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Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Arts and Entertainment

Climbing in Gaucho country

Slide show highlights Patagonia

Express Staff Writer

The lead guide and founder of Patagonia Adventure Expeditions, Jonathan Leidich, is in town for a special slideshow on Patagonia at 7 p.m. Friday, July 16, at the Sawtooth Botanic Garden. The event is co-sponsored by Backwoods Mountain Sports.

At 19, Leidich left his home in Colorado for Patagonia, Chile, in order to climb unnamed peaks, hike where nobody had ever walked, and explore an area for which there were no guidebooks. The area where he settled is near the Aysen Glacier Trail, the last region of Chile before Punta Arenas.

A cowboy in the Patagonia region of Chile. Photo by Juan E. Undurraga

In 1997, Leidich founded Patagonia Adventure Expeditions at the headwaters of the Baker River, in the village of Puerto Bertrand, where he has lived for 10 years.

Well-known guide, climber and Patagonia Adventure Expedition guide Bean Bowers is also appearing at the slideshow.

Bowers is a leading technical supervisor for mountain films made in Patagonia and the logistical and technical coordinator for multinational expeditions

"Puerto Bertrand has 65 residents," Leidich explained. "It’s the geographical center of the hydrologic basin that includes the northern Patagonia ice fields, South America’s second largest lake, General Carrera, that flows out into the Baker River at 50 cubic feet per second."

Leidich and the other guides live in a barn with all their gear.

"It’s the jumping off point for the trail," he explained. "The dock is in front of house. It’s where we put-in for our half-day raft trips and 10-day raft trips to the Pacific. There are blue ribbon fishing streams chock full of rainbows."

Patagonia Adventure Expeditions also has an office in Coyhaique, the regional capitol. The company eventually became a leader in the development of adventure tourism in the Aysen Region of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field. Leidich opened 10 trails based around the ice cap that had never been used for recreation.

"These trails had long been the historical cattle drive trails," he said. "This region has only had a road through it for the past 19 years. The trails were all in use and in existence but had never been thought of as a tourism draw."

The first completed commercial expedition on the Aysen Glacier Trail was awarded a seed capital grant from the Chilean Government Venture Capital and Investment Institution for marketing. This project was also supported by local ranchers and town’s people who live in shadow of Hielo Norte, local and regional governments, the Environmental Protection Agency of Chile and the National Forest and National Parks Department of Chile.

"It’s unusual for the country of Chile to put money into eco-adventure tourism, rather than industry. They’re finding out that there’s a lot of money to be made and jobs to be had.

"We do 12 major trips a year, and we’re looking into going into heli-skiing. Owners of Whistler and Canadian Mountain Holidays are coming on a reconnaissance mission in August," which is the heart of Chile’s winter.

For the last five years Leidich has also been developing a Dream Trek, a seven-day hut-to-hut trail on the eastern margin of Hielo Norte.

Their trips mostly take place within the boundaries of the Parco National Torres del Paine, a world biosphere reserve.

UNESCO recently designated the reserve a World Heritage site. This designation gives the area an extra level of protection, Leidich said. Patagonia Adventure Expeditions owns ranches adjacent to the World Heritage site. "We work in conjunction with them and they have granted us exclusive rights to work within the park, It’s a completely untouched area."

Patagonia Adventure Expeditions employs five people in administration, 12 guides and 10 support staff who are mostly Chilean, "imported from Santiago. There are also Spaniards, Aussies, Brits, Americans and Canadian," Leidich said. An international guide is "teamed up with local guides who are adept at the history, geography and customs in the area to round out the experience for folks."

A group from the Sun Valley area went on one of the 30-day trips this spring with Patagonia Adventure Expeditions. They were "Joe Humphrey and his harem," said his wife Nancy.

"Having spent many years trekking in the Himalayas, this is such an exciting part of the world to explore, camping with the gauchos, riding the gaucho ponies, and catching a glimpse of the gaucho culture is really a treat," Nancy said.

With the Humphreys were Starr Weekes, Kathy Levison, Susan Dechevrieux, Margot Silver, Diana Landis, Jackie Rounsville, Judy Levy and Ruth Sherman.

"The maximum number of trip size is 12, which is very important to us as it assures us sustainable development of the trails, daily resources, horse resources, trail regeneration and trash is kept low," Leidich explained. The 30-day trip links the three jewels of Patagonia, the Aysen Glacier Trail, hike across the Argentinean border to the Fitz Roy Massif, then travel by land to Forest del Paine.

"Jon is truly wonderful and has incredible knowledge to share of Chilean geology, glaciology and the gaucho culture," Nancy Humphrey said. "Also, Bean is amazing, a world class climber, a dancer on granite, well-known and respected in the climbing world and legendary in the Peruvian Andes. Both have a true passion for Patagonia, and their energy and love for the area pervades everything they do."


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