Zoë Procter, June 2017
I managed to get some mountain running in during a short work sabbatical in Santiago, Chile in May 2017. I was researching air pollution and the effect of the Andes on understanding its circulation and transport in the surrounding areas. My first day at work happened to be on the city’s first “Pre-emergencia” air quality warning of the winter, halting outdoor school gym lessons and limiting traffic in certain areas. My land lady lent me an old bike, allowing me to cover many miles during my stay, braving the smog and the hectic traffic, commuting to the University of Chile in the centre of town and getting out into the nearby mountains.
Well before I left, I was already researching the travel and mountain exploring possibilities. 12 years ago I travelled in Patagonia (Torres del Paine and the South Patagonian ice field) and Baňos Morales near Santiago, but this time, on my own and without mountaineering equipment, I decided my trainers and some warm clothes would have to suffice to get me up any mountains. I soon realised that I could do plenty of day trips at weekends and get into some exciting terrain.
I contacted the Santiago Mountain Running Co. (STGOMRCO) to see if I could join them for evening training sessions and in the hope of getting some company in the hills at weekends. I was told I was very welcome and enthusiastically followed their social media posts in the run up to my trip, noting down the places they posted from that I had to visit!
I chose my accommodation to be close to the forested urban park and the hill of San Cristóbal that has a cable car and funicular running up to the top. On my first weekend I explored that area and carried on through the park to get to Cerro Carbon, an extension of the park and 1300 m high, affording a great view of the city (600 m high).
I turned up to the first STGOMRCO evening training session with a headtorch and spare kit on my back, ready to explore the urban park’s hilly trails by night but was told that they run on the off road cycle path underneath the hill and on the winding road up the hill on winter’s evenings. I was a bit disappointed but I realised that this park at night wasn’t as safe as the Peak district hills and there could be some unsavoury souls ready to mug us. Back at home I try to do a speed session on the track once a week but haven’t trained with a coach or done structured sessions for many years so getting into these sessions with a coach twice a week was pretty effective for me. I moved into a faster group each session until I was eventually with the fast boys and really having to work hard as we did 400 m or 1 km reps up the steep road.
The club meet at a café at the park’s entrance, owned by one of the runners and you can buy home-made fruit smoothies and empanadas afterwards, have a chat and pose for their obligatory group photo for social media. Well, I guess their advertising brought me to the club, so it must work! It was good for my Spanish to chat to the runners (even though I was pretty scared turning up the first time). I started to feel at home with the group, by sharing the session and running in silence while out of breath, and I felt a part of the club. The club put on a kundalini yoga session at the café on Friday evenings; quite an amazing experience as we chanted away in both Spanish and Sanskrit! One session a couple brought their dog and it wandered around between us, giving the class a great feeling of inclusion, which is wonderful when you are a visitor. The teacher played a gong at the end and you could feel your whole body resonating- it was a great end to the working week and then we all made plans for weekend meet-ups and runs.
My second weekend I headed off to Aguas de Ramon park, across over on the eastern side of the city, from which white-topped mountains rise. The Cordillera parks are a network of parks on Santiago’s fringes and allow conservation, environmental education and tourism to keep these wild areas so close to the city as safe and untainted as possible. There is a small charge to enter and you have to sign in and leave your intended route. The gates close at 5 so they make sure that everyone is safe and accounted for. I learned that as a runner it is best to get there early as the single-track trails make passing difficult. I was told that I needed to get to a ranger- attended point by 10.30 if I wanted to be allowed on to the furthest point on the trail so I set off at a blazing pace, only to realise at 10.45 that I hadn’t actually noticed that I had gone past the checkpoint a fair distance back. I relaxed and carried on the lovely run past cactuses and Mediterranean vegetation as it went over a few viewpoints and then passed over and across a large canyon to a waterfall at the foot of a cliff face. The next day I headed to Cerro Manquehue (1638 m), a hill looming over the city that looks so impressive from the eastern side. I was beginning to recognise the hills and feel proud when I could see one that I had been up! Whilst up there some people told me that there had been a few muggings on the ridge beneath this hill, but I need not worry, the culprits had been arrested 2 weeks ago. Hmm, this made me aware I was being quite naïve and trusting, running around on my own, as an obvious foreigner in these hills.
Cerro Manquehue and Cerro Carbon: towering above the city
On the Saturday of my last weekend the club met in the outskirts of the city and about 20 of us headed up towards the Alto de Naranja ridge line. I didn’t know how the session would run but knew that some of the faster ones intended to go up the path to Cerro Provincia, a classic hike. I assumed we would re-group at some point but the run seemed to turn into an individual race and I just kept the person in front and the person behind in sight and joined in the challenge and attacked the 1800 m ascent over 12 km to the top. Beats the Sandy Heys time trial that Pennine does up Kinder! It was really cold in the shade before 8 am but once on the ridge I was in a T-shirt, only to be hit by blasts of freezing air as I hit the snow level just over 2000 m. The path wasn’t too obvious as the snow had hidden some of the markers and I was pleased as I put some more layers on to be caught up by a club mate and we tackled the final rocky scrambles in between the hard-packed snow gulleys and ended up on the summit plateau where we met the fastest people turning round and beginning the descent. After a few summit photos my camera and I both got too cold and I started the descent. The paths in Chile are often quite loose, dry earth and gravel, not something I am very used to from the UK so I was a bit cautious on the steepest ones, but eventually it became a wonderful swooping descent all the way back down to where the club started. We were cheered in (I got a bit lost in the final little tracks at the bottom) individually and I felt so happy to have done such an epic and beautiful run.
For my last weekend I had wanted to do something really special so I set about trying to hire some ski touring skis up near the ski resorts of nearby Farellones. I went to the outdoor shops, ski rental shops and contacted some tour companies and guides, but eventually gave up. It sounded like it was still early season for that and I was unlikely to find all the right kit for it. During my search, my running friends recommended me to contact an English guy living in Santiago who might know about ski touring. So I got in touch with Matt, an adventure, travel and environmental journalist (with an interest in air quality too) and when the skiing idea fell flat he suggested an adventure run for the weekend and I couldn’t say no!
On the Sunday I started cycling to the outskirts of town (uphill) before the sun had risen to meet my companions for the day. I had said that my bike was a bit old and creaky and that my legs would be a bit tired but Matt turned up with his French friend, Fabien on a tandem mountain bike that was probably also from 1990! They had been out running and cycling the day before too – everyone I was meeting was mad for it here! I desperately followed them up the ski road- a tandem is pretty fast once it gains momentum. We turned off after 10 km and headed through a gate and along a jeep track for a few kilometres before eventually stashing away our bikes and turning into running mode.
We did a circular tour up Cerro Terremoto, aided by the wikiexplorer route on the phone, starting by skirting around some beautiful hillsides above a river with a fair bit of bush-whacking but finding some paths lower down then open country and easy navigation up high. The snow was a lot softer than the day before, much less wind-packed so there were no technical difficulties and we enjoyed our time on the summit before a joyful, gentle descent along a ridge with a couple of minor summits. We had seen eagles and huge black birds (we assumed condors and smaller vultures) but it was whilst running down the ridge with them swirling above us that we really experienced the sheer size of a condor as one swooped out of nowhere on a smaller bird that I was watching. The smaller one must have been in the condor’s viewing space as he soared above and it had annoyed him. The sound of the beating wings and how close they were to us was just stunning. The rest of the run was a bush-whacking, try-to-stay on-your-feet steep and loose descent where as you lost control you tried to avoid the cactus looming beneath you. It was good fun as we followed our noses back down to the spot where we left our bikes.
I stumbled back to my house as the sun was setting and faint with hunger- I had really squeezed all I could out of my time in Chile; my work had gone really well, I had done lots of training, seen incredible mountains, had loads of adventures and met some really cool people. As much as I enjoy training and running, I realise that getting faster in races isn’t nearly as important as the ability this fitness gives us to enjoy and endure big days out in the mountains, having adventures in beautiful places.