We left Antofalla and drove for a couple of days, only seeing two people. The first was an old man, living on his own at a farm high up in the mountains. He was clearly not in the best of health, and he had nothing – no electricity, no way of getting out of his remote valley, and nobody to care – heartbreaking. As we left, Max asked him if there was anything he needed and he said no.
Hours later we arrived at his nearest neighbour, at La Brea. A lady named Maria Santa Ines lived in another set of mud huts on the edge of an evaporative lake. She had many sheep, llamas, a dog and some chickens. Her place had warm water from the hot springs. A donkey had kicked her wrist a year ago and clearly broken it; she said it still hurts, and it obviously hasn’t healed properly. I wish we could have helped, but there was little we could do.
We were running out of food so she sold us one of her lambs. We had dinner with Maria, and she enjoyed our company, and ate with us. As we left she gave us some of the delicious herb she uses to make mint tea. The lady last saw her neighbour up the valley 3 years ago, and can’t get up there to visit. She says a puma ate all of his llamas, and he isn’t strong enough to keep it away or kill it, so now he only has donkeys (which he can’t eat). She says he will die there.
We camped at her farm, and I took some extremophile samples from the middle of the evaporated salt lake there – astro-biology colleagues at The Open University will be looking for trapped bacteria in the samples, and colleagues at Leicester will use the samples to test their Mars instruments.
I think it’s fair to say that Max, Pedro and I have been wanting to climb Colorados and Vallecitos for a long time. They’re a pair of 6000ers, with a col at 5000 metres separating them. Last year we caught so many glimpses of them, but the weather conditions didn’t allow us to get close.
We decided to climb them both over two days, and camp at the col between them. Nobody climbs Vallecitos, and Colorados has only been climbed a few times, from the Chilean side (we’re on the Argentinian side) so it’s fair to say we didn’t really know what to expect in terms of access. We camped at the Col, and I went for Vallecitos first. It took a while, but I summited with Jovani, our mechanic:
The following day I set out for Colorados alone, as Max was climbing the mountains in the opposite order, and Jovani wanted a well-earned rest. I followed the route that Max climbed the day before, and soloed the mountain in a total of 7.5 hours up and down, making me the first Brit to climb these mountains!
Here is the view of Vallecitos (in the background) from near the summit of Colorados, and Colorados from Vallecitos: