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The Diary of a First Ascent: Chapter II

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Florian Haenel, Chris Kalman and Austin Siadak explore the walls that ring Chile's Cochamó Valley, finding that nothing is as it first appears.

Photograph: Chris Kalman

In January of 2014, Florian Haenel, Chris Kalman and Austin Siadak travelled to Southern Chile’s Cochamó Valley to establish a new route on an unclimbed wall. Their goal would not be to establish the hardest line of their lives, but rather the easiest one. What they found, however, is that nothing comes easily in Cochamó. This is the diary of their first ascent.

Continued from Chapter I.

The branches hold my weight! Exhausted, and elated, I fix the line and rap back down to Flo and Austin. Our day is done. On the way down, I grab the sling that saved me, and with a casual flick of the wrist, yank out the first piece of aid on the route—sling, carabiner, hanger, bolt and all.

January 15:

Today Flo shines. He works through a tough chimney with a minimum of cursing and struggle, making dirty exit moves onto the slab. Five meters without gear, and he unearths some questionable C3 placements, then brings out the hammer and pitons. Donk donk donk donk donk—the shallow pin reaches its terminus without ever changing in pitch. I shudder as he makes difficult lunging moves, higher and higher above the nest of marginal protection below. Just as I begin to really worry, he shouts victoriously.

We all exchange hugs at Flo’s anchor, enthusiastic after his harrowing lead. An hour of climbing and scrambling later, and we stand upon the summit of Cerro Laguna, feasting upon a 360-degree panorama of plunging valleys and snow-capped peaks. As we descend, we are all lost in thought, considering the implications. We have opened a new route on a previously unclimbed wall, summiting in 3 days by mostly R and X rated climbing, with no reasonable rappel line and very dirty pitches. If we choose to stick with this line, the work is far from done.

January 16:

Not even the chucao can stir me from my sleepy vigil, and I laze in bed long into the morning after Flo and Austin have gone to town. It is a rare luxury to pass a Cochamó rest day in sunlight, and I lounge happily in the warm glow of early afternoon, thinking of friends and familiar faces in the valley below. My dream was to open a line that even beginners could climb. We have taken the first step, but we are not finished. I know that I, at least, must continue.

Austin and Flo come back to a hot meal and my decision to continue with the work of cleaning the route. With only two weeks left and a closing weather window, Austin is on board, rain or shine. Flo, a new father and husband on a short break from family life, is understandably more excited to spend his days climbing than cleaning, yet he endures my stubbornness admirably and commits to finishing the route. Everyone is on board!

Photograph: Austin Siadak

January 17-21:

Low on food and with heavy rain, we all leave together for town, running through the deluge half-naked to Flo’s car at the trailhead. Flo loses and finds keys, has car problems. We soldier on.

Back up to Cochamó for Flo’s birthday. Hanging on wildly to a hammock with arms outstretched, and neckveins bulging, Flo becomes Grendel-like: huge and indecipherable in a drunk Bavarian stupor, singing untranslatable pseudowords to non-chords on the guitar, passes out vomiting and then dry-heaving. A squabble ensues and everyone disperses. Flo does not die in the night from aspirating his vomit, and in the morning, apologies all around.

January 22:

Austin and I head back up to El Anfiteatro with fresh drill bits and a good forecast. Flo stays down in camp recovering from his resaca. Pitch 2 gets bolts through a dirty but dry slab. The manjar corner—the dirtiest pitch of the route—gets its first bout of brushing. Flo arrives in the evening to everyone’s surprise.

January 23:

Today, Flo wakes up feverish to be done with the line. He is already on Pitch 3 cleaning when Austin and I arrive. We pass him joyously and head up to Flo’s impressive pitch seven runout—5.11? 5.10+?

On the way down, we find that Flo has completely exhausted a sturdy and brand-new wire brush through manic and aggressive cleaning. Undeterred by the now useless brush, he continued cleaning with a bundle of leafy branches from the trees above the manjar corner. His work is that of an artist, and I am amazed to find the corner now not only clean, but climbable, well-protected and only 5.10.

In the end, the line splits up into 11 pitches with a long scramble to the summit. 525 meters of climbing. Not bad at all. We smile knowing the work is done for now (though I know from times past there is always more to do). After staring at the triangular wall, previously unclimbed, we settle on names. The wall becomes La Aleta de Tiburón, and the route shall be known as El Filo La Aleta de Tiburón: The Shark Fin Ridge.

February 8:

Over a week has passed in a bleary, gray, wet, hopeless blur. The persistent downpour has tested everyone’s spirits. Still, we all make it out alive. What we did in all this week of waste, it is hard to say. The river rose with great success. The sky froze in gray excess. We neither wrote poetry nor climbed nor danced or sang. Somehow, the days went by, and the bad weather passed, unaware of any sort of hitch it had put in our plans.

The weather during these endless rain spells misleads and confuses me. The sky brightens, so I look up from my book , but it only rains the harder. I go back to the book, and it becomes too dark to read, yet looking up again, the rain takes pause. When the rain really stops altogether, the trees with their branches and leaves let go of their holdings, and the subsequent drops are larger and louder than those that came from the clouds. With the color of daylight always oscillating back and forth from silver to golden, it is impossible to tell the time. There is only the deep, dark black of night and the hopeless gray of day. Flo and Austin’s lives take them onwards, and they leave Cochamó having climbed little beyond our route.

February 9:

Finally the sun breaks through. Everyone stretches happily, like cats. Cattle low and move around as if everything has always been the same and always will be. My girlfriend, Megan, who arrived just in time for the rain, is excited about the prospect of climbing our new route. It would be a test for her, but I think we can do it. We pack food and gear for three days in El Anfiteatro and head up.

February 10

In the morning, I am hurrying Meg about, wanting to get moving. Intent on sleeping on the summit, we malinger around camp packing all the amenities for an overnight. Megan climbs incredibly well, and with a heavy backpack to boot. Right at sunset, we reach the perfect bivy boulder in a high notch between the two summits. There is a little trickle of snowmelt, just enough for dinner and hot drinks.

Meg consumes more than I have ever seen her put down in a single sitting, and it makes me happy. While I am cooking, she arranges the bed, which we collapse into immediately. Meg gets the sleeping pad, and I settle into a rope bed. We both see the same shooting star and then fall deeply asleep.

Photograph: Chris Kalman

February 11

An unfathomable sunrise—a perfect morning lazing in the sun. Below, the valleys sleep enveloped in clouds. Without Megan’s urgings to linger, I know I’d be down there too, and I am grateful to have this time with her. From the summit, only beauty is visible. It is impossible to see a single sign of human civilization, and here, only the works of Pachamama are visible—deep, relentless beauty.

I feel a deep sort of peace settle in over my past month here and all my efforts on the Shark’s Fin. Megan found the route rather enjoyable, and after all, she was really able to climb it. It is many things for her: the longest route she has ever climbed, the most remote summit she has ever stood upon, the first thing she ever climbed in Cochamó and her first time sleeping on a technical climb.

I smile knowing that for many climbers, El Filo la Aleta de Tiburón can be just as meaningful for them as it was for Megan and as it has been for me. It feels good knowing that. In the end, that feeling of achieving something you have never achieved before is what stands out the most. It is precisely that feeling that this special place has shared with me again and again, and that keeps me coming back each Austral summer, looking for new routes and ways to distant summits. The climbing is really just a blur.

All memory is erased by the passing of time, the changing of seasons, the interminable rain of the Valdivian rainforest. These routes we open will but barely outlast the memory of their creation. So long as they are repeated, the stories of their first ascent will be remembered, at least by some. The stories become as important as the features of the stone, which tell their own stories, too. Those routes whose story is worth telling, whose fabric is metaphor, whose tailor is human emotion, they will outlast all the rest. Then they, too, will be reclaimed by the unsleeping forest, as mountains crumble; and the forest, too, will sleep in time.

—Chris Kalman