Monday 26 May 2014

Day 35: To The Atacama

Time to return to Chile and start our 4x4 adventure in the Atacama desert.  First, there was the twelve-hour bus journey to get through but, far from being a chore, it served as a super-juicy appetiser (if super-juicy can ever be the right adjective for a desert).

As we drove over the Andean mountain pass from Salta the hairpin bends of the road strung out like spaghetti below us, leading to the border post at 4,700m above sea level (surely the correct height for eating pasta in a mountain hut, not filling in official documents) then coasting down a two thousand metre ramp into the backpacker town of San Pedro at 2,500m.  To our left rose Licancabur - a volcano so beautiful that, if Sauron had had an eye for symmetry, he would have modelled Mount Doom on it.

In the evening, we arrived in the watch-your-bags mining town of Calama and hired a red 4x4, which had been numbered and flagged ready to descend into the huge copper mine of Chuquicamata (not our destination).  We signed an unintelligible contract in Spanish, omitted to mention that we were planning to spend the whole week driving off road, and revved out of the half-built airport feeling both smug and scared.  Now for a week in the desert.

Salt flat ahoy!
Mining truck
Volcan Pili on the Chilean side of the border
Let's off-road!

Sunday 25 May 2014

Day 22 : Those Incas

So far we haven't heard all that much about the Incas but in Salta (north west Argentina) we're starting to come into contact with their antics.  The High Mountain Archaeology Museum was an excellent place to start.

Those of you who are mountain types might have been interested in the Inca mountaineering boots on display.  No Scarpa Mantas for those Incas, I'm afraid, or La Sportiva Nepal Extremes.  No, eight layers of wool sewn together made up the mountain footwear of choice in the Inca Empire.

And what did they do when they made it to the top?  Well, nothing as innocent as eating a Snickers bar, which is mine and Guy's activity of choice on the mountains.

The museum houses three incredibly well-preserved bodies of children who were thought to have been given a glug of booze and then buried alive in a sacrificial ceremony at the top of Llullaillaco Volcano in the days of the Inca Empire.  We saw the body of the seven-year old boy, completely intact, looking as though he could still have been alive yesterday.  It was actually quite overwhelming.

We haven't made it up any mountains with Inca ruins yet, as our Del Plomo expedition didn't work out, but the children's remains were found at 6,700m.  Sounds a bit high to me; I think I'll leave it to those Incas with their woollen boots.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Days 25 - 31: Deal Me A 6000er! (Mountaineering in the Nevado de Cachi range)

Winter is coming!
We've been in South America for almost a month, surrounded by high mountains, so it must be time to climb a 6000m peak, right?!

We set our sights on the Nevado de Cachi area, in the north west corner of Argentina where the weather's much warmer.  After all, Winter is coming - and not just in the Seven Kingdoms.

Our Trek started at the beautiful
Hosteria Villa Cardon in Cachi
After a twisty, turny, give-me-a-whisky-now kind of bus ride, we arrived in the mountain village of Cachi, with its white buildings, italicised names over every shop door (including the hardware store), and general desire to please the camera's eye.  Here we found a vegetarian restaurant (Ashpamanta) owned by a mountain guide - what better place to stock up on mountain wisdom and calories at the same time?

For the next four days we made our way up a river valley, leaving the cacti behind at 3,000m and liquid water behind at 5,000m.  (Not to worry, we were carrying ice axes, which we ended up using solely to smash the icing on the stream in search of liquid below.) By this time, we were camping at 5,200m, but our previous two camps (4,200m and 4,700m) were generally much sunnier, pleasanter affairs.

Cactus grove near Las Pailas with San
Miguel de Palermo in the background
(approx 3200m)
San Miguel de Palermo
from about 4700m

Susan at the start of the moraines at about 4800m

We were pleased to find that an all-female international team was attempting nine summits in the region (compared to our measly one) and their support crew were camping in the valley, so we had company along the way.  We also spent a fair bit of time lying in the sunshine playing a quirky card game called Sopio.  Particularly appropriate Sopio cards for our expedition included 'Element Wind: Discard three cards from your hand' (also the stuff that blows you off your feet on top of the mountain); 'Joyless Bear: Discard your hand' (otherwise known as what Susan turns into when she gets cold toes); 'Divine Intervention' (what you hope for as you see a large rock falling towards you); and 'Evil spider: lose 150 points' (a good description of the scree slope we had to climb to get to the summit).  'I scream: lose 300 points' was a card we only played in the Sopio game, luckily, although there were a few moments on the mountain when we came close.

"Dr Cunning" the Andean Fox pays a visit to our camp
Is it a rabbit? No, it's an Andean Vizcacha.

After enough rounds of cards to memorise the pack, we thought we were pretty well acclimatised and ready to attempt the summit.  Day 5 dawned.  Susan's banging headache dawned.  No one went anywhere ... except to defrost the stream again (appropriate Sopio card - 'Element water; take two cards from your opponent's hand').

An hour and a half after our 6am start and the sun rises giving
us sight of the daunting task of climbing the headwall of the
Amphitheatro Khun behind us.
We only had seven days of (starvation) rations with us, so day six was our last chance.  The wind decided to pay us a friendly call during the night, which was very neighbourly of it, so we woke up at 5am without much sleep, downed a few biscuits, and headed out into the night.  Orion dug his sword into the horizon; shooting stars played ball; the wind romped in glee. (Appropriate Sopio card - 'Diamonds: gain 200 points'.)

After a short plod we faced the toughest obstacle on the mountain, just as the sun was rising.  It took the form of an extremely loose scree slope at about 45 degrees.  Parts of it were a scramble; other sections were a bit like those downwards-moving conveyor belts that the gladiators had to run up (remember those?) except our conveyor belt was shattered into thousands of pieces of moving rock and way tougher than theirs! (Appropriate Sopio card - 'You suck: lose 500 points'.)

What a view from 5500m! We started 6 days ago beneath the clouds in Cachi
Reaching the top of the scree was a big relief; from here only a two hour plod stood between us and the summit.  Guy decided to punctuate this plod by curling up on the ground in the foetal position from time to time and gasping (appropriate Sopio card - 'Turned into a wombat: miss a turn') while Susan stood by whinging that she couldn't feel her feet and please could we get moving again.  Nonetheless, we made it to the summit after only 5 hours on the route.  Success!

Ahhh, the summit in sight!
That beautiful summit moment. Not feeling at all tired!

Despite the vicious wind, we were relatively lucky with weather conditions this time (appropriate Sopio card - 'You rock: gain 500 points').  Across from San Miguel we could see La Libertador, the big daddy of the range, at almost 6,400m, and other snow-capped peaks.  We could also see a blanket of cloud down in the valley while we lapped up a blue sky and sunshine.  Nonetheless, I've learned that the first response to the summit of a 6000m peak is rarely 'wow, this is amazing' or 'let's have our lunch up here'; it's generally 'we made it - now let's get the **** out of here'!  Duly, we took some photos, ummed and aahed for a couple of minutes (partly at the wonderful view, partly at our burning fingers) and then got the **** out.

Returning down the scree slope was a bit like mountain boarding down a rock avalanche (appropriate Sopio card for the second time - 'You suck: lose 500 points') but we made it to the bottom, packed up our tent, and headed downhill for warmer climes, arriving at our first campsite of the trek after twelve and a half hours on foot and a diet of two Snickers bars, some biscuits and a few peanuts.  Surely our trekking rations are owed at least one Michelin star?

Survivors Photo back at advanced base camp (5200m).
Campamiento Piedra Grande by Starlight
Stars shine over the Nevado de Cachi range

From here, it should all have been quite restful - a few hours descent to the village then a taxi ride back to our B&B.  Alas, we failed to get hold of a taxi or even to hitch, so we ended up slogging the last 15km back to Cachi, arriving just before nightfall.  And the icing on the cake?  No room at the inn.  Sigh.

But of course the story ends happily.  We found another inn; we'd bagged our summit; the photos looked great as we scrolled through them over a bottle of Argentine wine; hot water turned out still to exist on earth (appropriate Sopio card - 'Happy worm: gain 100 points').  What more could one want?  Oh yes, a whisky for the journey back down the hill, of course!

Now we are acclimatised, the next stop is the Atacama.  The only question is: which volcanoes shall we climb?

Parting shot of San Miguel de Palermo from the cactus grove.