Three Parks, Seven Days, 30 River Crossings
Hello 2017. Happy New Year from Cochran!
I’m writing you all from a cold little hostel in this sleepy town, which – for being a major stop on the Carretera Austral is only 3,000 people large – isn’t exactly sleeping off a New Years Eve hangover, but certainly isn’t waking up with a clear head this morning. I, on the other hand, am great! Didn’t even come close to making it to midnight. Currently strapped into my chair, the distinct feel of instant coffee residue coating every available millimeter of my inner mouth. What a way to begin 2017.
This past week Tyler and I successfully made our way from Chile Chico to Cochrane with a new friend named Eladio, who works in tourism down here and has been wanting to do the full 120 km hike so that his company, Goluen Patagonia (means, I think, ‘A Lot of Pumas in Patagonia’) can begin programming this trek. This is Eladio. What a cutie.
Our trek began with a pretty epic 60 km drive south along a bumpy gravel road to the Jeinimeini National Park entrance on Christmas Day. The landscape turned from mighty untamed lake to mighty untamed desert to mighty untamed freaking huge jagged peaks covered in snow and melting off rivers and lakes. Eladio’s girlfriend Estephania, who from close observation seems to be the only person in either Chile Chico or Cochrane who knows more people than Eladio, dropped us off, gave us hugs, and chugged back to Chile Chico with our heavy packraft & gear in tow with her. Tyler and I, loaded down with seven days of food, were only carrying 75 lbs of weight rather than the much-anticipated and dreaded 90 total lbs of essentially useless packrafting gear.
So it began. Three days in Jeinimeini, two in Patagonia National Park, and two in Tamango National Preserve. Rather than give you the blow-by-blow, I’ll focus on the highlights and supply some favorite pictures.
Jeinimeini National Park
Tyler and I were turned onto this park by Pancho, owner of a small outdoor store in Coyhaique. It is his favorite hiking in all of Patagonia, and now we know why. There is hardly a trail – the path takes the valley uphill, towards a connecting trail with Patagonia National Park. For two days we followed a riverbed of glacial melt, going from campsite to campsite with wet feet.
After two spur trails and 20 km of park ‘trail,’ Tyler counted 30 river crossings requiring us to, at the minimum, take off our boots and roll up our pants, at the maximum take off our pants and hike up our undies. These rivers are straight from the glaciers dominating the troughs between mountain peaks, and this water is COLD. I’m talking insta-numb toes. But it makes for some generally fun excitement, like, say, picking a bad line and going in to one’s genitals (not naming names here, but I might have cryogenically frozen my spawn).
Also makes the hiking slow. The real pleasure of Jeinimeini is the lack of trail and available opportunity for spur hikes up rivers. Quick Note: hiking along wide river beds is a great way to participate in LNT (Leave No Trace) off-trail hiking, because the only things we’re affecting are rocks, which move around according to the size and shape of the river. Our second day the three of us took a trek upstream a rogue river and made for a tiny glacier-fed laguna that was the milky cerulean of rock-flour sediment reacting with sunlight.
Our third day Tyler and Eladio took another spur trail to another laguna, seeing more of the same beauty, absorbing it in different ways. We crossed over a pass, and then were surprised to actually have a trail to follow. Enter Patagonia National Park.
Patagonia National Park
PNP is the trendy name that Conservacion Patagonica slapped on a large swath of sheep land that was bought by the late Doug Tompkins (North Face founder) and his widowed wife Kris. A finger of the park crooks upwards into the valley that we hiked south, and while there are currently no defined borders between PNP and Jeinimeini one can see where PNP workers have spent serious time carving up a trail to follow. Big cairns, bright ribbons. Little bridges over creeks. Stuff like that. Sleeping at a dilapidated sheep farmer shack that will one day be likely torn apart and used for firewood while a full-service campsite is installed, we woke to rain and mist that disappeared once we hiked into and through a thin gorge.
The river we’d been following became a rapid and for five hours we had the sounds of rushing water to accompany the total silence of the area. We hiked along a plateau with a view of a large, arid valley floor spotted with alpacas (think deranged horses that sound like orgasming cows) and in the distance saw our campsite for the night, which even from four kilometers away looked solid and well built. And yae, verily, it was.
Okay. This is where money is a thing. Camping here was like staying at a campsite in western America, but without all the RVs and paved roads and people. We had a HOT shower, wow, a sink to wash dishes, and a view. (Amazingly, I didn't take any pictures of this area, but fuck it – Google has what you’re looking for) What more could we ask for? We met the campsite host (another Americanized tradition), whose name is Nico, and who we’d drink an absolute nerve-damaging amount of mate with the next morning. Talking with Nico, and later with Daniel (who will appear with the pictures of kittens), we got an idea of what PNP is, what it is becoming (think Torres del Paine 2020), and what the people think about it (mixed bag, because Conservacion Patagonica is not a Chilean company, but they are doing great conservation work). Sorry for all the parentheses. They seemed like a good idea at the time, now I’m not so sure. Pressing on.
We hiked on the road for a while, Eladio making it known that his feet were riddled with blisters. In the valley now, incredibly dry and devoid of water sources for the first time all trip, we each entered various stages of dehydration. So it goes. There were a lot of wide-open views and alpaca herds mooing like hordes of cows in the collective heat of coital embrace, stomping around with all the grace of mentally-addled horses with four left feet, and we decided to try to hitch because things were starting to get a little weird.
So we hitched to the lone trail that would lead to Tamango National Preserve, hiked straight uphill for three hours to an alpine lake, drank water till our bellies were full, and swatted the legions of stinging yellow flies that have thus defined many of our wooded campsites. That night I had an experience of listening – listening hard – for the sounds of humanity, cars, airplanes, anything, for thirty minutes and hearing nothing but birds and bugs and my breathing. I wonder how often I’ll be able to experience that when I return home to North Carolina.
Tamango National Preserve
Hiking out of PNP and into Tamango wasn’t super dramatic, likely because the trail that we were told to follow isn’t exactly a trail but rather a decision by MapsMe to send hikers through the wilderness along a horse path that park rangers like Daniel take when researching the endangered huemel (deer) and puma populations of the parks. We met Daniel, who has worked for Conservacion Patagonica the past 10 years, the night of yellow flies. He invited us to his country home the next morning for mate, and so the next morning, which featured stomach cramps (either the lake water or the 5 consecutive days of lentils and beans) and Tyler, suffering more severely than Elladio or me, on the ground in the fetal position for a while. We walked slowly to the home of Daniel, who is somewhat a legend around Cochran.
He also has kittens. Not being much of a cat person, I was surprised with how much I enjoyed these little ladies. I mean, come on, look at them.
The mate turned into bread eating, which turned into lunch, which turned into a digestion period of conversation, which meant five hours of Tyler absorbing absolute loads of information that was filtered to me over the remaining afternoon and evening. We talked a lot about huemel (Daniel is VERY passionate about these guys), the Greater Patagonian Trail (the GPT creators stopped by earlier that week, surprise surprise), and the future of Conservacion Patagonica, which is figuring out if it has the funds and government cooperation to absorb Tamango and Jeinimeini. Only time will tell. Until then, Daniel wanted to stress to us how important it is to follow established trail, since tromping around in the arid backcountry areas will affect huemel and puma populations, and promoting this sort of travel back home will only exacerbate the issue in future years as more people come to the area. Daniel hopes that in two years there will be a better trail than the horse track we followed into Tamango, so that we can recommend this final section of our hike to friends and family.
It was funny, really, how crappy the Tamango trail system became. Sketchy trail going straight uphill on rock slick with mist, sheer drop offs into Lago Cochrane, few trail markers, etc. But we got to camp, set up as the rain came, and the next morning hiked into Cochrane, wet and cold and exhausted but fulfilled by what Tyler and I agree has been the best week of the trip.
And now? We’re headed back out to Patagonia National Park. In an hour or two. There is a 20 km circuit that we hope to do sometime between today and Tuesday, weather and timing depending. Then we’ll come back to Cochrane, take two days to rest, and begin making our way to Villa O’Higgins, en route to El Chalten, Argentina. We’re coming up on three weeks of what I’m considering the ‘Big Question Mark.’ That is, we don’t really know what we’ll be doing, where we’ll be going, and how long we’ll be doing these things in these places yet undetermined. Being someone who struggles on mental and emotional levels with Question Marks of any size and circumstance I’m not exactly thrilled at the vast openness of opportunity, but am taking this start to 2017 as my next chance for growth and flexibility while traveling. I’ll send out the next update in a week or so, but know that until then Tyler and I are thinking about you all, and hope that you were with loved ones of all variety to close out 2016 and welcome the next year, which is going to be an exciting one. Happy 2017.
Reese & Tyler
Nacho y Tigre