I arrived in Santiago early on 12 December and booked into my old hotel which unfortunately had been upgraded to four-star. My old friend Arturo was away on holiday but a chance remark by his son put me in touch with Hugo who is a professional guide (we met in 1987 when he drove us up to Arturo's mountain refuge). This turn of events proved decisive: I gave up the offer of a free stay at Arturo's refuge (2300 m) for acclimatization climbs in an area I had already visited twice and decided to head north at once. Hugo suggested going to San Pedro de Atacama rather than the astronomical area of La Serena which might be more problematic for getting to some suitable mountain. He also called his friend in Copiapo and booked a four-wheel drive to the base camp of Ojos del Salado, my main objective. Having resolved the major uncertainty by this lucky encounter, I flew to Antofagasta next morning. Eventually a bus took me to Calama (2300 m) by a three hour drive through the most desolate landscape. It took another two hours to reach San Pedro de Atacama (2450 m) next morning (14 Dec). The journey gave me the feeling of being on the lunar surface, but at a considerable saving in cost.
San Pedro is a delightful place; only about 2000 people live in this oasis. A small number of tour agencies offer a variety of excursions at reasonable prices, not to mention comfortable hotels at $4 a night. That same afternoon I took the obligatory sunset trip to the Valley of the Moon. Next day provided real excitement when we visited the El Tatio geysers (4300 m) which put on an impressive show. On the return, we stopped at a thermal spring for an enjoyable hour at more comfortable temperatures. While getting dressed, a condor arrived and circled overhead before coming to rest on a high cliff. This presented an irresistible mountaineering challenge which was duly awarded by an approach to within 10 m and allowing me a god picture as it took off again.
By day 3 I was ready for higher altitudes. A fossil hunter persuaded me to visit a sulphur mine. After some assistance from a powerful truck the jeep reached the mine at 5200 m and I was able to scramble up two peaks of 5475 m while the others did one. We retrieved beautiful sulphur crystals from the mine workings, which were added to the transparent salt crystals of the Moon Valley. My last full day turned into an expedition. We set off at 4 am for the active volcano Lascar (5614 m), about 150 km on bad roads. At dawn, puffs of black smoke could be seen; apparently it had a very recent eruption. By the time we arrive at about 4700 m the smoke has become less menacing. Because of loose sand, the jeep does not manage the last part and we walk an hour before it begins to get steeper. Then it is the usual volcano slog up sandy slopes. We have been given four hours to reach the summit and two of us make it on time, with the third arriving later and the fourth turning back near the crater rim. From the summit we see the empty old crater, whereas the active one is a bit lower down. We have been warned about the dangerous fumes and do not descend to the edge of activity since the inner parts would not be visible. However, the two others get a good dose of sulphur fumes when they take a different route down, showing that volcanos are not to be trifled with (a tourist was killed by stonefall on Villarrica during this period).
My last day at San Pedro was spent catching up but there was time for a visit to the swimming pool. This involved a 3 km walk across the desert to a small oasis. The novel experience of soothing water surrounded by sand was only marred by the thought of having to return in the soaring heat. I spent the night in Calama and caught an early luxury bus to Copiapo, arriving 10 hours later. Copiapo is a charming town of some 100,000 people, with lots of luxurious vegetation. Unfortunately it is not a place to linger between climbs since the altitude is a mere 350 m. However, this is literally the last civilization before Ojos del Salado some 250 km away. I spent the next day eating well and getting organized. Hugo's friend, who owns a nice hotel, agreed to drive me to the Ojos base camp in his powerful Toyota Land-Cruiser on the 21st and return on the 30th at a total cost of $530. Considering the distance involved and the extra fuel needed, this is a good deal; we paid $160 for 150 km in a smaller vehicle for Lascar. In any case, the alternative of renting a car would cost more and also present problems for a lone stranger.
We leave for Ojos at 5 am on the 21st. By sunrise we are climbing up and get some interesting views of colourful mountains. Although the landscape is barren, there is still some life as shown by a herd of shy vicunas. We cross an enormous salar, looking like a big lake, where the four-wheel drive is needed on occasions. After 5 1/2 hours we reach the police check-point near the Argentinean border which is the traditional base camp, conveniently located at 4500 m. In earlier years the large Murray's Inn provided a comfortable residence for acclimatization but unfortunately it was burnt in 1989. Walking across to the police post, I am asked for my permission to climb Ojos. This comes as a big surprise; nobody mentioned it before! My driver intervenes, saying he knows a police captain in Copiapo who will provide the permission, and this is accepted. (On his return, my friend does not bring the permit since it can only be obtained in Santiago or El Salvador, but by then it is too late!). We are allowed to drive to the border, some 30 km away. On the way we pass the large and intense blue and green-coloured Laguna Verde. A few flamingos and geese are spotted on a small lake of fresh water. Since this is not within walking distance and the police do not have a vehicle, I am glad to have brought 25 extra litres of water. After this sight-seeing trip the driver departs and leaves me to set up my tent in strong wind.
Next day I walk 13 km to the thermal spring which originates by the Laguna Verde. Its flow is channelled into a small hut where there is a pool with ideal temperature for submersion. A strong headwind slows the return and my tiredness leads to a change of plan. Since it is 23 km to the first hut at 5200 m, it seemed a good idea to make an extra carry half way and return to the tent. However, this would involve two extra trips of 23 km which would take its toll. Instead I decide to bite the bullet by taking one big load and hope to make it in a day. This way I award myself an extra rest day before the big effort. Since Christmas is coming up, I give the police some cigarettes and a bottle of pisco which are no good to me; even if they do not have a vehicle they may be able to return the favour.
On the dreaded day (24th) I depart at 7.30 with my big load. Although the tent is left behind, I carry 5 extra litres of water as well as 2 litres of fuel and heavy goodies such as 1 kg of cheese and 1 kg marzipan. The early part is flat and a good track can be followed. After a bit I only manage 20 minutes between water breaks which must be brief. According to Howard's detailed route description, progress is good. However, on the last bit I lose sight of the trail. Something looking like a hut appears on top of a hill and a faint track seems to veer left, so I head up a river course to save time. This involves going up a steep gorge, which is no fun with my load. I leave the sack by a stream and venture further for a good look. Alas it is a false trail; from above I can discern tracks in the sand going to the right instead. Cursing my source of information which states 'here we parked and walked up to the hut in about 2 hours', I contour round the hill and eventually reach the hut after more than 10 hours.
Luckily I appear to have the entire mountain to myself. Needless to say, next day is a rest day. I melt some water from the nearby neve penitentes and am relieved that the stove is working well with 81 octane petrol (93 octane was available but would be more dangerous). Since it is Christmas Day I enjoy my favourite meal of Chinese noodles for lunch and expedition biscuits with drinking chocolate at night. Less pleasant is the need to protect my cracked fingers with tape. On the other hand, I am lucky that drinking cold water during the night did not produce a sore throat. Next day I hike up to the second hut (Tejos refugio). Now the road is very good and easy to follow; however, I am surprised at arriving after only 2 1/2 hours of going slowly. My information of 6050 m for this hut appears to be wrong: the hut book says 5750 m which agrees well with the altimeter. This means there are still over 1100 m to the summit, which is a less pleasant prospect. Walking back, the peace is shattered by a truck coming up, carrying a mountain bike. This guy arrived from a nearby summit of 6650 m while I was at base camp; now he is invading my mountain and gets a free lift on the stretch where I laboured so hard.
Although my resting pulse is down to 48, there is no hurry in going up so I enjoy the beautiful weather. Several hours are spent sitting on a rocky outcrop just gazing at the surrounding volcanos and experiencing utter silence. Later clouds gather while I test my strength on some hills, trying out ski poles found in the hut. There is a light snow fall on the peaks but by evening the sky is clear again. My only concern is that the mad bike guy does not get into trouble and require a rescue operation. On the 28th I move up to Tejos. Having read the boast of the two British (who gave a slide show in the Alpine Club about their climb), I make an effort and beat their 1 hr 30 mins by 5 minutes. On arrival, the bike man is setting off to carry his bike up the first part; in a suitable contrast to my Cambridge summit flag the name of his sponsored bike is OXFORD!
We leave together at 6, going slowly until the bike is reached just below the rocks. Finally I am on my own again and spend the next few hours stepping on rocks which permit good progress. Then follows a less pleasant stretch of the usual loose sand which eventually flattens out at the crater edge. While enjoying a picnic of home made marzipan I survey the scene which is somewhat different from my experience of other volcanos. Instead of a gentle slope to the highest point, I am faced with an impressive buttress on the other side of the crater, which seems quite inaccessible. Looking around, I see steps on the snow along the crater edge, which are followed. The path then heads straight up towards a small col separating two rock towers. I have been warned about technical difficulties on the last 30 m, and not to do this bit alone. However, the presence of two ropes are too inviting to be ignored; one gets me up to the tiny col and the second is fixed along a narrow ridge. Finally I walk the last few steps to the top and find the book which confirms that I have reached the official summit of Ojos del Salado, stated here to be 6883 m! A moment's happiness has to suffice since it is rather windy and so cold that my camera ceases to operate after the first shot. Back at the col, I survey the second tower. There are some thin ropes higher up but the first part is dangerously loose. I solve the problem by using the free rope to climb down the other side and traverse along a ledge from where it is possible to climb up unaided, although I wonder whether these moves can be reversed. The second peak appears to be a few metres higher; at 6780 m the altimeter error is about 100 m. Another summit book shows few visitors, but at least I have made sure of reaching the highest peak in Chile and possibly the second highest in the Western Hemisphere.
Returning down the large boulder field below the col is tricky. At one place I step on a rock which comes loose; jumping on to another does not help and even a third rock starts rolling under my feet. I am greatly relieved to be standing on firm ground after this nerve-wrecking moment. Suddenly I hear a shout from below: it is the other guy pushing his bike slowly along the snow field. He carries it a few steps up the boulder field where it is duly photographed, having reached 6800 m. There is no time for a summit attempt and we return together with the bike left behind for another day. Having eating nothing but marzipan all day, I am moving slowly by the time we reach the hut around 7. My time up of 7 1/2 hours could easily be improved but there did not seem to be any hurry in the relatively good conditions. Next morning I pack up and walk down 7 km to the Atacama refuge, where I enjoy a good rest waiting for the car to turn up. After two hours I reluctantly begin the long trek back in case there is a problem with my transport. Although the load is now much lighter, I am also weary after the previous day so it is an effort to keep going; however, with just one litre of water there is not much choice. My spirits are revived when I spot a vehicle in the middle of the last salar. Getting closer, I am dejected to find my transport abandoned with locked doors. Seeing footsteps leading away, I fear the worst and plod on another 6 km before arriving five hours later. Back at the tent, I hear how my driver and two friends had to leave the car behind with a broken four-wheel drive and stagger along without being used to the altitude. They spend the night in an empty tent which is made habitable by all my warmest equipment, whereas I shiver sleepless inside the paper-thin sleeping bag liner.
Rescue arrives next afternoon in the shape of a Herz vehicle. Although five people go along, they are soon back without having achieved anything since the car (a Trouper) proves too light for pulling. We squeeze in and head for civilization, leaving the unfortunate Land-Cruiser behind for a second expensive rescue mission. After so much time alone on foot it is an amazing experience to be driven at high speed through the Atacama desert for three hours, with only a flock of guanacos as distraction. On the last stretch, a colourful mosaic of desert flowers provide a feast for the eyes; this rare sight only occurs after years of heavy snow fall. We reach the hotel by 7 on New Year's Eve but a celebration of my successful adventure has to wait until I meet Arturo and Hugo in Santiago the next day, with no more time to spare before returning home.