The Steep Climb to Chile

Once again, an early morning was prescribed for the 7-hour ride over the high ridge and down into the valley for the pick-up near Lake Yeso. Once packed up, we headed up the trail and entered a series of switchbacks carrying us higher and higher on the ridge. The views to the south were of the volcano, Mt. Marmolejo, the southernmost 6,000 meter (20,000 feet) peak in the world, and the glacier that graces its crown.

Climbing up from 10,000 feet to over 14,400 feet in the space of a few miles is tough work, even for horses used to the climb. Our steeds would climb for 20 steps and break. Climb for 20 steps and break. A look back showed the expanse of the valley we climbed (well the horses actually), and way off in the distance was the first ridge from the first day on the trail.

20 Steps and a break

20 Steps and a break

A look back to the start

A look back to the start

Early in the trip we followed the last water for most of the day up the mountain and, near the source, took a break to replenish canteens and water the horses.    

Up the Creek

Up the Creek

Last water for a while

Last water for a while

Back on the trail, the loose rocks must have felt like walking in mud. At points, the trail was narrow with sharp drops to the side. In other places, we traversed wide rock fields, all the while climbing higher toward the plateau below the pass where we would meet the Chilean gauchos bringing new horses over from Chile.  The law forbids riding Argentinian horses into Chile, so a tradition has emerged of a picnic in the sky just below the ridgeline, where stories and horses are swapped.

The site is also a place to find fossils. It’s amazing at 14,000 feet above sea level to find the fossilized shells of sea creatures, millions of years old. So I went off in search of the elusive fossils and found them to be, well…elusive.

Mike on a Fossil Hunt

Mike on a Fossil Hunt  

We finally made it to the plateau and dismounted. From above, we heard the whooping of our new gauchos coming through the pass and descending down to meet us for the fun. About a week before, I had purchased 10 snickers bars and had saved them for a special occasion. This was it. The Chileans brought a smoked goat leg. Along with salami, cheese, salmon spreads, fruit, wine, water, beers, and bread, we all enjoyed a massive feast at the top of the world.

Lunch at the Top of the World

Lunch at the Top of the World

Mike and Carol, Top of the World

Mike and Carol, Top of the World

Smoked Goat Leg and Doritos at the Top of the World

Smoked Goat Leg and Doritos at the Top of the World

Tradition of the Cow Skull

Tradition of the Cow Skull

Fine Wine at the Top of the World

Fine Wine at the Top of the World

Carol even made a new friend.

Carol's New Friend

Carol’s New Friend

Then it was time to say goodbye to Janni, Cristian, Johnny, and Edgardo, our team who’d brought us this far, and pick up a new team of gauchos who would guide us over the pass and down the steep backside to our waiting bus. In life you meet really interesting people from time to time.

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People like Janni, who is a chef and dietitian who decided to join up with the Argentine Mountain guys and travel the trail, serving up some of the finest grub imaginable over an open fire. People, like our gauchos, who drag way too much gear, packed by neophytes like me, over the mountains and make the trip so incredible. People like our trail mate Eric, from Fort Worth Texas, who was enjoying a less snowy crossing this time. And Rolo, our expert guide, who’d been with us to the end of the ride.   

These are people who at the time you hope and even plan to see again, but most of the time never do. The trail team who makes what is a commonplace and readily accessible experience for them, an unforgettable, once in a lifetime adventure to someone like me.  It’s a special gift and I’m extremely grateful that I was able to receive it.

The Gauchos Enjoying a Break

The Gauchos Enjoying a Break

Mounted up on new horses, we climb the last few hundred meters to the top and say hello to Chile.  Then it’s down the steep descent to the valley below and the dream of a warm shower, and a clean set of clothes too. I had been living 24/7 in the same outfit down to underwear for 5 days now, and although I could not smell myself, I’m sure that others could. But we were all in the same boat, so nobody cared.

Carol on her new horse

Carol on her new horse

Welcome to Chile

Welcome to Chile

The steep descent

The steep descent

The ride down was the only time I felt any discomfort. Constantly leaning back and pushing with my bent legs in the stirrups put an ache into my knees that took a few days to shake. But once again the scenery changed, and while the valley had rocky mountaintops, the Chilean mountain scenery was sharper, with peaks that were in many cases pointed or like knife-edges. These peaks were all above 14,000 feet and something to behold at eye level.

The Chilean Side

The Chilean Side

Into the valley we finally rode after hours of steep downhill riding. The last river crossing was a piece of cake now that we’d been riding for 5 days. We felt like pros. Well, maybe not pros, but not the beginners we once were as we pushed across the rushing water and up the hill to the road for the final few miles to the waiting van.

Crossing the last river

Crossing the last river

Tired but excited, we said goodbye to the new gauchos and horses and climbed aboard the 4-wheel horse, riding on down the mountain to San Jose de Maipo to visit the police station and officially re-enter Chile. Upon arriving, the young policemen manning the office looked us over and told us to sit down. We were quite a sight.

Waiting for hours in the Police Station

Waiting for hours in the Police Station

We were told that it would take 2 hours to get us processed, at which point we asked if we could go the 3 miles to our hotel, shower, and return. “No,” was the answer.  So we stayed and waited. Even the Argentinians get tired of waiting and begin to check their watches.

Is that an Argi looking at his watch?

Is that an Argi looking at his watch?

About 90 minutes into the experience, the officers on hand suddenly spruced up, a couple new officers arrived, and guns and belts were handed out. Carol predicted that the boss was coming, and sure enough he did. And literally right on the 120-minute mark, the captain proceeded to call each of us into his office, one by one, and hand us our passport, stamped and ready to go.

The Captain

The Captain

Next off to the hotel Cascada de las Animas to take a shower, get into clean clothes, and have a final dinner as a traveling party. Carol and I found our room to our liking, but Steve and Cora, after stripping out of their 5-day clothes, found out that they had no hot water. It was a tough decision for them. Shower cold? No. Put on new clothes while dirty? No. Put on the old clothes and move cabins? Ughhhhh. But they did and were soon showered and at dinner.

Steve and Cora after a hot shower

Steve and Cora after a hot shower

Dinner after a hot shower

Dinner after a hot shower

If you are intrigued by the idea of riding across the Andes on horseback, let me know. Carol and I may be heading off next February to do it again. The trip is limited to 10 riders, and we are a fifth of the group. I know you can’t recreate an experience like this, but it’s something I want to do again, and that we want our girls to enjoy too. A few folks have said they are interested.  No commitments yet.  Just remember, the fun starts when you say, “Yes.”

If you think you might like to go next year, drop me a note and we’ll start to collect 10 folks who want to have a world class adventure, phenomenal food, fine wine, and excellent trail company in 2018.   To learn more about the trip, and plan your own adventure, contact Expert Guide and all around awesome individual,  Rolo Abaca, by e-mail at roloabaca@hotmail.com