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The Diary of a First Ascent: Chapter I

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: Austin Siadak

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.

January 10

Sun rises over distant peaks, bathing the Cochamó Valley in light. Sleepy campers in Valle La Junta stir quietly in their tents, and Cerro Trinidad gleams—1000 meters of white granite lit up and shining. To the west, the hanging walls of El Anfiteatro remain in shadow. Have Austin’s bags arrived yet? Are they in South America at all? I wonder. We parted ways in Bariloche one week ago, as his waylaid bags danced from airport to airport. Now I am out of contact. The morning lazes slowly by, and just as my hope is waning, Austin and Florian come sauntering up the trail into the valley. Tomorrow, the work begins.

January 11

Today we go up to El Anfiteatro. Our packs are heavy, laden with all the gear. There is no time to waste. A four-day weather window spans before us, encouraging quick action. We eat a small snack, pack our bags with food and the remaining supplies needed and hike upwards in the gloaming. Tomorrow we’ll climb. But what? The long curving arête leading to the ridge, the vegetated splitter or something bigger?

At the bivy boulder, a cursory gear sort. Flo is tumultuous in the preparation of dinner. Austin and I are fastidious among the food bags, looking for missing wall food.

January 12

The chucao bird wakes us early. His song is a demented refrain: Work work work work work work work work…. Together we linger about camp, sipping yerba mate after yerba mate. Finally, our thirst quenched, we start up the trail.

The arête looks nice. It will require lots of bolts, no doubt, but will offer easier climbing. Something for beginners, perhaps. But Cochamó always deceives…. Still, it’s worth a shot. Austin and I explore, free soloing in our approach shoes. Flo, a father and husband, chooses to stay on the ground, looking with binoculars at the largely untapped walls that surround us. Tomorrow, we’ll push together as high as we can, going ground-up on the clean slab left of where we climbed today.

Back in camp, nerves and enthusiasm.

January 13

It’s California Blue in the morning. Up we go. Water trickles at the base of the route—an auspicious sign. We fill bottles and head into the unknown.

Ten feet off the deck, it’s time to test the drill. It feels gutless on this compact granite. I bolt sparingly—seven in 40 meters of unprotected slab. Finally arriving at an anchor point, my battery dies as I begin the second hole. A flurry of expletives falls from my mouth like snowflakes down to my bemused friends. My heart recoils as I look up at the knife-edge arête above and think about hand-drilling on lead without hooks, beaks, pitons, bashies, ladders or any other aid accouterments. Our scenario is, essentially, free or fall.

I dance my way up the arête, milking my second battery for all it’s worth, going just far enough between bolts to keep it PG-13. The climbing is heads-up but absolutely phenomenal; tenuous and delicate as it straddles the arête, it changes sides multiple times.

The second arête pitch proves easier—for awhile at least. Four more bolts and a “tree-a-feratta” bring me to a slight pinnacle beneath a bulge in the arête. From here, the going looks grim: an overhanging slab with no apparent protection looms.

Happy with the day’s work and losing light, we fix a rope and head back down to the bivy boulder, rappeling on the single-bolt anchors we’ve just drilled. The slab will wait until tomorrow.

Photograph: Austin Siadak

January 14:

Up the gully and up fixed lines we go. At our high point I take the rack—still no aid gear. I begin up the arête, drilling half a hole before the drill dies. Then, as I fidget, a foot slips, and I fall on an upside-down, shallow purple TCU, amazed to see it hold. Suddenly, I am in a new world of misguided confidence and enthusiasm.

I clip the now useless power drill to the TCU and climb runout munge into and up a disgusting dihedral, capping my efforts with a 5.12 mud mantle. Above the dihedral, the slab bulges again. To my horror, I realize that I cannot reach the low-hanging branches of the trees at the end of the slab, whose trunks provide the only protection in sight. My stance is precarious, and I cannot retreat. With no other option, I begin the hateful task of last-resort hand-drilling a bolt of desperation, 45 feet above my last pro, with 30 pounds of rope drag, from a one-foot stance.

I know I can’t last the entire length of a proper hole, so after less than an inch, I desperately finagle a bolt wedge-deep into the shallow depression. Very carefully, I clip a sling to the hanger, and put my foot in the sling. If this blows, I think to myself, it’ll be a 90-foot bounce down the slab. Fighting to keep my leg from shaking with fear, I stand up, and lunge for handfuls of the low-hanging, centimeter-thick branches I know and love so well.

Continued in Chapter II.

—Chris Kalman

Photograph: Austin Siadak