Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins

I vaguely remember one of my last updates being two days before I had spent one month on the road, so I’ll start where I left off and give a rather dry progress update. I’ve reached Villa O’Higgins at the end of the Carretera Austral, 230km from Cochrane and 1193km from my start in Puerto Montt. Time-wise, I arrived in Puerto Montt on the 17th of September, and left on the 20th. That means the entirety of the Carretera took me almost a month to the day (October 18) to complete, with plenty of rest days. As I’ve gotten further into the trip, I’ve started to take more of these rest days, as the ripio has generally been tougher down here on me and my back/rear end. But as my body has gone, my bike has not. My noble steed has officially made it through the entirety of the Carretera Austral, a road known as a bike-eater, with no problems save for two small patchable punctures on the front tube. Racks are intact, rims are true, and I haven’t even needed to pump up the back tire once in a month of riding. My most heartfelt shoutout to Paul’s Bicycle Way of Life on Alder St. in Eugene for building me one hell of a durable ride.

Cochrane from above
Cochrane from above

Some people down here don’t feel as I do about Doug Tompkins.
Some people down here don’t feel as I do about Doug Tompkins.

The last 230km have been incredible. I slowed basically to a crawl on the sunnier days, and pushed when I felt like it on the cloudier ones. Leaving Cochrane under perfectly blue, cloudless and windless skies led to probably my favorite day yet, riding past spectacularly blue lakes, short passes, and massive glaciers. Combine the fact that this is the most remote leg of the trip with the closure in this season of a particular ferry crossing Lago O’Higgins into Argentina, and this day was the first that I really felt absolutely alone out here. Fewer cars passed me here than at any other stretch of the Carretera, and I would often spend an hour or two without being passed by so much as a police patrol vehicle. Just me, the livestock, and the small hand constructed homesteads every 10-15 kilos. Fences gradually disappeared from the sides of the roads, and amazing opportunities for wild camping seemed to pop up endlessly. I’ve spent two nights waiting out rain storms in gorgeous campsites just on account of “that mountain might look better in the sun. I had to actually convince myself that I wasn’t being greedy, which may in retrospect seem ridiculous. But such is life when there’s really nothing to do but ride, read, eat, and sleep.

For full effect, repeat this pic basically 180 degrees from horizon to horizon.
For full effect, repeat this pic basically 180 degrees from horizon to horizon.
Candid bike pic
Candid bike pic
I didn’t take the detour to Tortel because I wanted to get to a refugio that I was promised had great views of a full valley. It’s a town that’s entirely constructed from boardwalks, with no streets. A shame, because after climbing to the refugio I found it without access to water, and full of sheep dung. I continued on, not wanting to go back down the climb. Disappointing.
I didn’t take the detour to Tortel because I wanted to get to a refugio that I was promised had great views of a full valley. It’s a town that’s entirely constructed from boardwalks, with no streets. A shame, because after climbing to the refugio I found it without access to water, and full of sheep dung. I continued on, not wanting to go back down the climb. Disappointing.
Going down, not up. Thankfully.
Going down, not up. Thankfully.
At the intersection to Tortel, the road meets back up with the Baker River once more.
At the intersection to Tortel, the road meets back up with the Baker River once more.
After a large climb, I was met with this view and just laughed. Had to walk up this one.
After a large climb, I was met with this view and just laughed. Had to walk up this one.

One night, after I missed a daily ferry ride, I was offered a free dinner and a bed to sleep in by a nice group of Chilean soldiers at an outpost near the ferry terminal. (Really just a boat landing and a house in the middle of nowhere.) We spent the night watching Chilean soaps and Friday Night Lights.

Leaving the last ferry.
Leaving the last ferry.
This is where you actually leave Route 7. They’ve constructed a new road to a different town and called it Route 7, I think. After over 1000km on it, here is where I said goodbye to Route 7.
This is where you actually leave Route 7. They’ve constructed a new road to a different town and called it Route 7, I think. After over 1000km on it, here is where I said goodbye to Route 7.
There is Water Resistant, Water Proof, and Patagonia Proof. Since it would never dry properly here, making tarp refugios for my tent is necessary.
There is Water Resistant, Water Proof, and Patagonia Proof. Since it would never dry properly here, making tarp refugios for my tent is necessary.

But the soldiers are really the only people I’ve spoken to at length since I last was in contact. A few people stopped to make sure I knew that the usual ferry was closed, and then offered advice about the pass at Rio Mayer. It’s pretty darn remote down here, and my wild camp nights are usually spent politely telling herds of wild horses to be flexible and use a path that doesn’t go through my campsite, or reading. David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, about workers at the IRS, is understandably just hilariously absurd in this setting.

“Sometimes I imagined coming into the coffee room and finding Mr. Glendenning alone, leaning back against the counter, staring down into the coffee in his mug and thinking deep administrative thoughts.”
“Sometimes I imagined coming into the coffee room and finding Mr. Glendenning alone, leaning back against the counter, staring down into the coffee in his mug and thinking deep administrative thoughts.”

Looking back on the Carretera, there’s only really one word to describe it. Unpredictable. You could start the day with blue skies, and end it with snow and sleet. You could think that your elevation map is correct and that you’ve reached the end of your climb, but lurking around the next bend is a 15% grade for half a kilometer. You could think the next town is 5km and a detour away, but you come around the bend and, whoa, there it is right on the Carretera! You could think that you’ll make it 75km in a day, but the road could be washboarded, have big gravel, and hit a big headwind and you’re proud to make 25. But in the end, it has lived up to every word that has been written about it. Difficult, challenging, and lonely. But incredible. The most incredible place I’ve ever been. It doesn’t feel like a month has gone by, and as I rode into Villa O’Higgins on some of the worst ripio yet, I couldn’t help but smile and pretend like I’m going to miss the knives in my abdomen after 50km in a day.

But the fact is that the Carretera in 2014 is on the verge of being a big tourist attraction. Villa O’Higgins isn’t the lonely border outpost it once was. The Government bureaucracy tasked for providing the projections for these sorts of things says the road will be paved by 2018, and many spots have already been widened in preparation for this. For better, this means that more people will get to experience this place. From Doug Tompkins’ beautifully manicured parks, to the huge lodges being built on the Baker River, this frankly bodes well for the preservation of the river and Chilean Patagonia as a whole. The ferries will probably be upgraded soon as well to provide faster transport for locals, increasing the connectedness of these far-flung communities. For worse, this means that the lonely gravel roads that turned this whole trip into the physical challenge and, frankly, somewhat spiritual journey that it turned into are slowly going away. Pavement will bring more cars, and less solitude to this place. If you want to bike it or drive it and experience it in its gravelly, washboarded glory, then these few years are your chance.

How much longer will I be able to herd sheep and cattle along the road for 5km at a time? Sorry, ranchers. They were already heading that way.
How much longer will I be able to herd sheep and cattle along the road for 5km at a time? Sorry, ranchers. They were already heading that way.
And horses!
And horses!
You can see the road cutting across the hillside in the distance. Nothing else.
You can see the road cutting across the hillside in the distance. Nothing else.
I’ve gone through every northwestern US state environment. Now Utah.
I’ve gone through every northwestern US state environment. Now Utah.
Lago Cisnes outside of Villa O’Higgins
Lago Cisnes outside of Villa O’Higgins

And in this conflict, you see the reason why there is a little bit of resistance to Doug Tompkins and his efforts down here. I’m generally on the side that this improvement of the road is a good thing.With connectedness comes wifi, and energy efficient lightbulbs, and recycling. There will always be opportunities for solitude and getting off the grid down here, be it in backpacking or through other means ($25k private helicopter fishing trips, anyone?). After all, there is only one road, and it already hits almost all of the communities down here. The real problem is stopping massive expansions and big projects.

Coming into O’Higgins.
Coming into O’Higgins.
Rio Mayer! That’s the name of my border crossing!
Rio Mayer! That’s the name of my border crossing!

Anyways, now I’m in Villa O’Higgins, with the Mayer pass about 40km to the north of here. The road didn’t extend to Villa O’Higgins until 1999, which means that the buildings are all relatively new. Combine that with the picture below, which is my sunset view from my hotel room, and it’s a pretty incredible place to be and I feel very accomplished. As the crow flies, I’m less than 5km away from the Argentinian border right now, but it’s an adventure to get there. I’m going off word of mouth now about who’s manning which border stations. Tomorrow I’m going to the police station in town and they will supposedly tell me which border station to get to and who to talk to and what to say to get my exit stamp at the end of the road at Mayer. My next stop, given everything going right in this adventure, will be in Gobernador Gregores Argentina, which is about 275-300km away. If I’ve heard anything about my next stretch, it’s that the riding will be much flatter and devoid of scenery. Such is the Argentinian side of Patagonia. It’s basically a grind at this point until Torres del Paine.

Villa O’Higgins, and the sun sets on my time on the Carretera Austral.
Villa O’Higgins, and the sun sets on my time on the Carretera Austral.

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