Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Cochamo baby!

So Dan and I once again started sticking out our thumbs, we crossed the Chilean border. February is a college break for the locals, and that mean that college age hitchhikers were everywhere. We saw another group or two at every town that we stopped in. Sometimes this meant long waits as politeness meant that we let other people go first. For us however we always got picked up quick, the novelty of seeing gringos hitching was too much for most people to pass up. We made a sign that said "Visiting from the United States." Sometimes this meant that people tried to engage us in their choppy English, not realizing that Dan was totally fluent in Spanish. My knee was still fucked, and I was still drinking heavily.

Look close!

I thought that the approach to Frey was long, but Cochamo was far worse. Where as Frey was four hours of uphill, Cochamo was a 5 hour slog through mud on mediocre to shitty trails. It was impossible to go fast, if you tried you'd go off trail or find yourself covered in Mud. Going in and out in a day to resupply would be a serious challenge. Impossible with my knee as it was, by the end of the hike I was limping fairly badly and Dan had taken almost all of the weight from my pack. What started to come into view however was incredible. Endless Granite walls. Discussing Cochamo with friends in North America they have said things like "I hear that place is the Yosemite of South America."

To which I reply "No, not really.......... Cochamo has much more rock."

One of tenish 2000 feet or taller formations.
 On our first day there, we couldn't help but wonder, why isn't this place flooded with climbers all the time? On our second day there we found out why, because it's normally flooded with water. It started raining. Rain that even a Seattle boy like me has never experienced in his life. It rained for two weeks without stopping. I mean without stopping...at all. It didn't stop raining for 5 seconds in those two weeks. A constant downpour. I wondered when people were going to start building an Ark.

None of this really mattered to me though! I just limped to the cabin on my bad knee, huddled and traded climbing stories. Cochamo was also a great place to live for free because it was at the end of a 5 day trek and the trekkers would dump all their excess food before heading down the rest of the way. The real climbing dirtbags lived off of this for weeks or even months. I realized that I could both wait for my knee to heal and live for free at the same time. I sat in the rain. The rain cleared in small segments and people started climbing a little. Dan had started climbing with a young energetic New York kid named Chris. Then the rain started again and March rolled around. The season was about to close shut on Cochamo and I had yet to climb anything. The climbers started to bail including Dan who decided to live in Chile, maybe for as much as another year. There were only 8 or so of us left and suddenly the weather forecast started to look good.

Lo and behold who showed up? None other than the worlds most famous rock climber, Alex Honnold. Now I had met Alex in Yosemite and Squamish so we struck up a friendly conversation. He asked me if I had any recommendations for 'Hard Routes.' I told him that I didn't really know as my knee was all fucked up and I had been trying to not pay attention to routes. Then in front of just about every climber currently in Cochamo he singled me out and told me I should climb Al Centro y Al Dentro.

"It's just as good as Astroman or the Rostrum, you can totally do it." He said, with no real knowledge of my climbing ability

"Yeah maybe." I said, very doubtful. I was now walking without a limp, but the idea of going up something as hard as Astroman with so much time off of climbing and a bum knee didn't seem feasible.

"Sounds great!" Said Chris, the young kid Dan had been climbing with exclaimed. "Lets give it a try."

My enthusiasm was not so great, but I was desperate to climb after spending so long injured. I just needed to know one thing.

"Is it easy to bail off of?"

That day we packed out gear, borrowed a number 5 for the first three pitches. One of these pitches was deemed by Cedar Wright to be 'a little harder than the Harding Slot' on Astroman. In addition Chris was not a great offwidth climber so the responsibility of these would be on me. He was young and strong and confident, but for him this would be his hardest multi-pitch. The 4 hour trudge from the campground to the wall left my knee aching and we fell asleep at new basecamp, surrounded by the beauty of Cochamo. We woke up early and walked up to the wall. I sat for a moment and contemplated the 1800 foot climb in front of me.

No choice of backing off now I started leading up the first pitch. My body felt unaccustomed to the movement of climbing and offwidthing is not the easiest way to start your day. I huffed and finished the pitch, Chris easily cruised up behind me. I started leading up the second pitch. The 10a section felt easy, but then it whittled down to a beautiful 10.d finger crack. I moved up  shakily, messing up pretty much everything but staying on. I hit the crux and tried to move through it. Fucking up something I slipped and took a big whip onto a small cam. I sat there for a second then let out my normal expletive when I fell.

"Fuck. Fuck! FUCK!"

Not only was I pissed at falling, but I knew there was so much more difficult climbing ahead. Angrily I got back onto the rock. The second go at it and it felt easy. Chris followed up, having no trouble with anything. He remarked on how I looked kind of shaky. After two pitches I already felt tired. I had basically climbed a month in the last five. The second hardest pitch of the day was hovering right over our head. A blank steep intimidating slot. Chris sensed my frustration.

"Man I can try the slot." He said, even though I had previously agreed to lead it.

"Cool." I agreed.

Chris traversed out and hesitated underneath it, contemplating it's blankness. Eventually he just hucked himself into it and with tremendous effort wormed upwards. The wicked thing then narrowed down to a beautiful hand crack and he easily finished off the pitch. I followed. Suddenly things started clicking into place. I found a small foot and threw up a chicken wing. Oh yeah, I remember how to climb. Things flowed and I instantly regretted not leading the thing. I cursed myself but enjoyed the rest of the pitch.

Next Chris led the crux of the whole day, a very insecure bolted arete. Later on we would learn that Honnold had on-sight soloed up to here and backed off at this arete. He then down soloed the first three pitches, including the 11.b slot pitch to rejoin his roped party. The idea of going out onto this arete without a rope made me ill.

Following on the arete.

I fell twice on the crux of the thing, but then unlocked the complicated sequence of moves and suddenly we were through the two hardest pitches of the day. I felt great. We took a swig of the one liter of water that we brought on the climb and looked upwards. I was struck by the beauty of the dihedral above us and for reasons I can't contemplate decided to declare:

"I'll lead it."

Climbing started to flow again and the 10.d pitch cruised by. Chris remarked how solid I looked and we were making good time. We started swapping leads, Chris took the slab pitches and we found ourselves only 4 pitches from the top. It was at this point that something unexpected happened. I realized that Chris was getting tired. He looked up at the next pitch, appropriately labeled the 'microstopper dihedral' and then over at me hopefully.

"You like dihedrals right?" He asked.

I smiled and started leading up. What I got into was the most harrowing pitch of the day. I put in a small RP and clipped it. It fell out under the weight of the rope. For some reason I laughed as he tumbled down.

"I don't think that one was very good." I said, putting in a couple more.

I stayed in a stem right before the committing crux for quite a while. If the small stoppers blew, there was a good chance I would hit a ledge below, 1000 feet up and 9 hours from help. But that good finger crack was just out of reach. I breathed deep, made one more stem and grabbed it. Phew. We looked at out topo. The next pitch was labeled the Duck Beak Chimney.

Can you figure out why?
Chris took the lead and we were two pitches from the top. We had also been out of water for quite some time. Even though the original plan was for him to lead almost all of the climb, I found myself on lead number 7. Never had 5.10 felt so hard, but I sent. One more pitch found us at the top and bagging the 4th ascent. We both celebrated what we declared to be the best climb of our lives. If anyone finds their way down to Cochamo it comes with highest recommendations.

Al Centro y Al Dentro

After camping one more night up there, we went back down to the Valley. I thought to myself that even if I didn't climb that much in South America, I had this one climb. The next day my knee hurt like hell, but I wasn't limping. That was better than expected. The weather was also phenomenal. Chris though had to leave that day. I considered leaving when Jaro, a Czech dirtbag and one of the 6 remaining people in Cochamo asked me about Al Centro. I told him it was awesome.

"Is good. What are you climbing tomorrow?" He asked.

"I was thinking of leaving." I said.

"No." He stated, matter of factly. "Is weather window! You can't leave. Lets go climb."

"What were you thinking of?" I asked me.

"We do Bienvienidos." He said.

Just like that I committed myself to the longest route in Cochamo. 3000 feet of vertical gain. Almost the size of El Cap. We went to the Refugio and talked a strategy. Climbing with Jaro was a different experience. Everything was good in his book.

"We solo some pitches, no?" He said. "Will make go faster."

Waking up with 3000 feet ahead of us.
He had all the confident goofiness of your typical eastern European. He also had a huge supply of candy bars that he had hiked in. Climbing with him was not dull. We soloed the first three easy pitches and he started climbing the next before I was even caught up. I put him on belay and we went up quite quickly. Nothing was a big deal to Jaro. He was impressed with my lead of the crux trad pitch and 10 pitches later when I wasn't sure where the route went suggested that I simul-behind him as he did impromptu route finding.

"Is no big deal. Neither of us fall on this."

He climbed fast, placed little gear and we slammed to the top with daylight to spare. We strolled an extra 200 feet of 3rd class to the summit. It was only then that I realized he timed all his climbs.

"9 hours!" He said. "Is good! We good team!"

As we scrambled around to the long long walk off he talked about our plans for the next day. The weather window which started that day didn't break for two weeks. In that time we knocked out more routes than most people did in the previous month. We also went back to Al Centro, which Jaro onsighted and I sent, including leading the slot which I had wussed out on with Chris.

Revenge on the slot.
With the first sign of rain I limped out of Cochamo. Thanks to Jaro and Chris my South American climbing was saved. Now I just had to get myself home.