Ojos del Salado, Chile

8-17 Nov 2002 - by Jonathan Stewart

Organizing a climb in Chile is relatively easy if you speak Spanish. Sernatur (http://www.sernatur.cl), Chile's tourism department, will process your climbing permit for free via e-mail, provide useful contact information, advice, and even e-mail you an 80-page "bible" of tourism for the region of Copiapo. Lelia at the Copiapo office was particularly helpful (serna03@entelchile.net).

Our party of 5 rented a Chevy Luv 4x4 with a plastic camper shell from Rodaggio Rent a Car in Copiapo (Paola at rodaggio@entelchile.net was as jovial in person as on the phone), departing November 8, 2002. They had the cheapest prices, but it payed to call everybody on the list sent by Sernatur. We ended up paying about $40 per day, including insurance, tax and mileage. That was less than half the price of Hertz, Budget and some of the other companies. Rodaggio also provided us, at no charge, with a second spare tire, a shovel, a 15 gallon extra gas tank and tire chains.

Sernatur also sent us a listing of every hotel in Copiapo, and we were able to negotiate an even lower price than that indicated on their list. We stayed at the Hosteria Pan de Azucar, where Fabiola and Shirley are very nice, but theyll try to nickle and dime you for everything. We found that asking them out on dates seemed to soften them up a bit in that department. Beware of the included breakfasts there, my juice concealed a 2 inch metal wire, maybe Fabiola's revenge. The hosteria is a little far from downtown and a late night walk back exposes guests to Copiapo's strange little perversion, transvestite prostitutes. Taxis are hard to find in Copiapo, so if the prospect of an unintended conversation with Mr. Maria makes you nervous, choose a hotel closer to the center of town. Besides, that's where the more traditional ladies of the night seem to congregate.

Shopping for supplies is easy in Copiapo. Bencina blanca (white gas) can be found in some of the hardware stores in the town center, and stove cannisters are also available in a camping store accross from the Deca supermarket near the town square. The Deca store is as large as your neighborhood U.S. grocery, but the female employees are considerably more friendly and attentive, not to mention attractive. Beware, they may try to glom on to you, sending you 10 e-mails a day and showing up uninvited at your hotel. Some of them may even hitch rides up to visit you in base camp. We found this phenomenom not to be limited to grocery store employees, but to young females throughout Copiap. For some reason, we were convinced that our dashing good looks were not the only reason the local women came out of the woodwork to meet us.

Bottled water can be bought at Burbujitas (the only water-specific store in town) or at the grocery store. Contrary to another report on this website, Senor Burbujitas will no longer rent large containers for water storage. His water, as sold in 5-liter bottles, is about 20% cheaper than in the grocery store, and got nobody sick. Be sure to ask him for free samples as he explains the reverse osmosis process to you. When we went, there was still ample snow to be melted, and we discovered a potable water source near one of our campsites, so we overbought when we purchased enough water for 4 liters per person per day for 10 days.

After obtaining your permit (it takes 2 days and can be done in advance), head out of Copiapo towards the well-marked Paso de San Francisco. Then follow the signs to the Control Obligatorio at the Complejo Maricunga, about 175 km from town. Here, you will need to put on your jacket since the last time you got out of your car it was probably 50 degrees warmer. Oh, and youll give the carabineros (Chilean for policeman) your permits, let them check your passports (they give them back to you), the drivers drivers license and the vehicle information. Theyre friendly and the process is relatively quick. They can also direct you to Ojos or to other attractions in the area.

Chilean maps of the region are useful only in identifying landmarks and for road navigation on the main roads only. If you deviate from the main road, youre on your own. The road to Paso de San Francisco from Copiap is indicated on the Copiap map 2600-6815, which is a 1:500,000 map available in Santiago at the Instituto Geographico Militar. The same map shows all the pertinent landmarks of the region and is more useful than the more detailed topos also available there. The map costs about $8 at the store, where you can also make online purchases (do a web search for the Instituto) for a hefty shipping fee. If you don't want to spring for the map, Lelia at Sernatur in Copiapo will let you make large-format photo copies of her library at a copy shop around the corner from her office.

Our first 3 nights were spent in a refugio on the south west shore of Laguna Santa Rosa, located at about 3700m and an hour or so beyond the carabinero station. There were flamingos which walked from one side of the lake to the other as the day went on. After our first night, we hiked up 5090m Cerro Pastillitos to the south. Nobody predicted how cold and strong the wind would get, and the four of us who pushed on to the summit got a good lesson in how not to underprepare for the mountains in the region. We hiked at a leisurely pace, and took a circuitous route back around the south east side of the mountain which took all day. We saw a heard of guanacos fleeing from us up a canyon, making movement at altitude look entirely too easy.

The next day was spent resting in the refugio, reading and playing with our set of nudie playing cards. Two groups came to the refugio: one a French group whose women dropped trou and did their business right at the steps of the refugio and the other an Australian old man with his guide who wanted to share the refugio with us but was forced to pitch his tent nearby because the refuigo can really only hold 5 people.

From the refugio, we headed back towards the main road to make our way up towards our next intended campsite, Laguna Verde, at 4500m. While driving across the flat expanse, we ended up chasing another heard of guanacos, the first of many we would see that day. When we got to the junction with what we thought was the main road (it wasn't the same place we'd turned off), we took a GPS fix and decided to bear south. Several GPS fixes later, and using common sense and landmarks, we figured out we'd taken the wrong turn. Instead of the international highway, we were on the "Rio Lomas" road, which bypasses the highway to the south, rising sharply up the altiplano by the flanks of Nevado Tres Cruces. That road was in fact the road to take to climb Tres Cruces, and we'd Forest Gumped onto it.

Our wrong turn didn't cost us anything timewise. Eventually, we spotted the international highway across from a canyon. We were on the other side of the Rio Lomas from the international highway, and it was just a matter of driving cross country around fields of penitentes (partially evaporated ice) and canyons before we were able to meet up with the main highway again. The detour joins the international highway at kilometer 211 and is marked as a turn off to Nevado Tres Cruces. To celebrate our certainty at our whereabouts, we had a picnic in the strong wind under Tres Cruces.

From there, we followed the international highway to Laguna Verde, where we'd been told by the carabineros and the Australian's Chilean guide that there was potable water from a spring (all of the lakes in the region are too salty to drink). There is an active carabineros checkpoint in the region, and I walked in to find them doing dishes. They have satellite television and a stove, otherwise their presence begs the question as to what they'd done to deserve the punishment of being sent to such a remote outpost. Perhaps incompetence was the answer I sought, since they collectively misdirected me to the potable water source, telling me it was 7 kilometers up the road when in fact is was just 2.

Anyhow, since we found ourselves heading up in the direction of Argentina, and obviously getting further away from any potential water source, we decided to continue on to the pass to see what the other side looked like. There, at the international boundry, the road is paved on the Argentine side and there are a couple of signs listing distances to major cities. It occurred to me that we could have kept on driving and been in Buenos Aires in about 16 hours.

Heading back down the hill back into Chile, we turned off the highway at the "pond with ducks on it," which was about 2 kilometers beyond the carabineros, and found water flowing from a pipe which led from a spring. The water was very slightly salty, but passable and we filled our empty bottles to increase our safety margin.

That night, we camped in a shelter near a dessicated cow (see other report) on the shores of Laguna Verde. Here inside, there was a hotspring-fed pool where we all bathed and later did our dishes amid rounds of "gay sauna" jokes. The pool kept the shelter nice and warm at night. There was a sign inside directing people not to sleep in the shelter, but when the carabineros paid us a visit early in the morning, under the auspices of picking up litter that looked like it had been there for years, they told us they didn't mind. Plus, I lent the shelter an attractive pinup from the pages of Playboy Magazine which may have softened the violation. There was no indication as to whether the carabineros got the Spice Network on their satellite dish, but one suspects a certain lent-like sacrifice is endemic to their position.

Before leaving the shelter, we filled our gas tank with the spare 60 liters of gas, propping the tank up on an empty barrel and using a tube to siphon it in. We'd consumed almost a full tank up to that point, and the infusion brought the needle back to near full again.

From the shelter, we headed back west on the international highway, towards the sign indicating the turnoff for Ojos del Salado. There, about 3 km from the main highway, is the Refugio Murray, which is visible from the turnoff. It's at about 4500m, so we decided not to camp there that night, opting to move up instead. The road up to Refugio Atacama on Ojos was passable up to 4900m, where immense fields of penitentes blocked further driving. Up to that point, some care was needed to avoid getting stuck in the sand and pumice gravel heading uphill with all of our weight. We managed to not get stuck, even without lowering the tire pressure, which is always a good trick. My advice is to use 4x4 low range and keep the revs up by popping the clutch when you feel the truck bogging down. Following the tracks, it's tough to get lost, and tracks seem to last for years. Even if the route is covered in snow, the way is still obvious at this point. Just head towards the tallest mountain you see.

After our first night in our makeshift base camp at 4900m, two of our group felt up to attacking 6100m Cerro Vicuas, making it to the summit in under 3 hours and back later that afternoon. The other three of us made a carry up to 5200m Refugio Atacama, about 7 km up the mountain. After that hike, I got a mild dose of AMS and had to convince the others that we needed to rest the next day. They were all understanding.

After 3 nights at 4900m, the five of us headed up to spend the next night in Refugio Atacama, which is a wooden box 3m by 2m with four bunk beds and a small area for cooking. It now also features a tasty pinup from the pages of Playboy Magazine. Several groups, ours included, left spare food there for others in the event of an emergency. Many groups, including an American group who were descending while we walked up, left their trash in this refugio. If you go, please help out and at least cart your own trash out. We ended up having to clean up for the other Americans, and took a few other bags of trash as well. And no, I do not consider the odd Playboy pinup to be "trash."

Before our hike up to the refugio, the weather in the region fell into a predictable pattern. Winds would start at precisely 10:30 a.m., and subside sometime after sunset, at around 9:00 p.m. The warmest part of the day was around 8:00 a.m., before the winds picked up. The day of the hike up to Refugio Atacama, there was no wind, and we found ourselves hiking without shirts and enjoying the rare warmth. We knew the weather was changing, and hoped that it would be for the better. Weather like that for a summit day would be phenomenal, as it was for the Italian couple who descended from the summit to Refugio Atacama that afternoon.

The following morning, we noticed a thin scarf of clouds ebbing and flowing over Ojos' summit. They were the first clouds we'd seen over the mountain, and their movement indicated a strong wind up top. Later in the day, as we hiked up to the 5825m upper refugio, the sky filled with a dense system out of the west, and before we knew it, the winds were the strongest we'd seen and it was snowing in white-out conditions. Luckily, we all made it into the comfortable refugio before the onslaught, and the two Frenchmen who'd joined us for tea on their way down had enough time to escape the worst of it before reaching Atacama Shelter.

One of our party, the most experienced mountaineer, wanted to head up the mountain that night, regardless of the conditions. The rest of us talked some sense into him. At that altitude, we all seemed to be acclimating well. Two of us had spent the last two months in Bolivia and Peru hiking and climbing and were well acclimatized beforehand, and another lives at 3100m, giving him a natural advantage. The other two of us, me included, were making the ascent from scratch. We all felt good, and could eat our soup without seeing it a second time. The two of us had headaches that went away with advil.

Sleep was difficult, even though the refugio (which smelled like a combination between foot odor and acrid salami) featured 6 (filthy, bodily-fluid-stained) bunks and kept us out of the wind. At around midnight, I looked out the window and saw stars. The weather system had passed, and everything was blanketed in white from the fresh snow. The wind was still blowing strong as ever though.

We decided to wait a couple of hours to see if the wind subsided and then head out. At 4 am we were out the door and up the slopes. The route from the refugio heads up to the left of a snowbank that looks like the continents of North and South America. The way is long and difficult with the loose footing. That morning, the strong winds drove the cold through all of our layers and picked up miniscule particles of ash which blinded us and made us cough. I wished I'd brought a pair of goggles for the wind and blowing debris.

At some point it becomes necessary to cross the snowfield from the left side to the right side. Because of the intense cold and fresh snow, the bank was slick and we used crampons as a precaution. They would not be absolutely necessary for the sure-footed. Ascent over the firm snow was easier than going up the gravel, and we took advantage of that.

Above the snow bank, the route enters a less sheltered side of the mountain, and the gravel and pumice is deeper. At this point, I was knocked over a number of times by the strength of the wind. The wind was pushing us down the mountain, where ascent was only possible by rapid movement up the gravel. Any hesitation would result in slipping down the mountain in a mini pumice avalanche, much like climbing a very loose sand dune. It was a most difficult situation. My face was getting very cold, but when I breathed through my balaclava, I felt like I wasn't getting enough oxygen, so I kept pushing it aside. Fortunately, after only about 400 vertical meters of the really bad stuff, we reached the crater rim at 6750m.

The two of us who'd come from sea level were exhausted from the effort and needed to rest for a minute after every ten steps or so. We continued on with the others up to the base of the rock climb before we decided it would be in everybody's best interests if the two of us returned back to the refugio. We were sapped. Without the strong winds and cold, we would have had more energy for the final attack, but that day we'd met our match. Neither of us were sick, we'd just reached our ceiling given the time we spent acclimating and the effort required up to that point. At 6800m, our personal altitude record, we turned around.

The other three of us continued up the very easy looking climb, fixing and leaving a rope. The other Americans we ran into on their way down two days before complained that the rock climb was too difficult for them, but from what I saw up close, and what the others in our group reported, this last section is technically pretty easy. The other climbers must have been off-route, since there's lots of steep rock around.Altitude will do that to you. The three that made the summit took pictures and entered their names and the names in our group in the summit register. They met us back at the upper refugio, where we spent a more restful night before heading out the next day via the international highway.

We finished our trip a couple of days early. Maybe we should have taken advantage of the time we had by acclimating another day or two, but with our lack of experience, we thought 8 days would be enough, especially since we were all feeling good heading up to the summit. Conditions were also a factor for me personally. It took my eyes 12 hours to recover from all the ash blown into them.

Between Copiapo and the Complejo Maricunga is about 2.5 hours, and from there to Ojos is about another 2 hours. Driving back downhill along the main road, higher speeds are possible. Beware of mining trucks around some of the tight curves, and also beware of road washouts and snow early in the season. Copiapo, aside from the amusement that the ambitious ladies provided us, is a pretty boring place with little tourist infrastructure. Few foreigners visit for reasons other than mining, and theres nothing to do aside from walking around and eating hotdogs. Nearby Caldera and Bahia Inglesa are much more attractive, but you cant supply up there as well.

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