The Cleanest Line


Will it go? Ian Cooper (left) and Robbie Phillips scope the terrain above. When every pitch on a route requires something different than all the others, planning and creativity are crucial. Photo: Drew Smith
Will it go? Ian Cooper (left) and Robbie Phillips scope the terrain above. When every pitch on a route requires something different than all the others, planning and creativity are crucial. Photo: Drew Smith

A Very Real Possibility

By Robbie Phillips   |   Jan 15, 2019 January 15, 2019

On establishing a route in Cochamó Valley that might be too hard—but might not.

It often blows me away, the apparent randomness that sets the paths leading us through life. Just over a year ago, a friend of mine met Crispin Waddie while working on an oil rig in the North Sea. A member of the very first team of climbers to visit Cochamó Valley in the early 1990s, Waddie told my friend tales of towering granite tucked away in the jungles of northern Patagonia, Chile. What are the chances that my friend would not only meet Waddie on an oil rig but that they would discuss Cochamó, one of myriad expeditions Waddie had undertaken? Not only that, but also that Cochamó would turn out to be exactly what I’d been searching for—a beautifully wild landscape at the beginning of its climbing development.

It is now my second season in Cochamó; 11 months after the first and I am back trudging the long, winding trail that leads into the valley. Occasionally I stop to look back, hoping to catch a glimpse of all my climbing gear and five weeks’ worth of food that’s being carried by horse. I’ve forgotten how long the walk is, but not how swampy. My feet are sucked into the deep muddy trail where the clay grips my boots, before finally giving out an almighty squelch, and allowing free passage of my leg into the next stride. It feels endless, but after nearly four hours of mud pools and trenches and wishing for wellies, the trail eases. The jungle dissipates to allow glimpses of blue sky and sporadic granite outcrops. It’s not much farther before we arrive in the meadow and there in the Cochamó Valley, the enormous granite walls of Trinidad, Amfiteatro and La Junta erupt out of the jungle green like ancient, armored Titans.

After finally unlocking the sequence on the 9a/5.14d crux pitch (a long traverse through undercuts to a blank wall with no feet), Robbie finds new hope that it’ll go. Photo: Drew Smith
After finally unlocking the sequence on the 9a/5.14d crux pitch (a long traverse through undercuts to a blank wall with no feet), Robbie finds new hope that it’ll go. Photo: Drew Smith

The physical landscape and climbing style are reminiscent of America’s Yosemite Valley. The lines are long, technical and flowing and favor bold climbers. There is seemingly infinite potential for new lines and a growing number of diehards eager to pioneer them. Cochamó’s climbing scene is alive with energy, much like I imagine Yosemite to have been in the ’60s. Natural gear whenever possible is the ethic in Cochamó, but when there is no gear, placing bolts is accepted. This allows for relatively safe yet ambitious climbing for everyone. Most of the safely protected lines still have runouts scary enough to get your Elvis leg on the go.

Early in January 2017, my climbing partner Ian Cooper and I walked into the meadow and gaped up at the orange overhanging wall of La Junta. It was the first feature we noticed, so overhung it was untouched by rain or runoff. Like upper El Capitan in the late-afternoon light, it gleamed gold. It was one of the easiest decisions of our lives to start making our way up that wall, using a mix of aid and free-climbing techniques. The striking diagonal seam traversing the overhangs was the obvious target; in our minds it was sure to go free. Nobody else shared our confidence. From a distance the seam looked thin, barely a crack if it wasn’t completely closed, but that didn’t worry us; if anything, it made us more motivated to get up there.

Sorting out gear is best done in Hawaiian shirts. Photo: Drew Smith
Sorting out gear is best done in Hawaiian shirts. Photo: Drew Smith

By the end of our first trip we had established a line on La Junta. We knew it was hard, potentially too hard for us, but the climbing was second to none. Like new parents with an infant, so did we care for and love every inch of this climb. We would marvel at the perfection of every move, every sequence, every feature. We knew that there was no better climb on earth; ours was the best, and that was that.

A simple pronouncement, perhaps. But it’s a simple life in Cochamó: no electricity, no running hot water. I, like so many others, live in a world of emails, social media and too much time spent looking at a screen each day. Cochamó is a detox; I leave home wondering how life will possibly continue without 3G, and yet it does: The sun rises, the birds sing. When I wake, it’s not to a beep and a buzz from my phone. The compulsion to check mostly meaningless notifications disappears, and instead I wake naturally to the growing light of the day or the sounds of my climbing partner struggling out of his sleeping bag to brew coffee. As I roll over, the dust unsettles from the earth I’ve been lying on all night, and a puff surrounds me. Life here is dirty in the cleanest kind of way.

Robbie “padding it out on smeary, scrittly granite” on The Skywalker Traverse (we had to look up “scrittly,” too—crunchy, loose, ballbearing-ish). This airy, difficult pitch features pendulum falls “that make for interesting bruises on your ass when you fall off and scrape it along the wall below.” Photo: Drew Smith
Robbie “padding it out on smeary, scrittly granite” on The Skywalker Traverse (we had to look up “scrittly,” too—crunchy, loose, ballbearing-ish). This airy, difficult pitch features pendulum falls “that make for interesting bruises on your ass when you fall off and scrape it along the wall below.” Photo: Drew Smith

Two seasons later we were back, in deeper than we ever could have expected. We spent days swinging about, scraping off the vegetation and the crusty granite eggshell-like exfoliate. With a nut tool we cut the long, fleshy roots that grow incessantly and cling to the insides of cracks. I’ve done more days gardening up there than in my entire life, but there would be no climbing in Cochamó if there was no gardening, so we carried on.

Now that the cracks were clear, we could start climbing for real. Once again, we were quickly overcome by the quality of the climbing on La Junta. So much of it felt truly unique, unlike anything we’d done anywhere else. Every pitch required something special so you had to really think and commit. The footwork was intricate and demanding—smears or tiny crystals or weirdly angled edges that forced bizarre movement. It was sustained, technical. Nothing was ever a given, you could fall anywhere. I loved it.

After a series of technical arête pitches, each more intense than the last, we encountered a superhard 8a+ (5.13c) downclimb; and up high on the wall there is an exposed pitch we called The Skywalker Traverse—because the Force was pretty much the only thing keeping our feet on that granite lip.

Ledge life for Brits consists mostly of brews, biscuits and books (plus a bit of harmonica). Drew’s Porch (discovered and tidied up by photographer Drew Smith) was home base, over 900 feet up the wall. Photo: Drew Smith
Ledge life for Brits consists mostly of brews, biscuits and books (plus a bit of harmonica). Drew’s Porch (discovered and tidied up by photographer Drew Smith) was home base, over 900 feet up the wall. Photo: Drew Smith

That gnarly diagonal seam that we’d seen from the ground turned out to be a perfect undercut rail with nothing but smears for feet, and also, the crux pitch. The climbing was so hard that for a long time we weren’t sure if it would go. Every sequence we managed to unlock felt like Christmas Day, and slowly we realized it just might be possible. There was one section linking both halves of the seam; a burly series of undercuts with poor feet, then a short blank section. We spent days on these few meters, trying every possible combination of the marginal hand and footholds. Slowly it pieced itself together, but there was still one move that we could not crack.

It was my turn up and I took a stab at Ian’s beta, instead of the ludicrous sequence I’d been trying. In one magical moment, I managed to link the whole crux sequence and then we were both yelling our heads off, “The crux pitch goes, boys! It’s bloody hard, but it goes!”

Back at home, in front of a blinding screen, I’m typing away. Back to the sounds of modern life, a cacophony of tips and taps and beeps and bleeps alerting me to what’s happening in my virtual life. But my mind is elsewhere … still drifting through the features of a rock face several thousand miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

Part of me can’t wait to be back battling it out on the wall. Another part is terrified of failing. The saying “Nothing great ever came easy” gives me some comfort, but it doesn’t answer the lingering question, “What if I can’t do it?” I have come to the conclusion that the possibility of failure is very real.

Also, that this is worth pursuing.

This story is featured in the September 2018 Patagonia Catalog.

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