Last Great Unclimbed Mountains

The final chapter. Or was that just the first?

I had been putting off writing these last posts because it seemed that publishing the final chapters of the adventure would somehow set in stone that it had ended.  I flew back the day after the Copiapo summit, and made it in time to give my 9am maths lecture on Monday morning.  I think my students would agree that it wasn’t my best performance, but I hope they were understanding.

As I write this, a week after I landed back in the UK, the whole adventure feels very much like a dream.  Of course, having been away from the University for so long, I was thrown back into work at full throttle, although that certainly took my mind off things.  My lovely colleagues in the Radio and Space Plasma Physics Group baked me a beautiful cake in the shape of a mountain to celebrate my return, and it was lovely to see them, and my family, again.

I feel as though I have so much unfinished business in the PUNA now.  I have learned so many lessons from these adventures; both in terms of equipment, and preparation, and route planning.  It is clear that buying anti-freeze from a country where the temperature never falls below zero (Brazil) is perhaps not the best option.  I also didn’t know that if you put in more than 65% antifreeze, the freezing temperature of the mixture begins to rise again, until at 100% antifreeze the freezing point is the same as for a 20% mix.  Good to know…

The PUNA is a brutal place.  By the time we’d finished, poor Conway had frozen, then overheated, needed a new head gasket, the brake sensors were broken, he had one broken window, the front bumper was smashed, the wheel arches were smashed, the rear bumper/lights were broken, the doors wouldn’t shut properly (the wind caught them while we were trying to open them…), the gear box oil radiator had clogged with mud and overheated….and I’m sure there are more problems yet to come.  He was a valiant steed, but the PUNA is a brutal place.  Next time?  Maybe a Landrover Defender is the answer? Or an off-road motorbike like Max takes?

So yes, there will be a next time. I really want to climb Leon Muerto for starters, and there are so many other beautiful peaks that we saw while we were climbing but couldn’t reach on this trip.  My jobs this winter are to learn both Spanish and Portuguese, and how to ride a motorbike.  And to map the Himalayas, as we’re sure there are hidden 7000m peaks there waiting for us.  The only thing that is for certain, is that there will be more adventures.  If anyone has any clout with the University of Leicester physics department, put in a good word for me, as I think I’ve used up all my holiday for the next decade…


I should end this story with a tribute to my travelling companions.  I couldn’t speak with Jovani (I’m going to learn Portuguese, I promise) but he’s a good sport, and it was great to see him having so much fun driving his Troller up rivers in the desert!


Caio – what an amazing guy.  We share a love of ‘munchies’, and he never failed to put a smile on my face, even when I was super-frustrated at being stuck (again), somewhere.  We went on many walks while the weather was bad, talking about all sorts of randomness.  We generated some awesome photographs (‘The Hiker’) and fell in ‘the black mud’ together.

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Pedro: a man of few words, but an incredible friend.  He’s a fantastic climber – so steady and solid.  He is mentally tough, and yet amazingly patient with others.  He piloted Conway for thousands of miles on this trip; through rivers, up mountains, over sand dunes, you name it.  He was the sensible one; stopping us from launching headlong into disaster.  When you make him laugh, his giggle is totally infectious; what a great guy.

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Max. I’m not sure what to write here without getting sad or soppy.  Of course he’s a great climber, that goes without saying, and he has devoted his life to being able to spend time in the mountains, where he belongs.  He is unfailingly good company, and it’s pretty amazing to be sitting on a mountainside discussing the finer points of mountain mapping techniques, Mercury’s magnetosphere, and human evolution in a single conversation.  We laughed a lot, and cried a little (or I did); we are hot-headed at times and wildly optimistic at others.  We hate cities, airlines and border control (and Max hates banks too).  We laughed our way through this adventure, whether it was the debacle of the flipflop, ‘movie-night’ on Max’s phone, chasing mice around the hut, searching for Incan arrowheads, or mapping new routes and finding new ruins.

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Over the last couple of months I felt like I was always laughing; sometimes through the exhilaration of climbing, sometimes going places that nobody has been for hundreds of years, but mostly because I had great travelling companions and I miss you, Max and Pedro.

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I think a fitting end to this story belongs to Caio.  He says that life is about ‘epic shit’. It doesn’t matter whether your epic shit is running a lap of the park, cycling to France or climbing in the PUNA; whatever those words mean to you, you have to get out there and do it.