Well, I’m back a bit early from my trip to the tallest volcano in the world, Ojos del Salado, located in northern Chile. I’m back without a summit, but with a renewed awe for this world, a great experience in my books and confidence that every trip makes me stronger and smarter. We made it to 21,500 feet before heading down, which still is a record for me (1,500 feet higher than my previous highest).
To get to the base of the mountain, we needed to head to Copiapo, a town about 10 hours north of Santiago. My friends picked me up early Friday morning and I loaded my gear into the pickup. On the road, we stopped at little restaurant that was hands down, awesome. Stepping out of the truck, burning wood filled our noses and made our bellies growl. The restaurant was open air (but with a roof) and dirt floors, with a big brick grill filled with chicken, beef, sausages and pork cooking over its hot coals; a wood burning stove was on the right, with big old style pots and teapots boiling water and milk for tea and coffee; and a coal burning cooking area in the middle, made from bricks and with hot coals in the middle, with a basket of farm eggs and little self-serve skillets for you to make your eggs with. Oh, and I can’t forget the recently made, country style, homemade bread. We walked in, picked up two breads each, placing them over the grill to warm up, headed over and put two eggs in our personal skillets, seasoned the eggs as we wanted while they cooked over the hot coals, and then picked up a mug to go serve ourselves some coffee. Talk about breakfast of champions!! It was awesome, and just as tasty as it was cool, the perfect way for us to get ready for the climb ahead.
Since Chile is so costal, almost the entire trip up north was with an ocean view. We stopped for a mini lunch, indulging on seafood empanadas. Empanadas are dough filled with different ingredients, based on what you want. Since we were in the north, where seafood is so good, we had cheese/scallop, cheese/crab, and cheese/clam empanadas. The seafood ones typically are mixed with cheese. Can you say, yuuuuuummy? Our butts were tired so we stretched and walked on the beach a bit before heading on.
We eventually got to Copiapo, a loooong 540 miles from Santiago, and headed to the grocery store to get all the food and water we needed for the climb. There is no water on this mountain, as the Atacama Desert is the most arid desert in the whole world, so we estimated 20 liters of water for each person. We spent the night in this town and then headed out early Saturday morning for the mountain. The drive Saturday, approaching the mountain, was a quick reminder that indeed, this desert was dry. No vegetation, just dirt, brown, mountains in every direction, and a beating sun. What this does permit, is that you can get pretty high into the mountains in your vehicle. A couple hours and 180 miles into the drive, we came across a salt flat.
It had un-characteristically rained recently, which had left gorgeous mountain reflections on the sprawling white salt flats. I stared at the mirrored images of the peaks in the distance as I walked along the salt crackling below my feet, happening upon four petrified rats (eeew) that must’ve gotten stuck in the salt. A couple hours later along the dirt road, we stopped at a gorgeous lake, laguna Santa Rosa. There’s not many lakes scattered throughout this desert, and I’m not sure how they maintain with the heat, but it was a little paradise of color amidst all the brown. The green-grey-bluish water was surrounded by yellow, straw like bushes, and complemented by snowcapped colorful peaks in the distance and a crystal blue sky. Another 100 miles later, we arrived to the next lake, laguna verde, where we would camp for the first night at 14,000 feet.
A little bit about the climb of Ojos del Salado: with its peak towering at 22,600 feet, it is typically done in 8-10 days. These days take into account that your body needs to acclimate to properly function in this kind of altitude. Efficiently acclimating is done through various activities: one is through exercise as you rise in altitude (ie: climbing), the heavy breathing helps your body adjust to decreasing levels of oxygen. Then, ideally, you drop back down a bit and sleep in altitude. Sleeping in the altitude is key for acclimating, for some reason, your body must drop pressure (or something along those lines) and do its body magic to help you adjust to the oxygen levels. For this reason, Laguna Verde is a popular spot for the first couple nights of camping. Well, most people spend the first night or two at the lake Santa Rosa (12,400 feet) that I mentioned earlier and then spend nights 2/3 or 3/4 at Laguna Verde, but we just stopped at Santa Rosa to pass by for a pretty view and lunch. Anyways, at Laguna Verde, there are many surrounding mountains to climb, ranging from 18,000 to 20,000 feet. The idea here is to climb those mountains for a day or two, always climbing during the day and then dropping back down to the lake at 14,000 feet for sleeping.
The LagunaVerde lake was gorgeous, a deep royal blue with red sands around it and snow covered peaks in the distance. At precise moments in the morning and evening we got another gift of a mirrored mountain reflection over the water. Also, there are multiple hot springs, but I just dipped my legs in, because submerging myself in a hot spring would make my body too relaxed and tired. If we had more days though, trust me, I would have been all about those hot springs haha. That first night, I slept like a baby, all warm and snug in my sleeping bag even though it was probably hovering around 15 degrees. I did wake up with a headache, due to the little acclimating we’d done before this route, but I was in much better shape than my team, one of who spent the night vomiting and the other who just was unable to sleep (typical problem from the altitude).
The next camp was Atacama, at 16,700 feet. Here, we were planning on spending 3 nights. This camp serves acclimating purposes, because we already had been acclimating at 14,000 and needed to rise higher, and also for transporting water/food up to the last camp, Camp Tejos at 18,800 feet. We got to camp and met two guides who were there with Paul, an English man acclimating for Everest!! They were a really cool group and we got along awesome. That first day, we transported/carried water to Camp Tejos, ie: carried it up to the next camp, left it there, and came back down. The route from Camp Atacama to Camp Tejos took only about 3 hours, but was really necessary to help our bodies continue adjusting. The sun was beating but the wind was blowing, and up at this height it still required a couple base layers even during the day. We passed penitentes, the ice formations I told you about on my last mountain, that are like upside down icicles. However, here, they were even taller, bigger than me, and very thin.
Back at Camp Atacama, I went walking a bit more to take pictures. The surrounding mountains were really spectacular, a very different type of mountain than in central Chile, and it was crazy to see the flat desert and then grey and all shades of brown, snow caps. I felt like I was on the moon!
The guides had satellite radios and got a weather update, which shared the unfortunate news that bad weather was coming. It was Monday, and the best day to summit was Tuesday, which was impossible for us. We needed to acclimate and also get to the next camp. We ended up transporting water and gear for two days, up to the higher camp, but had originally planned on three days.
We were less acclimated than we wanted to be. I’d had splitting headaches every day as I woke up, but that thankfully reduced to normal or light headaches during the days as my body got moving. However, my team hadn’t slept much any of the nights. It was damn cold, below 10 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and below 0 at night. But we organized our “Attack backpacks” – the backpacks you take to the summit, with all the safety gear, food, water, etc – and hit the sack early, knowing 3am would come quick. And it did. It was cooooold, but we made our tea, toasted our bread over our gas camp, and organized. The altitude really takes your appetite away, and often you eat just because you know you have to. This morning, I made two slices of wheat (loaf) bread with peanut butter and jelly. It took me like an hour to eat them.
We headed off… and up. Starting at such a high altitude made it difficult to get started, and even worse considering that in general I’m a slow starter, gaining force and momentum as I go. The ground was hard and the incline constantly steep, but following a zig zag path to make it more manageable. A couple hours in, the sun started to rise, and for some reason, this is also the coldest hour. We were around -5/8F with 35 mi/hr winds, but thankfully with my multiple base layers on top/botom, thick polar pants and jacket, impermeable layer, two bandanas, face cover, and base/2nd/3rd layer mittens, I wasn’t feeling the cold unless I stopped too long. A beautiful sunrise starting peeping over the mountains behind me. Periodically, I’d stop for 30 seconds at a time to look back and take the view in.
We eventually hit the snow, which unfortunately was soft from a recent snowfall. This made our steps much more consuming, often sinking in up to or past the knees and having to lift ourselves up. That, without a doubt, was the worst. I often felt like I wanted to scream as I sunk in, because it just consumes so much energy to lift myself out. But up and up we went, trudging along and through the snow. I felt in awe at the landscape both to the sides and below. Above it just continued on and on, but below and in all peripheral vision, I felt like it was another planet. It was so beautiful. Around 20,500ft we dug the heels of our crampons into the steep incline of the mountain to sturdy ourselves and sit for a rest. We were tired. When we started getting up to get going again, my friend’s backpack slipped loose and rolled… and rolled… and rolled down the mountain. In horror I just watched the red little dot get smaller and smaller; it fell to a point that had probably took more than 4 hours to climb. There we had to decide what to do; we knew that near the summit, there was a part where we needed to rock climb, but felt that maybe there would be a way for one person to go first, and him to go last, receiving the gear he needed from the first person once they got to the top. We decided we had enough food and water to share and to continue on. However, eventually, we got to 21,500ft and had to cross (on an upward slope) a wall of very, very hard snow. It was ideal here to rope together… but our friend didn’t have the equipment. If we didn’t rope together, at least everyone needed their crampons, helmet and ice axe, so that in the case of a fall, with the ice axe one could auto-stop their fall. He had he crampons on, but the helmet, ice axe and harness were in his backpack. So, here we had to decide, does he/anyone else go down and others continue? Or, do we all go down together? We checked our watches and knew that we’d taken a little longer than estimated due to the heavier than planned for snow. And also because we were climbing against the strong wind. We probably wouldn’t summit until after 3:30pm, when we originally wanted to summit around 2pm, and we knew that the wind was only going to get stronger as the afternoon went on. Our muscles were fatigued, the summit is only the half way point (ya still need legs to get down), and we were against the clock.
All the factors taken into consideration, we disappointedly decided it was best to all head down together. As I turned around, I stopped to really take in where I was. No matter what, summit or no summit, I reminded myself that I was staring at this world at 21,500 feet. I was higher than I’d ever been, staring at a world more beautiful than I could really comprehend, recognizing that I’m just a guest in Mother Nature, an ant crawling in all her magic. The cold, the wind, the sun, the snow, the mountains, I took slow, deep breaths and loved the moment and place I was in. The mountain will not move, I will go back, I will see the summit… and I didn’t want to let a different ending change my appreciation. Where I was, what I had done, was still nothing short of awesome. So, I sighed, smiled, looked around, held the cross grandpa gave me and said “thank you.”
Back to camp we headed down, shedding layers as we dropped in altitude. When we got back to the truck, instead of camping the night, we decided to drive the 6ish hours into civilization, with a glimmer of a bed, beer and hot shower in our minds. We enjoyed the beer, took in every drop of the hot shower and slept like babies in a hotel bed. The next day, we leisurely drove the 10 hours back to Santiago, loving the ocean view and stopping at 5 different beaches along the way.
We got home at 4 in the morning, I opened my bedroom door, dropped my gear and backpack on the floor, hopped into bed and for about 10 minutes before falling asleep, I laid there, realizing it was all over. I was home 3 days before I had planned to be and I didn’t have my summit, but I had a whole lot to be grateful for and a passion and appreciation for this world and my spot in it.