Last Great Unclimbed Mountains

Marmolejo (sounds yummy!)

Marmolejo was to be my eighth mountain of the expedition (Tuzgle, Acar, Antofalla, Vallecitos, Colorados, Condor (fail), Toro).  It is a long, but straight-forward mountain, and one which commercial expeditions occasionally visit, so there is a known and accepted route.  It had been a couple of weeks since Jovani had been at altitude, and we were worried about his acclimatisation, so we sent him on ahead.  Meanwhile we made final preparations in Santiago, including going to the supermarket to buy food, and realising why they have those bar things when you enter underground car parks, and what happens if you hit the bar, and carry on (poor Conway):

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Frustratingly it was a weekend, so we couldn’t complete these preparations (including fixing the drones, getting replacement camera lenses, replacing some of our stolen equipment) until Monday, wasting a precious day.  We also ran around trying to obtain a whole variety of permits required to climb, from the government permit, to a flora and fauna permit, to permission to enter a valley, and so it went on.  Nobody seemed able to tell us which permits were required, and where to get them, and we spent a great deal of time running round the city trying to obtain paperwork to allow us to climb.

Marmolejo generally takes 8-10 days for the commercial expeditions (who also have mules to carry their kit!), but we couldn’t get mules, and as there was only one day of wind below 80 kph forecast in the next week, that day (50 kph) had to be our summit day.  We set off up a beautiful valley, and the following day met up with Jovani, who seemed pleased to see us!

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We picked him up and carried on, although a very deep and fast-flowing river was between us and our proposed camp.  We had crossed many small rivers to this point (knee deep) but nothing like this.  As it turns out, Max can’t swim, and I optimistically rolled up my leggings and waded in first.  I say optimistically, because the water almost instantly came up to my waist (soaking my entire leggings), and I was using my poles to help stabilise me as I waded across  Max took one look at this episode and retreated!  There were very few crossing places however, and eventually he conceded and waded across.  Did I mention that the water was snow-melt and was icy cold?

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Late in the afternoon we made it to a camp with running water, and tried to see the line we would be climbing up the side of the mountain.  It looked improbable!

The following day we ascended 1400 metres in altitude, to our high camp.  We found tent placements waiting for us (what a treat to not have to level our own!) and made some delicious food.  Most expeditions make several camps on the way up – an extra one in the valley, an extra one 600 metres below our high camp, an extra one above our high camp, which is why they take so long.  They also carry their kit up to higher camps in several trips so they aren’t having to carry such heavy packs, and to help acclimatise, which is why their trips take so long.  We didn’t have the luxury of the extra camps, or reducing our loads, and on day two I found that my hip bones were bleeding from the weight of my pack.

The following photos were taken by our camera-guy, Gabriel, on the way up, and at our high camp:

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We met the first ‘other people’ on any mountain so far; a group of three Chileans who had (disturbingly) managed to lose one of their tent poles!  We offered ours, but it turned out that they had enough space in their second tent for all of them.  This was their first 6000 metre mountain, and we would be sharing a summit day with them the following day.

The next morning, Jovani and Pedro set off at 4am, with Max, Gabriel and me setting off at 6.  The summit was 1200 metres above us, and 5km away, largely across snow-covered terrain.  We caught up with the others after a few hours (and the Chileans) and approached the final ridge together.  The wind was really really strong, and I was freezing.  By freezing, I mean I began to lose the feeling in my legs!  My fingers were numb, and I had five layers of clothing on, and my down mitts.  We struggled on, and eventually made the summit all together.  Needless to say, we didn’t linger long!  I took my phone out to take a few photos and it froze in seconds, draining the battery entirely!  It was a beautiful summit though, and we had made it in three days.  I was particularly delighted for Jovani, as this was his second 6000 metre summit of the trip.

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Max also thought it was cold on the summit: marmolejo3

We descended back to camp, grabbed our belongings, and made it all the way back to our intermediate camp on the same day.

marmolejo2 (the descent from the summit, taken by Gabriel)

The following day, we made it back to the car, with one incident en route that I will share!  With the memory of the river crossing fresh in our minds, we spent the journey down looking for a good place to cross.  We spied a huge snow bridge, and made for it.  The water had carved a route under the ice and was flowing fast, and deep, and there were a couple of holes in the snow bridge.  Max and I decided to try crossing the bridge.

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We slowly, carefully began working our way across, aware that we couldn’t tell the thickness of the ice ahead of us.  We were looking for telltale signs of weakness in the ice, and listening for sounds of ice cracking below our feet.  We gingerly crossed the 20 feet or so of ice, breathing a huge sigh of relief when we got to the other side, and staring in amazement when we could see how thin the ice had been below our feet (see photo above).  Max picked up a large rock and threw it at the snow bridge.  Nothing happened, and we laughed.  He picked up another one and threw it, and the entire bridge collapsed before our eyes and was swept rapidly downstream!  We laughed again, in shock, and gratitude that we had made it across, and descended rapidly to the car, completing the climb in four days.

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