Negro Parbellon: the story begins...
Max and I had some unfinished business to attend to – namely climbing two 6000 metre mountains that we didn’t have time for during the last expedition - Negro Parbellon and Cerro Alto. These would be the last two mountains for Max in Argentina and Chile, and successful summits would represent the end of a project that had been ongoing for many years. There was a good reason why these were left until the end though – they’re really remote, and it wasn’t exactly clear what our strategy should be to climb them both. They face each other, with a valley in between, so it made sense to make a camp in that valley and climb each in turn. The problem was that nobody had ever ventured up the valley from Negro to Alto before, and everyone told us that it couldn’t be done. WARNING: a spattering of bad language in these videos! (Max, not me!)
We had allowed just three weeks for these climbs and we were anxious to get started having spent weeks pouring over maps and satellite imagery data. We had come up with a plan of attack for the two mountains, starting with Negro. A friend, Danilo, drove us as far as he could, and we met up with our mule driver, who would take our duffels to our ‘base camp’ – a place called Nacimiento (birthplace of a great river). Those of you who have read any of my earlier tales may remember that mule drivers are not top of my list of favourite people. When our poor mule arrived, it had a huge gash on one flank, as his companion mule had accidentally raked it with the sharp part of a harness. The creature couldn’t continue on such an arduous trek, so a replacement had to be brought up early the following morning. Not a good start, but nothing surprises me when it comes to mule drivers!
We hiked straight up to 4,300 metres, over a narrow pass, then a descent on the other side of the valley:
We had a somewhat chilly river crossing (see video below - beware language warning!), then took a short cut over a large hill to our valley. We saw plenty of Huaynaco, and followed their tracks. They are hunted by puma, and we saw several caves like this one, with piles of bones outside. Being in Argentina, we had barbecued meat for dinner with our mule driver, and turned in.
The following day we did a 12 km hike up the valley over rough ground. It was ankle-breaking terrain, and at times we had to scramble up the steep sides of the valley to avoid the water – one slip and we’d end up tumbling down towards the torrential river below. We call these ‘just don’t fall’ moments, and they weren’t to be the last on this journey!
We made it safely to our base camp at 3,500 metres, and decided we’d go for a carry up to the next camp, as it was early in the afternoon. This camp was at 3,900 metres, up a steep rock-strewn valley, and it was terribly hot. It was at this moment that I realised that I had forgotten to pack my inner boots! I had the outers, but in my rush to pack and leave home, I appeared to have mislaid the inner section, and thoughts of losing my toes to frostbite filled my mind. Having said that, I had multiple pairs of excellent socks, so resolved to wear two thick pairs of socks, suck up the blisters, and hope for the best.
We went like snails up the valley and completed our carry, but much to our surprise, there was no water up there – the water source that had been there just a few months earlier had dried up.
We descended back to camp, and that night as we were tucked up in bed I heard a strange noise. Remembering that there were puma in the area, I made Max get his knife out (and I got mine out) and we put them somewhere handy. It sounds so ridiculous when I say it now, but I honestly wondered whether they could smell the lovely pasta and sausage we had made for dinner earlier…
The next day we moved up to the 3900m camp, and continued on until we eventually found some water. I was beginning to feel quite unwell, and was strugging to control severe nausea. Max was giving me medicine, but my blood oxygen level was really low, and my heart was beating slowly, telling us that my body simply wasn’t acclimatising to the altitude. Again, anyone who has read of my previous expeditions will recognise that this is what tends to happen to me at altitude, although this time it was pretty extreme. Max has a theory that as I have a low resting heart rate (39 bpm), my body is able to compensate for the altitude rather than beginning the acclimatisation process so while everyone else on an expedition is making lots of lovely red blood cells to help them cope with the altitude, this process is delayed for me.
Still climbing....the days go by. I'm being sick every night, so getting weaker by the day, but still in remarkably good spirits! We're laughing our way up the mountain, without a care in the world! Much more scree was encountered, without mishap...
We had taken a Leicester City football up with us as I wanted to see whether the altitude would make it explode as a little experiment for school children on how air pressure changes with altitude. That night we decided to have ‘movie night’ – a treat for us. We watched Castaway (one of our favourites) and immediately thought about our little football. Well…as long as we left one side untouched so we could film the experiment…we figured it would be ok to make some changes to the other side. In the film Castaway, the poor guy stuck on the desert island for four years makes a companion he calls ‘Wilson’, painting a sort of face onto a football with blood. Blood doesn’t stick to footballs very well, so we used chocolate paste instead, and before long, we had our own Wilson, nicknamed ‘Leicester’.
The following day the three of us (me, Max and Leicester) moved up to a camp at 5,100 metres. I was stopping every 50 metres or so to be sick, and felt miserable. Add to that some severe stomach trouble, and you get the picture! The going was tough - we got stuck in some really deep penitentes (snow/ice spikes), leaving us hip-deep in snow and struggling to move forwards at all. (photo) It was frustrating (Max got mad!), and we took hours to climb only 200 metres. Still, we were in place for an attempt on the summit.
By this point I hadn’t eaten properly for many days, but we set off for the summit the following morning, early, way before the Sun came up. It was a long slog, first a steep rock ascent, then along an endless ridge. The going was awkward, and several snow/ice patches had to be crossed that were extremely steep (see video below). Don't fall.... We had a couple of ‘don’t fall now’ moments, aware that one slip would leave us careering down hundreds of metres of ice. 6 km doesn’t seem like a very long way when you’re at sea level, but when you’re heading for a 6000+ metre summit, it can seem endless. My lack of acclimatisation was evident, and the wind was rising. Hours later we arrived at a large level platform, and having been blasted by the wind, despite my down mitts, I could no longer feel my fingers. We had to stop and Max helped me warm them up, but in sitting down, I got the most terrible cramp in my calf muscle. It was agony, as were my fingers as feeling eventually returned to them, and we laughed at how pathetic I looked, writhing on the ground grasping my leg and staring at my incredibly painful fingers! We continued on with our slog up the 250 metres of altitude gain left until the summit and finally arrived! We don’t tend to spend long on these summits as it’s so cold and often really windy. It had taken longer than expected to reach this summit, so we took some lovely summit photos, before heading back down again.
The way down really did seem endless, and Max was extremely patient as I didn’t have the energy to move with any speed. We arrived back at the tent around 8:30pm, and made some soup to warm up and rehydrate before heading to bed. I was really pleased to have made the summit, but worried about this lack of acclimatisation. 12 hours later, when we took my blood O2 saturation, it was only 60% - I dread to think what it had been during the summit attempt.
The wind really began to pick up the following morning, and we began our descent, stopping to camp at 3,900 metres, and arriving the following lunchtime at 3,500 metre camp Nascientes. By this time my lovely inflatable thermarest (that I’ve had since I was 21) had yet another series of holes due to camping on thorn bushes, and I was down to a thin piece of foam. I was still vomiting in a major way, my stomach was a mess, and I felt really weak. We were desperate to climb Alto, but we were worried about continuing up an unknown valley to another climb. The question became whether I could recover and continue, or even whether we could get me back down to civilisation again. Things got pretty desperate, and without going into any details, I had to resort to fairly extreme measures to fix myself. I told the tale to my friend who's a doctor who said 'wow, there's a journal article in that story'....but I'm not telling it here :-)
Cerro Alto: the adventure gets more extreme...
We set off the following day to climb the beautiful Alto! This next climb was different – nobody had been that way before, and we really didn’t know whether it would even be possible for us to get to the mountain. We were optimistic though – we’d spent days on google earth checking out the best route, and were confident that it was worth a try. We decided to go super-light-weight, and checked the weather forecast – it looked like 18th would be a good day to summit. We packed minimum kit (no luxuries like toothbrushes any more; only one spoon between us) and kept our rations lean, knowing that if we needed to, both of us could still operate reasonably well on next to no food for a few days. Each of us just had a piece of foam to sleep on, and no changes of clothes at all.
The start of this climb was up a long glacial valley. The trick here though was that the glacier was covered in a thin layer of dirt, such that in the photos, it looks like rock. We started up the valley, staying on top of the moraine as much as we could, as the going was much better there. Eventually our luck ran out and we had to descend to the glacier itself. We soon found out that in places, the dirt was really thin, so we’d suddenly find ourselves slipping and sliding, unable to keep our feet. The crevasses were sometimes visible, sometimes hidden, between a few cm and tens of metres wide. We’d hit an ice wall ahead of us, many metres high, and have to find a way around it, being careful not to step into the inevitable crevasse at the base.
Eventually we found ourselves faced with an absolutely enormous hole in the ice ahead of us, with a river flowing down into the blackness. We had seen this feature on google earth, but decided that it was a trick of the mapping, and couldn’t be real! We called it the ‘hole to China’, and had to find a way around it. We tried to climb the face above it, but the rock was unstable, and we risked a huge fall down into the hole. We then decided to climb down into the hole itself, edge along one side, and climb out again - a risky manoeuvre as clearly if something went wrong, rescue had never been an option. The way down was steep, and the rock was unstable under our feet, but we eventually made it to the lower part of the hole. We then had to scramble back out again – some rock climbing moves (while wearing thick boots and carrying a rucksack) were required, but eventually, what must have been an hour later, we emerged. I felt really relieved to be out of that hole, and we continued on our journey up the glacier. Below right is our 'we didn't die!' photo....
Shortly thereafter however, we came across a second hole, and our hearts sank – we hadn’t been able to discern this from the satellite photos at all. There didn’t appear to be any way to cross this one, so we decided instead to traverse the glacier, and head for a lake that we had pinpointed on the map. By this point we were thirsty and only had half a litre of water left between us. The small pools of water we had seen were contaminated with sulphur and other minerals, making them undrinkable.
Crossing the glacier was like crossing a field of sand dunes, but eventually we saw a lake ahead of us. The lake was indescribably beautiful – clear blue water, with sheer sides of ice rising up on all sides and ice bergs floating in the water. There was even a flat beach! We decided to camp here – it had been a long, hot and dusty day, and here we had a source of fresh water and the perfect camp site. We called it Paradise Lake, and were grinning and laughing as we put the tent up. Of course, we had hardly any food, so we had the usual discussion about dinner (we both knew that all we had was mashed potato and frankfurters), which went something like:
Me: what would you like for dinner?
Max: do we have some mash? Maybe some frankfurters?
Me: funny you should say that…indeed we do. Only one frankfurter though – we need to save some.
Max: **** saving it – let’s put more meat in….
And so the negotiation would continue. Me wanting to save our precious rations, and Max wanting to eat them…. This daily negotiation was highly amusing, and, as you'll see, became more urgent...
We had a lovely evening, and we fell asleep to the sound of dripping and occasional rumble as ice from the walls collapsed in to the water. We slept incredibly well in our paradise.
The next morning we set off early, determined to make up some time we had lost the day before. Max lead us to a moraine and we charged up it, reaching Alto’s valley in double quick time. We began the ascent of the valley, starting on rock/scree, and heading for the glacier. We had decided to skirt the left hand side, hoping to avoid the worst of the broken glacier, and to our delight we found ourselves scrambling up a mix of ice and rock, but away from the worst of it. We were climbing super fast now and feeling strong, soon finding ourselves around the corner and looking for our camp site, now 1000 metres above where we had camped the night before. We found a flat rocky area and made camp; the glacier was melting so rapidly that there was even liquid water near the camp which made things easier for us, although I nearly froze my hands going to get it! The night was extremely cold for us – we both suffered and didn’t sleep much. Any body part touching the ground felt cold, and we shivered in our bags.
The following day we headed up towards the rock band, although quickly changed our minds when we saw that there was no possibility of scrambling over the rock towers. We took to the penitentes, which early in the morning were fairly stable and although I had a couple of falls through to crevasses below, I never fell beyond my waist. At the top of the penitentes (200 metres above the camp) we were walking across fairly steep, smooth ice, heavily criss-crossed with crevasses. We were roped up, and Max expertly lead us through this minefield. Again, we were climbing fast and feeling strong, helped by the minimal weight of our packs. The wind was fast rising though, and soon was absolutely howling, with extremely low temperatures as a result.
The situation quickly got serious, and when we reached a small island of rock at 5,500 metres, we decided to camp. While trying to get my down mitts on in the howling wind, I managed to lose one which blew off at speed, never to be seen again. This left my fingers freezing, and Max furious. With no way of keeping the heat in my hands, and no way to put the tent up in the wind without smashing it to pieces, Max managed to scavenge rocks to build a small wall to protect the tent from the wind. He then put the tent up and anchored it to the ground. We crawled in and were instantly warmer, feeling the tent shaking and bending in the wind. Max went back out to get ice to melt for water, but found that he could no longer stand up, and ended up crawling back to the tent. The wind was not predicted to be anywhere near this bad and it took us by surprise. We make light of the situation in the videos below, but we spent a cold night, unsure whether we’d be able to go for the summit the following day, hoping our tent would say secure, the poles wouldn't snap, and the wind wouldn't pick up any further.
This photo was taken the following morning - looks like paradise eh? If only we'd known the night before it was all going to clear up...
We awoke to lower wind, although powerful gusts, and knowing that we only had 650 metres to the summit, had the luxury of setting off in daylight when the sun had hit the tent (7am). We walked, chatting and laughing, most of the way to the summit. The wind was bad but not unbearable, and we were just delighted to have a chance to get to the top.
We reached a col, and there were local peaks in all directions (Alto has three peaks but the true summit is hard to discern from below). We stopped to try to work out which one to climb, being temporarily disorientated, and eventually worked it out from the position of the Sun, and climbed up a rock band. Suddenly, ahead of us, was a beautiful snowy summit. It was narrow, with huge drops on both sides, and initially we thought we’d have to protect the final section with gear, but it turned out we could walk straight there, and we found ourselves on top of the world.
After all the drama of getting to this point – exploration of the glacier, my poor acclimatisation, my stomach troubles, the unexplained high winds and the weeks of walking, it felt so incredible to be up there on the summit. We laughed with happiness, and it’s hard to explain the feeling we had. We took some quick photos and descended rapidly, reaching our camp in one and a half hours. Things got tricky from there…
We broke camp, and headed back down the steep ice section, except that it had turned to hard, blue ice, and our crampons were not sharp enough to make us feel confident. We skittered down this section, worried most of all that we would not be able to arrest a fall, and would end up flying over the precipice. We reached the penitentes with relief, only to find them super-soft, and we were falling into the crevasses below every couple of steps. This was extremely frustrating – you can’t tell from looking at them what the condition will be, and when you make a wrong move and find yourself in a bad patch, it takes half an hour of extreme effort to drag yourself out. We eventually found our path from the way up, and followed that down to 4900m camp. From here, we had to descend another 850 metres to 4050m camp by a lake where the valley met the huge glacier. My memory of this section is simply one of exhaustion, and to make matters worse, it began to snow and Max’s jacket zip had broken. We struggled back down difficult terrain, and reached the camp at 6pm, 11 hours after we’d set out for the summit. We lay on the beach (yes, another one!) and recovered, before setting the tent, and looking at our rations. We had a cup-a-soup, some garlic powder, a tiny bit of mashed potato and a frankfurter for dinner, between two. This was the same dinner we’d been eating for 5 days now, but we weren’t bored of it, we were hungry! After dinner we had two pot noodles left, a packet of crisps and a packet of candied nuts. And a glacier to cross that had taken us two days on the outbound journey to get to camp where we had more food. We set off the following morning determined to reach camp in a day. From there, it was two more days to trek out to a track from which we could be picked up.
All was going well – we retraced our steps to Paradise Lake, and this time decided to head straight down the centre of the glacier to avoid the holes we had encountered on the way up. We then crossed the glacier and climbed the moraine on the far side, which is where the problems began. We were too high, scrambling up the side of the valley where everything was lose under our feet, and we were at constant risk of tumbling down into the valley hundreds of metres below - far more perilous than the videos I posted earlier, but I was too on edge to take any footage. I remember Max cheerfully saying ‘follow the Huaynaco – they came here first’!
It seemed like we spent hours traversing this loose terrain, with Max going first and testing it, helping me where needed. An extremely nerve-wracking downclimb later, and we were back on the moraine to camp, arriving at mid-afternoon. Immediately we opened every tin of food we had left – feasting on an incredible mixture of olives, tuna, mayonnaise, palm hearts and raw onion!
We had done it – completed the second ascent of Alto, and the first from the Argentinean side, setting a new route. The achievement of the summit was the sum of so many smaller components and struggles along the way. Another short, but huge adventure for Max and me.
We left our duffle bags for the mule driver to collect, and walked to an abandoned army base at the bottom of the valley. We kept walking until we camp upon a small camp that Max had constructed years earlier as a place for one of his trekking expeditions to stay for a night. We found a little rice there, and some wine in a plastic bottle, and I have to say we had a handful of rice in the most delicious mix of chorizo, onion and water for dinner. (we were just relieved it wasn’t mash again!) We had a sip of the wine, and set out our sleeping bags under the stars, having left the tent behind. We counted many shooting stars, and thirteen satellites passing overhead before we fell asleep – happier than ever to feel so free and to be sleeping outside under the stars.
The next day, we ascended 1200 metres in around three hours to the pass, and saw Frodo waiting for us with the car. He opened the boot to produce ice cold beer, a 2 litre bottle of cold coke and a huge box of momos (like mini pasties with meat, corn or cheese) and we ate ourselves silly. We had been dreaming of salad, and fruit, and talking about all the lovely food we’d eat when we got down again, for many days.
The only slight niggle on our minds was that we hadn’t seen our mule driver going up the valley to collect our duffels from Nacientes. As we drove down, we saw a one-eyed, grizzly looking mule driver with two dogs by the side of the road. Max recognised him as the uncle of our mule driver, and stopped to enquire as to what was going on. It turned out that our guy had declared himself unwell, and had decided not to get our bags. Eventually his uncle had decided he would go, but nobody had told us about the change (or Frodo, or Danilo) and now it would be touch and go whether we’d get the bags in time for my flight home. From a variety of earlier adventures, I have developed a fairly low opinion of mule drivers, on the whole. Nothing surprises me now.
On arrival in Mendoza, we went for salad and steak (which we’d been dreaming of for many days) and apart from an inability to stop eating (particularly on Max’s part) we felt great. Max immediately began planning the next expedition to Aconcagua, leaving just a few days later, and I caught up on some work. Our bags arrived in Mendoza the morning of my flight home, and when we got them, we realised the mule driver had been through all three duffels, helping himself to food and drink, and who knows what else! Thankfully after previous experiences I had suggested leaving one of our SPOT tracer devices in the duffel, so we had been able to track it all the way back down the mountain. If we’d done that last time we were abandoned by our mule drivers, it would have saved us a world of trouble!
And so here I am, sitting in the airport at Mendoza, waiting for my flight, writing as much as I can before the details disappear from my mind. Already the bad bits (Negro summit) are fading away – Max tells me that’s the sign of a good mountaineer.
So another adventure is over. A short one this time – only three weeks, but one of the more exciting, and enjoyable ones I think. I like climbing just in a pair more than anything with very little kit, and no faffing!
With these two summits, Max has completed all mountains over 6000 metres in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, and our sights turn now to the technical, snow-covered peaks of Peru.
Most of all, we laughed our way up into the mountains, from the creation of our dear friend Leicester (aka Wilson, who summited Negro!) to stargazing, talking endlessly about mountains, science, and plans for future climbs. And most importantly we came back down safely, so we can make those plans a reality.