Travel Stories

It’s Chilly in Chile

So much to write about over such a long period of time. It is especially easy to appreciate how much can happen in a month when you sit down to write about it and realize that you don´t know where to begin.

Having promised ourselves that we would begin our hike north as if it was a new trail, we were looking for a fresh start, to push hard at the beginning of this 3000-some mile section. As we set out from Los Andes where we last wrote from, all was well. We walked for four days above the Rio Colorado, a river entirely deserving of its name. As we were hoping it would be, the scenery was even more incredible than in the two countries to the north. Almost immediately it became clear that the land is used here in an entirely different way, respected in an entirely different way. Whereas every square inch of land in the north is covered by farms and pueblos, here in the south, it is barren. Aside from the occasional dirt road leading to an exploratory mine site here and there, no signs of human interference can be seen. For possibly the first time, when forced to walk on a road ( because there simply was no other way to go) I enjoyed it. As numerous hawks and eagles would swoop at the thousands of lizards on the ground, with our first views of the Americas’ largest mountain (Aconcagua 6,962 m or 22,841 feet), and an occasional interaction with the very very few people that live up in the mountains, literally having built their homes into the cliffs, it was hard to even notice the long intrusive dirt path.

It was the fourth day of the Rio Colorado section when we arrived at the single most beautiful spot that I have ever stood in my life. As waterfalls cascaded all around me, and the impossibly vertical mountain faces across the way began to glow orange with the light from the setting sun, a wave of emotion came. It may have been that we were now almost atop our second impassible canyon of the day, it may have been the exhaustion after climbing straight up for a long time, but whatever the reason, I lost it. It wouldn´t be until the next day that we would reach the summit of the same canyon and realize that our 1:250000 scale maps (all we can afford) weren´t going to cut it in the mountains of Chile. With no safe way to go, we were forced to descend the way we had come up, losing the entire day, and now running dangerously low on food. Luckily there happened to be a miner driving back to town, the curse of not being able to leave a city behind us would follow us to the second part of this hike, and back to Santiago we went, looking for better maps.

Six days would pass in Santiago as we waited for the US Embassy to open so that we could replace our passports. They were stolen along with Deia´s camera and several other things upon our return to town. Man I love cities. Again putting it behind us we would eventually return to the hike with a new GPS and very ready for the backcountry, very ready to do what we came here for, oh yeah the passports were to be forwarded ahead to the next city.

We entered the desert and almost right away began our climb. We have lately gotten into the habit of leaving from around 3000ft and climbing to 13000 or 14000ft. Although it may seem that we should be in shape and all after hiking as far as we have, I don´t believe that there will ever come a time when a 10000ft climb is easy! As we always do, we pushed ourselves and watched as the lifezones changed with every thousand feet or so. Getting to the top after several days of desert, after scrambling up entirely too steep rock faces, after snowstorms coming out of nowhere, after accidentally kicking a bird, is priceless. Deia and I looked around at the mountains in which we stood as we sat on an unnamed summit somewhere close to the Argentinean border. To the south was Aconcagua, to the east, the massive peaks that mark the border, above us the Andean Condors were reminding us of what it means to be graceful, to the north, our future. When thru-trekking, there are several individual moments that make it all worthwhile. On that summit we had one of these moments. To be able to see how far we had come since crossing in front of Aconcagua, to see where we were going, and to feel part of it all is something that is really hard to put words to. I live for days like that one.

As we had climbed two vertical miles, we would now descend the same to resupply and ramble on. I thank José and Mote for making us stop and enjoy those few beers by their pool. Gotta relax too you know. Being the first people to do this means that we are constantly adjusting our route. As we get to a pass, we look, if one way is better, we go. It was because of this style of travel that we decided to cross the Argentinean border, hoping that our lack of passports and tourist cards wouldn´t be an issue. Up we began, back down we came. Why? Well that would be because the mining company owns the one valley we wanted to climb up. After being apprehended by several miners, we were driven to the next valley to the East from where we would be able to move north, ehhh wrong, this valley was owned by the local vineyards and we would not be allowed to pass without special permission from the boss who would be back in the morning. We camped and got permission, I can´t even begin to explain how many grapes we ate. Soon after getting through the vineyards, my shoes began to degrade. It was around 9000ft that the middle of the sole fell off completely. Cursing the shoemaker who was in too much of a hurry to attach the new sole to the shoe properly (the old one had worn completely) , we made the decision to continue on based on the fact that I could sew the shoe using a device we carry called a speedy stitch. I think it was the next day that our speedy stitch needle broke. Now too far to go back, and unsure of the difficulty ahead, we decided to push on and take what looked to be an easier route further to the East. Daily, I would loose more of my shoe and daily I would do my best to repair it. It was when we finally crossed the last pass of the section taking us back into Chile that the sole finally broke off entirely. Safely, but in pain, we hiked the 26 miles to town to obtain new shoes.

Our return to the trek would be delayed again, this time by a family of trail angles and the magic they brought our way. Famila Álvarez exemplifies the kindness that we have discovered throughout Chile . Inviting us to spend the night, and convincing us to stay for breakfast, then lunch, we thoroughly enjoyed feasting, and getting to know yet another family. The people in general in Chile are incredibly warm-hearted. Several times we have been walking along and approached by a lone gaucho. Probably just lonely for company, the claim that they are looking for their sheep questionable, they ride their horses next to us and ask about our travels. It seems to be a common thing for the twenty somethings here to live by themselves high up in the mountains (excluding the mandatory 5 dogs). They return to their families in the winter, but the summer months must go by rather slowly. All explain that there are rarely if ever people to come by and it is clear that they enjoy the chance to talk to anyone. A few times over the last month we have come upon tiny populations (a family or two) and asked if there is a quicker way to this river or that peak. They always stop what they are doing (usually gutting goats) and vividly point the way. A genuine caring and connection is almost always felt.

We chose to spend the last week of this month-long section walking a bit lower down in the mountainous desert. It is an entirely different experience than walking up high. Water is scarce, heat is not. The climbs have been equally as hard, but the views equally as rewarding. Green valleys of vineyards make the long sections without water that much more rewarding. The two of us are incredibly happy with our time in Chile and Argentina thus far. We have been moving at almost twice the pace as we were up north, and despite some difficulties that have been in our path, we are incredibly excited for the months to come. We guess that we have about 2700 miles or so to get back to where we left off in the Cordillera Huayhuash, and now, at 25 years old (as of Feb 16th), I am incredibly happy with the choices that have brought us here. Be sure to bombard Deia with happy birthday emails on the 27th of Feb. Hope the winter is treating you all well up there, we miss you!

Gregg Treinish