Last Great Unclimbed Mountains

Nevado Plomo, the finest mountain of the expedition (part one)

This is going to be a long post, and I might have to split it into two.  No apologies here – this was an epic, beautiful climb, and I intend to post as many pictures as I can of this amazing place.  Breathtaking doesn’t even begin…

I should start a few days further back though.  We came back down from Marmolejo on Christmas Eve, arriving at a small town late in the day and hunting for accommodation.  We eventually found a Cabana (small house) to rent for a couple of days, and plan our next steps.  Jovani had hurt his knee on Marmolejo, and it was apparent that he would not be climbing further.  It was 24th December, and my flight was on 28th, with Max’s on 30th December.  Pedro was also rumbling about returning to Brazil, as he was tired from two months of climbing. The problem though, was that Jovani and Pedro were our drivers, and without them we had no cars.  Should we stop climbing now, or go for one more mountain and delay our flights for another week?

It became apparent that Jovani, Pedro and Gabriel wanted to return, and Max and I wanted to climb.  Gabriel couldn’t stop though – he was our camera-man for the documentary, so if we carried on, he had to join us.  Nevado Plomo had been a dream of Max’s for a long time, and I was desperate to carry on climbing, so we were in.  Gabriel was therefore roped in too. Pedro took me to the supermarket at 8pm on Christmas Eve which (unsurprisingly) was closing.  We begged our way in, and threw whatever we could find into the trolley, as they turned the lights off and closed up.  It was like Supermarket Sweep (you have to be my generation to understand that reference…)!  I hoped we had enough for three people on the longest climb of the expedition, although unfortunately the only meat we could get was 5 packs of sausages, we couldn’t get anything fresh (like cheese), and we grabbed all the bread they had left and hoped we had enough for sandwiches on the approach.

The other problem we had was that our mule driver wouldn’t work on Christmas day, so we had to wait until Boxing Day to leave.  We enjoyed our last day together (25th Dec) with a huge barbecue (steak and sausages, courtesy of Pedro, whose skills with the barbecue are unparalleled), cleaned our clothes, organised and separated our kit, dried the tents, and so on.

(the photo below is from the second rinse of our clothes…)

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The following day we waved a sad goodbye to Pedro and Jovani, who started their drive to Brazil.  It was raining torrentially and the forecast was for 30mm of rain that day, and 50cm of snow at higher altitudes.  Setting off in those conditions would have meant being wet for days, however we could see that 100 kph winds were coming in on 1st January, so this left us just four days to make our summit.  The approach to the mountain is 50km in total, and we start from just 1900 metres in altitude – the question was, did we have enough time?

There were more questions though.  The only reports we could find about the mountain were the location of a couple of camps.  We didn’t know the way, and on google earth there are voids in the altitude data.  There appeared to be a near-vertical 800 metre wall to get to 5000 metres, and then another 1000 metres to the summit.  Max and I argued about this – could we do the 1800 metres on one summit day, or was it worth splitting it in two, and suffering up this unknown (and possibly technical) wall with a full load to allow us to camp at the top?  I wanted to split in two, Max wanted to go for it in one push.  I realised we probably wouldn’t have time to split the climb, and resigned myself to one hell of a summit day.

We met our mule driver on 27th, having shown our permits at the hydroelectric plant that seemed to ‘own’ the valley.  My Dad would call him a ‘rough diamond’, and he had brought two animals (one for him to ride) and two lovely dogs.  We set off early and with no loads to carry we moved at an extremely rapid pace, fuelled by one of my finest sandwiches to date.  That day, we passed the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen, and drank from clear, ice cool streams.  It was idyllic, and we had a great day, exhilarated by the surroundings, and feeling strong due to the huge oxygen levels at 2000 metres above sea level!  We climbed 1000 metres in total, and walked 30km, compressing two days into one and giving ourselves a little breathing space in our extremely tight schedule.  At one point we passed a vega (grassland) with grazing with cows that looked just like a swiss chocolate advert:

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and on up the valley towards the mountains in the distance, passing countless beautiful waterfalls en route.  The rivers were waist deep, and we waded through.  At one point I was teasing Max about not wanting to get his feet wet, as he walked along a river bank searching for that perfect place to cross where he could stay dry.  He (of course) leapt across the river, and to serve me right, I slipped on landing and slid gracefully into the water…

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We camped by a lake at the base of one of the highest waterfalls in Chile (which can just be seen in the second photo below).

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We made Puchero (Argentinian stew) and sat around the campfire of the mule driver (whose name was Jesus) drying our feet after some deep river crossings) and looking at the stars.  I burned my trainers again – this time the laces unfortunately, and the soles a little bit more, in my eagerness to get dry.  Add to this incident the multiple fire-related disasters of the cave at Mesa, and a couple of near-tent and near-sleeping bag disasters with the stove, and I was proclaimed to be ‘not good with fire’.

The following day we had to climb the waterfall.  There looks to be no route up, especially for two mules and two dogs.  It turns out that Jesus had taken a group up the waterfall a decade ago, working for the Hydroelectric plant who wanted to measure the glacier at the top, and had found a way up.  We followed him up steep scree slopes, over loose rocks, in places we were rock climbing and scrambling, and always he and his mules were ahead, plodding up.  There was only one point of concern, where it got so steep the mules had to jump up a huge step.  We unloaded the mules, carried the kit up the step, and with much coaxing, managed to get the mules up too.  In just over four hours, we were 800 metres above our camp, and at the top of the waterfall!  The amount of water that was falling was breathtaking, and it had been one of the most incredible days of the expedition so far.  Here are some photos from half way up:

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We shouldered our loads, said goodbye to Jesus and the dogs (Skinny and Diago) and headed off.  Our GPS compasses weren’t working, and at this point we didn’t even know which mountain was Plomo!  An hour or so later, we made camp by an absolutely beautiful lake, and watched the sun set. This was a great camp – flat, warm, made of gravel, with liquid water and a great view.  We were happy!

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We had planned to walk another 11km, but we were tired, and had a great campsite.  We had made up one day on the approach, and lost one day here.  In three days, we had to summit, or lose our chance.