Cochamó calling

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Photo: Andres BrionesPhoto: Andres Briones
 
Editor's note: The following is from Issue 28.
 
Climbing, conservation, and community in Chile’s Pucheguín.
 
By Brady Robinson
A conservationist and climber, Brady Robinson is the director of philanthropy for the Freya Foundation and board chair of the Honnold Foundation.
 
 
Patagonia is so well known for its iconic places that it needs no introduction. Torres del Paine, Tierra del Fuego, Fitz Roy, Perito Moreno. I have been to many of these places — and it's true, they are spectacular. But the part of Chilean Patagonia that captured my heart by surprise is a lesser-known tract of wilderness referred to broadly as The Greater Pucheguín, known primarily for the Cochamó Valley.
 
Twenty years ago, I ran courses for Outward Bound in northern Patagonia’s Lake District. The course itinerary was challenging and beautiful. We would hike our students up the Río Blanco in Chile to the shoulder of a massive volcano called Cerro Tronador, cross the border, make a summit attempt, and descend into Argentina via the aptly named Pampa Linda. The courses took several weeks and were some of the best and most challenging offerings by Outward Bound at the time.
 
The Cochamó Valley, known for its spectacular granite faces and sometimes referred to as the Yosemite of South America, was adjacent to our Chilean approach. I wondered if I could somehow incorporate it into our route. So, I took a few days off work and attempted to find a route through the Cochamó Valley to Tronador.
 
 
River hiking high in the Rio La Junta Valley in March 2003. Photo: Brady RobinsonRiver hiking high in the Rio La Junta Valley in March 2003. Photo: Brady Robinson
 
 
My partner (and future wife) and I took horses into the Cochamó Valley on the Paso El León trail, which was once a major trade route between Chile and Argentina. We rode in silent wonder, surrounded by huge white granite walls and the Cochamó River's blue-green waters. When our horses could go no further, we set off on foot up the Río La Junta. Here, we passed directly beneath more walls of sheer granite — some as tall as 1,000 meters, capturing the imagination of the climber in me. There was no trail, and we quickly realized that the only feasible way up the valley was to hike in the river's chilly waters, occasionally bushwhacking around waterfalls. After a day and a half of soggy hiking, we reached the river's headwaters. We found a stand of ancient alerce trees in a remote cirque and saw absolutely no sign of human passage. A dry, level spot along the water was the only reasonable place to build a fire or set up a camp. There was no fire ring, no trampled ground, no scars on the tree bark, nothing but water, forest, granite, and silence. Never had I seen a place so beautiful – worthy of national protected status in any country – without any human impact. My single-minded mission to find a navigable route disappeared in that moment, and I realized I had no business hiking 12 students through such wild country. The terrain was too rugged for an average student group and the impacts would be too great.
 
After more bushwhacking to find a suitable route, we descended into the next valley using bamboo-like vegetation to lower ourselves down the steepest pitches. Several cliff bands were invisible in the dense underbrush; only the sudden appearance of large treetops at eye level indicated we were on the edge of a precipice. We finally arrived at the Quitacalzones River below as darkness fell on our second day out. After an unpleasant night bivouacked without food, we hiked down (again, in a blue-green river) until we reached another confluence and found two arrieros enjoying an asado. They invited us to their lunch, cheerily sharing their meat, slow-cooked over an open fire, and rented us their horses. When we told them where we came from, they didn’t believe us. We pointed and explained, but they just shook their heads. Silly gringos.
 
That adventure and the incredible landscape have always stuck with me. I felt that I had been entrusted with a secret: that there was a place of unparalleled beauty – with trees thousands of years old surrounded by endangered and endemic flora and fauna. Who would I tell? Who would ensure the trees would still be there a thousand years hence? I wanted to help but it would take 15 years to find a way to do so.
 
 
Cochamó Valley is an outdoor playground for trekking, climbing, birdwatching, photography, and more. Photo: Brady RobinsonCochamó Valley is an outdoor playground for trekking, climbing, birdwatching, photography, and more. Photo: Brady Robinson
 
 
Photo: Brady RobinsonPhoto: Brady Robinson
 
 
Who Do You Call When There’s No One to Call?
In 2017, I returned to the Cochamó Valley as an advisor to the Freyja Foundation, a newly formed organization focused on protecting wild places. We were looking for potential conservation projects in the valley. Through my job as a professional climbing advocate in the U.S., I had stayed in contact with Chilean climbers and conservationists and knew that the threats to the valley and the region were growing. There was talk of a huge hydroelectric project on the Río Manso, mounting pressures on the Cochamó Valley through increased visitation, and the threat of real estate development through the construction of a road and subdivisions of existing private properties.
 
We spent our first few days speaking with Daniel Seeliger and Silvina Verdun, an American and Argentinian couple (respectively) who owned a beautiful campground and refugio in the Cochamó Valley and were active conservationists in the region. Their property served as a hub for local climbers, visitors, and a core team of people who lived in the valley full-time, alternately spending their time working on trails, managing campgrounds, building composting toilets, climbing, and running search and rescue operations. The valley had changed so much since I’d last visited! Before, there had only been a few structures for arrieros; now there were refugios, established campgrounds with communal social areas, and a system of trails and hand-powered cable cars to allow the free passage of people and materials. This had all happened organically, without any official centralized agency.
 
Later, I hiked with another member of the Freyja Foundation into the Anfiteatro, one of the main rock cirques high above the valley floor that evokes the walls of Yosemite. We climbed the classic Al Centro y Adentro, a 12-pitch 5.11c route that was as good or better than any I had done before. First climbed in 2012, the route was part of a flurry of new route development that had started after my initial visit in 2003. After many hours of technical and challenging climbing, we arrived at the summit and were rewarded with small pools of pristine water and 360-degree views of mountains and volcanoes as far as the eye could see.
 
 
Climbing in Cochamo. Photo: Brady RobinsonClimbing in Cochamo. Photo: Brady Robinson
 
 
 
Cochamó search and rescue crew is entirely built of volunteers. Photo: Brady RobinsonCochamó search and rescue crew is entirely built of volunteers. Photo: Brady Robinson
 
 
Shortly after returning to the refugio that evening, we heard word of a recent BASE jump accident in the La Junta part of the valley. In Cochamó, there is no official search and rescue crew; all rescues are handled by an experienced group of volunteers. We joined the volunteer rescue crew of about 20 people, a mix of locals and climbers, who had rucksacks packed with emergency rescue supplies. Daniel was the central figure to this rescue, as he was to most of the previous ones. He calmly and expertly organized and directed us. We found the base jumper lying broken along the shore of the Río Junta. He had struck the cliff face he’d jumped off on the way down and miraculously landed along the river, the only level and open area available. While Daniel radioed for a helicopter, we cleared and marked a landing zone.
 
At dusk, the helicopter arrived and took off minutes later with its extra passenger, the medically stable but badly broken BASE jumper. We all let out a celebratory whoop. In the Cochamó Valley, it’s up to the community – comprised of locals and visitors from all over the globe – to respond to emergencies and challenges. While they know when to call for help, they take personal responsibility and act with selfless integrity when someone – or something – is in need.
 
Answering the Call
I didn’t return to Cochamó again until 2022. Like so many others, the pandemic had kicked my ass, broke me down, and forced me to reimagine my life and purpose. After a divorce and a couple of job changes, I had a short, exciting, and ultimately ill-fated flirtation with paragliding, which ended in a crash and some broken bones. While I was healing from the accident, I received a job offer from the Freyja Foundation, where I was still acting as a volunteer advisor. I was incredibly impressed with their work in Patagonia Park, Argentina, and the bold, youthful vision of their president, Anne Deane. The position was a perfect fit, and it felt like the disjointed puzzle pieces of my life were finally falling into place.  
 
One of the first things I did in my new role at Freyja was to call around and see what was happening in Cochamó Valley. The timing, it turned out, was good. A critical 309-hectare (764 acres) property at the mouth of the valley was in danger of being subdivided into 79 lots. Local activists had negotiated at least a temporary detente to the project while looking for a conservation-minded buyer. I learned that a grassroots organization called Puelo Patagonia had been working in the region for a long time and had a remarkable track record of blocking hydroelectric projects and establishing the Cochamó Nature Sanctuary. Meanwhile, the even more local Organizacion Valle Cochamó, with Puelo Patagonia’s support, was managing visitation and public education for the valley and a visitor center, ensuring every visitor had a reserved campsite or would be returning the same day and that everyone carried out all their own trash. Annual visitation had spiked from several hundred when I first visited in 2003 to over 15,000 in 2022. Instead of a disaster of trash, erosion, and human waste, the valley was in great shape, thanks to the vision and dedication of a small group of locals.
 
 
The deep valley of Cochamó evokes Yosemite for many. Photo: Brady RobinsonThe deep valley of Cochamó evokes Yosemite for many. Photo: Brady Robinson
 
 
Flight over Cochamó Valley and the vast expanse of the Pucheguín. Photo: Brady RobinsonFlight over Cochamó Valley and the vast expanse of the Pucheguín. Photo: Brady Robinson
 
 
Rodrigo Condeza, a longtime local advocate, and board member of Puelo Patagonia, told me that the people working to protect the region were all fundamentally the same, even those of us who live elsewhere. “We have all fallen in love with this place. And now we are all trying to find our own way to contribute and protect it. It is as though we don’t have a choice. It is something that we have to do.” That was certainly true for Anne and me. In August 2023, the Freyja Foundation bought the 309-hectare lot to be placed into permanent protection.
 
I returned in December 2023 with several other Freyja staffers to visit the newly acquired property, which includes 8 kilometers (5 miles) of the main Paso El León trail, and to deepen connections with our local partners. After three days in the valley, Rodrigo and José Claro, president of Puelo Patagonia, joined us on an overflight of the area. Our flight path initially took us over the Cochamó Valley, and then we pushed out toward the south, over the vast expanse of the Pucheguín. We saw glacial cirques of white snow and blue ice, hanging lakes and unclimbed mountains, and a vast expanse of native forest speckled with telltale green arrowheads made by the tops of alerce trees. The vastness of the area became a joke during our 1 ½ hour flight. “What’s that?” “Pucheguín.” “And that?” “Pucheguín.” “And that over there?” “Still Pucheguín.” All of it privately owned and unprotected.
 
We landed in Rincón Bonito, a ranch once owned by Doug and Kris Tompkins. As we visited the home they built, I imagined all the conversations and debates they must have had there, the questions and uncertainties they faced. Despite the risks and difficulties, they acted and protected many millions of acres of pristine lands in Patagonia. Now, a new generation of conservationists is rising to play their part. Puelo Patagonia, in partnership with local communities and other organizations, is working toward a future for the Pucheguín region that benefits both people and wildlife, moving beyond the false notion that extractive and destructive industries are the only means of advancing human well-being and economic prosperity.
 
There is no 911 number to dial for conservation. It will take many more decades of consistent effort and passion by thousands of people to protect Patagonia’s wildlife and wild places. Most will never appear in a magazine article, receive a plaque with their name on it, and never get so much as a thank you. But that’s what it takes. The person you need to call is you.
 
 
 

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