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!
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:
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.
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…
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.
(yeah, Max photobombed my summit panorama)
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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’.