How traveling and food feed my soul, not just the climbing
“Cochamó—The Yosemite of South America.” For a climber who loves to travel, statements like this tend to get your attention. The allure and excitement of discovering or experiencing a new corner of the world offers never-ending motivation to travel, and thankfully the desire to pursue that feeling is never quite satiated. Was there really a remote valley of granite big walls tucked in the jungles of Chilean Patagonia that could warrant comparison to California’s mighty granite crucible? The possibility was reason enough to book a ticket.
I had spent at least a month of the previous four winters augered into the remote yet rapidly growing town of El Chalten, occasionally getting enough good weather to climb among the famous peaks of the Fitz Roy massif—the first image that comes to mind when people hear the word Patagonia. But after a roadtrip to northern Patagonia at the end of last season, I was eager to explore more of this part of the world that I’d come to love so much. When my friends Mikey Schaefer and SJ Lee asked me to join them for a trip to find out if the rumors about Cochamó were true, I jumped at the opportunity.
Cochamó, a remote valley named for the crystalline river that flows through it, is wedged among the fjords of northern Chilean Patagonia, a few hours drive from the port town of Puerto Montt. The valley has become extremely popular with Chilean backpackers and hikers in recent years, but it remains a remote place—there is no road access or services, and the several basic camping areas are fully off the grid. Everything one needs must be either packed up the 10km trail or strapped to the horse of a hired arriero, the cowboys of Patagonia.
Quality energy foods are difficult or even impossible to obtain in most parts of Patagonia, so I brought along several boxes of Meal bars, Bite bars, and Bolt chews to add to our three-week haul of grocery store provisions—crucial for the long climbing days on these huge granite walls. We strapped our six duffel bags to a team of horses, and headed up the trail. Due to the rainy climate and untold number of feet and hooves that have traveled this path over the last 100 years, in some places the trail is trenched up to eight feet deep!
After a long walk under a constant barrage of tabanos—large local horseflies—we arrived in a beautiful flat meadow surrounded by enormous granite formations. We dropped our heavy packs and set up camp in a quiet riverside forest among a ragtag crew of other climbers. The weather was perfect—never a given in a region known for multi-week downpours, so we immediately began hatching plan to climb.
The next morning, armed with half a liter of water each and as many Probars as we could stuff in our zippered thigh pockets, we cast off on one the area’s longest free routes on one of the biggest walls—Bienvenidos a mi Insomnio, a 20-pitch 5.11 on Trinidad Norte.
Ropelength by ropelength we jammed, smeared and grunted our way up the massive granite face, roasting in the full exposure of the midday sun. Near the top, the wind picked up and we quickly pulled on the minimal layers we had clipped to our harnesses.
From the summit, we stared out at the incredible 360-degree view of wild northern Patagonia—endless green valleys, jagged granite peaks, and huge snow-capped volcanoes.
Over the next two weeks, we battled massive approaches, swarms of tabanos, vegetated cracks, and occasionally, pitches that would be classic even in Yosemite. Giant Andean condors swooped overhead, we swam in the clear green Rio Cochamó and lounged in the meadow with new friends. Each night around dusk, a local woman came around with a large sack filled with fresh-baked bread and sopapillas—tasty squares of deep-fried dough. We’d all congregated to enjoy the fresh treat and gaze up at the granite peaks, plotting the next day’s climbs.
On our last night in Cochamo, we were fortunate enough to be invited to a birthday party for Horacio, one of the valley’s most respected arrieros. Two whole lambs slowly roasted over a massive bed of hot coals, and a group of climbers and locals gathered and laughed around the fire, passing bottles of wine and swapping stories. Cochamo’s notorious weather had finally set in a few days earlier, and the relentless rain beat down on the massive tarps strung up overhead. The towering granite walls were nowhere to be seen, shrouded in thick storm clouds.
Were the rumors true—is Cochamo the Yosemite of South America? Looking back that night around the fire, it didn’t really matter. People love to compare this to that, but Cochamo is a wild, beautiful and unique place. Exploring new parts of the world through climbing is about seeing something new, not replicating what we already know.
Written by climber and freelance writer – Andy Anderson