Cerro Tortolas: Breathing air at 20,000ft

It was all planned, to climb my first, of hopefully many, 20,000 foot peak. Right before my birthday. Closing out my 27th year and opening the new one with a bang and all the gratefulness my heart could handle.

The Sunday prior, I went over to my friend’s house and we packed our backpacks and planned our food. Leaving at 3am Thursday morning would leave little time on Wednesday… which, in the end, was a great idea considering I ended up leaving work around 8:30/9pm. 3am rolled around quickly and we piled into my friend’s big Chevy truck. There were 4 of us in this car and we were meeting along the way with the second car of 3 more friends. The early morning was fun, we all had lots of energy, chatting and joking back and forth between cars with the radios. I vowed to be the co-pilot and keep track of tolls… but somewhere after passing the first booth I passed out, waking up to find a pile of receipts and the sun shining to a early afternoon. Oops, I guess my friend lost out when he put up the arm rest in between our seats and gave me an inflatable pillow. I quickly doubled into a curled up lay down position and… chao. If he gave me the pillow, it can’t be my fault, right?!

Cerro Tortolas is located in the North of Chile, about 12 hours from centrally located Santiago. I can’t say much for the ride up, because I honestly slept through…. all but a couple random minutes here and there. At the point where we left the last rural town, and before we headed onto the dirt road that would take us a couple hours up, up, and up into the mountain range, we had to stop at a ranger station and inform them of our intent – giving them our IDs, emergency contact info, estimated return date, etc. Here, we received the good news that no other mountaineers had passed through, we’d be the only ones on the mountain. This was especially fantastic because it meant we had guaranteed space in the shelter waiting for us at 5200m, which would protect us from the cold and give us a good nights rest on the night before summitting.

Mid afternoon we arrived to where we’d park the cars and set up tent. The sun was baking and we poured out of the cars, eagerly examining the heavily mineral-ladden rolling peaks and then setting our eyes on the mountain we’d make our move on the next day. It didn’t feel that far away… but with the sharp diamond shaped summit, I could tell the last acarreo (a run/jaunt with lots of sediment, loose rock, and vertical incline), known as the acarreo de la muerte (the run of death), would quite possibly be just that. We got the tents up and, with the whole afternoon ahead, kept the flaps open so the breeze could run through and took naps. With the sun on my back and complete peace around me, I somehow slept like a baby, even though I’d slept the whole way up. A couple hours later I woke up, refreshed as could be, and began double checking my backpack, food, etc. We all gathered together, made our dinners, boiled water for tea, and chatted the night away. My partner and I had prior made rice and for dinner nice and easily opened up the tupperware and mixed it with tuna and green beans. The sun was setting and the temperature dropping quickly with it, but it turned the peak of Tortolas a magnificent florescent pink. It felt like such a good sign and made me so excited for the next day to start.

5am came around the corner and it was so cold, waking up early in the morning to the cold mountain air is the only part of all that that I really just have a hard time with. Uuuugh, it was sooo cold. Nothing sounded better than staying curled up in my sleeping bag on that hard rocky ground. But, push comes to shove and I know I gotta get up. I hurl all my energy to sit up and immediately get the water boiling. A hot tea helps the transition.

We get walking and I quickly get hot, the first 20 minutes for me are always a significant challenge. My body is getting into the swing of things, my legs are remembering what they’re there to do, my mind is finding its center. I shed layers, it was pretty obvious it was going to be a sunny day, and my base layer would definitely be enough. With the easy 45lbs on my back, I could tell the heat would add its own dimension of challenge. An hour and a half in, we took our first mini-break, waiting for the group to close in together, stretching, and munching on dried fruits and nuts. The runs were very long, I could always see a “checkpoint” at where the route veered out of sight, and they always felt so very far off. I had a good pace though and kept plugging along, focusing on my thoughts and the landscape. We all met up again and decided that we’d have lunch right around the corner, the route had worked its way up and now we needed to cross a section to hit the next intense vertical climb. I was so glad, I definitely needed a break. The backpack was a load of bricks, the sun was boiling, and my body felt tired. Like often, “right around the corner” ended up to being at least a good 45 minutes. I kept searching for the plain, a supposed flat section, sitting below the next acarreo. My exhaustion was getting heavier by the minute. It’s like when you’ve got to pee and the closer you get the more you feel like you can’t wait. Yeah, that’s definitely how I felt. When I saw someone get to the lunch spot, a little dip in the middle of huge plain, I literally felt like I could scream from happiness. I got there and flat dropped that backpack off my back and sprawled my body out onto the ground. I quickly ate my sandwich and drank my tea… and then laid back, soaked up the sun, shut my eyes, and took the best short nap imaginable.

The next 3 hours were something else. Every step up was a half step back, thanks to the loose ground. We had to cross a long section of the mountain, getting to the top and then crossing behind to venture to the mountain’s other side. At one point, I saw two people that were literally tiny little ants so far up. I knew 2 of our guys were further ahead than the rest, but, partially out of desperation and partially out of not wanting to face the truth, I had thought the “top” where we began to cross behind was at a different point, and I asked… who else is on the mountain? To my horror, that was obviously our guys. Which meant I had to get to where they were, and they weren’t even close to the top.  Okay, I needed a personal pep talk. Step by step, focused breath by focused breath, the hours passed and I took the last 10 minute sit down. I was around 18,000 feet and between the oxygen, the wind, the incline, the terrain, and the backpack, I could feel the effects. My heart was beating, my breath was short, my shoulders were on fire. This last 45 minutes would be a steep jaunt. But, then it was done for the night and, since no one else was on the mountain, I knew we’d get the shelter… which meant a fantastic night’s sleep, protected from the wind and cold. Once I got to the top, there was about 10 minutes of a flat walk, between these two big slopes. It was gorgeous… and such a relief. Pretty soon I saw a laguna… then the shelter, I wanted to jump for joy. I sat down and munched on some nuts, made some tea, and basked in the fact that the day was complete.

The shelter felt like the best thing on God’s green earth. It’s just a metal covered shelter with a wood floor, but, when that roof and those walls protect you from the elements, it provides what feels like the best sleep in years, just knowing you aren’t outside and you don’t have to wake up freezing, giving yourself a pep talk to lift your arms out of the sleeping bag to start boiling water. The sunset was literally OUT. OF. THIS. WORLD. It was sooo cold, but I bundled up and ran outside, snapping photos like a mad-woman, and then taking some pauses just to soak in my own mental picture. The clouds were ideal, right over the laguna, and then behind us the shadows from where we came from that day. Simply amazing. I was freezing, and my toes needed their double layer sock and better tied shoes… but I stayed outside until the sun was gone. I felt so happy, so excited for the next day, for hitting my first 6000m, for the idea of 20000, for simple gratitude for this life.

When it was time for bed, I laid my head down and literally zonked out, sleeping like a rock till everyone started bustling bright and early. It was pitch black when we started, and as usual, the first get going is so hard for me. I was cold, my legs and chest could feel the lack of oxygen, and it was climbing right from the first step. We were at an ideal spot when the sun decided to rise, we had a view of the whole colorful valley underneath. I just love the way the sun rises so gently over the mountains, with wind almost always sofly blowing the clouds away right as the sun is ready to shine its light and reveal what’s underneath. It’s a moment for me that really just feel like a miracle, this world, and the way it just works.

The route today is knows as the Acarreo de Muerte, AKA: The run of death, because it’s so long, so steep, and just never, never ending. Just one, big, continuous climb. Parts like this are way more mental than physical. It’s hard to pick spot to set as a mini-goal, because it’s just one big ass climb. Zig zag after zig zag after zig zag. When we’d sit down, desperate for a break, it was hard to position so that we didn’t slide down, lose our backpacks, or our trekking poles. It was an uncomfortable sittling position, with my heels dug in to keep me propped. This mountain was relentless. I was freezing, my fingers and toes totally numb, even though I was wearing plastic mountain boots to help with cold. They are a type that has a cloth shoe inside it, then a hard plastic shell (perfect for snow/cold), makiing it impossible to move the ankles much. I was constantly clapping my hands to get the circulation running more into my fingers. I had all my layers on and the parka, just my eyes peeking through. Step after step I kept going, telling myself I was getting closer and closer. Every couple hours we’d check our altitude status, which always was a little disappointing. It was so steep and so much work that it felt like we were had to be advancing at lightspeeds… but the atitude check always checked us back into place. We’d only climbed 200 vertical meters, 300 vertical meters, 100 vertical meters. gaaaaah. nothing.

On the breaks I’d drink water and munch on some nuts or dried fruit. Crazy how the altitude just steals your hunger away. But, really, who wants to take the time to eat anyways? It’s too cold and eating too often requires the top glove layer to come off. I kept thinking I saw the top of the zig zag, but there was always a whole new stretch ahead once I got there. One. Two. Three… I’d count my steps, taking a break after 50. Sometimes my mind wanders into family, friends, life, the world, nature, problems, joys… and sometimes all my energy goes into just moving my feet. At the top of one zig zag I found a rock and perched myself up a bit, it’s always a bit warmer behind the rocks. Then, I hurried to catch up with my friends… one behind eachother… then all of a sudden he looked back at me and yelled… we’re here!!!!! I looked around confused.., what?!?! No, we were most definitely not- lots of dirt, path, and mountain in front of us. He came and hugged me… 6000m!!! he was saying, “We’re at 6000m!!!” You see, since the rest of the world measures in meters… that’s how they measure the mountains too. So hitting 6000m is like the flat even number of 20000ft. For mountains, I am more used to meters, and I remember my first time at 4000m and 5000m mountains.. .and now here I was at 6000m. It was a big deal, for both Mauricio and I, it was our first time at 6000m. I felt this sudden rush of happiness, my eyes filled with tears of energy and joy and pride. It was so awesome. That was exactly what I needed to push me to the top. Just a difficult 160 vertical meters left. That ain’t nothing in comparison to 6000 :)

That final climb was slow and exhausting. I switched up my counting trick a bit. Instead of counting numbers with each step… I counted people. Mom. Dad. Grandpa. Grandma. Jenny, etc. One step for each person so critical and crucial in my life. With each person that popped into my head, a memory popped with them.. My kindergarten teacher, my basketball coach, my friend’s dad cheering us on the sidelines. There were lots of steps… but thank the Lord that I’ve got so many people that have touched and guided and impacted my life that I ran out of steps before I ran out of people. All of a sudden, there I was, standing on the top of the world at 20,000… led so literally by everyone that has led me to where I am now. My feet took another step up, only to realize there were no more steps to be made. I had made it. March 14th, just 2 days before my 28th birthday, breathing the earth’s oxygen at 20,000 feet and looking down, and around, at thousands of colorful peaks, and up at a blue sky and white clouds. It was so surreal. I broke into tears, but sobs aren’t so easy when there’s not that much o2 in the air, it’s more like just big chest heaves with tears rolling down. I dropped my backpack like a hot potato and went to the edge, saying a thank you to God, and this world, for this life of mine. I took a few minutes to collect my thoughts and then went to see who was coming next. Mauricio was just setting foot, we hugged and cheered, we had done Cerro El Plomo and Cerro San Jose together, among many others, so it was awesome to add this to our list. You really build a bond with people when you put your bodies and minds to the test together, relying on the other for support when needed, giving support when needed.

I excitedly went to my backpack and unwrapped a snickers I’d been saving. It was meant for San Jose, but since we didn’t get to summit because of the weather, I decided to couldn’t eat it till I summited on Tortolas. Gosh, it tasted so damn good. Like heaven. Our whole group of 7 made it to the summit, which was an awesome feat. Soon, we headed back down. With the terrain, it was literally more like flying down. My plastic boots allowed me to just dig my heals in and take roller blade like strides, a mixture of controlled running and sliding. We stopped to have lunch in the shelter before continuing on. The wind was picking up, which meant it was getting colder, so I kept my pace. Mauricio and I love these acarreos, the stunts where you can go down like that. The last 45 minutes dragged on, but we were the first to get back to the basecamp, we had left our tents up, so it was suuuuch a treat to just be able to throw ourselves in, without having to set up camp. Eventually the rest of the group made it and we basked in our glory, roasting marshmallows, drinking wine, and just bein’ jolly.

We left early in the morning, having a last breakfast right at the foot of the mountains. It was crazy staring up at the peak of Las Tortolas, and imaging that I was up on top of that little dot just the day before. It’s such an undescribable feeling. It’s this wierd combination of feeling so big yet so insignificant, so powerful yet really not in control of anything at all. Sure, there I was yesterday around 2pm, feeling like I’d concoured the world, but now, back down on the mountain’s feet, I wouldn’t even be a spec in the sky. That’s how big the mountains are. How powerful Mother Nature is. Regardless, it’s an awesome feeling, an awesome feeling of being connected to, and with, it all. Pure awe, really.


The crazy thing about Chile is that we were basically at Argentina’s border, having breakfast in the mountains, but after hours and hours of heading down and through the mountains, we wind up at the coast, having a late lunch staring right at the beach. So crazy.

What a way to spend my last day as a 27 year old, wrappin up another year for the books.


One thought on “Cerro Tortolas: Breathing air at 20,000ft

  1. Hi Chelsey- I just randomly stumbled upon your blog while researching mountains I want to check out when I move to Santiago in a few weeks- and can I say I am so happy I found it! I’m moving to Santiago by myself for a job and would love to hear about your transition, how you made friends, and how you started training to tackle the high altitude treks. I think I’m commenting on this through facebook, so if you want you could fb message me? Anyways, awesome blog :)

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