Last Great Unclimbed Mountains

Andes Expedition Blog 2016

Andes Mountaineering Expedition – Naming The Unclimbed Peaks 2016

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’.

Disaster Strikes!

Well, this is a painful blog post to write, and explains why I haven’t updated my blog very frequently…

We headed to the Argentinian border, and for once didn’t have too much trouble crossing!  It was my passport they took away, but they were smiling, and just wanted to know if I needed a visa I didn’t have (which I didn’t).  Here we are, heading over the border:

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Ok great!  We exchanged some money with a somewhat dodgy guy at the border, and headed for a town called Corrientes.

As we were waiting at traffic lights, some thieves smashed the back window of our car, and grabbed our belongings.  They made off on motorbikes.  We lost all of our money.  The irony is that usually we’re poor climbing bums, but we had an awful lot of money with us on this trip, as we needed to buy various items en route, and need to keep 6 people going for two months.  I mean we lost an unimaginable quantity of money…

We also lost basically all of our electronics, radios, ipads, sat phones, computers, all of Max’s clothes, you name it.  We submitted a police report, but it’s extremely unlikely we’ll ever see any of our things again.

So were stuck in a town, without a penny to our collective names.  The ATMs in Argentina only allow 2000 pesos to be withdrawn, per card, per day (108 pounds) and we need 10-15 thousand pounds to complete our journey.  Mine was the only credit card that worked, so we didn’t get put to work in the kitchen of our hotel to pay our debts!  I tried to get emergency funds from Barclays, but they told me that in order for that to happen, they’d have to cancel my card.  No way!!  That was the only card we had!!  I tried to wire money to myself, resulting in Santander blocking my card.  I asked Mum and Dad to send me some money via Western Union, and after some faffing with their ridiculous website, and a delay while the entirety of Argentina go to bed for four hours in the middle of the day (see earlier rants on siestas!) they managed to send me some.  Ironically, even the restaurants we tried to go to were closed for siesta!!  How does that work?!

We left Corrientes as fast as we could the following day, and drove to Salta, where we are now.

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We’re licking our wounds, replacing what we can, and heading for the mountains tomorrow.  The cities are driving us up the wall, and it’s clear that what we need to do is leave it all behind and disappear.  We’ll be gone for a couple of weeks, first acclimatising, then climbing four 6000 metre mountains up here.  The map on the main page should allow you to toggle between Conway, Max, me, Pedro etc. so you can follow your favourite climber!

Despite all that happened, we’re in good spirits.  Nobody got hurt, and tomorrow, the open road and the mountains! :-)

The beginning

Well, I’m so sorry it’s taken me this long to write my first blog post of the 2016 expedition.  When you read what I write today, you’ll understand why it’s taken so long.  Suffice to say, we’ve had some problems.

There are six of us on this expedition, from right to left: Gabriel (the photographer), me, Max, Pedro, and Jovani (the mechanic).  Maria (Pedro’s girlfriend took this photo so isn’t in it :-(

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For this expedition, we are taking the same cars as last year.  I can hear you all groan in disbelief (if you read the adventures of last year) but Max and Pedro assure me that Conway has been beefed up, and will withstand the PUNA this time round.  Actually, we now have a huge roof rack capable of holding our duffle bags, a winch, traction mats, metal bumpers, beefed up brakes and one of those exhausts that means the engine won’t get swamped when we drive through rivers.

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The other change is that we have some sponsors: Deuter, SPOT, Garmin, Sea2summit and Red Bull.  Gabriel is with us to make a documentary for Red Bull television, and we bought an off-road motorbike for Max to ride up in the mountains.  It’s pretty amazing – we have an oxygen cylinder to strap onto the side of it so it can be ridden at high altitudes!  Yes, they covered it in sheepskin and leather and put horns on the front…

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While the boys were finishing the cars at Jovani’s garage in Roca Sales, I made a friend, whose name is Gato (you can guess what that means!) who insisted on sitting on my keyboard as I was trying to work.

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When we were all set, we took the motorbike for a test run up a local mountain.  The boys drove the car and Max rode the bike and they stopped for filming at various points.  I raced them up the mountain on foot, and came a close third to Conway, with Max far ahead.  I was so happy running up that mountain and I only stopped once, for a pack of unfriendly dogs.  The view from the top was amazing – Gabriel has a video that I’m going to try to upload tonight to show you.

I jumped on the back of Max’s motorbike and we flew back down the mountains, laughing and shrieking.  Good times!

The following day, after a very hearty meal cooked by Jovani’s Mum, we were off to Argentina!