by Miranda Oakley
In January of 2015, a whirlwind of buses, planes, smells, people, sounds and jungle trudging brought me back to the familiar valley of the Cochamó River, in Southern Chile. Cochamó lies in the Northern reaches of Patagonia, in Chile’s Los Lagos region. The landscape is marked by volcanoes, jungle, and mountainous ranges separated by estuaries, fjords and lakes. La Junta is what the locals call the granite filled valleys that most climbers flock to, and it is about a 4 hour trek from the small town of Cochamó. This was my fourth trip to this amazing area, but for the first time I arrived feeling a bit lost and empty inside.
Marco heading up the classic Relampago pitch. Photo: Chris Kalman.
Since my last visit to Cochamó the previous year many things had changed in my life. One was the ending of a relationship of four years. Josh and I lived, climbed and worked together. Climbing with Josh was like climbing with another part of myself. He was reliable, he shared my same goals and he was incredibly aware of what we were capable of as a team. No matter how crazy the objective seemed I knew that if Josh thought we could do it then we could. It’s hard to find that kind of assurance from other partners or from within. I was lonely and afraid of climbing with new people in serious terrain. I was coming to terms with the fact that I might never find a climbing partner as reliable as the one I had just separated from.
While planning my trip to Cochamó I knew that whoever I partnered up with would have a lot to live up to. My friend and co-worker Tesia had expressed interest in climbing down south and I figured she would be a great new adventure partner. Tesia is super experienced on long granite terrain, she’s got a great attitude, and she loves off widths (a major plus not to be underestimated). I convinced Tesia we would make a great team and we threw around ideas of what we could climb together down there. Before I knew it we had both bought flights to Santiago.
After days of traveling by plane, bus and foot I found myself in the familiar, yet ever breathtaking, valley of the Cochamó River. Tesia had already been there for about a week. I could tell that the jungle life had hit her hard as she scarfed down any food I offered her. We discussed goals for the season. I came down with specific objectives in mind but I was scared of confronting them. I was scared of climbing at my limit with new climbing partners. I was scared of having to try hard, scared of getting shut down, and scared of being scared and uncomfortable, out of my element and out of my league. I was terrified of trying really hard and failing. My feelings and ego were in a fragile state.
My main goal was to finish a route that I had started opening the previous season with my friends Chris, Megan and Marco. Chris, my best friend and original climbing partner, had scouted out the new route in February of 2014 while working on another line nearby, called La Aleta de Tiburón. This buttress was tucked up in a gully on an unnamed wall in a sub valley of La Junta Valley called El Anfiteatro. When I arrived the team of three had already made it 6 pitches up the route. Megan was returning to the US shortly after I arrived and Chris was going with her to Puerto Varas. He wanted me to work on the route with him and Marco when he returned. Of course I agreed. Marco and I climbed together and did some work on the first two pitches while Chris was in Puerto Varas. It was March and the climbing season was coming to an end. When Chris came back he was chomping at the bit to get back on the route and take the line to the summit.
The morning we started our summit push was clear and calm. I found myself skeptical that the season was almost over. The climbing felt hard and I struggled on the first few pitches. Chris and I argued about grades. I thought harder while he thought easier. There was some tough lie backing in a corner, a seemingly impossible boulder problem and a sustained steep crack. Marco pulled on gear while leading the boulder problem on the 3rd pitch but Chris was able to top rope it no problem with the drill on his back. I had nothing to weigh me down but the approach shoes dangling off of my harness, so I didn’t have much of an excuse as I took top rope whippers repeatedly at the start of the pitch.
Chris Kalman on the first pitch of Siete Venas. Photo: Miranda Oakley.
Soon we were at the steep twin splitters of the fourth pitch – the crux of the route. The climbing on this pitch is some of the wildest I’d ever seen on granite. You need every tool in the box, every skill that you’ve ever learned climbing to get up it. Chris seemed to be giving it his all, as he usually does. Marco and I thought he was going to send, as he pulled through the low crux, and then seemed to have finished the upper crux, but at the last moment we heard cursing and a whoop, as he took a big old whipper instead. It was a valiant attempt but I could tell he was bummed.
Marco led the 5th pitch, also known as the “relampago pitch”. A wide lightning bolt shaped crack divides the steep upper head wall into two sections of chimneying separated by an airy hand traverse. This pitch can be seen from far away in the valley below, and was Chris’s original motivation to go and check out the line. The chimney is a yosemite-esque 5.9 squeeze, and you almost need a headlamp to navigate inside it. This was one of our favorite pitches of the route, even though the climbing was comparatively much easier.
On a ledge we rested as we noticed some darker clouds floating in. The weather window and the season were both coming to a close. The next pitch was probably the worst of the route; dirty, crusty 5.9. I was just starting up it when the rain began. I got to the top of the pitch to find a beautiful knife blade ridge connecting us to another couple hundred feet of vertical climbing. By that point the small misty rain had turned into fat drops. The rock, the rope, my down puffy (I didn’t bring a rain jacket) and everything else was soaked.
Only the unknown was ahead. No one had made it past that pitch. Chris was dead set on continuing up in spite of the rain. I was wet, cold and we already had a long night ahead of us but I knew it would be easier to keep going up than to argue with Chris. When Chris gets into those kinds of moods he is impossible to argue with. Marco didn’t realize this and he was trying to be responsible (and reasonable, perhaps) by pushing for the bail. We compromised by letting Chris go ahead with the next pitch, fourth class ridge traversing, because it could be easily reversed and it would allow Chris to see the climbing on the next few pitches. As he set off, the rain was just starting to let up.
My teeth chattered uncontrollably while I belayed Chris as he tip toed across the ridge. There were screams of excitement when he got to the other side. Splitters. More than one. He was practically jumping off the ledge. My fantasies of making dinner over a warm fire quickly deteriorated. But the rain had almost completely stopped and the sun was poking through the distant clouds. It was on its way down and golden light illuminated our upcoming pitches. I knew we had to go on.
Miranda following the 4th class ridge as the cloud break, and the headwall bathes in golden light. Photo: Marco Hardgrove.
Two more pitches and a few hundred feet of scrambling got us to the top. It was well after dark when we got there and we still had a lot of work to do. It took us hours to get down as we drilled and equipped anchors on the way. In the end we ran out of bolts, drill batteries, good weather and time. The result was anchors made of wedged knots, slung blocks, and single bolts. The plan was to come back in a few days, but the season was ending and no more windows opened back up. Chris is normally unstoppable but the weather was bad and showed no signs of getting better. He retrieved the gear in the middle of the night when the storm broke, and the three of us left Cochamó. We had been coming to Cochamó for the last few summers so we figured we would finish the route together when we came back next summer.
It is amazing, and sometimes terrifying how life can change in an instant. What we planned on last year would not come to be. In August, Megan’s dad was diagnosed with a fast-acting form of lung cancer. In September, scans revealed that the cancer had spread to his lymph system, and had also formed tumors in his brain. Like the dark clouds of Patagonia, cancer can come in quickly, at random, and destroy your world. In spite of Kevin’s extremely healthy lifestyle, and relative youth, he succumbed to the horrible disease, and passed away the day before Chris had been planning on flying down and a few weeks before I did. Megan’s family suffered a loss that seemed to make no sense.
I was sad when I heard that Chris and Megan were not able to make it down this year, but I knew that staying in Maryland would be the best choice for both of them. As the only person from our team returning to Cochamó, I felt much more responsible for the outcome of our route. I promised them I would finish equipping it. Although we had already summited, a Cochamó route never feels finished until it is fully equipped and safe for future ascents. That is simply the Cochamó way. Chris told me that I should free it but I couldn’t promise that (although Chris was certain I would send). I knew that with all they were going through the outcome of Siete Venas was not a concern for Chris and Megan but I figured it was the least I could do. Having made that promise may have helped me more than it helped them. It gave me a sense of purpose for the trip, which it turned out I desperately needed.
Tesia and I decided to do some climbing around the area to familiarize ourselves with the rock and get used to the odd but bombproof granite that makes up the Cochamó Valley. Cochamó has a way of sneaking up on you and crushing your budding ego. If you think you can climb 5.12 you might get shut down on 5.10 or even 5.9. We sent some climbs and bailed off of some climbs. I had a minor breakdown on one route. Not sending can hurt. The bit of confidence I had when I had arrived was waning. This was no Indian Creek, Red Rocks or Yosemite Valley. I found myself in the exact position I was dreading; out of my element with a shattered ego. I questioned whether I should have even come on the trip in the first place. I wanted to go home.
Thankfully Tesia was there for moral support. She suggested that we just start working on Siete Venas. She said that it would give me a sense of purpose. The route still needed bolts for rappel anchors and awaited a free ascent. I bought ten bolts from Danny – an American expat who purchased land in La Junta along with his Argentinian wife Silvi, and began the Refugio Cochamó, and also the area’s most prolific first ascentionist to date. I borrowed bolting supplies from my friends Grant, Hannah and Sam. After a quick tutorial about how to place a bolt over mate, I was ready to go back up to the Anfiteatro. As I hiked up the curving jungle trail, I had a new spring in my step, and a deeper sense of purpose. Tesia was right.
El anfiteatro is an amazing amphitheater of beautiful granite, and is one of my favorite places to climb in Cochamó. There I was reminded that the climbing was only a small part of why I come back to Cochamó year after year. The jungle living and the people does even more to ease my frantic soul than climbing the granite peaks. The simplicity of life is time consuming and rewarding. We sleep in caves made of fallen boulders, we cook our meals over a small fire pit equipped with alerce benches and fire blackened pots and pans. It’s easy to spend hours at the ‘Bivy Boulder’ shooting the shit with interesting folks from around the world. This is the best part of climbing. Water is normally plentiful here but since the season is so dry we have to walk a few minutes to fill up our bottles. The stream shrinks every day that there isn’t rain, and I find myself worrying about the tadpoles that inhabit the small pools of water that we drink from. Will they grow legs before the pool dries up?
Humans and frogs alike hope that idyllic pools like these will not dry up, but summers are hotter and dryer than ever. Photo: Miranda Oakley
On the morning we were supposed to start the route Tesia could not get out of bed. She was laid up with a stomach sickness that had been going around, perhaps due to the tadpole water we had all been drinking from. I recruited friends, Sam and Cooper, to belay me on some pitches as I fixed lines. The first few pitches were hard as anticipated. It was late in the day when we started so I pulled on gear in order to move quickly. I arrived to the top of the third pitch to find one bolt and one half of a bolt hole; evidence of running out of time and drill batteries the year before. Sam got up to the anchor and quickly got to work on the bolt. I was glad to get the crash course on hand drilling. We fixed our lines to the two bolts and were on our way down just before sunset.
With the first few pitches fixed Tesia and I were able to move quickly the next day. Arriving at the third anchor I was faced with the free climbing crux of the route. I wanted to give it a good onsight attempt but before I even reached the crux I got mega pumped and asked Tesia to take. “Are you sure?” she asked. I was. Something wasn’t clicking. I tried again and again, and even tried to aid (which proved just as difficult). I barely made it up the pitch, not boding well for my free attempt. I tried not to worry about it and focused on getting work done. At the top of the fourth pitch we found a slung crack. Tesia and I each drilled a bolt. Not bad for our firsts. Chris had wanted to make the route possible to rappel with one 70 meter rope. That meant bolted anchors or slung features for rappels every 35 meters at the most.
Drilling bolts the old fashioned way. Photo: Tesia.
We continued up adding bolts for anchors where it was necessary. Hand drilling bolts was tiring and time consuming. As the sun started to sink behind the granite peaks in the distance, we established another unfinished anchor at the top of the 6th pitch. With most of the work behind us, we stashed the bolting kit just in case we needed it for the upper pitches, and headed back down to the bivy boulder.
The next day Tesia and I returned to La Junta for a few days of wet weather and to resupply on food. With some extra time to think I became obsessed with Siete Venas. I was no longer going to be satisfied with finishing the route. I had to free it too. Despite how poorly my first attempt went I was pretty sure it was within my abilities. I’ve always been good at staying positive but the support from the community was huge for my attitude. My friends in Cochamó wanted me to free it and, somehow, they knew I could. I lost sleep at night thinking about the moves. I also worried that I was setting myself up for disappointment. I reminded myself that as long as I tried as hard as I could it would be a success.
After some rest, Tesia and I returned to the route. I sent the first pitch for the first time on lead. I fell a couple times on the boulder problem at the start of the third pitch, but eventually was able to pull through and sent the pitch. Before I knew it I was faced with the crux. Having redpointed all the pitches up to there I couldn’t help but feel pressure to send. I told Tesia that if I fell I would lower back down to try the pitch again.
Tesia striking a model’s pose high on Siete Venas. Photo: Miranda Oakley.
I thought I would at least make it to the upper crux, but no amount of screaming and bleeding would see me through, and again I fell on the lower crux. I didn’t lower back to the anchor. I didn’t have the energy. After a few minutes of dangling in space I pulled back up to the rock and did the move. The crux didn’t get any easier. I managed to do the moves, and brought Tesia up to the anchor. I was crestfallen, after so much work, not to have sent but we kept climbing up. We topped out that day freeing one more pitch at 5.10d that had been aided the year before due to rain and wet moss. On the way down we placed one more bolt at a rappel anchor (it was a good thing we had stashed the bolting kit). The route was finally ready to go – bottom to top. You could safely rappel it with one 70 meter rope. All that was left to do was free it.
After some rest it was time to go back up for my final attempt. I knew I was able to do it but it would require perfect conditions, both psychologically and meteorologically. As I said before, the FFA would be icing on the cake. The hard work had already been done but I was feeling greedy, I wanted the icing. I had already stayed longer than I had planned and invested so much hard work that I wasn’t sure if I would be able to leave without it.
I climbed the first few pitches without a problem. They felt easier than ever before. The air was a bit cooler which was encouraging. I quickly got up to the first crux, pulling through the twin finger cracks to the roof. The overhang gave me almost as much trouble as before, but I desperately wedged half of my hand into the shallow crack just above the ledge, and committed to the move. My foot was high in the crack below me, almost to my armpit, when it slipped. I screamed, but just barely managed stayed on, and was relieved when I finally pulled over onto the ledge. My hands were bloody and my forearms felt full of lactic acid but on that ledge I could rest for ages before the true crux of the route. Perhaps it was the cooler temperature that day or having gotten the previous pitches first go without having to try them over and over but the crux on that particular day didn’t feel so hard. I delicately toed in on tiny potato chip edges and contorted my body just right to move through the awkward bulge. Before I had time to grunt or scream the crux was underneath me. I could barely believe I had sent the pitch. I climbed the final short section of 5.10 to the anchor, and breathed a sigh of relief. The route was finished. Siete Venas had finally gone free.
Send or no send I always try to be happy when I give it my all. But giving it everything and sending is always the best. Siete Venas was my biggest project yet. It took everything I had emotionally, physically and mentally. It forced me to overcome and re-evaluate what I am capable of. Although I used every muscle fiber in my body to send the crux, the rock climbing itself was a small part of the experience. I threw everything I had into it; money, time, emotions, but my involvement was just the tip of the iceberg. Chris, Megan and Marco spent precious time and energy opening the route in an area where both are in high demand. Tesia selflessly contributed hours of work and much needed emotional support. I would not have done it without her. The community of Cochamó supported and guided me when I was lost and looking for encouragement and advice. I was lucky to be a part of this inadvertent community effort. My favorite climbs are the ones that remind me how fortunate I am to be a rock climber and why I do it. On my journey down to Cochamó this year I learned, once again, that it’s everything else that makes rock climbing awesome. The community that spans the world, the stripped down and traveling thousands of miles to keep promises to people so close to my heart is what makes rock climbing what it is. For me Siete Venas was a culmination of all of these things. It was a wild journey on steep alpine granite that exposed me to the harsh realities of life in an ever changing world.
Thanks, Miranda, so much for all the time and energy put into this story, the drafts revisions, and edits, and for sending the route! While I think that you may have overstated my skills or “unstoppable”ness, I am honored at your compliments, and proud to call you a friend. I’ll share a rope with you any day.
If you liked Miranda’s story, you should tell her! Miranda is a climbing guide in Yosemite Valley. She’s a crusher, a hilarious person, a good cook (albeit a bit heavy handed with the salt), and a good friend. Go find her, and buy her a beer.
Also, if you have stories of your own you’d like to share, send them on over! Just use the contact form, and let us know the tale you’d like to tell!