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Last Great Unclimbed Mountains

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!

Reaching the mountains!

Well, quite a lot to tell you since the last post, but the internet’s been terrible and I haven’t been able to update my blog at all.

We left Corrientes and went to Salta, and finally met a high altitude archeologist there that we’ve been working with for year, but never met, named Christian Vitry.  We were only free on a Monday (the only day the High Altitude Archeology Museum in Salta is closed), but he kindly opened it for us and we discussed the sort of Incan ruins we have found, and what we might find on this trip.  This photo is clearly me trying to work out what on Earth the spanish description on the wall says….

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Conway broke in Salta, and he needed a new pulley, and the only place that had one was Mendoza (a 10 hour car journey away) so our friend Angel sent it to us by coach.  We lost two valuable days which, combined with the delay in Corrientes after the burglary, and the delay at the start, means we have lost a lot of time.  Our schedule is now so tight that we only have 4 rest days in the next 6 weeks, and some days have us walking for 30km at altitude to get to the base of a mountain!

Finally we left Salta and came up to a small town in the mountains called St Antonio do los Cobres.

We have a lovely hotel (clean, no b20161104_110817ugs!) and acclimatised, drinking litres of water as we went from sea level to 3,800 metres.

 

 

We drove up into the mountains to a pass at 5,000 metres, which was beautiful.  I took a photo of Pedro and Maria next to this sign.  They have been laughing at me a lot because of my attempts to speak Portuguese.   Last week I announced over dinner that I was married!  ‘Sou casado’, I said out of the blue!  It took us a while to work out that I should have said ‘Sou caNsado’, which means ‘I am tired…’

So, when we got to this sign at a mountain pass, they added to my confusion by telling me it meant ‘no weddings’ (prohibido cazar)…it actually means ‘no hunting’, I found out later!

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Still…I am trying every day to speak some Portuguese, and with Portuguese the common (native) language between the other five, I am at least now able to understand most of the conversation, even if I can’t take part…

Ok, heading to the mountains for our acclimatisation proper tomorrow!

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!

 

The final chapter. Or was that just the first?

I had been putting off writing these last posts because it seemed that publishing the final chapters of the adventure would somehow set in stone that it had ended.  I flew back the day after the Copiapo summit, and made it in time to give my 9am maths lecture on Monday morning.  I think my students would agree that it wasn’t my best performance, but I hope they were understanding.

As I write this, a week after I landed back in the UK, the whole adventure feels very much like a dream.  Of course, having been away from the University for so long, I was thrown back into work at full throttle, although that certainly took my mind off things.  My lovely colleagues in the Radio and Space Plasma Physics Group baked me a beautiful cake in the shape of a mountain to celebrate my return, and it was lovely to see them, and my family, again.

I feel as though I have so much unfinished business in the PUNA now.  I have learned so many lessons from these adventures; both in terms of equipment, and preparation, and route planning.  It is clear that buying anti-freeze from a country where the temperature never falls below zero (Brazil) is perhaps not the best option.  I also didn’t know that if you put in more than 65% antifreeze, the freezing temperature of the mixture begins to rise again, until at 100% antifreeze the freezing point is the same as for a 20% mix.  Good to know…

The PUNA is a brutal place.  By the time we’d finished, poor Conway had frozen, then overheated, needed a new head gasket, the brake sensors were broken, he had one broken window, the front bumper was smashed, the wheel arches were smashed, the rear bumper/lights were broken, the doors wouldn’t shut properly (the wind caught them while we were trying to open them…), the gear box oil radiator had clogged with mud and overheated….and I’m sure there are more problems yet to come.  He was a valiant steed, but the PUNA is a brutal place.  Next time?  Maybe a Landrover Defender is the answer? Or an off-road motorbike like Max takes?

So yes, there will be a next time. I really want to climb Leon Muerto for starters, and there are so many other beautiful peaks that we saw while we were climbing but couldn’t reach on this trip.  My jobs this winter are to learn both Spanish and Portuguese, and how to ride a motorbike.  And to map the Himalayas, as we’re sure there are hidden 7000m peaks there waiting for us.  The only thing that is for certain, is that there will be more adventures.  If anyone has any clout with the University of Leicester physics department, put in a good word for me, as I think I’ve used up all my holiday for the next decade…

 

I should end this story with a tribute to my travelling companions.  I couldn’t speak with Jovani (I’m going to learn Portuguese, I promise) but he’s a good sport, and it was great to see him having so much fun driving his Troller up rivers in the desert!

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Caio – what an amazing guy.  We share a love of ‘munchies’, and he never failed to put a smile on my face, even when I was super-frustrated at being stuck (again), somewhere.  We went on many walks while the weather was bad, talking about all sorts of randomness.  We generated some awesome photographs (‘The Hiker’) and fell in ‘the black mud’ together.

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Pedro: a man of few words, but an incredible friend.  He’s a fantastic climber – so steady and solid.  He is mentally tough, and yet amazingly patient with others.  He piloted Conway for thousands of miles on this trip; through rivers, up mountains, over sand dunes, you name it.  He was the sensible one; stopping us from launching headlong into disaster.  When you make him laugh, his giggle is totally infectious; what a great guy.

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Max. I’m not sure what to write here without getting sad or soppy.  Of course he’s a great climber, that goes without saying, and he has devoted his life to being able to spend time in the mountains, where he belongs.  He is unfailingly good company, and it’s pretty amazing to be sitting on a mountainside discussing the finer points of mountain mapping techniques, Mercury’s magnetosphere, and human evolution in a single conversation.  We laughed a lot, and cried a little (or I did); we are hot-headed at times and wildly optimistic at others.  We hate cities, airlines and border control (and Max hates banks too).  We laughed our way through this adventure, whether it was the debacle of the flipflop, ‘movie-night’ on Max’s phone, chasing mice around the hut, searching for Incan arrowheads, or mapping new routes and finding new ruins.

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Over the last couple of months I felt like I was always laughing; sometimes through the exhilaration of climbing, sometimes going places that nobody has been for hundreds of years, but mostly because I had great travelling companions and I miss you, Max and Pedro.

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I think a fitting end to this story belongs to Caio.  He says that life is about ‘epic shit’. It doesn’t matter whether your epic shit is running a lap of the park, cycling to France or climbing in the PUNA; whatever those words mean to you, you have to get out there and do it.

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Climbing Copiapo, 6100 metres

The following morning I think it’s fair to say that there were a few aches and pains in the group after our road-digging.  Max had multiple blisters on his hands, and while I’d like to say that I didn’t because my hands are hard-core from rowing, I think it may indicate that he really did the lion’s share of the digging.

We set off the next morning carrying everything we needed to set a high camp.  We had 1100 metres of ascent, and the final section was up a steep snow gully (argh, no photos I’m afraid!) so it took us a while to get up there.  Here are some photos:

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I was looking through my photos and saw this one.  I have no idea what was happening here, but suffice to say that Pedro is hardcore!

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e set up our camp at 5100 metres, leaving us a 1000m summit day.  We had some time constraints the following day (we HAD to get Caio to Copiapo airport in the afternoon!) so we had to leave super-early (5am). Caio decided to sit this one out, so Pedro, Jovani and I set off and Max caught us up.  He likes to organise the tent (read: sort out all of my random kit that’s in his way) before he starts, and he knows he can catch us up.

We were absolutely freezing.  I had a tank top, two long-sleeve tops, a down vest and my trusty black jacket on, and two pairs of trousers, and I was soooo cold.  Max didn’t even bring that many clothes so he must have been even colder.  I put my down jacket on over all of my other clothes, and that helped a lot, but really we would have liked to have left many hours later, with the sun to warm us.

Unfortunately Jovani turned around, leaving Max, Pedro and me, the usual suspects.  We carried on up the mountain, and Max took this photo of the shadow of the mountain as the sun began to come up:

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The mountain was steep (not sure if you can tell how steep from the pictures) and one giant scree slope.  We were taking two steps forward and sliding down one step, and it was hugely frustrating.  Max was leading (and therefore doing the work making steps in the scree) for most of the way.  Even he was growling in frustration from time to time as he took a step and ended up exactly where he was before.

Max and I reached the summit around 8am.  There are some huge (known-about) Incan ruins on the top, and the view was spectacular.  Just before the top we had to leave the sheltered side of the mountain and were blasted by an incredibly strong wind.  It was hard to breathe and the sound was like a jet engine.  Max had planned for us to climb on the protected side of the mountain (part of the reason for not taking the normal approach) because the forecast was for high winds.  I only then appreciated how bad it would have been if we’d tried to camp, let alone climb, on the unprotected side of the mountain.

Here are some summit photos.  The final one shows a huge Incan wall; probably a couple of metres high.

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My camera froze, so I didn’t get a nice photo of us on the top.

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Pedro was less than half an hour behind us, but we were absolutely freezing, and we had to get down.  At this point the scree was on our side, and we literally ran back down the mountain, reaching the tents in just 25 minutes.  Our descent route had nearly vertical scree, which was perfect terrain for us.  We packed up the camp and met up with Pedro, then headed down to join the others at the cars.  We got down at 11:45am, feeling as though we had completed quite a lot for one morning!

The building of a road!

We repaired the cars as best we could, and decided to head out again, to a more accessible region of the PUNA.  Max, Pedro and I were hoping we might even be able to climb two 6000 metre mountains in a day, as we were feeling so strong.  We decided to head for a mountain called Copiapo, 6100 metres.  We didn’t take the normal route to the mountain, but instead found another possibility on googlemaps and decided to try it out.  So, back into the desert:

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We drove off the road and up a small track.  We snook quietly through a mine (which we later discovered was abandoned, so no sneaking required!) and then up a sort of path.  I say sort of, because it rapidly disappeared…

Last March, heavy rains hit the area and flash floods hit the town of Copiapo, depositing a metre of sludge into the city. In quite a few areas (such as the football stadium) the mud is still there.

It turns out that the heavy rains also took out the small track we were hoping to follow.  It looked as though a river had washed away the centre of the road.  We pondered trying to straddle the chasm (which was a metre or more deep in places) with the wheels of the car, but it was too wide, and a bit of a dodgy prospect.  We couldn’t drive round it because the hillside was too steep, and the surface was loose.  So, we decided to dig out the hole in the road to a width such that we could drive down into it, along the bottom of it, and up at the other end.  The distance we had to cover was a few hundred metres.  We only had two small shovels and our bare hands (note to self: bring a better shovel!)

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Ok enough photos of me standing around and everyone else digging…I was digging too!

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Then the boys took my shovel away, so I was put on ‘rock-moving’ duty.

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Well we tried the cars, and eventually got the Troller though, although it was tight in places!

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It turned out that Conway was significantly wider than the Troller….so some more rock-moving.  Time for some team work!

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Here’s a movie (you have to click on it,sorry) – Conway really was stuck!  You can hear the wind, which was actually quite mild that day.  At this point I should pay tribute to the incredible off-road driving skills of Pedro and Jovani.  There were so many times during the last couple of months when Pedro was driving Conway through some ridiculous place, while I had my eyes closed in the back of the car not daring to watch.  He really is a skilled off-road driver.  We also taught him the skill of driving long distances in neutral, but that’s the story of an earlier post…

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Well we finally got both cars through, but it was getting dark.  We drove further, and the Troller ended up stuck in a snow drift.  We (Max and Jovani) got it out eventually by attaching the winch to a boulder, but it was clear we could drive no further.  We set up camp in the ‘road’, and Max made a massive and delicious meat stew, and we settled down for the night.

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The story continues in the next post…