The forest trail ends abruptly at a rock wall where an old rope hangs from out of sight above. It’s an immediate and uncomfortable answer to a question I don’t want to ask: Is there no other way up?
My hiking buddy, Romain, is a crazy-eyed Grenoble native with a huge heart and sure feet anywhere but the dance floor. He gives the rope a tug and shrugs in my direction. We’ve sweated for two hours from our camp on the floor of the upper Cochamó Valley in Chile’s Northern Patagonia, aiming for a hiker’s vantage in a climber’s paradise.
“Can we trust it?” I ask turning to Romain after peering between overhanging branches and pre-historic tree trunks. “Bah oui!” replies the wiggling rope.
A cursory glance over a map of southern Chile reveals an eon of tectonic violence where the Pacific meets the Andes. More than 5,000 islands and as many peaks, valleys and fjords condense here in a beguiling labyrinth that beckons as much as it forbids.
To visit is to experience the call of the mountains.
I follow the beckoning rope upwards through a high water mark for white-knuckle fear, but discover my calm via good footing and a gradual lessening in steepness. Within minutes we’re back to hiking and my fear transforms to awe as a granite landscape opens up as vertiginous as it is verdurous.
Across the valley towering domes known as ‘cerros’ in Spanish dominate the horizon. Cerro Trinidad, Cerro Elefante, Cerro La Junta, the ominous El Monstruo and numerous others stand between 1,500 to 1,900 metres in altitude. But these are just peaks within peaks. Surrounding us on all sides again are the gargantuan volcanoes: Calbuco, Osorno, Yate and Tronador, each rising between 2,000 to 3,500 metres directly above fjord and lake.
The view over Cochamó is all the more inspiring for the knowledge that no road has ever penetrated the valley, no internal combustion has echoed between these cliffs and commercial felling has never disturbed its primeval mountain forest ecology. Here pumas stalk pudús (the world’s smallest deer) amid 3,000-year-old Alerce trees (the second oldest living plants on earth) while endemic marsupials scamper through the undergrowth. And that fresh sparkle below? It’s a river untamed, naturally tinted sapphire by suspended minerals, teeming with trout and host to one of the longest natural water slides on earth (lot’s of fun if you can handle the near freezing water).
Clambering back down the mountain beneath circling condors, Romain and I make it to camp on dusk and take the flying fox over the river. We visit a smart eco-refuge B&B and are invited to sip mate (traditional Argentine tea) on the porch overlooking Cerro Trinidad. There we meet the builders/operators, Daniel and Silvina, an American/Argentine couple who are the only year-round residents in the valley.
Daniel, who was part of the early climbing vanguard here, explains that when the first rock climbers slogged their way into Cochamó in the late 1990s, they likened it to a secret Yosemite National Park and began a global chain of whispers about an untouched utopia.
But the story of Cochamó does not start with the claw fingers who rave about cragging dihedrals, slabs, seams, splitters and flares. For more than 120 years local ‘arrieros’, who maintain a unique South American brand of cowboy culture, have used the valley as a stock route through the passes to Argentina. They’ve adapted to a tourism economy by offering guided horse treks on their traditional routes and portage services to hikers, climbers and rafters alike.
Despite providing a world class, National-Park-like value and experience, most of Cochamó Valley is privately owned and there is no current regulation that protects it from the very real threats of hydroelectric and forestry projects. Recognising this (and the increasing pressures of tourism) a group of friends who live in, work in and love the valley started Conservación Cochamó, an organisation with a mission for sustainable management and protection advocacy. Via community projects, public awareness campaigns, government lobbying and a range of legal strategies, they have staved off developer interests to date, but the future is far from certain. Daniel warns of corruption behind the scenes between local politicians and tight-lipped investors who have bought up the south side of the valley.
On our way back to camp Romain and I pause on the river beach to take in the silhouetted amphitheatre around us, the impenetrable forest, the galaxy above and the freezing waters rushing by our feet. Somewhere in the darkness are dry caves, natural archways, waterfalls and other secrets Daniel hinted at. What more is yet hidden even from him in the folds of this landscape? Will it be destroyed by chainsaws and dams? Or developed with roads, restaurants and hotels? We wonder and muse, hand over hand, and pull ourselves along the zip cable back to the high side of the river where a campfire awaits.