It’s night. I’m in a tight Andean valley over a day’s hike from the dirt road through a complex web of contours. At sunset I found a large boulder clefting two streams. Now I’m lying in my bivvy bag in the dry lee of the divided water. Stars are catching in the rock pools. Moonlight will soon seep over the cliffs. Above my head I fumble with a pathetic apex of hiking poles, assuring myself it will deter the pumas. Tonight I’m alone on the Greater Patagonian Trail (GPT). But the reason I am here is because of Jan Dudeck.
Weaving the thread
Jan Dudeck first came to South America in 2001 on a work trip. The then 25-year-old German engineer spent a few days inspecting a gas turbine in Chile’s northern industrial town of Tocopilla. It was an inauspicious start to what would become a passion. The following year he capped his work in Tocopilla with three month’s holiday, determined to see more.
Dudeck saw a lot more, returning nearly every summer for the next 12 years. First, he ticked off the classic hikes: Torres del Paine and the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre area. He hiked around Puyehue and tackled the Villarica Volcano Traverse. Next he devoured the remoter suggestions in Lonely Planet’s early guide, Hiking in Patagonia. By 2009 he was running out of published trails and began a series of trips on horseback, guided by local arriero horsemen. It was on his 2012 trip to Vilches Alto and the ‘Headless Volcano’ that he made a discovery. Or more accurately, he made it at a computer back in Europe.
Technology had developed during Dudeck’s years of hiking. Curious as to where the arrieros had taken him he opened Google Earth. Bathed in the light of his computer, and studying images captured from space, he systematically explored the remotest Andean scratches, beginning to weave the thread.
‘If you have high-resolution satellite images, even a 30-centimetre horse trail is visible,’ begins Dudeck. ‘You don’t see it continuously, but you see enough to know there should be a connection.’ After successfully retracing his ride, the hiker began planning new adventures in uncharted areas. Back on the ground with his wife, Meylin Ubilla, ‘we would drive in with our hiking gear as far as we could. Then we’d try to follow what we had seen by satellite. It worked surprisingly well.
‘These are all trails made for local needs,’ Dudeck continues. ‘From Santiago down to Icalma [the first 1,000 kilometres of his trail], they are primarily made by arrieros and indigenous Pehuenche people to drive animals.’ He came unstuck further south where the trails enter dense forest. Taking stock of the lakes and rivers on the map, the engineer had a brainwave. ‘I began searching for some kind of boat that was light enough that you could carry it in a backpack.’ Dudeck had inadvertently landed on the established adventure discipline ‘packrafting’. The idea of a continuous trail system via both land and waterways began to crystallise.
Down to Earth
In mid 2017 I found Dudeck’s 76,000-word almanac at Wikiexplora.com and a link to the even longer 500-page hiker’s manual. It provided details of a long-distance route network in the southern Andes linking Santiago across 1,800 kilometres with the nominal gateway to Patagonia in Puerto Montt. From here it traversed 1,200 kilometres of Patagonia-proper to finish at Mount Fitz Roy in Argentina. Dudeck is constantly expanding the route south with plans to reach Cape Froward or beyond.
Around the same time I heard a podcast with US ‘thru hikers’ Bethany ‘Fidgit’ Hughes and Lauren ‘Neon’ Reed. Thru hikers, I learned, were people completing a single uninterrupted journey along an entire trail. They received their monikers while thru hiking established national trails such as the 3,500-kilometre US east-coast Appalachian trail (the star of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods) or the 4,300-kilometre west coast Pacific Crest Trail (seen in the Reese Witherspoon’s 2014 film, Wild).
Fidgit and Neon had somehow already clambered, bushwhacked and volcano-skirted along the nascent GPT, investigating new sections as they went. The whole concept seemed magical, impossible and brilliant. Dudeck let me into his GPT Facebook group. It was full of weather-beaten and wild-eyed explorers. I wanted to know everything.
In December 2017 I took the Santiago metro to the Bellavista de la Florida station, then a local bus to the outlying Río Clarillo National Reserve. I had downloaded Dudeck’s GPS data and from the reserve’s entrance I held topographical detail on my phone of the GPT’s 3,000-kilometre route south. On my back, I had little more than a summer sleeping bag, an inflatable mattress, a block of cheese, half-a-dozen empanadas and a change of socks. Dudeck’s GPS route is actually more of a network, amounting to 15,000 kilometres of backcountry hiking and packrafting adventure. Yet neither the duty warden, nor Carlos Peña his boss (local administrator of Chile’s private forestry corporation CONAF) had heard of the GPT. Dudeck’s strident GPS line through the reserve would take me well beyond its limits into 3,000-metre high cordillera. Access was denied.
Right to roam does not exist yet in Chile. I had been warned to tread carefully with authorities and not tarnish the reputation of the trail. There was, however, an implicit suggestion that it was easier to plead forgiveness when caught off-piste in the southern Andes, than ask for permission. Sixty-three per cent of this long, thin country is mountainous. But the vast majority of it is untravelled, unknown or off-limits. After I accepted his invitation to share coffee, Peña relented. Initial resistance had stemmed more from an earnest desire to protect Chile’s wild places than any officious wielding of power. Three days later, I had a similar experience when escorted politely out of the Codelco copper mine by the duty manager, around 85 kilometres across the mountains. Access was going to be difficult on the GPT. But along the way I had already met the long-billed bandurria bird on a hidden mountain marsh. I had bucked dust with wild horses and slept out in starlit solitude.
I was a conscript to Dudeck’s vision.
Law of the Mountain
More trips followed. In the austral summer of early 2018 I hopped on a cargo boat down to Patagonia. From the hamlet of Chile Chico, I waded into the electric glacial rivers of Lago Jeinimeni National Reserve. Some 2,000 kilometres south of Santiago, the thread of the Greater Patagonian Trail splashed through thunderous floodplains, wriggled through labyrinths of Antarctic beech and squeezed beneath dizzying cliffs where the world seemed to have been rolled on its side. The GPT’s mind-bendingly huge landscapes had previously intimidated me into rushing through them. Now, however, I wanted to move less, and see more. ‘This trail rewards the humble,’ Dudeck had replied to an early, impetuous email, ‘and it humiliates the proud.’
The political landscape was changing too. Patagonia National Park had just been created by the outgoing left-of-centre Chilean government. The Jeinimeni and nearby Tamango reserves had been amalgamated with a rewilded 200,000-acre tract of land donated by the US’ Tompkins Conservation organisation. A continuous 640,000-acre corridor of national park now linked two wildly underfunded reserves and their four employees with the 70-plus personnel of multi-million dollar philanthropy. The GPT discreetly pressed through it all.
Along the trail, a Jeinimeni warden lamented the decline in sheep farming following Tompkins’ purchase and re-designation of the adjoining land. Wild theories, including the one where the gringo conservationists are secretly building a nuclear bunker, still exist. ‘People just don’t believe that you would give something like that back,’ concluded a local lawyer on a bus north of Cochrane. Initial communication failings with local communities aside, there was a serious movement growing in the southern Andes to buy up private land, or reclassify state-owned land, with the goal of greater public use. Solutions for its future sustainable finance by the state were less clear.
Dudeck is concerned that the GPT is in danger. ‘A lot of these trails are at threat,’ he says. ‘You hardly see any young people working as arrieros. Life in town is more convenient now. The trails are disappearing.’ Meanwhile, at the other end of the economic spectrum, affluent Argentinians and Chileans have been increasingly adventuring into the Andean foothills for recreation in the last decade. Powerful players have been experiencing the mountains, and in turn, coming around to the idea of preserving them.
In July 2018, in a gold-trimmed chamber, I attended a round table meeting with incumbent centre-right MP Sebastian Torrealba. He was proposing the new Law of the Mountain. Its goal: ‘to establish a right to responsible and informed access to mountain territory.’ The mining industry, the army and ski resort managers were invited, alongside rock climbers, mountaineers and ecologists. All expressed their general approval. In October I photographed Torrealba in Santiago’s surrounding Yerba Loca valley. The politician was calling for a ‘democratisation of the mountains’. As the lower economic groups come out of the mountains, and more affluent ones enter them – is this the changing of the guard that the GPT needs?
On the trail
Dudeck is not sure. One of the biggest obstacles facing the proposed Law of the Mountain is how to negotiate new access arrangements through private land. He cites attempts by the Sendero de Chile foundation to make a continuous trail along the length of the country between 2000 and 2009. ‘It never even got close,’ he states, due to frustrations with private interests. The GPT Wikiexplora article also spends a lot of time shattering hikers’ expectations. ‘When you venture onto the GPT,’ Dudeck writes. ‘You are mostly an unexpected guest on trails that were not made for you. So at least be a respectful and friendly trespasser that can explain in Spanish what he is doing there.’
Alone with the pumas and my hiking poles for protection, the complexities of access laws seem a distant obstacle. It’s another two day’s hike to the road in Coya. If I do happen across a landowner – the wave, smile and Spanish salutation of the German explorer seem a suitable stop-gap, for now.
This was published in the February 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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