Story by Brian Mohr
Photos by Brian Mohr and Emily Johnson
Published in Backcountry Magazine – Feb 2007
Hector Soto reached around his horse to cinch a loose line. With his face streaked in mud, he cracked a suspicious smile.
“There’s a good chance we’ll have to swim with the horses,” he said.
Overnight, winds strong enough to tear the canogas off the cabin roof combined with heavy rain and sleet to make a real mess of our valley. We spent the morning hoping for a break in the weather, and although it came, it didn’t last.
“The river’s too deep and too swift to cross,” Soto said a few hours after leaving camp. “Let’s stick to this side where we can cross several smaller rivers instead. If we are lucky, we’ll be able cross the Soler down low… where it runs slow, and wide.”
For the next hour, our crew of five and six horses bushwhacked single-file through thigh-deep snowmelt in a thickly forested swamp. We were alone in a wild glacial tributary of Chile’s Rio Baker Valley, and although we were determined to make it to the mouth of the Soler by sunset, our optimism was fading. Skis were snagging on tree limbs, our feet were numb and if the wind and rain wasn’t in our faces, it was steadily soaking us from behind.
“Welcome to the real Patagonia,” explained Soto.
Soto’s words were reassuring. And in the wet hours that stood between us and a warm fire, we reflected on nearly a month of skiing and camping in the wild mountains above this endangered river valley. From storm-shrouded peaks that towered above rain-soaked river valleys, to high-desert mountains teeming with wildlife, we adventured through places that few, if any, had ventured before. But through all this it became clear that we were not just here to ski. We were here in pursuit of hope – hope for a culture and a place in danger of being lost forever.
The ecological mainstay of Chilean Patagonia’s Aysen region, the Rio Baker Valley is home to a “Patagonia” that few people know. Flanked on one side by the Northern Patagonia Ice Sheet, and on the other by the Andes Mountains along the Argentine border, the untamed Rio Baker is one of the last great rivers on the planet that is still free flowing from its source to the ocean. Glaciers, ancient forests, fjords and undiscovered mountains are in abundance here. And everything from golondrinas (a beautiful river swallow) to Patagon gauchos make their home in this now-endangered watershed.
Recently, the Rio Baker has taken center stage in debates over Chile’s energy future, as a plan to construct several monster dams here has pitted an unlikely coalition of ranchers, salmon-farmers and conservationists against the Spanish-owned energy giant, ENDESA.
According to Soto: "If the dams get built, they will destroy the river, and destroy the wildness that makes Patagonia so special." In addition to the four major dams proposed for the region’s Baker and Pascua rivers, Soto was referring to a 2000km swath that Canada’s Brookfield Consortium wants to cut through five national parks and two wilderness reserves to make room for a transmission line. “The damming of the Baker would be a terrible tragedy.”
Not long after my wife, Emily Johnson, and I returned from a month-long ski trip through the southern Andes during the austral spring of 2004 (see To Patagonia and Back—Backcountry Feb. 05), we heard the news of ENDESA’s plans.
With some research, we discovered that it was through a shady backroom deal in the final days of Pinochet’s infamous dictatorship that ENDESA—today Chile’s largest energy utility—was handed the water rights to 90% of Patagonia’s rivers. Now it is trying to cash in.
We let another season pass us by before finding the time and the resources to make the return trip. But by early October 2006 we were on our way. Joining us were our good friends from Vermont, Vicki Beaudoin and Craig Augustinsky.
“I don’t think you guys will have any trouble finding the snow,” said Ian Farmer when we stepped off the plane during a passing snow squall in Balmaceda, Chile . Farmer is the co-owner of Patagonia Adventure Expeditions and has lived in Chile for twenty years. “You must be itching to ski.”
After a day in the small city of Coyhaique, the hub of Chilean Patagonia’s Aysen region, our plans carried us south to the Rio Baker watershed, where we would spend one week at a time packing into, and then skiing, above the Baker – in the mountains of the Cordon Chacabuco, Reserva Nacional Jeinimeni, and the Cordon Soler. Between camps, we would venture into villages close to the Baker, connect with local people, and gauge the public perception of the dam project.
“ENDESA is no good. Tourism is just getting off the ground here, and the dams would unravel all the progress we’ve made,” said Patricia Chible, a realtor and tourist operator in Coyhaique that I met in Coyhaique the next day. “There are… many sensible alternatives to damming the Baker,” she said, referring to smaller-scale hydro projects, geothermal energy(Chile is home to 10% of the world’s volcanoes) and increased energy efficiency.
“It’s a crime against Chile…and it’s a crime against nature,” said Raul Parada, a gas station manager I talked with in Coyhaique. And with just about everyone I bumped into in the streets of Coyhaique, it was the same story. It wasn’t until later that evening that we finally ran into someone that could show some support.
Not surprisingly, we quickly discovered widespread opposition to ENDESA’s plans, but also that most people felt powerless – as if there voice didn’t matter. Democracy is still catching on in Chile.
We needed some fresh air, so we headed south toward Valle Chacabuco—home to one of the Baker’s largest tributaries – and our first two camps of the trip. One hour from Coyhaique, we picked off a beautiful sunset ski tour near Cerro Castillo(3083m), an emblematic peak in the region. Skinning through a snowline lenga (southern beech) forest, we found our way onto a gentle ridge that divided two major alpine basins. Off to one side the snow was sun-crusted and shadowed. Facing the sun, we found ourselves atop a mountainside of creamy, wind-touched powder. “This is a skiers’ paradise,” Craig declared. “We could ski fresh lines in these peaks for months!”
Traveling the shores of the region’s pristine 2000km2 Lago General Carrera—the second largest lake South America—we eventually reached its outlet to the Rio Baker. Stopping in view of the canyon that ENDESA hopes to flood, we shared a moment of silent hope for the river.
Below the canyon, the Rio Chacabuco pours in. Formerly a large ranch, and recently acquired by Conservacion Patagonica, Valle Chacabuco—along with two adjacent wilderness reserves - is destined to become a new Chilean national park. Decades of overgrazing and fence building have done great harm ecologically. But now, the sheep and cattle are being sold off to smaller farms, fence lines are coming down, and the valley is healing. Chile has made it a national priority to protect its most endangered species—including the huemule deer, the southern river otter and the ever elusive puma—and the Chacabuco project is an essential ingredient in this recipe.
“If they build the dams, everything could change,” says Christian Saucedo, the Chilean-born wildlife manager for the Chacabuco project. “My fear is that the dams will keep tourists away, and without a tourism economy, encourage even greater exploitation of the natural environment.”
As we traveled upriver through Valle Chacabuco, leaving the Baker behind, we encountered pink flamingos, herds of wild, llama-like guanaco and Andean condors. Although it was obvious the old ranch had left its scars, an incredible diversity of life and landscape had managed to survive here. We shouldered our packs, and by sunset that evening, were nearly one thousand meters off the valley floor camped at snow line in the shelter of an ancient lenga forest.
With views that encompassed western Argentina, Chile’s northern Patagonia Ice Sheet and Patagonia’s highest mountain, Monte San Valentin(4058m), our camp in the Chacabuco’s signature range, the Cordon Chacabuco, was a gem. Where the sun was shining, we found a good harvest of springtime corn and numerous open faces, steeper chutes and winding gulleys to explore on skis. After breakfast in the forest and an easy stroll through a stream-fed alpine meadow, we spent our days above camp in a white and windy wilderness. Back at camp we’d stare in wonder past the twisted trunks of our cozy lenga forest, and listen for the horse-like whinnies of wild guanaco. Everything from the high-desert pampa to snow-capped rainforests colored the world beyond.
Days later, we hauled our skis and packs across the Chacabuco Valley and into an area of mountains officially known as Reserva Nacional Jeinimeni. During the move, we bumped into a friendly puestero—or rancher - named Toto, one of the few in the valley still tending to sheep and cattle. Sporting a fine set of goat-hair pants, a leather jacket and a wool cap, he invited us into his stone house for some freshly fried bread. Talking with him, we were astonished by his intricate familiarity with the local landscape. It was refreshing to connect with someone so intimately tied to the land. I asked Toto what he thought about ENDESA’s plans.
“I don’t like them one bit,” he shared. “People say there is not enough work here, but I disagree. We need to protect the landscape, and create more opportunity for tourism. That is a better plan. And we can keep the Baker.” Toto pointed out an easy route across the valley, and into the mountains beyond. He wished us a safe trip and hoped to see us again.
A former national park that the folks at Conservacion Patagonica hope to tie in with the Chacabuco project, the Jeinimeni Reserve lays claim to a large area of the Rio Baker watershed. It is home to countless species of plants and animals, the “Great Tetons” of Patagonia and unlimited backcountry skiing opportunity. With an incredible vantage point over the entire Chacabuco Valley, “Camp 2” gave us the ultimate perspective on a recovering wild area that is well on its way to becoming the new Patagonia National Park. And as luck would have it, we scored our best powder day of the trip here.
It all started when we decided to adjust our Camp 2 location. Snow and sleet born from 40-60mph winds tickled our cheeks. Before we knew it, we were on the ground – knocked down by what we estimated to be 100mph gusts – invigorated, and laughing. After re-establishing camp in a new band of lenga, a cold and heavy rain set in – turning to snow just before sunset. To the sound of a swollen stream, we dreamed.
Snow continued through the night and left behind a boot deep blanket of snow for us to enjoy – a nice treat after many meals of corn and windpack. Socked in most of the morning, we savored the first rays of sun ushered in by the winds of a clearing storm. The wind filled in our tracks, and suddenly a collection of leeward chutes looked more tempting by the minute. Somehow, we had appeased the snow gods.
We reluctantly said goodbye to the Chacabuco, and set our sights on the opposite side of the Baker Valley—and the Aysen Glacier Trail (AGT)— thirty miles away. By no means a ski trail, the AGT is a new hut to hut trekking route that provides access to three major glaciers and the countless peaks that define the eastern edge of the Northern Patagonia Ice Sheet. Developed by the Coyhaique-based, Patagonia Adventure Expeditions(PAEX), the AGT is fast becoming a staple in the region for adventure travelers interested in experiencing Patagonia’s wilderness and frontier culture. And every year, it represents a growing source of income for the local Chileans.
Most adventures on the AGT begin in the scenic village of Puerto Bertrand - the nascimiento (birthplace) of the Rio Baker, and home to Anita and Manuel Bayer’s world-famous empanadas. Our goal was to explore the front end of the AGT - the Soler Valley – and the glaciers and mountains at its head. After putting in an order of empanadas, we jumped into the wild and uncontaminated Baker, dove underwater, and drank. The energy of the river was overwhelming .
It was in Bertand that we also connected with Hector Soto, a thirty year old puestero, guide and horse-packer who supplements his livelihood with work along the AGT. Twenty-four hours later, he was strapping four pairs of skis and backpacks onto his horses, and we were heading up the Soler—where Soto also works a small ranch. With Soto’s help, we were able to save ourselves a few days of lugging gear, and bank more time for the snow in the mountains.
I pointed to a few potential ski lines farther up the Soler.
“You’ve come up here to ski, but not onto the Ice Sheet?” wondered Soto.
I nodded in response.
“Good thinking, the weather on the glacier really stinks this time of year…”, and like a true Patagon, he chimed, “It’s better to camp where you can have a fire.”
Blue skies treated us to a spectacular day as we headed for the upper reaches of the Soler—and an old farm that once supported a family there. They called it Palomar—or Dove’s Nest. After arriving to the steep and towering mountainsides that cradled this upper nook of the Soler, Palomar seemed an appropriate name. Just above Palomar, the Northern Ice Sheet was visible and easily accessible. Its falling ice and crumbling seracs filled the air with thunder.
Taking advantage of a second bluebird day, Soto headed back down the Soler while we headed straight for snowline 500m above Palomar. Half way into our approach, we came face to face with a rare and endangered huemule. It seemed at ease with our presence, and quickly returned to feeding on the subtlely sweet chaota berries dotting the higher hillsides. Minutes later, a pair of condors circled in—and then another. Before long there were five Andean giants flying circles over our heads. High above Palomar, we spent an afternoon skiing corn and windpack to the spectacular backdrop of the Northern Patagonian Ice Sheet, the great Nef and Soler glaciers, and a lifetime of unexplored mountains.
Fierce winds and a driving rain woke us in the night - the front edge of a storm that didn’t budge for days. After three straight weeks in Patagonia without a solid day of rest, the storm was well timed. One misty afternoon, we managed to pry ourselves away from our silly fireside banter, and ski a bit. Discovering blizzard conditions and an isothermal snowpack up high, we opted for a super-scenic and low-angle descent on the icy-but-edgable surface of the nearby Nef glacier.
The storm persisted, and by the time Soto returned, we had managed only one more ski adventure in the undeniable wildness surrounding Palomar. But it was just enough to round out our perspective on the region’s unlimited skiing potential – and the impossible couloirs, hanging glaciers and snow-capped ranges that define it. Although the final turns we linked through isothermal mush in a driving sleet left something to be desired, the venue did not.
Taking shelter in the only remaining cabin in Palomar, Soto passed around the mate - a mildly stimulating and highly nutritious herb tea that is a staple in Patagonia - while stoking the fire for a dinner of fire-roasted meat and potatoes. He was grateful for our appreciation of his landscape and culture, and hoped we could convince more of our friends experience the magic of this region themselves. Two kettles full of water steamed away over the fire.
“Most Chileans in this region don’t yet understand the benefits of tourism,” Soto said. “Nor do we understand the consequences of building huge dams on rivers like the Baker. We haven’t yet made those mistakes. Out in the countryside…vivimos en una burbuja…we live in a bubble. The government, ENDESA…They feed us information… ‘this will be good for Chile, this is clean energy’, and most folks just go along for the ride.”
The wood smoke became tinged with the sweet smell of Soto’s cooking.
“We have a tremendous opportunity here to protect something that is unique in the world…the Northern Ice Sheet, the Rio Baker and the Lago General Carrera…there’s nothing else like it…and people are just beginning to find out,” Soto continued. “If Chile needs energy, it should develop local, clean energy projects that don’t destroy the environment…This idea of cutting a 2000km transmission line through the heart of Patagonia…it’s criminal…”
Soto began to fiddle with his knife. A violent gust of wind shook the cabin. He looked up, wondering if the canogas that make up the roof would survive the night, or if tomorrow, we’d be able to cross the river.
“We need to protect the great places we have, like the Baker,” said Soto. “Because it’s all we have."
# # #
Guiding Services/Custom Adventures:
Patagonia Adventure Expeditions - www.adventurepatagonia.com
Protecting the Rio Baker – www.emberphoto.com (various links)
Conservacion Patagonica - www.patagonialandtrust.com
Weather - www.wunderground.com
Topo Maps - www.igm.cl