I stepped off the plane in Buenos Aires early on 6 February. The next move was easy and I soon found myself near Retiro, the main bus station, hauling my burden in unbearable heat the last few few blocks. Inside the enormous building are located hundreds of ticket booths for destinations all over the large country. The number of different companies was truly enormous but I managed to identify several offering seats to Catamarca, the last city on the way to the Atacama Desert. I am shocked to be told there are no seats left for the overnight trip, and even tickets to intermediate connection points are sold out. This is a real crisis but I cannot afford to give up. I appeal for assistance in my best Spanish to a sales lady who takes pity on me. We return to a reject desk and learn that a hard seat is available. This information was not given to me since it was assumed I wanted a comfortable bed-seat, but how could I afford to be choosy with a fixed deadline for next evening (I had stated it was extremely important to travel).
Armed with a ticket, I went off to buy the right stove fuel and enjoy a nourishing meal before the long trip. Later I find that the 8.30 p.m. bus has already departed from another platform! This is too cruel but again luck is on my side. A friendly soul suggests taking another bus to a rendez-vous point a few hours along the route. Even so, we delay departure another hour. At the junction two hours further along, I wait a nerve- wrecking hour until my assigned bus arrives. Miraculously, it still has a spare seat which is reserved for me. Now begins an uncomfortable journey of uncertain duration. The only known stop is at 5 a.m. in Cordoba. I misjudge the remaining distance and we do not reach Catamarca until nearly 7 p.m., after the last 200 km of nothing but scrub vegetation and only one inhabited place. However, Catamarca is a modern town of 200,000 which offers many facilities for outdoor activities. Much relieved, I catch up with David, a Texan archaeologist, who is offering me a lift to base camp.
Next day I join Marcelo, the driver, and Victor, the cook, and fully laden we set off in a minibus. Barely an hour out of town, we are forced to stop and call for assistance. The rest of the trip is made in a fully fledged expedition vehicle while the locals are left behind to fix the problem. The village of Fiambala (1500 m) is a staging post for Atacama expeditions. It produces good wine and is famous for its thermal pools. I am happy to find an upmarket restaurant where we have a memorable meal. In the morning I visit Jonson Reynoso who pioneered expedition drives into the Atacama. My purpose is to negotiate a solo trip to the giant Bonete after I have spent sufficient time at altitude. Then we are off on the last stage to La Gruta on a surprisingly good road. Here is located the Argentinean border post, with a separate building for public use. The border is situated at the San Francisco pass, less than an hour's drive. At 4000 m, the base is convenient for acclimatization and the surrounding hills offer plenty of scope for day trips.
My first day at altitude starts with a leisurely hike on the flat puna to take in the landscape. On the return, Marcelo asks whether I would like a ride to Mt Pissis (6800 m), my solo conquest of 1994. It turns out he needs to supply his base camp with water. Naturally I jump at the chance of seeing the other side of the mountain which tested me to the limit. We first retrace the asphalt road for a good hour. The rough road to Pissis is some 100 km, with many ups and downs and changes of direction. Along the way we see herds of vicuna and guanaco, as well as large lakes. The mountain views are spectacular: Walter Penck, Nacimento and Tres Cruzes, all 6000+ metre giants, in addition to our impressive target. We reach Pissis Base Camp after 3 hours. At only 4430 m it is much lower than my own on the Chilean side. The resident guardian has radio connection and a Swiss couple is awaiting the chance to ascend [later forced to abandon due to bad weather]. Our unique sight-seeing trip is spoilt by a heavy rainstorm as we approach the base in the dark [it never rains on the Chilean side].
Next day I am ready for a training hike. Two females from Fiambala ask to accompany me to the nearest peak of False Morocho. After a 2 km trek across level ground we face the first gradient. Now it becomes a struggle to keep up with my companions who are acclimatized after a recent climb. Exactly 2 hours later we reach the summit at a GPS altitude of 4493 m and add a flat stone to the apocheta (cairn) from inca times. Now we can look across to the imposing Incahuasi, more than 2000 metres higher. I get closer to inca culture on the following day by helping David to measure old structures for 3D reconstruction at San Francisco pass (4700 m). Using his imagination, he thinks this camp has been on a trade route to Chile, with some rooms for animals. In the afternoon I hike to the thermal pool and enjoy a solitary immersion inside a shed. Next morning, I take a different route across the salt flats and reach a shallow lake with some 30 flamingoes. They are extremely shy and drift across to the opposite side on my arrival. However, I am much luckier approaching a guanaco herd. After this charming interlude I set off for the hills again. During easy hiking I practice marking waypoints on the GPS. I make a longer trip the next day but distances are deceptive and I only reach 4500 m, half-way to Mt Beltran. On return I hear that the two female climbers attempting Incahuasi failed to make their pick-up point. This is a serious concern because we can see it covered in new snow but the hope is they reached David's camp which would be closer.
Now it is my turn to transfer to the Incahuasi camp. Marcelo returned to pick me up, bringing the missing mountaineers. They had experienced a tough time, spending 25 hours away from the tent in bad weather but succeeded in placing a special cross on the famous summit. Along the way we come close to flamingoes which allow photographs. Base camp (4950 m) is exposed, with a strong wind. Putting up my tent does not seem a good idea so I am relieved to be invited to the communal tent which also houses 3 Argentinean archaeologists. Now their plan changes and camp will be evacuated in the morning. I don't fancy my chances in these conditions and with uncertain logistical support the decision to go back is not difficult, especially taking into account the recent epic. Next morning, the gang takes off with a full load. I visit the nearby inca site which has been measured and help to pack up in unpleasant conditions. Marcelo returns and again the car is completely full, with the large tent placed precariously on top. It is only 17 km in the line of sight but the track wanders in all directions to take advantage of the landscape. The next two days I keep up my training by ascending False Morocho (North) in better style, making nearly 500 vertical metres in 60 minutes. The second time is windless and I spend 2 hours at the summit enjoying magical views of the big surrounding mountains dressed in new snow.
With two more days to go until Marcelo returns from Fiambala, I take a new trip. The guardian agrees to drive me across the border to the thermal pool at Laguna Verde which I visited before climbing Ojos del Salado (6890 m) in 1991. I get a perfect shot of it dressed in white, reflected in a road-side laguna. The border guard waves us through without any check and 2 km further on we reach the small pool which is now situated outside. Naturally I must submerse myself in this wonderful source which has an ideal temperature. Returning here after all this time makes me feel like a pilgrim seeking inspiration. Later I practice putting up my dome tent in a fresh breeze which is challenging for one person. I revisit the flamingoes and come close to a large herd of guanaco for taking pictures. My last free day is spent on an easy hike saying goodbye to False Morocho and looking across to my next objective, San Francisco.
Early on my 13th day at La Gruta Marcelo drives me up to the pass and slowly a few km further to 5100 m. I ascend a ridge and must lose height on the other side. The general direction is clear but I fail to see the path until it is too late. Instead I go straight up the scree slope. It is hard work fighting for each step. On checking the GPS waypoint, I find that I have intersected the path! Now it becomes an easy stroll on gentle slopes. The wind increases in strength as I progress but nothing can stop me when the summit cone is in view. A good 5 hours later I reach the flat summit in a howling wind which is recorded on a panoramic movie taken with unsteady hands. The way back is straightforward and 3 hours later I reach the refuge by the roadside. Soon afterwards I am greeted warmly by the gang who must be relieved. Finally I have achieved a significant summit (6043 m GPS altitude) on my own even though it was a day hike. On return I pack up and Marcelo drives me to Fiambala. It is a good two hours in darkness but not a single vehicle or sign of life can be seen until the lights of "Las Vegas" appear on the horizon. Although it was late, it is never too late for dinner in Argentina.
Now followed two leisurely days in Fiambala. A bit short on dollars, I am forced to go for Reynoso's deal. We have long and interesting discussions in his office which contains items of many past expeditions. The afternoon gives an opportunity to visit the famed thermal pools some 20 km away. I take a taxi and ask for an hour's stay. Approaching the mountain is an experience in itself, with gorges and ridges appearing like sculptures and the setting sun adding magic to the scene. I ascend quickly to the uppermost pool which is deserted. At the advertised temperature of 42 C it does not feel too hot. My swimming has to be terminated all too soon but it has been a memorable experience. Again I round off the day with a succulent steak and a full bottle at my favourite restaurant. The last day before departure for Bonete (6759 m) is spent discussing possible problems in reaching BC at 5065 m by car.
Finally in the morning I meet my driver, Christian, who is the son of Reynoso, and has some experience of expedition support. Unfortunately he does not speak any English so my negotiations have to be at a primitive level. After stopping for lunch in a fairly big place, we drive through the diminishing habitations of Villa Union, Villa China and Jague, with the latter still marked on the Times Atlas. Having past all checkpoints, we now reach more interesting landscapes. We negotiate sharp bends overlooking ravines at high speed. On passing signs which mark fatal accidents, Christian takes his hands off the steering wheel to cross himself. Fortunately there are no vehicles to be seen. We reach the Penon refuge around 8. It is utterly dark inside but the full moon enables a simple meal to be taken. Christian sleeps in the car while I try to keep the mice at bay.
In the morning, the drive up to Laguna Brava is quite dramatic, with sharp bends and no security fence. The mountains reveal an amazing range of colours which is a feast for the eye, and there are also occasional green patches along the small stream hosting gracing vicuna. Closer to the Veladero refuge (4600 m) we encounter a new highway being built. We branch out in the direction of Bonete which in full view some 28 km away. Following the progress by previous GPS waypoints is confusing and it takes a while to realize we have gone wrong [there is also a typo for a critical location]. We are following a direction which curves round the mountain and leads to the lake Inca Pillo. The soft sand also makes progress slow. We backtrack and head up the correct route. Around 4700 m the car starts having problems by over-heating. Soon there is no water left and the oil is also gone. With no spare supplies we are in a critical situation. Christian offloads his bike and prepares to go for help but I am not in favour. So I plead with him to try again. After all, it is only about 12 km to the refugio. He perseveres and bit by bit we creep back. By great luck there is a service centre supporting the roadworks nearby. It involves waiting for hours but eventually we are stocked up on water and oil. The night is spent in the refugio which is constructed like a bomb shelter and is otherwise lacking any amenity.
After packing up again we are ready for the move to BC. However, there is no response when Christian turns the ignition key! Several attempts at revival are unsuccessful and it becomes clear we are completely stuck. The only hope is to enlist the assistance of the road workers who drive past a mere 100 metres away. Eventually a kind soul stops and offers to pull us out. Unfortunately even his four-wheel drive is not strong enough to move the heavy car in soft sand. A powerful grader which has been working all night is then called up. This time there is no doubt and it pulls our car on to the road. I am so happy at this miraculous rescue that I hand our saviour a $50 bill as tip. Someone gives us a push start and we are alive again. However, after all this drama I keep cool and can only use my best Spanish to say we are going home. The car might well get me up towards BC. However, I would depend on it coming back in three days. Without such support it would be too much to hike 25 km back against a strong wind in a weakened state. The Atacama is an unforgiving place and I cannot forget my driver and good friend who perished of exposure at only 4000 m while attempting a 20 km hike in the evening.
We drive continuously from 2 p.m. until reaching Fiambala at 5 in the morning, with a short stop for dinner when the car is parked on a gradient. The next evening I am invited for asada at the thermal pools. Victor, who is a chef, takes charge of the proceedings and the party goes on for hours, only interrupted by a swim. After another spare day I get a lift with Marcelo in the direction of Catamarca. However, we make an overnight stop at an impressive looking hotel which turns out to be rather basic inside. The long way back is not without interest. We take the short cut across a mountain featuring large cacti in bloom. The elevation gain is about 1000 metres and the road can best be described as dramatic. Descending on the other side is even worse, with light rain and a slippery road surface. Finally, after a night in my previous hotel I am off on the long-distance bus bound for Cordoba, this time occupying a proper half-bed seat. After a few days visit to the Observatory I have one more adventure in the form of giving an illustrated talk to the mountaineering club of the sea-side resort of Mar del Plata (my pictures had been put on a CD in Cordoba). I receive a new book about Pissis which devotes a whole chapter to my 1994 expedition. This gift by the author himself is much appreciated and makes up for my latest trip falling short of expectations.
Sverre Aarseth (10/1/08)