Sunday, 15 May 2016

Ruta de los Pioneros: Villa O'Higgins to Cochrane

We left ‘Villa,’ as we came to call it (via the locals), with full hearts and heavy packs. Weighed down with nine days of food for our adventurous route to Cochrane, our plan was to walk along the ‘Ruta de los Pioneros,’ the route the pioneers had taken from Cochrane to settle in Villa O’Higgins. We had acquired first hand route information, GPS points, and some mediocre maps to help us along our way.

A close-up our mediocre map
Our first day out of town was spent following a path north connecting to a dirt road that took us to the southern end of Lago Christie. We then began the task of finding the trail by comparing notes and our GPS route points. It sounds simple when I write it, but the actuality of following an old herding trail was harder. We had been instructed to ‘go about 200 meters back from the mirador and look for a faint animal trail’ to begin, then keep the 2 lakes on our left as we walk for the next few days. Starting out, we also noticed our GPS route was usually about 100 meters off the actual route we were finding. It was nice that we had as many resources as we did, or it could’ve been a real struggle.

Fidgit along Lago Christie
Walking around Lago Christie was beautiful, and we only got lost a couple times. In times of confusion, Fidgit was able to use her cow-path-following prowess to determine the right cow path to follow, and we made sure to keep the lake on our left, as well as our GPS and compasses readily accessible.

Getting directions from the First Gaucho
On the morning of day 3, we came upon an estancia at the north end of Lago Christie, and the gaucho who lived there was kind enough to interrupt his breakfast and give us more directions about the trail along the edge of Lago Alegrè. We walked along the path confidently until lunch, when I realized my rain jacket had somehow fallen off my pack. Leaving Fidgit with our stuff and armed with snacks and some water, I backtracked 1.5 hours to find my jacket in the middle of the trail, patiently waiting. It was another reminder for me on this journey to be grateful. Fidgit and I had noticed a pattern at this point in the trip- when we talked poorly about others or laughed (figuratively or literally) at their misfortune, something negative happened to us. Traveling in nature has a tendency to keep one's ego in check, wanted or not.

Mountains reflect in the waters of Lago Alegre
We camped along the lake, and walked on the next morning to another gaucho’s home. His name was Don Rial, and he worked for Escuela NOLS down here for years helping them in the back-country, until they deemed this area too back-country for their purposes. Don Rial is still known among the travelers along this ‘ruta’ as a kind and helpful soul. We came to his home mid-day and waited for him, as we heard he would be able to give us more detailed information on the rest of the trail into Cochrane. We weren’t disappointed, and when he came back from tending his animals he told us so much, including stories from visitors past. We also shared matè as he made dinner for all of us, and he invited us to stay the night. We readily agreed, glad to be offered such generosity.

Sitting on the porch of Don Rial's place
Me, Don Rial, and Fidgit
Leaving Don Rial’s the next morning was tough- he had expected us to stay another day and was disappointed we weren’t. After breakfast,  he made sure we had enough food, and gave us some more of the fried bread he made the evening prior. As we left, we again took a wrong turn-apparently there are different words for different gates in Spanish- and were lucky enough to run into Don Rial again so he could help us get on the right cow path/trail. From there, we followed along the eastern side of Rio Bravo up the valley. We had been given directions to follow the path to the right of the river up to its ‘birth’ and cross it directly below the glacial laguna. Simple enough mentally, though we did have to decide which cow path/trail to choose a few times throughout the day. There were also a couple refugios at which the gauchos would stay while herding their cattle seasonally. The walk along Rio Bravo was beautiful- in and out of old growth forest, sometimes high above the thick vein of water looking down at a waterfall, sometimes walking along the bank of the river.

Fidgit enjoying the view along Rio Bravo
Rio Bravo winding its way along the valley floor
Fidgit and the mountains at the pass
The next day, we crossed below the laguna as instructed under cloudy skies. Despite my sunglasses disappearing into the milky water, I was able to continue enjoying the day. I blame the awe-inspiring scenery. This particular day was a special one, as we had to make sure we went over the correct pass or it could mean trouble for us in the future (read:running out of food, losing our way, discombobulation, death, etc.). I was happy to see cairns all along the way above treeline, though we made sure to continue watching the GPS, as cairns had led us astray in the past. Anyone can build a pile of rocks, right? We arrived at the pass after a few more stream crossings and a couple scree scrambles to a VIEW. I counted 4 hanging glaciers and there were peaks all over in my 360* view. I could have stayed for a while looking at that scenery, but we still had to make some kilometers for the day. 

Down, down we went, and there were cairns on this side of the pass too! We followed them to an obvious camp, then steeply descended to the river. The river was very strong, Fidgit and I had to yell to converse over its mighty roar. This was not a place for us to cross if we wanted to heighten our chances of living longer than 5 more minutes. We weren’t sure what to do, but knew crossing that river was out of the question. So we did something we’ve gotten into the habit of doing on this trip- we swallowed our pride, and went back to the last place we knew for sure we were on the right path to reassess.

Me following the cairns the wrong way
Back at the obvious campsite, we decided to go up into the forest along the edge of the steep descent to the river to see what we could find. We found an overgrown horse path that led to an open meadow. I remembered a cryptic direction from a previous explorer: “Look for a stick in a meadow, and go past it- you’ll find the trail there.” We followed the meadow and found a stick near the edge! And the trail was right past the stick in the trees! Sometimes Life works in mysterious ways.

Following the trail again, we walked down to the river once more and were able to cross it at a place that was manageable albeit cold enough to make my skin feel like a billion tiny needles were poking at me, not to mention the immediate loss of feeling to my toes. Before falling asleep that night, I thought back to all the choices we had made that landed us right where we wanted to be, and what a crazy place it was! Also, how lucky I was to be there.

Waking the next morning, we walked to the road with Fidgit leading the way. We started at treeline, went from meadows to thick forest, and then the forest thinned and there were more signs of civilization. The trail was intermingling cow/horse path, and finding the correct one to follow is one of Fidgit’s strengths.

Mt San Lorenzo and Glacier Cayuqueo
As we came to the road, we also had the pleasure of gazing out at the Cayuqueo glacier nestled into Mt San Lorenzo, though unfortunately it was covered in dust (which promotes melting). Progress has a way of impeding the beauty that already surrounds us. 

The road walk into Cochrane from the glacier was 1.5 days, long, hot, and dusty. I was happy to get into town and have a cold beverage, though sad this section of our walk was over. From being eye to eye with glaciers to walking the last 5-ish kilometers along the dusty Carretera Austral, this section of our walk seemed to have everything, and what an adventure it was!


  1. God bless you prayers are with you for a safe and flourish adventure. God's speed.

  2. Wow! We can see you and the glaciers in our mind's eye.