Today we awoke to snow, cold, wind and a full day to do nothing. Last night Jose’s wife Sandra sent us a bleak, but accurate forecast on the sat phone and we’ve spent today inside the refugio waiting out the weather. I snuck out a few times to take some pictures and set up some time lapses, but all in all, things have been uneventful. At times we have had some white outs, then sunny skies, followed by more snow. It’s been a good day to sit back and make endless cups of tea and coffee in our luxurious dining room.
One bit of excitement came today while I had stepped out when we got a break in the weather. I heard a strange noise, like a plane. The only sounds over the past 24 hours have been wind, the sound of stoves and conversation. I ran inside, told the others that something was coming, and then just as I came back out to see if anything had appeared, there were two pickups charging up the snow-covered dirt path towards the refugio. When they stopped, the Chilean National Guard, Los Carabineros, stepped out and entered.
“You have to go down”, they said.
“Really? The forecast shows this storm passing tomorrow.”
“No, our forecast shows bad weather.”
As the official in charge spoke, another giddily took pictures of the lovely snow with his small digital camera as if he had never seen it before. Maybe these guys just needed an excuse to drive into the snow.
At this point I left the scene and let Jose take over. There’s no one better to deal with armed officials than a national—even better when he has better information and technology on hand than the officials. Jose worked his magic, explained the redundancies in our plan, showed them our satellite phone, radio, etc. and soon enough it was all over. They walked out the door, reved their engines and disappeared into the snow. Silence returned to the refugio. I still think the Carabineros were bored…
The forecast calls for more snow tonight, then beautiful, dry weather for as long as the forecast period goes. This could be our window. Jose and I plan to leave tomorrow if the weather is good and hike in another few miles or so and make a small camp halfway to the next shelter, Refugio Atacama. Unfortunately, our tents are up at Atacama, so we’re going to have to bivy—sleep out in the open—for the next two days. Just the thought of being exposed to the wind and cold that we’ve experienced today makes me feel weak. I really hope the weather changes, otherwise this next camp is going to be miserable, especially after enjoying the luxury of walls over the past few days.
After another long night sleeping in a chair on the bus from Santiago to Copiapo, this morning Jose and I met our two new climbing partners, Alberto and Julio. Jose met them via a climbing forum on the internet and together, they collaborated so that we could all share the same pickup truck into our base camp. I had no idea what to expect, but Jose mentioned that they would be coming to pick us up at the bus station.
We arrived in the predawn into Copiapo and waited an hour or so to meet Alberto and Julio. Copiapo is a booming mining town in northern Chile. Just outside of the city limits, scores of men and machines are moving mountains in search of gold, copper and silver to satisfy the global demand for precious metals. There isn’t much aesthetic to the town. Rather, it’s a bustling center of mainly young and middle-aged men with worn faces riding about in pickup trucks.
As the predawn darkness began to break, a man approached the bus station with two dilapidated, metal shopping carts in a dirty university warm-up uniform. He looked my way across the street from the bus station and began shouting. I turned away, hoping that he would move on to the next person asking for change or empty bottles and cans. When I looked up, he was crossing the street coming right for me, extended his hand and introduced himself as Alberto. I need to lighten up…
Jose and I loaded our gear into the shopping carts and wheeled them behind Alberto until we reached a small house where we met Julio. As it turns out, these guys are awesome. As soon as we arrived to Copiapo after yet another long bus ride, they offered us showers, coffee and breakfast. The day prior, they also bought all of the water for our trip: you have to truck it all in up here. It’s that dry…
With the warm coffee and shower making us feel like new men, we soon met our driver, Ercio. Ercio is a middle-aged Chilean with a miner-like build, blue eyes and greying blonde hair who speaks impeccable English. Immediately he asked us detailed questions about our planning, expectations and means of communication once on the mountain. Then he reminded us that the mountain is always here; don’t push it for no reason and end up injured or dead. I like this guy.
We packed the pick-up, fueled up in town and headed into the Atacama desert with Ercio’s associate, Gabriel. Hardly anything grows out here. No trees. No grasses. Almost no animals except a few vicuna and guanaco. Most of the landscape looks like the Moon or Mars and every now and then we passed a shrub or two in a dry creek bed. This place makes the Mojave seem like a rainforest. As we ascended, we passed countless copper and gold mines, some of which have flattened entire mountains. Never again will I think that the expression “move mountains” is only confined to metaphor.
As we ascended, we drank liters of water. Normally, I would prefer to climb from sea level to no more than 10,000-11,000 thousand feet on the first day of a trip to acclimatize. However, the standard base camp for Ojos is at nearly 14,200ft. That’s a big jump and one that could definitely make me sick if I hadn’t taken good care. So far though, after a few hours of being up here, I feel great!
After hours driving between 13,000ft-14,000ft. across the moody, cloud-covered altiplano, we finally reached Refugio Murray: a nice, cozy looking wooden structure that is complete with cots and a cooking area, but no heat. Apparently, all the way up the mountain we will be able to sleep in small refugios without having to brave the wind, cold and snow under the thin, flapping walls of a tent. I’m a big fan of having walls around me, even if they’re shoddy. It keeps the weight of our backs down and should help keep the wind out.
We just finished our first meal and it’s time to retreat into our sleeping bags. Outside, the wind is picking up and the moody sky from earlier is now spitting snowflakes. We’re going to be acclimatizing here for at least two days. Hopefully it won’t snow too much so we can move on in a few days.
Sunbathing at 19,300ft.
After a long, cold 10 days or so up in the Atacama Desert attempting to climb Ojos del Salado, I’m back in Mendoza, Argentina, catching up on emails and everything that happened while in the place that closest resembles the moon on Earth.
While I was shivering, I shot an enormous quantity of photos, videos and time lapse photography that I’m going to be putting together over the next few weeks. I also wrote about the experience. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try and post my writing and photography from the experience here each day.
Into Santiago and out of Buenos Aires. Once again, this is my route for another jaunt in South America. This year I’m not headed south to Patagonia, but north into the Atacama Desert. The objective is 22 and half thousand-foot Ojos del Salado, the highest peak in Chile and the highest active volcano on earth. And yep, I’m going to do my best to brave cold, wind, sulfuric gases, lack of oxygen and poor hygiene stand atop it. We climbers are a funny lot.
Last year I launched out on a similar trip, but instead of being a 3-month escape from an office that morphed into my new career as a photographer and writer, this odyssey is far more focused and compact. I’m meeting my friend and owner of Huella Andina Expeditions, Jose, and together we are going to climb a massive, remote, frozen hunk of a mountain with a weird name. Next year Jose and the crew at Huella Andina will begin guiding the mountain as part of a volcanoes tour of Chile. Months back I contacted him and let him know that I had a ticket to Santiago and needed a climbing partner. Jose told me that he needed to get the route dialed-in in addition to photos of the camps, routes and scenery for their business. Everything matched up perfectly and now I’m at 37,000 feet and trading spring for autumn.
Over the next 2 weeks I will celebrate my 29th in Santiago, then move north to the mining town of Copiapo where we’ll hire a driver to haul us by 4x4 into the high desert to our base camp at Laguna Verde. From the lake we’ll spend a week acclimatizing and ferrying loads to progressively higher camps until we attempt the summit, then pack up and return to the warm, thickly oxygenated air of Chile’s central valley. I’ll part ways with Jose in Santiago, then figure out what to do until I leave on April 30. A hike around Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the hemisphere, seems like a good idea…
My trip this year could not be more different from last year’s. This time there were no grand company farewells, nor is my budget even half of what it was last year. Instead of bringing the Sierra Nevada/San Francisco party to the Andes, I’m alone. It’s a different feeling, far more-tempered and steeped in reality. Last year I graduated from high school, bursting out of the school doors, screaming, tossing my books into the air and running to a cheap beer-fueled party. This year I’m graduating from college: quietly packing my small apartment, alone in the predawn, locking the door and driving off in silence. I’m excited for the possibilities that lay ahead, but wiser with my expectations and more open to the experiences that my ignorance of the future blinds me from seeing.
I do know my route, though: into Santiago and out of Buenos Aires.