Holding on to the Future in Cochamó
Long-time Cochamó climber Chris Kalman discusses the changing nature of the wildlands
When I first visited Cochamó in 2010, there weren’t many people there. I met every climber that passed through in the month I stayed, and got to know a good majority of the non-climbers, too. It was quiet, sleepy, unreal. I recall standing atop a broad plateau on the back of the formation called La Gorila after climbing a wall that nobody had previously touched. Looking around, I saw nothing. Nobody. Pure.
Now, nearly a decade gone by, I still love Cochamó. But a lot of that feeling of wildness has changed. I wish I could hold on to the Cochamó I remember. But I know I can’t. It too shall pass, another bygone Golden Age, only to be replaced by some half-baked distillation of what once was, watered down by gift shops, tour buses, interpretive placards, rangers and the like. After all, that is what humans do to a place—if the place has anything to offer—isn’t it? If we find somewhere to our liking, we take up residence there. Make it even more to our liking. We remove, or circumvent through clever invention, the things we find disagreeable. Often the people we find disagreeable. And in the place of these nuisances we erect climate controlled homages to our own predilections.
I’d like to think it didn’t have to be so. But it seems to be man’s hell-bent mission in life to use—in one way or another—every last corner of the universe just so long as we can get our hands on it. If we do love a place well enough not to desecrate it with bulldozers and dams and dynamite, we call it a national park, and ruin it in other ways. We kick out indigenous peoples and any predators that might pose a threat to our pet poodles. Establish vast networks of busy thoroughfares we euphemistically call “trails” so that hordes of folks better-suited to paved surfaces can better admire this spectacle we call Nature. Speaking of paved surfaces, we do our best to bring them right up to the toe of the attractions we want to ogle. The highways that access our parks are the true backbreakers of wilderness—are they not? Remove the road from Yosemite Valley, now how many people do you think will hike in there? Humans love convenience, and for most, sitting through commercials on the nature channel is the right work to reward ratio when it comes to glimpsing the remaining wonders of the once wild world.
If I had it my way, Cochamó would stay just as I like it: tailored precisely to my own sensibilities. Wild enough to be repellant to most folks, but tame enough for me to easily access by bus, with two haul bags full of food and gear for opening routes, which I can then pay my horse-packing friend a comparatively nominal fee to schlep up into La Junta for me so I can prolong my sojourn from “the real world” for a month or more. I wouldn’t want the place to myself entirely. No. I would simply want to populate it with all my friends and acquaintances, and each year a handful of newcomers of similar philosophical bent and spiritual ilk, that I could trust not to rifle through bags they have no business with, and lift out $1000 worth of shiny new climbing equipment to sell or use back in Santiago, or wherever those bastards came from.
Yes, I’ll admit it, I’m in a salty mood. My rack was stolen out from under my nose. What can I say? I never thought to padlock the damn haul bag. I never even considered it. In old Cochamó, such a thing would have been impossible. Unthinkable. Well, that was old Cochamó. Times have changed.
If I had it my way, I’d freeze Cochamó in approximately 2011, or 2012, and I’d leave it there in the middle of the Golden Age of MY travels to the place. I’d make sure there were just enough people to dig and maintain the composting toilets and shit holes I love so well, but not enough defecating visitors to fill them. Just enough interest from media outlets in the U.S. to pay me to write about the place, but not enough to pay anyone else to do the same. It’s not that I would desire to own Cochamó, to make it mine all mine. Just that I’d want it to conform to a strict set of principles and beliefs that I hold strongly about how places like Cochamó ought to be.
And if I succeeded in getting my way, I’d be no better or worse than anybody else who ever had what seemed to them to be a good idea, and the finances and power to impose that idea on everybody else. A dictator. Of course, all utopias are dystopias, because in order to be perfect they must be resistant to change. And yet, what could be less natural? Change is the one constant. The thing we can all count upon. Isn’t it funny that the great liberal ideal of conservation is, in its very essence, unnatural and unsustainable? We want to stop extinctions, to keep the climate moving right along according to plan. While we’re at it, why don’t we do away with the mammalian world altogether, and restore earth to a more Jurassic setting? Fuck it—let’s go full precambrian, as long as we’re fighting changes. Let’s go back to that primordial stew, that moment when one cell got the bright idea to swallow another one, and become multi-cellular (or whatever it was that happened to kick off the whole shebang we call life), and…
Stop right there.
As much as I enjoy poking loopholes in my own pretzel logic, I can not fully divest myself of my beliefs or desires. Ok, Cochamó will change. Must change. But do we really have to aid and abet it? What if we just let the forest consume itself at its own leisure? If we set down arbitrary maxims and rules to curb our human enthusiasms, and took up a role more observer of, than participant in, these changes? Damn the rest of the world. We already basically have. Let mankind rape and pillage as it pleases the places too far gone to save. But surely, we could leave one petri dish of mostly humanlessness for the sake of mere curiosity alone, couldn’t we? Let the condor, the alerce, the huemul and the pudu be. Can’t we all agree that simply not damming the river and not quarrying the mountain is far too small a step to take? We haven’t fully turned the place into an icecreamcone and fudge splattered tourist attraction. Yet. And we might not, still. We have that ability. It’s not too late. No helicopters, no septic tanks, no chemicals to treat the water, no stores, no roads, motor vehicles, and no goddamn cops. No guns. No lawyers or courts or jails.
It’s not perfect, I know. People like me will get their racks stolen and tough shit. Not a thing we can do about it. There will be deaths that result from lack of infrastructure. Rescues that YOSAR could have pulled off, but COSAR could not. What if we simply agree to say C’est la Vie. Accept Cochamó for the harsh and lawless wilderness that it is, and simply let it be?
The best thing any of us could do for Cochamó would be to let the alerce decide. But of course, the alerce wouldn’t choose. It would simply do what all trees do – eat sunlight, dig soil, drink water, breathe air. The condor, left to its own devices, will spend most of its time coasting, watching, stooping only so often low enough to debase itself in the decidedly secular act of eating before returning to its more ethereal state of effortless suspension within Earth’s invisible gossamer robe. Frogs will croak, birds will sing, pumas will make sure not to be stupid enough to be seen.
We can’t rely on Cochamó to make decisions on its own behalf because it is less concerned with its behalf than we are. It’s too busy being to be concerned. The trees can’t speak for the trees because trees don’t speak. The just stand there stupendously, bearing the brunt of whatever termite or beetle or time or humankind throws at them, wordlessly amiable, infinitely acquiescent, impenetrably aloof.
It’s up to us, sadly, and us alone to stop ourselves from fucking everything up. We can’t count on anyone else. And yet, isn’t that what it means to be homo sapien sapien? Isn’t fucking things up precisely what we always do?
Maybe. So far that seems to be the case. But even that is subject to change. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be. What is so special about human stupidity that it should be the one immutable thing in the universe?
We can do better. I believe we are fated to do better, because to not do better would be stagnation, and to do worse would be nearly impossible. We’ve already done poorly enough. The only way from here is up. And we must do better, because anything else would simply be too sad.
And we are doing better. Yosemite National Park was a step in the right direction in its time. Patagonia National Park in Southern Chile is a step even closer. Bears Ears National Monument was an even more resounding victory before the Trumpster Fire and Stinky Zinke ruined it. And it may return to its original boundaries after all, once the moron brigade is all locked up behind bars. At least we can hope so.
So I’ll say goodbye to the rack. I’ll try not to let it get me down. Cochamó is still my favorite place on this planet. Still the most beautiful. I hope that bastard who stole my rack gets to climb on it there. I hope he gets infected with this place the same way I was. I hope she goes on to give something in return. Not to me, but to Cochamó. After all Cochamó has given me, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. Believing that such a thing might actually be possible—that’s a risk I’ll have to take.
Chris Kalman is a climber and author living in Ft. Collins, Colorado. He recently published a short fiction climbing book, which we covered back in November 2017. You can purchase that book at http://www.chriskalman.com/ books/.