Last Great Unclimbed Mountains

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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’?

Stitches (not me!), lessons learned so far, and plans

Ok, first let me finish the story of my solo ascent of Colorados.  I came down from the summit pretty pleased with myself and full of the joys of spring.  I arrived back at the tent, and yelled to the boys (two of whom had decided not to climb that day).  Max replied from the tent ‘I think you’d better stay out there!’ to which I replied ‘Why, what on Earth are you boys doing in there?!’ (given that they were in the tent that Max and I share).  ‘Well’ said Max, ‘there’s been a bit of an accident’ at which point I ripped open the door of the tent and found Max with a gash in his thigh, a bottle of whiskey in one hand, and a needle and thread in the other, sewing up his own leg.  I think he’d drunk half the bottle and poured the other half over his wound…

Some small drama later (I’m pretty squeamish!) the wound was sealed with four huge stitches and some tape and looked to have largely stopped bleeding.  Max had been propping up his motorbike and it had fallen, crushing his leg against the sharp rocks underneath – ouch!  Several days later I’m glad to say it looks ok – no infection despite all the dust that had been ground into the wound.

On a side note, I had forgotten what it’s like to be covered in dust, all the time.  Dust in our hair, in our eyes, ingrained in all our clothes, a thick layer on our skin all the time drying it out and making it crack apart.  I think I need to be sponsored by Norwegian hand creme next trip – that’s the only stuff that seems to help when our skin splits open!

The point of this post was actually to outline a few of the stupid things we’ve done so far, and what we’ve learned. For those who came to my public lecture a few weeks ago on the topic of last year’s expedition (thanks so much for coming by the way!) you’ll know that we made many mistakes, and I thought we’d learned loads of lessons. It turns out that perhaps we didn’t learn as much as we should have done….

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The point of this post was actually to outline a few of the stupid things we’ve done so far, and what we’ve learned.  For those who came to my public lecture a few weeks ago on the topic of last year’s expedition (thanks so much for coming by the way!) you’ll know that we made many mistakes, and I thought we’d learned loads of lessons.  It turns out that perhaps we didn’t learn as much as we should have done….

  1. It’s actually quite hard with six people; we have inertia which is hard to overcome so mornings are frustratingly slow.  Plans are made in Portuguese and not translated to English, or vice versa, and there’s often confusion.
  2. Obvious things are overlooked, like releasing some pressure out of the tyres when ascending 3000 metres in altitude such that they aren’t over pressurised and liable to puncture easily, checking that the jack is functioning properly BEFORE getting a puncture, checking that the wheel nuts can be removed with the tools bought for the purpose BEFORE getting a puncture…(thanks to the lovely policemen who happened by and got us out of that fix!)
  3. We should have split up our money and hidden it in several places in the car rather than in a rucksack – we did that to keep it with us at all times, but it was too easy to steal when thieves smashed the car windows.
  4. We need to learn to ration our food properly, and not just eat whatever we can find because we’re hungry (boys), as this results in us running out of food a week later….

On the plus side I would say that we now know we can use Western Union even in the most unlikely of places, to collect cash from the UK and Brazil, if needed, and that has really saved us.  Thanks to Mum and Dad for the emergency funds wired over to us in Salta – we’d have been working off our debts if it wasn’t for their help!

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(lovely 360 panorama of drive to Fiambala)

To overcome the stress and boredom of being stuck in Fiambala, yesterday I baked a rather fine batch of cookies (though I say so myself) with ingredients that were largely unknown (not speaking Spanish I played Russian roulette in the supermarket, selecting ingredients at random), and today I made a reasonable batch of Scottish tablet to take up into the mountains tomorrow! Even Jovani looked surprised when I poured a kilo of sugar into a pan with a can of condensed milk…

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The boys?  Well, they made barbecue….

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The people of Fiambala have been fun too.  A lovely old lady came over to me yesterday and advised me to move into the shade because she was afraid I would burn (quite rightly, I did burn!)  I had a great spanglish chat with a guy who was helping me source some brown sugar about Leicester City football club, and the guys digging a hole in the ground outside where we’re staying shout ‘hello’ and ‘where are you from?’ every morning, despite me shouting back ‘I’m from the UK’ every morning…

Our plans are changing every few hours now (see note above about making plans in Portuguese that somehow never make it into English) and it looks like we don’t have time for me and Max to climb Pissis (as was the plan).  Max will go alone on his motorbike because he can get 1000 metres higher than the cars, and will be able to climb in one day, rather than two.  I’m of course gutted that I don’t get to climb Pissis for the sake of a single day, but there isn’t much I can do about that.  Our time is eroded from being held up in Fiambala over the permits, and we don’t have enough days to spare.

I keep saying this….but tomorrow we really are going to leave Fiambala and head up into the mountains.  We’re climbing Condor first (6,500 metres), then Max will climb Pissis (grrrr) and then we go on to Toro and Majadita.  I’ll turn my SPOT tracker on only when I’m climbing (red dots).  Hopefully I’ll be able to write another update in a week or so.  Whatever else these expeditions are, they’re an adventure!  Never a moment without some sort of drama…

Climbing Vallecitos and Colorados

We left Antofalla and drove for a couple of days, only seeing two people.  The first was an old man, living on his own at a farm high up in the mountains.  He was clearly not in the best of health, and he had nothing – no electricity, no way of getting out of his remote valley, and nobody to care – heartbreaking.  As we left, Max asked him if there was anything he needed and he said no.

Hours later we arrived at his nearest neighbour, at La Brea. A lady named Maria Santa Ines lived in another set of mud huts on the edge of an evaporative lake.  She had many sheep, llamas, a dog and some chickens.  Her place had warm water from the hot springs.  A donkey had kicked her wrist a year ago and clearly broken it; she said it still hurts, and it obviously hasn’t healed properly.  I wish we could have helped, but there was little we could do.

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We were running out of food so she sold us one of her lambs.  We had dinner with Maria, and she enjoyed our company, and ate with us.  As we left she gave us some of the delicious herb she uses to make mint tea.  The lady last saw her neighbour up the valley 3 years ago, and can’t get up there to visit.  She says a puma ate all of his llamas, and he isn’t strong enough to keep it away or kill it, so now he only has donkeys (which he can’t eat).  She says he will die there.

We camped at her farm, and I took some extremophile samples from the middle of the evaporated salt lake there – astro-biology colleagues at The Open University will be looking for trapped bacteria in the samples, and colleagues at Leicester will use the samples to test their Mars instruments.

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I think it’s fair to say that Max, Pedro and I have been wanting to climb Colorados and Vallecitos for a long time.  They’re a pair of 6000ers, with a col at 5000 metres separating them.  Last year we caught so many glimpses of them, but the weather conditions didn’t allow us to get close.

We decided to climb them both over two days, and camp at the col between them.  Nobody climbs Vallecitos, and Colorados has only been climbed a few times, from the Chilean side (we’re on the Argentinian side) so it’s fair to say we didn’t really know what to expect in terms of access.  We camped at the Col, and I went for Vallecitos first.  It took a while, but I summited with Jovani, our mechanic:

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The following day I set out for Colorados alone, as Max was climbing the mountains in the opposite order, and Jovani wanted a well-earned rest.  I followed the route that Max climbed the day before, and soloed the mountain in a total of 7.5 hours up and down, making me the first Brit to climb these mountains!

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Here is the view of Vallecitos (in the background) from near the summit of Colorados, and Colorados from Vallecitos:

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Climbing Antofalla, 6,500 metres (nearly)

Antofalla was to be our first 6000 metre mountain.  Actually, it’s nearly 6,500 metres in altitude.  Maybe not the best choice to hit first, but nevertheless, the first on our list.  We drove for hours along dirt roads to get to the mountain itself, seeing only the occasional pack of vicuna grazing by the track. We tried to drive to 5000 metres, but the terrain was too sandy, and yet again we had a lengthy rescue operation with the two cars, using winches to pull them out of soft, steep sand.

Max thought he could get much higher on the motorbike, and carry many litres of water, and our tents up higher for us, so we had to carry a lighter load to high camp.  It turned out that he could only get to less than 5,100 metres, and so we carried our tents and clothes and food and sleeping bags only a brief way up the mountain.  For those of you who know me well, this should be ringing alarm bells.

I have had some bitterly painful summit days over the years; some have taken 23 hours to complete, others resulted in me sitting down and falling asleep with exhaustion on the way down.  Summit day strikes some degree of fear into me, and the longer the anticipated summit day, the worse that is.  So, realising that we had nearly 1,500 metres of ascent to do for Antofalla wasn’t the best news for me.

I went outside at 4:30am and saw three bright shooting stars, which I took as a good sign!  We set out at 5am, and climbed for hours and hours, in places battling a rather ferocious wind.  As we got higher I was reminded that every 100 metres above 6000 is well-fought for!  We reached false summit after false summit, hopes dashed every time.  The last false summit was so convincing that I could have cried when I saw another bit of mountain ahead of me!  Here’s a photo of the last push:

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But, we eventually made it, and lay down on the top of the world.  There’s an Incan platform on the summit, which is totally flat and the views are incredible. Max fell asleep!

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Not for long though – we had a long way to go to get down again.  Max, Gabriel and I were climbing together, and all three of us were exhausted on the descent, and were stumbling as our feet weren’t quite going where we wanted them to.

After arriving at the tents, Max and I then walked all the way down to the cars to get food and water for another night.   We were so tired it seemed such a long way.  We struggled down, got the supplies, ate and drank, and regained enough strength to walk back up to camp.  We slept like babies that night, but we had made our first 6000 metre mountain!

Acclimatisation, Nuns, punctures and rescues!

This part makes me nervous.  I know I’m going to be really sick with the acclimatisation, because my body just doesn’t seem to start acclimatising until at least 4000 metres, if not higher.  We have been creeping up in altitude, sleeping at 3,800 metres for several nights, but I know I haven’t been acclimatising because I’m the only one sleeping like a baby at night, while the others suffer with poor sleep as their bodies adjust to the altitude.  This is exactly what happened last time, when suddenly at 5000 metres I got really sick.  At least I know it’s going to happen this time!

We decided to climb two local mountains to acclimatise, called Tuzgle and Acai.  Tuzgle is 5530 metres high and Acai is 5750 metres.

At Tuzgle, we could drive fairly high so we only had around 500 metres of altitude to gain.  We were on our way up, when we saw some figures in the distance.  We hadn’t seen any signs of civilisation for hours!  Then, when we got closer, we couldn’t believe our eyes.  Three Nuns were walking up the mountain road!  They were wearing habits, and one of them was carrying a little backpack.  Unbelievable!  We stopped and offered them water and food, but they declined.  It turns out that they often pass by the mountain, but have never been up it, so they decided to stop and walk up!  They parked their car very low, so they had 1000 metres of altitude to gain.  I should say at this point that the youngest was significantly older than me.  We wished them well and continued – I’ll try to get a photo for you so you don’t think this story came about through my altitude sickness!  They didn’t make it anywhere near the summit, but they totally put us to shame, with all our mountaineering equipment and experience!

The road was bad as we continued up.  At one point Conway ended up sliding off, resulting in a lengthy recovery with the Troller, and the winches.  The ground was steep, and sandy, and we could get no purchase for the wheels.  We had to put rocks under the wheels, and try to keep them from sliding down the mountainside with the car!  We eventually got Conway out, and decided to stop there and start walking!  Here are some photos from the top!

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Next, Acai, at 5750 metres.  On the way there we got a puncture, and realised our jack didn’t work!  Max got a nail and an elastic band and made a temporary fix…  We climbed from 5000 metres, and I felt the altitude much more this time.

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So, we tried to drive down to the city, but the puncture wasn’t really fixed properly and the tyre blew. Then we found out that our nut-taking-off device didn’t fit the wheel nuts!  Amateurs!  Thankfully a police car was driving past, and we flagged it down.  Needless to say, we didn’t let Max speak, as he doesn’t have a good history with the police!  They were very kind, and helped us change the wheel and we made it back to the town.  I spent the night huddled in a corner being sick, but after that seemed to acclimatise better.  Onwards and upwards; the acclimatisation phase was over, and it was time to hit the 6000ers!