Chile Chico and the Choique

We hit the road bound for Chile Chico in Chile, home to an epic crack climbing destination called Cerro Colorado. The weather had been bad in Chalten for too long and was not looking any better for another 9 days. I was starting to go crazy, finding it hard to stay positive, I was loosing my excitement for South America. The smallest things were getting me down and I desperately needed a change. After much discussion, six of us piled into a 2012 Kombi van from Brazil, the only additions to it since the 70’s was a new engine. It was like blasting back into the past, traveling like some of the first climbers that came to Patagonia way back in the day. The van was a bouncy, rocking, unstable metal coffin, with every little gust of wind, it felt like it was about to flip.

Fuelled with empanadas (pie’s), facturas (sweet pastries) and bread, a typical Argentinian breakfast we were ready for the vibrating, swaying, scary twelve hour drive which included a notorious seventy kilometre section of unsealed gravel road. The Kombi vibrated like a jackhammer and I envisaged all the bolts wobbling loose and leaving parts along the road. You could not talk or even think for that two hour section of the trip because of the noise vibrating in your ears and dust burning your nose and eyeballs.

 

 At 12 am we finally made it to an extremely exposed pull-off on the side of the road where we could spend the night. We slept next to the van parked in a way to block the fifty kilometre per hour gusts of wind that threatened our sleep. I woke to the sounds of my stomach twisting and turning. It had been over week and I was still having a hard time eating with spurts of diarrhea from the antibiotics I was taking. I bounded out of my sleeping bag and frantically searched for a spot to go. With nothing but rocks and the odd dead shrubs, I had no time to be picky as my stomach rumbled, threatening to release a deadly blast at any moment. I pushed my way through the wind as it tried to knock me over, dropped my trousers and did the deed while trying to prevent the wind from soiling me. I stumbled back to my sleeping bag when suddenly a gust of wind grabbed it and slammed it into a barbed wire fence before I even had the chance to blink. A plume of goose down feathers covered the sky as the wind tried to empty my brand new sleeping bag. After careful extraction from the fence, lots of frustration, curses and ½ a roll of tape, my sleeping bag was ready for me to use again, but no more sleep was had that night.

We crossed the border into Chile the next day, gathered supplies for 6 days in the hills and came across the jackpot! Apricot trees on the side of the street bursting with fruit. Edwin and I were like kids in a candy store thinking we would wake from a dream any moment. An hour later we had a box filled to the top with beautiful fresh apricots.

Even though it was an easy six kilometre walk up to the campsite three hundred meters below Cerro Colorado, it still felt long and hard, with the masses of food and gear in our packs. This campsite is most spectacular place I have ever camped, with a fresh spring that runs all season only two meters from the tent door and lush vibrant green grass to camp on. Large wind walls had been constructed for each tent to provide shelter from the wind. Amazing 360 degree views made the mornings and evenings a breathtaking experience. Condors, guanaco (alpaca), wild horses and lizards would frequently visit. Clouds lit by deep blue skies would constantly dance and change shapes as if a painter that was never happy with his canvas. This was truly paradise.

 

I removed the stitches one night from my lower right leg, a rock had rolled onto it leaving me with a large deep gash. It had been two weeks since the accident and my leg was still red and angry looking with puss in the centre. The doctor had told me that I must remove them in ten days and it had been twelve. I drew the scalpel from its sterile case and cut them out one by one.

 

While climbing the next day I felt something cold dripping into my climbing shoe and realised that my leg was bleeding, the wound had reopened and oozed watery goo for the next twelve hours. Tape and some gauze sorted it out and I was able to continue to climb, getting some great lines with superb cracks and thought provoking moves. The six days of climbing sped by with lots of late finishes and us getting back to the tent in the dark most nights.

On the second to last day we were visited by a condor, maybe it thought we would be an easy meal. It soared and circled only a few meters from Edwin and I while I was leading the second pitch of ‘The Basalt Experience’. I could see every feather and the share enormity of the bird blew my mind. It was a fantastic memorable experience.

Then it was back down the trail to the van, with bodies destroyed from the steep approach every morning and long days of climbing. I was ready for a rest.

The trip had gone super smoothly until it was time to cross back into Argentina. We met a security guard who had something against us. He pulled our packs apart looking through every pocket and searched through our first aid kits trying to find drugs – so it seemed. Apparently you are not allowed to take any gasoline or fresh produce into the country. We had 5 litres of gas in a jerry can and had to pour it out onto the bare soil at the border and had our avocado’s taken from us. There was no logical reason, all I could think was, only in Argentina. Luckily they did not find our cheese, salami and big box full of apricots that were carefully stashed in the van. I guess we have officially smuggled stuff across a border now.

In Patagonia you should always fill up your vehicle at every gas station even if you have only used a few litres. This is because the gas stations are very spread out and not always reliable. We rolled into Gobanerdor Gregores with a few litres to spare and found a line 25 cars deep. The line went from the gas station down the road and around the first corner of the block. The gas station had run out of gas, but luckily it was still issuing 5 litres out of its reserve tank to vehicles so they could try to make the 100 km drive to the next station. When we finally made it to the pump the fuel had dried up. We had been in line for four hours and were told that the fuel truck was meant to arrive four hours ago but the driver had decided he was sick of driving and would instead come in the morning. Twenty three hours later we departed, a little groggy from the rough sleep on the floor of the gas station, but with a full tank of gas and ready and raring to get out of Gobanerdor Gregores.

 

We rattled and swayed our way back to Chalten. I had taken the driver's seat for the last stretch of the trip when I noticed a Choique (rhea) on the side of the road. It had been hit by a car and looked badly injured but not dead. I thought the decent thing would be to put it out of its misery, so I pulled over and broke its neck. I could not just leave it there as it seemed like a waste of meat and I decided to wack off its legs. I was also curious to see how it tasted. I had just washed 90% of the blood off my hands when a police truck rolled up behind us with its lights on. I did not think twice that it might be illegal to eat road kill in Argentina. The two Colombians that were also on the trip with us started to freak out along with Adrian who owns the van. The Police in Argentina can be very difficult to deal with and can cause you a lot of trouble if they want to. They looked at me with my bare feet covered in blood, at the Choique, then looked at each other very confused. They had been called up about a hit Choique on the side of the road and had come to sort it out. The only thing was the bird now looked very dead and quite deformed missing both its legs and was outside a VW Kombi van filled with Foreigners. I don’t speak Spanish and was glad we had the Colombians there to play dumb to the cops who eventually left. We blasted off, not quite knowing how we got away with it all and landed in Chalten a few hours later with a box full of Choique meat. We pan-fried, BBQ ‘d and stewed it, all of which tasted amazing. I am full with great memories and experiences and have re-gained my love for South America and am ready and rearing for the next weather window….whenever that may be.

 

 

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