The North Stretch

One of the most incredible parts of a journey like this is how present it keeps us. Being constantly captivated by all of the new sights, sounds and experiences holds our focus on the current moment; leaving little time to dwell on the past or future. Therefore, each day is a new adventure full of unforgettable moments. Weeks can seem like ages. None of us can believe all that’s happened in just the last week or two through sections 5 and 6! The last two sections have been an expedition all their own. 

After finishing section 7 we took a bus back to the nearest town of Lonquimay to resupply, repair some gear, and wait out the impending weather that had been forecasted. This was a very fortunate decision as the precipitation that was predicted ended up being an intense storm. We waited out the worst of it, thankfully watching the battering winds and rain from indoors. We made our way back to the trail once things had calmed, apprehensively looking out the bus windows to the freshly snow covered mountains we’d soon be climbing.

We arrived at the southern end of section 6 in the late afternoon and made our way to a refugio (hiker’s shelter) where the road ended nearby. The refugio turned out to be adjacent to the homestead of another lovely family of settlers who, in typical Chilean fashion, invited us to come warm up inside by the fire and share matè and fresh tortilla (traditional bread cooked beneath the ash of the fire). It wasn’t until we began to set up our tents for the night that Anthony found that his inflatable sleeping pad had got a large gash sliced into it from something on the bus ride. The small patch-kit didn’t seem to be performing well, which meant we might have a big problem. A good sleeping pad would be essential to insulate from the cold while camping much higher in the snowy mountains the following nights. The kind family attempted to help, offering patch materials they had, and even insisting that Anthony borrow one of their sleeping pads for the night.

The last of the poor weather was taking its time to move out which prompted us to spend the following day at the ranch, waiting for things to clear up before we attempted the mountain pass that lay ahead. Anthony was able to use that day to try some alternative patching options, which succeeded as a temporary fix. We sat by the fire and listened to stories from Elsa, the 80-year-old aunt who lived with the couple, Dante, Delgodina and their son Angel as the rain pattered on the tin roof. We were, of course, invited to partake in another asado as Dante and Angel took a goat and prepared it outside before we could even attempt to politely decline. We accepted the honorable meal. Garrett’s stomach couldn’t handle any more meat, so we discretely snuck his meat over to the rest of us, who gladly received the delicious extra helpings.

The next morning, we thanked our hosts, who insisted on sending us off with plenty of bread, and continued toward the mountains. We had been advised by Jan (the creator of the trail) to take an alternate route to reach the mountain pass, as the main trail was badly eroded in that area. This diversion had some surprises of it’s own in store for us though. We set out to cover about 15 km. that day and camp on the other side of the pass. However, we ended up making about half of that distance, and camping beneath the mountain we had yet to pass. The route we took had also been eroded. We reached seemingly impassable, steep slopes made of nothing but scree that had us sliding back two steps for every one we took. A pretty serious fall by Garrett had us slowing down to find the safest route as we pushed on. We lowered packs and ourselves down steep gravel and rock faces with para-cord (the only ropes we have). It was clear we weren’t going to make the mountain pass that day. We made an impromptu camp at the rocky base of the mountain.

We finally made our way up the steep snowy slope the next morning. Occasionally a soft section of snow would have us post-holing through up to our thighs. Although the view at the top was so much more than worth it! “It’s not every day that you see a smoking volcano!” From the top we had views of the incredible (active) Copahue Volcano and all that still lay ahead of us in the sections. Fueled with this enthusiasm, we made it early the next day to one of the places we’d been looking forward to most; the home of legendary Juan Carrileo.

We had been informed of how knowledgeable and kind Juan and his family were, yet they surely exceeded all our expectations! We arrived at their summer homestead along the Rio Chaquilvin to be greeted by Juan’s wife Elena. As soon as we introduced ourselves she invited us in and began to slice an endless mountain of bread for us. We got to know her and their youngest son, Gabriel, while Juan and his other son Leo were out herding the animals. Gabriel went out fishing while we had tea with Elena, who then fried the trout up for us for lunch with freshly made salsa. The generosity of the people out there in the campo (countryside) had us all reflecting on the customs of our own homelands. How differently do we interact with a stranger passing by back in Europe or the U.S.? Just one of the many things the Carrileo family had to teach us.

Juan and Leo returned on horseback with the herds of goat and sheep shortly before dusk. Without taking a moment to rest after working all day, Juan then proceeded to slaughter and prepare a goat outside in the dark for an asado with us! We of course couldn’t decline the honor. At least this time we mustered up the courage to tell them that the boys didn’t eat meat; a concept of confusion to Chilean ranchers. We ate by homemade candlelight and learned more about the area from the Kimche (a native word for wise man) who had lived there his whole life. We did an interview with Juan the next morning and nearly spit out our matè we found out he was over 70 years old! None of us could possibly conceive that he was any more than 50! His eyes, full of wisdom and compassion, are the only thing that gives up his age. No one would ever know that he’s worked that way for so many decades!

As soon as our interview and morning matè with Juan had concluded, he was suited up in chaps and spurs to head out for a day of work. We thanked all four of them for their unbelievable hospitality and again continued on our way, each with a loaf of fresh tortilla. We left with such full stomachs we weren’t sure that we’d even make it to the nearby hot springs that we were planning to camp by. Unfortunately, the hot springs ended up being a little more literally a ‘hot spring’ and not the natural pools we’d imagined soaking in. So we hiked the rest of the day to reach the end of the section at the small village of Guallali.

From Guallali it was only three days through section 5 to complete our Northbound part of the trip! The powerful winds there that night prevented us from getting much sleep, but that couldn’t deter us from keeping a good pace to get through our last ‘hiking only’ section of the trip. We got a helping hand from a local construction worker who gave us a lift up the road a few kilometers towards the Laguna El Barco. Even with the helpful ride, we arrived at the lake pretty exhausted. We relaxed at the campground on the lake that afternoon, gathering our energy for the next day, which would be the longest distance we’ve hiked in a day so far. Fortunately, the majority of the incline we had to ascend that day we crushed first thing in the morning.

For most of the rest of the day we covered ground quickly on the high plateau, surrounded by views of the massive, glaciated volcanoes like Copahue. The difficult part of that day didn’t end up being the long distance, it was the lack of water sources up on the plateau. We hiked nearly the whole day on just the water we started with that morning. Nothing can describe the feeling of finding fresh running streams when you’re low on water, hiking in the hot sun! It was a long steep decent down to the valley below. We reached the grassy fields and got a great night’s rest before pushing through the last day of pure hiking we’ll have on this expedition.

The section ended in the incredibly scenic village of Trapa Trapa. The next day we took one of the most terrifying bus rides of our lives along the cliff edge roads, from Trapa Trapa to the town of Alto Bio Bio. We’ve now just completed interviews with native Pehuenche elders and youth alike that have left us speechless. The knowledge that the people of Alto Bio Bio had to share with us was immeasurable. It was truly the most remarkable end to our time in this region that we could have asked for!

We’re now headed back South to finally make our way into the “official” boundaries of Patagonia. We’re all insanely excited to get into Patagonia and do some more pack rafting! Stay tuned for all to come from our navigations of the Patagonian rivers and lakes!