First Ascent of the Tower of the Winds
A tribute to Earth River’s good friend and caretaker at the Cave Camp, Checho Berrera (1964 - 2002)
by Eric Hertz
Late one April after the rafting season, I was at Cave Camp building a trail around Laguito Azul to Lost Beach with the caretaker of the camp, Checho Berrera. The camp got its name from the massive rock shelter on the property. At one time the Puehenche Indians lived in this natural stone house which had a natural fireplace and was large enough to ride a horse inside.
My company, Earth River Expeditions, had been using the Camp for three seasons and yet the top of a 300 foot granite monolith that rose straight out of Laguito Azul and could be seen from everywhere in the camp remained a mystery.
Stoping to rest, I looked over at the granite tower, my eyes tracing the sheer, unbroken 300 foot north wall to the top. I turned to Checho and asked if he had any idea what was up there. We communicated in a cross between Spanglish and sign language, yet each of us knew what the other was saying.
Many times I had wondered about the mysterious tower but the foreboding walls guarding the top had always seemed insurmountable. Checho gave me an odd sort of look as if to say, why would anyone in his right mind care. After all, you couldn't graze cows or sheep up there and it certainly wasn't worth breaking your neck to find out.
Things had remained pretty much unchanged at his Casa Piedra farm for the four generations Checho's family had homesteaded it. He was born in the primitive turn of the century farmhouse his great grandfather had built on the plateau overlooking the river about a mile from Zeta Rapid. Cut off from the outside world, they lived off the land without electricity, running water or plumbing. Checho's children, starting at age six, rode three hours by horse, in all weather conditions, to reach the nearest public boarding school where they lived for a week, returning home on weekends.
Nothing much had changed at Campo Casa Piedra until the first time Checho saw a strange yellow raft float by. In the ensuing years, we had purchased the property around Zeta Rapid including the strange tower for our wilderness camp and Checho became the caretaker. He took tremendous pride in his work as the camp's handyman, builder and guardian. He was a gracious host with a wonderful smile that filled the camp and everyone who met him liked him. When a new group arrived they would often ask,
“Whose the guy running around with all the sleeping bags and pads?”
The river guide's would say,
"Oh that's Checho, he takes care of everything around here."
My relationship with Checho grew as we spent many cold, wet days in the rainy season designing cliff dwellings for sleeping, setting up hot tubs in the natural pot holes carved into the rocks around Zeta Rapid and building trails while exploring every nook and cranny of the expansive property looking for things river guests would enjoy seeing or doing. Every nook and cranny with the exception of the top of the mysterious tower which was never far from my mind and the furthest from Checho's.
The next day while working on a wooden bridge, that connects the cliff dwellings to the native stone shelter, I mentioned the top of the tower. Checho's incredulous reaction soon turned into an understanding nod. The trail work stopped.
Without a word we headed around towards the back side of the tower. Fighting dense thickets of bamboo and bramble we searched for some sort of chink in the tower’s seemingly impenetrable armor.
Finally on the southeastern corner we found what looked like a possible route. It started with a sheer 80 foot wall, broken in the middle by a ledge large enough to comfortably stand on. It looked as if we could just make it past those first two pitches, we could probably bushwhack and boulder scramble the rest of the way up.
Scouring the area, Checho found a six inch diameter log stripped of limbs and bark. It looked long enough to reach the first ledge and light enough to move. We wrestled it up against the wall and shinnied up up to the first ledge. We then pulled the log up. Unfortunately when we placed it up against the second wall it was a few feet short necessitating a free climb of the final few feet.
I went first. Being tired made the final scramble much more difficult then it actually was but I made it up. All was going smoothly with Checho until he began to tire a few feet from the top. I knew something was wrong when he began muttering something in Spanish I couldn’t understand. Rather than giving up and sliding back down, I imagine the intrigue of reaching a place he had spent his whole life below was too great not to continue. He wildly lunged for the top grabbing it with one hand. I grabbed it and he began kicking wildly sending the log crashing down. Time paused for several minute like seconds. Finally I was able to inch and drag him to safety.
Checho bent over trying to catch his breath while I contemplated our predicament. The log was now laying uselessly on the shelf halfway down. It was small solace that it had stopped there. Shaken but with renewed resolve, Checho signaled that he was ready to continue. I nodded, at this point there was really no reason to worry about getting down.
With Checho now leading, the steep route took us scrambling up and over small unexposed ledges and through choked brush. As we neared what appeared to be the top it was getting harder and harder for me to contain my anticipation. The view had to be unbelievable. Crashing through one last stand of intertwined brambles our excitement was abruptly broken by a final 40 foot, featureless granite barrier. There were no dead trees to shinny up and even if one of the bent over stunted live ones had been long enough, without a knife or saw there was no way to cut it. Searching for some sort of weakness in the rock, we bushwhacked to the right until confronted by a 250 foot drop off.
Moving left, our hopes slowly dwindling, we came to a large vertical crack. A single chink in the stone gates that guarded the mysterious upper world. The crack was wide enough to squeeze into sideways. Placing our backs against one side and pushing off with our arms and legs, we could safely inch our way within the confines of the opposing walls. After about 15 feet, the crack widened giving way to a steep scree slope laced with roots allowing us to scramble to the top.
Suddenly Checho let out a wild whop. We were standing on top of the world. The emerald colored Futaleufu flowed between snow-capped peaks as far as the eye could see. Everywhere I turned we were in the center of the view. It was the height of fall and a wide swath of brilliant red lenga trees ringed the mountains beneath the snow line.
The top was much bigger then I had thought it would be, about the size of an Olympic swimming pool. In a spontaneous moment we jumped into each others arms and began dancing around like children screaming exuberantly in our native tongues, neither having any idea nor caring, what the other was saying. That there was no easy way back down was now but a distant memory.
We broke our embrace, walked out on a knife-edged face to the right of the main tower and sat down to take it all in.
“magnifico” I said.
“Beautiful” Chech responded.
I’m sure up until that moment he never quite understood why people would travel half way around the world to visit his little piece of Patagonia. How could he? He was now learning to row a raft on the dangerous river with the unpredictable currents his mother had so often warned him about. That afternoon, in that moment, it probably all started to make sense; all those years of toiling on the land, of enduring one harsh Patagonia winter after another in a seemingly endless cycle.
Aside from the joy of his children and his passion for racing horses in the rodeo, this strange job with its crazy adventures, was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to him. As he sat there on that ledge, he told me a little bit about his father and grandfather and growing up there. All the things that had made their farm the least desirable in the valley, the massive granite outcroppings and its extreme isolation, were the very same things that now made it special to so many people.
Checho's responsibilities with Earth River had grown over the years to the point where he was setting up ropes for the Tyrolean river crossing. He was able to put away enough money to buy a pickup truck and build a modest house in the town of Futaleufu. It had electricity, running water and most importantly was only a few blocks from the school. Never again would he have to ship his children off each week for eight months of the year. Never again would he have to helplessly watch as they endured three hours on a horse through driving rain, wind and sleet.
With our condor-like view, Checho and I spent the next hour pointing out Zeta rapid, the stone hot tub, Lost Beach, the main stone shelter and turquoise Laguito Azul. Checho told me that more than anything else he wanted his children to be guides, especially his one-year old son Alfredo. He enjoyed living at the Casa Piedra farm during the summer months when the weather was good and the kids were out of school. Even with all the past hardships he loved the place passionately and understood fully the opportunity it had given his family. We stood up, and shook hands in one last congratulatory touch. The wind had picked up considerably and yet down below the trees were still.
"Mucho viento los Torres"
much wind on the tower, Checho said.
"Torre de los Vientos",
"Tower of the Winds", he said. Eric nodded.
As we headed down, my thoughts quickly switched to getting off the tower. With little choice, we grabbed some dead, twisted bent over limbs and tied them together with our shirts. Using Checho's belt, we lowered the makeshift ladder over the edge and climbed down the mass of intertwined branches to the middle ledge. We carefully lowered the original log to the ground and slid down.
The moment Checho touched the ground, he crossed his chest, dropped to his knees and kissed the ground. The sun had set and the temperature had fallen considerably, yet even without a shirt I didn’t feel the cold.
While we were walking back to Checho's house, my mind wandered to the the top of the tower. In a career that had taken me all over the world, the experience on top of that tower with Checho was one of the highlights. I couldn’t wait to be able to share the experience with our clients.
That evening we sat around the hot cook stove in Checho's tiny kitchen eating homemade bread with cheese and sipping mate. I was exhausted mentally and physically. Checho and I hadn't said a single word to each other since getting down from the tower. It had been a wild day. It must have been especially wild for Checho whose strange journey had really begun three years earlier.
The next day while working on the trail to Lost Beach, Checho stopped and looked over at the tower, his eyes tracing the unbroken North Wall to the top. Billowy white clouds were flying across the sky just above it and yet down below everything was still.
"Necesita todo cliente vamous alto los Torre."
“All the clients need to visit the top of the tower,” he said.
I nodded and smiled. I had never said a word to him about taking our guests up there. In a single day, a useless chunk of granite had gone from being in the way of everything, to being the center of everything. It was perhaps the first time in Checho’s life, that the past, present and future were one.
NOTE: In August of 2002, our dear friend, Checho Berrera passed away at the age of 38. The Earth River staff and guests who knew him will remember Checho as a kind, gentle soul and a gracious host who made everything work so smoothly at Campo Casa Piedra. We will never forget his wonderful adventurous spirit and smile.
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