Saturday, January 29, 2011

Nacimiento (6,478m) - Provincia de Catamarca, Argentina

We'd seen this large volcano often on our walk in to El Arenal, and then again from the summits of Viento, Ojos, Medusa and Walter Penck, and as it was the last high mountain in the vicinity we had our hearts set on climbing it before walking back out to the road. From the other summits the mountain had always stood out, as it is a far darker colour than all its surroundings.

Our Andes guide, and all maps we'd seen had the northeast summit of the crater marked as the highest point, however we'd seen on Google Earth that the northwest summit, 1.2kms away was probably a few metres higher, so we decided that we should probably climb both just to be sure.

We found an excellent campsite near a penitentes field at 5,400m and set off at 09:30 the next morning after waiting for the wind to die down. The climb up a wide, shallow gulley which had the odd penitente field in it was pleasant, and as the gradient wasn't steep we found it easy enough despite this being the fifth 6,000er we were climbing in nine days.

At about 6,300m we came to the base of the northeast summit mound, where the going got steeper, and it took about half an hour to make our way up this (4 hours in total from camp) to the northeast summit. This measured 6,469m on my GPS (which was about 30m more than we were expecting, so not sure if my GPS was having an off day) and here we found a cairn and some testimonios. We didn't stay long though as it was windy.

We descended the ridge to a low point at 6,350m, then climbed up to the northwest summit, taking about 45 mins from summit to summit. This was steeper than getting to the northeast summit, but was still simple enough with trekking poles. This summit measured 6,478m on my GPS, so was the true summit, as Google Earth had said. I think it is far less often climbed than the northeast summit though as there was only a small cairn with two testimonios, from 1999 and 2003, under it. We left our own scribblings in the vitamin tube there, before descending in 2 hours to camp.

Some GPS points
Basecamp27.25459 S68.49768 W5,408m
Nacimiento NE Summit27.28055 S68.51316 W6,469m
Nacimiento NW Summit27.28098 S68.52445 W6,478m

Cazadero / Walter Penck (6,684m) - Provincia de Catamarca, Argentina

This was our favourite mountain on our trip to the Puna. Seldom climbed despite the fact it is the 9th highest in the Andes it has a fascinating summit - a jumble of rocky pinnacles which look like some post-apocalyptic scene.

It was a nice 2 hour stroll from El Arenal to get to our basecamp at 5,700m on the northeast side of the mountain. Most of the climbing was done right at the beginning as we went up a small valley, then there is a 2-3km long plateau to cross to get to the base of a canaleta with a small stream in it next to which we pitched our tent.

In the morning we followed this canaleta up to a penitente field by a red coloured little lake at 5,980m, then headed a bit to the right on easy ground to make it to the large canaleta that comes down from between Cazadero's two highest peaks. We followed this, past a few penitentes fields but walking all on sand/rocks until we were near the shoulder between the main summit and the secondary hump to the SE. Here we turned right/NW up steep boulder slopes towards the summit. Most of the rocks/boulders are firmly in place, but a few are loose so we had to watch where we were treading.

When we made it to the summit area we spent a little while confused as to where the actual top was. Rocky pinnacles everywhere and it seemed like it might take a while to work out which was the highest. Fortunately, from the first one that Neil climbed up it was obvious which the highest was, so we were able to scramble up there and leave an old credit card in the plastic bag of testimonios.

There were views of Nacimiento to the south, Tres Cruces to the west, Ojos to the north and Incahuasi to the northeast, as well as of Pissis to the southwest and all the beautiful couloured lakes near it. We'd felt good on the climb and it took 4 1/2 hours to climb the 1,000 vertical metres from our basecamp to the summit. The descent was also nice and quick and in less than 2 hours we were packing up our tent and returning to the 'lowlands' at El Arenal.

Some GPS points
El Arenal south basecamp27.15916 S68.50412 W 5,496m
Cazadero/Walter Penck high camp27.17818 S68.53392 W 5,693m
Near red lake27.18518 S68.53726 W 5,983m
In canaleta27.18821 S68.54209 W 6,134m
Cazadero/Walter Penck Summit27.19626 S68.56070 W6,684m

Cerro Medusa (6,144m) - Provincia de Catamarca, Argentina

This mountain is normally climbed as an acclimatization peak for Ojos del Salado which is only a few kilometres away to the west. We however climbed Volcan del Viento before Ojos, then stayed in the area and climbed Medusa after summitting Ojos.

It turned out to be the easiest 6,000er we have ever climbed from basecamp to summit, and indeed it must be one of the easiest in the world in that respect. Getting to basecamp at El Arenal is a bit of effort though, so all in all San Francisco at 6,018m just to the north is probably easier as you can can drive straight to the base of the mountain on the paved road that goes from Fiambala to Paso San Francisco.

From our basecamp behind a big boulder at El Arenal we climbed up the easy south ridge which goes directly to the summit. The climb is not sandy or on loose rock for the most part, meaning that there are very few sections where you are taking a step forward and then slipping back.

At the top there is a small crater with a tiny crater lake, and a cairn marking the summit. There are excellent views of Ojos and Muerto which are both very close, as well as of Incahuasi to the northeast. The climb took 2 hours, and the descent just over an hour, so even though we didn't begin climbing until after 09:00, we were back in time for lunch.

Some GPS points
El Arenal basecamp27.14957 S68.49919 W5,513m
Medusa Summit27.12713 S68.48467 W6,144m

Ojos del Salado (6,892m) - Provincia de Catamarca, Argentina

This is the highest volcano in the world, the highest mountain in Chile and the second highest mountain in South America. Before starting our trip it was one we thought we'd like to climb, and finally after 16 months out here we were in the right area in the right season to attempt it.

After meeting Lisandro from Rosario, and Arkaitz from Spain at Aguas Calientes a few days earlier we decided to team up and climb the mountain together. From El Arenal we followed the stream heading straight for the mountain and climbed for an hour or so up a valley. This was an ok route to go, though on the way out we walked down the ridge immediately to the south of the valley, and this would be a better and easier way to walk in.

After the valley opened up we came across a path, and we followed this past a few penitentes fields to a good high camp at the junction of two streams at 5,750m. We were planning on camping higher, but this was a good spot and as we were well acclimatized we didn't think we'd have any trouble climbing the remaining 1,150m the following day.

In the morning we set off at 05:00 and climbed for a few hours up the steep boulder slopes above camp. There was so little snow around that we could stay on rocks and sand and didn't have to put on our crampons to go up the snow fields. At about 6,400m we reached the bowl that contains the world's highest lake, and rounded this to the right. Heading directly from here to the summit looked too steep, so we traversed left under a large snow field, before climbing steeply again towards the summit.

At 6,800m we came across the remnants of a crashed helicopter on a small flat area (to add to the one we saw on Cerro Plata - when will these pilots learn?!) before climbing steeply again to the summit. The weather was perfect with no wind at all, so we stayed an hour, savouring being higher than we'd ever been before. There were big volcanoes in all directions, but all of them far far below.

Ojos has two summits only about 100m horizontally apart, but with a 40m vertical drop in between. We were on the eastern/Argentinian summit and resisted the temptation to climb to the western/Chilean summit even though at the time we were up there we thought it was a few cms higher. The day before our climb Jonathan and Chan, two students from the University of Alaska, had taken up a GPS capable of measuring altitudes extremely accurately and had told us that the climb down to the western summit was a bit 'sketchy'.

(When, a few months later, the numbers had been crunched the results showed that actually the eastern summit is 31cm higher, with an error of just 2cms. Both summits are 6,892m. For measuring the altitudes it's obvious which is the highest rock on the western summit, but the eastern summit is a jumble of loose rocks. The pair told us they placed the GPS on the highest rock which seemed to be attached to the mountain to get the reading on the eastern summit.)

As a result we didn't bother climbing down then up to the western summit, and after taking plenty of photos of the sweeping views we headed down. On the climb we'd moved far slower than we are used to as we were in a four, and near the top we were travelling at a snail's pace, arriving at the top 7 hours after leaving camp. The descent was much quicker though, and in 2 hours we were in our tent and had passed out.

On our return to Fiambala we thought about getting a bus to Mendoza then heading to try and climb Aconcagua, South America's highest peak. This is only about 60m higher than Ojos and as we're so well acclimatized we were pretty sure that as long as the weather was ok we would be able to make it to the summit. In the end however we decided against it for 2 reasons.

The first is cost. All mountains in Argentina are free to climb, except Aconcagua for which you need a permit. This year prices have doubled and in high season a permit for foreigners is 500GBP per person. We'd have to wait until mid February when this falls to 200GBP per person to be able to afford it.

The second is the number of people on the peak. The 15 mountains we've climbed this trip we've only had to share with 6 people with whom we weren't actually climbing - 4 on Lanin and 2 on Parinacota - and we quite like it this way. On Aconcagua we'd be guaranteed to see a lot lot more as there are probably 1,000 people on the mountain in the busy season. At the moment we don't fancy going and joining the long line of people to the top, though it's such a beautiful area around there that maybe we'll change out minds...

Some GPS points
El Arenal basecamp27.14957 S68.49919 W5,513m
Enter valley27.14813 S68.50222 W5,522m
Ojos high camp27.13218 S68.51915 W5,748m
Ojos del Salado eastern summit27.10982 S68.54157 W6,905m*

* This was the altitude my GPS gave me, but the correct altitude (of both the eastern summit we climbed, and the western summit more usually climbed from Chile) is 6,892m.

Volcan del Viento (6,028m) - Provincia de Catamarca, Argentina

We climbed this in a morning from a camp near Portezuelo Laguna Negra. This camp was closer to the summit of Viento as the crow flies than a camp at El Arenal would be, but wasn't really the best place to climb it from as it meant we had to cross over a number of valleys before finally being able to head up to the summit crater. It therefore took us 2h45 to climb, despite the summit being only 500m vertically above our camp.

The summit is on the eastern side of the crater, and it was suitably windy for the last 50m. This was the steepest part of the climb, and we had to go on all-fours for a bit when the big gusts hit. At the top there is a cairn with testimonios underneath (though not many as it is only infrequently climbed), and good views of Cazadero/Walter Penck and Nacimiento which are the closest two big mountains. We took a better route on the descent, staying high to avoid the valleys, though it still took 1h45 to make it back to camp.

Some GPS points
Our basecamp27.15941 S68.47213 W5,541m
Volcan del Viento Summit27.19119 S68.47418 W6,028m

Cazadero Grande to El Arenal loop - Catamarca, Argentina - January 2011

We did this high altitude trek in Catamarca to get to El Arenal which we used as a base to climb a few mountains. It'd be a nice 6-7 day loop to hike anyway even if you don't want to go climbing, and you can find water every day unlike in many places on the Puna. There are loads of high peaks in the area and plenty of weird and wonderfully couloured lakes - black, turquoise, dark blue, crimson. There are many vicuñas on the lower part of this circuit, but for the few days spent above 5,000m you are unlikely to see any signs of life at all.

We caught a lift in a 4x4 from Fiambala to the refugio at Cazadero Grande (on the main, paved highway), then the camioneta went off road and drove us 10kms to a partly derelict and very basic refugio at Quemadito. There is water here in the Rio Nacimiento, and we stayed the night.

The following day was a long one, even though we had mules to carry our bags, as we walked up river towards Aguas Calientes (4,200m). After 8kms we passed a small waterfall, and 7kms further on we turned up the Aguas Calientes valley, and away from the Rio Nacimiento, at Las Juntas. 6kms up this valley, near the source of the slightly warm spring at Aguas Calientes there is a sheltered cave and some places to camp out of the wind.

Next day we walked 15kms to Agua de Vicuña (4,950m). At first we wandered up some shallow quebradas that it'd be possible to go the wrong way in and waste a bit of time, but after this we were walking up a very gentle gradient on a wide open plain, heading just to the right of Volcan del Viento. Luckily there was little wind around or this wouldn't be much fun as there'd be lots of sand in the air. At Agua de Vicuña there was a small penitente field up a valley to the north, so we were able to get water before camping behind a boulder and stone wall that previous hikers had built.

The third day of our walk in was a short one - continuing up the valley and over the Portezuelo Laguna Negra (5,570m), from where we had views of the small, dark lake, just to the north of the pass, and also our first sighting of Ojos del Salado and Medusa. Our basecamp at El Arenal (5,500m) was about 4kms further on from the pass, in the direction of Ojos. To get there you have to cross over a few small ridges, so there is a bit of climbing and descending to do. El Arenal makes a good base from which to climb Medusa and Volcan del Viento, and is also a good place from which to set out to make higher camps on Ojos and Cazadero/Walter Penck.

After climbing some of the peaks in the area, we walked out by following the valley that runs between Volcan del Viento and Olmedo (the volcano on the southern flanks of Cazadero). It took a day (12kms) to get to a camp (5,400m) on the east side of Nacimiento. (You have to head west over a small ridge when you reach the flat pass south of Viento and Olmedo to get to the valley near Nacimiento. If you stick to the main valley this heads back down to Aguas Calientes.) Then it was a further day to walk the 14kms back to the Rio Nacimiento and then 9kms following this to get back down to Las Juntas. From here to the road was nearly 30kms, and was a long day with heavy packs.

Some GPS points
Cazadero Grande Refugio27.42016 S68.13098 W3,462m
Quemadito27.37242 S68.22502 W3,650m
Las Juntas (go R for Aguas Calientes)27.34508 S68.34022 W3,954m
Aguas Calientes27.30501 S68.35151 W4,196m
Enter Quebrada27.28029 S68.36634 W4,268m
Take quebrada on R27.27002 S68.37889 W4,331m
Go L, straight at V. del Viento 27.25560 S68.38281 W4,388m
Climb up ridge to R, onto plain27.24955 S68.38825 W4,481m
Leave plain, enter quebrada27.22489 S68.41347 W4,664m
Agua de Vicuña27.19793 S68.43022 W4,944m
Portezuelo Laguna Negra27.16523 S68.46047 W5,572m
Good sheltered camp spot27.15941 S68.47213 W5,541m
El Arenal camp27.14957 S68.49919 W5,513m
Flat pass (head R over ridge towards Nacimiento)27.22066 S68.48526 W5,331m
Join Rio Nacimiento27.30758 S68.41042 W4,349m

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Laguna Blanca (6,008m) - Provincia de Catamarca, Argentina

This is the second lowest 6,000er in the Andes, and lies just east of the road from Antofagasta de la Sierra to Belen. Like on Nevado Queva, we had little information about the mountain (just a GPS co-ordinate for the top) when we turned up in the nearest village, El Peñon. There it took a while to find anyone who knew about the mountain as it's not visable from anywhere near the village, but eventually we found a friendly guy who told us his brother had 'sufrido mucho', but managed to climb it a few years before.

He gave us an idea of where we needed to leave the main road, and which valley to head for, so we loaded up the bikes with 14 litres of water each and set off.

We pushed the bikes 1.5kms off the road towards the mountain on a sandy track that we couldn't cycle and as it was getting late decided to stop there to camp. The following morning we left the bikes behind a small bush - the best cover we could find on the sloping, featureless plain - and headed off uphill. We took 6 litres water each as we weren't convinced there'd be water higher up (we couldn't see any snow), but were relieved to be able to dump it when, after a few hours, we came across and began following a small stream. We stayed by this until 4,700m at which point it began heading away from our summit co-ordinate, so we decided to begin climbing more steeply up a small side valley, and found a good spot to camp at 4,850m.

The following day was Christmas Day and we set off at first light, climbing reasonably steeply for a few hours up to a ridge at 5,600m. Here we realised our mistake in leaving the main valley so early - it curved round soon after we'd left it and headed straight to the base of the summit mound. We ended up having to descend over 100m to this before beginning the 400m climb up scree and small rocks to the summit.

This was simple enough, but working out which was actually the highest of three undefined summits was slightly harder. My GPS point taken from Google Earth suggested the central one we climbed straight to was highest, but it certainly didn't look highest when we were on it, so we headed to a point a few hundred metres to the north which had a small cairn on top. My GPS said this was 1m lower, however. There was also another mound about half a kilometer to the south which looked about the same height, so just to be safe we wandered there too, only to find it was 10m lower. Despite being lower, it had a small wall to shelter from the wind behind so we stayed a few minutes and each opened a sole Christmas present!

For the first summit in a while the weather wasn't great and clouds meant we had few views to the west, and none at all to the east, which was disappointing. Even if we had've had views I think this would've been one of the least interesting mountains we've climbed this trip, and the cloud cover meant that it definitely was.

It took all afternoon to decend to our high camp and then down to the stream, and all the following morning to get back to our bikes. From here we continued south to Belen, and didn't get any views of the mountain when we passed near it again on the road as it remained completely covered in cloud. In fact, though we stood on its summit we never really once had a view of this mountain at all!

Some GPS points
Turned off paved road26.54947 S67.24422 W3,554m
First water in quebrada26.54766 S67.14638 W4,290m
In valley26.56193 S67.11732 W4,702m
Follow valley to here26.53880 S67.07209 W5,615m
Laguna Blanca Central summit26.53392 S67.06110 W6,008m
Laguna Blanca North summit26.52995 S67.05939 W6,007m
Laguna Blanca South summit26.54250 S67.06238 W5,995m

Here's a link to the page we've written on SummitPost about Cerro Laguna Blanca.

Nevado Queva (6,155m) - Provincia de Salta, Argentina

We first saw Nevado Queva (or Quevar as the locals all seem to pronounce it) when crossing the Paso Sico from San Antonio de los Cobres to San Pedro de Atacama back in June 2010. From Olacapato it had looked like a simple enough climb, and as we'd decided to take the road over the Abra del Gallo from near La Polvorilla viaduct to Salar de Pocitos, which meant we'd be near the mountain again, we thought it'd be a shame to pass up a second opportunity to climb it.

Arriving in Santa Rosa de los Pastos Grandes we were glad to find a couple of (very) basic shops for supplies, and also Dante Vega - a local man who'd climbed the mountain a few times and was able to give us directions. We were even happier to find that there was a small 4x4 track heading off towards the mountain, so we were able to cycle/push up that for 7kms until it ended at 4,180m. There we camped and, leaving our bikes, set off in the morning with backpacks.

It was over 3 months since we last trekked, and we could really feel it. Our legs are nice and strong, but we have no upper body strength at all, so lugging even a relatively light 15kg pack was hard enough. Fortunately the route followed a valley (populated by lots of lovely donkeys), so we were alongside a stream until 4,850m. This meant we only had to carry water for half an hour or so from the source of the stream to our base camp at 5,030m.

The weather was good with little wind, and when we set off at first light in the morning it was only -5C. The climb to the summit was straightforward - directly up the SE ridge, which was rarely steep. This took just under 4 hours, and around 10:00 we were standing on the 6,155m west summit. Views of all the salars in the area (Pocitos, Rincon, Cauchari et al) were excellent, and just below us in the summit crater there were a few Inca ruins. Only walls are left of these, but I've been told that mummies and other artefacts were discovered there.

We descended via the lower south summit (6,135m) which is only a few minutes walk from the main top, and there found the summit register. We were only the ninth entry in it since the turn of the century (though I'm sure there have been more ascents than this by people who haven't bothered climbing the lower summit and those who didn't bring a pen with them, but nonetheless a nice quiet mountain to climb).

It took us the rest of the day to get back to our bikes, where we made camp again before heading off to the Abra de Quiron and Salar de Pocitos the following day.

All in all a nice, accessible 6,000er and we really enjoyed our 2 days on the mountain.

Some GPS points
Junction just E of Sta Rosa - turn N up track24.46330 S66.67082 W3,932m
End of track24.40921 S66.67273 W4,181m
Cascade24.37095 S66.69227 W4,535m
Source of stream24.34746 S66.70223 W4,848m
Base Camp24.33726 S66.70728 W5,034m
Nev. Queva summit24.30830 S66.73253 W6,155m

Here's a link to the page we've written on SummitPost about Nevado Queva.