Cerro Marmolejo, the southernmost 20,000+ft in the world

I’m officially now a 2 time 20,000 foot mountain climber!!! On Saturday January 28th at 3:45pm, I summited the mountain Cerro Marmolejo, the southernmost 20,000+ footer in the world, and more importantly, a mountain I never imagined would be on my list of checks. This is a mountain that when you talk about it, people widen their eyes or say, “ooooh, you’ve got harness, ropes, and all that? The cracks on that glacier can be huge.” or “Oooh, that one, that’s a tough one.” Everyone knows about it, but not that many have done it. So, in my mind, it seemed so far off. You needed 6-8 days (in the end, we did it in 5, but now I understand why people do it in more haha), ropes, glacier, cracks…. gulp. Well, then I did the 5 day course in October on progressin and rescue on glaciers. Then, I wondered, maybe I’m ready? So I said it, and I did it, and I just want to share this story with you, because I feel proud, humbled and blessed, after what surely will be something I remember forever.

Cerro Marmolejo – My best moutain yet 

My second foot leveled with the first, and I knew that I had finally made it. My eyes, within milli-seconds, were eagerly scanning the panoramic, taking in my anxiously awaited reward. The legs that didn’t wanna keep moving, the lungs that gasped for air every 30 steps, my achiles that was aching from overwork on the unrelenting incline, my mind that wondered if the top was ever gonna actually arrive…. All that vanished with the speed of light with that last step. All the energy that I had strategically been saving, so I didn’t run out before the mission was accomplished, released from my eyes as drops of tears, as I realized I was done and took in the overwhelmingly and humbling-ly beautiful sight in front of me.

The summit of Marmolejo truly was everything I needed it to be, I felt lucky and blessed to be witnessing the miracle of this earth with my own eyes, and also felt so damn empowered for pushing myself through everything that encompassed the 4 days (and 11 hours just that day) to get myself there.

The journey to the summit was my biggest mountain challenge to date, truly requiring 100% of what my body had to offer…. And then all of my mental strength and determination when my body thought it couldn’t go any more, but I knew it could.

Day #1

The first day, we had almost 9 miles of crossing two valleys just to get to the base of the mountain. While not particularly difficult in and of itself as the incline was in general pretty spread out, with just a few steeper climbs, the pure distance was exhausting, as well as the terrain. We had to cross multiple rivers and streams to cross in each of the valleys, and we had hours on end where the land was rocks of different sizes – which gets very tiring, stepping up, on and around them… some stable, others not. Plus, the sun, it was beating down. It was beautiful, but long. Long as hell. When we got to the end of the second valley, there was a heavily flowing river, signaling that the mountain was “starting” – we had about an hour and a half more of climbing up to get to the basecamp at 11,800 feet. This last bit, I looked around, just rocks, everywhere in sight, noting different formations and imagining back when the glacier was making its way through. This first day was about 10 hours, and when we arrived at the campsite, literally, we put up tent and collapsed for a little bit before re-joining to make dinner. The site was beautiful, a little plateau scattered with random rocks and some snow draped mountains right in front.

I looked around, wondering where the route would continue, where we had to cross to get to the other side of the bowl that we were in. And then I saw something. Straight up. No way, that can’t be it. That is like a 90 degree angle, I though, although a bit exaggerated, it did not look plausible nor fun. But yes, in fact, that was it. Ufff, talk about “starting the day off running.” Reflecting on the recently completed day, and what how our day #2 was going to start, I quickly realized that, with this mountain, nothing would be given, all would be earned. We made dinner, some toasted whole wheat pitas with avocado and tomato, and marshmallows, and called her a night. We needed to rest. But rest we did not! I’m not sure what was causing so many rocks to break off the mountain, but all night, we heard huge landslides of rocks. It was like a waterfall for minutes on end, over, and over, and over. Me, who never wakes up and sleeps through everything, couldn’t sleep. That’s how you know it was noisy… and a bit terrifying. I knew we were in a safe place, but hearing those rocks fall like that was a bit un-nerving.

Day #2: 11,800 to 14,100 feet

Day number two was short but not so sweet. Only about 1.5 miles of distance and about 2,300 feet of elevation. On paper, not that bad. In reality, the day tested my nerves like I’m not sure they’ve ever been tested before. So, from the first five minutes of the morning, we started with a couple brutal hours of extremely steep climbing, on the type of loose terrain that, with every step up, includes a little sliding down. About 30/40 minutes in, we already needed to take a 10 minute break… everyone looking at each other like, what the hell is this?! From this break point, we looked up to see the path, same terrain, straight up.

We hauled our backpacks back on and forged on. When I was arriving to the top of this second stretch, I wondered what I’d see on the other end of this wall. Well, I wasn’t too thrilled with what was revealed to me. The loose terrain, sure, it’s annoying because it’s very tiring. But, it’s opposite, the sleek, hard ground is the worst. It is very difficult to grip, you’re constantly looking for rocks jutting out even a half inch from the ground… anything, to grip and secure your foot. And this was all around a jagged peak. The next few hours were carefully calculated steps, arms gripping the mountain for extra security whenever possible and full focus in every minute. Randomly I’d have fleeting thoughts creep in, “how are we gonna get down this” but I quickly shoo’ed them away, there was no space for doubt or distractions. Finally, we got to a point that was more of a (still steep) crossing, but at least we could sit. My calves were shaking and I said a little “thank you Lord” while I waited for the rest of the group to catch up. I sat there, at 13,100 feet, and looked around me, realizing that this was a rugged mountain, no doubt about it. Jagged, towering peaks in all directions. We sat at that spot a good half hour, we were all tired beyond belief, fright sure takes its toll in addition to the pure physical output, and our shoulders were feeling the heavy 50+lb backpacks. The third stretch of the day was a continuing of that same terrain. At one point, we had to cross from one side to another, which is its own mind game. When you’re climbing up, be it loose or smooth ground, your center of gravity is lower and you’re just looking up. When you crossing on steep slope your full standing and you’ve got the perspective of all around and… down. While I always am careful, I don’t like being reminded to blatantly. We finally made it in one piece to the second camp site, which didn’t disappoint as a reward for the day. We had a view of the fake summit and the glacier on the side, with a patch of ice and snow for melting (water) and towering black, snow dappled mountains on the other. Time to eat a late lunch and recharge the batteries (ie: rest). We were starved, it was 4ish and we’d been going full for 8 hours, I’d just eaten a protein bar, some nuts/dried fruits, and a fruit pure. Getting to camp so early was nice, we set up tent, ate, napped about an hour, melted snow for water, chatted under the sun, and just as it started to go down, crawled into our sleeping bags to keep toasty and call ‘er a night.

Day #3: 14,100 to 16,100 feet 

Day number 3 was a great day, tiring but doable and no “am I going to fall off/down this mountain” fleeting thoughts (don’t worry fam, I was always safe and in control, but those creepy little thoughts make their way in for no reason anyways). So this day was lovely, just one foot in front of the other, pushing on, though a landscape somehow getting prettier by the minute. We eventually took a break at a point we intersected with the beginning of the glacier. It was gorgeous, full of these ice formations that I best describe as upside down icicles (ie: instead of hanging, they are based on the ground). At this point, I still loved those penitents (that’s the word in Spanish) and climbed in and around, taking photos. In front of us was the false summit and behind us was these truly stunning peaks that captured my attention. I loved them. The glacier and the penitentes also were just mind blowing. It was hundreds of football fields of these ice formations, something so sleep and shimmering and so powerful at the same time. It’s impossible to not wonder how these form, to stare in awe at nature and just marvel at the miracle of all the elements in play. Our third campsite, at 16,100 feet was gorgeous. Rugged, raw, gorgeous country.  We camped right next to the edge of the glacier, with one backdrop of the fake summit and field of penitentes and another of majestic, silent peaks. I ran around taking pictures, I just couldn’t stop, in one area, all the mountains below were endless red and orange peaks, in another, all black and snow dabbled, and in another, penitentes for daaaaayz. We went to bed early this night, like 8:30pm, so we’d be well rested. My back, shoulders, legs… well, my everything, needed some recoop. I waited till the sun started setting, so I could get a pic of the sun lighting up the peaks of the mountains and the glacier, and then passed out, dreaming of the summit the next day and praying for good weather.

Day #4: 16,100 to 20,100 feet, and back down to 16,100

3:30am my eyes slowly flutter open. And then close. About 15 minutes of that “in between” sleeping and waking up. I wiggle my arm out of my sleeping bag. Yep, it’s cold. Damn. Flip to my side and cuddle in my sack like a little baby, so warm. So good. But I had to get up, the day arrived. Woo hoo!!!! I was ecstatic, it just wasn’t visible yet hahaha. What would the day bring bring?! Mauricio wakes up too. Thankfully, he’s more of a morning person than me and sits up to boil the water before then curling back into his sack. The water boils and he prepares our teas, before I eventually sit up, go, “Brrrrrrrrrrrr” as I reach for the tea. It was cold. Breakfast was tea and a whole-wheat pita with jelly. Sounds like so little, and it is, but I’ve found that, when I’m in higher altitude, especially in the morning, I can’t eat more. In general, the altitude significantly reduces my hunger and I often eat only because I have to. But in the morning, even eating two pitas instead of one, leaves my stomach feeling heavy and makes me nauseous once I start climbing, as if my body is spending so much energy on processing the food, and not letting at energy get to my muscles. So, the key is frequent, small foods.  My favorite part, and now ritual, is after finishing my hot tea and eating, I crawl back in my sack for 5-10 minutes. It’s such a guilty pleasure if I can do it, so gratifying with the hot water and a little food in your belly.

Anyways, with two smart wool base layers on and my impermeable top later, both top and bottom, and my parka I eventually crawled out of the tent into the darkness, ready to take on the day. I had to put my crampons (snow/ice spikes that attach to my boots) on right way, as our first obstacle was the glacier.  Ok, 5:00am, headlight on, here I go. The glacier was hard and I had to climb on “top” of those penitentes, stepping from one to another, using ice axe to make sure each was stable. Watching the ground as I balanced over these tips, sometimes there’d be a little or medium sized crack alongside, or a dark hole. Sometimes the tips were united in a long, skinny line, which didn’t make balance so easy, and sometimes it was stepping form one to the other. It took a little to get used to walking like this, but slow and steady, I got the hang of it. The further we went in, the taller and bigger the penitentes got. Towards the middle, they were the size of me! Here, we had to finangle between them, swinging our legs over the tips then lifting ourselves over and up. Truly, and I say truly, my love affair with the penitentes came to a screeching halt. These suckers had fooled me, so pristine, calm and serene… they put on quite the façade… until you crawl up in them. They stop being nice. “oh you big?” they say, “we bigger!” , “you strong?” “keeping liftin yo’ self between us” and the, “oh, you getting comfortable?!” “Here’s a crack, just to remind you who’s boss.” Yeeeeeah. And on top of it, it’s impossible to know the right, efficient direction as there is no path, and you’re navigating through the safe way, depending on cracks, holes, and size of the penitentes, it’s not as the crow flies. Two hours in and we were all starting to feel like jelly. And, imagine, it’s still not light out, it’s cold, and we’re in the middle of a glacier. Yeah, you said it, brrr. The sunrise over the glacier lit up in such a magical way, however, that it replenished my energy and refilled my motivation. It was gorgeous. This glacier crossing took five long ass hours. We had two in our group who were not doing so well. Mind control in this part, especially as the hours passed, was key, to not get too down or frustrated or desperately thinking about when it will end. I was really high energy, feeling excited, and not doubting my summit. Here, tiredness isn’t the factor as much as mentality. Tiredness is a given. So it’s just a matter of how you feel about that. And I felt great. I started focusing on the beauty around me and being strong for the ones that were faltering. Energy is contagious after all :) I convinced Mauricio to get through the glacier and then re-evaluate, because he was ready to call it quits. I took a rest with him, pep talked and eventually we continued. The last hour of the glacier was long, seeming like my steps weren’t actually advancing me closer to its edge. But, surprise surprise, they were, and I made it out, at 17,400 feet. Time for my second protein bar of the day and some water. Outside the glacier, looking down on it, damn, its size is mindblowing. Hat’s off to nature.

Finally passed the glacier

Okay, we continued, full well knowing another 5-6 hours awaited. I was just glad to be walking on ground again. (Check out this view). I could tell the altitude was taking an effect, the feeling in my muscles was heavier and when I’d stop for breaks, it was deep, heaving gasps before catching my breath. I’d say the last 2-3 hours were quite brutal. As the false summit approached, I kept my eye on a patch of snow, feeling that I just had to get myself there, and it’d be “right around the corner.” But, that patch ended up being waaaaaaay farther than it appeared. I simply continued by finding checkpoints in my route, a big rock, a patch of snow, a small rock, a curve… I’d will myself to get to that point without stopping, and there I’d heave big breaths till I could breathe under control again. Then, next checkpoint. Finally I got to the patch of snow, and I looked to the right and saw Volcan San Jose, which I had climbed last February, right at my same height. So I knew I was getting there. I was above all the mountains in my vision, and at the same height as San Jose, which towers at 19,600 feet. Just a little past the patch of snow was the fake summit, and passing that, I’d be able to see what was the last stretch, so I continued until I could see… It was still. so. so. far.  Okay, Chelsey, no worries, 30 steps at a time. One checkpoint at a time. You got it girl! I continued… my checkpoints got closer together, but I never questioned my future achievement. And eventually, there it was, 11 hours since I started that morning. As I was taking my final steps, it was like in slow mo (kind of literally hahah) until I got my two feet parallel and was at the peak, with the view of the other side so dramatically revealed to me.

It was every bit of everything I hoped it would be. Thousands of peaks, the full range of colors, snow caps, perfectly blue sky. I was in heaven. It was so perfect, everything about it. Witnessing the power and perfection of Mother Nature truly is so overwhelming, it was hard to comprehend what I had before my eyes. And everything that I had passed through just to get there. Pushing myself to the limit, in every sense of the concept. It was nice to have a few minutes to myself, before the rest of my team made it, to just appreciate and take it all in on my own. It was exciting that we all made it, especially when 2 were iffy during the last 7 hours. We hugged, took pictures and then sat pondering the reality of where we were and what was in front of us for a good 20 minutes, before the cold started setting in. It’s amazing how quickly my body temperature rises when I’m in motion, I’m always the one with the least layers. But, once the blood stops flowing, darn, reality kicks in!

From the summit back to camp 

On the way back down, the glacier crossing was a total challenge. With the sun having beat down on it all day, the top layer was wet and everything was soft. Parts that looked solid weren’t, and we were falling and sinking in. It was demoralizing and utterly frustrating. In a sea of white, we traipsed on, taking turns with who was opening the path. Pure fatigue. The sun started to set and all we wanted to do was get out of the glacier while there was still light, but we knew that was impossible. Every once in a while, there’d be a frustrated shriek of “aaaaaaaaah” as someone sank in, sometimes because they needed help getting out, sometimes because they just didn’t want to have to pull themselves out. Just thankfully, we didn’t encounter any deep holes. But all roped up, we were prepared for any circumstance.

The sun set while we were in the middle of the glacier. As burned out as I was, as much as I wanted to collapse right then and there, the sunset required a moment of clarity and gratitude. It was one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen. Every tip of every penitente was doused in red, yellow, or pink. Look around 360 degrees, and those rose speckled tips was all I could see. And the horizon a rainbow of black, red, orange, yellow and pink. It was simply stunning. Again, nature is magic. I can’t even comprehend its perfectness enough to express it in a way that does it justice. As the sun set, the glacier surprised me in how it just firmed up from one moment to the next. Again, there I was, in the dark, with Pete’s headlight, balancing over the tips of the penitentes.  But this time my legs didn’t even have 1% left. They were shaking and my eyes were scanning around, how’s the best way to get out of here? Well, 9:45pm, after 16+ hours, I stepped back onto land and within 20 minutes, shrank into my sleeping bag, for the deepest sleep I’ve ever slept.

Day #5: 16,100 down to 9,000 feet (to the truck, then back to Santiago)

The next morning, our 5th day, we packed up tent, everyone a happiness high from the feat the day before. We headed down the mountain and needed to regroup and focus as we tackled the steep, smooth part I we passed on the way up on day 2. I admit that I was quite anxious as we approached, grabbing the cross that grandpa gave me and taking a minute to ask for safety and strength (just as I’d done a few other times). Slow, slow and steady. One foot in front of the other, testing before fulling giving each step. In this moment, I don’t think about anything else. I don’t look down, I don’t look up. I survey the land beforehand and then simply focus on each step and the path ahead, moving calmly and confidently. When you let fear or distractions or doubt in, that is always when accidents happen or you become more clumsy. I obviously don’t have pictures of this part, because both on the way up and down, everything was about completion :)  The hours continued and we advanced, getting a little klutzier as the day went on, just from pure tiredness. But we finally got down, crossed the rivers, crossed the valley, crossed the other valley and then got to the last river. WHOA. It had grown, there had been fires all over the country, from the dry heat, and we could feel the heavier air in the valley. And that probably melted some of the glacier and snow, flowing into the river. It was the biggest I’ve ever seen it. We didn’t think we physically could, it was flowing so strong and was so high. We walked almost a mile up and down, looking for where to cross, finally heading back “up” and forging in. It got up to my waist and was so powerful, but we all crossed with success. I joked that the mountain decided to throw one more obstacle in the path, as if she hadn’t given us enough, saying that we weren’t gonna get out so easily. About 1 hour after crossing the river, we made it back to our truck, after a grueling 13 hour day. My body was stiff and jello all at the same time. But I couldn’t have been any happier and joked to everyone, “ok, what’s next?!”

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