28-Jan-2012 -- This Confluence visit was my second one after visiting 26S 69W a week earlier. My friend Duane “Sharky” Cornell accompanied me on the first visit attempt which was unsuccessful. I was alone on the second attempt which was successful.
My original Visit Plan was to ride a bus from Copiapó, Chile to the small village of Totoral and walk from there to the Confluence and then on to Carrizal Bajo where we could catch a bus to Vallenar. This was going to be a two-day hike with a dry camp so we would both be carrying almost two gallons of water in our backpacks.
Try as we might, we could not find a bus to Totoral from either Copiapó or Vallenar, so we ended up hiring a taxi to take us to Carrizal Bajo from Vallenar since it was closer than Totoral. The plan was now to make an overnight hike north from Carrizal Bajo to the Confluence and then return back to Carrizal Bajo.
A long story short: Within a few hours of entering the valley (Quebrada La Higuera) into the coastal mountains that would be our route to the Confluence, I got us lost. I hadn't made up a very tight navigation plan for this confluence visit and I paid for that mistake. Actually, coming down this valley from the Confluence as I had originally planned on doing would have been easy, as all the drainages led to the exit. But if one was going up the valley to the Confluence, he would need to pay close attention to which fork of the canyon he should take whenever they split – which I didn't do. For navigation I was only using a screen shot printout from Google Earth and it was oriented with a view from the north at an eye level of 25,000 feet and not of much help. The critical mistake I made was taking a wrong turn into a side valley a full 3 1/2 miles short of the one I should have gone into. Why didn't I just use my GPS to help keep me on course – you might ask? That's a good question.
Sharky finally insisted that I get the GPS out and find out just what direction the Confluence was from us and when I did that - it wasn't where I though it would be. We decided to head in the general direction of the Confluence and see if that would get us back on track. After an exhausting climb up through a rocky canyon in the heat of the day we reached the top of a ridge that gave us a good view of the country ahead of us and confirmation that we were nowhere near to being on course to the Confluence. We camped that night in the canyon bottom to the east and in the morning after a fruitless search for any nearby springs of drinkable water that would have allowed us to be able to continue on to the Confluence, I called it quits. Sharky and I walked down the canyon and back to Carrizal Bajo where we caught the late afternoon bus back to Vallenar.
Sharky really didn't want to quit the attempt to visit the Confluence but once we were out he decided to take a bus on to Santiago and catch a flight back to the United States. I decided to try for the Confluence again - using the original plan. I only had five days before my own flight to the U.S. left, so I would have to work fast to make it all the way to the Confluence and back to Santiago in time.
I took a bus back north to Copiapó and after finding out that there really, really isn't any bus service to Totoral, I hired a taxi to take me there. It cost me a lot more money than I would have liked to have spent, but by now I was pretty obsessed with this confluence visit and there was no stopping me. I got dropped off in Totoral – which was the sleepiest village I have ever been to – at about 4 PM on Friday, January 27. I waited until 5 PM when it was a bit cooler to start walking. I had hoped to buy a couple of bottles of water in Totoral to supplement the water in my pack but the one little place thee that looked like it might be a store was not open. I still had an empty water bottle with me that I had drunk on the taxi ride and I scrounged another empty water bottle out of a recycling bin and took them to a house and begged for water – which I got without any questions or interest in what I was doing.
Once I started walking, progress was pretty straightforward. I followed the road out of Totoral to the west for a few miles until I could enter the valley (Quebrada del Algodón) that would be my route to the Confluence. This valley had a road going up the bottom of it and walking on it made for fast time. I kept walking until almost sunset when I climbed up out of the valley and camped on a high ridge that gave me a good view of the country that I would have to travel through the next day. I was within five miles of the Confluence.
I was up early on the 28th and hiking before it was fully light. The clouds had come in during the night and the sky was overcast and the air was cool. I was glad though that it wasn't foggy as that would have got my sleeping bag wet and could have made the navigation more difficult. I walked down off the ridge and got back on the road and followed it up the valley. Once an hour, at my rest stops, I would turn on the GPS and check my progress towards the Confluence. Finally it told me that I was less than a mile away. After that I kept the GPS on and held it in my hand while I was walking. I finally had to leave the road and walk directly towards the Confluence which the GPS was indicating was up on the hillside to the west – right where it should be.
At this point I realized that the road I had been walking on all this time took me to within 1/4 mile of the Confluence. This meant that I could have kept the rental 4x4 truck that I used to get to the last Confluence for one more day and Sharky and I could have driven out here from Copiapó in the morning, visited the Confluence, driven on to the coast, had a nice day hike somewhere, gone on down to Carrizal Bajo for a late lunch and got back to Copiapó that evening before the car rental place closed. Also I realized that it would have been very easy for anyone else to have made the first visit to this Confluence years ago – so I considered myself lucky to be the one to make the first (as far as I know) visit.
I climbed up the hillside with my backpack on and GPS in hand, but it was hard going as the hillside was steep and very rocky and covered with big spiny cactus. For a while I was able to follow the GPS needle pointing towards the Confluence, but it soon became erratic so I changed the display to show the current latitude and longitude and I began to chase them down to the whole degree. There were guanaco trails zig-zagging up and down across the hillside that I used as I could. Finally I dropped my backpack so that I could move around easier and also so that it wouldn't show up in the pictures from the Confluence.
Finally I found the place where the GPS's latitude/longitude display was all zeroed out. It was on a flat rock right next to a large cactus. I was about two thirds of the way up the hillside from the bottom and the hillside was steep and it faced to the east. The place was very rocky and covered with large cactus and desert bushes. The low clouds that had kept me cool all morning were breaking up and the day was fast becoming sunny and warm. The time was 10:23 AM.
I took the necessary photos to document my visit and then walked back to my backpack and had a snack and a drink of water. I then climbed on up to the top of the ridge and followed the ridge line generally to the south until I joined the main ridge line that separated the two drainage basins. From there the route out was as simple as walking down of the ridge to the southwest and following the drainage out of the mountains to the coast. I spent the rest of the day having a nice walk down the valley, marking my progress by noting the passage of the side canyons that joined the main canyon. Finally I passed the point where Sharky and I had turned around just a few days earlier and our tracks out accompanied me for the rest of the way. I camped that night near the bottom of the canyon just below where a trail had been constructed at some time in the past for people to come in and out of the canyon. This was to be my last night camping out in Chile this year – after spending the entire month of January hiking around and camping out in the mountains and deserts.
A note: I had to list myself as the only one to make this confluence visit, but I wouldn't have had a successful second attempt if Sharky hadn't been along on the first attempt. His constant good cheer and enthusiasm for this project put me in the right state of mind for it to succeed in the end.