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Climbing in Patagonia with Jim Donini: Entry Fee (Part One)

Kelly Cordes  /  April 6, 2012  /  4 Min Read  /  Climbing

Above: The coveted view from the porch – literally shot from Donini’s porch – with the unclimbed north ridge of San Valentin in profile in the middle of the frame. Lago General Carrera in the foreground. Photo: Kelly Cordes

In early 2009, Kelly took a trip to Northern Chilean Patagonia with climbing legend Jim Donini. Here, Kelly revisits his notes from an adventure with Jim. This is the first in a series of short posts from their trip.

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Entry Fee

I’ll be damned, the old man was right. Chilean friends universally flashed doubtful looks when I said we planned to access San Valentin from Mirador, rather than the epic icecap way – probably the main reason why this line remains unclimbed. And this line, well, Jim has a full-on woody for it, won’t stop looking at it, won’t stop talking about it, because, he readily admits, he can see it from the front porch of his house (his and his wife’s humble but tranquil “retirement home” in pretty much the middle of nowhere). This was January 2009, and I’d spent the previous week in Santiago, and when friends asked I’d just shrug my shoulders and make air quotes in saying that Jim claims he “Has it all figured out.” One Chilean, who’d just come back from a month on the icecap, shook his head and smiled a smile that said, OK, but you gringos have no idea. He’s right that I had no idea. Jim, on the other hand, older than my dad (Jim was 65 then, but going on 30 – still is), has forgotten more great climbs than I’ll ever do. He’s a walking talking climbing legend who’s still cranking trad-eleven (5.11 trad routes, that is), and he knows how to figure things out.

But still, not everything has to be climbed, and this isn’t a story of a big climb – all we really did for a few days was some heinous vertical bushwhacking. And a little birdwatching.

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Traffic jam in remote Chilean Patagonia, on the drive from Coyhaique to the Donini retirement home. Photo: Kelly Cordes

We left the truck at 450 feet above sea level, and paid our entry fee for the private access to the Mirador trail and lookout. The Chilean kid running the welcome station wore a ¡Sin Represas! shirt, common around there for those who don’t want Chilean rivers all dammed (which is most everyone who actually lives there). The kid spoke no English, and our Spanish was (still is) pathetic. He tried to explain something about what he charged us for entry, but we didn’t get it until he took us outside to the sign and pointed to the discounted “Adulto Mayor” sign – Jim got a senior citizen’s discount.

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Adulto Mayor Donini, all smiles at his senior’s discount. Photo: Kelly Cordes

At 550′ elevation we hit the glacier. Something about the proximity to the Antarctic landmass, with its massive cooling effect, makes for colder weather and lower glaciers than at the same latitude up north, like Portland, OR. Something like that. We walked the dry ice glacier for about four miles, gaining only 100 feet, and started up a horribly loose, but dry, streambed. Then we began the bushwhack from hell. A machete bushwhack. Jim’s brilliant plan. (Didn’t seem to bother him any.) Thick jungle, with thorns and scads of utterly hateful drive-you-mad tabanos (possessed horseflies on steroids – what were they after up there, besides us?). We macheted through, making what seemed like zero progress in the thick jungle. With 60-pound packs – enough to bivy and climb, even though it was officially a reconnaissance mission. I couldn’t even keep up with the Adulto Mayor. About an hour in, I wanted to quit. I did. This sucks, let’s go climb something else. Jim wasn’t having much fun, either, but I didn’t tell him I was ready to bail and go rock climbing. Damned pride. Instead, I whacked more jungle with my machete, and tried to swat more tabanos, somehow knowing that it would get better.

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The man himself, sorting gear on his porch. Photo: Kelly Cordes
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A huge, unnamed and surely untouched rock wall near Mirador. Photo: Kelly Cordes
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Just another spectacular view from the house. Photo: Kelly Cordes
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Jim strolling across the low-elevation glacier. Photo: Kelly Cordes
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Enough respite from the bushwhack-from-hell to snap a photo. Photo: Kelly Cordes
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Donini overlooking the glacier near the end of a long day of bushwhacking. Photo: Kelly Cordes

Tune in next week for part two.

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