How to get on top of Ojos del Salado

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Natalja Zenina loves to travel. And the further she go, the more interesting it is. This time her way lay on the slopes of the volcano. So, here’s a South American adventure… and some French drama!

Text by Natalja Zenina
Photos: courtesy of Author

 

“The universe always helps us fight for our dreams,
no matter how foolish they may be.
Our dreams are our own, and only we can know
the effort required to keep them alive.”

― Paulo Coelho, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept

 

About the country of eternal ice in the south and people exhausting from the heat in the north, or how to get on top of Ojos del Salado. Travel notes of a scampish traveler.

It was my long-standing desire to visit South America, so I agreed almost immediately to my friends’ offer to go to Chile! This was my first trip to the other side of the ocean!
The plan was simple: make an attempt to climb to the top of the highest active volcano in the world, Ojos del Salado, and the edge of the eye to look at the ocean coast. The second point of the plan depended on the timing of the climb, because my trip was very limited in time – two weeks for everything.

You can talk about Chile endlessly, the country is unique in its own way! There is the driest desert in the world Atacama on its territory, and the legendary Patagonia’s in the south. Chile stretches for thousands of kilometers along the South American continent, and in width reaches only 177 km.

The Volcano Ojos Del Salado has a height of 6893 m and its name’s translated from the local sounds like “Salty Eyes”, it’s located close to the border between Chile and Argentina, in the heart of the Andes mountains. It has 38 craters and shows little activity – it smokes. Presumably, the last eruption occurred about 1000–1500 years ago, and it erupted a small column of ash in 1993.

Here are some words about all the preparation process. From the technical side climbing the volcano is not particularly difficult, so crampons and trekking poles were enough as equipment. But it was more difficult to choose the right clothes and boots. As the altitude of the volcano is high, I decided to take the “high-altitude kit” of clothes, but shoes was for climbing up to 6000 m.

Another significant feature of this trip was that we traveled only by car, which meant that I could take as many stuff as I wanted. Rather, as much as possible in the luggage compartment of the aircraft. There was no restriction on T-shirts, the number of pairs of sneakers and other equipment. A dream that came true!

Flight

My journey began in Paris. There was enough time between flights to get into the city, visit the Musée de l’Orangerie with the unforgettable water lilies of Claude Monet, take a walk along the Seine River embankments and finally look at Notre-Dame de Paris.

The flight to another continent was successful! The luggage reached the destination as well. Those readers, who follow stories about my trips, will agree that this is a great success!

The guys were already waiting for me at the airport. They arrived 10 days earlier than me and had a trekking in Patagonia.

The little thing left to do is meet up.

I found nobody when left the baggage claim territory behind. The situation became clear shortly. As usual, I was at one exit, but Ilya and Igor were waiting for me “on the red carpet” at another one. They threatened to take the first woman they met, but didn’t have enought time, because I was found.

Finally, all the participants are together in one point. A couple of hours at Santiago airport – and we are already flying to the Atacama desert capital, the city of Copiapo. It is located in a small oasis. We take a car right at the airport – it’s the only sort of vehicle to travel here! Throughout our trip it  never let us down and the mileage was huge!

We reach the city, quickly сheck-in at the hotel. The plan is to purchase products for the period of climbing the volcano.

Product variety at local supermarket looks like in motherland: the goods at first glance are almost the same – that’s what globalization means. But  of course there are those we don’t have. Blackberry jam without added sugar is highly recommend, yummy!

There is no water in desert so we also buy bottles of drinking water at the rate of 6 liters per day, for 4 people. It seems we didn’t gain anything, but the three carts turned out to be full.

 

Acclimatization

On the road again! We load our rather impressive luggage into the red Nissan and begin to move towards the Chilean border. The landscape is amazing, very unusual for the eyes, sandy hills scorched by the sun, and there are peaks covered with snow caps on the horizon, all are 6000 m and higher, many of them! Our destination for the first day – Rosa Lagoon – is at 3800 m height. This place is located in a national park, it is forbidden to swim in the lake, we didn’t have any  desire anyway. This place was named  not because of the color of the water, as you might think, but because of the pink flamingos, colonies of these birds live in huge numbers here.

We get to the lake, make our campsite and than make a short sightseeing tour. The weather is warm, but the wind helps to feel coolness. At night I went out of the tent and was delighted with what I saw in the sky !!! So many bright, never before unseen stars! Fantastic!

The next day we make a mini-climb to the nearest peak – Seven brothers, we make about 900 m in height, reach a kind of col. The climb is boring, the sun fries mercilessly, the wind blows out a bit above, the panorama around is monotonous with scorched salt flats only. Safely we go down, have lunch and move to a new place, the lagoon Verde 4300 m (Green lake), which will be our base camp for the time of climbing Ojos.

The new campsite in right next to the lake and the view is beautiful. The color of the water is azure, and there are mountains with snow-white peaks on the horizon. And it’s allowed to  swim this time. There are several mineral springs not far from the shore, two small baths are laid out at the place where springs flow from the stones. Lots of locals from the area come to this place to heal. I don’t know the chemical composition of the water, but  salt concentration is huge for sure. If you put your clothes into this lake, it will stand in the literal sense after drying.

In the morning we go to the acclimatization again, climb the slope of Mount Mulas Muertas, gain about a kilometer of height, see some nests, but they belongs to vicunas (one of the alpaca species), not to birds.

We return to the camp and hit the road after lunch again.

We move to the Atacama camp, 5260 m. On the road we pass a huge field of kalgosporas, the view is unforgettable, they are not high here, but their scale is impressive.

We set up a camp, which offers us a good view of the peak of Ojos del Salado. There are two container wagons in the parking lot, one for lifeguards, it is forbidden to stay in, the second is using as a kitchen for all climbers.

While everything is going according the plan, the next morning immediately after breakfast we make the ascent to the Tejos camp, 5800 m. The path is simple, the altitude gain is smooth, without sharp ascents and descents. Fortunately for us, there was no one in the trailer, which stands there instead of the hut, so we spend the night in it and went down to Atacama camp in the morning.

Acclimatization is completed successfully! We return to the Lagoon Verde and have a rest the whole next day. And without any patience for the longer rest the same evening we decide to go for an ascent!

 

The climb

By eight o’clock in the evening we arrive at Atacama camp, this time it is crowded. We found out that the trailer on the Tejos camp is busy, so there are no sleeping places, but we didn’t want to pitch a tent at 5800 m.

We decided to start from 5300.

We befan our climb at 10 in the evening, the sunset was amazing, the color of the sky was bewitchingly pink-purple. Slowly we went to 5800 m.  When we got to the hut and made a stop for four hours there to drink tea and have a nap on benches in the dining room.

There was a pack of coca leaves on the table.  The annotation contained info about how these leaves alleviates the symptoms of mountain sickness. We did not dare to conduct an experiment.

Closer to dawn we continued our way up, as it turns out later, from the wrong side of the mountain.

The route is simple and goes on the snowy slope, you just have to go and go and go. The main hindrances for the climb here are strong wind and frost, and a lack of acclimatization of course. With this calm tempo we approached the crater of the volcano – it’s huge! Then the first “surprise” occurred. One of the participants, Andrey, who briskly walked ahead of the whole team, suddenly stopped and said that he was sick and he urgently needed to go down… The rest of us did not even have chance to wonder how he disappeared around the bend. There are three of us left – me, Igor and Ilya.

The whole traverse along the crater to the couloir had to be traced, there was snow to the waist. When we got to the beginning of the couloir, there was less snow, but the wind blew out like in a wind tunnel, without ceasing. We passed it and went to the rocky exit with the bunch of ropes in various conditions on it. The terrain is simple, you can climb, but the height is big, and there is a place to fall.

Here is the top! Got it! Hurray!

The wind is blowing hard and it’s frosty! There was no particular desire to stand on top for a long time, we make a few photos for memory and go down.

When I went down to the beginning of the ascent to the couloir, I finally realized that I already saw all the way from the couloir to the top, a year ago, in one of my dreams. Pretty unusual feeling.

On the descent we went far to the left, but turned back on time.

We walked down slowly, for some reason all three “saw” some industrial zone, roads, buildings, down in the valley. But there are no any of these objects, all of them were just our mirages. Ilya goes ahead, Igor and I are left behind. I already clearly see the path, small pointers with arrows and finally make sure that we made the ascent from the wrong side. We went down to the Tejos camp safely, Andrey met us there, gave us delicious tea and went down. We also continued the descent after a short rest.

The road in the dark is always different against what we see and feel in daylight, it seems unfamiliar. Throughout our journey we saw signs, and stones along the road seemed to be birds instead.

Another gift was waiting for us in the end of our climb. The moon came up to the sky and a cloud appeared in the form of a bizarre inscription, it began to transform and transformed into an UFO, then into a giant hat and finally into an exquisite chandelier! I do not know if this was a hallucination, but both of us saw it.

Three hours later we dragged ourselves into the Atacama camp, I thought we would never get there. The only desire was to get into the tent and lie down, I didn’t feel like eating or drinking anymore.

We woke up in the morning, got all stuff together quickly and went down to Laguna Verde, where we had breakfast and took a bath in the warm springs. And were horrified to see each other’s faces!

They were red, badly burnt, exactly for cover it with something and not to frighten others, but the most unpleasant thing was that they hurted extremely hard. Anyway we went to the city of Copiapo not very upset about the situation with our faces. On the way we made a stop at a large salt lake,  where there was a layer of snow-white salt instead of water. Beautiful and unforgettable!

At town we checked-in a small, but very nice hotel, with a cozy courtyard more like a garden.

Free program

Since we completed the main part of the program in record time, we decided to take a ride to the border of Bolivia to visit another wonder of the world – El Tatio valley of geysers . All the cards are in our hands, cause we’re by car.

The first day of our Pan American Highway rally ended in Antofagasta, although initially the plan was different. The day was remembered by acquaintance with the Pacific coast and a gorgeous dinner in a small fish restaurant at the ocean shore. The freshest fish and seafood were just caught and therefore the taste of the prepared dishes was excellent!

Great surprise awaited us in the form of a fantastic statue “Desert Hand” just before the city. It rises like a mirage in the middle of a lifeless desert to a height of 11 meters. The author of this statue wanted to say how helpless people are in front of the power of sands…

The next day we continue our journey to the town of San Pedro, which is located on the border with Bolivia, where the route to the geyser valley begins.

When the city was about thirty kilometers away, we saw a unique place on Earth – Moon Valley! The landscape is really unearthly!

Endless mountains of sand, which occasionally alternate with layers of salt. Moonwalkers and Mars rovers were tested here before their flight to the distant planets of our galaxy. A very interesting fact is that the soil analysis of this valley is very similar to the soil sample from Mars! Enough of admiring the lunar landscape, we go to San Pedro.

The town itself is very peculiar. By decree of local self-government, it is forbidden to bridge its central street, but you cannot make noise and turn on the light after 11 p.m.! Many dogs still live there, each one has its own name and they have the status of “immunity” there.

It’s quite funny to walk along such streets: small houses, one- and two-storied adobe buildings, and expensive boutiques are hidden inside of them, brand stores of Patagonia and The North Face are located next to simple souvenir shops. The entire infrastructure of the city is tied to tourism, 99% of the inhabitants work in this buiseness sphere.

We came to San Pedro for lunch, the sun was mercilessly roasting. It should be noted that the price for accommodation here was more expensive than in other places we’ve stayed in. After dinner, when the sun was already climbing towards sunset, the street was fresh and good.

We had a 4:00 a.m. rise planned for tomorrow to catch the Valley of Geysers by the start of the show! Geysers, as local guidebooks wrote, are most active from 6 to 9 a.m. We had to overcome ninety kilometers from the city to the valley. We arrived long before dawn, it was very cold, the height of this plateau is 4300 m. Although the geysers began to slowly wake up there wasn’t much heat from them. After looking at them with the help of headlamps, we returned to the car, wait for dawn and warm up. With sunrise, the number of people wishing to see this wonder of the world grew exponentially. But the valley is huge, there are more than 80 geysers, so there was enough space for everyone! Having been and admiring this beauty, we headed back.

By the end of the same day, we returned to Copiapo.

There was a slight “glitch” in my head. It is winter at home, but it’s the end of summer at the same time: children are preparing for the new school year, all shops are full of signs “Soon to school.”

The next day was dedicated to the Ocean. We found a beautiful beach and took a swim! The temperature of the water was stingy on heat, like our Baltic Sea in the not warm summer, but an interesting fact  is that it wasn’t easy to approach the water, cause the sand on the beach was hot.

Our journey was close to its end. What a pity. The next day we were waiting for a flight to Santiago!

Santiago Charm

We checked into a small but comfortable hotel in the center of Santiago. The rooms were with their zest: rather shabby furniture in style of the 90s. The restaurant was located on the top floor of the hotel, there we were met by a well-trained waiter. It was immediately clear that he had been in the profession for a long time.

When I came to breakfast next morning, I was moved by the view of the waitress who served the guests – the exact opposite of yesterday’s waiter and a kind of stereotype of the aunt from the cartoon “Tom and Jerry”, in the same slippers and with a shuffling gait!

My friends left early in the morning, but my plane was at lunch. Immediately after breakfast I went into the city with the aim of sightseeing Santiago, but it was Monday, so the museums were closed. I didn’t find a row with souvenir shops and just walked along the main streets, through the squares, then went to Starbucks, enjoyed the excellent taste of coffee and returned to the hotel, where a taxi was waiting for me to take to the airport.

One rotten apple spoils the bunch or “machinations” of the fumaroles

My narrative is coming to an end. It seemed that nothing else could happen. I was checked-in for all  flights, the transition time in Paris – 7 hours, everything should be on time. But an unexpected turn of events happened anyway…

A plane from Santiago safely landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. There was nothing easier than to get to the right terminal and calmly wait for the next flight there, but I have chosen a different tactic. I stayed at the original terminal and spent five hours ther.

I started to move towards the desired terminal when there were two hours left before my departure. I managed to make so many useless movements in this rather short period of time that if someone undertook to count them, I would surely fall into the Guinness Book of Records for my stupidity.

I was able to defer the queue for inspection to another terminal that wasn’t mine, then I was sent to the bus, got on the wrong one, it took me to the opposite part of the airport, then I got to my terminal on the right bus, passed control, left the transit corridor and defended queue for inspection again. When I ran into the right gate, registration was ended for five minutes already, the plane treacherously stood outside the window, but they didn’t let me in…

The employee politely shrugged his hands at my cries. There were tears, anger, resentment and horror in my eyes. I had to buy a new ticket finally. There was the last quest to find my duffel bag. According to the rules of air transportation, if the passenger does not fly, his baggage is removed from the aircraft. I stumbled to the baggage claim, but it was not there.

I’m there, not sure what to do, and  suddenly noticed an airport employee carrying my bag with a confused view. I rush to him, waving a paper receipt for baggage claim, he was glad to give the bag to me.

Overnight at the airport next to the homeless people – and I am in the forefront to register my flight in the morning. Hurray! I’m sitting on an airplane. Bye, Paris!

See you again, Chili!

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