Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring

 

Ultimately this was a successful expedition despite the best efforts of the Andean weather and the Chilean police to sabotage it. From the outset I thought that this would be an easy hike on a dry rocky path in a high altitude desert. Summit day turned out to be seventeen and a half hours long and involved some of the most tiring trail braking in deep snow that I have done in years.

Ojos del Salado 6,893m is the highest volcano in the world. It is also the second highest peak in South America, and the second highest peak in the world outside the Himalays. It is located on the Chile/Argentina frontier in an area of the high Andes surrounded by the Atacama desert. Several valleys are above 4,000m. It is possible to drive to over 5,000m and there are numerous peaks rising to well above 6,000m.

After working for 3 months in Antarctica I arranged a two week stopover in Santiago on my homeward journey. This gave me time to travel north in Chile to the mine town of Copiapo. Here I joined up with Paula Godoy, an experienced Chilean/Arginine guide who I had worked with previously in Antarctica. She was due to lead a small expedition to Ojos and agreed to let me join the team: Paula, Matt (NZ), Carolina (Poland), Drucilla (Argentina).

We had planned a fairly fast acclimatisation programme climbing a few peaks in the 5,000 - 6,000m range before tackling Ojos. There are no supplies beyond Copiapo so we set out with 10 days food plus several hundred litres of fuel and drinking water. We spent two pleasant nights in the Refugio at Laguna Santa Rosa (3,870m) watching flamingos on the lake and climbing Maricunga c4,800m. We then moved to Laguna Verde 4,335m with a plan for more hiking and birdwatching.

Then the police intervened. Apparently there was a forecast for heavy precipitation. This would mean snowfall on the peaks and rain in the valleys. The authorities were concerned about vehicles being trapped by either snow or flooding on the international highway between Chile and Argentina and decided to close the border zone for a few days. They forced the few climbing teams in the area to evacuate for an undefined period. As the region is essentially uninhabited the nearest accommodation was in Copiapo and we had to retrace our journey of 260km. The irony was not lost on me: my first expedition to one of the world's driest deserts was about to fail because of a risk of rain.

The expected storm never arrived in the valleys although an impressive amount of snow fell above 5000m. The road was reopened after two days and we decided to extend the expedition. We all changed our onward travel arrangements, purchased more food, fuel and water and set of for the mountains again on Feb 4th. We made overnight stops at Laguna Santa Rosa and Laguna Verde making two hikes to over 5,000m. The drive on a fairly rough track to Ojos del Salado base camp (5,200m) on Feb 7th took 2 hrs.

We slept for two nights at the BC and made two carries to the small Refugio Tejos at 5,820m. There were several other climbing parties around but no one had reached the summit since the heavy snowfall the previous week. On the afternoon of the 9th two groups returned to the Refugio exhausted, having failed to get above 6,600m in deep snow. The weather was stable with cold, clear nights and warm days so we were hopeful that the snow could have consolidated a little more for the following day.

At 02.20 Carolina and I left the Refugio, with Paula, Matt and Drula 20 mins behind. A large group with two Chilean guides were a further hour behind them. At first the morning was cold and clear with a little wind. The first 200m of height gain was on a path through small rocky valleys. This gave way to a large moderately angled snowfield which we followed upwards for a few hours conscious that the faint lights behind us were not getting any closer and we would be breaking trail for quite some time. The wind picked up speed and it felt particularly cold in the hours just before and after dawn . The temperature was around -10 / -15 with winds of 30 / 40 kph. At 6,350m we traversed right to leave the snowfield and gain more mixed terrain. We followed this upwards for approx 150m trying to avoid the patches of deep snow. From 6,550m to the crater rim at 6,700m was another long gentle snow slope where the windblown crust was not strong enough to support a person's weight. However the wind dropped as the day progressed and the temperature rose as the sun climbed in the sky.

From the edge of the crater we could see a level area of snow where there is a lake in warmer conditions. The crater was 'open' to the north and west but enclosed by a steep wall to the south and east. The actual summit lay 200m higher to the south and all signs of the summer path were buried under the snow. I believed that the route gained the high wall of the crater and followed this round to to the top. I spent over an hour searching in vain for a safe way to do this and was about to admit defeat and head down the mountain when I spotted the guided Chilean team approaching from below. We sheltered from the wind for half an hour while waiting for them to catch up.

Mario, the guide, thanked me for my trail breaking efforts earlier in the day and agreed to lead the way to the summit. The route was obvious, but different what what I been looking for. Mario led around the edge of the frozen crater lake and directly up a steep snow gully to join the rim 30m east of the summit. The snow in the gully was steep and unconsolidated. Mario and I took turns to break trail up the final steepest section. There was a fixed rope in place for the final 10m. This continued along the exposed ridgeline to the summit and I went first pulling and digging the rope free from the frozen snow.

Finally at 15.00hrs after twelve and half hours of effort, we reached the summit marked by a small pole and some flags. Carolina and I admired the view down onto the Argentinean side of the peak and took a few pictures. Several minutes later Mario and his group joined us on the summit and we shared congratulations before heading down. The descent was uneventful but took a further five hours and we reached Tejos at 20.00, seventeen and half hours after starting out.

I doubt that few of the people who have climbed Ojos have faced such challenging conditions. And the moral of this tale is: Never assume a mountain will be 'easy', especially if it is almost 7,000m high!

David Hamilton 12/02/2018 in Copiapo, Chile

David Hamilton
High Adventure
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