jueves, 22 de febrero de 2007

I stepped off the bus in Fiambala, Argentina as the sun was setting and the arid mountains surrounding the desert valley were shimmering golden in the crisp evening light. Walking into the center of town was a foreshadowing of my weeks to come. It was still in the late siesta hours and the tiny town of about 5000 was absolutely deserted. I tried to find accommodation at the Hosteria Municipal but it was full so I was directed to a hospedaje farther from the center. This took me out on lonely dirt roads past vineyards and horses in pastures. Just as the sun was leaving the mountains I found the small hospedaje and settled in.

An older mountaineer from Buenos Aires was staying there and had just come back from a successful climb of Incahuasi (6650m). I told him what my plans were and he fully assured me that my objectives were impossible, especially if I was planning on going alone. It was the middle of February, the driest month of the year in The Puna de Atacama, which is one of the driest deserts in the world. I looked at his photos and sure enough there was barely a patch of snow on the entire peak of Incahuasi, which is said to be the highest mountain in the world without a permanent glacier or snow field on it. Usually, there is snow down to 5000m elevation so that a person can stay alive by hiking up, melting water with their stove and bringing it back down. However, at this time the mountain slopes were just barren sand. In the morning I talked with Johnson Reynoso a local who knows the mountains better than anyone and he urged me not to attempt my plans. But I had travelled over a thousand kilometers to get here and I was determined to explore the desert.

My original plan was to make an extended 13 day traverse of the high elevation desert wilderness and make an attempt to climb the tallest volcano in the world: Ojos del Salado 6890m.  This would take me from Las Grutas refuge to Cazadero Grande refuge with the ultimate goal of climbing this mountain which also happens to be the tallest peak in Chile and the second tallest in South America. This trip has been done by at least one person before, but the difficulty level would be heightened under such dry conditions. Already with an enormous backpack of food clothing and equipment I would have to add an enormous weight in water, usually between 4 and 13 kilos. A backpack weighing 40 kilos would be more that I had ever dared carry, and now I would be walking under this weight at high altitude, 5500m meter mountain passes. I knew that the combination of a heavy pack and high altitude would be punishing, if even possible.

Anyway, I purchased food for about 16 days and a system of plastic water bottles that would allow me to carry 13 L of precious water. This included two 5 litre jugs strapped onto the outside of my old backpack.

The next day I was generously given a ride out to the edge of town by Johnson Reynoso where I would set myself up for what might be a difficult hitchhike 200km into the desert. I luckily found a nice patch of shade under the single tree on the road. I had read on the internet to expect 3 to 6 cars a day on this road, which passes the boarder from Argentina into northern Chile so I settled in and made myself comfortable. There was no rush. I had a large bag of fruit, shade, and water. For an hour not a single car passed. An old Señora who lived nearby came out and met me. She told me that once time she met two girls who waited under this tree for 2 days to get a ride. I could not help but laugh.

Just as I was pondering how many days that I would have to wait a huge yellow transport truck came chugging up the road and pulled to a stop in front of me. I climbed in and was off.

We made our way through bone dry mountains and expansive plains full of wild donkeys and herds of odd looking animals which were called vicuñas. These were like llamas but smaller, about the size of a small deer. We saw guanacos, larger members of the same family but with black heads. I had a sensational feeling that we were entering a wild and remote area. I knew that I was in for an adventure wether I accomplished what I most desired or not. Two hours and two hundred kilometers of entirey uninhabited moons-cape desert we arrived at Las Grutas Refuge set in an enormous meadow and under the shelter of a patch of rocks. The refuge had a large kitchen a 20 bed dorm, and a bathroom with flushing toilets. Here I would acclimatize a few days at 4000m elevation.

The refuge was built like a bomb shelter: a tube of steel sheets with over 3 feet thick brick and cemented rock on the outside. This gave me the impression that sometimes they had some pretty rough weather. Oh and of course I have to mention the wonderful pets they had: two lazy dogs
and a baby, 15 day-old vicuña that took up living there. It was awkward and hilarious looking and much softer than anything that you can possibly imagine.

Over the next days I made several acclimatization hikes, including a nice hike up to Cerro Bertran, 5200m. Based on my sight of that mountain from the refuge, I had estimated the peak was only about 600m above me and 6 kilometres away. This was my first lesson of the desert that everything is taller and farther than it appears. The barren landscape makes judging distances very difficult. Like an desert illusion, Cerro Bertran turned out to be 1200m elevation above me and about 12km away. I arrived back rather late as the sun was settling on the horizon. I did two other day hikes and was astonished at the ferocity of the desert wind once in the higher elevations. This month was not only the driest time of the year in the desert, but also the windiest.

The two men that were managing the hostel were concerned when I told them that I would set off in a couple days into the desert wilderness, alone, carrying 14 days worth of food towards the Chilean border. However, I assured them that I already knew my trip might be impossible - if I could not replenish my water supply I would be forced to return - so I told them that I might be back sooner. My first real objective would be to climb Incahuasi (6626m), which is the 12th tallest in South America, and then to continue my traverse towards Ojos Del Salado. One of the workers at the refuge offered to give me a lift to the base of the mountain for just the price of his gas. This would save me an extraordinarily long and hard day of walking, but I decided to do it without anyone's support. It was the cheap way. Yes, the hard way, but it was the way I knew how to get things done.

In preparation for the beginning of the traverse, I had set out the day before to bring a cache of about 10 litres of water, all my climbing gear as well, and a few other heavy objects. That trip proved very tiring so the following day I spent resting and I spent many hours sewing my cheap Bolivian tent to make it warmer and reinforced against the strong, un-relenting winds. My shitty tent was my greatest weakness. In such a wind-blasted high altitude area a good tent is essential. Also, its hard for me to describe how difficult it can be setting up a tent against strong wind, while solo. The wind in the desert was so strong that it would balst any article of fabric away, gone into the desert, if loose for even a moment. So I spent some time on this rest day to practice setting up my tent safely and efficiently in moderate winds outside the refuge.

With food for 13 days, my crappy Bolivian tent and some seriously warm and protective clothing I left the safety and comfort of the refuge and made some quick time under a fairly heavy pack on a direct route towards my supply cache. Still feeling quite good and energetic I reached my cache and loaded up my climbing gear and the 10 extra litres of water. Getting the 40 kilo bag actually onto my pack took a serious effort and then once it was on walking uphill already at 4400m was indeed very hard. I had made good time so far but I gradually grew more tired as the air became thinner and thinner. Near the end of the day I was moving at a snails pace covering no more than 2 kilometres per hour. Exhausted, I decided to set camp at 4900m in a sheltered and dry(obviously) ravine. I was very tired and still more than 1700 m below the summit. I had a tremendous climb before me, and after this tiring day it was sure to be one of the most tiring days of my life.

I ate pesto spaghetti for dinner and set my alarm for 3 Am. As I had learned to do in the Andes, I would wake up and give myself time to warm up my water so that it would not freeze early on the climb. I would then eat breakfast and set out at 4 Am, 3 hours before the sunrise.

There is always a thrill and a seemingly stupid feeling I get when leaving the relative warmth and safety of a tent and stepping out into the unpredictable night. But that feeling to waking up alone somewhere on the side of an icy windy mountain and facing the challenge head on is indescribably rich.

Progress was good but the wind was fierce - often shaking me off balance and forcing me to crouch down or stabilize myself with my iceaxe. I was not energetic but with the whole day ahead of me I felt confident that I could reach the summit. However, the wind strengthened significantly as I got higher up. Just before sunrise a fierce gust rushed droared over the slopes I was climbing and blasted me with sand and rocks. I got a severely bothersome piece of something in my right eye and I could not teer it outt. I thought it was okay so I kept on going.

As the sun came up and the world far below me came into light my eye really started to bother me and I realized that I could see very well the world below. It got to a point where I could hardly open my right eye at all. I laid down behind some rocks and flushed my eye out with water, but the damage was done. I decided that continuing was no longer an option. I had climbed 1000m up to just 5900m elevation and on the high mountains it typically just gets harder as you go.

I efficiently skidded down a slope of soft scree and arrived back to camp. Then I rested for hours with my eyes closed. I hiked out the next day figuring that to continue was practically impossible. I was not able to replenish my water supply. Also, my less than perfect gear was far from sufficient for this task. I felt agitated by the difficulty of the climb and decided to head straight back to Fiambala, by luck right as I hit the road a pickup pulled up and they delivered right back to the plaza in Fiambala.

I took a few days rest and basked in the comfort of Fiambala, which before my week in the lonely mountains had seemed so desolate and empty, but now seemed to be teeming with life and energy. I relished the Argentinian steak, wine, and human company. I went drinking and dancing with some locals and we drove into the desert to watch sunrise over an impressive canyon of sand. I visited a tourist area where I soaked my soar body in steamy hot 40 degree hot springs. After a few days I felt physically and mentally revived so I decided to head back into the desert.

I re-stocked my food supply and bought some eye drops from the pharmacy as well as a pair of sun glasses that offered better eye protection. Then, I headed back to my tree to wait. Patiently, I waited there forever. A local man with a vineyard beside my tree came out to greet me and gave me an enormous bag of delicious grapes picked straight from the vine. After about 7 hours under the same tree I gave up and walked back to my hospedaje for another evening in town with steak with wine. To make up for my 7 hour wait (the longest that I had ever waited hitchhiking), I was lucky enough to meet a German guy heading across the pass the next morning. My plans this time were different, I was more interested in some less extreme treks and to climb some hills that were smaller but still very interesting because they are so infrequently climbed. I got dropped off on an obscure bend of the desolate highway under some large attractive hills. They were so beautiful that I decided I would hike up them.

I made camp in a dreamy and seemingly sheltered area right beside one of the only streams in the area - it must have been flowing from a spring farther up. I had brought 18 litres of water, though, and didn't plan on drinking any of that water, which I had read was likely to be brackish (containing salt). With plenty of time left in the day, I charged my way up to the top of a 4600m hill and came back down. When I came down I was very startled to see that the valley where my tent was located was being massacred by heavy winds saturated with sand and small rocks. Even my protected camp spot was being showered on by sand. It was terrible to walk through and immediately dove into my tent and did not come out until much later as the winds were subsiding. God damn it!, I thought, there is just no escape from the wind here.

I slept reasonably well in my shaking tent and the next day charged up another hill up to 5070m where I was rewarded with fantastic views of many of the tallest volcanoes in the world. That afternoon again a nasty sandstorm was blowing around in the valleys. I had my tent set up rock solid with 13 lines for the wind and 9 base anchors all weighted with heavy rocks. I was sure it would be fine when all of a sudden a supergust....no, no, no a MEGAGUST saturated with sand smashed into my tent from the side plowing it to the ground on top of me and slinging the heavy rocks still attached by lines right into the tent. Luckily I was inside and so I grabbed the main poles before they could snap. It was bloody horrific and after that I was very frustrated I think I yelled something like "PUTA VIENTO, PUTA MADRE, PUTA CHONCHO DE MIERDA, " and I said no more camping in the Puna de Atacama. I gathered more heavy rocks, rocks I could hardly move and tied it down like concrete.

After that day I started out early onto the highway hoping to catch a lift 30 km up to Las grutas refuge. I waited in a nasty sandblowing wind on the bend of the empty highway for a hour and a half. I barely saw the first car as my head was down writing in my journal as it blew past me. I spoted the second 10 min. later from far away and jumped to my feet sticking out my thumb and waving. It blew by me, it was empty in the back. Grrrrrrrrr! So I kept waiting. Unbelievable but another came by in only 10 minutes and it was a pickup truck!!! I jumped up and frantically waved, it blasted by me empty as empty can be in the back. I was shocked, what kind of cruel bastards I thought could pass by a single young guy on such an empty harsh road. 15 min in the truck and Id be safely in Las Grutas Refuge with a bed and water. I later found out who was driving that truck. One more car came and passed me, by then it was 1 PM and I figured that the main traffic had passed by for the day.

I didnt want to camp another night so I shouldered my heavy pack and began hiking up the road not knowing exactly how far it was. Checking behind frequently and walking in the middle of the highway so that nobody could pass me by. I walked for 3 hours and after about 12 km arrived at a small basic highway refuge. This would do for the night. I opened a can of sardines and just as I was settling down for the snack a pickup came roaring over the barren plain. It was the border police and they of course gave me a ride to Las grutas refuge. When I arrived, who was there? It was the pickup that passed me by 6 hours ago and guess who it was but 2 Swiss Mountaneers!!! Hey guys thanks a lot!!! I really couldnt beleive it!! What is wrong with some people. And Im not saying that you should feel bad when you pass by a lone guy on the side of the highway under a scolding high altitude sun with sand blowing in his eyes and not knowing how long he has been there and if he has water or food but rather Ill let you decide if you should feel bad about it. To the Swiss couple: Dont worry guys, I forgive you but seriously that was harsh!!

Back in Las grutas I was happy but frustrated. Not only from the day´s hitchhiking but also to learn that things were more complicated then I had anticipated. I had abandoned any hope of climbing Incahuasi after my tent was obliterated at a low protected camp spot so instead I planned to go up to the basic refuge on the border at Paso San Francisco, 4775 m the second highest border pass in the world. From here I would climb nice and easy Cerro San Francisco 6041m and hopefully one of the peaks Los Dos Conos 5890m. The problem was that they would not stamp my passport unless I was continuing staight out of the country so I would have to go there, by hitchhiking of course, climb the mountains then hitch a ride back to get my stamp and then from there hitchike back up Paso San Francisco to continue on to Chile which was my next destination. Rather shitty when the possibility of waiting an entire day or several days for each of those rides.

It came very luckily that I met a mountain guide in the refuge who was taking his client the next day to hike up Cerro San Francisco. He was a little hesitant to give me a ride because he was worried it wasnt very profesional as his client was paying lots of money so I said just to give me a ride to the refuge and that day I would climb Los dos Conos and the next San Francisco. So we left dark and early into the chilly night and slowly climbed up the hill to the pass. I set up shop in the refuge which was extremely basic, extremely drafty and deathly cold. The best thing about getting that ride was I now had an entire day to climb. As the sun came up the mountains slowly revealed themselves from shadows to defined towers of rock and scree. The weather lately had been harsh and they were brilliantly sheeted with fresh snow.

I left my refuge with no route planned, no information, just a view of the mountain ahead of me. Again difficult to judge how far or how high but clearly quite a lot of both. Also many ridges were coming down vertically from the alpine and negotiating over them while still making efficient ground was going to be a challenge. Nonetheless it was easy going, lots on sand but it was well frozen and easy walking. My route proved very direct and enjoyable and eventually after several hours of hard pacing I was below the east (higher) cone of Los dos Conos(The two Cones). It was pretty steep on all sides so I made a slow ascent switchbaking all the way and trying to avoid sliding scree. There was no visible trail or footprints on this beautiful and almost 5900m mountain. I stopped for a quick and delicious lunch of stale bread and cream cheese( my salami went green several days before) just below the summit and then made a quick energetic push to arrive at the stupendously panoramic summit. A single cairn adorned the summit, merely three rocks leaned together and the peak possesed a rewarding feel that it was extremely rarely climbed. I enjoyed the summit for a good length of time as the wind was surprisingly calm, it was a perfect day. The view was absolutely wonderful and I think this simple 40 minutes on the peak was the best and more rewarding in over two weeks in La Puna de Atacama. 6000 m peaks lined themselves up before me, some just across from me like Cerro San Francisco, and behind it Incahuasi. Massive piles of sand and scree, the tallest in the world of these sorts of mountains. To the north my view stretched out atleast 100 km and I could see volcanoes of 6400m that Im sure have only been climbed once or twice. The only way to do them would be with an enormous team of mules to pack water and supplies. If theres a will theres a way!

By the time I arrived back it was 5:30, a solid 10 hour hike at high altitude. I was rather alarmed though at how cold it was inside the refuge. The wind was streaming in from a hundred cracks and holes. I put on all my clothes, layer on top of layer but I still had a chill. There was a stove but no wood, at this altitude there was no wood, lower down grows a sort of tree with an enormous root underground that burns very well. I searched all over outside and in the end gathered a bag of debris wood and bits and pieces of the root scattered around the pass. I decided not to burn it unless I had to in emegency. Later in the night and early morning it would be colder. I put my matress out on the concrete floor and curled up deep into my sleeping bag. I was fine throughout the night.

At 6 Am I was up and warming water for another long day. I had the disadvatage of climbing Cerro San Francisco from the highway at 4775 meters rather than from the 4x4 track that climbs to 5125m. Nonetheless I was totally fine with that and up for the challenge. The hike went very well and very quickly. I made extremely quick progress until around 5900 m where the altitude really starts to tire, naturally of course I was a bit tired from the day before and a short rest. I just took my time then, happily picking my way up to the flat top through a crater and up to the final summit pitch. All very easy, not super exciting but enjoyable exercise and beautiful 6000m views. at 6041 m ( I believe a pinch under 20000 ft.) I signed the summit book supplied by Bank of Chile and made an extremely rapid descent. 5 1/2 hours up turned into less than 2 hours down. I was very anxious to get back to the refuge and have a chance at catching a ride down to Las Grutas where I had a bed, fire wood, people, maybe chicas. It was unlikely though as the road would closed at 6 Pm in two hours.

From the shelter of the refuge it was hard to see the road, I had to step out into the wind to catch a glimpse every minute or two. Very unenjoyable waiting and I was really hoping to get a ride. I looked out and to my delight came roaring a giant transport yellow truck. I ran out waving and he pulled to a stop. "James, Que tal amigo!" It was the same guy who gave me my first ride. He was pretty shocked that I was still here in the Puna, such a horrificly inhospitable place. Back at Las Grutas I cooked up a grand supper, I hadnt be eating much due to rations for a while but now I was commited to going to Vhile with the first ride that I could get so I ate double than normal. My main camping dinner now, which I´ve just figured out on this trip is spagetti(usually spinach spagetti) with a sauce of dry pesto herbs, butter, parmesan(or similar) cheese, and sundried tomatoes. It weighs nothing, tastes fresh and is extremely economical and easy to prepare. I just dont get tired of it.

I was up early the next morning and ready to go. Unfortunately I now had to wait for the first car of the day which came 4 hours later but could not take me into Chile. The first real town on teh Chilean side is Copiapa 350km away. After that car nobody came, waiting was good though, I had a chair out of the wind on the porch of the refuge. I was in good company of a 72 year old Norweigan mountaneer who had climbed all the highest peaks in the area, and was planning a solo ascent of Chico Bonete 6750m, the 5th in South America. He had some amazing stories as you can imagine. I shared with him some of my stories to. At 5Pm after waiting about 9 hours a minivan pulled up to the border station. I ran over and talked to them as friendly as I could be. Introduced myself told them what I was doing and then asked if it was possibly possible to squeeze me in with there family. They were more than happy to make a little room for me. The bad thing is that we had only an hour to make it to the Chilean customs before they closed for the day. Our driver, the father, hauled ass driving his loaded minivan like a rally car over the rough winding road soaring past the extremely beautiful Laguna Verde(Green Lake). Kind of how me and Sam drove our 2 door Chevrolet Corsa over the mountain roads in northern Patagonia but luckily the van actually survived.

We made it there with less than 1 minute to spare, they gave us a thourough search, mainly looking for fruit (I still had precious dry fruit left.... but shhhh dont tell them). We were on our way through the Atacama desert to Copiapo, Northern Chile. I was ecstatic to see the coast again, to go for a swim, to eat a fish. It had been over 4 months in the Andes Mountains without a single visit to the sea. Absolutely no regrets, I love it here and after only a few days I was heading right back in there. These mountains are magical, there endless, they go on for ever and each area has a unique feature and is like visiting a whole new range. The Andes Mountains, the longest range in the world, afterall is made up of a thousand small ranges made from different forces and different times.

This of course though was not my end to adventures in the Atacama desert, far from actually. Ive just been in San Pedro Atacama for four days, mostly chilling out but doing some cool things. Tomorow Im heading out on a crazy mission. While searching for my next climb I was studying my map of South America and I noticed two enormous volcanic peaks over 6100m just north of the town of Calama. They appeared to be nicely accescible from a road. Passing through Calama I saw them and they look very climbable even with a shallow pass connecting the two. I figure I can camp in teh pass and climb both peaks! I searched for info on teh internet but there is not a word of these monsters. In calama I asked endless people about how to get there but there answer was pretty much you cant. Well My plan for tomorow is to take a bus to a town about 45 km to here that is on the way and then to try hitchhiking, it should work. As always IM bringing a lot of water. Right now with 9 1/2 litres but thinking that I should get more, another 5 litres perhaps. Afterall I am in the driest desert in the world.

The year 2006 was an amazing year for me, I knew it waqs going to be as teh year begun. I accomplished my two greatest and desired life goals: Biking across Canada, and climbing Aconcagua 6962m. Aswell other major goals of running my first marathon( and quite fast 3:21) and greatly improving my time in the vancouver sunrun landing me in 176th place out of over 50000. This year is off to a good start aswell although it shall never match such an accomplishing year. Ive so far solod my first 6000m mountain aswell as solod 5 peaks over 5000m and 7 over 4500m, not bad for less than two months in.

Sorry it took so long to write this up, Ive just been on the move constantly and in San Pedro de Atacama the internet was very slow, as slow as the desert. And we all know the desert isnt going anywhere, except for when those damn sandstorms start blowing, ohh, those are awful.

View of Incahusi (right) and my 5070m hill (left)

Cerro Incahuasi 6650m (12th in South America)

Camping at 4900m on Incahuasi

Icahuasi From 5070m peak

A view of Los Ojos Del Salado 6890m (the tallest volcano in the world)

El Cono Oeste (Los Dos Conos)5890m

Cerro San Francisco 6041m