It has been six days since I last saw a tree. Until spending so much time out here in the desert, I never knew how lovely and wonderful they are, breaking the monotony of the horizon with their green, majestic leaves soothing my anxious soul.
Today I write from a dirty, yet warm Refugio at nearly 17,300ft., the highest place I have ever slept. The floor is gritty with a pumice-like sand that’s impossible to keep clean. Squeezed into the tight space are two mattresses, one bed frame, various pieces and parts of climbing gear and frozen water containers litter the place. This refugio is an old, orange, wooden shipping container with four windows—three of the four are covered by glass. By any decent standard closer to sea level, this place is a disaster. But at 17,300ft. after sleeping outside in the never-ending cold and wind, this is the Hilton. Last night I slept soundly without the shivers and even ate a warm meal that Julio cooked up, complete with juicy chorizo.
The mantra of fast and light that Jose and I climb with doesn’t exist on this trip with Julio and Alberto. They brought family-sized packs of cheese, candles, a chicken, canned milk, canned peaches, granola bars, boxes of liquid milk, a kilo of mate, and Julio’s homemade honey from his farm in southern Chile. Did I mention that as I write this I am eating a semi-frozen jello mold with pineapple? And I thought that bringing my camera, two lenses, a solar powered battery pack and some fresh fruit was excessive!
One of the advantages of this peak being non-technical is that trucks can get incredibly high on the mountain with ease. For a flat fee of $400 per day, a local driver in a pickup will take you wherever you please. When we drove in a few days ago, we divided our gear: half came with us to Refugio Murray and the other half was trucked up here to Refugio Atacama. I had all but forgotten about the clean socks, underwear and few bags of potato chips that Jose and I sent up in our high camp load. Now I’m reveling in the feeling of clean fabric on my skin and the taste of greasy, salty potato chips in my mouth.
Packing and transport aside, the company and personality that Julio and Alberto bring to this trip is much appreciated, not to mention the scraps of their food… real food. Jose met the pair through an online climbing forum. We all shared the need to split transport costs to the mountain, so Jose decided we would link up and contract a pickup truck driver to drive us in and stock the camps. As our expedition morphed into its 3rd and 4th days, everyone getting along well, we decided to stick together. We’re the only ones on this mountain, and very likely the only people for dozens of miles. Staying together seems like a good idea…
Two days ago, though, we had to break apart at our intermediate camp between Refugio Murray and Atacama. Julio and Alberto were running low on water. Rather than spend another night out in the open, they decided to hike up the road to Refugio Atacama where fresh food, water and dirty mattresses awaited them. Smart call. Jose and I braved another night sleeping out in the wind, blowing dust and cold.
After two cold nights, Jose and I took off on the 14km trek from our camp to Refugio Atacama. 14km really isn’t a whole lot of backpacking, but when there is nothing but open space ahead of you, a constant, cold wind and air that has nearly half the oxygen of that at sea level, it’s feels very long, lonely and cold. Despite being no greater than 50 meters from Jose, the sound of wind in my ears and ripping across my jacket fabric drowned out any sense of companionship. I felt as though I was trudging across the moon.
The trek took us through a roundabout maze of curves, rises and small descents that at times seemed to deviate far from our obvious objective, Ojos del Salado. The 4x4 road was created for pickup trucks, designed to never over-strain them by winding over and around the mild, lower rises of the mountain. As the afternoon wore on and the kilometers melted away one by one, the autumn sun sank ever lower towards the high peaks to our north and west, and the cold wind began to reach my bones.
Finally I reached a broken sign:
What? Where is it? Shouldn’t I see it? About 100m ahead and just over a rise, a small, orange box appeared. I rushed towards it and as soon as I arrived, Alberto burst out of the door with a smile, giant hug and a warm up of coffee.
Now toasty and feeling safe inside my luxurious shipping container, the doubts and fears that ran through my head on that long trudge seem far off, even though I know that the coldest, most difficult part of the journey is yet to come. I’m warm and happy, sharing laughs and jokes with my compadres.
But oh, how I miss the sight of a tree.