Nevado Ojos del Salado (Chile)

5-Dec-95

By: Steve Smith


Nevado Ojos del Salado on the crest of the Andes Mountains between Chile and Argentina, at 22,600', is the second highest mountain in the western hemisphere - just 200' lower than Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina. Members of the BLM Friends of the Inyo Wilderness volunteer group decided to climb Ojos after hearing about it during our 1993 climb of Aconcagua.

The scant information we had made it very enticing for those of us interested in desert mountaineering. Ojos is located in the heart of the driest desert in the world, it is not very technical, it is accessible by 4-wheel drive vehicle to the amazing elevation of 17,000', and there are good refuges at 17,000' and 19,400' so the summit can be done as a day hike from the upper refuge. It is also unique, being described in some articles as the highest desert peak and/or the highest volcano in the world. Another attractive factor was that for such a high mountain, the weather is fairly benign due to the dry, stable climatic conditions and its position just south of the Tropic of Capricorn. The major downside was the remoteness of the peak and the reported difficulty of negotiating through unmarked desert roads to reach the roadhead at 17,000'.

TRIP LOGISTICS

Several of us began accumulating information about Ojos and talking about when we would go for it. Strangely, for such an interesting peak, not much detailed information was available - just the opposite situation of Aconcagua. None of us knew of anyone who had ever climbed Ojos and we never did contact anyone who had - although we never made any diligent efforts either - preferring just to go for it as an adventure.

My son, DPS member Shane Smith, was finishing his four months of studying Spanish in Chile in early December which is the start of the season for climbing Ojos. Since Shane wanted to join us in a two week tour of the Atacama and our quest to climb Ojos, that gave us the impetus to get the trip scheduled. During his four months in Chile, Shane was requested by the group to contact sources of information to obtain information on Ojos. Shane was able to talk with several people at mountaineering shops and the Chilean Alpine Club who had climbed Ojos and had some additional information. Of course, all of this was in Spanish which hampered us since Shane was our most capable interpreter and he was not fluent enough to translate some details and mountaineering related words.

A permit was needed which required the names and passport number for all climbers which Shane was able to easily get in advance in Santiago at no cost. In addition to Shane and I, Wendell Moyer, his wife Marilyn, Jerry Boggs and Russ Hunsaker joined in. Wendell and I were the only ones with high altitude experience but we felt comfortable with the group, particularly since it would be easy for any of us to stop during the climb and stay at one of the refugios while the others went on. Marilyn, a nonclimber, would remain at Copiapo where she would keep busy studying the local cactus. This was the same routine we followed two years earlier when Wendell and I climbed Aconcagua and Marilyn stayed near Mendoza to study the native cactus species. Looking back now, we can see that our planning was fine but we were still struck by the tragic loss of Wendell. As fate would have it, even though Wendell was in excellent condition from doing such activities as running marathons, scuba diving and regular mountain climbing, he was to succumb to altitude sickness during the descent of Ojos after successfully reaching the summit.

In setting up the trip, we were able to communicate quickly with Shane through e-mail since his language school in Santiago was on-line. That really helped in last minute arrangements and getting details about what we needed to bring for travelling in the Atacama and climbing Ojos. Even with Shane's help, it was still unclear whether ropes or snow and glacial climbing gear was needed. We would be arriving in Santiago on December 6th and planned on reaching the Atacama within a few days. We would be there at the beginning of summer and the start of the reported prime climbing season of December through February. We took the ropes and ice gear but they were not needed and I do not think would generally be needed during early summer unless there was a unseasonable storm on the mountain.

SANTIAGO AND COPIAPO, CHILE

Leaving LAX on 12/5, we arrived early the next day in Santiago. Shane quickly had us into an inexpensive downtown "residencia" - about $15 per person. We spent the rest of the day exploring Santiago and attempting to contact people at mountaineering shops for more information. Santiago is an exciting and beautiful city to see. It is very pleasant and easy to get around - with the .40 cent subway fare getting you anywhere you wanted to go. It was rather strange for me at first, having my son at age 26 taking care of me as he explained how to use the subway tokens, how to pay for items, helping exchange money, arranging for transportation, etc. Having Shane to take care of the logistics certainly made for a more relaxing time although even for those who do not speak much Spanish, Chile is extremely easy to negotiate.

Next day, we used a bus to travel the Pan American Highway 500 miles north to Copiapo, a town located 50 miles inland from the coast and about 180 miles due west of Ojos. That 12 hour bus trip, costing $18, was comfortable with boxed meal and videos to watch on the overhead television. Unfortunately, the films selected were American action types which we older, more conservative types could not really get interested in watching. I can still remember Jerry muttering as some American Kickboxing fighting film finished that "I am really sorry it had to end so soon".

Fortunately, the scenery was captivating and we were glad to gaze out the windows as the terrain became drier and more barren. Russ, an astronomy enthusiast, was even able to spot several of the world famous observatories on distant mountain tops. By the time we reached Copiapo, there was only limited vegetation in the arroyos and small bushes scattered sporadically on the hillsides - and this was close to the coast at 2,800'. We wondered what the interior, away from the coastal moisture and fog influence would be like. Arriving in Copiapo late in the evening, Shane quickly found us another residencia at about $9 per person with breakfast an extra $1.50. Copiapo, a fairly large town (maybe 50,000 residents) with a couple of active nearby copper mines, would be our base of activities since it was the closest town to Ojos. The Chilean International Highway 31 headed east from here, passing 15 miles north of Ojos and over 15,400' high San Francisco Pass to enter Argentina.

We easily arranged for a multi-passenger 4-wheel drive vehicle from a travel and car rental office just two blocks from our residencia. The maps showed three separate dirt roads which could be used in the drive to the Ojos region - labeled as the "Atacama Frontier". They had rented vehicles to other groups who had done this trip and could tell us it would involve about 600 miles of driving. They provided a 25 gallon container for spare gas since no gas was available beyond Copiapo. The travel agency people were very helpful although the week long rental of a 4-door, 4-wheel drive Toyota pickup was expensive at around $800. They also provided a fairly detailed road map and described the three different routes we could use. We decided on going east on the southern route and return on the northern route via the copper mining town of El Salvador. Wondering if there might be various types of poisonous or dangerous native wildlife, I was happy to hear that no, there were no animals to worry about. We were surprised to learn that there were two saline lakes with Flamingos we would drive to and that we would probably see wild guanacos.

DRIVING TO REFUGIO ANDINO AT 17,000'

Leaving Saturday morning, we had an easy drive on well graded dirt roads to our first nights destination, the saline Laguna Santa Rosa at 12,500'. We gained almost 10,000' that day through exceptionally colorful and scenic volcanic canyons. As we got higher, the low, sporadic vegetation disappeared completely except for some occasional bushes in the canyon bottoms where there must have been a little subsurface moisture. Reaching Laguna Santa Rosa in late afternoon, we enjoyed watching the 200 plus Flamingos around the lake as we set up in a weather tight wooden cabin available for public use. The cabin was a great surprise, particularly appreciated in the cold air at 12,500' combined with a stiff wind blowing most of the night.

On Sunday, we continued driving higher and observed five herds of guanacos. These herds were not too far off the road and we enjoyed walking to within 300' before they would quickly move off. Taking a wrong turn, we ended up at the Martin Mine - a large scale gold mining operation where we got directions while Jerry sought to convince them we were there to pickup a gold shipment. Driving around the southern side of the majestic 21,000' high Volcan Tres Cruces, our southern driving route intersected International Highway 31 (the middle driving route). We back tracked a couple of miles to the San Francisco police frontier checkpoint to show them our permit and check in. The police personnel were very cordial and offered us all the additional information they had regarding the road on into Ojos. Driving further east we quickly drove up to over 14,000' and by mid-afternoon reached the burned remains of Murray Lodge. At this point , we passed the intersection where a more primitive road headed south for 15 miles to Ojos. Ojos was obvious in the distance but did not really dominate since there were plenty of other high mountains with large snow fields throughout the area. We drove on east and reached the impressive green waters of Laguna Verde at 14,700' where we spent the night to further acclimate. There was a warm spring with a small bath house next to the lake where we soaked before setting up for the night in a dusty shelter next to the road.

On Monday, we drove on east for 14 miles to San Francisco Pass at 15,400' where we entered Argentina for a short distance and marveled at the many high volcanos and stark, colorful landscape. Returning to the ruins of Murray Lodge, we turned south and drove the 15 miles to reach the Refugio Andino at 17,000'. It had been a strange journey from Copiapo to Refugio Andino - we had gained over 14,000' in elevation, had not seen any other people or vehicles except at the frontier police check-point and at a mine, and all this while driving almost 200 miles through a stark, barren but colorful and majestic landscape. Most of this road requires 4-wheel drive due to soft volcanic rock but there was no difficulty in following the road. Reaching the refugio in mid-afternoon, we talked briefly with four members of a Swiss climbing party who were just leaving. There were also four east Germans with their three Chilean guides who were staying at the refugio that night and would be leaving the next morning.

There were three other vehicles parked at Refugio Andino when we arrived. A group of four Swiss were just leaving and a group of four East Germans with their three Azimuth 360 Chilean guides were just coming off the mountain and would be staying the night at the refugio. The lower refugio appeared to be two large bolted together metal shipping containers with four bunks. We were feeling fine, although at this point Shane decided he was not going to go any higher. The four of us planning on going higher used the afternoon to carry a load of supplies up to 18,500'.

Later that evening at the lower refugio we had a pleasant discussion about the route up Ojos and all kinds of other cross-cultural subjects. Having been to East Germany both before and after the fall of communism, I was interested in how they felt about the changes. Surprising to me, I got the impression that they were generally not supportive of what has happened. They talked about the unemployment and difficulties in changing to free enterprise although one did say that under the old regime, they would not have been allowed to travel and do something like climb Ojos. The Azimuth guides were very pleasant and helpful. If anyone is going to Chile and interested in contacting a guide service, I was certainly impressed with this group. One of the guides, a young woman named Lawrence Bohn, had climbed in Yosemite and spoke excellent English.

Starting Up Ojos

The next day, Tuesday 12/12, Russ, Wendell, Jerry and I hiked to the upper hut at 19,000' - Refugio Ceasar Tejos. Originally, we were going to take the next day to acclimate by staying at Tejos and carry our cached supplies up. But, everyone was feeling so good that we put the cache supplies on top of our packs and carried everything up to Tejos. Arriving at 19,000', I still recall the eerie vision of a large red metal building sitting in a lunar like boulder field - it was surreal to me and reminded me of a sci-fi movie scene. The upper hut was larger, having a third metal cargo container bolted onto the assemblage. There were six bunks and lots of supplies so we were quite comfortable. That evening, the discussion was whether to go for the summit the next day for take another day to acclimate.

Jerry's previous altitude high had been reaching 15.500' at the Kibo Hut on Kilimanjaro during a trip we did together in 1989. His main goal this time was get to the upper hut so he decided go back down the next day and rejoin Shane. Russ, Wendell and I discussed at length the option of staying a second day or going for the summit. None of us felt strongly one way or the other, I was neutral on it, feeling fine going either way. The decision was to go for the summit on the next day.

The route was obvious and involved about 3,500' of gain. We left at 7:30a.m. on Wednesday the 12th with Jerry heading down to the lower hut and the three of us continuing up the dozer road which extended for about another.5 mile. It was about -10 degrees when we started out but pleasant walking on the dozer road and then a fairly well defined series of use trails in the loose volcanic pyroclastic rock. It was a brilliant, perfectly clear day - with the low water vapor content in the atmosphere at such a high elevation and in such a dry desert, all the landscape features were crystal clear to the horizon. The vistas of multi-colored volcanoes and the many hanging glaciers oriented on south facing (sun protected) slopes was quite a sight.

After leaving the dozer road, the use trail became quite steep and we took our time, slowly switch-backing through the talus slopes. At a couple of points, the use trail became indistinct and we did a little cross country but we were always able to get back onto it since the general route alignment to the crater rim was obvious. As we passed 21,000', Russ began running out of energy. At about 21,500', he was breathing hard and decided he would head back.

Reaching the Summit

Wendell and I, while moving slowly felt fine and decided to keep going. It was around 12:00 noon and we had plenty of time since it was light until about 9:00p.m. and going downhill would be fast on several long scree slopes. Wendell and I reached the rim of the 22,000' summit crater about an hour later at around 1:OOp.m. and looked across the .5 diameter crater to the summit on a bluff about 700' higher.

It was an easy traverse around the north side of the crater to reach a rock chute going up to the summit ridge. The wind began picking up and the steep 700' ascent up the rock chute was tiring - not helped by a strong, cold wind blowing down the chute and hitting us face on. About half way up the chute, we could spot the first of two ropes. Wendell was feeling fine but starting to move slower so he suggested I go on ahead since only one person at a time could use the fixed ropes. I could also scout out the route to the summit and let him know if there were any troublesome spots on the 150' of exposed rock ridge. The first rope covered a 50' class 3 pitch to reach the summit ridgeline while the second rope covered a 100' class 3 pitch which extended along the ridge towards the summit.

It was one of those memorable never-to-be-forgotten mountain moments for me. As I reached the top of the first rope at 22,600' in a howling wind, I looked south into Argentina and down a shear drop-off on the backside. Getting past the second rope, it was only another five minutes to the summit register and an inspiring summit vista. It was now almost 3:00p.m., and I quickly returned to Wendell who was resting at the lower rope. A good rock climber, I told him there was nothing technically difficult remaining - but that the combination of altitude, wind, cold, loose volcanic rock and bad exposure off the south side of the ridge required careful concentration if he went on. Wendell said he felt up to it so I asked him to be careful, take all the time he needed and I would wait at the ropes for him to return.

Returning a half hour later, Wendell was exuberant over making the summit and we were two happy people as we talked of what a great trip we were having and several of the possible exciting options we were all considering for the remainder of the trip which included a two day stopover in Peru. Retracing our route for .5 mile around the crater rim, we made one last stop to admire the view and take photos before starting the steep scree descent. I was in the lead and figured that I would soon be suggesting to Wendell that we go a little slower since he was always fast on the descent while I like to take extra time for photos and to absorb the mountain ambiance.

High Altitude Sickness

Moving along, I looked back and was surprised to see Wendell sitting down and holding his head. He said he couldn't catch his breath but that everything else felt okay. After some discussion, we both thought that during the descent he should feel better as we got lower but that didn't happen. As we worked our way down the scree, Wendell had less and less energy and had to take more frequent rest stops. We both knew there was nothing to do but go at whatever pace felt best for Wendell. As it started to turn dark around 8:30p.m., we had descended to 20,500'. I took careful bearings on several stars to assure that we could keep on track after it got dark. Even in the below zero cold and light wind, I felt we would have done fine with a bivouac since we had our heavy parkas and clothing but I wasn't sure how Wendell would do in his weakened state. I left it up to him whether to press on or bivouac and he always wanted to keep going for the hut.

He was in good spirits the whole time with only the complaint that he couldn't catch his breath and was sorry for taking so much time to rest. As it got dark after 9:00p.m., I could see a light in the window of the Tejos Refugio so knew that Russ had remained and was providing us with a beacon. We slowly continued down and at 11:00p.m. reached the end of the dozer road and Russ who had walked back up the .5 mile to help, knowing that something was wrong. (Later, Russ described how upon seeing our headlamps approaching the dozer road, he tried to too quickly get back up to us and after about 200' fell to the ground gasping for air before he could on). It was a relief having Russ to assist and I was thankful that he had remained at the upper hut to wait for us. Wendell and I thought we had it made with Russ and I helping on both sides as we slowly assisted Wendell down the road.

Unfortunately, about 1,200' from the hut, Wendell went unconscious during a rest stop and we were unable to bring him back to consciousness. Russ and I attempted to carry him but couldn't so worked for awhile to see if we could drag him into the hut. After an hours effort and only making 300' Russ and I were totally exhausted. Taking our only remaining option, I returned to the hut and got Wendell's sleeping bag and a heavy insulating pad that was in the cabin. There was no indication of life as we got Wendell into the bag, onto the heavy insulating pad and situated him out of the wind before returning to the hut at about 1:30a.m.

The next morning, Thursday the 14th, it was a depressing walk for Russ and I as we confirmed that Wendell had died and then began the descent to Andino ReTugio. Reaching Shane and Jerry around 11:00a.m., we loaded up the truck to discover that it wouldn't start. Fortunately, it was a stick shift but it took us better than a hour to push it 300' up a slope to where the road started a long downhill and Russ got it started while coasting downhill. Getting through that, we drove out to the San Francisco police frontier checkpoint and arrived late in the afternoon. There were a lot of things that happened over the next three days before we were to get Wendell down to El Salvador which I don't have space to write about in this article.

When we first arrived at the checkpoint, I remember well the frenetic activity of a carabinero who raced into the office upon learning what had happened. Quickly surrounded by the four officials stationed there, there was a lot of rapid, animated discussion directed to Shane, our best Spanish speaker. I will never forget my sinking feeling when, after about ten minutes of hectic, obviously serious talking and Shane occasionally responding, "Si", I asked Shane what they had been saying and he replied "I don't know".

Returning to Ojos

We quickly learned that they had no SAR capability but thought a volunteer SAR team from the copper mining town of El Salvador - located about 120 miles to the north - could be there the next day at 8:00a.m. They wanted at least one of us to stay at the station to go back with the SAR team to recover Wendell. I volunteered to stay while the other four headed off on the four hour drive to Copiapo.

There were four people stationed at the checkpoint, an agricultural inspector, two carabineros (paramilitary state police) and one federal Interpol police officer who was in charge - none of whom spoke any English. They were as helpful as possible and we enjoyed communicating as much as possible with the little Spanish I could remember from the year I had taken at the University of Arizona 28 years ago. Their water system didn't work but they heated up a large kettle of water for me to use to take my first bath in seven days.

Next morning, Friday the l5th, Russ and Shane returned to assist and that started an interesting three day odyssey for us. I could write an article just about the experiences we had during the next three days as we worked with the carabineros and two volunteer SAR groups. It was quite an experience, particularly with the language barrier, to work our way through It and figure out what was going on. The main thing was that the Chileans were all marvelous and did everything they could to help us and get us through the ordeal. On that first day, Russ and I headed up with the two carabineros in our vehicle with the intent that the SAR team would meet us at the high police checkpoint at 14,500' which was just being opened for the summer.

I knew it was going to be a long day as we headed back up the road, listening to American hard rock music provided courtesy of the carabineros Manuel and Ramon. They periodically asked us for pills for their headaches as we drove higher and Ramon, the younger carabinero, sitting next to me was breathing bottled oxygen in between the times he was smoking cigarettes and continually trying to figure out where to keep his .38 revolver which I seemed to end up sitting on half the time. Seeing the worried look on my face as he waved it around, he opened the cylinder to show me that it wasn't loaded. They loved American hard rock music which, along with Arnold and Clint films was the extent of their English - "hasta la visita, baby" became our bonding phase. Fortunately, the next day Saturday the I6th, a professor and his Univ. of Atacama SAR team arrived from Copiapo. Getting past some interesting obstacles, which included five carabineros with a broken down trailer who needed to use our truck to carry their generator to the upper police checkpoint, we returned to the Andino Refugio by late morning.

Heading up the dozer road with the professor, two of his adult friends and four students, I figured that the eight of us should be able to do the recovery. The students were carrying all the gear and I decided to stay with them as they began following behind the adults. About half way up, they began faltering so I offered to take the gear for the one who had fallen back the farthest, realizing that if we didn't make it up, I would probably be required to keep coming back until we were successful. A little while later, the other three students asked if I could carry their gear too which was fine with me as I was well acclimated. About that time the students were asking me how old I was and were rather shocked to hear "cincuenta" (50) which was one of the few Spanish words I happened to remember. I was able in a round-about way to explain though "Yo vive aqui para slete dias" (I live here for seven days) to get the message across that I was well acclimated to the attitude while they had gone directly from 2,800' to 19,000' and were starting to run out of steam. I can't imagine gaining over 16,000' in seven hours and still being able to function as they were.

Reaching the adults about .5 mile from the upper hut, they were ready to head back since it was mid-afternoon and they felt there was not enough time left. I convinced them to let me go ahead with three of the students who felt the best. We got Wendell onto the stretcher and together, we were able to slowly start down with rest-stops about every five minutes. There was certainly no way the four of us were going to get the job done in the remaining time. We had gone about .25 mile below the upper hut when a Land Cruiser arrived. By letting the air out of the tires and driving backwards on the worst pitches, they had gotten the vehicle up to us. Tying the stretcher onto the roof and with nine of us inside, it was a rather hair raising ride down the steep and narrow dozer road.

Heading back, we stopped at the high police checkpoint so that Manual and Ramon could visit with their carabinero friends. They were appreciative of our earlier help in transporting the generator for them and we had a good time enjoying their hospitality and sharing of dinner. After some coaching, we were finally on our way and arrived back at the frontier police checkpoint about 9:00p.m. At first it appeared Russ, Shane and I would be required to drive on down to El Salvador with Wendell that night. Fortunately, it was decided we could wait until the next morning. When I inquired about paying them, the professor and his SAR team members said there were no charges for their time and effort and that it was the Governor of Providence of Atacama who had okayed the use of his personal Land Cruiser to effect the recovery.

Finding Our Way to el Salvador and Home

Sunday morning, we bid warm farewell to our four police station friends and with Wendell securely tied onto the back of the truck, headed off on 120 miles of dirt roads to find the mining town of El Salvador. Only getting lost once along the way, we reached the El Salvador hospital around noon. Checking in with the police, we learned that we would have to meet with the judge the next day before being done.

Returning to Copiapo, we found Jerry and Marilyn who been taken in by one of the two Americans who were currently living there. Marilyn held up well in dealing with the loss of Wendell after 45 years of marriage and our American hosts (English instructors at the Univ. of Atacama) had an evening barbecue for us at one of their homes overlooking the town. About this time, Shane became feverish and sick and we diagnosed he was suffering from severe dehydration after telling us "I didn't feel thirsty so didn't drink much water". Drinking all the water he could, Shane seemed to improve a little.

On Monday, we all drove the 100 miles back up to El Salvador to give our depositions to the judge. The report from the hospital was that Wendell had suffered from High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and that the same thing had happened to a German climber, the same age as Wendell (64) on Ojos the year before. According to the doctor, there was nothing we could have done and he didn't think that even taking more time for acclimating would have made any difference. In the meantime, the doctor had looked at Shane and hooked him up to an IV to treat his dehydration. After getting two bags of fluid, Shane was in great shape. When I asked the hospital administrator what we owed, he said that the hospital had been built by Americans and there was no charge.

After our return to the U.S., I attended the memorial services for Wendell in Atherton where his many impressive accomplishments and activities were celebrated. I highlighted his many Inyo Mountain accomplishments, which included giving us the Lonesome Miner Trail name, and described his great enthusiasm for taking on challenging backcountry outings.

This was my second trip to Chile and had Wendell not died I would have enjoyed my time there more than in any other country I have visited. The beauty and spaciousness of the Atacama desert is fascinating and the Chilean people are extremely nice. I am planning on doing more trips exploratory trips there in the future and am taking Spanish classes in order to be more conversant. I definitely want to do another driving tour of the Atacama and then there is all of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego to explore, too!


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