The big day arrived. When I first started getting into mountain climbing (the trekking kind), I heard about Cerro el Plomo. It was one of ‘the big ones’ that lots of people talked about. A couple mountains in, I began to recognize it up in the mountain range without people pointing it out to me, immediately spotting the “turtle” shape people referred to and its gigantic glaciers. A couple more mountains and I decided I wanted to climb it… by the end of the year The mountain thing was really going well for me and I was loving it, going out almost every weekend. On top of my daily bike-riding and frequent gym-going, I was in good condition and so I kept pushing myself for increasingly difficult climbs.
The 13th and 14th of December I headed out to Cerro Leonera, the 16,000ft sister that sits to the left of Cerro el Plomo. Nobody protects Leonera from the wind, so she’s known for her intense gusts that have knocked more than a few trekkers off their feet. It was bitter cold and, although I was fine except for my hands, I realized that to move up the mountain scale I would need to invest in some technical clothing. The week before heading out, I bought special first layers for my feet, legs, and upper body. I wasn’t able to find the gloves I needed, so I doubled up on the winter gloves, although it was very tight and not that comfortable nor convenient.
We met up Friday morning, the day after Christmas, at 7am and divided into two cars and started the journey to the mountain. We started at Valle Nevado, one of the big ski centers about 2 hours outside Santiago. The first day we hiked through the rolling valley that leads up to Federacion, the common camp spot that sits at the feet of Leonera and el Plomo, right in the middle of both. Even though the elevation climb from start to end is only a few thousand feet, it takes awhile and is quite tiring thanks to so many ups and downs. I’d camped at Federacion a couple months prior, so I was familiar with the route and was able to fully appreciate the scenery. A special thing about walking into and through a valley is that you’re always facing the end goal, getting further in and always in view of where’d we’d be climbing the next day. The terrain at first is a nice and clear dirt path that weaves up, down, and around the mountain. Then, it becomes a rocky basin in the valley itself.
Along the way we passed Piedra Numerada, a common campspot due to it’s large open space to set up tent. We wanted to camp further up, at Federacion, about 7/8 hours from our starting point, in order to be able to complete the circuit in 3 days. It was incredible how many tents were at Federacion. It felt like a hotel! We were a group of 12, with 6 tents, so we chose our spot, set up, and then sat on the ground together to cook and hit the sack early. It was very foggy, but looked like it’d clear up just in time for our ascent the next day. Saturday morning we woke up at 3:30, leaving camp at 4:30 in the morning. It was cold. Very cold. I was wearing all my layers, just my eyeballs showing and the headlight leading the way. The climb from Federacion to La Hoya, another camp place was sure a wake up. Very steep and constant, a terrain of millions of rocks. This is an exhausting type of terrain at this level of steepness because with every step, you slide down a little bit. The whole day, from Federacion to the peak, proved to be this same type. While some other trekkers camped at La Hoya, we did not because sleeping at a lower altitude allows you to sleep better, which is very important for energy the next day. From Federacion to the peak, we would climb 5000feet in just 2.1 miles. Yeah, do that math… imagine how steep that incline was. Pretty much a leg killing 75 degree angle the entire way. It took what I though was steep to a whoooole new level.
We took a little 10 minute break a bit after La Hoya, finding a little divit to protect ourselves from the wind. This place sits in full view of the climb ahead and the gigantic Glacier Iver that we’d be crossing a couple thousand feet more up. The sun was starting to rise and was lighting beautifully little specs of the mountain. I took my gloves off to take a few pics and then quickly put them back on as my fingers began to throb in pain from the cold. From here we continued up to the little shelter, Refugio Agostini. It is a little wood shack with room for maybe 3 sleeping bags… but our group of 12 piled in to take a break from the wind and the cold. We ate a little bit and warmed up, it felt soooo good.
From here was a loooong acarreo, a straight up stint of that rocky terrain. It was exhausing and the wind was intense. We weren’t expecting so much wind/cold that day. I was so glad to have bought my special first layers. They were worth every penny. In one part, in order to avoid the slippery, small rock filled path, we took a different one, heading up and climbing over large rock beds. However, after getting pretty far up, we had to head back down. It was too difficult and dangerous to continue crossing the way. We had to climb down a little rock wall, throwing our trekking poles to the bottom and literally climb a little section, which was kind of fun :) Once back down… we had to head back up the other way. We saw a group of people heading down, they didn’t make the peak because they said the glacier crossing was too difficult. It was very hard ice.
Legs and arms tired, we arrived to a little place called Pirque del Indio/Pirque del Niño. Here in 1954 a group of archeologists found a mummy of a little Incan boy who was thought to be sacrificed there. The first ascent of Cerro El Plomo was in 1898, but the Incans roamed the land for hundreds to thousands of years before. Waiting here for the rest of the group to catch up, we huddled into a little rock enclosure, looking straight forward at the glacier we’d have to cross. Once past the glacier, it was about 700 feet and 1.5 hours to the peak. Again… that math… why does it take so long? The combination of steepness, the lack of oxygen tiring you with every step, exhausted body. Of our group of 12, only 5 decided to continue the last little bit. Some were tired and some were too cold. Regardless, it’s important to save energy for the way down and the mountain isn’t going anywhere, so it’s good to listen to your body.
We put on our crampons, cleet like bottoms that attach to your boots. They have many metal points that stick into ice and help you gain a good footing grasp while you walk. I must admit, while the glacier part was quite small and flat, I was a bit scared. Falling meant a good couple thousand foot slide down the mountain. Many parts were pure ice, although I was told those are the safest parts. I had practiced how to use the ice axe in the case of a fall, but still, I was on nerves. Someone had fallen earlier in the day but thankfully knew how to use the ice axe and stopped himself. Gulp.
Once across, we moved on to the last effort. It was a never ending zig zagging climb. To keep pushing myself when I wanted to quit I counted 50 steps and then gave myself a couple second break. Step. By. Step. Every step a little bit closer. It took all my energy just to keep going. My mind was blank, all I wanted to do was arrive, but I never for a second doubted myself.
Then, all of a sudden, there it was. The top. I had arrived. Just like on the top of Leonera, I almost wasn’t ready. I was flooded with the leftover energy that I had been reserving and using little by little. I was looking around, amazed by the sight in front of me, and a couple streams of tears trickled down my cheeks. I was overwhelmed with life, with beauty, with love, with thankfullness, with gratefullness, with pride… with emotion. Honestly, I felt so blessed to be living this life that I am, to be on top of a stunning mountain in the middle of the Andes, to have so many friends and family supporting me in both of the continents that I call home, I just wondered how I managed to lead this lucky, beautiful life. Arriving to the top of a mountain is this truly unique feeling of accomplishement and awe, a connectedness to onesself and anyone else around, and a oneness with this world. It’s addicting and so powerful, and I always take a little time in silence to gather my thoughts and gratitude.
On the peak we celebrated, hugged, estatic with joy. A group of 3 guys were up on the peak, and one was poing out all the peaks surrounding us, telling us their names. It was fascinating. The way down was a blast. The benefit of the steep, heavily rocky terrain is the ability to dig your heels into the ground and basically controlably ski/slide down in big, swooping steps, causing little landslides of rocks to roll down with you. I was on cloud nine. Back at camp we celebrated, cooked, and chatted, going to sleep early after having used every ounce of our energy during the climb.
While I was getting water from the glacier stream right before bed, an older man came up to me, maybe in his late 60s/early 70s. He was an experienced mountain man, working as a guide his whole life, having taken people up this very mountain now 38 times. Geeeez, what an idol. He intoduced himself and asked my name and how I was feeling, I told him I couldn’t be better. He said that he saw me up in the mountain and was impressed by my strength and pace, and he said that I had a lot of potential in the mountain. I was floored, what an honor to be told something like that. I felt like he was my uncle Pete talking to me, the same kind of mountain man but of the Rockies out in Cali instead of the Andes. We chatted a bit and I went to bed so happy my heart could have exploded.
Sunday we woke up, had breakfast and mosied on back. It was a beautiful sunny day and I didn’t have a care in the world. I was simply breathing, observing, and appreciating the world around me…trying to take in the details of the rock edges, the rolling hills, the cloud formations in the deep blue sky, the sun on my back, and the flowers in the grass once we got to the laguna in Piedra Numerada. There was a little crater filled with ice cold water and we took off our shoes and sunk in our feet… it sent shivers up my body but felt great on my tired feet. Back in the car on the way home, Santiago was a scorching almost 90 degrees, so we decided to stop for ice cold tap beers and pizza to celebrate the great accomplishment of our group.