Think of it as landscaping for climbing junkies with a masochistic bent.
For six weeks this winter, Drew Smith and Chance Traub spent all day pulling, sawing and hoisting weeds, brush and trees from the cracks of a 3,000-foot vertical granite cliff in the mountains of southern Chile. The end result was two first ascents, one with the aid of gear in a traditional style and the second in a lighter free-climbing style after the route was finally cleaned.
“We could have climbed it in five days, and it would have looked just as good,” Smith said. “But we spent time cleaning the pitch and putting in bolts for protection.”
Now, other climbers can follow the route with less gear.
“I think of it as giving back to the climbing community,” said Traub, a 31-year-old New Mexico wildland firefighter. “I’ve climbed a lot of routes that other people have put up.”
The duo named the new route in the Cochamó River Valley “Positive Affect.” The name honors Traub’s wife, Jennifer Dinaburg, who died of adrenal cancer last April.
“This climb was trying to make a positive from a negative,” Traub said.
Both climbers felt like Dinaburg was along in spirit, too, sometimes providing a helpful hand along the way by ensuring good weather as well as much-needed climbing holds.
Hanging in there
Hanging off a cliff in Chile is a long way from Smith’s roots. He grew up until age 11 in the small Missouri River town of Cascade. His dad worked on a nearby ranch. Then his family moved east of Miles City, where he graduated from high school. Although he tried out college at the University of Montana, he quickly decided it wasn’t a good fit.
“When I was in high school, everyone went to college,” he said. “I went and I hated it.”
Rather than return home, he struck out on his own, finding work as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, traveling to Asia and Europe and then relocating to Jackson, Wyo. It was in the shadow of the towering Teton Mountains that Smith began climbing in earnest. He started out bouldering and worked up from there, tagging along on other climbers’ adventures to learn techniques, while also reading books and watching instructional videos on YouTube to gain knowledge.
“I love the challenge and the focus,” he said.
When he’s climbing, Smith said he is thinking of little else. He also enjoys the heights.
“That’s probably my favorite part, the open space and the exposure,” he said. “It’s a wild feeling. I love it.”
Now 27, he’s become a nomadic climber — traveling from rock wall to rock wall across the United States in his Toyota 4Runner to places like Yosemite and Joshua Tree national parks, usually camping out to save money while he explores climbing routes. When he runs out of money, he works and saves until his next adventure.
“Some people think I’m a trust funder,” Smith said and laughed at the absurdity of the idea. “But you can make your money last a lot longer if you’re not paying rent or if you cook your own food.”
His only big bills are for gas, car insurance, a cellphone and — tellingly — health insurance.
One of the things Smith likes best about climbing is the community that has grown up around the sport. At any climbing gym or cliffside venue Smith can find people to show him local routes.
That’s how he met Traub and they began planning their first ascent in Chile. For Traub, the planning was also a “mental timeout” from the reality of his wife’s constant struggle with cancer treatment.
The Cochamó River Valley is well known to climbers around the world, partly because the huge cliffs resemble the more accessible faces of Yosemite National Park in California. An American climber established a lodge along a route that was once used to herd cattle from Argentina to slaughterhouses and shipyards in coastal Chile.
The lodge provides a place for travelers to camp, eat and trade intel on climbing routes new and yet-to-be climbed. The problem is that many new approaches lack a trail. And first ascents like the one Smith and Traub created are overgrown with vegetation. They picked out their route by gazing through a telescope at the lodge.
“We wanted a line that wasn’t too wandery and weird,” Smith said. “We wanted a line that was aesthetic and dry, without vegetation.”
Others had tried the route they decided on and failed. Since they couldn’t see the bottom, Smith and Traub were in for some surprises along the way.
For three days they hauled climbing gear and food to their first base camp — about 500 pounds of ropes and canned food that it took three horses more than four hours to haul to the lodge from the nearby town of Cochamó.
Then the other work began. From sunup to sundown, they would clear brush, climb and pull vegetation while hoisting loads of gear up the cliff … day after day, just the two of them.
“The first time we went up we had to climb these bushes, which was terrifying,” Smith said.
Temperatures soared into the 90s and rain fell steadily for one entire week. During one stretch, they spent eight days on the side of the cliff, camping out in a portaledge tent hanging from the face of the big wall. A portaledge is a hanging tent system designed for rock climbers.
“I’ve done trips before with a friend, but this was a lot of work,” Smith said.
With his background working on elite hotshot firefighting crews, Traub said he was used to digging in the dirt.
When not working, they stressed about whether the route would get finished, whether rain would shut them down and if they would be able to complete the climb, all while being tormented by biting horseflies the size of dimes.
“It was blue-collar work,” Smith said.
The payoff was the opportunity to free-climb the entire route. It took 15 hours to ascend the 19 pitches, the last one a scramble to the top. The majority of the pitches were rated 5.11, with one a 5.12. A 5.11 is a steep route that requires difficult and powerful moves. A 5.15a climb is considered the most difficult.
“When we left, the locals were happy with the route,” Smith said. “It’s one of those things, the more you think about it, it’s amazing how it all worked out.”
“After having some other folks climb it from the local area and being happy with it, that makes it worthwhile,” Traub said.
Although rewarding to have established a big-wall first ascent, Smith is looking forward to less-gear intensive routes for a while. And despite being gone for almost two months, he had no desire to spend more than a short time in Miles City visiting family.
After a brief stop in Billings to visit his brother, he was on to Mount Shasta in California where he has work in an outdoor school taking youngsters backpacking and climbing.
“I was home for a few days and the feeling I get right before I’m going to leave is exciting,” he said. “If you stay in one place too long, you know what’s going to happen and you know what’s not going to happen.”
One thing is for certain, though, both men would like to return to Chile just to climb, not to weed-eat the cliffs.
“I would definitely entertain the thought of going down to Chile, since we have the logistics figured out,” Traub said. “It’s by far one of the neatest spots I’ve ever climbed.”