Friday 18 April 2014

Days 1 - 7: How kind of the mountain gods!

It's the end of week one already so it's time for the story so far - a tale of cold toes, cold nose, fine views (vulnerable to the power of sudden vanishing spells) and sunny mountain ridges.  So ...

Beginning with a middle class crisis (guaranteed not to last more than two sentences), we arrived in Santiago last Friday to hear the breaking news that Iberia airlines had been awarded a Michelin star for their onboard catering.  Commentators believe this is largely due to the quality of their vegetarian offer (a box of lettuce for dinner followed by a box of lettuce for breakfast, in case you were wondering).  Quote Guy to the air hostess: I ordered a meal for a vegetarian not a rabbit.  Fortunately, we fared better in steak-loving Santiago where we stocked up on snacks in a lovely vegetarian cafe - then stocked up on maps in the Government map shop.  For those trekking in Chile, it's located just south west of the centre, near Los Heroes metro, and sells 1:50,000 for much of the country.

Even though it's a less-heralded city than Buenos Aires, we're enjoying staying in Santiago.  As mountain-lovers, this may be because there are hills and viewpoints all around.  We headed over to San Cristobal, which stands about 400m above the city, for a good view of the high-rises (and low-rises), parks, motorways and all the rest of the surprisingly-alluring urban shebang encircled by mountains.  At the bottom of the climb we found ourselves behind a large and vocal procession.  A political protest?  No.  There are only eight days to go until Easter Sunday and that God chap seems to be causing a rumpus as usual.  But we soon left everyone behind and climbed the steep path to the summit where there is a large white statue of Mary on the hillside and an array of 'silencio' signs, made more amusing by the jubilant (ie. noisy) religious celebrations taking place just below.  There was a great view of the city though and we particularly noticed the snowy tip of a distant mountain, just emerging through the urban haze: Cerro Del Plomo.  This was our mountain.

Let's climb that one.

Bloody dog still following us half way up a blue run.
Day 3 (Sunday April 2014) we set off to climb it, carrying our tent and stove, six days of food, down jackets and sleeping bags.  We drove up to the Valle Nevado ski resort at 3,500m and spent the first hour of the day trying to drop a friendly canine who would absolutely not be getting a share of our rations for the duration of the trip, which was difficult as the dog lacked a heavy rucksack and was clearly fitter than us.  Once we'd finally made it clear that we weren't human beings of the dog-loving (or even tolerating) variety, we continued on our way across a couple of low ridges before dropping down into a river valley to camp.

Me caveman, me make fire!
Guy was suitably ecstatic to find a low wall ready-assembled to shield his 'kitchen' and settled to his role as chef of a true pasta and river water feast.  The night was surprisingly cold and, in the morning, the water that I fetched from the river froze in the pan before it could reach the stove (about 20m away).  A sign of things to come?  Nonetheless, we set out on an acclimatisation trek up onto the ridge above, where we sat reading in the sunshine for a few hours.  Bliss.  Who needs an office job?

The next day we de-camped and trekked further up the valley until we reached a camping spot at 4,400m.  Despite the previous day's acclimatisation trek, we didn't want to go any higher and, in any case, there was no need.  The summit was only 1,000m above us and we'd climbed the same height earlier today carrying full camping gear in less than 4 hours.  Everything was set.  The sun was shining and had been for the last four days.  The air was still.  The peak looked serene.  The path up to it was clearly visible, and we had our crampons and ice axes ready for the short glaciated section.  We could almost reach out and touch the summit from where we sat.  Time for an early night before a (surely successful?) summit day.

Red sky at night... Shepherd's Delight!
But no.  As we were getting ready for bed, the wind whipped up and proceeded to shake our tent violently all night.  Having pitched in the calm, we hadn't given much thought to the prevailing wind direction and so it was blowing full on to the front door of our canvas mansion - gradually blowing the zips open at regular intervals so we had to get up and close them.  Never mind - we had loaded the guy ropes with rocks and when the alarm beeped we found, mercifully, that we were not yet airborne.  Plenty of other things were airborne, however.  Lots of clouds.  Waves of spindrift.   But no sun.  And definitely no warmth.

Red sky in the morning... Shepherd's, beware a bloody nasty cold day!
With the tent swaying like a sick animal, we decided to descend a few hundred metres to a primitive shelter and wait until the following day - we'd brought an extra day's rations for exactly this scenario. So we climbed back down the path and spent the rest of the morning melting snow to make porridge and tea, as H2O no longer existed in liquid form at this altitude.  It's just possible we'd made Captain Scott's error and failed to bring enough fuel for lots of snow melting.  Well, we weren't the only people to be in trouble in this shelter.  One bit of graffitti on the wall went along the following lines: 'today we're eating our last pack of soup after being here for five days.  One of my friends has frost bite in two of his fingers.  The other throws up everything he eats.  I'm going to go and get help ...'.  Perhaps we weren't doing so badly after all!

Unknown to us at this point, this shelter (and it's accompanying mouse) would be our home for 24 hours after we retreat back to it the next day.
A guide and his client arrived in the afternoon and we were happy to hear human voices for the first time since we started the trek.  The next morning they set out before us.  We awoke to find that the thermometer read -5 degrees inside the tent; goodness knows what the temperature was like outside in the wind chill.  And by now we had no desire to find out what the temperature was like on the summit - no-more-fingers-no-more-toes-lets-just-bloomin-get-outta-here temperature, most likely.  Just as we finished packing up our tent for the retreat, we heard the guide returning, having been turned back by the wind.  Yes, heading down was the right decision.  The one consolation prize was the discovery of a bottle of red Chilean wine, unopened, on the descent route; how kind of the mountain gods to give us something to drown our disappointment in!

And so, yesterday afternoon, we found ourselves back down at 2,500m (where it was still cold enough to need a down jacket if you stopped for long) in the village of Farellones. We checked into a hotel, revelled in the existence of hot water, groaned at another meal of spaghetti and tomato sauce, and drooled over the view: yellowing autumn trees fringing a cloud inversion that drowned the city of Santiago in haze.  And we drank the red wine.  Well, there's a surprise!

That's Santiago down there in all the smog.
Actually, we found out afterwards that there had been a large fire in the nearby city of Valparaiso.
Now we're back in Santiago, Del Plomo already feels distant and we're busy plotting the next adventure.  It may be Del Plomo 1, Susan and Guy 0, but there are other ways to spin it.  Susan and Guy 1, frost bite 0, for example.  Susan and Guy 1, getting-blown-off-a-mountain 0.  Yep, I'll go with either of those.  There are plenty more mountains to climb where Del Plomo came from and perhaps we'll have better luck further north where it's warmer.  We have our eyes on a few volcanoes in the Atacama.  In the meantime, it's Easter, so it would be wrong not to go to Easter Island, wouldn't it?  We'll post another update from there.

More pics from Days 1-7:

Santiago sprawl
Madonna... and child: "Can I have an ice cream?"
Ahhhh... a train, that's better!
Cerro del Plomo from the top of the first ridge.
OMG!!!!! PONIES!!!!!
That one.
On arrival at our first camp we found this chap overturning rocks with his talons looking for food.
Calm, serene weather: "I think this one's in the bag, Guy!"
Easy does it up to advanced base camp. Lovely weather innit?
Penitites on the Glaciar Esmerelda
Waterfall with climbing potential. A rather fragile WI3?

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