Friday, July 16, 2010

Volcan Aucanquilcha, Region II, Chile

We found out about this big volcano from Corax's mate Martin Adserballe's adventure page ( and as we weren't too far away thought it would make a fun detour.
After cycling through the lakes region in southwest Bolivia we took the good new road from Villa Alota to Estacion Avaroa, and from there hopped over the border to Ollague in Chile. There we camped for a few nights, and left for the mountain on a morning where the temperature was -17C.
Until 1993 Aucanquilcha was home to the highest mine in the world - a huge sulphur mine at about 6,000m in which worked 1,000 or so Bolivians in apparently terrible conditions. As a result there is an old mine road up the mountain to the mine.
Setting out from Ollague it's a gentle 10km climb on an ok road to the near-abandoned mine settlement of Amincha (the old caretaker still lives there). 2.5kms past this, turn right at a junction and the real climb up the mountain begins, on a road that soon deteriorates.
Although we'd tried to leave everything we didn't think we'd need back in Ollague, with 3 days food and 12 litres of water each our luggage still weighed about 30kgs and soon we were struggling on the bad surface and steep slopes. For that afternoon and the following morning we occasionally cycled but mostly pushed up 13kms to 5,130m. Here the road became so bad that we thought we wouldn't even be able to cycle down it, so decided that it wasn't worth the trouble of taking our bikes any further. We were happy enough with getting the bikes this far though - over 5,000m for the first time.
We transferred our kit onto our backs and walked the 2kms to the old miners' camp where we put up our tent in some old walls at 5,290m - the highest we've ever camped.
As we were 1,600m above Ollague we thought we'd be in for a bitterly cold night, but when we set off at dawn the next morning it was only -7C, though there was a bit of wind around.

We followed the old switchback road to the cable car station at 5,875m, then spent a while confused as to the way to proceed. Aucanquilcha is a complex volcano with at least 4 significant tops, and to us the one to our right looked highest. We'd read on the internet that we had to head up left though, and managed to scramble up some steep scree to a rock wall at 6,000m. Here we again were able to turn left and follow a road for a while before climbing the final 100m up a not-too-steep scree ridge to the summit. Until we reached the summit 4 hours after setting off from camp we were worried that we weren't climbing the highest part of the mountain, but when we did make it to the top my GPS said 6,188m and all the other 'tops' looked lower, so we decided we must've taken the correct route after all!
The descent was fast - retracing our steps to the cable car station, then racing down a 600m scree gulley to camp. As we didn't fancy another night up so high we got back to the bikes and cycled down (with the odd bit of pushing on the really bad sections) to 4,150m before heading back to Ollague the next day in time to watch my Spanish boys win the mundial.

In Ollague we ran into Belgian Siegfried Verheijke, a friend of Martin Adserballe's and the man who jointly holds the Guinness world 'high altitude cycling' record with him (they took their bikes up to 7,008m on Muztagh Ata and managed to cycle the grand total of 8m!). He had the ambitious plan of attempting to cycle from Ollague to the mountain, summit with his bike and return - all in one day. We ran into him in Uyuni a few days later, and unfortunately strong headwinds foiled his was an interesting idea though.

Some GPS points
Junction - turn R21.20972 S68.36083 W4,000m
Left our bikes21.19366 S68.45550 W5,130m
Miners' camp21.20032 S68.46946 W5,290m
Between cable car station and rock wall21.21722 S68.46958 W5,990m
Path between rock wall and summit ridge21.21733 S68.46847 W6,036m
On summit ridge21.21903 S68.46819 W6,108m
Aucanquilcha Summit21.22090 S68.46840 W6,188m

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Volcan Licancabur - Potosi Region, Bolivia

Ever since we'd been to San Pedro de Atacama in 2002 we'd fancied climbing the perfect cone of Licancabur which dominates the skyline to the east. So after a week resting, we spent a day and a half cycling very slowly up from town to Laguna Blanca - a climb of over 2,000m. There we ended up staying 2 nights, as the day we planned to go to Licancabur base camp the weather was unsettled and all the locals assured us it would snow.

When it didn't, we set off early the following morning for the base camp, 11kms away. We had vague thoughts that if we could get there within 2 hours, we might try and climb the mountain that day as we were feeling good and were well acclimatized. When we stumbled into the Inca ruins that comprise base camp 7 hours later we decided it would probably be best to put off our climb til the morning.

The journey to base camp turned out to be the hardest part of climbing the mountain. Fierce headwinds and a sandy road meant that we were forced to push our bikes almost from the moment we left our refugio at Laguna Blanca. Three and a half hours and 7kms later we decided to dump the bikes behind some rocks by Laguna Verde, transfer our kit to our rucksacks and hike the rest of way. We were so tired from the pushing that the 4km walk took us 2 hours.

We were delighted to find that the Inca ruins provided perfect shelter for our tent from the wind, and we passed a comfortable night as the temperature only fell to -2C. This meant we didn't have any trouble getting up early the next morning, and set off as the sun came up at 07:00. As the mountain is climbed reasonably often (though for the 2 days we were there we saw no other sign of life - human, animal, bird or even insect) there is a decent path for most of the way to the summit, and we followed this up a sheltered gulley to around 5,200m.
Here the path climbed up to a rocky ridge - much easier to climb up than the scree in the gulley. But much windier as well. For the next 2 hours we struggled up the path into the strong wind. Frequently we had to stop to steady ourselves against the gusts, and a number of times the stronger gusts knocked us both to the floor. We wondered a few times whether we'd be able to get up the steeper part of the climb between 5,600m and 5,800m with this wind, but fortunately this section was more sheltered and provided no problems.

We made it to the top 4h45 after setting off - which was longer than we'd expected it to take, but Haz didn't have any problems with the altitude as she had on Cerro Plata. We didn't stay long on the summit (even though the views were good and it would have been interesting to go down to the frozen crater lake) because of the wind, and soon began our descent. This also took longer than expected as we didn't find the fast route down scree to camp (we went into the main gulley but it was full of big loose rocks that we didn't like being on at all) so ended up going back down the path in the wind, arriving at camp 8 hours after we'd set off.     

Some GPS points
Inca ruins basecamp22.83209 S67.85630 W4,701m
Licancabur Summit cairn22.83315 S67.88270 W5,938m

(As most of the way is on a clear path that starts by the ruins, I didn't keep any other waymarks.)