I’m flying from Copiapo to Santiago, Chilean tunes blaring in my ears, investigating if my laptop will still work after three weeks of environmental punishment, and I am deliriously happy. Perhaps it is the doubling of my oxygen supply since we dropped from 5260 metres to sea level yesterday. Or maybe, it is the intensity of deep adventure handed out by traversing lonely lands sculpted by frigid scouring winds. It could be the eruption of internal magma freed by climbing on the steep slopes on three of Chile’s 2,300 or so volcanoes. It’s probably all of the above and more.
Looking back, the trip has almost been more driving adventure than climbing expedition. I think if we truly recognized how dangerous driving is, we might not do it so often. Some of the roads we’ve navigated in remote confines of Northern Chile have invoked a tremendous fear in me. One stretch even had the guide breathing hard and clenching the wheel as he brought the loaded beast that was our truck around one of the sharpest hairpin turns I’ve ever seen. Of course, to up the ante, there was a 300-metre drop to the outside edge. Given there was nothing to do but trust Damien and the truck, I said a small blessing and tried to enjoy the view.
As we made our way back from the ocean to the antiplano once more, the road “progressed” from interstate pavement to potholed filled asphalt to precipitous dirt. We left mining town after mining town behind and it seemed as though we are the only humans for miles. The higher in altitude we climbed, the less the road resembled one. Our four-wheel drive, quad cab Nissans were put to test after test. In fact, I almost wasn’t sitting in this airplane seat…
After our beach adventure of getting the trucks stuck on the beach near Taltal, we drove for two days to reach 4,300 metres and our first view of Ojos de Salado. We stopped at the road sign that marked the cut-off to the base camp for the mountain to take some pictures. We were instantly greeted with the introductory notes of a freezing overture that would play almost constantly for the next week in our ears and across our exposed skin. I scampered for a few more layers to ward off the cutting wind and finally set my eyes on the peak that had occupied my imagination for the past half-year. As per usual, it looked overwhelming in it’s totality and I looked for clues to the route to break up the climb into more manageable chunks. Javier, the head guide, pointed out the route and then we jumped back into the truck for the short drive to Laguna Verde.
The teal waters of the lake leapt from the shore to greet us with more vigor than the wind. Reminiscent of the color of the underbelly of an iceberg, the white-capped waves spread salt onto anyone who ventured near. Crusts of brine broke underfoot when we dipped our hands into the magical pools of hot water that ringed the shore. I felt as if I had landed in a magical place of extreme beauty and temperature. Fighting to keep our tents from doing inspired imitations of kites, we weighed them down with luggage and rocks. Like the windy plateau Tibet, our new home would ask lots of us just to exist.
After lunch, we hedged bets on who would actually brave the cold to soak in the rock-rimmed pools of volcanically heated water. Vance, Michael, and I were the only brave (read slightly stunned) ones to expose our bodies to the full force of the weather. It was worth every moment of suffering–and is so often the case, getting out of the water was actually easier than expected.
The jump in elevation caused periodic breathing in some folks and sleep was getting harder to come by. We rose before the sun to do an acclimatization climb of a neighbouring volcano “Mulas de las Muertas (dead mules).” We tried not to take the dried skeleton of a horse at the entrance of our camping spot too seriously. Without the sun, the temperature was well below freezing and the wind had already begun to tune its orchestra by humming a few notes. Given the fifteen percent oxygen level, we climbed very slowly since any rapid movement invoked the frantic panting of a 100-metre sprinter at the end of a race.
Climbing above the bluffs that surround the lake, the sun caught up to us and brought warmth to bear. The first few hours passed quickly as we practiced the mountaineers’ mantra of putting one step slowly in front of the other. The higher we climbed, the more the lake disclosed the varieties of its coloration. As we ascended, we lost 6.5 degrees Celsius of warmth per 1000 metres which was quickly multiplied as the woodwinds joined the string section in trying to blow us off the volcano’s flanks. We dropped just below the ridgeline in hopes of not having to beat up directly into the wind. Each step was a hard won fight. We could only stop briefly for nourishment and to let the trailing members of our expedition catch up.
I climbed strongly for the first few hours then slowed a bit. As the wind continued to build, some folks packed it in and turned for home. I continued up until about 100 metres from the top when I noticed that the wind was blowing Javier from his feet. I decided to save my remaining strength for the summit attempt in a few days and I had met the acclimatization goal of 5600 metres. Javier, Michael and Paul climbed for another 45 minutes and were rewarded with a few windless moments on the summit.
After another soak in the geo-thermal rock pool, a delicious dinner, and a raucous game of “Go Fish,” my sleeping mat seemed more comfortable than ever. The symphony finally stopped near midnight and I slept until the sun warmed my tent. After Damien’s long promised crepes (well worth the wait), we packed up camp with ease. By now, we loaded and tied the truckloads with the grace of a well-honed team. My role was often to mount the truck cab to secure the ropes to the roll bars and pass the various wraps over the load from side to side. Like the Andean hawks that flew overhead, I enjoyed the view from my lofty perch.
Leaving Laguna Verde’s beauty behind, we began to leave most comforts, including the comfort of having a road. As some of you may remember, the northern Andes are famous for their pentitentes, unique snow sculptures leftover from the past winter’s snow pack. Unlike Aconcagua, this time we had to sort out how to get a truck past such obstacles. The pentitentes flowed out over the road to basecamp on several occasions driving us from its hard surface onto the sandy canyon bottom. Of course, you can guess what happened next. Both trucks bogged down. Javier managed to free his from the shifty alternate route but Damien’s wanted us to have more practice in sand-extrication. This time with the deliberate pace of 4,800 metres, we dug and hauled rocks and freed the truck in no time congratulating ourselves on our new mountaineering skill of vehicle extrication.
Fifteen kilometers of sand roulette later, we left the “normal” route behind for the “rocky” route since the regular way was still blocked by the snowy parishioners. Road would be too kind of a word for this stone-infested track that doubled as a massage bed in a cheap hotel room. Gripping the door handles kept us firmly in place as Javier wrestled the red beast to Atacama base camp at 5,260 metres. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when we dismounted even though that sigh was hard to get since we’d gained another 1,000 metres. Like a well qualified hunting dog on scent, the wind tracked us to our new home. We had to work in teams to erect the tents without aviation incident and then took an amazing lunch buffet in the don domo dome. The base camp had two large domes that groups can use as cook shelters. The Italian team next door actually put their sleeping tent up inside their dome to escape the wind.
Are you getting the idea that it was windy?
Life pace ratcheted down another notch with the new gain in sleeping altitude and most napped for the afternoon. I explored my new neighbourhood finding some peace and quiet amid a nearby pentitentes field. The sun warmed gravel between the five-foot snow shards proved inviting and I curled up for a nap until a nearby penitent fell from grace with an unnerving proximity. Since gentle walking assists in acclimatization, I walked up the route towards the advance camp for about an hour moving at a pace that would make a snail look like a Ferrari. I made a goal of taking twenty steps between breaks to catch my breath. I turned back about one kilometer from camp feeling pretty good.
That night our nightly card ritual graduated to “Cheat” with us all laughing so hard we hyperventilated easily. At 5,260 metres, we were getting by on almost half as much oxygen as usual. It makes everything either much funnier or much sadder depending on how one is doing. By bedtime, the jump in elevation was weighing heavily on almost everyone-drawn faces, little appetite, headaches all round…the temperature plummeted with the sunset and we tucked ourselves into our feather-lined cocoons to endure the cold sleepless night of early times at basecamp.
We didn’t dare leave our tents the next morning until the sun hit them raising the temperature to bearable. By eight, our faces were longer and puffier and the night’s toil of little sleep and even less oxygen was showing. Choking down breakfast, we committed to gentle walks and packing for the next day’s move to high camp. Bodies are amazing things and by midday most of the team was feeling much better. I packed my big pack trying to balance comfort items with weight. We doled out the group gear and a nervous energy took its place beside the ever-present wind. Several rounds of cards finished the day and we hoped for more sleep on our second night at base camp.
We were in no hurry to gain another 500 metres so we didn’t set out for Tejos camp until noon. The route was straightforward so we could each set our own pace. The wind played every instrument available so I appreciated that for some of the time it came from behind and pushed me uphill. I climbed steadily and surprisingly easily for the first two hours. I stopped for a break and lost access to all rhythm that makes climbing at altitude bearable. I knew I would lose it if I stopped but I had to take in some food and water. The next ninety minutes seemed longer than nine hours. I made deals with myself, first for fifty steps. Then forty. Twenty-five. Finally ten was all I could manage until I hunched over my trekking poles and rested enough to take another ten steps.
I wasn’t out of breath exactly but I didn’t have much either–it was as if after ten steps all energy from my body had been emptied by the wind and altitude. With each brief pause, I reigned back in some vitality and willed another ten steps. Finally, the orange walled shelter of Tejos Refuge came into view like manna from heaven. I pulled open the heavy door and joined Javier, Damien and Paul inside the cramped (yet windproof) space. Slowly over the next two hours, the rest of the group limped in worn down by the wind filled journey.
We had a few hours to hydrate, convince our oxygen starved bodies they wanted to eat, pack, and get psyched for the next day’s summit attempt. Before the sunset, I crawled into my sleeping bag with a hot water bottle and budding headache. Acute mountain sickness, not a sickness really, but the natural outcome of existing in a hypoxic (low oxygen) environment presents a predictable set of symptoms: headache, nausea, low appetite to name a few. I’m used to them and have become quite skilled at “blowing them off.” I use deep breathing and intensive hydration to support my body in the challenge of acclimitizating. Some of you again, will remember the nasty altitude headache I had last year on Aconcagua that threatened my summit attempt. After climbing to high camp at 6,000 metres, a jackhammer took up residence just behind my forehead. I spent two hours on my back breathing and drinking and managed to get it to pass in time.
High camp for Ojos is at 5860 metres and once again, predictably, some industrial tools decided to excavate my cranium. I slept little as I tried every trick I knew to get the pain in my head to subside. The night was long even though it ended at 3:00 a.m. with Javier giving the wake-up call. There is an adage in mountaineering that states, “Never ascend with symptoms of acute mountain sickness.” As we only had one go at the summit, I decided to see if my headache would pass with activity (they sometimes do when you get up and move around). Between pulsing waves of intense pain and nausea, I forced down some soup and bread and endured the time until the whole team was ready to begin. I wasn’t the only one having a headache–many looked ragged around the headlamp lit table.
We stepped out into the deep cold black of early morn. The stars, with no light to compete with, shone with magical intensity. I love climbing at night even though the temperature hovers at its coldest just before sunrise. For some reason, mountains seem less steep to me in the dark and I can drop into the kind rhythm of stepping and breathing. This time I paced myself to breath with each pounding cascade inside my head and for a while won the battle driving the pain (and the attendant worry) from my mind. I climbed strongly again for about two hours and then the pain returned with a renewed intensity that I couldn’t ignore.
“Never ascend with symptoms of acute mountain sickness, never ascend with symptoms of acute mountain sickness, never ascend with symptoms of acute mountain sickness,” became the mantra that formed the foundation of every step up. Damien stopped the group for some water and I knew it was time to stop. I’d tried and I couldn’t get my headache to stop. It was time to descend. High altitude cerebral edema is not something to flirt with (I like my brain). So I told Damien and then climbed down to Javier. He looked at me questioningly and with tears in my eyes, I said, “Javier, I can’t get my headache to stop-I must descend. He shook his head in agreement and said, “You have to go down but I had high hopes for you for the summit.” I answered, “I know Javier, I wanted to stand there with you.” I asked him to take Flat Stanley with him and sent them on their way. I met up with Vance who had just met his personal goal of 6,000 metres and we descended together. Each step magnified the pain in my head and I let out some of the pressure in my head by spilling tears from my eyes. Not for long though, it was so cold my tears froze to my face. The wind had been thankfully quiet but as the sun rose so did its fury.
We got back to the hut and tucked into our sleeping bags to warm-up. After some rest, I packed my bags and headed back to Atacama hoping my headache would subside as I got back to lower ground. By mid morning, with food, water, and ibuprofen on board, the construction crew packed it up and I was pain free. I crawled into my sun-warmed tent and instantly fell asleep. I awoke to news that every one had been forced off the mountain by the cold. The wind picked up dramatically multiplying the cold temperatures to minus twenty or thirty and by 6,300 metres all had to turn back or risk frostbite.
Unfortunately, the expedition’s itinerary only allowed for one summit attempt. Often a few weather contingency days are built in that allow for a range of climbing options. I usually acclimatize well and was on track for this climb but needed another day to be ready for 6,000 metres. I am disappointed, of course, but the trip was such what I needed that it’s actually okay that “I didn’t get to climb as high as I wanted.” I had been drawn to the volcano’s name, “Eyes of the Spirit.” Spending two weeks amidst the stark reality of Chile’s antiplano did indeed give me a view to my spirit. I feel renewed and rejuvenated by the clarity of cold air. I’ve begun to see myself through new eyes and I feel a freedom that has been lacking for some time. I am struggling to put words to this fresh state but I’ll keep you posted as my understanding of it evolves.
The rest of the team was back to base camp by noon and Javier suggested that we pack up and start the long drive towards Copiapo. The trouble was, the trucks hadn’t started in three days, despite Javier and Damien’s finest attempts. They tried jumping the trucks with the ranger’s truck. They tried starter fluid. Air freshener. Anything to coax the diesel engines back to life. Even placing the propane stove under the truck to try to warm the fuel lines. Nothing had worked thus far. We went off to pack but knew to leave our tents up until we heard the engine’s roar.
Two o’clock. Three o’clock. Javier, normally upbeat and positive, admits defeat. He calls his boss on the ranger’s sat phone to request assistance. He’ll get word at four. We play cards. We’re not going anywhere today. We wonder about the next day. Four p.m. arrives and no plan yet. We play more cards. Most nap. More cards. Six p.m.-the plan-the rental company will send a mechanic in the morning-we’ll meet him in Javier will meet him in Laguna Verde in the ranger’s truck to bring him up. We play more cards, drink some Chilean vintage, and laugh until the day’s toil takes us to bed.
Up early the next day to pack, I’m in the early run to Laguna Verde. Six of us pack into the ranger’s truck. He negotiated the sand expertly and in an hour, I’m drinking in the “thick” air of 4,300 metres and soaking my feet in the hot water beside the lake. Javier met the mechanic and drove with him in the silver truck back up to base camp. The ranger followed not far behind. Ten o’clock. Eleven o’clock. Nothing but sun. Margaret, Greg and I sat reminiscing. Noon. One o’clock. Nothing. No trucks. Lots of wind again. Will we make our flights? I am the first to fly. “I have a corporate presentation on Friday. Please let me make my flight,” I say silently over and over again. Two o’clock. Four trucks come rumbling into the campground. Both red trucks are dead being towed by the others. The occupants tell great stories of traversing the non-existing roads in tow. The mechanic pronounced a difficulty in oxygen sensors, dirty fuel and the cold. With some creative piecing, he has two ready to drive and we’ll tow the third.
Four o’clock. The trucks are repacked. Five o’clock. We’re making progress towards town. The towrope breaks twice. The dead red truck is abandoned and nine of us rocket towards Copiapo and break neck speed over breakneck roads. Three hundred kilometers of downhill delivers us once again to sea level. One last delicious shared dinner of delicious seafood closes the expedition. Up early to catch my flight to Santiago and feel deliriously happy.
Thanks for all of your kind support. It is such a privilege and joy to share this path with you.
Pictures will be up on my website and facebook soon,