Cochamó: A Yosemite with No Roads
There is a place hunched between the shoulders of mountain giants: wild, free, and undeveloped. There is no official climbing guidebook to tell me where every wall is and what it’s name is; no 360 degree views available at a tap of the thumb to expose the secret of the valley from the comfort of my palm: the valley preserves an air of mystery and adventure. And best of all, there are no roads. No damned roads. They always pave a careless disregard into an otherwise magical landscape, and so I enthusiastically welcome their absence from this beautiful landscape.
That is Cochamó.
Wild, roadless, and full of adventure.
A 4-hour hike filters out cars and other technology; cliffs cut out all signal; and topos of the valley’s climbing are hand-drawn and stashed in 5L water jugs, jammed in the back of the small caves where dirty granite fanatics bivvy to attack the 1,000 meter walls.
But while this area is a paradise for adventure, the local community has been fighting hard to preserve Cochamo Valley’s wilderness for the past ten years, and is at a critical point now: almost 35,000 signatures were collected on an online petition to preserve this Yosemite of South America because the area is under threat to have it’s only protection removed, it’s status as a ZOIT (Zone of Touristic Interest).
See & sign the petition: Que Cochamo Sea Una ZOIT Change.org
Then watch (and share?) this short 1 minute video:
One of the issues is that Chile is the only country where the water is privatized and mountains are not made publicly accessible… See AccesoPanam’s campaign to change this: #Legalizalamontana
Myself, as a rock climber for 21 years who has climbed and hitchhiked in about as many countries, I’ve seen the positive impact and benefits of preserved wild places on many communities, as well as the gross negative impact in places that lack these green spaces. (See: Climbing Borders).
Undeniably, having access to these wild places positively influences our quality of life. In my opinion, we do not see enough support and applause for sustainable development in ecotourism, and as climbing is becoming more mainstream, so are climbers becoming larger influencers in the development of areas impacted by climbing destinations. (In fact, a really interesting new group has formed the Climbing Initiative, to “study and measure climbing’s social, environmental, political and economic impact”. Check it out.)
Chile is a great role model in ecotourism, and Cochamó has been nominated as one of the leading examples of sustainable ecotourism in Chile (in Spanish, but here’s the link: LaderaSur.com). The valley is a balance of remoteness and accessibility, giving inexperienced hikers the chance to trek through gorgeous forest in near expedition-style, while still using a system of volunteers and radio communication to keep both the experienced and unexperienced safe without compromising their experience.
(Stop here and sign the petition if you haven’t already! We can pass the 35,000 mark.)
There are not many places like Cochamó. Imagine the exposed granite ribs of a mountain over 3,000 feet tall, bared to the elements and towering boldly over the winding paths. During a full rain, the capillaries of Patagonia burst open and run from the foot of these walls into rivers of energy throughout the Valley, back through the valley into the largest estuary in Chile, connecting the Valley to the open ocean. From the peaks to the sea, the Cochamó’s powerful rain feeds a large and diverse ecosystem, as well as the hydro-turbines that charge local radios. Climbers from all ends of the world walk paths lined with berries (the white and plump chaura, a pinkish manzanita de los andes, the dark-blue calafate) and on the ground find hazelnuts, chestnuts, nuts from the sacred monkey puzzle trees, and mushrooms of every color on the stumps of the massive red alerce (up to 4,000 year-old trees). When the sun finally breaks out, everything is hung up to dry in the meadow, firewood is collected, and campers head for the many incredible summits.
I planned to stay two days in Cochamó, but then I met Tatiana. She ran the local coffee shop, and was coincidentally also president of the local landowners protecting Cochamó Valley. Typical of rural Chileans, Tatiana had a strong inner connection and sense of responsibility to the land, and she even refused my offer to help in a small clean-up, saying the land owners had to do their part – rather than “sit on their asses and talk about the problem”. A moment later, when she found a small bag of trash thrown carelessly behind a fence, she got angry and was close to tears. In the month that I stayed in Cochamó to learn about the issue, it became clear that her sentiments were shared with all the landowners in the community organization that she was leading.
Over the following month I had the great luck to find Basque, Austrian, French and Catalan climbers who were all similarly affected by the area’s remoteness and fanatics about the climbing. One climb capped them all: Positive Affect was the first 7b trad multipitch that I’ve ever tried, and the cold, dark, wind-buffeted bolted dihedral crux pitch was more mind-blowing than I had dreamed. Although it didn’t go free, as we were freezing in our too-light jackets, and we rappeled one pitch from the summit, this route and my partners on that epic taught me more about myself, the power of teamwork, and definitely made me hungry for more!
Speaking of teamwork…
This will be the story of Cochamó Valley, if we don’t appreciate the value of the wilderness and work together on the steps to preserve the balance of remoteness and accessibility:
Greedy metal oil-and-petroleum monsters claw the earth up, lay down asphalt, and surgically cut into the heart of the wilderness. The traveler, rather than being marketed a beautiful hike and the chance to escape the machines of city, will be encouraged to take a car to a newly built parking lot where the old camping used to be; with 4G, they will take several quick photos of the sheer granite walls from far away, and can duck into their car as soon as they feel a few raindrops hit their arm. Hiking, once a luxury, would no longer be required to access the view of the walls, and neither would the accompanied time to reflect on life, and these important things in our lives would disappear into the white noise of messages, Instagram, and email notifications.
Final note: thanks to Mad Rock, NiteIze, HoneyStinger and MonkeyHands for supporting my adventures and sometimes incidental advocacy!