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Picaflor Picaflor
2023-07-23 06:43:00

I'm tied in at the base of pitch 20, ready for 35 meters of battle. I close my eyes, take a few deep breaths, and try to suppress the ever-present pain in my toes. It has been a long two months of attempting this route, and I am preparing myself for the final attempt on the last day. Over 2,000 feet of granite stretches out to the jungle below as I prepare for the ultimate try of the trip. In this moment, it's now or never. 

Cochamó Valley is a granite wonderland in Southern Chile, and a true paradise for climbers seeking to explore endless and remote stretches of rock. The place is so breathtaking that Yosemite Valley is often referred to as the Cochamó of North America. My first visit to Cochamó was in 2017. I vividly remember spending time at the campground one day, observing a famished group of climbers returning from an extended effort to establish a new route on a 1,000+ meter wall called Capicua. One of them, a guy named Tom, told extravagant tales of how incredible their new route was turning out to be. What intrigued me the most was that it sounded like it would make for a beautiful and challenging free climb one day. 

This time, I was accompanied by an all-star crew of friends: Bronwyn Hodgins - a Canadian rock star and expedition expert, Danford Jooste - formerly an aerospace electrical engineer who had gradually evolved into a Yosemite climbing vagrant, Tyler Karow - another engineer and Yosemite big walling expert (he would help organize our chaotic situation and skilfully climb the hard aid pitches), and lastly, Jaron Pham - our videographer and a connoisseur of mayonnaise, who was there to document the experience and provide comic relief. After our initial arrival in the valley, we immediately started working on our main objective, Picaflor. The route is on Capicua, which had yet to be free climbed, so that became our goal. 

After a four-hour ordeal of hacking through dense jungle with machetes in hand and carrying massive haul bags on our backs, we reached the base of the wall. The start of the route was so overgrown with jungle that we couldn't find a climbable path. Instead, we opted for a 100-meter near-vertical jungle pull to reach the top of the second pitch. There, we fixed our ropes and returned to the ground. After waiting out a few days of rain, we went back to the wall to continue our ascent. We spent the entire day climbing runout slabs, agricultural cracks, and hauling (ugh) the lower 400 meters of Picaflor to reach "Plaza Catalunya." This is the type of ledge that big wall climbers dream of. It offers ample space for comfortable sleeping, a running water source, and, best of all, it is positioned below 600 meters of pristine steep granite. 

The next month flew by in a blur. The days started to blend together - ascending the fixed ropes, scrubbing, bolting, and toiling. We memorized hundreds of intricate movements and body positions to unlock this enormous puzzle of a rock climb. Almost every night, we returned to our sky camp, Plaza Catalunya, where we passed the time with crossword puzzles and discussed our daily efforts. Bronwyn had been diligently working on pitch 17, a brutally short and thin friction slab. Danford had been at the top of the wall, cleaning and bolting an enormous chimney/groove pitch. I had been tackling pitch 20, which continued to baffle me even after several days of attempting to figure out the moves on top rope. At this point, we knew that the route would go free, except for one single foot move that I had yet to solve. Over 1,000 meters of continuous free climbing came down to my ability to stand up on one foothold to reach the next tiny edge. 

Throughout this time, our team steadily checked off each pitch of the route. Our chosen "team style" meant that at least one member from the team had to lead every pitch on the route to "open" it as a proper free climb. Once a pitch had been led, we marked it off our list and moved on to the next one. While this approach may not have been the pinnacle of free climbing style, considering the extensive logistics, cleaning, and bolting we had to undertake, it made the most sense. 

During our final push on the wall, things started to get really exciting. Towards the end of our trip, we were blessed with an extended period of beautiful weather. The team ascended our fixed lines to Plaza Catalunya with eight days' worth of food and supplies, fully committed to finishing what we had started. I kicked off this phase by successfully climbing pitch 11, a monstrous 55-meter 5.13 seam to stemming corner, and also conquered pitch 13, another 5.13 slab, after a couple of days spent cleaning and bolting. Bronwyn, after her own efforts, triumphed on pitch 23, which entailed climbing a wildly overhung panel of discontinuous cracks and face holds near the summit of the mountain. 

On the final morning of our eight-day push, we still had four out of the 24 pitches left to send from our initial attempt almost two months ago. That morning, we woke up on the summit of the wall, having slept up there so we could remove all our fixed lines on the last day. For breakfast, Danford impressively chimneyed, stemmed, and maneuvered his way up pitch 24, the 5.12+ overhanging chimney/groove. I rappelled down to pitch 19, a spooky 5.12, and swiftly completed it. Pitch 20 had been the biggest question mark of the route. It was a steep slab, just shy of vertical, with enough features to make it feasible. I knew in my heart that it could be done, but despite my best efforts throughout the trip, I had failed to execute one of the foot moves.

I had spent countless hours, like a mad person, with my nose pressed firmly against the wall, searching for any subtle hint of a crystal that might aid my upward progress. I had tried all five pairs of climbing shoes that I had brought on the trip, hoping to gain even the slightest advantage in friction against the smooth wall. None of my tricks worked. Every tactic for success that I had learned over the years of hard big wall free climbing left me disheartened and empty-handed. 

Ready or not, here I am at the base of pitch 20, tied in and prepared for my final effort. My expectations diminish with each move. I reach the crux, as I've rehearsed a hundred times before. My left foot touches a lousy sloping edge. I crimp a small one-finger divot with my left hand and delve into the depths of my soul, willing myself to stand on that foot. Just as it had done a hundred times before, my foot slips. And that was it. 

Once I realized that I had given my absolute best and had nothing more to give, it became difficult to feel disappointed. Our experience still held more value. In that moment, I had granted myself the vulnerability to fail, and I was content with that. There was nothing at stake for me; the experience of this trip had mostly unfolded as one of the most magnificent adventures of my life. I wouldn't let my failure to conquer this pitch take that away from me. 

We didn't fully comprehend what we were getting ourselves into when we flew halfway across the world to attempt this route. Just a few meters of completely blank rock could have shattered our hopes of a free climb. We had no choice but to approach it with the mindset that we might fail. This mindset turned out to be our greatest strength in this endeavor, and it's the same reason why we are eagerly anticipating the next season. Bron put it wisely when she said that you should set goals right near your limit, but you never truly know where that limit is until you're standing at the edge of your abilities and still fall short. By that measure, we nailed it, and next year we will find that same vulnerability to return and try (and perhaps fail) once again. 

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Words by | Hayden Jamieson
Images by | Hayden, Bronwyn, Danford, Tyler and Jaron

Dedicated and generous, Hayden has undergone hardship to keep doing the sport that guides his life. Alongside sending big walls, he’s a bedrock in his local climbing community, coaching the new generation and maintaining local sport routes.

Read more about Athlete Hayden Jamieson here