About a month beforehand, a friend and I decided to tackle Volcan San Jose, a truly majestic volcano that towers over its counterparts at 19,300ft. There we were, a couple days beforehand, when my friend sent me the first glimpse of the forecast, it was going to snow a couple inches. Sounds great, I thought. Nothing’s better than a fresh cover of powder and the mountains turned black from the moisture. However, the day before we left, the weather looked worse, snow storms and wind storms. The day we were about to depart, it hadn’t gotten better. Boo. Mentally, I surrendered to the idea that we weren’t going to be able to make the summit. We decided to go anways and do what we could (safely) all while still acclimatizing our bodies for the 20,000ft mountain we had coming up in 2 short weeks. We altered our backpacks so that we had all the equipment necessary for whatever was about to come. Damn. Around 40lbs, that backpack was heavy.
We took off, about 3 hours to where we we’d start, parking next to the only house in the area, a goat/livestock farmer. The first hour or so is walking through Valle de la Engorda, a curiously flat area surrounded by moutains on all sides. It was warm. We got to a cave, drank some water, and took off a layer. The next couple hours was a climb up to Refugio Plantat at 10000ft, a stone shelter built in 1937 for some farming purposes and now well-kept for passing by mountaineers. It has I think 8 bunks, which is great during the winter and often serves as a first/last camp for those heading up/down San Jose and in need a break from the elements.
We passed by Plantat without stopping in, just breaking at the stream to refill our water, it was so cold, so crystal clear, so delicious. The next couple hours were up a rocky path to an area called Las Lajas (ie: the slabs of rock). This place marked a distinct change in the terrain. It was a peculiar place. A rocky, but land based terrain suddently tranformed into this gigantic pile of rocks ranging from medium to down right humoungous. I just wondered how the heck that formed, how the rocks landed together in this spot, eventually falling town into ravines below, but still leaving this terrific mountain of a pile. Crawling over and around these rocks was a challenge with the heavy backpacks, I felt much more prone to losing my balance.
It was getting later in the afternoon, and honestly our backs were getting used to the backpacks. We decided to keep climbing a bit, on the lookout for a good campspot. My shoulders were feeling the weight, my lower back was bothering me, I had a blister on the back of my right foot, and we needed to find water. Every once in a while we needed to stop at a big rock and prop our backpacks, releasing the weight for even 2 minutes was like heaven. I wondered how the mountaineers of the past did it without their advanced technology backpacks that perfectly distributed weight, had straps to make sure it was being carried in the right amounts in the right places. Because, wow, even with all that, after a long day, boy, does it wear on ya.
We had the idea to stop at this little pond just a bit more up, but when we got there, we found it had dried. We needed to continue to a water source, just a bit more up we saw ice and snow. It was getting near 4/5pm. We saw someone who was heading down to Plantat, he said there was water about an hour ahead. But, the truth was, considering the time, the clouds, and our bodies, an hour was too long. We continued, continued but couldn’t find a campsite. Nothing flat, all incline. Eventually, something peaked our eye and sure enough, a perfect little spot. I was happy. We set up the tent right away and then went to look for clean ice/snow for water. While we were melting the find, little flakes of snow started to fall. Nice, we’d found the campsite right in time. It snowed on the rest of the night and got pretty cold, but we had everything we needed and slept warm and snug. It was lovely.
Friday was mind-blowingly gorgeous. Fluffy white clouds. Blue sky. Sunny. The mountains showing their many shades and reflecting the rays. Truly a form of heaven. We left the campsite and moved on. San Jose is 100% is truly a physically difficult challenge. There really is no path to follow, given that the terrain is all rocks that require you to climb on, over, and around. If you think of the gym, the exercise when you’ve got the dumbells in each hand and need to step up onto the bench and then down, first X with one leg and then the other. Well, over the course of these 4 days, I think I did the equivalent of 1000 of these. Except big ass rocks instead of a bench and 40lbs of backpack instead of dumbells. Talk. About. A. Quad. Workout. I wasn’t sure if a) I never wanted to do a quad workout again or if b) it reminded me that I can never skip one again haha. Boy.
My trekking poles randomly would get stuck in between a rocks, abruptly bring me to a halt as my lower body launched forward until it suddenly realized the top half was stopped with the pole. One time the rock moved at the same time, making me lose my balance and land directly flat on my knee, Ouuuuch, that hurt and left me with 2 big bruises covering my entire kneecap for a good week.
Around 3/4pm we found ourselves in the same position as the night before, thinking about where to find the next water supply and campspot. The forecast had said Friday would snow and storm heavily so we wanted to set up camp around 5, allowing us to be in the tent around 6 when it would likely start falling. We keptclimbing up, looking around, but everything was pure rockbed, and not small rocks… big ones and all on a slope, again, nothing flat. We crossed a V of a crevice and then looked back, there had to be a little flat spot right below on the other side. Because, looking ahead, we had at least an hour and a half before we could get to the top of the hill we were on and then who knew what it looked like on the other side, where the campsite would be. It could be another 2 hours before we found something and, from the dropping temp and darkening sky, it didn’t look like we had that much wiggle room. We spotted a little area that looked like potential and started heading over. My friend was on a mission to find a spot, I was distracted by a desire to take more pictures. There were these gigantic rocks, both taller and wider than the length of me, that were crazily propped up 3-4ft in the air on huge blocks of ice. My friend had come in the winter before and said that all of this area is flat with snow, so now at the end of summer, these blocks of ice under the massive stones are what’s left, just in time for winter to soon hit and cover them all up again. It boggles my mind thinking about when these rocks rolled down and stopped in their currently location. Uuuuh, it sends chills up my back, I don’t ever want to see rocks of these size in movement.The air was starting to thicken with cold humidity, if that’s even possible. It was obvious soon it would condense into snow. We ended up finding a great campspot, next to a monstrous rock to protect us from the wind.
Again, like clockwork, we got the tent up just in time for the snow to start to fall. We randomly would unzip the tent and peek out, the mountains had disappeared, it was all white, the flakes weren’t really flakes. More like little balls, snow cone style. The snow stopped briefly, just in time for us to bundle up, crawl out of the tent, and appreciate the setting sun. The air was still thick and cloudy so the sun was a little blur, firing up the sky into deep reds and oranges. Wow, it was out of this world. What a blessing.
Again, the night was cold, but I was warm. I slept great, so snug in my sleeping bag. Again, it made me think about the mountaineers of the past, with their big blankets that weren’t technologically infused to keep you compfortable at -10. How lucky we are with so many advances making our lives easier and safer, but mad kudos to those so not just survived, but thrived, without.
Saturday morning would have been the day to summit. We set off on the most extraordinary day ever. Everything on the ground was glowing white. The mountains were black, wet from the snow. The sky was blue. The sun was radiating. The clouds were fluffy. I felt like either my eyes or my heart would explode. We passed these big ice formations called pendientes, which are just like icicles but opposite. They are formed from wind and located on the ground. On San Jose there are various “fields” of them, sometimes nature just blows my mind, crazy to think of how these form. Spectacular. Passing through a little row of them was quite slippery, so we roped up, just in case one of us fell. Once we got back onto the rocks, they were icy so we had to be careful. But I didn’t mind going slow, it gave me time to appreciate the magic around me. This morning definitely marks one of the most beautiful in my memory. I felt so thankful, that gratefulness giving me energy.
Around 1pm we stopped to make a soup. I collected the fresh, fluffy, bright white snow and we melted it into a chicken soup. Mmmm, yum. So magical, hot soup, drinkin it out of my cup, feeling the brisk cold wind and filling my eyes with the blue, black, white, and yellow around. Blissfullnes at its best. We were chatting when we noticed a cloud that wasn’t so fluffy, just a huge mass, hiding the mountains below. It was creepin up our way. Would it pass? We waited. Soon, I was looking at my friend and he had a pure white backdrop behind him. Nothing else existed. Not long after that, stark contrast between the steep white covered mountain and the blue sky had disappeared. The mountain above followed. Snow started to fall. We couldn’t see anything. As imagined, summit was officially impossible, we needed to head back down. My friend was maybe 10 feet in front of me and I could barely see him. We stayed closer together.
Still, in this unique mixture of fog, wind, and snow, there was beauty. At the power of Mother Nature, at how little control we have, and how much we need to just listen. We got back to where we knew the tent had to be, but couldn’t find it. Again, technology, geez, thank you. The GPS took us to it. We scooped up snow so we’d have enough water and by around 3:30 we were in the tent, peaking out randomly into the white blizzard. The sounds of thunder, lightening, blowing wind and falling snow were the lullaby of the night.
Around 5am I woke up and boiled water to make tea. The zippers to our tent were frozen. The tent was hard from ice condensation. It was a bit early, but I just couldn’t sleep anymore. While the wind near us was not too bad, I could hear it howling in the crevice/valley above, believably at the 60+ mph as it was forecasted. While waiting for the water to boil, I snuggled into my sleeping back. The hot water started melting the ice on the tent and… all of a sudden, this potent chicken smell vaporized through the tiny tent. Frantically, I popped up, opened zippers, gagged a little, held my breath, welcomely breathed the cold air and started fanning the tent flaps. In the hurry of gathering snow and getting back into the tent, we hadn’t really gotten all the remnants of chicken soup out of the pot and when it started to boil, it just created a hot sauna of boiling chicken smell, as if we’d just thrown water on the hot rocks. Yiiiiiikes. I don’t care how much it’s snowing, never again will we forget to take the time to smear enough snow around that pot to clean every last drop.
As we started packing up the tent, the mountains below were clouded over. Then, the wind started to run, blowing them away and revealing the peaks little by little, with the sun so perfectly touching their tips. Wow, it was fantastic. They were thick and clustered, but sitting below the peaks, making me feel so literally on top of the clouds. It was the best good morning greeting I could’ve asked for.
We headed down the mountain, consoled that, while Mother Nature didn’t let us hit the summit, the consolation prize she gave us instead was nothing short of perfect. The last 4 days had been magical and I felt like the happiest girl in the world, beyond grateful. Emotionally and spiritually free, yet connected. The hike down that day was astounding. A gorgeous day that again made me think that things just worked out so ideally, glad that we weren’t able to head down any lower last night, in an effort to sleep at a lower altitude. That would have meant I would have missed out on this morning that ended up being the perfect closing to the experience.
It took us about 7 hours to get down the mountain, the last 3 were a challenge. My shoulders were screaming at me, something in my hip joint was inflamed from lifting up all those rocks, and my knees were sore from being in a high squat position for so many hours on end with so much weight on my back. All I could think about was the fact that the next mountain I would climb, Cerro Tortolas at 20,000 feet in just 2 weeks, had no water. That means I needed to carry at least 6 liters (12lbs) of water. There was no way I could add that to my pack, I am doing a strick revision of everything to make sure I don’t carry even one almond too many.
San Jose volcano is famous for people not being able to summit because of the weathier, it changes climate instantaneously. Many people I’ve met have tried it multiple times, never arriving because of unpredictable weather. That tale continued true for us but I woudln’t take back a minute for not even a second. It’d do it all over again… and I can’t wait to do it again.