Unclimbed Mountains of the Andes

Having identified the mountains over 5000 metres in the Andes, and discovered a significant number of unclimbed peaks, it was time to set off to climb some of these. The team would be Max, Pedro, and me, with Pedro's Landrover Discovery, named Conway.  Pedro had just bought Conway (very second hand!) and had modified it to be able to handle the mountains, and he was a proud owner...

Max was climbing in Russia, so Pedro and I set off together, driving from Curitiba, Brazil, to the Andes mountains on the other side of the continent.  It took several days to complete this drive, and on the way we stopped in various places, such as a World Heritage site in the Guayra region, where the Jesuit Missionaries and the local people (Guaranies) lived side by side. The city was destroyed in the Paraguayan war in 1817, leaving the ruins we see today.

We crossed the beautiful Parana river. What you can’t see from the picture is the huge traffic jam, as two lorries had crashed on the bridge...

We survived a plague of locusts, saw some beautiful trees and carried on our journey through the desert landscape of Argentina. The trees make this weird white stuff that’s like soft lambs-wool.  Perfect insulation for a sleeping bag!

We arrived in the mountains on day four. We saw wild donkeys, condors and flamingos high up. The forecast was windy, and it was very cold. The next day we went up to a hut at 4000 metres. We wanted to cross the border but it was closed.  This would turn out to be par for the course.... We slept at 4000 meres and felt good, but with no prospect of the border opening any time soon, we had to head down to Fiambala. The forecast is minus 40 on the summit of the peaks we had planned to climb, with 100kph winds. 

We went up to a hut on the way to the Pass San Francisco (the border) and we slept at a hut there.  We couldn’t actually sleep in the hut because there were rats, but we cooked there and put our tent up outside.  It was cold, but not unbearable, and the altitude was 3000 metres, so we were gradually acclimatising.  In the night I heard wild donkeys braying, and the weather was calm and sunny.  A shout-out to Kai and Gina, for putting up with me searching for milk tea in Singapore!  This photo’s for you guys!

We stopped at a random, remote, empty hotel and filled up our water bottles.  I met some more friends!

We then went up to 4000 metres, again on the way to the San Francisco pass, and this time staying in a little hut.  When we got there it was filthy, with dead mice inside, but we cleaned it out and it was pretty comfy!

The forecast was bad though, and from our 4000m hut we couldn’t go any further as the San Francisco Pass was closed due to snow.  We were forced to turn round and head back down to Fiambala, a local town.  We decided to go for a mountain to the south of Fiambala, called Famatina.  The weather looked more favourable there, and we could climb the more sheltered east face.  Access was via a mining track with potholes to rival those of Berkhamsted!

Two hours later, we arrived at an abandoned mine encampment.  100 years earlier, they had mined gold in the mountains here.  We set up camp in an abandoned hut. We had a little reversing accident (first blood for Conway), which was happily fixed with some spare zip ties I was keeping to lock my duffle bags.  Sadly this was not to be the last of Conway's woes...

Our tent was inside the hut.  That night I felt terrible, even though we were only 300 metres higher than the previous night, with a headache and vomiting.  I spent the second half of the night in the car, sitting more upright helped my head.  On the plus side (although I didn’t see it at the time), I could see the stars, and the sunrise.

Our tent was inside the hut.  That night I felt terrible, even though we were only 300 metres higher than the previous night, with a headache and vomiting.  I spent the second half of the night in the car, sitting more upright helped my head.  On the plus side (although I didn’t see it at the time), I could see the stars, and the sunrise.

Well, as the day progressed I began to feel better.  I drank five litres of warm (boiled) water.  We had bought some food in FIambala and we cooked it traditional Argentinian barbecue style.  I went for some walks and scavenged all the wood I could find so we lit a fire.

All of our clothes and equipment stinks of smoke now, but we were warm for a few hours.  I even managed to eat my steak.  It was a treat!  Mum, Dad  and James won’t be surprised to hear that I brought back a huge log on my shoulders which proceeded to burn for 6 hours.  We were toasty that night in our hut (with the mice).

During the day some tourists had passed us who were interested in the old mineworks.  We invited them in (all ten of them) and they warmed themselves up by our fire and chatted (to Pedro, in Spanish…)  Their guide told us about some shipping containers accessible by road at 5000 metres, from which we could attempt the summit.  We decided to drive up there the following day to investigate.  Our visitors were very lovely and wished us luck and warmth as they left.

We got up, packed up, and headed up the mountain in the car.  The road was actually terrifying in a different way.  It was just a dirt track on the side of a very steep mountain, which wound upwards to 4900 metres.

When we got to the shipping containers containing a climate laboratory, we were shocked to find that although they had only been in place for less than a year, someone had set fire to them!  They were destroyed on the inside.  Apparently some people suspected they were being used by some prospective mining companies, and took matters into their own hands. So we had to put up our tent outside and shelter as best we could.

We went to bed early.  I was still feeling rough, but it was minus ten degrees and we couldn’t stay there for long.  We decided to head for the summit the following morning.

We got up at 4:30 am on 12th September.  All of the water in our tent was totally frozen, even that we had tried to protect with covers and in flasks.  We spent an hour melting water and I managed to eat two cookies for breakfast before feeling too sick for more.  We departed at around 6am from 4900 metres, for the top at 6100 metres.

The ascent was torturous.  I didn’t feel good and by the time we had got to 5500 metres I was exhausted.  I was slowing down the higher we got, while Pedro was feeling much stronger than I was.  There were many false summits, and my spirits were falling as we kept turning corners and seeing the mountain towering above us once more.

I told Pedro several times that I wasn’t sure I could keep going to the summit, but he was cheerful and encouraging and I kept going.  8 hours after we left, we made it to the top.  I was at the end of my strength, and with the wind the temperature was -40 degrees.  Our suncream was totally frozen solid, and at the top my lips were cracked and bleeding.

It took me many hours to get down again, and the total journey was nearly 12 hours.  I got changed at the car and we bundled in and drove back down the valley.  It was late, so we drove to a local town and got a hotel.  I spent a lovely 30 minutes in the shower warming up again.

Well, we set off on the morning of the 13th to drive back up into the mountains.  We wanted to spend some time at altitude on the way to Chile to pick up Max on 16th.  We got a few miles down the road, and Conway was clearly in trouble.  The engine cut out, and when we pulled over, lots of smoke was coming out of the engine.  It looked as though it had been so cold the previous night that our engine coolant (which had anti-freeze) had frozen.  Something had cracked and the coolant had escaped, leading to the engine overheating.  I was extremely grateful that this had happened when we were not up the mining track or we would have had a walk of many days to reach civilisation.

We drove slowly to a larger town, Chilecito (30km away) where there was a mechanic.  He said he could fix the car, and we waited in the town on the 14th and 15th.  On 16th September, we were ready to head out and drive to Chile to pick up Max in Copiapo.  Unfortunately we were just a few miles from the town when Conway broke down again. We hobbled back to Chilecito and were told we needed a replacement part, which they could only get delivered the following day.  As I write this, we are waiting for the part to arrive tomorrow, before hopefully heading out again.

One more spanner in the plan to get to Chile and pick up Max – his luggage has been lost and he’s been delayed a day…and the San Francisco Pass was closed due to bad weather again this lunchtime (16th).  Tomorrow we will get the spare part (fingers crossed), then find out whether the pass is open and we can get to Chile.  If it’s closed, we might have to make a large detour to cross the border.  We’re hoping to reunite with Max tomorrow though, wish us luck!

UPDATE: 8pm Argentinian time – just had an earthquake here!  Nothing too serious, no building damage or anything.  I am keeping an eye open, ready to run outside and get in the car (parked in the courtyard away from buildings) if a more serious tremor occurs.

Well, it’s been ten days since my last blog post.  There’s a good reason for that – I had nothing to say!  We felt few aftershocks from the big earthquake, but otherwise things have calmed down on that front.  We have been waiting for Conway the Landrover to be fixed after having frozen him on the last mountain.  It took a long time because Landrover parts are hard to come by in South America, but it’s finally done!  Pedro wrote an article about the science labs at 5000 metres on Famatina that we discovered had been burned, which was picked up by the national news and they want to interview him for the radio!

Many of you may know that patience has never been a strong point of mine.  In fact I have none, and sitting around here for ten days has been pretty tough.  Pedro has been barbequing huge lumps of steak every day, and I have discovered that the local shops sell delicious fresh avocados and tomatoes and sweetcorn.

One day I got so fed up with sitting around (with very limited wifi) that I decided to go for a walk around the city.

I climbed up to visit Jesus on top of the hill, and decided I could slip under and fence and climb to the top of the hill next door, but I had only gone a short distance when a policeman called out to be and told me to come down.  We couldn’t really communicate but I gather there was something about loose rock (my spanish isn’t much improved).  Thankfully he was friendly when he pointed to the sign I had ignored next to the fence I had slipped under….

On the way home I saw some grafitti painted on the side of a house.  Good to know Anglo-Argentinian relations are doing well...

Undeterred by my minor brush with the law, the following day I set out again.  This time I walked out of the town on the road.  It was a pretty boring walk through the desert landscape, but better than sitting around all day.  A few miles later, I could see a green oasis and headed in that direction, telling myself I’d turn around and head back when I got there.  It turned out to be the house of a famous citizen, Joaquin V. Gonzalez, from 100 years ago.  He had been a great scholar, judge, painter, writer, photographer, you name it, and I gather there’s a city named after him somewhere near Salta.  He had cultivated a farm, which has been maintained to this day, with primary crops of grapes and olives and I bought some beautiful fresh raisins from the farm (yes Steve, the grapes were wasted on raisins!)  I met a lovely lady called Carolina (we communicated in Spanish, which tells you I probably didn’t understand most of what she said) and she showed me around then left me to walk around the grounds.

It turns out that they even encourage you to climb the hills here!! I was so happy, I climbed them twice, once for fun, and it turns out you can get back to Chilecito over the hills (a sneaky shortcut) so I climbed up there again.  Here’s a picture of the shortcut – turns out I wasn’t far from the city at all as the crow flies! It was a great day, and just goes to show that adventure doesn’t come to those who spend their days chilling in the hotel…

I just wanted to add a note on siestas, which are driving me crazy!  All across Argentina, the shops open at 9am.  Then, at 12:30/1 o’clock, they inexplicably close.  For four hours.  Nothing at all gets done in the afternoon, as everyone goes home for a sleep.  Gradually, around 5pm, things begin to open again. Unbelievably frustrating when you need to buy supplies and you can’t find a single shop to sell you anything.  Even the local animals seem to take a siesta!

Ten days in Chilecito was definitely more than sufficient!  We’re happy to say that Conway is fixed, and we’re ready to head to the mountains again.  Max has joined us after a successful ascent of Elbrus in Russia, and we have planned a great route into the mountains.  We hope to leave this evening, travelling to 4000 metres to sleep tonight.  Wish us luck!

We left the hostel in Chilecito at 5am and drove straight to the roadworks.  We  got there well before 7am (when they conveniently close the road for 12 hours) and went over the pass.  Then it was off-road and we drove up to 4500 metres, passing some awesome ruins built in the 19th Century.

Unfortunately as the terrain was so rough, Conway got a puncture, right in the middle of the open desert with no protection from the wind.  It was totally freezing, but the boys changed the tyre in no time!

We then had a choice – go on with no spare tyre, tens of kilometres into the desert with no roads, or go back to the last town (a few hours back down) to try and get the puncture repaired so at least we would have one spare tyre.  We went down, but, of course, it was the middle of the siesta.  We asked around and some lovely local guys phoned up the mechanic (who was at home, asleep) and he came and fixed our tyre!  Then we were off again, but we had lost quite a bit of time so we made it to the ruins and slept there.  We made a fire in the hut, and put our tents up in there, so the mice wouldn’t nibble us in the night!

We left the hut the next morning and headed into the desert.  We drove for hours, before getting stuck in a snow drift.  We collected rocks and made a hard surface for the tyres, and I drove while Max and Pedro heaved the car out.  Note to selves, avoid snow…

We reached a beautiful lake, and Max’s keen eyes spotted some Incan ruins on the shore.  We already knew that Incas tend to build structures on the shores of, or overlooking, lakes.  These ruins have been discovered before – we were not the first people to take this route.  The water is filled with minerals, and totally undrinkable.

Well, onwards for us!  One more problem though…a muddy river crossing which had us all holding our collective breath, and then a security checkpoint.  It seems that the area containing our mountains is protected, despite a huge mine and an associated road going off into the mountains.  We were nervous because we thought it likely the people at the checkpoint would stop us and make us turn around.  We didn't stop at the checkpoint and just kept on driving straight up the road.  The officials didn’t appear to really notice or bother with us…perhaps because they knew we’d have to come back that way.

The road wasn’t great either, and we had some problems with deep snow, but after several attempts and some great driving from Pedro, we powered through:

Until we reached a huge patch of ice.  Seriously massive.  No going any further.  We were disappointed as there were a couple of mountains we really wanted to reach, but there was no way we could get there, so we set up camp in the road.  I fell over and smacked my face on the ice (typical), biting my lip which then made me look like I’d been in a bar fight. We were definitely the first people to reach this place since the previous March, so no fear of getting in anyone’s way with our campsite in the road.

The following day, we decided to climb a mountain a few km away from camp.  We had 8km of distance to travel to the top, and 1200m of altitude gain.  The mountain was 5225 m high, and it took me 6 hours to get to the top.  When I finally arrived, Max was asleep on the top!  He’d been waiting there for quite some time, and it was freezing up there!  Pedro took some nice photos when he arrived, and there were some Incan ruins on the top:

We headed down, and the following day decided that as we couldn’t go any further, it was time to face the authorities.  We had a plan – Max would do the talking, and, if necessary, I would cry.  We approached with some trepidation, having seen that they had followed us some distance up the road before turning back the previous day.  We crept through the checkpoint, looking behind us all the time, but nobody came out to chase us.

We managed to cross the muddy river again (thinking hmmmm, please don’t get stuck here and have to go and ask the authorities for help to get out!) and we were away, back to Chilecito, my favourite place.  Here’s a photo of the ‘main road’ back, part of the Dakar Rally route from a few years ago.

And that was our first mountain.  We thought it was unclimbed (apart from the Incan ruins on the top) but we later found a report suggesting that a mountain of that altitude (roughly) near the mine had been climbed before, so we aren’t counting that one.  Still, it was great for acclimatisation, and the adventure continues…

Well, we decided to attempt to cross the (now infamous) San Francisco Pass and head for Chile.  We had to cross the pass sometime in the next week to pick up the photographer who’s joining us for a couple of weeks (Caio) and we heard that the pass was finally open.  It has only been open for a few days since March, so we drove up there.  We stopped at the hut at 4000 metres where Pedro and I had stashed water a couple of weeks earlier, to find that someone had taken it.  That’s a pretty dangerous thing to do – thankfully we weren’t relying on it, but up in the high altitude desert, water can be a precious thing.

We carried on to the border.  Max has had some degree of trouble at this border in the past (well, he’s been arrested a few times), so we were understandably nervous.  Some of the border guys are ok, others appear to be looking to cause problems.  We hadn’t been given a piece of paper for the car when we crossed from Brazil into Argentina, which we needed, but thankfully (with a few hot exchanges of words which I couldn’t understand!) the border guys allowed us to cross.  We were lucky, they could have turned us away.

So, we were through the Argentinian border.  Now to reach the Chilean border.  It’s 120km away though!  We were supposed to drive straight through, but there’s a beautiful hut en route on the shores of a lake which had thermal springs, so we stopped for the night there.  It looks like paradise, but it’s absolutely freezing!  The lake is full of minerals which stop it from freezing over, and the wind is so fierce that waves lap the shore.

Well, it turns out that Max and Pedro have been there lots of times, and were wusses when it came to the hot springs.  The water wasn’t actually hot, but it’s all relative, so I donned my bikini and jumped in.  I didn’t linger too long, and getting out of the warm water back into the wind nearly gave me hypothermia!

Still, we had a lovely dinner there, eating all of our fresh food, before heading for the Chilean border the following day.  The guys there were really nice, although unfortunately we had to hand over all vegetables, fruit, cheese etc. But, we had made it over the border, and could now head for some of the most remote mountains in the Andes.  We had picked a route, and several mountains to attempt to reach…

The following morning we drove straight to the Chilean border, 70km from our hut.  We could see that they had had quite some snow over the preceding months, and the officials there confirmed that the San Francisco pass had been closed nearly every day for the last 6 months.  The Chilean officials were friendly, and our crossing was much easier, although they did find my lovely raisins from the farm near Chilecito and confiscated them :-(

From there, we headed off-road and into the desert, finding a beautiful waterfall on the way.

We passed high altitude lakes filled with minerals, complete with flamingos and even found some Incan ruins on the shores.  We were surrounded by the mountains we had spent months looking at on google earth.

More to come....