Ojos del Salado – February 2017

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Ojos del Salado from el Arenal, still many kilometers from high camp.

Ojos del Salado Trip Report

I visited Argentina for a second time in February 2017, with the goal of climbing the 6893m Ojos del Salado.  Ojos is the second highest mountain on the South American continent, the highest volcano in the world, and given its location on the Chilean/Argentinean border is also the highest mountain in Chile.  As with most volcanoes, Ojos by its normal routes is considered an easy climb, and is entirely non-technical barring a section of scrambling near the very top of the mountain.  That said, its location deep within the high Atacama desert makes for a unique environment, offering its own particular challenges.

An ascent of Ojos del Salado has two possible starting points – Chilean or Argentinean.  The Chilean route is very well developed, with huts conveniently placed all along the way, and is very accessible via 4×4; where records have been set for highest driving altitudes.  Climbers commonly begin the climb on this side with a drive to 5200m.  The Argentinean approach is the polar opposite; remote, desolate, inaccessible, wild.

In researching and planning my 2017 winter expedition, I sought an opportunity both to challenge myself and to develop the range of my expedition experience.  The ~43km, extremely remote approach to Ojos from the Argentinean side had been on my radar for quite some time, and appealed to me as an ideal objective.  I knew that the climb itself was comparable to Aconcagua, if not easier, and decided that the land approach from Argentina would add desirable complexity and difficulty to an attempt.

I decided to make a solo attempt, approaching over land through the high Atacama desert.  I would begin unacclimated, and utilize the desert approach for my acclimation.  The isolation of the area, the distance involved, and the relatively high altitude of the entire affair comprised a compelling test of my training and logistical planning skills.  I would need absolute self-sufficiency and robust physical endurance in order to succeed.

Attempting Ojos from Argentina entails getting to Fiambala, a dusty little town in northwest Argentina.  In late January I flew in to Buenos Aires, hopped a cheap domestic flight to La Rioja, and from there rode a run down bus to Fiambala.  The same can also be done via Catamarca instead of La Rioja, if the flights are more accessible or less expensive.  In Fiambala I hoped either to find a well-regarded local fixer and operator, Jonson Reynoso, or to sort out independent transportation to the Refugio Cazadero Grande at the side of Highway 60, a roadside emergency shelter in the middle of nowhere, where the approach to Ojos begins.

Jonson is a legend in the area, and is the go-to person for any and all logistical needs in the high Atacama.  I had read about Jonson on Summitpost and had seen his name mentioned in numerous trip reports, but was unable to find a means of contacting him ahead of my trip – I figured that I’d show up in Fiambala and sort things out when I got there.  Jonson can be contacted via his email, which I now have; please send me a message if you need his address.

I arrived in Fiambala at dusk, and with my terrible Spanish managed to get a taxi from the bus station.  I told the taxi driver “Jonson Reynoso, Ojos del Salado”, and he immediately knew where to go.  We pulled up in front of Jonson’s office as the sun was setting, and there he was, larger than life, standing in the doorway.  I introduced myself, told him that I wanted to climb Ojos, and we arranged for a drive at 4 a.m. the next morning.  In Jonson’s office I met an Irish climber who had returned from Ojos that afternoon, having made an unsupported but pre-acclimated approach in much the same manner I planned to.  He had barely made it off the mountain, a vicious snowstorm having completely buried his tent as he descended from the summit, and only a GPS waypoint of his campsite location had saved him.  He warned me that conditions would likely be poor in the high desert.

The next morning, we loaded up the car and I began my approach.  From the roadside Jonson’s 4×4 was able to cover an additional 10km across open desert, to Quemadito at the head of the Cazadero valley.  From this point, Ojos highcamp is roughly 43km away.

It would be apt to describe the Atacama as a place of death.  While the Cazadero river in the lower valley supports surprisingly abundant life, sparse flora and large herds of vicuña, as one ascends higher the river soon runs dry.  The mummified corpses of dead vicuña rest alongside the path, preserved by the aridity and heat.  Past 4400m or so there remains nothing but rock, dust, and sand – the terrain is devoid of life.  Water was  scarce, and to obtain it I often had to walk as far as 1km to distant fields of ice penitentes, which I chopped, bagged, and hauled back to my camp.  One stretch of  about 14km near the middle of the approach lacked any water whatsoever, necessitating a single carry crossing.  Without a sat phone the approach in its entirety objectively is unsafe, with even a sprained ankle representing a potentially fatal injury.  The nearest road is days away, and the nearest human settlement is over 100km distant.

Ultimately, I did not succeed in summiting Ojos del Salado.  I did make it to ~6400m on the mountain, where 60-70km/h winds and knee deep snow prevented further progress.  Violent winds roared straight down the mountain from Chile to the northwest, threatening to knock me over entirely.  Without ax and crampons firmly planted to brace myself during gusts, I was at times unable to even maintain my balance.

The unusually deep snow was the result of unnaturally heavy precipitation throughout the days my approach; five consecutive days translated into heavy snow higher up.  After I made the decision to bail on my summit attempt, Jonson informed me via sat phone that the four day weather forecast remained poor.  With barely enough food remaining to stick it out for several days and wait for a weather window, and rationalizing that the soft snow would take more time than I had to consolidate properly, I decided to descend.  In hindsight, I can infer that the mountain’s conditions had likely remained poor since the Irish climber’s lucky descent.

In total I covered 170km above 4000m, shuttling loads of equipment and food, with more than half that distance higher than 5000m.  I didn’t actually see the mountain itself until the sixth day of the approach, when I reached the Portezuelo Negro pass leading into the high plateau of el Arenal which sprawls below the mountain.  I spent a total of 10 days to reach my high camp at ~6000m, in large part due to beginning the climb completely unacclimated, and further owingf to my acclimation strategy of rotating loads higher so as to ‘climb high, sleep low’ the entire way up.  I made the descent from my high camp to the pickup at Quemadito over three days, a single carry with an extremely heavy pack.  During the approach hike I spent eight consecutive days completely isolated, no other human being within sight.  One local man lives in the Cazadero valley, where he raises mules, but he does not venture higher than the lower river valley.  It is worth noting that a cache of ~3 days food supply, dry garbage, and extra equipment which I had left some ~15km into the approach was raided in my absence.  Upon my return the equipment and food had been stolen, but the garbage left behind for me to carry down.

Although the expedition without summiting was by definition unsuccessful, I do not feel much sense of regret or deep disappointment.  I had completed a difficult solo land approach across the high Atacama, and had attained the base of the mountain.  The grueling approach, and particularly the descent hike, had tested my mental focus and tolerance for physical suffering.  I remain convinced that the hideous conditions on the upper mountain made my summit, alone, impossible to accomplish, and as a result I feel that there wasn’t much I could have done differently.  Weather is fickle, yet sometimes absolute in its impacts.

I fully intend to return to Ojos del Salado in order to finish what I started, but would absolutely not consider approaching from the Argentinean side.  When I do return, I will focus on gaining the summit, will ascend via the Chilean side, and pre-acclimate with a few other 5000m-6000m peaks.

Ojos del Salado Photographs

Life in the Atacama

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