Cerro Leonera, the dark brown, smooth edged beauty I’ve been staring at for so many weekends, has finally been climbed, marking my first 5000m (16,500ft) mountain.
About a month ago I had lunch up on Cerro Pintor, in full view of her peacefully situated next to the powerful glaciers of Cerro El Plomo. She felt like the big little sister, smaller, but still so very much carrying her own. Having just finished my first 4000m climb, I imagined myself up on top of Leonera, looking down at Pintor, envisioning the little ants we must look like to those over 3000ft higher. Then, a couple weeks later, I camped at Federación, literally at the feet of both Leonera and Plomo, on one of the windiest nights I’ve experienced in my life. Then, last weekend, here I was, about to make my way up.
The route to Cerro Leonera basically entails trekking up Cerro Pintor and then heading down the other side to continue on. The starting point is in La Parva, one of the big ski mountains. The benfit of December means… off season ski lift opens up!! The last few times I’d been up here we had to walk 2-2.5 hours up to Laguna Piuquenes, but this time, as a nice little Christmas present, for just $10 we took the ski lift (round-trip) and glided over the area I had to trudge up before. Oooooh, it was great.
That said, we got off the lift and began the ascent to Cancha Carreras. Being a familiar route, I really was able to relax, letting my body do the work and my mind take the time to reflect, think, and just center. It was fantastic. About 15 minutes from the peak of Cerro Pintor the route curves around, leading to this massive plain that reminds me of what the moon might look like. I was tempted to head up and finish Pintor, but unfortunately a crazily thick fog had overcome the mountains and was blocking visibility enough that the only benefit to climbing it would have been the calories :) So, I opted to not. We got about 1/2 way into Cancha Carreras, set up camp, then cooked dinner before the sun set and the temperature dropped.
Looking at Cancha Cerreras from above or even when you’re right on it, it looks so smooth, like dust, a place that extra-terrestrials would land UFOs. This huge, flat plate with red/orangish mountains protecting it from all angles, extroardinarily large craters between mountains, and then these random severe drop offs. It’s truly a crazy place. So unique in its beauty.
The fog was intense, sometimes sweeping through in visible wisps and sometimes approaching slowly and overtaking everything, cutting eyesight of the mountains around us. Walking thorugh it felt like a movie!
Around 8:30 we crawled in our sleeping bags, calling it an early night, common when you’re up high enough that the cold, or the wind, prevents you from being able to share too late. At 4:00am we were eating breakfast and around 4:40am marching on. It was cooooold. Everyone was bundled up tight, just our eyes showing as we finished crossing, arriving to the starting point of the mountain herself. It was pitch black and some of the beginning parts sure made me nervous. The route was skinny and steep. I could vaguely make out the landscape below, forms of craters, between mountains, and more mountains sprawling on and on. There were needle eye-hole cuts in the rock, revealing drop offs that I was glad to not be able to see.
The morning was intensely cold and the ferociously strong winds that Leonera is known for were in full effect. There were 3 of us leading the way and, while walking we were comfortable, when we stopped to wait for the others to catch up it seriously became unbearable. We tried to find rocks to hide behind but nothing really helped. We waited while we could then had to continue on because the cold was truly painful. The hose of my camelback was completely frozen and I couldn’t drink water. At one point, while climbing a particularly steep section, a huge gust of wind powered through, knocking us over and making us wonder if we should continue or not. After that any time I felt the wind coming stronger than normal I quickly braced myself onto the rock, crouching and holding tightly until it safely passed.
We finally got to a part where the end was in sight, the last horrah. From photos, it looks so simple, but in reality… it isn’t. As if the cold and wind didn’t make it hard enough, with the altitude around maybe 15,000 feet every step felt like two. After waiting a bit for the others, we continued on purely for the need to get the blood circulating. We were all freezing. I almost wanted to cry from the pain in my fingers. I was rubbing them together and holding them up towards the sun, waiting to regain normality. Eventually they did and I decided no more stopping, just slow steady. The last part was tiring but I didn’t even really realize it, all of a sudden I was up at the top, without even really being ready to be there. Honestly, I stepped my feet on the peak and was so overwhelmed with having arrived, for having finished my first 5000m mountain, for all the energy that I had in my body propelling me upwards that so abruptly wasn’t needed, for the incredible sight in front of me, my eyes filled with tears. It was all just so beautiful.
It took me just under 4 hours from Cancha Carreras to the summit. I don’t know if it was the adrenaline or if, as the morning continued on, the wind and the cold got easier and easier, but we stayed up on the peak for about an hour before the cold forced us down. We were sitting there, all so happy, starting at El Plomo, the big brother we’d be climbing in just 2 short weeks. The way down we were taking off layers like melting butter. Climbing a little later really would have made a big difference, the same places where we were frozen icicles were not, in comparison, saunas. haha. Not really, but we were just fine with only a few layers, instead of constant jittering. We got back to camp, relaxed, ate, took down the tents, and made our way down.
It was an epic two days and I slept like a baby for the next two nights, that’s for sure. Can’t wait for Cerro del Plomo, my goal of the year, coming up in just two short weeks.