|Cerro San Francisco on the Chile-Argentina border, with the trail to the summit annotated. My car was at 15,600 feet, the Tabletop Cairn is at 17,000 feet and the summit is just shy of 20,000 feet.
Day 8 - Tuesday 12 January 2010
I fell asleep after a while, probably before 11PM and then slept very well all through the rest of the night. Abruptly at 5:10AM I was awakened by the sound and headlamps of about 20 people tromping by on the way to climb San Francisco peak. One of the last of them came over to check me out. He spoke only Spanish and didn’t seem anything more than curious about me. I told him I had an Aventurismo permit. These climbers slept in their vehicles last night. It's good to have that group on the mountain today to act as some possible emergency support for me. It was still pitch dark outside when these people came by. It’s also good to know what time a (I assume) competent climbing expedition starts out to climb that mountain.
The wind had kept blowing well into the night and only gradually let up as the night wore on. But it was wonderful to note that it had let up, and was close to calm this morning. I suppose the fact of that expedition going up means that weather is not an obvious problem today. The temperature was 24 degrees when I got up at 5:20 and turned on the car and went out to take a pee. The sliver of a moon rose at 5:15, and by 5:30 there was a bit of glow beginning to appear on the horizon below it. I sat in the car in my sleeping bag while it warmed up inside, then got on the laptop and caught up on my journal while I ate some Oreo cookies.
At 6AM I gradually started preparing for my own expedition, to start when there was enough light to not need my headlamp. My preparations went slower than I wanted, so it was already very bright out when I was ready to go. Just then a truck drove up and parked near me and two Swiss guys who spoke no English got out. I spoke with them briefly, asking the elevation of the peak (they had a map). It is only 6020 meters high. I told them I’d probably go up to 5500 meters and turn around.
I headed up the trail five or ten minutes ahead of them and they never caught up. I was feeling good and just kept going with few stops. Felt much better than yesterday as I passed my 17,000 foot cairn.
To my amazement, I had by then already passed the 20 or so Argentineans who were ascending the ridge on which the cairn sits, but they were attacking it farther north where it’s steeper and higher.
I continued up the daunting looking traverse of the main massif of the peak. It wasn’t as scary as I had thought it might be. Stupidly I kept pushing forward watching the sun chase me. And I was feeling good and strong, but when the sun finally caught up with me I stopped to take a photo, and my hands were so numb I could barely push the button on the camera.
It was at the moment of taking that picture that I suddenly realized how chilled to the core I was. I put on more clothes even though I was now in the sun. But that was a significant lesson. When I get chilled like that I often get a cold almost immediately. The amazing thing was that I knew my hands were cold but I didn’t have a clue that my whole body was seriously chilled also. Perhaps it’s something to do with altitude and perhaps with just too much focus (obsessive attitude) and lack of experience. I learned a lesson, and it may come at a big cost if I get a cold and can’t recover enough to get to 20,000 feet with the Andes expedition. (Note: I never did get a cold!)
I was stopping regularly to eat Gu and to drink water. I’m pretty sure the Gu helped me maintain my stamina. I also felt that my long workouts on the treadmill back home helped a lot, as I got into a steady mode of moving forward and upward while breathing steadily but heavily. As I traversed the picturesque massif trail (easily visible from the highway) I noticed the Argentineans descending that ridge (the descent for me was only 200 feet - the part of the route not visible on the overview photo up top) and I also noticed that the two Swiss guys had passed them.
Shortly after that the trail turned the corner and entered what had looked like the scariest part of the climb when viewed from the highway. By then I had reached 18,000 feet but that no longer mattered. I was so strong and fast (and now warmed up) that I had already decided to try for the summit.
Anyhow, the scary looking section wasn’t bad at all, and it led up beside a frozen stream that came down off a flatter section with the first snow fields. On I trekked, stopping for Gu and water every 45 minutes and feeling good. I was presented with a decision to go right or left where the trail was unclear and there were two high peaks. Eventually I spotted a trail up the right one and nothing on the left one.
It was the right choice. I got to the summit flat at about noon--already a little late by mountaineering standards, knowing that I’d have to contend with rapidly worsening wind on the way down. But I lingered on the summit plateau for half an hour, visiting each of the three rises that could be the true summit and taking pictures. Eventually I found a “Bank of Chile” strongbox with the climber’s registry (Libro de Cumbre, meaning book of the summit) in it, dating back to 2004 and only containing a handful of pages of entries. The last entry was January 6th. I took a photo of the front page as well as of the last two pages, including my entry:
I wrote an entry, took a selfie …
… and photographed the views from each of the three summits. I was flabbergasted to see a big black ordinary cricket jumping around up there at almost 20,000 feet. Was he lost? Amazing! Then I headed back down passing a spiky low snow field with a view eastward into the lowlands of Argentia, where the tropical moisture was making clouds.
I met the Swiss guys right where I faced the decision between the two peaks and pointed the way to them. On down I met the Argentinean group still trudging up beside the frozen stream just above the traverse. They still seemed intent on getting to the top despite it being so late in the day.
By then the wind was already pretty intense. I descended the traverse warily, thinking it might be worse on the way down, and knowing that if I lost balance I could slide for a ways (maybe). In fact I did have a couple minor trips but only would have fallen forward onto the trail. The 200 foot ascent at the 17,000 foot ridge was a big ordeal, then at my cairn the wind really blasted. I switched from my glacier glasses to my ski goggles and bundled everything up tightly and headed on down.
Eventually I got too warm at the lower elevations. I got to the car at 3:20 and changed and set up shade in the car and started to rehydrate and eat. I drank two full liters of water before feeling fully restored to hydration. Plus I had drunk all of the 1.5 liters I took with me. I checked my blister and found no further harm done--in fact no change at all--wonderful!
It took me a full hour before I felt ‘human’ again. And just at that time the two Swiss guys returned. They kept to themselves at their truck--I doubt if they could have reached the summit and returned, but I suppose if they are fast at descending they could have. They did drive by and say good-bye when they left, saying they were going to the hot springs at Laguna Verde (I really ought to do that too, but have decided to skip that experience since it would only be to show people back home--don’t have any desire to do it just for the experience -- it's just sitting in hot water.)
I looked at the pics on my camera and ate some more, including the other bag of spaghetti sauce, and I drank more water. It’s very possible I’ll run out of water before getting to Copiapó tomorrow, but since I’m now so worn out and won’t do any hiking tomorrow before I leave, I should be close to Copiapó before running out. At 4:50 I reclined my seat and rested. That’s when the Swiss guys actually left. And that’s when I began to feel the oddness in my throat that might presage a cold.
At 5PM while I was resting, I noticed clouds blocking the sun at my car and also over the San Francisco mountain: A cloud street as it is called stretched from the mountains to the west--first clouds overhead on this entire visit. And the wind was howling. One gust really rocked my car as a cloud came over. That was worse than any previous one. And there was no sign of the 20 Argentineans. I was beginning to worry. I also had to close my car windows to keep the temperature inside from getting too chilly. The clouds continued for the next hour.
At 5:55 I noticed the Argentinean party beginning to trickle over the top of the 17,000 foot ridge well to the north of even their route this morning. I’m guessing that they aren’t a very professionally run expedition, but it looks like they all got down safely. They trickled by my car between 6:30 and 7PM, taking a more direct route to their vehicles. One or two did pass by my car on the actual jeep road but didn’t stop to talk.
I started journal and photo processing work at about 6PM. I stitched together a sweeping panorama taken right at the top of the ‘scary part’ right after I met the Argentineans--much better views there than from the summits.
I got off the laptop at 7:20, ate some Skittles for the citric acid to possibly help my throat then I went through my travel essential papers to confirm that our base camp at Ojos del Salado will be at 18,000 feet as I recalled--yes it will. When I finished with the paper organizing I looked out and noticed all the Argentinean vehicles had gone! End of that saga. I then read Tolkien until I got too tired to continue. I tucked myself in to my sleeping bag and went to bed early, at 8:00PM.