Over a year ago, my friend Ken Godowski and I began considering a trip to South America to climb a high peak in the Andes. We wanted to climb a 6000 meter peak (approximately 20,000 feet) by a relatively straightforward route since neither of us had climbed to that high of an altitude before. After doing some research, we decided to go to Chile because of it’s natural beauty, political stability, and it’s selection of numerous non-technical 6000m peaks.
After some additional research, we selected Cerro Tupungato, also known as Volcan Tupungato, (6570m, or 21,555 feet) as our primary objective, and Plomo (5424m, or 17,795 feet) as a warm-up climb. There are two peaks in the area with the name “Plomo”, one is El Plomo and the other Cerro del Plomo. Two separate guidebooks refer to the same 5424m peak by both names, so there is some confusion as to the proper designation for the peak we climbed.
Several web pages proved very useful in selecting our objective and planning our trip. Once on the mountain, we found that some of the details in the web pages were slightly off, such as altitudes and directions, but the following web pages were nonetheless useful:
We chose Tupungato as our primary objective for four main reasons. First, Tupungato is a 6000m peak with a non-technical route to the summit. Second, even though Tupungato is the highest peak in central Chile, it sees only a moderate amount of climbing traffic. The only peak higher than Tupungato in the region is Aconcagua, to the North in Argentina (the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere). Although Aconcagua also has a non-technical route to the summit, the peak is quite crowded, and there is a climbing fee of $500 per climber. A third reason for choosing Tupungato was the Rio Colorado river valley, providing access to the peak from the West – it is one of the prettiest mountain valleys in the Andes. And fourth, the nearby El Plomo, a popular peak near Santiago, provides a convenient and historically interesting warm up climb. In 1954 the peak was made famous when the mummy of an Inca child was discovered in an ancient structure near the summit http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/peru/mummies/high1.html
Tupungato also has a bit of interesting history, and mystery, surrounding the crash of the British passenger airplane “Stardust” in 1947 http://www.aconcagua-express.com/eng/lancaster_story.shtml. The last message sent from the plane just minutes before it’s expected landing in Santiago, “STENDEC”, was repeated a total of 3 times by the plane’s radio operator before communications with the plane were lost. The meaning of the enigmatic word “STENDEC” has never been explained. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/vanished/stendec.html
By September of 2004 our final group was comprised of Ken Godowski, Jeff Mitchell, and myself. All three of us worked at the same company in Fort Collins CO (QLT USA, Inc.) and had done many climbs and backpacks together. After finalizing our group, we purchased our plane tickets and began to organize the logistics of the trip.
Because parts of the Rio Colorado river valley belong to the Chilean Army and the power company Gener, permits were required to access the trailhead and approach Tupungato (permits from Difrol, the Chilean Army, and Gener). After an unsuccessful attempt to procure the permits ourselves, we contracted with a Chilean guide service, Andes Mountain Expediciones http://www.andesmountain.cl/index_ing.htm, to acquire our permits, arrange our mule service, and provide ground transportation to and from the trailheads. We provided all our own equipment, and planned and executed the climbs ourselves. Hiring a guide service to help with a few key logistics helped tremendously, and was relatively inexpensive compared to a fully guided trip.
The mules were needed in particular for the Tupungato climb as we could not have carried two weeks worth of food and all of our mountaineering equipment ourselves. We also used mules for the El Plomo climb, which although not necessary, made the approach and return hikes from base camp much more relaxing and enjoyable. Andes Mountain Expediciones also acquired topographic maps of Tupungato for us, which can be time consuming to obtain. We used the maps along with GPS units to confirm our location, bearings, and mark key waypoints along the climbs.
Our climb of El Plomo began with a day and a half approach to base camp starting from the La Parva ski area. We met up with our arriero, or cowboy, named Eduardo (Lalo for short) at the ski area, loaded up the mules, and began our hike. After passing the multiple roads and trails of the ski area, the trail went over a high pass and then down past a pond (laguna), becoming much easier to follow (Photo D-00715). We first camped at Piedra Numerada, a pretty site near a pond at 3405m (11,170 ft.) in the Rio Cepo valley (Photo D-00763, D-00769). On the second day we hiked up the valley for about 4 hours to our base camp on a large flat area below la Olla, at about 4100m (13,500 ft.) (Photo D-00779, D-00787). We made arrangements with Lalo to come back to base camp in two days with the mules.
On the third day, at about 4:00 AM, the three of us began our climb to the summit of Plomo. Most of the route to the summit followed a trail on talus and scree, with only a small low-angle snowfield near the summit requiring ice ax and crampons. At the far end of the snow field at about 17,300 feet, we began to feel tired and move more slowly, and it was at this point that Jeff turned back, as he was fighting a cold he caught a few days earlier. We agreed to talk with Jeff every hour on the two-way radios, and then Ken and I continued slowly on for the summit. At about 1:30 PM we reached the 17,795 foot summit, and I was nearly exhausted (Photo D-00803). We enjoyed the view, especially of Aconcagua to the NE and of Tupungato to the SE (Photo D-00808). We took some photos and then headed back down. I began feeling better as we descended, though we both were pretty tired. I’m sure that we would have felt much stronger had we spend more than one night at base camp before making our summit climb. We met up with Jeff at base camp, had a hot dinner, enjoyed the sunset and then went to bed (Photo D-00798, D-00817). The next morning Lalo came up to meet us and loaded up the mules. We then hiked the whole way out to the ski area that same day. That night we were back in Santiago eating great seafood, relaxing, and getting prepared to leave the next morning for our primary objective – Tupungato.
Our Tupungato itinerary was planned to take 13 days (Itinerary). The approach hike up the Rio Colorado valley to base camp took three days, and after the climb, another two days were used to descend the valley. The remaining 8 days were for climbing the mountain, with sufficient time to acclimatize to the high altitudes along the way. Our planned itinerary provided for two or three potential summit days, however, we ended up using one of those extra days to sit out a snow storm in Camp I.
One of the reasons we chose to climb Tupungato was to see and hike through the Rio Colorado river valley, supposedly one of the prettiest in Chile. The thundering sediment laden waters of the Rio Colorado are rusty reddish brown in color, giving the river its name (River Shot). Large mountain sides rise strait up out of the river valley in steep uninterrupted faces, some with up to 1700m (5500 ft.) of vertical relief (Photo D-00845, D-01003). We frequently saw condors in the lower half of the valley, soaring high overhead gliding on the thermals (Condor). The first mile or so of the trail overlooked some mining operations and hydroelectric facilities, but beyond that, the valley was more wild and scenic. There were lots of free-range cattle in the wide middle section of the valley, but other than a few fences, poles and gates, there were no signs of civilization.
On day one (December 24, 2004) we left Santiago in the morning and stopped at the police station in San Jose de Maipo, and then at the Gener guard station to pick up our permits. We were very apprehensive when the guard at Gener required us to turn over our passports for them to keep until our return. This insures that all visitors stop at the guard station to check back in after their trip – a very effective policy. After leaving the guard station, we continued driving up the valley to the trailhead where we met the arriero and the mules. Our arriero Rodriguez and his nephew Felipe loaded the mules as we began hiking up the valley. The mules carried all of our food and gear, allowing us to hike with only light daypacks. Because there were many places where the trail split or took a non-intuitive direction, Rodriguez and Felipe waited for us at key points on the trail to make sure that we made the right turn (Photo D-01004). The trail was generally in good condition, but was very narrow and sloping in some areas, making me glad that I was not carrying a heavy backpack. The trail stayed on the South (right) side and high above the main river, the Rio Colorado. We began hiking around 2:00 PM and reached our first campsite at Baños Azules (2500m, or 8,200ft.) in about 4 hours. Baños Azules is a sheltered campsite near a pretty travertine spring situated in a small hanging valley along the Estero del Museo creek (Photo D-00853).
Day two of the approach was longer, about 7 hours, and crossed numerous deep tributary drainages (Photo D-00855). Some of the tributary crossings were strenuous, hiking far down into and then up out of steep V-shaped valleys. The river crossings themselves were fairly straightforward; all but three of the rivers could be crossed with simple rock hopping. The two largest crossings were the Estero Museo and Estero Azufre. Thankfully the Estero Museo had a natural bridge just above our campsite over a large white rock, and the Estero Azufre had a man-made bridge that was in fair condition (Photo D-00863). Higher up the valley, the Estero Tupungatito was the third widest river, which required scouting up stream for a while to find an adequate crossing (Photo D-00878). A short distance below Estero Tupungatito the first views of Tupungato open up, with the active volcano Tupungatito to the right (Photo D-00881). Shortly after crossing two strenuous drainages coming from the South flanks of Tupungato, we reached our second camp at Vega de los Flojos (3290m, or 10,785 ft.) late in the afternoon (Photo D-00893). Next to camp several springs of crystal clear water welled up into tiny ponds surrounded by a thick green carpet of cacti. Camp provided great views of the glaciated peak Bella at the head of the valley (Photo D-00895).
On the morning of day 3, we got up early to prepare for the last day of our approach to base camp. By this time, Jeff’s cold had become worse, and he decided to stay there and ride out with the mules later in the day. It was a difficult decision to make, after so much planning and preparation, but Jeff was feeling pretty miserable, and would not likely have gotten better at higher altitudes. After crossing the large flat alluvial fan above camp (Photo D-00982), the trail followed the Rio Colorado more closely, which was now a much smaller creek (Photo D-00976). At around 12,100 ft (3700m), the trail crossed the Rio Colorado for the first time, and after a short distance crossed back to the right side again and began the steep ascent toward our base camp. The trail first passed the camp site of los Espanolas at around 4100m (13,500 ft.), and then another flat camping area near 4300m on the left side of the large basin adjoining the Western flanks of Tupungato. After mounting a low ridge on the left (Photo D-00904), we arrived at our base camp of Los Penitentes at 4410m (14,470 ft.), about 4 to 5 hours after leaving Vega De Los Flojos (Base Camp Tent). We were fortunate that the trail to Los Penitentes was mostly free of snow allowing the mules to take our gear this high rather than stopping at one of the lower camp sites. We made arrangements with Rodriguez and Felipe to return to Los Penitentes to meet us on January 4, which according to our schedule, would give us 2 or 3 potential summit days depending on the weather.
Day 4 was a rest day at base camp, the first day of rest we had had after a week of non-stop hiking and climbing (Photo 9297, 9301). The rest day was also important to allow our bodies time to acclimatize to the altitude. The camp at Los Penitentes had great views of the surrounding peaks, especially the glaciated peak Bella (Photo D-00919), and a good source of running water was nearby. The numerous snowfields in the area were covered with penitentes – spiky towers of snow up to 1 meter (3 ft.) tall (Photo 9280, 9284, 9322). Penitentes can be very difficult to hike through, especially with a heavy pack.
On day 5 we carried our high-altitude equipment and all the food and fuel we would use higher on the mountain up to Camp I at 4878m (16,000ft.), dropped it off, and returned to base camp for the night. The next day we planned to carry our tent and camping gear up to Camp I and occupy the camp. This form of upward progress, called a “double carry” made it easier to move up the mountain, as only half of our gear was carried on our backs at any given time. It would have been very slow and exhausting work trying to carry all of our food, fuel and gear in one carry at such high altitudes. Another advantage to double carries are that they aid the process of acclimatization – climbing high exposes the body to higher elevations, but sleeping low insures a good night’s rest.
On the way back down from our load carry to Camp I we visited the pass of El Hito, an easy divide crossing between Chile and Argentina. We left a note in the register there for a CSU group from our home town of Fort Collins that would be attempting the mountain from the Argentine side in a week or so (when we got home we found out that most of their group reached the summit http://www.oap.colostate.edu/Tupungato_Summit.htm. Up until now, the weather was generally clear and sunny, especially in the mornings, but in the afternoon clouds began to build earlier and much larger than usual, bringing light snow and a beautiful sunset (Photo D-00906, D-00910, D-00918, D-00908).
On Day 6 we stashed our extra gear at base camp and moved camp up to Camp I. Camp I was more exposed than base camp, so we built a high rock ring around the tent to provide some protection from the wind (Photo D-00925). There were two other flat areas with rock rings from previous expeditions a few hundred feet below us, one toward base camp, and another toward the pass of El Hito, but our location was a little higher and closing to the NNW ridge. From Camp I many of the surrounding peaks that had towered high above us for days were now level with us (Photo D-00926). In the afternoon the temperature was usually warm enough to provide running water from the surrounding snowfields.
On Day 7 we carried a load of food, fuel, and gear up to Camp II, our highest camp, at 5554m (18,220 ft.), dropped it off, and returned to Camp I for the night (Photo D-00938). We had originally planned to move camp up to Camp II on Day 8, but the weather would have something else to say about that. It snowed on and off through the night. We awoke on day 8 to blowing snow and colder temperatures. We decided to wait it out and make day 8 a rest day.
Fortunately, the weather was better on the morning of Day 9 (New Years Day) and we were able to move camp up to Camp II (High camp). The terrain at Camp II is very open and exposed, situated on the broad low-angle NNW ridge of the upper mountain, just a little right of the ridge crest (Photo D-00969). There are many large boulders at around 5500m (18,000 ft) and we were fortunate to find one at 5554m (18,222 ft.) that perfectly blocked the strong West wind and had a flat spot large enough for our 3-person tent (Photo D-00972). For the first time on the trip, we had to melt snow to make water. We melted snow to well past 9:00 PM to give ourselves enough water for dinner and for our summit attempt the following morning.
January 02, 2005. For the last several days the weather had been unsettled, especially the previous two days of snow. On the morning of Day 10, we awoke at 3:00 AM to crystal clear skies and a strong West wind. After waiting a while for the wind to die down, we left the tent for the summit at around 5:00 AM. The pink colors of Earth Shadow were strong in the Western sky at sunrise, and the shadow of the 5993m peak Polleras fell across the Earth Shadow making a colorful display (Photo D-00940, D-00944). Within an hour we reached the camp site of Los Argentinos at about 5800m (19,000 ft), which many parties use as their highest camp. By then the sun had risen, and we could clearly see the summit headwall of Tupungato. There were two main breaks in the summit headwall from the NNW ridge, a rocky couloir or gully on the right, and an open slope leading up to the top of the East-facing glacier on the left (Photo Break in ridge). Being uncertain of which was the standard route, we decided to go to the left as it appeared to be less steep. We would later find out that the right-hand option was actually the standard route.
After climbing up the long slope leading to the glacier, we mounted a small rock rib jutting up into the lower part of the snow and followed this until it ended. Above us was about 200 feet of 45 degree snow and ice which rounded off at the top to the summit plateau. I kicked steps up the middle of the slope, avoiding the icy patches on either side, as Ken followed close behind. We finally reached the top of the glacier and could see the gently rounded summit plateau (Photo D-00949). A little further on we found an obvious trail leading down a gully – we realized that this was the top of the standard route up the summit headwall. We made a note of the location on the GPS so that we could descend the standard route on our way back rather than go down our steep line of ascent (see GPS Coodinates).
As we climbed up the gently sloped summit plateau, we were moving slowly, a step and then a breath, another step and then a breath, but otherwise we felt fine with no headaches or signs of altitude sickness. As we approached what we thought was the summit, we finally saw in the medium distance the true North summit of Tupungato, at least 30 minutes away. By 3:30 PM we made the last few steps onto the North summit of Tupungato at 6565m (21,540 ft.) (Photo D-00954). Far below us on all sides were the fabulous valleys, glaciers, and high peaks of the central Chilean Andes (Photo D-00958). We gave each other a big hug, took some photos, and found shelter from the strong West wind a few feet East of the summit. It was a crystal clear sunny day, with no clouds in the sky, except for the mountains to our East in Argentina, which almost always seemed to have large afternoon thunderheads. After signing the summit register and leaving a note there for the CSU team who would hopefully summit in about a week, we began our decent as it was getting late in the afternoon. The descent down the standard route went without incident, with a small spot of class III rock and a large snowfield to cross before we arrived back on the NNW ridge near the Argentine camp site. By 8:00 PM we had descended down to our High camp. As we melted snow and prepared dinner, we watched the sun set far below us from a perfectly clear sky, the first clear day we had had in a week.
The next morning, Day 11, we packed up and hiked all the way down to base camp, carrying all of our gear in one heavy load (about 65 lbs.) (Photo D-00974). When we arrived at Los Penitentes, it was warm, the wind was not howling, and there was running water (no more melting snow). The place felt like a tropical beach to us compared to High camp. For the first time in a week we saw other people – a guided group of four clients and one guide was there. After talking with the guide, Tom Torkelson with Vision Quest Journeys http://www.visionquestjourneys.com/, we found out that our little detour off of the normal route on summit day probably added a good 3 hours to our climb. Tom’s group had packed in a cooler full of fresh meat and vegetables with their mules, and Tom graciously shared some tomato and freshly brewed coffee with us.
On the morning of Day 12, we packed up all of our gear and got it ready for the mules, as Rodriguez and Felipe were to meet us at 11:00 that morning, January 4. They showed up a little early, and we got started on our long hike out to the trailhead, which would only take us two days since it was mostly down hill (Photo D-00978). We spent the night at Agua Bueno, roughly at the half-way point, on a small bench between the Rio Colorado and the main valley floor at around 2650m (8,700 ft.) (Photo D-00985, D-00995). A spring pouring strait out of the hillside gives the site its name. As a special treat for dinner, Rodriguez brought steak, vegetables, wine, and bread in with him so that we could have a memorable and delicious meal our last night in the Andes.
On the 13th and final day of the Tupungato climb (January 5) we hiked down the hot, dusty and beautiful valley to the trailhead. We were tired, dirty, sweaty, and thirsty, and thinking thoughts of beds, showers, fresh seafood, and yummy Chilean wine, not to mention calling our wives to let them know we made it. At the trailhead, we met up with Gonzalo with Andes Mountain Expediciones, as we had previously arranged, and Jeff was there with him to meet us. Jeff explained that right after he had descended with a cold on Day 3 of the climb, he got back to town, jumped on an airplane, and went to the beach resort of La Serena. After a few days of laying on the beach he felt better, and ended up taking tours of the surrounding wine country, an observatory, and some off-shore islands with penguins and dolphins. Jeff turned it into a really nice vacation.
After the Climbs
For the remaining 3 days before our flight back to the states, we did some shopping, sightseeing, and took a tour of some local wineries. It turned out to be a wonderful trip in so many ways – incredible mountains, friendly people, great food, and a great adventure. It would be easy to spend two months there and still only begin to see all the wonderful things that make Chile such a special place.
I would highly recommend Andes Mountain Expediciones http://www.andesmountain.cl/index_ing.htm for anyone planning a trip to climb in Chile. They handled the permits, the transportation, and numerous other details of the trip promptly and professionally. Pedro, who we never did get to meet, was always very prompt in returning our MANY e-mail questions while planning the trip and was very knowledgeable of the area. Gonzalo, who we worked with most, was very friendly, professional, and willing to bend over backwards for us. And Andres, who arranged our excellent and environmentally conscious mule service, was very knowledgeable of Tupungato and provided good information on the technical aspects of our climb. I would go to Chile again in a heartbeat (if I had the money and the time off that is), but on the other hand, I hear that the Himalayas might have some good climbing too.