2017, Chaitén, Planning

Similar, but Oh-So Different

¿Como fue? a familiar face in the food truck asks as we sit down on white, plastic stools.

We had just boarded the food truck-bus to get some breakfast. The converted green bus parked on the side of Liberatador Bernardo O’Higgins had quickly become a go to for good food, especially breakfast, and today was no different.

The food truck-bus.
The food truck-bus.

I do the head waggle in response to his question, not quite putting the words together quick enough. Josie, as usual is quicker to respond. I can at least pick up the context and understand what is going on. Talk revolves around river levels, fishing lodges and boats. The friendly gentleman had, two days prior, given us the name of a gentleman who might be able to help us out, as we had conversed over breakfast. Once again his phone comes out, and he pulls up Google Earth and starts to talk beta about approaches to the mountains. I step outside, grab our maps and lay them out on the table. The owner, Tommy, joins in the conversation. More beta and suggestions are given. Josie and I almost forget to order breakfast as the conversation ebbs and flows, but we have noon ticket on a bus to Puerto Cardenas. Our plan is to explore a way across the formidable Rio Yelcho, or maybe, the more diminutive Rio Frio. Maps are pointed at and screens manipulated. He seems to know the land well.

As to be expected Patagonia has taken on a significantly different feel this year. The low grey clouds coalescing around the hillsides, the heavy rains pitter pattering on the rooftops and the wandering around of town to gather supplies, provisions and to secure logistics is all very similar.

Getting a machete sharpened in downtown Chaiten

It is small town Patagonia. It is further north. It is a tourist town. There are hostels and restaurants and tourist offices. There are street dogs and wind. There are late night restaurantes and pickups, potholes and rough streets. But there are no other escaladores walking the streets and asking each other about the weather. There is no trail and no guidebook. There are no glaciers or wide open lenga forests , but instead thick colihue infused Valdivian rainforest jungles. Maybe it is the wrong season or maybe others know something we don’t. Or maybe we are just dumb.

¿Tu conoce acá? I ask, gesturing at a region on the map. It is a river that drains to the sea, and seemingly would only be accessible by a boat across the bay. Previously we had heard a story or two about a nightmarishly slow bushwack up the valley.

¿Rio Pelvitad? Si, he replies. Salmon farming boats go out there two times a day. He zooms in on his phone to show us the farms. He grabs a napkin and writes names and a number.

Our breakfasts come and we eat, sit and ponder.

Later, Josie catches a ride over to chat with the salmon fisherman. They aren’t around but plans are made to check in on what would be the possibility of getting dropped off at the mouth of Rio Pelvitad. Once again, we roll with it and adjust our plans accordingly. A day trip to Puerto Cardenas is opted for and we hop the bus and make the 45 minute ride to Lago Yelcho.

“Remeber several months ago when we were sitting in the Noble and we saw this bridge in a picture? Josie asks as we walk side by side down the narrow, two-laned, Carretera Austral toward the tall suspension bridge over the outlet of Lago Yelcho.

Walking toward Puerto Cardenas from the Lago Yelcho bridge

“Yeah and we were trying to figure out just what that cliff was over there?” I say gesturing toward the cloud enshrouded escarpment to the east.


“Yep and here we are. Kinda neat.”

We strike out a few times but then get a potential turn of fortune while trying to track down Danielo. It seems Rio Yelcho is low enough to boat, and he is doing it as we speak. Maybe, we think, we can get across at the Puma Lodge. With this in mind, we stick out our thumbs and hitch a ride back to Chaiten. We are scouting and putting together the expedition on the fly. There are known knowns, and there are known unknowns. But we are quickly discovering there are many unknown, unknowns as well. And that is why we signed on.

For us, Patagonia will be different this year. It will be, as expected for me, more similar to the Avellanos and Piritas. And it will be closer to (but  never the same as) the Patagonia and El Chalten explored by Comensaña and Fonrouge, by Whillans and Chouinard . It will be a return to what Jim Donnini calls The Wild Patagonia, a place not overrun, not explored.  A place where maybe I am afraid to shuttle loads by myself; a place where the puma still reigns supreme.


Featured Image: Chaiten, shrouded as usual in clouds, from the bathroom window at Las Nalcas