Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Marching to Rasguido - the Lunar Landscape

This is part 17 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

DAY 17 – Thursday 21 January 2010

I slept OK though it seemed like I was awake a lot. People started stirring at 7:20. I got up and took a walk down to where the canyon narrows and the stream goes from a lazy wide meandering flow to a cascade. I was looking for places to cross the stream without wading, and I found one (for future reference on the way back out). Back at camp at 8AM I got a quick bowl of oatmeal and then packed and got ready for the day’s hike.

We left at 8:30, first wading the stream, then hiked about 8km cross barren desolate country (see photo up top) that evoked the surface of the moon or mars.  We were headed toward the NE to a subsidiary peak or spur of “Morro Rasguido”, a funny name that translates as ‘scratching’. The peak is over 5500 meters high, the spur was 5120m, or by my altimeter about 16,500 feet -- a 3000 foot climb from base camp. In the photo above, our destination spur to its right, just above the trekkers and the shadows of the rock formation:

We got there about 1PM,

had lunch on the way down, where we had a nice view of our ultimate destination: Ojos del Salado.  Here I've got everybody pointing to it.

Then it was time for the grueling trek back. Here’s the valley that we are calling home for another night, and Thom wading the soothingly mild waters of the stream.

I got back to camp at 3:30, spent some extra time wading around in the stream because it felt so soothing on my feet and legs, then joined the gang for tea and popcorn. Then I washed some socks and a pair of underwear, using my day pack for a wash basin--it was water tight enough to work really well. Finally at 4:35 I retired to my tent and caught up on my journal and just rested for a bit.

As dinner time approached, around 6PM, the weather was turning unusually stormy. Yesterday we had late afternoon storms in the high peaks after east winds all day. I thought that was the culmination of an unusually stormy frontal passage. But today we had thunder and lightning (a lot!) and rain fell at our 13,500 foot camp, enough to wet the ground and chase everybody into their tents. It rained lightly for two hours.

Dinner was a disaster for me anyway because they served a cut of beef that wasn’t that tender, fried on the cook stove and not at all cooked on the inside. I ate none. But I had some ham and cheese instead plus Ovaltine and milk. When the clouds began to clear at sunset we could see that the peak we had climbed has snow on it. And Ojos, which had snow yesterday, probably got a lot more. Bad luck.

I was chilled to the bone for some reason, probably mainly because I had a calorie deficit after the long hike. I spent stretches of time in my sleeping bag through the evening and then basically stayed there after about 8PM. I was finally thoroughly warm by 8:30 and shed extra layers and caught up on my journal and then returned to bed at 8:45PM.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Trekking across remote NW Argentina

This is part 16 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

Our destination today - this campsite beside a mildly geothermal stream called Aguas Calientes

Day 16 – Wednesday 20 January 2010

I slept well, though slow to go to sleep at first. I got up at 6:55 to find a nearly overcast morning with a temperature of 47 degrees--yesterday PM and evening had been quite stormy with showers in the hills and mountains. Clearly a strong (for the season) front came through up from the south with a steady south wind this morning.

I caught up on my journal then just rested for a few minutes. Everybody started stirring around 7:30--they made oatmeal and, of course, tea for breakfast. Then we began tearing down camp. After finishing with my tent and bags, I helped some others. Then we sat around and relaxed and waited for the transport to arrive.

Camp at Cazadero Grande, tearing down and packing up, getting ready to head out

The driver arrived about 10:30 and drove the first four people and lots of luggage up to the entrance to the canyon out of which the river flows. I waited with the other three for the next pick up when the truck got back, about 11:15 or so. We were all delivered to the mouth of the canyon by 11:40. From there we'll have three days of trekking, mule supported, to our base camp.

The mules and two arieros on horseback driving them were waiting there. They were to load up the mules and catch up with us, so we headed off around noon.

We stopped at 1PM for lunch and about every hour after that. The valley was stark and picturesque. I took a few photos along the way. Here is a small, normally inconspicuous (if not downright camouflaged) plant with a spectacular flower.

Here is a significant waterfall on the stream, but we barely stopped to look.

And finally, here is a zoom shot of some dark faced guanacos retreating up a slope.

Some plants had pretty stout defenses against guanaco munching.  Note the yellow flowers.

There was never any sign of the mules catching up. We got to the vicinity of our campsite around 6PM--a place called Aguas Calientes--and sat in the shelter of some rocks while waiting. About 45 minutes later we got sight of the mules and moved on to our actual campsite where we had to wade the stream knee deep to get to the grassy area.

We set up camp and had a good supper of ravioli, asparagus soup, tea, and a little chocolate cake. We cleaned up and I went to my tent and caught up on journaling while a few of the ‘die hards’ stood around outside until there was virtually no light--after 9:20 (which is when I finished my writing and got ready for bed). Everybody was in bed by 9:30.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Long trek to a short hill, NW Argentina

This is part 15 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

The territory we covered today was from the patch of green in front of the salt flat far off in the valley, up the hill in the foreground, and all the way back again.  It was a long, grueling day.

Day 15 – Tuesday 19 January 2010

I fell asleep OK and slept well enough. I got up at 6:30 and went out and relieved myself and found that it was 33 degrees with a light steady breeze from the north. I went back to bed for a bit and rested until camp activity began to stir at 7:15. I caught up on my hand-written journal and then went out as the sun hit the camp at 7:25. I had some tea and oatmeal (porridge as these Brits call it) and bread with marmalade for breakfast then got my daypack packed for today’s big (too big) hike.

We were all ready and left about 8:45. The hike consisted of 8km across flat land to 12,000 feet elevation then an ascent of a local hill/peak to 14,500 feet then descent and the grueling 8km (as the crow flies) back to camp. I pushed myself pretty hard and kept up with Damian, our Peruvian assistant guide, on the way up, trying to simulate an even higher altitude and get a hard workout today.

Looking WNW to higher peaks from today's summit.  Shown are Peruvian guide Damian and strong climber Thom.  Thom has been to well over 7000 meters in the Himalayas and has some frostbitten toes to show for it.

We were at the summit at 2:30--after hard six hours. Then I kept myself in ‘forced march’ mode on the way back. Our whole group got back together at 5:50PM. Lead guide John Biggar had returned to camp with John Starbuck, who had decided to return while still crossing the plain, so John Biggar had dinner well under way when we arrived. We ate in intermittent courses as they were cooked, finishing before 7:30, during which I got some misc. chores done as well.

I retired to my tent at 7:30 and caught up on my journal then just rested, feeling so worn out from the day’s trek and wanting to try to recover for another 20km trek to our next camp tomorrow. I also changed socks and underwear and ate a whole package of lemon cookies--surprised at the level of appetite I had after a pretty complete dinner. I got out of the tent one last time at dusk to go to the bathroom and soon everybody was in bed--around 9PM.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Hiking Cazadero Grande, NW Argentina

This is part 14 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

After setting up our first campsite we headed off on our first acclimatization hike.  This is Cazadero Grande - translation: huge hunting ground.  We saw rheas and guanacos today, but I didn't get any photos of them.

Day 14 – Monday 18 January 2010

I got up at 7AM as the light was getting strong--still before the sun had come up above the mountains. It was a good night's sleep. I took a shower and shaved to 7:30 then did all my final packing to 8AM then joined the gang for breakfast in the lobby--bread with butter and jam. We sat and ate and chatted for a bit then headed back to our rooms for final packing, in preparation for leaving around 10AM. I caught up on my journal one last time, then packed the laptop for storage in the hotel while we’re up in the hills for the next 13 days or so.

John Starbuck, foreground and our guide John Biggar

We stored our excess luggage in a low quality guest room without outside windows that backed up to the lobby. We were going to be transported in two two-seater pickup trucks. One was there on time, the other arrived about 10:30--four passengers in each truck and the back of each full of our luggage and the supplies and food. The transportation was arranged by our local support person Johnson Reynoso, who also arranged the mule transportation for the trek.  Here he is waiting for the second truck to arrive.

The drive up was enjoyable. As we got close to Cazadero Grande we were in the wide flood plain of a robust stream, so there were lots of grasses and wildlife. We saw a half dozen ostrich-like rheas and a herd of guanacos plus cows, sheep, mules.

We got to the Cazadero Grande refugio #3 at about 12:30 and moved to a stream-side campsite about a kilometer from the road. Photo of it headlines this post.

We set up our tents using rocks instead of stakes. I was paired with Thom, a retired dentist tonight and probably tomorrow night. We set up our tent right beside the stream, which serenaded us with a pleasant gentle babble all night.

We had a lunch of a good cheese with ‘holes’ like swiss but more orange-yellow, tomato and salty proscuitto-like sliced ham. Most people, of course, made sandwiches of these things but I just ate the inward ingredients separately. We also had potato chips.

John said that the water from the bold stream was good to drink untreated, and his word was true. I filled my water bottles with it, and we then headed off on a training hike, climbing a hill about 5km to the northeast that was 1300 feet above the camp site elevation--close to 13,000 feet on top.  In this shot our campsite is situated in the flatland roughly right behind the cairn.

Everybody made the summit without problems. It was calm and hot when we started but got very windy by the time we reached the summit. I felt basically as if I was at sea level--none of the usual signs of altitude, so my acclimatization has helped at this early stage, for what it’s worth. It's a dry, rugged, windy place, but there is vegetation.  Here's a one foot high ancient shrub--a natural Bonsai.

We got back about 4:30 and had tea--I had a quart of Ovaltine then everybody did their own thing, until the 6:30 dinner cooking time. I set up my sleeping bag and stuff in the tent then got out my note pad and caught up with my journal. That took until 5:55, with the wind still whipping, though not as bad as up on San Francisco Pass 4000 feet higher. Then I rested in the warm sunlit tent until 6:25, then joined the gang as the dinner was being prepared. It was 65 degrees outside and pretty miserably windy. Because of the wind, the meal was slow to cook. We ate about 7:30. The beef stew was excellent, though the meat was pretty chewy. We had some wine that Brian brought and some tea and other dessert type items. Here’s Brian (right) serving his wine to Phinella, Thom, and Barry (r. to left):

When the sun set at 8:05 (behind the mountains) it got cold fast. As things in front of the guides’ tent wound down I went into my tent to get out of the ever more chilly wind at 8:45. I got in my sleeping bag and added to my journal then turned out the headlamp and rested. Thom came in around 9PM and we went to bed.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Hot Springs at Fiambala, NW Argentina

This is part 13 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

 Left to right: Thom, me, Barry, Brian (standing), and our leader, John Biggar.

Day 13 – Sunday 17 January 2010

I fell asleep quickly and slept really well right through until it was well lit outside--7:30AM. I got up and did some arranging of stuff and finding stuff then started hand washing some of my mountain clothes that were smelly. I set them hanging to dry on roof beams that were exposed to the eastern sun and wind. These beams are for a newly built roof that covers the formerly open courtyard of the hotel. Several of the other guys had been to this hotel before and said the courtyard was full of greenery and birds singing, etc. But that same space, now under roof, has been paved over with concrete. Whatever is planned for it, it is still a work in progress.

The other seven in our group had breakfast in the hotel lobby which doubles as a small dining area. I joined them for the end of breakfast and sat and chatted and visited. It turns out that only one of them, Phinella, was going to see nearby sand dunes, so I decided not to go either. I returned to my room and did most of the organizing and packing for the actual expedition--the camping part--that will begin tomorrow. Before then I have to decide what to leave behind in storage in the hotel. That was done at about 10AM--quicker than I expected. Then I went out to try to find another bottle of water, but all the stores and shops seemed to be closed, being that it is Sunday. I returned to the room and got on the laptop and caught up on my journal while John took a shower.

We all assembled in the lobby at 1PM and went over to a nearby shop for a nice full lunch. They didn’t have sandwiches because of lack of fresh bread, or so they said. As a result, most of us ordered full entrée type meals. I had a nice seared flattened chicken breast with French fries. Then I bought a big new 2 liter bottle of water at a nearby gas station and returned to my room briefly, then waited in the lobby where everybody who was going to the Fiambala Thermal Springs assembled. We ordered a big taxi or van and eventually got a two seat-pickup truck, so John Biggar and I sat in the back on the way up.

Lower pool, very mild, good view of the valley to the east in which the town of Fiambala sits.

The thermal spring area is a nice little resort a half hour drive up the side of the mountains to the east. The pool area was really nice--well maintained with terrace after terrace of pools of different temperatures all the way up to the top one, which was supposedly 45°C.

Middle pools.
Five upper pools, each a degree different, all pretty hot

I tried many of them, and got John to take my photo soaking in the top one.

We then had a beer and chat in the dining room and hiked around. I went off on my own and hiked up beyond the source of the spring and back down. The water coming out of jumbled rounded granite boulders at the source was almost too hot to touch--probably around 55 degrees Celsius.

Overview of the resort, looking upstream to the source spring
Overview of the resort from the hillside above the source spring

I climbed a little peak below the springs, which was a good viewpoint of the approach road and the wide valley beyond.

Then we gathered and waited at the parking lot until 6:10 when the taxi driver returned to pick us up.

On the road between Fiambala and the springs.  The town is nestled among the green, irrigated croplands.

After the drive home I retired to my room where John, who hadn’t gone with us because he is uncomfortable with the heat, was resting. We had a long, almost continuous conversation, which covered lots of topics and took us right up to the 8:30 designated dinner time. We all walked over to the Pizza Roma restaurant again and had a nice but very filling meal that included big appetizers of two kinds, two bottles of wine, salad and a big entrée--I had ravioli. After dinner those who like coffee went for that and my roommate John and I returned to the hotel. Bedtime was 11PM.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Expedition travel day - Catamarca to Fiambala, Argentina

This is part 12 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

Day 12 – Saturday 16 January 2010

I fell asleep quickly and slept very well, waking up and getting up just before sunrise, at 6:35. With Brian’s agreement I opened up the window and the exterior aluminum sun shades and let the cool summer breezes blow in and watched the sun rise on the mountains to the west. I ate a banana that Brian bought and got on the internet and checked local weather and Facebook and caught up on my journal while just relaxing and killing time. Brian went out to find breakfast and came back to say that everybody had gathered in the restaurant downstairs. I went down and joined them and met everybody and chatted, then at 8:40 or so I went back over to the church, determined to get a photo of the interior. There was a Saturday mass in progress, with the big altar backdrop lit up.

I took an exterior photo from the square and then wandered around the square with the summer bird song amid the collection of big interesting tropical trees that grow there. I returned to my room around 9AM and got on the internet and posted these last photos. I may not have internet access again until I get back here.

I did last preparations for the 10AM departure for Fiambala. The van arrived at the front door on time and we loaded on our luggage and left almost on time. The roads were so good and the ride so smooth that I had a hard time staying awake through the 5 hour drive. Around Catamarca we were in an interesting chaparral area where there were cactus trees as high as the other small scrubby trees in the canopy. Most of the land was not used for agriculture or any other apparent purpose.

Tree sized prickly pear cacti, roadside west of Catamarca

It got progressively drier as we got higher in elevation and further west. We stopped about mid-way for a quick snack at a gas station with some tables in the building and rest rooms that were cleaner and more spacious than almost any such place in the US. We got to Fiambala about 3PM during the heat of the day and checked into the Hosteria Municipal--basically the only public accommodations in the town. It’s pretty nice given the size and remoteness of the town.

We settled in our rooms then found a nice little hole-in-the-wall restaurant with basically two things on the menu right on the town central square: they had pizza and one kind of sandwich. We ordered 3 different pizzas and all were very good: one featured Roquefort cheese, one was vegetarian with tomatoes and onions, and one had sliced ham. Following the pizza and beer we all returned to our rooms and napped. I was paired with an interesting experienced climber named John Starbuck for tonight and tomorrow. He's been to Antarctica among many other places - lots of stories.

We both napped, and I slept a lot and very soundly until it was time for our orientation meeting in the lobby at 7PM. That took about an hour, covering the usual kind of stuff, then we killed a little time and wandered over to the Pizza Roma restaurant for dinner. Besides pizza they have a good menu of dinner entrees as well. I got just a large salad but also a huge 1.25 liter bottle of 7-up and we all shared a bottle of wine. We walked back from the restaurant and went to our rooms, arriving at about 10:30. John went straight to bed and I got out my laptop and caught up on my journal. I took a quick shower and cleaned up the floor--shower is not separate from the rest of the small bathroom space. Then I went to bed at 11:30PM.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Travel day - Buenos Aires to Catamarca Argentina

This is part 11 of a 31-part posting of my journal entries and photos from one of the greatest experiences of my life so far--a month-long mountain climbing trip to the Atacama Desert area of northern Chile and Argentina, which included summiting three 6000 meter peaks (~20,000 feet).  To view all the entries in this series, check the posts labeled South America.

Statue of South American liberator José de San Martin, central town square, Catamarca, Argentina

Day 11 – Friday 15 January 2010

I did fall asleep for a few minutes, then I had the brilliant idea to line up four of the nicely padded chairs that happened to be the chosen furniture here--not contoured but flat, not plastic but wooden with vinyl covered foam rubber padding. So I slept on those for an hour or more, though I didn’t seem to get any more sleep.

Nobody bothered me. In fact a security officer was constantly pacing back and forth right past me and the workers at the restaurant whose chairs and tables these belong to were going about their business behind their counter right across from me in plain view.

I sat up again at 2AM, feeling somewhat refreshed and even energized. I tried getting on the internet again using the same key and password, just to see how it would respond (I expected to be directed to buy more time). But instead it let me in and let me browse for essentially two more hours. It returned me to the ‘password or pay’ page at 3:55AM after I had already browsed just about everything I wanted to. One of the first things I did was research vicuñas and guanacos and found out definitively that the animals I saw grazing at Rio Lama are guanacos.

At 4AM I just closed my eyes and got a few power winks that seemed to help. The airport was getting quite busy by the time I stirred again at 4:45. People were even beginning to sit in the area around me, and most of the seats in the area around the restaurant (serving pastries and the like) were already filled. I semi-dozed some more until 5:15 when I was surprised to hear the first sound of an airplane taking off since I had sat down here late last night.

I didn’t have any compelling reason to be on the internet any more so at 5:20 I shut down the laptop and headed for new venues. I ended up sitting at a nice spot with a view of the ocean on the second floor of the airport terminal. I sat there until around 7:30 when the sun came above the trees and started hitting me. Then I checked my bags for the coming flight and wandered around. I went outside and across the street to the oceanfront walk way:

The ocean was very muddy due to lots of rain bringing silt down the big river that empties into the sea just to the north of the city.

Back inside I went through security and found several more shops to visit and check out. Finding nothing of interest I lay down on some out-of-the-way seats and rested and got a little sleep. It became a tedious wait, though, because the terminal was over air-conditioned and I was getting cold. To me it’s just such a shame to waste my time in beautiful summertime conditions shivering in air conditioning. I’ve railed about this before and probably always will.

Finally we boarded and I found I had an exit seat and that the airplane was barely half full.  Had another nice view of sprawling downtown Buenos Aires as we ascended:

After getting up higher there were clouds along the flight path, so I actually got quite a bit of sleep on the flight. When we got to the tiny Catamarca airport, I met Brian Jones, oil industry worker from Scotland who had been working in Angola. He had been on the plane with me. We were met by the expedition leader John Biggar, who was bigger than I thought (based in an internet picture).

We took the 20 minute taxi ride to the hotel in the downtown of this provincial capital of the poorest province in the country—still considerably more affluent than most of Bolivia. We moved our bags into the room that Brian and I will share tonight, and then went out to a café on the town square for a beer and a light lunch. We got to know each other a bit, and I had a nice ham and cheese sandwich. Then we returned to the hotel and John had to go off on a long taxi ride to pick up the other members of the expedition at a further away airport (Tucuman). Brian and I napped then went out about 5:30 and walked the square where there was a stature of South American liberator Jose de San Martin …

Me at the base of the San Martin statue

… and then we walked the long pedestrian-only street that extends from there for about 10 blocks south. It was unusual to me that there were no street vendors. In Bolivia every spare inch of sidewalk on downtown streets is occupied by vendors. On the way back Brian and I split up and I went into a Pharmacy and, with help, found bandaids--they kept them in a drawer behind the counter. I then wandered back toward the hotel while Brian went grocery shopping for juice (he doesn’t like to drink just water).

I toured the square area some more and visited the huge, always-open cathedral on the town square. It’s just such an impressive different scene from street life--clearly a really important part of virtually everyone’s reality here. The place is gigantic, really ornate, well cared for and loved, and much used. There were a dozen or more people in pews kneeling and praying. It was dim in there and I felt too intimidated to take any pictures of all the beautiful icons and stained glass windows. It somehow felt as if I would be defiling the place and disrespecting the people there praying earnestly.

I got back to the room about ten minutes before Brian did. I ate the last of my Oreos and got on the internet and hit usual sites then uploaded and captioned photos. Finally I caught up on my journal, then at 8:15 I got off the laptop and lay down and rested for a bit. The rest of the gang was supposed to arrive from the airport around 9PM. I fell asleep and got a good nap until someone knocked on a neighboring door at 10:10 and Brian thought it might be our guys. It wasn’t. With no sign of them I decided to eat in the room and made some Ovaltine and got back on the laptop at 10:30 and caught up on record keeping while consuming the jug of Ovaltine (that used all the rest of my water). I surfed the web, hitting all the sites of even remote interest, sort of killing time. At Brian’s suggestion I also looked up all today’s flights from Buenos Aires to Tucuman (where John was going to pick them up). They all seem to have arrived in good shape and more or less on time. Yet as of midnight tonight they have not arrived here at the hotel. Soon after midnight we turned off the lights and went to bed.