Last Great Unclimbed Mountains

Suzie Imber

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Bridget and The Dunker

Before filming started, I had wondered whether they might make us do the dunker. I couldn’t imagine that sitting in a metal container strapped to a chair with water rushing in around your ankles would be fun, but having never had to deal with this before, I didn’t have any idea how I would cope, and wasn’t confident during the briefing. I clung on to the fact that I felt the BBC probably wouldn’t allow us to drown, but there was definitely a possibility that I would not do well in the test.

The test was conducted in pairs, and I was paired with Hannah.   We talked about what was facing us, and it was clear that this was going to be a tough test for her. Hannah is one of the most lovely people I have ever met; full of enthusiasm and always extremely supportive. We had become good friends as she’s a fellow mountaineer, and we swapped stories of wonder and disaster in the mountains. I wondered whether I had been selected to go with Hannah because of our friendship, and perhaps also because I was unlikely to panic.

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We had been briefed to put one hand on our harness release, and the other on our exit and to brace for impact, when the capsule would hit the water and begin to fill. It would then roll, and our job here was not to panic, to wait until it was completely full of water, had rolled and stopped moving, then count to five and make our escape. It was important to push the exit out first, then release the harness, as we were disorientated and couldn’t see much, so we needed to be sure of our exit before we floated towards the ceiling and lost our way.

I was very happy to be paired with Hannah, and we prepared together for the test. Obviously Hannah’s claustrophobia was going to make the test difficult, but I felt that my job was to stay calm, and help her through the test as best I could, from the opposite side of the capsule.

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While Hannah may have had trouble with the underwater escape part, she swims like a fish (as a serious hardcore triathlete) so if she could get over the water coming in, she would be fine with the escape part. We had to undergo four dunkings and escapes, with differing rotation profiles for the capsule during each one. It was un-nerving watching the water level rise, but Hannah and I got through that test together, as a team, and Hannah showed a level of bravery and courage that most of us will never have to demonstrate in our lives. For someone with claustrophobia this test is probably their worst nightmare, however she performed it four times, escaping and choosing to return to the capsule each time for another go. She described it as having given her the opportunity to face something that she had previously avoided, and thereby was using it as a learning experience. What an incredible person; I was upset to see her leave after the test, and I missed her from that moment until the end of my time on the show.

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Next up, the Mars rover. I think it’s safe to say that this wasn’t a highlight for me, although I gather I was mid-pack in their eventual ranking of the test. The goal was to drive a Mars rover into a simulated cave, find some symbols that had been drawn onto rocks using a UV camera, then escape the cave within twenty minutes. This is actually quite similar to how the problem of tackling exploration on Mars might be addressed, as sending people into the cave could mean exposing them to an unacceptable level of risk. Having said that, signals take several minutes to reach Mars from the Earth, so the delay in the response of the robot, and in the picture coming back from the camera would cause significant problems. Furthermore, it’s not clear how the robot would be controlled when it had entered the cave and lost connection with the controller outside.

 

The controls of the rover were on a computer screen, with a read-out of the current velocity etc. We couldn’t directly see the rover, but we could see feeds from the camera, and a trace overlaid on a map of where we had been. Headphones playing space-themed music were placed over our ears so we couldn’t hear what the experts were saying, and we were given twenty minutes to complete the test.

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I struggled almost immediately, as the scene that faced me looked nothing like a cave. It was simply the end of a rectangular room with rocks placed on the sand on the floor. The map I was using however showed a cave entrance which broadened out into a large cave beyond. I spent several minutes trying to relate the map to what I was seeing through the camera. My strategy was to go for the right hand side, see how many targets I could get, and at the 12 minute mark, turn and head for the exit. I reasoned that if I had taken 8 minutes to get to that point, plus having searched for the targets, then 12 minutes should be plenty of time to escape. The last thing that Kevin said to me before the test began, was not to reverse the rover unless I could see behind me. This was a crucial instruction, because the camera had a 120 field of view centered on straight ahead – there is no way to look backwards.
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I enjoy mountain marathons, which I race with my lovely friend Michelle. We are given a map with some checkpoints on them and have to reach as many as we can within a 7 hour window on each day, carrying everything we need for a weekend out in the hills. I am well aware of how tempting it is to go for that last 20 pointer…

Without Michelle to tell me not to, I must admit, I was tempted to look for too long. I started my turn with just over 11 minutes of time left. Then I realized the rover really can’t turn. I initially began to reverse, before remembering Kevin’s instruction. I then tried to turn sharp left, which didn’t work, and attempted a three-point turn, which also didn’t work. I was helpless as I watched the clock tick down, and I eventually got the rover stuck in the cave. I was frustrated with myself for not having driven the rover in a better circle (as Jackie did), or just reversed all the way out (as James did). Fair play to those guys – they absolutely nailed the challenge, and I lost the asset. Tim was very sweet, and tried to make me feel better, but I was disappointed in my performance. James H left us following this test, and we were all sad to see him leave. He had a way of bringing us all together and making us laugh.

Finally, the family and friends ‘challenge’. During many of our challenges, the attribute being tested was not the obvious one. For the helicopter and taking blood in episode one, it was more about our approach to learning, whether we could follow complex instructions, and whether we improved with time that was really assessed. Here, it was harder to see what was being tested. Social skills are really important, of course, especially when living in small spaces, so there must have been some aspect of our ability to socialise that they were looking at. I know I didn’t do a great job of introducing my twin brother, but I said much more than was displayed during the show, where time is always against the production team, and often editing is required. However that test went, it was lovely to see him, and I remember excitedly recounting the story of the tests up to that point, telling him all the amazing things we had done. When it was time for him to leave, he said ‘Suz, you’ve got this’.

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Astronauts: Episode One

The train took me to Cheltenham Spa, where I was met by a taxi and taken to a hotel. It was all very clandestine! I was met by some BBC producers, who took my mobile phone and credit cards away, promising a safe return at the end of the filming block. A sleepless night ensued, and the Candidates met the following morning at an airfield. We were issued our flight suits and black boots, and Chris Hadfield arrived in a helicopter and told us our first test. Hovering a helicopter just a few metres above the ground for as long as we could. There are three controls; pedals for the feet to control yaw, a control that looks like a handbrake that controls vertical motion (the collective), and a final control that moves the helicopter in all other dimensions called the cyclic. This control, it turns out, is extremely sensitive. I watched the others go out one by one and take their turn, as the helicopter lurched around the skies, always brought back by the extremely brave pilot Tamsin on the dual controls.

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I was nervous for my turn, and I managed two of the controls without too much difficulty. Then I was handed the cyclic. I was so sure I hadn’t moved my hand at all when I was given control, but the helicopter began to rock backwards and forwards, with increasing amplitude as I over-corrected until Tamsin returned us back to stability once again. I felt as though I was improving during my flying time, however I certainly never felt in control of the helicopter!  I think the goal of this test was to see our approach to learning a new skill which we would all find difficult.  Are we too stubborn to hand back control? Are we persistent? Is there any sign of improvement in our performance over our 15 minutes?

The second test (the following day) was a cardiovascular test called ‘The Beep Test’. Two sets of cones are set a fixed distance apart, and the victims run from one line to the next, then turn and run back again. They must reach the line before a pre-recorded beep is sounded, and the beeps get closer together in time such that the runners must speed up to stay within them. I have done this particular test before, and as soon as I saw the cones, I knew what we were in for. We all had heart rate monitors on, and Tim very excitedly ran up to me at the start and informed me that my heart rate was 112 beats per minute – we hadn’t even started yet!

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The test went as I remembered, and I came second, with Vijay managing one more length than I did. I can honestly say that under the conditions, I couldn’t have run another length!

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Well, next came an interview with a psychologist, and the Director of the Centre of Space Medicine at UCL, Dr. Iya Whitely. Walking into the room, I was asked to sit right on the edge of a chair positioned so my feet were dangling, with bright lights in my eyes. Iya asked me a range of questions, from ‘What would you do with one million pounds’ to ‘What would you ask if I gave you one question to pose to potential candidates accompanying you on a mission to Mars’. Her face gave nothing away, and she looked into my eyes as though she could see my soul! I think it’s fair to say I was intimidated by her! Only later did I realise that Iya is one of the most lovely people I’ve ever met.  It’s a little terrifying to hear her say that it’s the little pauses, the tiny facial expressions before we speak, that give it all away.

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Well, on to the memory test, and my first encounter with Chris Hadfield. I walked into a room and he was sitting at a table with a tape recorder and a clipboard. I was asked to step onto an aerobics step, while listening to a sequence of numbers read to me in heavily accented English. My goal was to wait for a buzzer to sound, and repeat the numbers back in reverse order. We began with three numbers, then had several rounds of four numbers, five numbers, and so on.

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It turns out I did quite well in this test, failing on one of the rounds of eight numbers. Several others managed the same as I did, although of course I had no frame of reference for how I had done, as no feedback was given after the test.

The next test was learning to take blood. I’m a little squeamish, and I paired up with Tim for this test. We practiced, and I was hitting the fake vein every time, but at that point I had no idea I would be asked to take my own blood!

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When that was revealed, I first tried to take blood from my left arm (right-handed), however I must have knocked the needle when trying to get the container on the end of the tube and a bruise began to form. I had to try again, this time taking blood out of my right arm (left-handed!), and thankfully I managed it without problems.  Kevin Fong was on hand throughout this test, assessing our approach to learning.  Were we taking it seriously? Were we able to take in the strict series of instructions, process them and perform them correctly, all when under the pressure of knowing that it was our own veins we were stabbing with a needle?

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Well, then came a room with a number of spheres sitting in them, roughly a metre in diameter. We were told remove our boots and laces, and get inside the spheres and wait for a set of individual instructions which would be passed through our breathing holes by Iya and Chris. My instructions said: Dear Suzie, your task is to lace your boots, put them on, and stand up after 20 minutes. The test has started when the lights go out.

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Very shortly thereafter, the lights went out. I needed a strategy. I had to count to 1200 seconds, but I would probably lose count with the added distractions of lacing up and putting on my boots in the dark. I decided to count to 300, four times. Each time I got to three hundred, I would move my hair band, from my hair, to my right wrist, then my left wrist, then back into my hair for the final 300 seconds. I really wished I’d paid more attention to my boots in the preceding days!  How many eyes did my laces go through? I also knew that most people count time too fast, so I was determined not to rush. I heard some noise from the other pods at various points, but reached my count and stood up. I saw three others standing up, and two left in their pods, and looking back on who was where, I guess I stood up around 22.5 to 23 minutes. When Chris asked for our strategies and I told him mine, he and Iya laughed and said they’d wondered why I was doing my hair in the pod!

One of the most stressful parts of those first days was the uncertainty, and the waiting.  One of us would be asked to go for a test, out of the blue, and suddenly were in a room wth bright lights and being interviewed by Iya, or meeting Chris Hadfield for the first time while remembering numbers backwards.  There was a lot of waiting around, seeing others go for tests, and wondering how they were doing, what the tests were, what to expect.  Then a fellow candidate would come back into the room, perhaps smiling, perhaps crying.  That only added to the nerves and anticipation that the rest of us felt.  The tension was pretty high during those first few days.

I mentioned at the start of this post that our mobile phones were taken away from us.  In the hotels, the phones in the rooms were removed. We were separated from the support network we were used to, and had to stand and succeed, or fail, without family or friends.  This meant that we grew into a tight-knit group fairly quickly, particularly as many of us had so much in common, and we supported each other through the barrage of tests.

During the episode, Prash, and Derek were asked to leave The Process. I didn’t get to know Prash too well, but he gave a lovely speech when he left, reminding us to stick together throughout our time together and support each other all the way. Derek made us all laugh so much, and we were also very sad to see him leave us. Reality had hit; make a mistake, and you could be next to leave.

Astronauts: The start of the adventure

Looking back on it now, I’m still not quite sure how I ended up as one of the candidates on the BBC 2 television series Astronauts: Do you have what it takes?

Last November, I was half-way through a three month expedition to the Andes Mountains. I had teamed up with my climbing partners Max and Pedro to ascend twelve of the most remote mountains over 6,000 metres to be found in South America. To get to these mountains we drove up rivers, through deserts, and even through a gold mine! We were stranded in the mountains without equipment after being abandoned by our mule drivers, we destroyed poor Conway (the Landrover) in a whole new range of ways:

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We absolutely flew up some mountains, waded almost up to our waists in snow on others, and had a series of wonderful adventures. (More tales of our last expedition can be found here:       Andes Expedition 2016    )

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I also collected quite a bit of data both for the team back in Leicester and for colleagues around the world.  I deployed a radiometer, to measure the balance between incoming solar radiation and radiated heat from the Earth’s surface for Leicester’s Earth Observation Science group.  I also collected many samples containing extremophiles which are bacteria that are capable of surviving in these extreme mountain environments.  At the University of Leicester we are developing instruments designed to detect life on other planets, so we need samples of similar life on Earth!  Here are some photos of some of the experiments I set up while I was there:

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Half-way through though the 2016 expedition, I was in a very small town in Argentina called Fiambala. While I was there, I was able to get wifi and check my work emails, and a door began to swing open for me that I hadn’t even dreamed existed.  An email had been sent to me at the University highlighting an advert by the BBC for a programme about astronaut training. We were down from the mountains for only 24 hours, but I opened and completed the short form, asking me questions about my fitness levels, education and so on. I returned to the mountains the following day, and set aside the ‘astronaut thing’, without telling anyone about it.

A couple of weeks later we briefly returned to sea level to resupply, and I had an email from the BBC asking for more information and a skype interview. I replied with some details, but there was no way I had the bandwidth for skype in the remote Argentinian Andes! This appeared only to increase their interest, and, eventually, I reached a town large enough to have good connection, from which (with snow-capped mountains in the background) I skyped the BBC and had a chat.

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Upon my return in January I was straight back into undergraduate lecturing, and alongside that, the BBC had a series of selection processes for me to undertake. I couldn’t tell anyone what I was doing, or why I was suddenly cancelling climbing plans that had been in place for months!

Eventually, shortly before The Process began (with a capital T and a capital P), the BBC informed me that they had selected me as one of the candidates. Suddenly it all became very real! They sent me a train ticket and asked me to pack my bags.

The University term had not yet finished, and although they didn’t know what I was doing, my colleagues rallied round and covered the few remaining teaching commitments I had. The only people I could tell were the Head of my College and the Head of Department, both of whom were very supportive and gave me permission to take leave for an undisclosed period of time.  I was off!  The next adventure had begun!

Nevada Plomo, the most incredible mountain of the expedition, part two

We set off up the glacier the following day, with heavy packs, but surrounded by beautiful scenery.  We had left all creature comforts at the bottom of the waterfall, including any spare clothes, toothbrushes, moisturiser (for cracked feet, faces, fingers, sunburn), and anything else that wasn’t absolutely essential.  Ahead was a day of glacier travel, the 800 metre near-vertical wall, and 1000 metres of altitude gain to the summit.  Our packs felt heavy, and I was tired on the long walk up the glacier.  We covered 15km at altitude with packs that day, and ended up in another absolutely beautiful camp.  Surrounded by huge spikes of ice, with ‘the wall’ towering over us on one side, and a beautiful sunset on the other. As we slept, we could hear the glacier cracking alarmingly underneath us!

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Eventually we decided to split the climb to the summit.  We had no idea where to climb the wall (which looked like vertical rock), and if we were to try the summit from our current camp, we’d be climbing this wall in the dark.  This meant climbing the wall on 30th January with full packs, and going for the summit on 31st January, when the winds were forecast to be 70 kph, but that couldn’t be helped.

Sorry Max, couldn’t resist posting this photo of your perfect lego man hair:

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Max lead us up the wall, picking a line with some snow (so axes and crampons) although we couldn’t avoid regions of loose rock and scree.

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We climbed strongly, and it took us 4 hours to climb 1200 metres (the wall turned out to be higher than anticipated!).  Only 100 metres from the top, we realised we were approaching unassailable cliffs, and Max desperately hunted for a way up.  If we couldn’t get through, we’d have to retreat, as that high on the wall there was nowhere to set up a tent; it was far too steep!  We realised that the camps we had obtained from the previous expedition were totally wrong, and without an accurate map we were now just climbing from memory of the google earth imagery.  Finally Max found a narrow canal (50 cm wide in places) and very steep.  We climbed it, and found ourselves on a plateau where we made camp; relieved to have made it so high (5,400 metres).

On the way up the boys were desperate for crisps, which were in my rucksack.  They plotted an uprising against my policy of saving some of the good food for later, but thankfully my grasp of portuguese was sufficient to understand and I scampered off, crisps in hand…

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That night the wind was strong; the tent was making bad noises and we barely slept, particularly as the side of the tent was hitting Gabriel and me in the face, while Max peacefully slept.  As we only had 3km to walk, and 600 metres of elevation the following day, we decided to wait until the sun came up before leaving for the summit.  The wind was strong at the camp, but our climb was sheltered and we were pretty warm!  We couldn’t follow our planned route along the ridge because of the wind, so we kept one side of it, which meant that the final approach to the summit was extremely steep snow/ice, with only a walking axe, a walking pole and crampons.  Gabriel didn’t have technical axes, and the summit push wasn’t meant to be technical….

The summit (6080 metres) was beautiful – Max identified every mountain we could see by name and altitude, and we could simultaneously see the highest point on the continent (Aconcagua summit) and the sea far below us.  It was windy on the summit, although nowhere near as bad as forecast.  We found a summit box left by some Chileans, and a record of all 14 previous summits, with names of climbers and dates.  Plomo was first climbed in 1910, but there have only been 13 successful expeditions since then, most from the Argentinian side (we climbed the Chilean).  The last expedition was 11 years ago.

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(yeah, Max photobombed my summit panorama)

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I won’t go into too much detail on the descent, but suffice to say that we went a little wrong as our GPS devices had run out of battery, and ended up clinging to a 45 degree ice face being battered by the wind.  We escaped, only to find that Gabriel had dropped all of his camera batteries down the face, and had an epic descent to retrieve them, involving Gabriel climbing down into a crevasse-field while Max and I traversed the face to get the batteries.  We made it safely back to camp, but the wind was rising alarmingly, and we were keen to get down.  Even if we had wanted to stay a night at high camp, the tent would have been blown to pieces, so we had no choice but to descend the wall the same day.  This was a total of 2000 metres of descent, and we were tired but delighted when we made it back to our glacier camp.  Here’s a photo of us when we decided ‘we aren’t going to die!’ and were celebrating this fact, with only a few hundred metres of easy descent to go.

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The problem with the glacier was that it was full of rivers flowing just under a perfect surface of snow.  About a hundred metres from camp, I fell into one nearly up to my middle, totally unexpectedly, and of course then my boots were wet for the next day or two.  One minute I was walking along, thinking about dinner, pleased as punch with our summit, and the next I was dunked to the waist in ice cold water.  These ones were more obvious, but you get the idea – without the blue you wouldn’t know that river was there…

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That night was 31st December, new year.  Our dinner was indeed the emergency rations of one onion, some soup and some rice all cooked up together, but it was delicious after our exhausting day.  We celebrated with 1/3 of a can of red bull each!  This was complicated by an unfortunate incident prior to this, where Max accidentally sat on all of the cups, breaking all but one, which we then had to share for the rest of the expedition.

The following day we made it all the way back down the glacier, past the high lake camp to the bottom of the waterfall.

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I made a huge pot of thai red curry while the others were filming for the sponsors and documentary.  It was totally delicious, and we met our mule driver, who turned out to be the grandson of Pinochet (although he doesn’t like to talk about that).  He allowed us to ride his horse through the worst of the rivers, as they were extremely high following the melting of the boxing day snow.

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The next day we walked the 30km back to the road, although by this point my trainers were in pieces, and my feet were in a similar state.  The soles of my shoes were worn through (and in places missing, through fire damage) and I only had one working shoelace.

We caught a lift in their cattle truck down the mountain road, Max and I whooping with exhilaration as we swept down the road, seeing condors flying high above us.

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Everything had been against us for this final mountain.  The torrential rain that delayed us, and the high winds that set our summit window.  The difficulty obtaining multiple permits, problems with mule drivers, unknown routes and unreliable information, shops closing on Christmas eve leaving us with limited food and having to rely on luck to get us lifts to and from the mountain without Pedro and Jovani.  Deep river crossings, crevasses and 30km hikes had made it tough, but despite all of this, we had made it to the summit.  It was by far the most beautiful mountain we had climbed on the expedition, and I’m so glad I decided to go for ‘just one more’.

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.

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.

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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.

Toro and the gold mine

I’m not sure if these titles sound like bands from the 70s or the title of a Tintin episode!  After being betrayed by the mule drivers and unable to climb Mesa, we received some good news – approval to drive through the gold mine to get to a mountain called El Toro (the bull).  We had to travel many hundreds of km along a road owned and maintained by the mine to get to the mountain, and to our knowledge (and theirs) they had never granted such a permission before.  We received our visitor badges:

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Once at the entrance of the mine, we had to sign more paperwork (remember we had already had a medical exam to make sure we were fit to travel along the road, and signed disclaimers and provided them with photos).  Our escort arrived, and we set off along literally one of the best roads in Argentina – no pot holes, super-well maintained, and in the middle of absolutely nowhere.  It seemed the mining company (Barrick) had decided to send a car with us the entire way, although at various points we’d pull over and get a different driver for another leg of the journey:

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The miners all have Hilux cars; these are the most rugged vehicles around and while our cars were overheating as we drive up to a pass at 4,700 metres, their vehicles were just fine.  The drivers were really friendly and chatty, and eventually we reached the main site of the Valadero  gold mine.  It’s absolutely colossal:

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with a hospital, a huge amount of accommodation, pool tables, shops, you name it.  Apparently the workers do 3 weeks on, 3 weeks off, and there are 1500 of them on site.  It’s honestly like being in Canada!  The loos had locks on the doors (something unheard of in Argentina), and a mirror, and even a hand-drier.  I haven’t seen a hand-drier for 2 months!  The wifi password was written on a flip chart in one of the meeting rooms, so I managed to steal it and connect…

We had a briefing with some really nice guys at the mine, who were interested in our project, and extremely helpful, offering us an accurate weather forecast, and giving us their contact details in case of trouble.  I gave them the link to my map, so they could see where the cars were at all times, and how our climb was going.  They even gave us coffee!

Ok, so time to set off.  We left the mining road and drove along a valley, crossing deep rivers multiple times (tested for depth first by me in my leggings and flip-flops).

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We made base camp at 3,200 metres, and quickly realised that our proposed route was not viable; there was a rocky section that looked technical high up, and we couldn’t take the risk of having to turn back there.  We decided to take a different approach, involving a 13km hike with full packs, and 1500 metres of altitude gain to get to our high camp.  We had to leave Jovani behind at the cars as he was feeling unwell, and we had a really arduous approach, passing a huge set of Incan ruins:

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before ascending to snow (worse, penitentes) and loose rock:

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It took my last 100 grams of dairy milk to get us up there (weirdly, Max kept falling asleep!), but 10 hours later we made it to a plateau we’d seen from google earth, and set up a beautiful camp:

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Pedro was pretty happy!

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Ok, which route to take?  The Chilean route (super-long, along a ridge) or a direct approach up a snow gully?  Pedro was determined to take the gully, so we did, and the first 500 metres of altitude gain were straightforward, with ankle-deep snow on reasonable gradients.

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This photo, taken early the following day, shows the nice, easy part of the snow gully – you can see our tracks if you look closely:

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Then things started to get bad.  The snow deepened to up to knee-deep, soft powder, and the gradient was extremely steep.  There were bands of rock, but it was loose, and the gradient was so steep we couldn’t ascend.  I had lead the first 500 metres or so, but Max and Pedro took over higher up and broke trail.

They did an amazing job, and eventually we reached the top of our wretched snow gulley….only to realise that it was a false summit, and we had another 700 metres of distance to walk, and had to descend, only to climb again.  I know 700 metres sounds like the sort of distance that you wouldn’t even think about, but after 7 hours and at 6,000 metres it’s sort of heartbreaking.  Eventually we made it to the summit:

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There’s a book to sign on the top with a handful of signatures in it, and the last expedition summited in 2009, showing how rare it is for anyone to climb this mountain.

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Our descent was rapid (straight down the snow gulley) although we discovered that our anti-balling plates weren’t exactly up to the job of coping with this quantity of soft powder:

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Our original plan had been to descend to the cars the same day, but we were exhausted and it was 6pm when we got back (12 hour summit push).  We were running out of gas (so couldn’t melt much snow for water or cook), so we slept and the following morning headed back down the mountain to meet Jovani at base camp.  This mountain had evaded Max for a long time, and we were delighted to have made it, although we all suffered.  The reflection of the sun from the snow over so many hours had burned my face, and even Max looked a bit red under his beard, although Pedro of course just looked tanned.  We left the gold mine the following day, and set off for Mendoza to recover and collect some supplies.

Those of you who followed our progress last year may be thinking that our cars were coping rather well on this expedition.  Well, en route, Conway ejected all of the gear box oil, leaving us on the side of the road.  Apparently some pipe had spontaneously disconnected as we were driving along a tarmac road.  Honestly – we’d just driven through rivers so deep that water was coming in the car doors, across incredibly rugged terrain with no roads, and Conway breaks on a tarmac road?  Well, thankfully we were just outside San Juan, and three hours later the boys had fixed the car and we were off to Mendoza for a well-earned shower!

Mules and Troglodytes

As my brother James frequently tells me, I misuse the word troglodyte, using it to describe anyone not up to date with the world.  This time though, I’m using it correctly…

We wanted to climb Mesa.  It’s a really long climb, and takes many days.  We hired mules to carry our things as far as possible up the network of valleys, before we would have to take over and carry everything higher up the mountain.  The forecast was not good; we had just had extremely high winds, and 50 cm of snow was forecast for the next couple of days higher up, falling as rain in the valleys.

We unexpectedly encountered a gendarmerie on the drive to the approach, but managed to get past them with the usual delay.  We met our mule drivers, and told them that we’d drive to the end of the road and leave our bags with the car for them to pick up.  We picked up their belongings and took them in the car too, to save the animals a bit of unnecessary work.  At the end of the road we dropped our things outside the car, and headed off up the valley on foot.  It was raining torrentially, and Max and I didn’t have waterproof trousers, so rapidly we were soaked to the skin.  We walked into the afternoon, and at 4:45 we spied a huge rock and sheltered underneath it, worried that the mules hadn’t overtaken us yet.  We expected them any minute, so we sat there for a while, and by this time were shivering and shaking with cold because we were so wet.  We ate our sandwiches, and eventually found some dry wood and lit a fire to try to dry off.  Three hours later, no mules, and we were beginning to wonder…

At this point, we decided they weren’t coming; it was beginning to get dark, and we couldn’t think what had happened to them!  They were supposed to just follow the trail; there was nowhere we could think that they could have gone wrong.  We collected a huge amount of soaking wet wood and found a sort of cave to shelter in.  When I say cave; it had a roof and two opposite walls.

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We filled in the other walls using our walking poles as a frame, and any branches and rocks we could find to stop the wind and keep the heat in.

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We dug out the cave to make as much flat space as possible, but fitting five in there was a squeeze!  Our only food was one remaining sandwich between us, and half a melon that Max had carried (not sure why!) and I had a knife, so we shared that, and huddled around the fire.

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The good news was that we managed to dry ourselves completely, but there were some sacrifices: my socks melted, a huge chunk of burning coal spat out of the fire and landed on my waterproof jacket, my gloves melted (not sure how that happened) and my trainer was knocked into the fire and the toe melted.  The others suffered similar damage in our enthusiasm to get dry.

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We only had our day-clothes with us; no sleeping bags, tents, warm clothing (suitable for a night spent outside).  The fire was warm, but the smoke was choking and we couldn’t all sleep close enough to benefit from the heat.  The rain continued, and we realised that the roof of our cave leaked…

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We got INTO our rucksacks, covering us (in my case) up to mid-thigh, and of course were wearing all of our clothes.  We had sleeping mats thankfully, and we huddled together.  Only having eaten two sandwiches and a slice of melon all day wasn’t helping us to stay warm.  There are four people in the photo below – you can see with me too it was a squeeze!

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We were in good spirits, but we had a seriously cold night, despite keeping the fire going.  We awoke the following morning to snow falling.

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The question now was: where were the mules?  Had they somehow overtaken us?  Had they not made it to where we were?  How could we know?  Max went onward to the next camp to see whether they had overtaken us.  I climbed up a valley and saw tracks in the snow and wondered whether they had overtaken us in the night, and Max would find them further up the valley.  It was still raining/snowing, and I climbed up to a place where I could see up the valley, but I saw no sign of them.  The others saw a condor nesting in the rocks and took some amazing video of it taking off.  I went to the nearest river, hoping there might be something I could catch that we could eat, but it was melt-water from the mountains, muddy, and flowing really fast, so those hopes were dashed.

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Max reported no sign of the mules.  We had to return to the car, or spend another night in our cave (still with no food) and hope the mules turned up.  We walked back again, and it finally stopped raining/snowing!  A victim of the fire, I had only half of one sock, and no toe to one shoe, and the snow was ankle deep even at our relatively low altitude, so it was a chilly walk.

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(Zoe and Michelle, that last photo is for you – my beloved green Salomon trainers melted and ankle deep in snow.  They may have seen their last mountain marathon!)

When we got to the car we found all of our belongings sitting where we had left them, but the boxes belonging to the mule drivers were gone.  We ate the best-tasting sandwiches of our lives (having not eaten for 30 hours and walked tens of km in the mountains) and drove back down the mountain.

The mule drivers had made it to the car on horseback, decided it was raining too hard, taken their things, and returned home, leaving us to freeze in the mountains without equipment.  If we hadn’t happened upon some shelter, had the ability to light a fire, and been in a valley that happened to have shrubs growing, then I am sure that given that we were soaking wet, we would have suffered exposure given the freezing temperatures.

(here’s a gratuitous photo of me and Jovani on the way back to the car!)

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What lessons can we learn from this?  Well, perhaps we should have carried more survival equipment.  I had four ‘top layers’ and two leg layers – I’m unlikely to willingly carry more than that, and pay a mule driver to carry my things also.  An emergency blanket or something would have been useful to stay warm – we only had one between us in case someone was injured.  The lesson I take from this though, is that we should have put a SPOT locator device in one of the bags.  We could have used some code I wrote for the satellite phone to have tracked the latitude and longitude of the bags and we would have known they never left the cars.  Lesson learned!

The amount of snow that fell in the storm will take days to clear, the rivers will be so high we will be unable to cross them for a week or two, and we won’t have time to return to Mesa sadly.  We do have permission to enter the gold mine though, so we’re heading there now, hoping to climb Toro.  It’s always an adventure with us….  :-)

Climbing Majadita (pronounced like the drink!)

After Condor, we had decided to climb Toro, but it quickly became apparent that we had a problem.  The road to Toro from Argentina goes through a gold mine.  Well, I should say that the road to Toro is a private road, owned by the gold mine…  We don’t know of anyone who has had permission to drive through the mine (we thought we did, but it turns out they didn’t get through) and so we decided to head for Majadita instead.  This mountain requires permission to access from the local police (who ran us in merry circles) but eventually let us through.  We drove as far as we could (to 3,900 metres), and walked 8km up a valley and made camp.

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The next day we climbed to one of the largest glaciers in the mid-Andes and camped next to it (for water).  I collected samples of frozen rock from the bottom of the glacier, having climbed over huge Penitentes to get there!

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The following day we set off for the summit early.  Despite venting our tents, ice had covered the inside, freezing the zips.  I wore seven layers of clothing, and was freezing cold most of the climb.  It was steep, with some scrambling (in double plastic boots!) and the surface was shale, so loose.  One step forwards, sometimes two steps back.  Distance from tents to summit, 6.5 km.

Eventually we made it though, despite a cruel false summit that really got our hopes up!

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It was windy though, and cold!!  I forgot my sun stick and burned my nose…

We then had to descend to the tents (I was struggling at this point) and then pack up camp and go all the way to the car.  We covered 25km on summit day alone, and were exhausted.  The police let us through no problem and we made it safely down.  My 4th 6000er of this trip!

Toro was our next target.  Problem?  It’s a 100km approach on foot from the Chilean side.  It’s less from the Argentinian side, but to get close we need to drive down a road owned by a gold mine, and actually drive through the mine itself.  This mine has recently been the subject of scandal as they were accused of releasing cyanide into a local river in September (and admitted it).  Needless to say, they are jittery about strangers trespassing at the best of times (being a gold mine) but even more so after the recent accusations.

We know of nobody who has successfully got through the mine to the mountain.  We contacted the mine, and were given a list of things we needed to do, in order to *maybe* be granted access.  To fulfil these requirements, we drove to the city of San Juan.  Currently, there is a Zonda wind, which means it’s 45 degrees C here, with very high winds, dropping to 38 degrees at night.  These zonda winds happen periodically and totally change the typical weather systems for up to several days – we’re glad we aren’t high on a mountain right now.  However, we are staying in a hostel with no air conditioning…

Ok, so for the mine, we have to:

  1. Show them our passports
  2. Have a medical checkup and provide a doctor certificate.  This is in case we inconveniently have a heart attack while driving down their road.  They literally told us they don’t care what happens on the mountain, but NOTHING can happen on their road.
  3. Sign a waiver to say that if anything at all possibly happens, it’s all our responsibility.  Show them insurance documents (well mine – I’m the only one with insurance)
  4. Send them mug shots so the people at the mine know we’re the ones granted access when we turn up. Here they are:

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Would you let this lot into your gold mine??

Especially Pedro, who we made laugh while we were taking the photos:   pedro

Adventure to be continued….

 

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’?

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