Silk screen of a samurai
I moved to Chile in the summer of 1974, not long after the fall of Salvador Allende. An executive with Exxon Corporation (trademark Esso in Chile), my job as general manager was to normalize the company’s operations through investments aimed at reconstruction, and later, at diversification into copper business.
I decided to live in El Arrayán, enraptured by its natural beauty and bucolic feeling. I also enjoyed the daily commute to my office in downtown Santiago. It was a relaxing time to do some quiet pre-work thinking.
Our landlord introduced us to a few people in the neighborhood, and in that way I met the Raveras. Ugo and Toty were our first guests at home—and I recall that evening as if it were yesterday. Ugo asked me if I had ever done any mountain climbing and talked exuberantly about the benefits of living right at the foothills of the Andes. I told him I was inexperienced in mountain climbing but stayed in reasonably good physical condition— and was eager to try.
Ugo alongside his recreational vehicle
And that began our burgeoning friendship. About a week or so later Ugo drove by in his landmark white camper and we drove the short distance to the base of the Pochoco to launch our climbing adventures. We used to climb the Pochoco on most weekends, and sometimes, when I could finish work early, on a weekday, especially during the long-day summers. At first I struggled to find a steady aerobic pace, yet Ugo was an ideal coach, trainer and mentor. He introduced me to a trekking pole, the right boots and clothing, crampons and other equipment, and he showed me the rhythm and discipline of climbing. I got to the point where I could scamper up the Pochoco in an hour and 20 minutes. Ugo could summit in it in less than an hour but he always held back to encourage me. We talked about anything but business. Ugo was famous for his joke-telling and on all our climbs kept me entertained with his humor and stories. It reflected his warm heart and kept my mind away from thinking how tired I was. Sometimes a young boy, Jimmy, joined us. Ugo was multi-talented. He had been a professional signer, raced cars with his older brother, and won a national contest for the best dancer of the Argentine Tango. His partner was a former secretary in Uruguay, whom I introduced at my despedida party in Santiago.
Ugo photographs Jimmy and me on the Pochoco
There was a small community of aficionado climbers of the Pochoco that we usually saw on Sundays, but mostly we were in communion with nature. We never saw anyone along the trails when Ugo extended our climbing to other mountains in the region. I thought about the people who had hiked those trails in the thousands of years of human history —how they lived, who they loved, who they fought.
When we finished our climbing, Ugo usually invited my family to his home for a late lunch, buffet-style, or light early dinner. He and Toty were most gracious hosts. At those wonderful Sunday affairs I met Hugo’s brothers, Toty’s brother, and Ugo’s daughters Antonella and Pia, as well as fellow climbers, poignant memories for me. Ugo loved to show us slides of past climbs and adventures. Among these he presented pictures of a mummified child found in the high Andes, and was fascinated with the picture of a UFO that he had taken from his balcony and turned over to the US embassy, an unsolved mystery. On a climb of the Pochoco, in the area below the sighting, we found an unaccountable burned-out area the talk of hikers on the mountain.
Mysterious burned-out area on the Pochoco
During the years I was in Chile, Ugo led me on many climbs in the Andes, including Cerro Boniguita and Cerro de la Provincia. On ascents, leaving a village, the bark of a dog or cry of a baby would fade until all you would hear was the sound of your own breathing, and on descents, toward the base of the mountain, the sounds of the village would return. From the summit of the Pochoco, we could continue indefinitely for hours and hours through the mountain range. I had negotiated Exxon’s investment in La Disputada and on another trip, arranged a startling beautiful overnight climb up the mountain in the vicinity of the mine. We slept on the summit in a refuge that had been used as a satellite tracking station.
"on top of the world" with Ugo
We were more than friends. We were like brothers. There could not be a truer, kinder, finer climbing partner. If I was grappling with a personal issue, Ugo was always there to support me. On a longer climb, he made sure we always took a short break each hour, and carried cookies or fruit to provide an energy boost for us. When I was dead tired, Ugo would always say: “Just five minutes more to the summit,” his technique to motivate, even if that five minutes usually stretched much further.
Ugo’s dream was for us to climb El Aconcagua, if not in the season we summited El Plomo, then in the next season. El Plomo was a warm-up. I corresponded with champion American climbers to get advice on oxygen equipment for climbing at altitude, which you just don’t find in a convenience store, and Ugo assembled the components I brought from overseas.
I vividly remember the early morning we left El Arrayán on the road to Farellones to a village, where we were to meet the mule driver who would carry us and our equipment to the base of El Plomo. The sky that day was the purest cobalt blue and the air was as clean as a whistle. It was my first experience riding a mule the many hours it took us to get to the base of the mountain, past the Piedra Numerada where a group of campers greeted us.
We pitched our tent at Refugio Espejo, intending to get a very early start the for the summit next morning, but the winds were so blustery that Ugo decided to hold up until they subsided.
Other than a fall towards the lower end of the glacier, which I arrested with my ice axe, the climb was uneventful, but spectacular. We were on the summit of El Plomo by the early afternoon and, as usual on our climbs, did not stay long. We shook hands, enjoyed the breathtaking view of the Aconcagua in the distance, and prayed quietly in reverence for all climbers. Ugo told me he would head down first to get the mule driver who had retreated from the base to protect the mules from the frigid cold and begin packing. I could see him descending and the driver and his mules below, like ant specks.
A tumble down the glacier of El Plomo
By that time I had exhausted my oxygen supply but thought things were fine. However, traversing the face of the mountain, I felt giddy as I bent down to adjust a crampon. It was the last thing I remembered until waking up in the middle of the night in a military hospital, delirious and desperate for a drink of water. Two prisoners in beds on each side of me convinced a nurse to give me ice to suck on.
What I learned later is that I had fallen 400 meters in two stages. I fell 200 meters, somehow staggered up, and fell another 200 meters. Ugo rushed up the mountain, dug a snow hole on the mountain side, changed my bloody clothes into some of his own, and rushed back down in the hope of finding a way to rescue me.
Little did I know that I was dying, having lost liters of blood. I was semi-conscious of a feeling of warmth, and have faint memory of the shouting of voices, and maybe the noises of whirling helicopter blades. A year earlier a Swiss climber had fallen on the glacier of El Plomo and died instantly. A concatenation of several events, each of which was implausible, occurred to save my life.
The most important of these factors was Ugo’s heroism. Unwilling to accept defeat, he told the mule driver to rush back to the nearest town to get help, at any expense, and he went up and down El Plomo more than once that day to lead my rescue. Ugo was too modest to tell me what he did to save my life, but Toty said later that when he returned home late in the night that his neck had swollen twice its normal size from the stress he endured.
A second factor to explain my survival was exceptionally good physical condition. I had trained as a boxer and learned to avoid being knocked out by recoiling a millimeter from a heavy punch. Although I was in no state to realize it then, I believe that instinctively I cushioned the blows to my head by “rolling with the punches” as I was tumbling 400 meters down the glacier.
Other factors were simply “Fortuna,” or in a spiritual sense, you could say “someone up there liked me.” It would have taken the mule driver hours to reach the nearest town, but the same climbers we met at Piedra Numerada on the way to El Plomo showed him a shortcut, saving precious time. They also gave the helicopter pilot directions to find me, and that helicopter, barely stable at high altitude, was already in the air when the mule driver reached town, gaining more time. The helicopter landed on the mountain as the sun began to set.
Recovering at home with my son
With traumatic head injuries (I received 50 stitches in the military hospital where I was taken), my condition was critical. Again luck was on my side, as one of the world’s most famous neurosurgeons was Chilean, and in 48 hours I was transferred to the hospital where he practiced. Fortunately, I never required brain surgery. My jar was wired to heal a hairline fracture and I broke my left index finger. The nurses nicknamed me the “Bionic Man” because I recovered so fast and was released from the hospital within three weeks. I spent another month at home before returning to work.
In 1976 I transferred to Miami. Ugo was not of the Internet age and had no personal commuter. We corresponded infrequently by hand-written s-mail or phone and always exchanged Xmas greetings. Often I dreamt of returning to Chile and actually returned twice to see Ugo. I spent one summer on an assignment in Caracas a year later and flew down to Santiago to visit Hugo and Toty. One evening he took me to feed homeless dogs at the base of the Pochoco. He did this volunteer work every day. About a hundred dogs from the area came, and for most of them it was their only meal of the day. We climbed the Pochoco, and one of the dogs, who loved Ugo, climbed the mountain 100 meters ahead of us, now and then pausing like a sentry until we caught up.
The other time I returned to Chile when Ugo was alive was with my family, for the Chile Marathon in 2000, which I joined as a runner. I had rented a hotel rooom, but Ugo insisted that I stay in his home. Ugo followed me in his Fiat and he or my youngest daughter gave me grapes every 5-10 kilometers along the course. As Ugo was a volunteer mountain rescuer and had a special badge; he arranged for the broadcaster at the stadium end-point to announce: “And here comes Devalier from Tokyo, Japan! Hilarious.
I had the grandiose idea of walking Chile from North to South (or vice versa) and yearned to invite Ugo on this adventure. I got official maps of the 15 regions and did detailed planning for the expedition, intending to return to Chile to discuss it with Ugo. I was sure he would join. To walk 5,000 kms from Arica to Cabo de Horno was exciting. But the years passed and I was too late.
I still dream of Ugo. I have visions of climbing the Pochoco, but in my dream the mountain is commercialized, with an elaborate building-like tunnel for some of the trail, hordes of climbers, and many shops and restaurants along the way. I visit Ugo and Toty at their home, exchanging thoughts without words.
I love Ugo as a brother and as my soul mate. He is indeed the “Señor of El Pochoco,” with the spirit of a Samurai, heart of a lion, and nobility of character like no one I have ever known.
All the best,
Warren J. Devalier