By Eric Hertz
Late one April after the rafting season, I was at the Cave Camp building a trail around Laguito Azul to Lost Beach with the caretaker of the camp, Checho. Earth River had been using the camp for three seasons and yet the top of the 300 foot granite monolith that rose straight out of Laguito Azul and could be seen from everywhere in the camp remained a mystery.
Stopping to rest, I looked over at the granite tower, 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 we always seemed to know what the other was saying. For years 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 sheep or cows or sheep up there and it certainly wasn't worth breaking your neck to find out.
Things had remained pretty much unchanged at the 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 subsistently off the land without electricity, running water or indoor 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 only on weekends.
Nothing much had changed at Campo Casa Piedra until the day Checho saw a strange yellow raft pass by. In the ensuing years, Earth River purchased the property around Zeta Rapid including the strange tower for their 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. Checho's relationship with me grew as we spent countless days in the off season designing and building trails while exploring every nook and cranny of the 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 day I mentioned the top of the tower, Checho's incredulous reaction soon turned into an understanding nod. Without a word the trail work to the beach stopped and the next few hours were spent bushwhacking through dense thickets of bamboo and bramble, casing the base of the tower in search of some sort of chink in its 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 make it past those first two pitches, then we could probably bushwhack and boulder scramble the rest of the way up.
Scouring the area we found a dead, six inch diameter tree 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. When we were both safely on the middle ledge we hoisted the log up to repeat the process to the top.
I shinied up the tree to the safety of the second ledge. 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 to safety, the intrigue of reaching a place he had spent his whole life below was too great and Checho made a desperate lunge for the top. Grabbing the lip with one hand, he kicked wildly sending the log crashing down and leaving him helplessly dangling 80 feet off the ground. I quickly grabbed his hand while Checho managed to secure the other. As I pulled the overhanging lip caught his chest. Already exhausted from the previous climbing, Checho was losing strength fast. Time paused for several minute like seconds. Finally we managed to inch and tug his body 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. Why worry about getting down, I thought, when we were still on our way up.
With Checho now leading, the steep route took us 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 but I stayed back knowing this was Checho's moment.
Crashing through one last stand of intertwined brambles our growing 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 upon a large vertical crack. A single chink in the stone gates that guarded the mysterious upper world. The crack was just wide enough to squeeze into sideways. Placing our backs against one side and pushing off with their arms and legs, we inched 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 which we used to pull themselves up.
Suddenly Checho let out a wild scream. He was on top of the world. I was just a step behind and looked around in wonderment. It was one of the most incredible views I had ever seen. Looking like melted emeralds, the majestic Futaleufu stretched out in front of me as far as I could see. Everywhere we turned we were engulfed by the lush canyon and the snow-capped peaks beyond. 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, 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 of us having any idea nor caring, what the other was saying. That we had no safe passage back down was now but a distant memory.
We broke our embrace, walked out on a knife-edged like face that jutted out from the main tower and sat down to take it all in. Until that moment Checho told me he had never quite understood why people would travel halfway around the world to visit his little piece of Patagonia. How could he I thought? He was now learning to row a raft on the dangerous river with the unpredictable currents his mother had so often warned him about. It must have finally all made 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 rodeo, this strange job with its crazy adventures must have been the most wondrous thing that had ever happened to him.
As we sat there on that ledge, Checho told me about his father and grandfather. He wondered what they would have thought about this. All the things that had made their farm the least desirable in the valley, I thought, the massive granite outcropping 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 and managing three additional workers. He was able to put away enough money to buy a pickup and build a modest house in the town of Futaleufu. Not much more than a two room shack, 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, we spent the next hour pointing out Zeta rapid, the stone hot tub, Lost Beach, the main stone shelter and the brilliant blue water of Laguito Azul. Checho told me about his dreams for the future. More than anything else he wanted his children to be guides especially his one-year old son Alfredo. He enjoyed living at Casa Piedra 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.
Suddenly the wind picked up, yet down below the trees were still.
"Mucho viento los Torres", Checho said, "Tower of the Winds", I said. He nodded.
As we headed down, our thoughts quickly switched to the final 80 foot cliff. I always kept matches with me when I worked in the woods. It was a habit I had gotten into during my kayaking days when you never knew when you might get stranded for the night. We reached the area of the stunted bent over trees, cleared away an area around the base of two and built a tee-pee fire around them.
When the trees had burned through, we carried them down to the lower cliff and tied the tips together with our shirts. Using Checho's belt, we carefully lowered the makeshift ladder over the edge and climbed down the mass of intertwined branches to the middle ledge. We lowered the original log to the ground and slid down.
The moment Checho's feet touched down 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 shirts we were so happy to be down in one piece that the cold didn’t matter.
While we were feeling our way back to Checho's house, my mind wandered to the top of the tower. In a career that had taken me exploring all over the world, the experience that day on top of that tower was one the most moving. It wasn't just about the trials, tribulations and final reward of the discovery, but the thought of getting all guest safely up there to experience it.
That evening we sat around the cook stove in Checho's tiny kitchen eating homemade bread with cheese and sipping mate. We were exhausted mentally and physically and hadn't said a single word to each other since getting down from the tower. It had been a wild day. Especially for Checho whose strange journey had really begun three years earlier. I imagined that for the first time in his life the past, present and future were one.
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. In a day it had gone from just being there, in the way of everything, to somewhere and the center of everything. Billowy white clouds were flying across the sky just above it and yet down below where we were it 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 mentioned my thoughts on this to him.
Checho Berrera 1964-2002In 2002 our dear friend, Checho Berrera passed away. 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 smile and wonderful adventurous spirit.
Contact FormTel: 1-800-643-2784
Virtual Tour of the Futaleufu