Monday, January 03, 2011

Viva Chile!

The stream below us
Less than four weeks had gone by since I had first arrived and I was rushing to meet "Red" downstairs. Two days prior he had said on the phone that in order to beat the Santiago crowd we'd have to leave early, which was fine to me because I wanted to beat the hot sun as best as we could. I figured he'd have me meet at the end of one of the subway lines at 7am so that we would have an easier time getting a collectivo (fixed-rate taxi) to San Gabriel in Cajon de Maipo, which is a deep, rural, and narrow canyon just to the southwest of Santiago. A day later I recieved an e-mail with the details: "Bring lunch, water, 3,000 pesos for the collectivo, and I'll pick you up at 9am."

And thus, for the first time, the notion of time in Chile had finally settled upon me.

On a normal day the street outside my window is so loud that I cannot have the window open when I'm in the room. Vicuña Mackenna is a major street that heads south away from the western edge of Santiago proper (Plaza Italia), and it's four lanes of normal traffic combined with two lanes of bus-and-taxi-only traffic roar from morning until night, often keeping me awake until the earplugs go in. I walked out into the burning morning sun, shook "Red"'s hand, and crossed the street while hardly looking both ways while our pedestrian light was red. Within minutes we were sitting on our packs on the subway and heading south.

"Red" coming up the final climb
Getting to Espalones San Gabriel, which is one of the lower and easier-to-get-to sections of the larger San Gabriel Mountain area, was fairly easy. We took the subway first to Vicente Valdes and then to Los Mercedes where we then squeezed into a four-person collectivo with three other people in it (driver inculded) for the hour's ride to the small "border" town near the end of the valley. For 2,400 pesos (or about US$5.00), despite the fact that it was a bit cramped, the ride was definitely comfortable, even if somewhat long. At one point when we dropped off two of the original passengers (leaving "Red" and me with the driver), we soon picked up three other people, which then made six people in the car, and I was glad to not be the girl sitting on her boyfriend's lap. But that only lasted a few minutes, and soon after that the most complicated part of the ride brought us to our destination. What was complicated about it? Knowing where to stop before the town of San Gabriel and, at least for me, being able to communicate that in Spanish. Thankfully "Red" knew where to go. However, for anyone going there, if you simply say please stop at the small stream / bridge a few minutes before the town of San Gabriel, then you should be fine.

We got out into the warm air under the cover of clouds and crossed the street. A couple of passes through two barbed-wire fences later and we were following the remnants of the old path upstream and into the small canyon where the cool stream originates. There were a few families with day tents set up on the bleached white rocks along the bank of the stream and a group camping in the shade on the trail itself a few paces uphill. Sharp thorns scratched my bare legs and arms, and we boulder-hopped the stream a few times in search of the path. "Red" knew exactly where we were going, but it was a couple of winters ago when the precipitation was high and the canyon flooded and new, small, and calf-deep streams formed amongst the rocks and green vegetation around us. The old path had mostly collapsed, but once we found it we discovered that it was still walkable.

Our first climb of the day (5.5)
It tooks us about twenty minutes to get to the base, with the bulk of that time being spent carefully working our way up the steep scree field and loose dirt above that. But we finally made it to the alcove at the base. Even though it was cloudy, it was nice to be in the shade. I decided to not put the sunscreen on, and while I definitely turned red when the sun came out later in the day, I was lucky in that I didn't burn. Again, in Chile, time is another matter when it comes to the sun: one may not feel it, but one will later on if one isn't careful.

"Red" wanted the first pitch of the four-pitch 5.5 that loomed above us, so he went up the low-angle slab until he pulled a steep corner and made a belay on top of a leaning boulder about fifty feet up. I went up and switched gear when I got to the top. The second pitch looked a dandy with nice horizontals and a large overhang (or small roof); just like the 'Gunks where I had learned to love roofs after hating them at the start. To me, this was the money pitch, and I appreciated him letting me take the honor.

While I belayed him up the second pitch, I looked around at all the rock that surrounded us. "Most of it has never been climbed," he said when he got to the anchor. "A lot of rotten rock; one would have to be bold to go up there."

An unfortunately sun-bleached look at only a small
portion of the upper gorge
To me, it seemed an opportunity, so even though getting to the upper faces seemed dangerous, while I belayed him on the third pitch I also studied the various ways to get up to where it seemed the climbing could potentially be excellent. Nothing was apparent at this point because there was another face just to the climber's left that was blocking my view. This face had a 5.9 on it that "Red" suggested we tackle if we had enough time. I hadn't climbed since October and was a bit worried that he was going to ask if I wanted the lead at a grade that is still difficult for me on gear. The one thing going in my favor was that he had to get back to Santiago at a reasonable hour to take care of his dog, which, out of courtesy, he didn't want to leave with his neighbors for too long. But after I came up the third pitch and led the heinous rope-drag, but easy final pitch, and after the dirt glissade down the loose ground back to our packs, he asked if I wanted to give it a go. Again, time was a subjective concept.

The 5.9 that turned into a 5.7 by the end
What convinced me in the end was that he had said the upper crack system was the easy part, and that the lower section was more about face climbing, which I was better at. The start was also protected by a bolt and there was obviously good gear above that. After eating lunch and taking care of some other business, I started up and climbed the whole way about as delicately as I could. First, I did so because I didn't want to rush into the crux and take a fall. I believe that "Red" will be a good, trustworthy partner, and with time (there it is again) we'll probably build a good partnership. Climbing together on the easy route and, really, just by conversation alone, I could tell that he knew enough to keep me off the ground if I fell, but this was also my second climb with him and it was at a grade that has been a challenge for me in the past (I had a good year of climbing and maybe I've moved past this crux of a grade on gear, but I don't believe that should be determined until I've onsighted 5.9 more). Not falling was a priority. Also, the sun was in my eyes, so I couldn't see more than a move or two ahead of me. However, the final thing was that I'm simply not good at crack, and even though I've managed to have a decent crack session or two this past year, I wasn't convinced that the crack above was going to be as easy as "Red" made it out to be. A 5.10 face climb is often easier than a 5.7 crack to me, so being careful was of utmost importance.

It turned out to be rather silly in the end, however. While the climbing felt sustained, the gear was about as bomber and plentiful as a crack in Indian Creek (if one has the same size cam, of course, but even then, this was better than that because there was gear of all sizes all over the place). It wasn't until I was actually two feet from the top when I realized that I was, in fact, at the top, which made me quite happy because I felt that I was moving too slow until I saw where I was. But then again, as I thought to myself, "Time isn't quite what I thought it was earlier in the day."

The top-out was easy, the bolts were easy to find and, despite the fact that my anchor-building skills were a bit rusty (the anchor was fine, but I wanted to set it up so I could see him climbing and I did that rather inefficiently), he was at the top with enough time for us to rap off, walk back toward San Gabriel, and grab a couple of beers and empanadas.

It was a good day, but one thing that had piqued my interest more was that at the top of the final climb, before we rapped off, I was able to look for possible approaches to the upper faces that were deeper in the gorge. While I may not know for some time if it is possible, I do believe that I found a way to get up there. "Red" wasn't so sure, citing large blocks around it that could possibly be loose and merely balancing on the edge. I can't disagree with that analysis, but I was happy to have seen something at least, and seeing something that gives even a tiny bit of hope, I think, is enough to keep the mind flowing.

It should be noted here that Chile has been rather difficult at times, even if it has been incredibly fun, too. I don't yet speak the language and have on occassion felt alone and more un-alive (if I'm allowed such a word) than simply dead. My writing is going well, and for that I am appreciative of the lonliness. If I put my mind to it, I can face solitude and be content with all that is around me, but I'm less inclined to do that with so much amazing rock around me, both climbed and un-climbed. While writing is my life at this point, climbing is my sanctuary: without it, I will go mad. And unlike patience in a vaccum, I will be dead sooner than I will have been alive in no time at all, and life is a priority that I had yet to find in Chile.

The empanadas, however, were good. They were definitely hot in the middle, but as "Red" said to me, "It's the mud ovens that make it work. I'll never buy one in Santiago for that reason," I couldn't disagree with his assesment of the quality, and probably can't disagree with the method either. It was the best empanada I've ever had (of the few I've actually had), and it wasn't even the kind I like, either.

After about an hour of rest in the shade of talking climbing grades, where the good rock is, where the great FA opportunities are, how to buy more gear, if a wall is in our future, we headed off to find a collectivo to take us back. Unfortunately, there were none, so rested in the shade at the border patrol station (yes, since San Gabriel about the last major town in the valley before the border with Argentina, which is still about twenty miles away, there is a very modest border station that is not very strict with policing who comes and goes, mainly because there's no point) and waited for a good forty-five minutes before I suggest we walk to San Gabriel itself to see if there was any more traffic there. It took me by surprise when the small street we were walking on happened to be San Gabriel. I felt a little foolish for making the suggestion, but we did learn that there were no collectivos to be found. As a result, an empty bus came upon us and, when it stopped and opened its doors, "Red" asked me if I wanted to take that instead.

"It'll be cheaper but much more crowded as we get closer to Santiago," he said.

"There are no collectivos," I said, "so we might as well take the bus."
Cajon de Maipo
We hopped on the rickety chassis and squeezed our bags with us into the tiny seats on the sunny side of the bus. "Red" fell asleep and I remained awake, suffering the onslaught of the loads of passengers who ended up standing over us after all the seats had been taken. To stretch my legs meant to kick a kid in front of me. To pull my legs in meant to knee the woman standing beside me. To lean back meant I had to hold my pack from falling over as we flew at the-driver-knows-these-roads speeds around all the sharp bends that make up the road into the canyon. To lean forward meant smelling the shit paper at the top pouch of my bag after it had sat in the sun for a couple of hours. When "Red" finally awoke, I told him square that if he ever asked me again which to take, and if I ever said the bus that he was to "hit me, hard, preferably somewhere between the cheekbone and the jawbone." He laughed, we took the subway home, and parted ways with the understanding that I wanted to climb every weekend if he wanted to. He seemed game for that, too, and that's when I first felt alive in Chile.


Nico Jah said...

Further up the Cajón you can climb granite as Las Melosas. There is a great 5.9 in the middle. You need to find the topos on the web. Don't miss it... Also, have u been to the end of hte Cajón yet? There is a place called Chori-boulder with bouldering to last a lifetime. Beautiful scenery. Don't miss it...

Greg said...

Yeah, my friend keeps telling me about further up in the Canyon. I'm hoping that the weather will still be OK by the time my foot heals.

I really wanted to see more places. This broken toe is a real bummer.