Pursuing a career in adventure photography is far more involved than simply taking stunning images. The process of creating imagery that tells a story has many stories within itself. Check in often and follow my pursuit and evolution as an adventure photographer.
Right now Jose and I are bivying, sleeping out in the open, in a small camp that we’ve made on the way to Refugio Atacama. Alberto and Julio spent the night here in a warm tent, but just left us en route for Refugio Atacama; they ran out of water down here. It seems like we’re all without a crucial survival element or two.
Yesterday the crew awoke to beautiful weather. The storm passed and left the desert covered in a brilliant blanket of powdery snow. The mountains shined large and proud in their new coats and we all marveled over them as we ate breakfast and warmed with coffee on the deck of the Refugio.
Despite the intense sunshine, it’s still cold and windy. After admiring the grandeur over breakfast, we all packed up, broke camp and headed higher towards Refugio Atacama. After 8km of trudging over the moonscape we stopped and made a camp in a dry wash at the foot of Cerro Vicuna. The walk up to Refugio Atacama is still another 14km away and at 5300m, so we thought it was best to make an intermediate camp, break up the trek and also work in a day hike over 5000m to help with acclimatization.
We arrived as the shadows of the mountains were growing long, soon enveloping us in darkness and cold. Jose and I wasted no time: we arrived threw down our bags, built up small rock windbreaks around our open-air beds, and then made a quick, warm meal, crawled into our sleeping bags and buried our heads in our fluffy down cocoons for the long, cold night.
And now, night two of sleeping out in the elements. Before arriving, I was so excited to sleep out beneath the vast, unpolluted sky of the high Atacama, gaze at the heavens and shoot. From mild California , I failed to understand the reality of just how cold it is here: temperatures at night are around -10c and an inexorably sustained wind blows, occasionally interrupted by even stronger gusts. I just can’t seem to mustering the energy to leave my sleeping bag, set up a tripod and work with bare hands in this cold wind. Tonight, I’m going to have to settle for enjoying the brilliant austral sky with just my eyes.
The snow from the storm two days ago is mainly gone. The intense sunlight and wind quickly burnt off and blew away the light dry powder. Even so, today when I dug a small hole in the ground, I ended up finding a layer of ice beneath, almost what seemed like permafrost. In this ultra dry desert there is water sitting just under the surface, but frozen and unusable-like Mars. It seems impossible for anything to live here. Yet today as we hiked the flanks of Cerro Vicuna, Jose and I saw a fly, a quarter-sized plant beneath a rock, an eagle and some vicuna poop. Even in the most extreme conditions, life is still clinging on. This place is so stark, but so beautiful.
The cold and wind are wearing on me. After four days, the excitement and focus of climbing to the summit of Ojos has faded. I’m not wishing I were elsewhere—we joke in camp about our choice of vacation location, the barren desert rather than a tropical beach—it’s just that existing here occupies all my mind and time. It’s exhausting. Making it through each day, staying warm, somewhat fed and laughing with my partners is really all that occupies my mind, not an even colder, more barren place with far less oxygen.
If conditions allow, we’ll make it. If not, we don’t. Either way is fine with me. For now, I’m so focused on the present and mustering the motivation to put on my boots and leave my sleeping bag each morning.
One step at a time…
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.