Contrary to what one might think, our culture is not one of mountaineers. Although the poets such as Mistral or Neruda, writers such as Coloane and painters such as Pedro Lira have captured the Cordillera in their works, knowledge of it did not come purely from passion, but rather from government mandates for territorial recognition. Works like those of Hans Steffen, Amado Pissis, Ignacio Domeyko or Claudio Gay have been restricted to an academic setting without permeating our population as a whole. This dissociation with the environment has led us to be a Mediterranean town, which lives with its back to the mountains and the sea and where the curiosity so typical of childhood has been dampened by the valleys where our cities lie. If the dimension of the Andean landscape continues to be denied by the great majority of us, it is not this way for our guest columnist.
When climatic adversity did not allow me to cross the pampa near my house, I spent hours stuck to the window of my room, watching an acute inflection that broke the distant and monotonous horizon of the steppe of Tierra de Fuego. While I was contemplating for hours upon the best route to climb that hill, the figure of Salesian father Alberto Maria De Agostini, perhaps the best explorer of Chile in the last century, came back to me repeatedly. I imagined him still young and fresh from Italy, on some highland overlooking the Strait of Magellan, observing on a diaphanous summer day the unattainable Mount Sarmiento, one of the most beautiful mountains in Chile and one of his life’s obsessions.
Whether it is Mount Sarmiento or this small and distant hill of my childhood, what triggers this insatiable desire to explore is the imperative need to keep alive those remarkable visions of inhospitable lands, so typical of more tender ages. In this sense, the practice of mountaineering is a catalyst for curiosity and a way to materialize those landscapes so often dreamed of. Through mountaineering, not only is it possible to satisfy a purely sporting interest, but also to know and penetrate those cultures that live deep in the mountains. In this way, the Andean landscape, extending more than 7000 km, is like a window to the geological and cultural past of our continent and, at the same time, it is an environment conducive to observing oneself. Looked at in this way, the exploration of the Cordillera has meant a journey through three dimensions: the expressive dimension, the reflective dimension and the social dimension.
The expressive dimension manifests itself in fertile areas, where natural life is presented explicitly. In these steep, rainforest-covered mountains, everything is noise and movement. They are the Andes of Colombia, Ecuador and part of Peru and Bolivia; they are also the green Andes of the dismembered coast of southern Chile. Exploration is reduced to being a spectator to what happens there.
The reflective dimension of the Andean landscape entails a certain taciturnity. The invitation in these places is for inner exploration, accompanied by the wind or the most disturbing silence; the scenery might be the Andes of the Altiplano or the Atacama Desert, but also the high peaks of the ice fields of Patagonia.
The social dimension of the Andes is transversal to the geographical; the ascent to its summits necessarily entails passing through tiny towns or villages on the edges of the maps that serve as a starting point for excursions. They are small populations with subsistence economies, extremely poor in the light of the Western vision, but at the same time they are the custodians of the cultural heritage of the Andes. In these settlements there are conversations not pressed by the clock and where myth is confused with reality.
Understanding that motives of curiosity are different in each person, I have found in the journey through these dimensions of the Andean landscape the most sincere way of experiencing the present stripped of any other temporality, only the here and now. This journey through the landscape is, in short, what allows restless souls to feel alive. De Agostini took forty-six years to conquer the summit of Mount Sarmiento, leaving behind the indelible trail of a monumental work filled with beautiful images of the Patagonian geography, its peaks and its people. I hope to take as much time or more to know the top of that distant mountain on the horizon of Tierra del Fuego’s steppe.
David Valdés Figueroa is a lawyer, graduate from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, and Executive Director of the Sociedad Geográfica de Documentación Andina (Geographic Society of Andean Documentation) – Andeshandbook <http://www.andeshandbook.org/>, an institution that seeks to promote appreciation of the Cordillera through outdoor activities.