As the saying goes, Yosemite is the Cochamo of North America. Cochamo is unequivocally the most spectacular place for pure rock climbing that I have come across. Big walls, trad gear, and balls of steel. During my six week stint, I hauled my ass up many classic routes, met the most colourful characters, chilled plenty, and perfected disaster style. But something was missing. One of my passions had not yet found its way into the valley and I would be the one to bring it there – canyoning.
With waterfalls and granite aplenty, there must have been many exciting options, but several scouting missions didn’t reveal anything of worth. At last, we found the perfect combination: a six pitch climb leading into a deep cleft, with perhaps four rappels in flow into a lake for a swim back to the start. A multi-sport combination I’d been dreaming of! But, due to unfortunate circumstance, I got abandoned just as we intended to send it.
I was furious and alone. But would not be defeated. I decided to take a chance and explore the Trinidad creek from its source at the aforementioned lake, all the way down to the Cochamo river, La Junta, and base camp. With 700 meters of elevation to drop, it would be quite the challenge. On top of that, all of my overnight gear and climbing kit was with me. Perhaps being stubborn and stupid makes for a dangerous combination…
So in I went. Right from the bivy boulder. Giddy as a schoolgirl with her first vibrator. I marveled at the gorgeous clear waters and stunning scenery of 1000 m cliffs. A couple of low jumps led me to a couple of short rappels, where I first started to realize that I was in for more than I bargained. My pack was too heavy. When free-hanging, my abs could hardly support all that dead weight on my back. The lower I went, the more horizontal I became. My pack hit the ground first.
Oh well, minor obstacle right? Some downscrambles and slides later, I was proven wrong. I was working my way down a slab in a crouched position, controlled sliding. But suddenly, the moss ended and clean granite started. My foot stopped, I didn’t. With all the extra weight adding to my momentum, I toppled over and felt as if something snapped below my knee.
Shit, meet fan. I’d always considered canyoning to be a benign activity, to the point where I was comfortable doing it solo. Well there that was being put to the test. I kept my leg submerged in the cold water to numb the pain for about half an hour and took some painkillers, but it was evident that I could not weight it whatsoever, though it didn’t appear that anything was broken. I would have to sound the retreat and escape the creek. The previously useless hiking stick now became indispensable.
The trail closely paralleled the creek most of the way, but even a hundred meters of that jungle would take forever to cross. But faced with the decision to bushwhack or negotiate slippery boulders I chose the former and bit the vegetation. By some stroke of luck, the relative security of the trail was but a dozen meters away. A short distance downhill, the trail merged briefly with the creek. I would leave my kit here and only proceed with the necessities. Either I’d get better in a few days and come back to finish the descent, or I’d have to bribe someone to come get it for me. In either case, it slowed progress and I could not carry it.
The rest of the day turned to a painful hobble down the trail. And the next few were spent medicating with Advil, beer, and ice. That, interrupted only by a bridge demolition project that my crew would be rewarded for with a pizza dinner at the hut. Still with some lingering pain, but no longer walking with a cane, I got the jump back in my step. I would go back.
I was determined. With an early start, and a sprint up the trail, I was sure to make it back in time for 19:30 pizza. And it was going smoothly. Rap after rap I managed to make off a retrievable anchor and without placing a single bolt. I was efficient and losing elevation quickly. But when things go wrong, they all go wrong at once – I got my ropes stuck four times in two rappels.
It started with a short stepped rappel off a jammed log. I figured simply throwing my short rope around it would do, but it ended up in a pinch and would not pull. I self-belayed up the rope, but each step had a deep pool and a constriction above it with all the flow. Through a contorted battle, I made it back to the wood and rapped again off some tat to the next jammed log. The next rappel would require my 60 meter rope, with my 30 to pull the retrievable.
I coiled my ropes, tossed them, and started down. Half-way down, my anchor rope landed in a shattered log inside the whitewater. Tugging and pleading did nothing to free the end. I had to submerge my upper body with my head, still on rappel, to finagle it out. I was ever so close to abandoning it. Near the bottom of the rappel, the exact same thing happened to my rappel line! Bullocks. A repeat ensued, with increased frustrated yelling. I’d now considered cutting the line, pulling what’s left, and downscrambling. But in another breathless desperation effort I managed to free it.
With relief, I pulled the rappel line and began tugging at my anchor line. It would not budge. You have got to be fucking kidding me! Baaarghh! It would not pull. And treading water, I could not give it the flicks or the fucks it deserved. Done with it. That whole sequence took the better part of two hours. And to make sure I was having fun, there was no natural anchor for the next rappel, nor any solid ground to stand on placing a bolt.
This resulted in one of my sketchier climbs out of a canyon. Ten meters up soaked moss on top of a slick slab is unnerving to say the least. At least I had a deep pool of water to slide back into… Reaching the safety of the veggie belay, I realized it was past 17:00 with at least a third of the canyon to go. Scouting downstream, there appeared to be more committing rappels. I would once again have to make my escape.
I quickly bushbashed back up to rappel in to retrieve my retrievable and jugged back out. To make matters worse, the trail was on the opposite side of the canyon. I thus sought a reasonable spot to climb up the other side, and rapped back into the canyon. The scramble went, but ran me into the jungle. This time, less hurt and motivated by free dinner, I put my head down and bull rushed through the brush.
Unbelievably, the trail again was only a few dozen meters away. Busting out onto the trail, looking like a member of the special forces, I scared shitless some Chilean chuffers casually promenading. All neoprene clad and with battle cries of “PIZZA!” I sprinted down the trail to burst into the hut just as the warm deliciousness was set upon the table.
My project was not complete. Needless to say, I would make my return in a couple of days to continue from where I left off. I re-entered the canyon and then made a stellar 30+ meter rope stretcher off a chockstone. At this point the canyon really opened up into a creek again. The many nuisance rappels and multi-rap slabs have mostly blended together in my memory as the exciting part was behind me now. But as I boulder hopped my way into the Cochamo river, an immense sense of accomplishment and completion came over me.
I had persevered through all the obstructions vying to derail me. I’d spent at least fifteen hours over 3 days to make 25 rappels and establish this route. I opened a canyon in climber’s paradise offering respite and a different serving of adventure. Likewise opening the eyes of canyoneers to establish more first descents in this wonderful corner of the world. I will certainly be back, though I don’t think that I will be canyoning solo again.