Trials and Treasures in Patagonia – Patagonia, Chile

Trials and Treasures in Patagonia
Patagonia, Chile

Rivers in Patagonia run wild. Few bridges cross the glacier-fed streams and our group was having difficulty locating a safe crossing spot. The Nadis River had only grown deeper and wider as our expedition journeyed further into the secluded valley in southern Chile. Now twenty people were faced with the daunting task of crossing a rapid-moving river. Numerous attempts were made the previous day, but all scouting parties were forced back by impassable waters.

Our options were running out. The guides contemplated setting up a tyrolean traverse, but it seemed unlikely that even they could swim the powerful river. We could continue upstream, but it would take us days off schedule. Our group had not yet been turned back and failure was not acceptable so early in our expedition. Now, our first great challenge rumbled before us.

Two days of scouting had revealed only one potential route. Having joined the scouting party’s first attempt, I knew the challenges they faced. In the deepest spots the water would rise above every person’s waist and the current was strong enough to send a whole team swimming. Temperatures in the river would threaten hypothermia and loose rock was a challenge to sure-footing. An attempt would be made in the morning when the river level would be the lowest. It would be led by our guide Nacho Grez, a native Chilean, experienced mountaineer and the strongest member of our expedition.

Nacho led the scouting group into the river armed with a sturdy stick for support. “Step,” he commanded over the roar of the river. Each step was calculated and risky. In the train formation, the lead person absorbs the force of the river thus creating an eddy behind them, just like a large rock in the river. The others receive less pressure and work at bracing the lead person. The train is a great method so long as the group maintains position directly behind the lead. If one person steps out of line, they are hit by the force of the water and often end up swimming.

From the banks we could see the water level rising past Nacho’s waist. Determined to succeed, he leaned forward with all his strength and fought against the river’s power. The waters surged around him and more time began to elapse between each step. They were only halfway across and already their chances were dwindling. With little chance for a group of twenty to cross, it came as no surprise when Nacho ordered, “Back!”

Safely together on the river’s bank, we began to calculate our options. A line of poplar trees downstream was indication that a residence might exist. Gabriel, a native Chilean, took a scouting party to explore and when we spotted them returning, they were accompanied by two horses. “Bin Laden,” our guide whispered. As the first horse approached, we viewed an older man with a stocky build, black beret and a long, grey beard that earned him the unusual nickname. Though he held an eerie resemblance to the infamous terrorist, the likeness vanished when a charming smile appeared across his face.

His name was Pablo Pizzaro and he had lived in this secluded valley for over thirty years with his family. Their home was more than two days from the nearest town and they ventured there only twice a year to stock up on supplies. Otherwise, Pablo and his family were completely self-sufficient in their secluded nook in the world. They raised pigs, sheep, cows and chickens along with a scattering of crops. Pablo, his wife and four daughters had seen no other people in almost two months and he was grateful to be of assistance.

Pablo Pizarro watches on as our groups attempts to cross the Nadis River
Pablo Pizarro watches on as our groups attempts to cross the Nadis River
Pablo scouted the river by crossing at different spots on horseback. We watched closely to determine the depth and only after he had crossed three times were we able to plan a safe route across the wide, rapid-moving river. Pablo and his daughters looked on as the first group entered the water with Nacho once again in the lead and four others forming a train behind him.

“Step!” the leader commanded as the group ventured deeper into the river. The waters rose around them, past Nacho’s thighs and above his waist. The going was slow and laborious, growing more difficult with each step. It appeared the Nadis River had finally defeated our efforts. Then we noticed that as Nacho moved the group at an angled direction towards shore, the water level was decreasing. With each step, the group was making definite progress. A short time later, we found ourselves cheering as the five of them stepped onto the eastern bank of the river.

Now gathered safely on the opposite side of the Nadis River, Gabriel informed the group that we had been invited to Pablo’s home. As we followed the trail to his homestead, we marveled at the wonderful location. Situated on the banks of the Nadis River, their farm was a scattering of small wooden buildings, each built with Pablo’s own hands during their 30 years living in this secluded spot. They enjoyed spectacular views of the Nadis River Valley where patches of snow lingered on mountain spires and glaciers ran down the spine of the Andes.

We were greeted at the gate by Pablo and his family who sat looking on in mild amusement at the group of gringos lugging heavy packs. Having been well over a month since this family had seen other people, the sight must have come as quite a surprise. Upon being invited into their home, five of us filled the tiny cabin. We huddled together in a small living room around a table and wood burning stove.

Pablo Lassoes a Sheep
Pablo Lassoes a Sheep
The stove was brought to the home by horse during their first years in the Nadis Valley. It appeared almost ancient and especially heavy causing my eyes to examine the other items in the home. Anything not built by Pablo had been brought to this isolated location by horse from the town of Cochrane, a three-day trip even in the best conditions. This put into perspective the great lengths that this family had come to inhabit the valley.

A kettle of boiling water that sat atop the stove was used to prepare yerba mate. Pablo filled a small gourd with the herb and then added the water before offering to each of us. One by one we received the gourd and finished its contents. The heat of the water left my face flushed and red, my eyes watering as I attempted to finish the traditional drink.

Pablo continued to prepare the yerba mate while his daughters worked on baking biscuits in the stove. The sight of plump, puffy dough stirred each of our appetites and combined with the heat of the cabin caused us to retreat temporarily from their home allowing others to enter and enjoy their hospitality.

Pablo offered to prepare a traditional asado so we followed him to a pen holding more than twenty sheep. Upon seeing Pablo approaching with lasso in hand, the sheep began to scatter in hopes of avoiding becoming dinner. But Pablo had already picked his target and in just one throw he lassoed the largest sheep in the pen.

Pablo Kills a Sheep
Pablo Kills a Sheep
We gathered quietly around the sheep as Pablo sharpened his knife. Moans and gurgles were heard as the knife was thrust into the sheep’s throat and the jugular vein sliced. The blood flowed cleanly and smoothly and we watched in silent amazement as life crept from the sheep. It was then skinned from nose to tail while Pablo and several members of our group worked not to waste an inch of a good hide. Once the skin had been removed, Pablo gutted the sheep and hung the remaining carcass over a creek. After being cleaned, the sheep was quartered, placed on stakes and set next to the fire.

As the sun began to drop below the horizon and the Nadis River Valley fell under the light of a setting sun, we sat around a blazing fire and ate lamb straight off the bone. Like savages we tore the meat from the bone, gorging our faces with tender lamb and chasing it with mashed potatoes. Pablo tended to the fire, his smile hidden by his beard and his face aglow in the light. Though we were from worlds apart, we had weathered many trials to reach this place and now we shared in the same rewards.

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