Dispatch #3 2/19/2006 Cajon del Maipo, Chile
With a mix of emotion, we have just returned from climbing in a region known as Cajon del Maipo or (the canyon of the river Maipo). The last little community nestled at the end of the road between the continuously growing mountains is Banos Morales. From here access is granted to a region of the Andes that few Chileans, even fewer foreigners, ever see.
To get to Cajon del Maipo seemed simple enough and after one taxi, two subway transfers, two micro bus transfers, hitchhiking in the back of a pickup truck with a couple and there 5 children toting one back pack, all the while transferring our 100 some pound Osprey duffels, finally arriving in Banos Morales and finding a mule to transport our bags while we rode horses, into the El Morado basin. The region was nothing short of amazing. Our camp sat at the base of the Laguna de Morado and Colgante Morado, which is a lagoon created by a massive hanging glacier. This particular spot is a popular place for tourists to visit, however, few stay the night even less go any higher. When we arrived the weather was stable, the air was warm, the sun was bright, and the entire world seemed aglow.
We spent the afternoon getting organized and prepping to move up the glacier to a higher camp. Our base camp sat at 3,000 meters, and after hiking a bit up the valley we decided it was at least 4 of moderate terrain to the base of the mountains we had intended to climb. We ate heartily that night and finished preparing to head up the glacier the next day.
In the morning the sun was blazing hot. We dawned our packs and began our march. My pack was enormously heavy (carrying one of those duffle/backpacks, not meant for long hauls) and I felt like I was back at NOLS. Jess’ pack wasn’t much better, (carrying one of Chris’ larger packs that was too big and didn’t sit on her hips). We labored up the glacial slope for what seemed like a lifetime. The sun was so hot beating off the glacier that we both could literally feel the lives being sucked from us like a bright yellow vampire in the sky.
The glacial valley was amazingly beautiful and teased us more and more with spectacular views of a fairytale landscape. Rock rose up instantly from the valley floor where it met some of the most beautiful and threatening hanging glaciers we have ever encountered. The evidence of rock and icefall littered the glacier below, all of which was very disconcerting. The mountain that we were intent on visiting is a 5,200-meter peak known as Mason Alto. The South East face we were attempting was partially hidden by an enormous icefall.
Once we reached our high camp just over 4,000 meters, we disposed of our heavy luggage and sought some shade tucked beneath a boulder. We decided that in the evening we would “just go for it”. We thought the base of the route was only an hour more hike, so we set up our bivy sacks, small Gore-Tex body bags, that are meant for survival not comfort, ate soup, boiled water furiously on our MSR stove, set our watch alarms for 2 a.m. and went to sleep.
Our camp sat well below and out of reach of one of the enormous hanging glaciers I spoke of earlier. It was propped precariously above the valley floor almost 1,000 meters up and appeared to defy all laws of gravity, until about 9 p.m. We had our first real “come to Jesus meeting” as my aunt Jo would say. This hanging glacier began to calve massive amounts of ice off its heavy latent shoulders. Throughout the early evening we were awakened regularly by loud cracks, almost like shotgun blasts. Our heads would peek out of our cocoons rapidly to see tons of rock and ice cascade down the rock face and crash violently into the glacier below. We were, on more than one occasion, dusted with a fine mist of rock and ice particulates from almost a ½ a mile away. This was all very stressful and as the time approached to leave our camp and begin ascending the mountain we had second thoughts about the current conditions. After almost an hour of deliberation (at 2am) we decided to hold off a day and collect more information. That morning (Valentines Day) first light we walked again in the draining heat through the maze of crevasses and debris littering the valley to the base of Mason Alto. It was a two+ hour hikes up the 4,500-meter base. We were instantly relieved we had not gone the night before when we looking at the summit and saw only an unrelenting black cloud, and it was only late morning. We were still motivated and we intended to ascend this route perhaps the next morning, conditions and weather dependent. We returned to camp as clouds consumed the summits of all the surrounding peaks. In awe of the instant cooling the clouds brought. We cooked beans and contemplated our lengthy ascent.
This is where the shit really hit the fan! At first it started out as “gropple” as mix of sleet and rain, then it turned to snow, and then it just flat out rained. The rain seemed like deep sobbing tears from the heavens. This continued for most of the day. We took shelter in our bivy sacks and prayed that they were truly waterproof, as they were about to be fully tested. Around 6 p.m. the rain had lightened up enough that we were able to crawl out and make super. Or reheat the leftover beans and scarf some peanut butter. After an hour it began again. This time the clouds had lowered their forceful heads and consumed the valley floor as well. Lightening and thunder harmoniously dominated the canyon with an efficient and oppressive beauty. We were completely socked in. The visibility was zero and from the six-inch gap in the zipper of my bivy sack I could only see a ghostly white mist. The storm became ravenous and it left Jess and I cringing in our bags. “ I haven’t been this scared in a while”, I thought to myself. Climbing Mason Alto became less of a concern and getting off the glacier and back to our roomy MSR Twin Peaks shelter became the priority. Between the glacial calving and the thunder it was hard to tell where one stopped and the other began. We spent a romantic Valentine’s evening in our separate bivy sacks reading separate books, and yelling over the rain, thunder, and glacier to one another to see what the other was doing (as if it would be something exciting).
Finally in the morning, the storm took an overdue break. Long enough for Jess and I to rapidly gather our soaked and frozen gear and make a run for it down the glacier. Ten minutes into our retreat we heard a crack reverberate through the canyon and as we looked back into the low-lying clouds we saw the largest rock fall we had collectively ever seen. Within seconds the rock fall engulfed the valley floor and fine dust particles unleashed during the slide engulfed what was our campsite. As the dust settled, the clouds took its place and once again we were on the edge of a white out. We tucked our proverbial tails between our legs and headed down valley.
When we reached our base camp it had rained there too. It began again, and was intermittent, so we spent the rest of the day thawing and trying desperately to dry our down sleeping bags. Then from a ridge high above we heard a distant but friendly “HOLA!” We were so rattled for being stuck in our bivy sacks in an unrelenting storm that we were tempted to cash in our chips and get the heck out of Dodge. Two hours from the Laguna there was a road, and if our new friends had a car there was potential that we could hitch a ride rather than waiting another 5 days in horrible weather for our mules to arrive. I stayed and fiddled with the gear while Jess and her superior Spanish went to talk to our new mates. She came back an hour later elated with the news that although they had no car, they knew the area well, and were leaving the next morning and could tell our muleteer that we were ready to be picked up.
The two strangers turned out to be a quality couple from Santiago. One was a 19-year-old girl who spoke perfect English and her lover a 45-year-old man, who was a pioneering Alpinist of the area as well as a recognized Chilean poet. Jess had arranged to meet up with them in the evening to chat over tea. In the mean time we fled another onslaught of rain that stood fast until the evening. Around 6p.m. we cooked dinner and left camp to seek out the couple. These Chileans turned out to be awesome and I quickly bonded with this old poet of the mountains. We all talked for hours while the rain was held at bay by our conversations. The topics revolved around English, Spanish, Americans, Chileans, youth, age, life, death, climbing, and a life in the mountains.
He proudly showed us his antique wooden ice axe, hand crafted by his uncle. Its welded steel head had a cold stamped logo that simply read CHILE. He then pulled out a small ditty bag, smaller than most women’s handbags. It contained all his essential climbing equipment, including an ancient and weathered webbing chest harness, an additional piece of ½ inch tubular webbing, a prussik cord and two carabiners. Show and tell continued with the display of OUR gear. We opened our huge Transporter duffle and his eyes lit up like a “kid in a candy store”. He marveled at our complex gear, shiny and new, almost all of which appeared foreign to him. He had never seen a CAM, a LOADLIMITER, and only had working knowledge of ICE SCREWS. He laughed when he saw our curved ice axes, he commented on them saying that “they seemed functional”, and giggled at his comment as though he had thought of the design himself, just then.
I felt embarrassed of all our gear. And I remarked that, “all of this shit amounted to nothing if you don’t have a good head on your shoulders.” I could tell he liked this comment and that he was glad to see that I actually believed what I said. We shared climbing stories as the night crept in.
I could see in his weathered face that read like a topographical map he was envious of our youth and maybe of all our STUFF, but that look quickly changed when he began to reflect on his life in the mountains in all its simplicity. Then I felt my expression change from proud and ambitious to jealous of his simple tools and his unwavering commitment to a life in the mountains. We told him of American philosophies on climbing and alpinism, some that we agreed with and some we don’t, and of our pressures to climb higher, faster, and harder, as if we expected him to relate. He said, “Cemeteries are full of heroes”. Simply put and well taken, we thought.
He rattled on through the night about stories of youth and old friends loosing their lives in these mountains, stories of the epic weather, and tales of Nazi Germans who put little miniatures statues of Hitler at the tops of many mountains they first climbed here. He also told us the current conditions of all the mountains that we wanted to climb. He thought all would be foolish to climb at the current time of year, save one, Punta Italia. Its west face has a pure rock route, yet to be climbed. We felt rejuvenated by this statement, and as soon as we said our fond goodbyes, we set our sites on this new goal.
We had told the couple of our desire to leave early, and they had promised to tell our muleteer and guaranteed his arrival to pick us up in two days time. We were glad that we would soon be leaving, as the weather had not yet lightened, but with the barometer on the rise and a new goal in our hearts we felt full of hope. The next morning we awoke to Lewis (the old man) at our tent telling us to come out, that the mountains were ready for, Chris and Jessica. That afternoon we gathered our things, rested, and psyched ourselves up for the next 24 hours. The day was flawless and the sky seemed at peace. That night we arose to a nearly full moon and a cloudless sky, at 12 a.m. we set off for one solid push, from our base camp at under 3,000 meters, to the summit of Punta Italia 5,200 meters and back in 24 hours. Sounds good, right?
Jess and I started moving light and fast, crossing a roaring river, climbing snow, ice, and rock through the night. Dave Wuchner, my college roommate’s, music blaring on my IPod and Jess bobbing hear head to the mix she had made with her good friend Brandon Eyre, (although only 3, has excellent taste in music!) We cruised up the snow pack, the night stayed clear, and the climbing was good. Jess’ spirits began to deteriorate with the onset of a headache and stomach problems. We had to climb a knife edged rock ridge to gain the glacial basin where Punta Italia’s West Face rose. After an hour on the ridge, facing serious repercussions with one false step, Jess had had enough. What we thought would take 3 hours to get to have already taken 4.5. I think between the last week’s events and the current stresses, we decided it would be unwise to push ourselves any further on an unknown face. As we heard rock fall begin to echo above us, we bailed, once again. In the comfort of the newly rising sun we descended back to base camp after our 7 hour rendezvous. We slept most of the day. It had been a sunny day and the night came quickly. The night was as cold and sharp as an ice axe pick.
The next morning we prepared for our muleteer, as he was arriving at 10am. A Californian and Chilean were ascending with hopes to climb one of the glorious mountains we had hoped to stand on, we chatted about climbing, laughed and exchanged beta. The Californian telling us of two other trips he made to this area with similar weather conditions and getting shut down. Making us feel like it wasn’t just our bad luck in Chile, we wished them luck and felt like maybe with the good weather we should stay, in the same breath the mule and his caretaker arrived, only 3 hours late, in good old’ fashion Latin American time. We packed our large bags on the back of this hauling machine and spent the afternoon hiking back towards civilization. As we walked down the valley, mule in tow, we saw the clouds creep in once again. By the time we reached the town of Banos Morales, where we began the trip, the mountains were once again behind the curtains of a deep black veil. We breathed a sigh of relief, glad with our decision, disappointed in our climbing, but happy to be out of the storms.
In all the instability of the last week one thing became clear to us in Cajon del Maipo. Life lessons, as well as climbing lessons aren’t always learned on the route, be it rock, ice, or snow. Sometimes these lessons in humility are learned in schlepping 100lb packs up a glacial slope, or stuck in an unforgiving storm not being able to move up or down to safety, or taught to us by an old brother of the mountains simple and content. These lessons are learned in failure, struggle, and triumph.
We are still learning. We are still failing, struggling, and we hope that we will triumph again, SOON!
As always thanks for reading. Sorry this one was so long. There was a lot we wanted to share. We wish all of you suerte (luck) as we say often to friends that we part with. We are in Santiago for a few days while we regroup and prepare for the next leg of the trip. Please keep checking out the web site and as always feel free to post comments, questions, and feedback. Thank you for your continued support.