lookout) by horseflies but I didn’t stick around long as they had followed me up there. I began a fun scrambly section up some rock fins and finally lost the flies with the wind. There were some fun moves: some slab, some stemming, some little bouldering problems… it was a blast! Once I topped out at the first false summit though, I was met with a lot of snow and decided not to push forward. Any flat, or not vertical rather, section of rock was still covered with a thick layer of snow somewhat precariously clung to the sides of the boulders. I did some scouting around to try to find a way, but since I was alone, I decided not to chance it. There was no evidence of anyone else making their way across, and I was only 1 km away from the next mirador. I took off my tank to let the sweat dry and lounged on a boulder in the sun for a bit. It was amazing up there, simply nothing like I had ever seen before. I had studied the map the night before and could see Gorilla Mountain clearly, with a rock formation that looked like a giant eye. I watched a pair of condors circle above the summit.

I made my way back down the rope sections, then blundered back down the forest trying to save my knees by sort of gently running back down. My knees just aren’t the same in my 30’s as they were in my 20’s when I thought they were indestructible. I arrived back at camp around 6 PM and shyly checked back in, then retreated back to my hidden campsite. I took a shower with river water heated from a black barrel above a stall and got a brief moment of warm water before the icy cold. I cooked up some rice and lentils but was worried about my gas so it was a bit of a crunchy dinner. I was happy with my routine though – sleeping in a bit, doing a big hike that made my legs angrily happy, cooking my dinner from my tent looking up at Arcoiris mountain, then organizing my things to get ready for the next day. I pumped water from the river, since the source at the campground appeared quite cloudy that morning. After dark I’d watch a movie I downloaded on Netflix and usually take a midnight pee and look at the stars.

This night, I woke up to some havoc outside of my tent. Confused, I unzipped the door and found a massive cow grazing right next to my tent. The cows here are literally the size of hippos, they’re huge! Personally, I don’t trust cows… they can either be totally chill or freak out. I watched it graze and move closer to my laundry line. I imagined it getting its horns stuck in the line and chaos unfolding before it would run into my tent and trample me. This fear is not irrational… once, camping in Coyote Gulch in Utah, a cow tripped over a guideline of my tent and I thought I was about to die by getting squished by a cow falling over. How pathetic of a way to die. I slowly moved to take down my laundry line before this nightmare could unfold and the cow moved along its way.

December 25th

I decided to abandon my plan of taking it easy for the day. I was thinking I’d just go for a swim in the river and hang around camp, but as the horseflies buzzed and orbited my tent, I decided to head back up into the hills. I had one more track downloaded on Caltopo, a hike up to some ice caves at La Paloma glacier. Not like I really needed a map though, everything was well marked, maybe overly so, for the hikes in the area. I set off around 11 AM and saw that two people had already headed up the trail, no cobwebs for me. I blasted up another forest with some crazy switchback trails and some root climbing. I passed a bolted climbing area called Pared Seca, it looked like some crazy hard overhung routes. Up and through another forest, I got lost in my mind thinking about what I wanted for my future… about moving to Europe, and about another couple of years of likely solo traveling.

I made it up to the cascade, then followed the waterfalls up the granite slabs to the permanent snowfield. I saw the 2 people who had registered ahead of me and said a quick hola before they headed back down. The snowfield was impressive, and already starting to melt out a bit giving way to the icy waterfall below. I snacked on some more of my trailmix before slowly making my way back down. I decided to take a dip in the icy falls on my way down. My feet instantly got numb when I stepped in and after soaking my hair in the stream, the water trickled down my back and gave relief from the heat. I hung around for a bit marveling at the mountains, again not wanting to descend back into the valley. Something about being up on the rocks above the world below gives me a comfort I can’t really describe, it’s like I belong up there. I’m happiest there.

Eventually though I tore away from my mountain bliss and romped back down through the forest. I ended up catching up with the two people I had seen at the glacier and began chatting with the Chilean woman. She invited me to come swim with them at some waterfalls near the campground. At first I declined, but then thought maybe some socializing wouldn’t be so bad and decided to join them. We took a dip in the ice cold water that literally took my breath away, then shared a lentil dinner next to the river. They were incredibly kind, beautiful people that I felt lucky to have met and share a Christmas with. We froze our butts off sharing mate tea and watching the sunset behind the falls. I realized everyone sort of knew each other in campgrounds and that this falls was a meeting spot for solo travelers, which the two people I met were as well and had just met each other here at this falls a few days before.

We returned to the campground and hung out at the communal eating area, about 10 of us now. There were the two people I met on the trail, the 3 Chilean boys I had met from the lagoon, a woman from the UK, and two other men who spoke English but I didn’t get their story. The Chilean boy told me he didn’t end up swimming in the lagoon, because he was afraid he’d catch a cold. I bit my tongue and tried not to laugh and just told him he probably made the best choice. My head felt like it was going to explode while I tried to keep up with the group conversation but I could follow the general concepts everyone was talking about. Still shy though, I mostly spoke with the Chilean guy next to me. He had been to Cochamo 3 times, once in 2015, then 2020, and now. I asked him about how he saw the valley change and what he thought about the bump in ecotourism and its effect on the valley or other wilderness places in Chile. We talked about the importance of preserving wild places, and wildlife, and how it’s a trend to see places being loved to death. On our way back to our respective campsites, we watched the stars for a bit and tried to find Scorpio. We all said our “hasta luegos” in the darkness of the night with tight embraces before we slipped away into our tents. Christmas ended up not being Christmassy at all, but I found some friends to share the evening with and my heart was full. That night I had good dreams, not nightmares or stress dreams, about beautiful people in a beautiful place sharing a beautiful memory.

December 26th

I left my campsite early the next morning and just like that my little home in the forest was packed back up into my pack. As I hiked out the 13 km, I thought about how much I love being outside. I love the sounds of gurgling streams, the smell of the moss growing on the rocks, the feel of the trunks of the trees as I graze my hand across the bark, everything. I was a bit sad to think about how the valley would likely change even more over time, more than how my Chilean friend had already described the differences from back in 2015. I watched a slew up people make their way up the trail with speakers for music and drones (though I read drones weren’t permitted in the area), and some people taking horses up for the day. The trails at times were waist deep, carved into the Earth from so much traffic. At camp I’d hear chainsaws running into the night, sometimes past 10 PM, either working on trail maintenance or infrastructure, or maybe cutting wood for visitors. Maybe that was why it felt so hard to leave the tops of the mountains and return to the valley, down below it felt less wild. I too am a visitor to the valley and these mountains, so I therefore also have an effect on the “wildness” of it.

I thought a lot about my passion project on my way down and how I hope it can contribute to help protect some of the last remaining wild places on Earth, even if it’s just a little bit. We talked a bit about invasive species that night in the communal eating area and how castors (beavers) are a big problem down here. My study in Navarino Island will focus on invasive mink, but perhaps eDNA techniques can also be applied to monitoring beavers and other invasive species around Chile. Though I still think that the most dangerous invasive species is noneless than homo sapiens. That’s a problem I can’t help solve though.

Map of sleep spots, here

Funky cover song stuck in my head hiking in the mountains, here 🙂

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