Last Great Unclimbed Mountains

Condor

Hello everyone, I’m back in Fiambala, having had a bit of an epic.

We left Maria in Fiambala, heading home to Brasil.  She had climbed enough (three 6oooers) and decided to go back to work.  We will miss her!

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We wanted to climb Condor; a mountain well inside the border with Chile.  The problem?  The Argentinian border post (at the now-infamous San Francisco Pass) is one side of the mountain range, and the Chilean border post is the other, with many tens of km in between.  Even though we were staying on the Argentinian side of the border (which runs along the peaks of the highest mountains separating the countries), the border police insisted that we exit Argentina!  So, for the next three days, we were in no country – having officially left Argentina, but not having entered Chile.  Weird eh?

Here’s the border post (my least favourite place in Argentina) – fittingly, a tattered half-of-an-Argentinian-flag flies outside.  Inside, is a rather large wall-plaque of the Falklands with the words Malvinas Argentinas engraved…  The internet was down while we were there, so we had to wait until it decided to play ball before we could continue.  Grrr….

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We drove around huge Penitentes which blocked our way (huge spikes of ice), to a super-remote place in the desert.  We got Conway not just stuck, but grounded, and spent 30 minutes digging the car out.  We had left too late, and with our border delays, we were in a hurry when we left the cars.  Result?  We wandered up the wrong valley and arrived late and made camp in seriously sub-zero temperatures at 5,200 metres.  Not only were we miles from the route we had planned (which should have been quite straightforward), we were 500 metres below where most people camp for their summit push.  If we had had one extra day, we could have climbed higher and that would have changed everything, as you’ll see…

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We set off for the summit at 8am the following day.  Everything went wrong for me from the start.  I was feeling unwell, and had decided to try my new boots and new, thick trousers.  My new boots rubbed my feet, and the trousers were comfy to wander around in, but felt restrictive to climb.  We climbed rapidly to 5,800 metres, then we hit a huge lava flow (Condor is a volcano).  The rocks were enormous (bicycle to car-sized) and were extremely difficult to clamber over.  We all broke our walking poles falling over, and I felt like I had no balance (exhaustion? new boots?) so I fell many, many times.  We climbed many ridges, only to find ourselves descending into valleys of boulders again.  It was endless.  After many hours of this, only to find that we had gained only 100 metres in altitude, it was 4pm.  We had 300 metres of altitude left to the summit and only three hours of daylight left.  The terrain was treacherous – we were falling all over the place, and all it would take was to get an ankle stuck, or twist a knee, and we were in serious trouble.

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I made the decision to retreat (with Gabriel), with Max ahead going for the summit.  We waited for Pedro, who decided to continue.  4 hours later, Gabriel and I made it back to our camp, and were extremely relieved to find Jovani there, as he had turned around many hours earlier.  We waited and waited for the others, putting head torches out on the tents as it was pitch black, and trying to contact them by radio, but to no avail.

Three hours later, (10:30pm), we saw Pedro’s light, and raced out to fetch him and guide him into camp.  He was ok but exhausted, and he immediately apologised for the risk he had taken, and acknowledged that he had been lucky to get back safely.  I was then in a panic – Max had summited well before Pedro, but had not yet returned.  He had given Pedro his spare GPS batteries, and his radio (as they crossed paths and Max was descending) and he should have returned an hour or two before Pedro.  We thought we had seen a light well below camp, and I grabbed my thick jacket and dashed out into the darkness shouting Max’s name at the top of my lungs.  30 minutes later, I saw a light again in a neighbouring valley, which turned out to be Max, and we walked back to camp together.  His GPS had stopped functioning due to battery failure (cold), his head torch was flickering on and off because it was freezing, and he had to descend most of the way in the pitch dark.

So Max and Pedro made the summit, and Jovani, Gabriel and I didn’t.  If we had just had one extra day then we would all have made it, but there was nothing to be done.  We definitely made the right decision to come down; wandering the high mountains in the dark with no navigation system is not a wise idea.

Final challenge – make it back up a steep sand dune and a journey a few hundred km to Fiambala.  Pedro took the dune at top speed and made it – here’s a photo looking back down it again towards the lakes:

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Unusually, the Troller got stuck, but we managed to get it out again.  While we were doing so, I took this panorama:

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We came down to Fiambala, and camped at a hot springs nearby20161127_140303

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Max is currently climbing Pissis, having taken the motorbike.  It’s an easy mountain, and he can climb it in two days with the bike, whereas the cars would have taken much longer.  Again – if only we had more time, we all could have gone for Pissis.  As Mum said though – ‘who wants to climb a mountain called Pissis’?