Last Great Unclimbed Mountains

Andes Expedition 2015

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!


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.


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!


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:


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.


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…


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…


A storm hits

Just time for a refuel in Copiapo, some tent and car-fixing, and we were off again.  We knew a storm was coming, so we went to the hut at Laguna Santa Rosa to sit it out.  The boys were laughing at the sorry lives of the flamingoes.  They stand all day in freezing water that’s full of minerals so totally undrinkable, dunking their heads in to suck we-aren’t-sure-what out of the water to eat.  To add insult to injury (and this appeared to be the last straw for the boys) they’re pink!  This appeared to be a dire situation.

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Caio and I went for a walk (of course) and we waited for the snow.

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The snow came, and we retreated into the hut for another day, grateful for a roof over our heads.  When we appeared the following morning, we looked out at the lake, and low and behold the flamingoes had bravely weathered the storm and were still out there on the lake, despite snow and absolutely freezing temperatures.  The boys decided they deserved respect, and maybe it wasn’t so bad to be pink…

Snow at low altitude in the PUNA is not a good thing, as any possible roads we could take were dips in the landscape (which collected snow) and any steep tracks were impassable.  We decided that we had to try to get back into the same mountain region as before, so we set off.  Visibility was a few metres at times, and we were skidding all over the road.  Below is the main road to Maricunga, the Chilean border post.

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Max and I got out of the cars at one point as we had to tow the Troller with Conway.  We were out of the car for just a few minutes, but we were blasted by wet snow as the wind was fierce, and by the time we got back in the car again we were soaking wet, and absolutely freezing.  Never let it be said that I have only been posting nice photos of myself…

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We just couldn’t get up the river and the steep hills to the mountains.  We tried, but Conway was skidding off the road, and the Troller wasn’t much better.  We had to use the winch several times.  The wind was strong, and it was extremely cold.  I got out my huge down jacket.  Sand and snow were scouring our faces as the gusts got stronger.


We had to turn back in the end, as there was no shelter for our tents, and we couldn’t afford to have them smashed by the wind again.  As we came down, conditions began to improve as the wind dropped.  Some of the snow on the lower passes melted and we ended up with quite a bit of mud.


We didn’t think that would be a problem, but it coated the radiators of the cars and made them overheat.  The Troller was still leaking anti-freeze, leaving a trail of green slime like a giant slug.  Conway had an overheated gear box radiator so we thought we’d try to tow Conway with the Troller.  The Troller instantly overheated.  We had two broken cars.  Again.

We limped to Maricunga, which made us uneasy as we had spent some time at both the Argentinian and Chilean border posts in the past, and things hadn’t always gone well.  It was late, and we slept there, however the following morning we were forbidden to leave!  This made us very unhappy…

Eventually they opened the road again, and allowed us to leave.  We limped back to Copiapo to do more repairs on the cars.

Spirits were still high though, and we managed an awesome jumping photo…

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Sierra Aliste

We were heading for a beautiful mountain called Sierra Aliste.  It’s a beautiful mountain, with a steeper snow-covered face, and a ridge.  We set up camp near the base and Max cooked amazing seafood pasta:

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We were so happy to be back in the mountains again!

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Caio’s on the far right, then anti-clockwise we have me, Max, Jiovani and Pedro.

Right, we set off the following morning for the mountain.  The winds were high, but we were climbing a protected face.  Sierra Aliste is 5200 metres.  I set off with Jiovani, Caio and Pedro to climb the ridge.

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I climbed independently of the others, and reached the top after 90 minutes!  It was sheltered up there, and I sat and watched Max climb the snow face below me.  He’s the black dot down there…


I sang along to my music loudly (because nobody could hear me) and enjoyed the beautiful views, curled up among the rocks on the sheltered side of the mountain.

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I got a bit carried away taking photos of the clouds that were floating by just above my head:

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and then the others arrived.  We took lots of photos on the summit.

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and then headed back down.  I had been at the top for nearly two hours by that point, so I was cold and headed down fast.  28 minutes later, I got back to the tent, and started doing the washing up.  A huge gust of wind came and hit the tents hard.  A minute later another gust came and this time I heard a huge snapping, ripping sound.  I abandoned the washing up and ran to look at the tent next to mine.  It was torn apart, with poles snapped, and with every gust it was getting worse.  I saw one pole snapped on our trango two (the best mountain tent in my opinion) and Pedro’s little one man tent was flapping furiously.  To make matters worse, our food boxes (some of which I can barely lift) had blown out of the tent porch, tipped over, and our supplies were rapidly disappearing into the distance.

Ok, now I had a choice.  I ran to the destroyed tent first, afraid it was going to tear and blow away along with Pedro and Jiovani’s belongings, and pulled out the poles, collapsing the tent, and bundled it into the car.  Pedro’s small tent followed shortly after, and then I managed to get all our food from the mountainside.  At that point, the others arrived and we managed to put all of our things into the two cars, although the gusts were incredible.  We were just about to leave….when Jiovani’s car wouldn’t start.  We checked it…and yep, even though he put 100% antifreeze into it, it must have been terrible quality, as the whole thing was frozen.

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With broken tents, and one car out of action, we had no choice but to use Conway to tow the other car.

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Of course we had a compulsory stop at the waterfall, which was incredible with the strong winds.

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On the way down, Caio decided it was warm enough to run around taking pictures in his underwear (maybe the altitude got to his head?)


We had an 8 hour drive back to Copiapo towing the other car.  On the way, a freak gust of wind scoured the car with sand and stones, and smashed poor Conway’s window!  He’s looking a bit sorry for himself, with smashed rear lights (thanks to the mine at Famatina), a broken boot (thanks to the wind), and now a broken rear window.


Shame we couldn’t get some more mountains in, but we’ll be back up there soon!  We’re hoping to leave tomorrow, even though the weather looks pretty terrible, with a storm coming in at the weekend.  Copiapo is at least surrounded by lovely hills, see below.  The boys came back last night and announced that they had brought me back some Chilean ‘fish and chips’  Better than anything I can get back home in the UK apparently…

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So despite freezing yet another car, the wind smashing our tents, and Conway’s window, and having to get out of the mountains towing our backup car, we’re still having a great adventure!  Sorry for the huge essay – more in a week or so!

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On the road….

The five of us (Pedro, Caio, Jiovani, Max and I) headed back up to the same area we had climbed in before.  We had seen some beautiful mountains, and spoke to a couple of local guys in Copiapo who said they were unclimbed.  We had searched on google earth and found some great possibilities for Incan ruins in the area.

We stopped at the waterfall on the way, and Max changed his shoes as his feet had totally cracked open.  He had earlier repaired them by slicing a section of skin off another part of his foot and super-gluing it over the crack, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) that had not proved to be a permanent solution…

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As he was changing his shoes, one of his beloved flipflops flew off in the wind, into the river.  Then began a race.  I ran down to the river downstream, while Max climbed down the gully to get to it.

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Success!  We rescued it (I got there first, but only just…) Now to climb out, and carry on our way.

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We had two cars, so we felt a little better.  We had shredded one tyre, so we didn’t even have a spare for Conway, which had made us nervous, given that we’d already sustained one puncture and the terrain was brutal.  We were grateful for the second vehicle as backup, and we had a great drive into the mountains.

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Laguna Santa Rosa

As several people have reminded me, I owe you all an update!  As you might have guessed, we’re back down in Copiapo, much earlier than we had hoped.  Here’s the story.

We met Caio, our professional photographer (and all-round awesome guy) and headed back to the mountains.  Our plan was to stay in a hut by a lake (Laguna Santa Rosa) for two days so he could acclimatise to 3800 metres, before pushing him higher.  It was cold while we were there, and so we went for a few walks.  Below are some of Caio’s photos during those days.  The place was beautiful, and his photos capture it perfectly.  The lake was full of flamingos, and the days were cold but clear.

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Caio and I went for lots of walks to take photos and enjoy stretching our legs.  I became ‘the hiker’ in his beautiful photographs.  The first one is the photographer himself, taken by me

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Caio and I walked around the entire lake one day, and were close back to the hut when we realised there was a stream we had to cross.

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There was no way we were retracing our steps…so we decided to jump.  I will try to upload the video somehow (it’s on facebook).  Suffice to say that both of us landed in the thick, black mud of the lake, with both feet.  It was hilarious – check out Caio’s little wobble, before he even jumps.  So funny!  (although my boots then froze and only defrosted several days later).

Max found loads of flint chippings, which, given that flint is not found locally, lead us to believe that Incas were making arrow heads in the vicinity.  This was later confirmed by some locals who came to the hut.

In honour of our visitors, we had a little party:

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We were waiting for a mechanic friend from Brazil to arrive with his car.  He got stuck at the Argentinian border as they closed the road (despite no real snow and only moderate winds) and were really making life hard for us.  We had to stay an extra day at the hut, and just as we were packed and ready to leave for the border….the car broke down.  The battery was flat.  I ran to find a nice German couple who had arrived to see the lake, and they lent us their car and some jump leads:

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and we were off.  We drove to the border, met up with Jiovani and his car, and headed to the mountains.

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More about the drive in the next post!

Thank you!

Hello!  I just wanted to say a huge thanks to everyone who sent messages to say good luck, and keep me going, especially when I was feeling rubbish, and when we were stuck in Chilecito for all those days.  I loved the photos with messages and the photo of the Bowline hanging off the cave in Loughborough!  I wasn’t sure if people would be happy with me re-posting the photos, but you know who you are.  I don’t deserve such a great group of friends all over the world, thank you so much xxx

We are heading back to the mountains for ten days now, to climb a bunch of mountains including one called ‘Dead Lion’, 5780 metres, which we think is unclimbed, and we’ve identified ruins nearby.

Just to show you our happy faces, here’s a tent photo – we had ‘film night’ at 4300 metres the other day.


Onwards and upwards

I’m going to condense the next three days into one post.  Suffice to say, we climbed four 5000+ metre mountains.  The first one, called Laguna Brava, was close to our camp (at 4100 metres) and was 5304 metres high.  Pedro and I set out first, and Max followed us up the mountain.  I reached the top after just over three hours (400m per hour ascent rate), and waited there for Pedro and Max (who climbed it in 2 hours 37 mins!).  It was a beautiful summit, not too cold, and the views out over the lake were spectacular.  There were some rocks on the top, but it’s hard to say who put them there…

This one’s for you, lovely Bowline swans:

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Right, well, day two.  First thing, a 5050 metre mountain close to our lovely camp.  Max and I raced up there in an hour and 37 minutes, with a 2 and a half hour round trip.  You can see a pile of rocks on the top – we were not the first to get there…

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Well, because it was such a quick climb, we decided to make lunch (Max is actually quite a good cook!) and move camp to a place where we could go for two more mountains.  We did that, and I was just about to take a siesta….when the boys dragged me out of the tent and we went up another mountain.  This one was Loma Colorada, 5268, and we raced up in 1 hour 37 minutes.  On the top was an apacheta which is a high pile of rocks built by the Incas.  We believe that this mountain is unclimbed, and were the first to see this structure!

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Well, we raced back down for tea.  On that topic, I brought about 90 sachets of delicious milk tea both from Japan (thanks Sarah!) and Singapore (thanks Gina and Kai!) and Max mercilessly mocked me for bringing so much with me.  Ha, well, one day rather than making their usual sickly sweet black coffee, Max and Pedro tried a sachet of my tea.  They are now properly addicted, although they insist on adding yet more sweetener.  I think I may have found a continent whose sweet tooth rivals even mine!

Ok, back to the climbing again.  They promised me a lie-in when they persuaded me to climb two 5000ers in one day, but took it all back the following day, and we broke camp and headed for our fourth 5000er in this region.  This one was called Morado, and we believe is unclimbed.  It’s 5223 metres, and took Max and me one hour and 40 minutes to climb (we’re now moving at 500 metres of ascent per hour if it’s not terrible scree, although I know Max can go much faster).  We found absolutely nothing on the top.  Nothing Incan, and nothing modern.  Interesting…

VIRB Picture

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Well, this post cannot end without one final tale of high tension.  Max and I came down from Morado and started the car.  It coughed some black smoke (as usual) and started ok.  We then noticed that the fuel gauge was showing 1/4 full.  The Argentinian border will not allow anyone to pass with a spare container of fuel, and they won’t sell fuel at the border either.  There was no way we could have carried more diesel, however we had many tens of km to drive off-road through thick sand to get back to a small track, and then 120km to the nearest town where we could buy fuel.  We started heading back, frustrated because we were super-acclimatised but stressed about the fuel situation.  The tyres had only 15 psi in them to get us over the rough terrain, which wasn’t helping our fuel consumption.  The fuel light came on shortly after we left, indicating 100km left in the tank, of tarmac road type driving.  Shit.  Pedro was calmly driving, while Max and I were calculating and re-calculating the distance to travel.  We made it to a mine and talked to the miners, but (despite having about half a dozen diesel vehicles and a diesel generator) they refused to sell us any fuel.  We carried on, now having 120km of driving along a track.  We were feeling seriously tense.  We put the car in neutral at every opportunity, calculating continually how far we’d have to walk if we ran out of fuel.  We didn’t see any other cars, so no hope there.  The gauge finally showed empty with 44km to go to the nearest town.  We held our collective breath and urged Conway onwards.  It was a long drop into the town, and we were doing 120kph in neutral at one point, cursing a bus that got in our way.  We promised Conway we’d fill his tank with gin if he’d get us there on the fumes that remained.

Max and I had been having a debate about Alanis Morisette’s song Ironic over the last few days.  Rain on your wedding day?  Irritating, but not ironic.  A black fly in your chardonnay? Really?  No.  Managing to get 130km on empty in your 4×4, with 20km to go and getting held up on the final climb before descending into the town by a lorry carrying DIESEL??  Yup, that counts as ironic to me.

Anyway, as you might have guessed, we made it.  Pedro refused to pull into the first petrol station, declaring the fuel low quality, while I shouted from the back seat that I didn’t care if it was kerosene, but it turned out he’d spotted another petrol station a bit further on, and they were open.  This was our fuel situation as we pulled in:


We filled up and drive 200km further to Copiapo.  We’re staying here for a few days, picking up our photographer, and heading back to the mountains on the 8th.  Wish us luck!


The following morning we drove straight to the Chilean border, 70km from our hut.  We could see that they had had quite some snow over the preceding months, and the officials there confirmed that the San Francisco pass had been closed nearly every day for the last 6 months.  The Chilean officials were friendly, and our crossing was much easier, although they did find my lovely raisins from the farm near Chilecito and confiscated them :-(

From there, we headed off-road and into the desert, finding a beautiful waterfall on the way.

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You’ll get used to the llama appearing in photos I’m trying to take from the back seat of the car.  This is Conway driving up a river.  When asked whether there was a story behind the slightly irritating llama swinging from the rear view mirror, Pedro’s reply was ‘It’s a llama.  I like him’.  Ok…


We passed high altitude lakes filled with minerals, complete with flamingos and even found some Incan ruins on the shores.  We were surrounded by the mountains we had spent months looking at on google earth.

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We made a great camp on the shores of a beautiful (and extremely remote) lake, and settled down for the night.

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The cliffs just above our tents must have thousands of trad routes, as well as bouldering galore.