Ojos del Salado (6896m) – Highest point of Chile

Ojos del Salado is the highest peak in Chile and the same time the highest volcano in the world. It is also the 2nd highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere,
only 60 meters short of famous Aconcagua.

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During last week I have reached beyond a level of exhaustion I thought would exist:

Together with Simon Schwaer I hiked 155 kilometers through the “Atacama“, the driest desert in the world. 8 days without shade, without seeing a single living being – only gravel, ice & always that fierce wind – the remotest I have ever been. From 43.7 °C @ 400m in Córdoba to a good -25 °C @ 6896m only a week later. If I had known what I would have to go through, I most probably would not have done it.

Only a handful of people have ever done this climb entirely unsupported.
On January 13th we made it to the top of Ojos del Salado, without the help of mules, porters or a guide and hence are proud as Schnitzel!!

“FloMasterHastaElCulo” & Simon a.k.a. “The Animal” visibly tattered on the roof of Chile

Preamble

During the ascent I had brutal headaches and nose bleeding like never before in my life. At summit night I suffered fever attacks and got hallucinations in the tent. When we reached for the summit I then also lost coordination and the ability to think rationally. Even simple articulation turned into painful effort. I vomited and at some point partially lost sight with my left eye. I caught minor frostbite and now, weeks later, I still have three numb toes and can’t feel a thing in my pinkies.

I was well aware of the risks of such a quick ascent without giving our bodies sufficient time to acclimatize and recognized the above mentioned symptoms as indication for a cerebral edema.
I also admit that we acted negligent in one way or another which could have resulted in more serious troubles.
But we were careful, handled quickly and took the right actions. We never lost control of the situation, always stayed focused, were trained and in supreme physical condition.
In case of an emergency we carried first-aid supplies and had the knowledge how to use it.
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Yes, I should have stopped after the first symptoms appeared and definitely should not have continued after they got worse.
But after taking into account the effort of 8 barbarous days of 12-hour hiking in merciless wind & sun between four and seven kilometers in altitude with 35 kg on your back,  the decision to give up is everything but easy to make. Especially once you made it so close to the summit that you can see, feel and smell it. The option of going all the way back, reorganize and go through all this again then isn’t really an option any more…

I would certainly not have made it to the top without the help & support of my friend Simon -a.k.a. “The Animal”.

Was it worth it? – Hell yeah!

Preparation – Córdoba to Fiambalá

After my unsuccessful attempt from the Chilean side a couple of months earlier I spend X-mas and New Year’s in Córdoba trying to organize the climb from the Argentinian side. Here I meet up again with Simon, a young German lumberjack I met months earlier climbing in Peru, and we leave Córdoba (400m) on the 6th of January without really having any idea what to expect. We’re backpackers, living from one day into the next and plans are made to get changed anyway. It’s a big mountain yes, but non-technical, only a hike – a hard one though – but why not just go, see and give it a try?
We stop for the night in La Rioja and continue the next day early morning to Fiambalá where we meet up with “Jonson” in the afternoon.

odels01 Jonson Reynoso (andestravesias@hotmail.com)
is the man to talk to about all aspects regarding Ojos d el Saldo and all other mountains in the region. He is a true legend and has helped us a lot organizing everything from transport & route planing to gear sourcing.

Left: Mission accomplished.
Simon, Jonson & Zigeiner happy!

You find him in his little office at the main square in Fiambalá and he can provide you with tons of information, maps, GPS (data), tent, stove, plastic boots, long-axes, crampons and even clothes. Please bring him a flag of yr home country/region as a gift!

Jonson’s service is free and he even offers me to use his computer to track the route with GoogelEarth. But since we cannot find a single working printer in the whole village we draft our own map. At midnight we finish preparation with a last pizza meal.

Still we haven’t actually really thought about the whole mission. In the end everything just happens too quickly, but what the heck… it’s more fun like this…

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Fiambalá, a small village of about 4000 residents, is the closest settlement to Ojos del Salado:

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Click Ojos del Salado, Chile (859) to download the GPS placemarks for GoogleEarth.

Click here for: Ojos Weather Forecast

Day 1: Warm Up

Fiambalá (1560m) to Cazadero Grande (3500m) to Quemadito (3700m);
10km; 3 hours 30 mins;

A taxi drops us off at the trail head almost 2000 meters higher than last night’s berth – a hundred and fifty kilometers away from the nearest civilization – and it doesn’t take very long until we realize we are in the Atacama, the driest desert in the world… and there won’t be any protection from wind or sun for the next 10 days…

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Lunch break

Day 2:  The Wind

Quemadito (3700m) to Chorro (3825m) to Aguas Calientes (4210m); 7km + 11km;
12 hours 20 mins;

The constant head wind makes the day at least 4 hours longer. Not even for lunch break or rest stops can we escape the wind – no protection, nowhere – it is no fun!

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The further we hike “into the wild” the more I dislike the fact that we’re trying to climb one of the highest and remotest mountains in the world without a GPS, nor a SPOT or a satellite phone, only with a camping tent and a draft of a map!

When we pitch the tent which we’ve borrowed from Jonson we discover that the fly doesn’t fit the poles… the awning covers the body but the door zip cannot be closed.

Day 3: The Sand

Aguas Calientes (4200m) to Aguas Vicunas (4950m); 16km; 11 hours;

By digging my trekking poles deep into the sandy gravel I work my way forward like a crawler with 4 legs. At 6 o’clock in the afternoon my altimeter still shows 24 °C @ an altitude of almost 5000 meters. When the sun goes down, the temperature drops to freezing level in a couple of minutes.

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No water can be found along today’s leg and when we arrive after 11 long and gruelling hours at our third overnight stop Aguas Vicunas we can’t find the expected water source. The snow has melted already and we have to search for another two full hours until we finally reach a little patch of penitentes about 300 meters higher up the mountain.

Day 4: Getting High

Aguas Vicunas (4950m) to Arenal (5550m); 7km; 9 hours;

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Camp 3 Aguas Vicunas No, I don’t get paid to do this…

I don’t think I have slept more than an hour total this night. I feel sick and when I try to get up blood rinses like a river out of my nose. It is the first time in my life that I have nose bleeding (without an “obvious” reason:-).

Simon has spent four out of his last six months in Bolivia above 3000 meters and hence is well better acclimatised. He prepares breakfast, takes most of the communal gear and we go on.

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Back at the patch of left-over glacier we stop for about an hour to refill water. With a cup I dig into the sand underneath the ice and wait for the sediment to sink to the bottom of the cup so that I can skim the water from the top.

It’s also time to roundhouse kick some evil penitentes:

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Hours later we see the summit for the first time!

By mid afternoon we reach a sparce stone wall mounted to a few small boulders, presumably Arenal, but continue to a reportedly better protected camping spot further on. We waste two hours searching and head back. At 8 o’clock we’re dead-tired in bed…

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Simon posing in between penitentes Overnight camp Arenal

Day 5: The Fun Day

Arenal (5550m) to Campo Alto (6000m); 8.5km; 6 hours 15 mins;

Today we hike up to 5600 meters and back down to 5300 meters, then up again, down, up, down, jump left & right across a glacier stream and climb back up to High Camp at just over 6000 meters.

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The way to High Camp Zigeiner exploring

It is a hard day, but relatively easy. We can focus on a target: Ojos is right in front of us and serves as motivation.

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Volcanic rocks & minerals in different colours High Camp

The altitude above 5300 meters is called extreme altitude because no living being or organism survives in perpetuity.
I make one step at a time, each step is a torture, so painfully slow, one full breath in and one full breath out and the icy wind instantly freezes the snot dripping out of my nose…

But I don’t care, I turn around and see what we have accomplished: WOW!

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At the same time I can’t get rid off the uneasy feeling that, if something goes wrong it will at least be a hectic three-day long hike out, a few more days to organize help and another five days to come back! Pretty certain it would result in fatal troubles.

Day 6: Summit Attack

Campo Alto (6000m) to Summit (6896m) to Campo Alto (6000m); 6km; 12 hours 33 mins;

What a night! I feel horrible, can’t sleep, see imaginary people in my tent and have fever. We were supposed to leave at two in the morning but due to heavy winds we decide to wait.

Deep inside I am happy about the bad weather. My condition is alarmingly bad and the headache is killing me… but now I have an excuse: It’s the weather’s fault and there’s nothing we can do about it. If it stays like this we must go down and it is not my/our failure. I pop two paracetamols to fight the fever. Simon seems to do fine.

The alarm rings again an hour later but nothing has changed. I take two more tablets.

At four o’clock Simon starts cooking a porridge soup, we slowly get dressed and I make the decision to give it a try. I will fight until I vomit, so that I wouldn’t accuse myself later of not having tried everybloodything.
Moreover, Simon is ready to climb – with or without me. He is strong like a bull but he lacks experience. There’s no way I could hold him back and I would never forgive myself if something happens to him. He offers to carry the summit pack including all gear.

We step into the wind at half past four while my altimeter shows -14.7 °C.

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Our route to the summit – background image © GoogleEarth

The next hours are insane. Step by step we zig-zag up the loose gravel in the dark. We cover 300 meters in hight and when we top out of the first steep slope the mountain reveals its most brutal side:  gale-force winds accompanied by a mix of sand and ice from the glacier above. Ahead of us lies an open gully of approximately one kilometer in length which forms a perfect wind tunnel.

This is the coldest thing I have ever experienced and after a couple of hundred meters into the battle I notice that I can’t move my fingers any more. I don’t feel pain, I don’t feel them at all and they are stiff as wood!
I tell Simon but he doesn’t respond. He is too busy dealing with the cold himself. We don’t know what to do or how to get out of this situation. We start to panic.

In the distance we discover a large boulder and push for it. The very moment we reach the wind shelter the sun rises. Wisely I have packed an emergency bivvy blanket under which we crouch together. I take off both pairs of gloves and stare at my bare fingers. I can neither move nor feel any of them and they are white. Bone-white and I am scared. I dig them deep beneath six layers of clothes under my armpits and start to shiver uncontrollably.
Simon wants to turn around but I don’t care, I just don’t wanna lose my fingers.
We sit there for the next two hours, protected from the wind and slowly getting heated up by the sun which shines straight into our faces.

After a while the sensation creeps back into my finger tips and I don’t know from what I cry more: pain or happiness! I am sure if we had started an hour earlier and hence would not have had the sun come up at the right moment, it would have ended differently for some of our limbs.

By now the temperature has risen by almost 20 degrees and it seems like the wind is getting weaker, too. What da f*ck… we go on!

Another two hours later we reach a small glacier which we traverse but then have troubles getting higher in the loose gravel on the other side. I convince Simon that it would be easier to climb the glacier and we go back onto the ice.

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I am so weak that I can’t tie up my crampons. They hang lose under my boots and I ascend another maybe 50 meters more crawling than walking. It takes for ages. Ultimately I am “game over” and decide to give up. I am so exhausted that I don’t even bother any more. What a relief!
I shout over to Simon who is already higher up about a hundred meters to the left on the edge of the glacier field that I would cross over fully to the right side where I see a small rock and rest. He could try for the summit, I will wait.

He points to a bigger boulder about 100 meters higher up at the top of the snow field and adds: “There we will be better protected from the wind. There we rest.”

I accept without reasoning. [Today I still ask myself "why"?]

I continue another 3 steps and throw up. Simon doesn’t see it [and eventually is only going to find out when he reads this report - he would have never let me continue]. But I see that he is struggling too, that he isn’t indestructible either. I climb on.

Smashed, wrecked, destroyed, dead…

From the boulder we can see the summit for the first time. Now it is close, really close. Maybe another 200 meters in hight, less then 2 hours.

We tank as much sugar as we can, rest for half an hour and make “history”!

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13 January 2010 – 13:20 o’clock – We spend 20 minutes on the roof of Chile.

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When we stumble back into High Camp late afternoon we are too cold and way too exhausted to pack up. With only two hours of sunshine left, we would never make it down to a lower camp and to pitch tent in time. Against every rule of high altitude mountaineering we have no other choice but to sleep again at the same altitude.

In the tent I notice that I can’t see much with my left eye. I have no idea if Simon understands a word of what I was trying to say…
I can’t remember much of that night.

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“Gipfelbrotzeit”

Day 7: 3 Days in 1

Campo Alto (6000m) to Arenal (5550m) to Aguas Vicunas (4950m) to Aguas Calientes (4200m); 31.5km; 14 hours 15 mins;

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During the night it starts snowing and we pack up still in the dark. Desperately we need to get down, away from the cold and the altitude. Again, we hike all day in constant wind in between changing snowfall and sunshine.

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Back at the 5000 meter mark we now have -3 degrees compared to the +24 °C a couple of days earlier.

When we turn around we watch thick dark clouds covering the white hills around us. It really doesn’t look appealing up there.

Perfect timing – we congratulate each other with a fat smile and are lucky that we got the f*ck out in time…

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A dead horse from an earlier expedition years ago. Nothing decomposes at this altitude. The wind will eventually grind it back to sand…

Day 8: Another 30km

Aguas Calientes (4200m) to Chorro (3825m) to Quemadito (3700m) to Cazadero Grande (3500m); 30km; 13 hours 10 mins;

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What a spectacular place on earth!

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One more day… the last day, but I can’t escape from paying the bill. I collected some nice peripheral edemas (swelling of tissue due to accumulation of fluids) in face, hands and particularly in my feet. The result is that I can hardly fit them into my boots and some pretty impressive blisters develop.

And “Animal”? I believe he’s cheating! He’s hiked the whole way in plastic boots, not even his own ones, and… nothing!! He doesn’t even hobble…

After 8 days without seeing another living being we encounter this few-days old llama baby which lost his momy and found us instead…

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We reach the road by nightfall. Today we have eaten everything we had left, a muesli bar each for breakfast over 13 hours ago. We are ready for some serious pizza & coke. Unfortunately not tonight…

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We wait next to the road until midnight but not a single car passes by In the nearby emergency shelter we find a packet of pasta and use our very last water to cook

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1 2 3 4… 5!

I take off my boots and it would take until day one of my Aconcagua climb 13 days later until I put shoes back on…

Day 9: Without Food & Water

Cazadero Grande (3500m) to Fiambalá (1560m); 24 hours waiting;

At 6 early morning we are back watching the road:

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The goal of the game is to throw stones in between the middle lines.
We invent a new game every 2 hours…

Up the thumbs, we jump, we dance, sing, beg and lie in the middle of the road,
150 kilometers away from the next civilization without food nor water.

Quite a few cars pass by, roughly a car every hour, mostly the new big-style pick-up trucks with tinted windows crossing the border from Chile.
But nobody would f*ckin’ stop.
Not even one single driver slows down so that we could ask to send a taxi from Fiambalá to pick us up.

That is criminal!
Failure to render assistance!
Absconding!

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What do two dirty, smelly blond Europeans with climbing gear in the middle of a bloody desert look like?!
Fur sure we’ve come all the way out here to rob your car!

I am close to throwing rocks at the f*ckers! 25 (!) hours we wait until finally, an Argentinian couple from BsAs gives us a ride back to Fiambalá.

Epilogue

The ability to acclimatise has nothing to do with age, gender or physical condition – it is genetic.
I have climbed in altitude with dozens of different climbers from all over the world in the past months and it was usually me, that handled the symptoms best. Never have I had any serious troubles acclimatising. This time we ascended far to quickly and I am pretty sure a not yet fully cured cold from the week before in Cordoba didn’t help either.
But anyway, there is a no doubt that this Simon-dude is a cross-breed between Sherpa and donkey… *cheers* buddy!

Our elevation profile:

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Altimeter stats:

Date Time Altitude (Meters) Place Notes
08.01.2010 11:04am 3450 Cazadreo Grande Start hiking
08.01.2010 15:08pm 3660 Quemadito Overnight Camp 1
09.01.2010 09:00am 3660 Quemadito Departure
09.01.2010 11:45am 3825 Chorro Lunch break
09.01.2010 21:20pm 4210 Aguas Calientes Overnight Camp 2
10.01.2010 07:35am 4210 Aguas Calientes Departure
10.01.2010 18:29pm 4955 Aguas Vicunas Overnight Camp 3
11.01.2010 09:47am 4955 Aguas Vicunas Departure
11.01.2010 10:25am 5220 Penitentes (AV) 40 mins water stop
11.01.2010 18:41pm 5552 Arenal Overnight Camp 4
12.01.2010 09:07am 5552 Arenal Departure
12.01.2010 15:21pm 6005 High Camp Overnight Camp 5
13.01.2010 04:33am 6005 High Camp Start summit attempt
13.01.2010 06:45am 6365 Stone shelter 2h warming-up break
13.01.2010 13:20pm 6896 Summit Ojos del Salado Arrival
13.01.2010 13:41pm 6896 Summit Ojos del Salado Departure
13.01.2010 13:45pm 6863 Stone pile 25 mins summit Brotzeit
13.01.2010 15:28pm 6365 Stone shelter 30 mins afternoon nap
13.01.2010 17:06pm 6005 High Camp Overnight Camp 6
14.01.2010 06:21pm 6005 High Camp Departure
14.01.2010 11:01am 5552 Arenal 40 mins breakfast break
14.01.2010 14:24pm 4955 Aguas Vicunas 20 mins lunch break
14.01.2010 20:37pm 4210 Aguas Calientes Overnight Camp 7
15.01.2010 07:34am 4210 Aguas Calientes Departure
15.01.2010 20:45pm 3450 Cazadero Grande Overnight Camp 8
16.01.2010 22:02pm 1510 Fiambala Back @ Jonson’s office

To see all pictures click:

January 18, 2010  Tags: , , , ,   Posted in: Argentina, Argentina 2010, Chile Views: 12019

Leave a Comment

 


3 Responses

  1. Alex Chalkley - June 5, 2014

    Hi,
    I am climbing Ojos Del Salado in a few years time to try and raise £22,615 for two UK charities. I would really appreciate getting a little bit of info from you regarding your route etc. Please email me. I really like your website and gives me added incentive to get things organised with my trip. Thank you.

  2. Junel Solis - August 4, 2013

    Thank you for this post. The info and images are very informative. I’m going to climb Ojos del Salado in a few months, and I was wondering if you would mind me asking you a few questions about logistics. Please e-mail me back.

  3. Reeeeegiiiinaaaaa - January 21, 2010

    Whoop! Saucool! Respekt Alter ;-) Freut mich, dass es doch noch geklappt hat mitm Ojos… Is ja echt ne geile Aussicht von da oben, könnt ma glatt neidisch werden. Aber net obe foin vom Berg!