El Espejo Mas Viejo: An Unreported First Ascent in Cochamo

I’ve been in Indian Creek for the last week or so remembering how to climb cracks, and catching up with old friends about far away lands. Much reminiscing about Cochamo had me thinking about this story, which I wrote years ago. A very very curtailed version of it that covered the initial anecdote appeared in Rock and Ice as an article called, “The Worry Stone”.
That article never mentioned Cochamo, and the bulk of the story never saw the light of day – ’til now.

‘Stupid’ was the only word I could think of for it.  Who onsight free-solo downclimbs in an area they’ve never climbed in before, anyway?  Of course, most people I know group all soloing into the category of ‘stupid’.  When you immerse yourself in an artform, your appreciation of its nuances grows immensely.  Still, in this particular case, I felt ‘stupid’ still applied.  But by this point, I was committed.

I think if I were six feet tall, I would have been able to simply step down to that sloping gray knob.  But height was not one of the gifts my parents bestowed upon me.  Hence, my fate was to pull the living @#$% out of that small flat crystal protruding from the blunt corner to slowly lower me down that last foot.  ‘Okay’, I thought, ‘here goes’.  Somehow, I pulled both too hard, and just hard enough.  As I tenuously stepped down, I felt the crystal my left hand was crimping break from the wall.  Yet instead of flying backwards to my death, my fingers managed to push the piece against the wall – the flat quartz feature acting now as an extension of my fingertips.  Gently I touched down on the knob, and took my hand from the wall.  To my surprise, neither I nor the crystal had fallen.  I looked in amazement as the crystal clung, as if glued, to my fingertips.  ‘For safe keeping’ I thought, as I slipped the crystal into my chalk bag. Then, as an afterthought, ‘and as a reminder for next time’.  ‘Stupid’, I chuckled to myself, as I made my way down the rest of the wall on comparatively easy terrain, linking gray knob to gray knob like stepping stones in a white granite river.

That was four years ago in Little Cottonwood Canyon, outside of Salt Lake.  For a spell, that little piece of LCC went with me everywhere I climbed.  Many a crux move, hard pitch, or dangerous solo was accompanied by much fingering of that smooth white crystal that rested faithfully in my chalk bag.  Then, finally, I got a new chalk bag.  It had gotten to the point where the old one wouldn’t cinch shut nor open fully, had holes in it, and was threatening to detach from the old piece of cord that carried it the next time I so much as looked at a chimney.  Carelessly, and without thought, I let that little pebble disappear with the chalk bag.  ‘Where is that damned little rock’ was my thought now, as I once again looked down the gullet of a mean little section of onsight free-solo downclimbing with little other options available…

Grant after an exploratory day looking for new routes. [Photo] Chris Kalman

I’d been in Cochamo for nearly two months now.  Grant and I got the killer weather that dreams are made of right off the bat and put up our line, Las Manos del Dia, in the first two weeks of our trip.  Most of the rest of this trip I’d spent waiting out rain, hiking down for gear resupplies, and spending time in the refugio with Daniel Seeliger (the owner of Refugio Cochamo), and the wonderful contingent of family and friends that lived and worked there.  Daniel had lent a tireless hand to Grant and I in the establishing of Las Manos, and deserves a lot of credit for the line’s eventual quality.  It was no hardship spending time with him and the others, but the looming walls of untouched granite mocked me beneath their perpetual rainclouds.  As my trip neared its end, I made one last push up into Trinidad Valley in spite of sickness, general lethargy, and a less than optimistic weather forecast.
They say that all good things come to an end.  So, too, must all bad things.  Miraculously, the weather cleared.  Still, it had been dumping for some time.  About all that would be dry – it was generally agreed by the company sharing sope para uno packets beneath the bivy boulder – were slabs and alpine rock.  Neither of those were great options for the time and place, and so Grant, his lady, and I decided to go spend what would likely be our last sunny day in Cochamo up at the Laguna – a little slice of heaven in the upper Trinidad valley.  I, of course, brought my climbing shoes.  ‘Just in case’ I thought, knowing myself well.

I decided to do a little exploring.  Here was a slab right over the laguna, dry to all appearances, and leading into a narrow slot canyon near the back corner of the pool.  About five pitches later, I’d climbed … I’m not sure what.


Nate’s route above the Laguna rises up the leftmost crack system on the right wall. [Photo] Chris Kalman

One of the many Nate Conroy obscurities that dotted this valley from his various trips here.  The climbing, as is common with Nate’s routes in my experience, was easy, dirty, adventurous, and fun.  Nice!  Less than an hour later, Grant was calling up to me as I downclimbed.

“Yo dude, how was it?”
“Great!  A Conroy classic!”
“I’m gonna run and get harnesses, Katie and I are gonna climb it.”

I asked Grant to grab my harness, and said I’d join them, but changed my mind as soon as I hit the ground.  I felt emboldened by my easy success, and the dryness of the rock.  I couldn’t keep my eyes off the broad featureless sweep of slab that flanked the Laguna on the south side.  It looked almost walkable.  When Grant came back, I apologized for making him grab my harness, told him to stash it there, and explained that I was going to climb the big slab instead.  I’ve always respected and appreciated Grant’s ability to either tell me I had a fool idea, or to simply “get it”.  He looked at the slab, and got it.  “Cool dude.  Be safe.”  I told him I’d be back by sundown.

Up I went.  First I was walking, then scrambling, then, suddenly, I was changing my chacos out for rockshoes.  I looked down.  Even though the last couple hundred feet were hardly climbing, a fall here would not be pretty.  I looked up.  More of the same.  An unbroken slab of granite going rose 800 or so feet to a gully that strikes out for the ridgecrest between Trinidad valley and the Anfiteatro.  ‘Here we go!’

I hit a stride and kept it.  It felt almost as though the only thing keeping me on was the continual push downward of each foot and palm as I made my way upward.  I couldn’t help wondering what kind of precarious stance I would find upon stopping if the climbing should get more difficult.  Basically, it didn’t.  It may have gone from 5.5 to 5.8 here and there, perhaps it was a touch more difficult at a tiny roof I pulled over, but I hardly noticed.  Soloing long friction slabs is a unique experience.  Everything just gets categorized as ‘ok’ or ‘not ok’.  Up, down, left and right all seem equally difficult, and so up you go.  I hit the summit gully in good time, passing a party rapelling another Nate Conroy line along the way.  I asked them how it was.  They told me it was dirty, adventurous, and fun.  I laughed.


After Nate’s route, I began climbing the huge low angle slab in the picture. [Photo] Chris Kalman

I thought about asking this couple if I could downclimb their ropes.  That slab was okay going up, but frankly I was not excited about downclimbing the same 1,000 feet of slab I had just come up.  They told me Nate’s route had some 5.10 section on it, and that the gully further south – the top of which I was heading for – would not make for a great descent either.  I never told those two I thought of asking for their assistance.  I simply smiled, said ‘so long’, and kept going up.

In about an hour, I had scrambled probably another 1500 feet of elevation to the summit crest.  From here, I looked down into El Anfiteatro and it’s massive potential – mostly untapped – for the first time.  I could see the steep and Yosemite-esque Wawalun, and the iconic Cerro Escudo which formed the back of the cirque.  Looking not down, now, but out, I could see the Torrecillas – a small collection of beautiful and impressive agujas – rising above their glacier far in the distance.  My gaze sweeped further south, along the ridgecrest which rose from the saddle I just came up.  ‘Where the hell do I go from here?’, I wondered.  I’d already freesoloed roughly 2500 feet of slab today, half of which was real deal fifthclass, and most of which was previously unclimbed.  My legs felt a little tired.  I didn’t have any food or water.  I don’t think I had a jacket, either.  Like I said, I would be back by sunset.

My options were as follows.  1.)  find some gully to descend into Anfiteatro, search around for the bivy boulder, hang with Danny and JB, and probably scare the shit out of Grant and Katie as I won’t be back to Trinidad for at least two more days (if I even find a good descent).  2.) Downclimb the slab.  Yuck.  3.)  Downclimb the bad gully.  Yuck.  4.)  Top out the Gorilla, summit Milton Adams, and then… ?  Not really an option.  5.)  Continue south along the ridge, get a view of the famed Monstruo (Nate’s current project), continue around the ridge all the way to the back of the Trinidad Valley, and then hike back down to the laguna from there along a series of broken ledges, patches of vegetation, and streambeds.  Number Five certainly seemed the best option.  As I crested the high point of that ridge along the southside, indeed, it even looked as if the whole way would be free of fifth class.  So on I went.

I stopped for a while to gaze in wonder at el Monstruo.  I’m pretty sure it’s larger than El Cap.  It may be less impressive from a climbing standpoint, as it is slightly less than vertical almost the whole way, but from a mediocre freeclimber’s standpoint, that makes it kind of dreamy.  The whole thing looks like it could go at under 5.11.  Still, access is certainly a puta.  Hiking up to the back of Trinidad and then down, I could see now, would be no easy feat.  I found myself again admiring Nate’s boundless energy and sense of adventure.  Where so many have said “looks too hard, too unimpressive, too dumb”, Nate has consistently said “Looks fun!”

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 4.06.55 PM.png

The slab I soloed is the one in the middle-left of the picture, just left of the snowfield shaped like a shark’s fin. [Photo] chilemountains.info

As I cruised down the ridge, my tired legs were appeased by being on easy terrain again.  I had done it! ‘I guess that was an onsight free solo first ascent’, I thought to myself, remembering the blank, unprotected jaunt from earlier in the day.  ‘And a nice descent, too!’ Even as I thought it, my smile started to droop into a furtive frown.  What’s this here?

Up to this point, the broken ridge had been rather broad, and so obstacles were easily avoided by 4th classing down and up again just a little either on the south or north flanks of the ridge.  Now, to my dismay, the ridge had narrowed and bottlenecked at a gently overhung cliff of about forty feet.  I looked South and North.  More than 1,000 foot drops faced me on either side.  On the south side, I could make out no option.  North, there was a brief vegetated downclimb to a brief but splitter fist crack in a perfect dihedral, and then a tenuous step back south to the ridge beneath the cliff.  I walked back up to the edge of the cliff again, and laid on my belly to peer over.  There was an old, sun-worn, decomposing piece of tat – presumably from the Polish climbers who first climbed the Monster years ago.  Nothing else.  ‘Stupid’.  I thought.

I went back to the North side of the ridge again, and considered options 1-4 of old.  None of them sounded at all enticing, especially after adding on the two or so miles I had hiked to get here, and the two or so more to get back again.  The sun wasn’t down yet, but that was another hour or two at most.  All the while, I eyed the fist crack.  The exposure was dizzying.  I figured the crack should be pretty secure once in it, and must go at 5.9 or so.  But getting down to it, you had to crawl out over the edge of an enormous, precipitous drop, using shrubs to help ease your way into the fissure.

I remember essentially gathering my cojones, saying fuck it, and facing up to the situation I had put myself into.  ‘Where is that damned little rock,’ I wondered, reaching for my chalkbag.  (The pebble from the start of the story… Remember the start of the story?)

It was long gone.  I stepped up to the edge, turned my back to the void, and started downwards.  Soon I had all four limbs in the crack – nothing but thin air below me.  The jams were bomber, and rather than curse my situation, I actually thought how fortunate I was to be climbing this short crack, and not any of the other options I had considered.  The crack bottomed out, and right on cue, I found ample hand and footholds to step back left onto the ridge.


A look at my approximate day, after the initial solo of Nate’s Laguna route. The floating arrow points to the approximate location of the final downclimb. [Photo] chilemountains.info

It truly was smooth sailing from there, though I almost got swallowed alive in some of those little Cochamo jungle thickets I encountered heading back to the laguna.  I don’t remember exactly when I started the day, how much ground I covered, or when I got back to the bivy boulder.  The days are long in Cochamo in february, and the only two times that seem to matter are sunrise, and sunset.  I’m pretty sure when I got back Grant and Katie hit me with a couple of warm smiles and sips of scotch, and it probably started raining again right then and there.

‘Scary’ is the word that comes to mind, as I think about how many times after that day in Little Cottonwood Canyon I’ve found myself onsight free solo downclimbing, with or without little pieces of stone warning me against it.  Of course, most people I know group all soloing into the category of ‘scary’.  When you immerse yourself in an artform, your appreciation of its nuances grows immensely.  Still, in this particular case, I feel ‘scary’ still applies.  But by this point in life, I found that I was already committed.  The stupid and scary of not just soloing, but climbing in general, attracted me in a way I couldn’t ignore.  The nuance here is that I’d run up against a specter far more stupid and scary, before whom I cowered and quaked: lying on my death bed, an old and withered man, slowly perishing of some cruel disease, trying to congratulate myself on having lived safely and securely to a ripe old age – but secretly wondering what I had missed… what life really had to offer.


I never reported or wrote much about that route, because I could never in good conscience recommend it in its current state (only free soloable, as there is no gear or bolts on the whole route). Still, for years, I always had a name in mind for it: El Espejo Mas Viejo. It means The Oldest Mirror.

Perhaps, I thought, the oldest mirror is fear… because fear shows you what you look like inside.  Or in Spanish, “El espejo mas viejo es miedo, porque el miedo te puede mostrar como apareces adentro.”

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