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Red-Tape Hurdles


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Feb. 9: A network of open irrigation canals by every sidewalk sustains huge maple trees, but you must watch your step. Shopping day was going fine until everyone refused to accept my 500,000 austral bill (US$50). The 50 peso bill had replaced it after I had changed it a month ago, so I was supposed to just trade it in at the bank. I waited in line, but it was for the wrong counter. When I got through another line, they directed me to get forms on another street. Returning with the correct documents, and re-waiting the line, I eagerly anticipated the precious bank note, but it would take two weeks to process! Welcome to Argentina. At a small climbing gear shop, I overheard the cashier telling an American she didn't have change for his 100 peso bill. I stepped over and eagerly offered to help, providing change and slipping him the cursed bill, plus 50 good pesos.

I met an Argentine climber who invited me to his home to sell me a Sigg fuel bottle, which I needed to replace my Canadian Tire naphtha can. It had leaked from the pressure difference when gaining altitude. Two guys spotted my bike and came running up to me to exchange cycling stories. They had done a respectable 1000-kilometer trip over two Andes passes.


Feb. 10: People stared as I wrapped the bike in a huge plastic sheet at the bus terminus. The baggage guy reluctantly fitted the bulky load in the compartment. This eight-hour journey north would cover 600 kilometers of monotonous pampas. The distant Andes to the west could barely be seen. The sweating attendant ordered the curtains shut to keep out the blazing sun. He played American movie videos with spanish subtitles on the monitors plagued with flickering and intermittent blackouts. A teenage girl who had seen my elaborate gear requested me to sign my autograph on the underside of her cap. That's one thing that turns me on to these expeditions: I'm a somebody out here. In my la Rioja destination, I stayed at the Petit Residencial where the rooms, including the owner's residence, enclosed a rectangular courtyard. This is a popular configuration of small Latin American hotels.


Feb. 11: Two items, critical to the next expedition, had to picked up at the post office. They had the box of 25 freeze-dried meat packs that I had mailed from Montreal all right, but they had to pass customs clearance and would be ready tuesday. It was now thursday. As for the Ojos del Salado permit from Santiago, nothing. Attempting to cut some red tape, I went pleading at the customs station on the outskirts of town, but I'd have to wait for tomorrow.

I settled in the bush, where I tediously sewed the new tent zippers with nylon fishing line. That night, fireflies made a flashing display while other insects chirped louder than I believed possible, to the point of pain in the ears.



Feb. 12: A day of begging, harassing, waiting, shuttling back and forth from the post office to the customs station, being yelled at by some, being helped by others, and I finally got my box of meats with a form on it saying it came from Northern Ireland!? The three postcards I mailed would never leave town; after I paid the clerk for stamps, he insisted would stick them on the cards himself, but I made the mistake of not supervising the act.

With an aching stomach from the red tape ordeal, I cycled on, launching the Ojos del Salado expedition. The next town on the map consists of four buildings—two demolished. After getting water from a barrel in the next settlement, I pitched up in a dry river bed in cactus country, and went for an evening walk. Returning in the dark, I desperately searched many dry river beds before finding the tent.


Feb. 13: Several dehydrated dead cows and horses lined the road to Aimogasta. It is the olive capital of Argentina, thanks to an irrigation network, which also supports grape vine plantations. I savored a Brazilian beer as I explored lonely "badlands"—intriguing wind-sculpted mounds. I could hardly sleep; it was still 29°C after dark.


Feb. 14: Four thorn holes plagued my front tire. The desert heat was torrid and demanded guzzling four liters of water per day. A river lined with lush greenery cut through the desert. It felt glorious lying flat in that clear water. Relief from discomfort defines many such pleasures. The enticing snowy Andes reappeared in the distance.

In Copacabana, I approached a man who was tending his flowers and requested water. After filling my bottles, he proudly went to his fridge to add ice. "Oh no," I thought, "not only am I embarrassingly not drinking a drop while I'm with him, but I'll have to wait twice as long for the iodine to sterilize the cold water!" I never put in the tablets when a local is watching; it may be insulting.


Feb. 15: I shooed away hogs that came investigating my stuff. In town, it was the siesta problem again. "Tinogasta sleeps all day!," I told the woman, when she informed me that stores open at 6:00 p.m. Meanwhile; I parked behind an abandoned building and caught up on chores. Stocking up to my satisfaction required me to shop at no fewer than four stores.

I reached in my pocket for cash, but was embarrassed to realize there wasn't enough to cover the groceries, so I excused myself and stepped out. I removed one hiking boot, extracted a shriveled Ziploc bag from under the insole, and peeled out some bank notes. I went back inside and handed a reeking bill, hoping they had not been watching! Regardless, the universally venerated U.S. note was eagerly accepted.

I should have camped farther from the road; more noisy traffic passed at night because locals avoid hot daytime travel.


Feb. 16: More red tape awaited me in Fiambala, the last town before the remote Andes crossing, and the border. At the customs post, they detained me four hours because I didn't have the necessary forms, or was it because they wanted a bribe or were bored? Part of the confusion was that I had walked through the new Puente del Inca customs station without my bike. They looked through every "transgression" binder on the shelf, and I had to explain my story, in my broken Spanish, five times. I kept showing my Saint-Laurent municipal bicycle registration slip while they offered me maté, a herbal infusion drunk through a straw and producing a slight buzz for 15 minutes. Finally, they got sick of me, so the boss told me to go on and give an oral declaration at the next checkpoint near the border.

I obtained the remaining supplies for three weeks of self-sufficiency. Coming out of the oasis, the landscape was surreal: sparse bushes in a wide valley with ocher patches spotting the slopes. Black clouds and lightning threatened in the distance. A strong wind whipped sand everywhere, and required placing rocks in the tent corners. A catatonic lizard, camouflaged to the colors of the sand, hung around. When the wind subsided, distant music from the village and the dogs barking their heads off to it kept me awake, so I made earplugs from wet toilet paper, but now worries of the expedition took over.




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Remote Feelings


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Feb. 17: It was the end of the pavement, and bridges. To cross a small river, I had to remove my boots and socks, then walk the bike across. The car that crossed the other way was the last I saw all day. An old rusty town sign was slumped by some abandoned buildings. The next sign indicated 487 kilometers to Copiapó, Chile. I was shitting bricks about the expedition I was about to undertake.

It often required maximum power in first gear to heave the mass of food and equipment, equal to my weight, up the Andes... again. I slept to the sound of the rushing Río Guanchin, and rain on the tent. In contrast to the dry lowlands, this zone, over 2100 meters, receives frequent drizzle.


Feb. 18: The micro-size flies (known as no-see-ums, midges, gnats or piums) were out by my riverside camp. When multitudes of these relentless and almost invisible pests bit me, I felt a generalized irritation commanding urgent covering up. The track passed by more ruins in a splendid multicolored narrow winding canyon.


Guanchin River near Chaschuil

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There must have been some stimulant in the chocolate; I went like wildfire for one and a half hours. Campsite was by the same river, now only two meters across and gentle. Rock garden coniferous shrubs and bright green plants made the site gorgeous, but the donkeys and cows also hung out there—I had to shoo them away all night long.


Feb. 19: In the wide deserted and bare Chaschuil valley, the area felt utterly remote. It was getting much cooler as I kept moving up, now 3300 meters. The difference between overcast and clear temperatures was also more drastic. Lightning storms thundered in the distance.


Feb. 20: It was a miserable, cold, gloomy morning. At Cazadero Grande, I looked for the trail to Ojos del Salado. A track led to a stone hut, but it crosses the Guanchin river a half-meter deep, so I took off my boots and socks, and crossed in three loads. Then came barking dogs, but I quickly subdued them with sweet-talk. Goats and sheep munched hay within stone enclosures. Smoke was rising from the chimney. A hermit came out and informed me that the path up was bad. I told him I'll be back in a week and not to tell anyone I'm up there. I followed the track up the hill, but it fizzled out to a field of bumpy grass. I spent four hours searching for the trail among hundreds of cow paths, grass clumps and reeds. The trailer flipped about five times. I crossed two streams lined with giant grass bunches by separating and carrying the trailer. I was desperate to find the trail so that I could climb Ojos del Salado from the Argentine side because I never received the Chilean permit for climbing the mountain. I also worried that they would confiscate all my food at border station before I would even get to Ojos del Salado. However; it became clear there was no way I was could bike up there. I considered walking the 56 kilometers and back, but that would have used up all my food. I resigned to recross the river, go back to the track to Chile and take my chances.

That evening, depressing feelings prevailed. I camped a kilometer from the river, so no animals would bother me.


Feb. 21: I changed contact lenses using a small plastic mirror hanging from the tent roof, and cleaned the other pair with the proper solutions and tablet. The "washboards" and sand in the track were getting worse, and so was the head wind. Some Argentine tourist vehicles stopped by, astonished at seeing this remote cyclist at 3500 meters (cover photo). I was flattered as they photographed and videotaped me.


Book Cover

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At Las Peladas hills (bald heads), I explored a stream with hard and white salty shores. As I extracted the sleeping bag from its pouch after dark, the multitudes of static scintillations and crackles indicated an increasingly dry environment.


Feb. 22: The water from the stream tasted salty, but tolerably diluted. I proceeded up to 4000 meters, then down a bit to Vegas de San Francisco: a three-kilometer lake and wetland. A great view of volcanic nevados (snow-capped peaks) appeared: Nevado de San Francisco (6018m), and Nevado Incahuasi (6610m) (Inca house).

German Walther Penck had soloed both in January, 1913 while performing a geological and geographical survey of the area. Despite his extensive experience in the Alps, he described San Francisco as the hardest climb of his life. He discovered pre-Columbian ruins on the summit of Incahuasi, but his report blatantly omits any sighting of an adjacent peak 260 meters higher (Ojos del Salado). My interpretation is that he was in the clouds, either literally or mentally.

At Las Grutas (the caves), 25 kilometers before the border, I arrived at an Argentine military station. One obnoxious man asked me, demonstrating in signs, if I had laid any women. He told me all my food would be confiscated on the Chilean side. We went in the building and they served me huge plates of meat, telling me to eat enough to get to towns in Chile, 300 kilometers away, but that the road is smooth and hard as the floor. They wouldn't let me bike over the lofty San Francisco pass (4725m) because it was late in the day, and no camping was allowed near the border. A pickup truck was soon leaving for the Chilean station 70 kilometers away, so I accepted the ride rather than wait until tomorrow, being so worried about the food situation, but being sad to cheat a portion of the trip. To my relief, they never bothered me about the "missing" bicycle forms, after all that fuss in Fiambala. I loaded my stuff and sat on a plastic barrel in the cramped back of the open pickup. The driver went like a maniac on the narrow bumpy track. He hit rocks like mad while I hung on for dear life. Sand whipped into my face as he floored it on straight stretches, obscuring my spectacular view.

Crossing into Chile, we entered the desolate and lofty (3000m-4500m) tableland of the Puna de Atacama, the southern extension of the Altiplano. Here the peaks are almost exclusively volcanic. In contrast to the jagged folded mountains around Aconcagua, which are arranged in rows and separated by valleys, these volcanos delineate more gentle forms, and dot the plateau at random. Most are isolated from one anther by stretches of flat puna. Humped on this lofty pedestal, they need not be colossal to be classed among the high peaks of the world.

Laguna Verde (green lake) was a showpiece.


Laguna Verde Chile

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This greenish-blue lake is encompassed by beige cliffs with sloping bases and white shores. Parched, yellow grass bunches speckled the slopes. We stopped by the shore for photos, so I had a chance to taste a drop; it was quite salty. Most the lakes on this highland plateau have no outlet, because the scant precipitation is insufficient to fill and overflow their basins. The salts leeched from the surrounding mountains accumulate over eons.

Back to the mad ride, he charged across a stream splashing water all over. The bike banged around and the handlebar was digging into my side at every wild bump. When we arrived at the Chilean station, Hosteria Murray, the Carabineros de Chile traded wine and mail.





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Eyes of the Spirited

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The carabineros (military police) confirmed that the massive volcano 25 kilometers away is Nevado Ojos del Salado, and I desired it dearly. They filled multiple forms for my entry, tourist card, and bicycle without a hassle—much more polite than the Argentines. The station is at pampa de Barrancas Blancas (4500m), directly in front of the access to my goal, terribly placed for my problem. I would too easily be seen if I tried to sneak up without a permit, so I explained my intentions, and the permit problem. The chief swiftly denied me, but the younger guys enthusiastically proposed that they could radio Copiapó for official registration.

I proposed to camp by the station, but it was ferociously windy, so they told me to camp in the garage on the ground floor of the station. I pitched the tent on the dusty ground. They invited me for soup later. That night, they threw a party, complete with loud music. Wet tissue earplugs cut the noise, but sleep was delayed by uncertainty of the permit, and stomach pain from the worry.


Feb. 23: In the cold garage, I planned the route, calibrated the altimeter, sorted the food and gear, and put away the bike and trailer. I heard them radio my request at 10:00 a.m. A French team was on the mountain, but two of them had returned to Copiapó for truck parts. Their other truck was stranded up the mountain. I gave some post cards of Montreal and Ottawa to socialize with the carabineros. I put on my flashy Scarpa Vega boots and leaned my huge backpack beside the door to show I was serious about going up. The mountains on this side of the Andes are much more arid than on the Argentine side. The colors of the mountains are also less vivid. The vegetation is practically nil, and the clouds could be seen to terminate on the other side of the Andes. The patches of snow on high slopes were only what was left from last winter. I sat in awe, gazing at the mineral entity in profound anticipation of uniting with its mystical aura.

At 4:00 p.m., all the men assembled in the radio room. The operator had a lengthy discussion with the garbled voice, giving my name, address, passport number, profession, and length of stay on the mountain, sometimes letter by letter with the Spanish alphabetic word codes. When they yelled "Yeay!," I understood that was the go-ahead that would allow my dream to unfold. I thanked them all and told them the Chilean police are kind and cooperative. I filled up with water for two days remembering the Frenchman informing me that no water or snow is available until high up the mountain: four liters in my belly pack gourde plus two liters in the Nalgene bottles. I just hoped I wouldn't fall, or that fragile belly gourde would give me a good soaking. ¡Adios!

Nevado Ojos del Salado, is usually translated as "eyes of the salty", maybe in reference to volcanos looking like eyes on salt plains. But salado also means witty, amusing, or spirited. "Eyes of the spirited" has a nice ring to it, so I pick this translation.


Ojos del Salado

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Ojos del Salado, towering at 6870 meters, is a compound stratovolcano whose wandering vent piled up at least a dozen andesitic and dacitic cones, intermingled with lava domes and craters. "Strato" designates this immense heap as largely an accumulation of ash and cinders rather than liquid lava. Aged only 1,500,000 years, it is one of the youngest in the region. Volcanologists claim that it has not erupted in historic times, but I would not regard the absence of eruption reports as a guarantee of its quiescence, considering its remoteness from human eyes.

The first recorded ascent of this obscure mountain was not until February 26, 1937 by a Polish expedition. Justan Wojsznis and Alfred Szczepanski slogged up from the southwest (Argentine) side, after having their gear hauled up to 5800m by mule. Their expedition included four climbers, four arrieros (muleteers) and twenty-five mules. In two and a half months, the Poles scaled a respectable 11 peaks over 6000 meters, and discovered an ancient Inca ceremonial site at the summit of Volcán de Copiapó, or Co. Azufre (6080m).

Since then, Ojos del Salado has been marred by geological exploration. A vehicle track in the fine volcanic ash leads to at least the second refuge at 5750 meters, but I was not interested in those. I want a more intimate contact with mountains. I planned an altitude gain of 400 meters per day compared with 300 meters on Aconcagua, having retained some acclimatization, but this rate is still safely conservative. As I left the plain and embarked on the approach, I was already hovering at two thirds of the altitude to the top (4500m to 6870m).

On the shadow side (south) of a small bluff, a five-meter field of nieve penitentes had survived the desert. So much for the Frenchman's report. I stubbornly kept the water even if my 39-kilo load felt like a ton.


Feb. 24: It was dreadfully quiet until the Frenchman in the Azimut 360 truck returned with his parts and stopped by my camp. His group was at the second refuge and would attempt the summit tomorrow. The clients each paid US$1500 from Copiapó, for less than two weeks. I would spend that much (excluding equipment and airfare) in four months!

I soon walked away from the winding track and made my own, more direct, route. I walked on rocks as much as possible since the volcanic sand was so soft. I planned my route more precisely by analyzing the mountain and the topo map from the Santiago frontier office. After my approach from the north, I would spiral up counterclockwise from the north to the south face. That cold evening, I enjoyed gin and reconstituted grapefruit drink. "How privileged I am to be here!", I thought, as I explored intricate penitentes. I woke up with cold feet at 2:00 a.m. when it was about -18°C. Candy calories helped the feet, but not the sleep.


Feb. 25: I climbed up a steep ravine cut by its stream. The ground alternates between rocks, and ice covered with some sand. This was much easier than climbing the sandy slopes directly, and the sound was pleasant. Now at 5600 meters, chores were demanding more effort and hard breathing. I collected the freezing water to wash my hair, but had to let the sand settle to the bottom of the bottle first. I washed the socks directly in the stream, so I would have to shake the sand off when they dry. Sand blew into everything. The tent floor was always covered in it, but it was white and pristine. I missed friends back home.

My bone marrow was in high gear again, putting out countless additional red blood cells needed to distribute the oxygen from the dwindling air pressure. Despite laying awake half the night from high-altitude insomnia, I was very pleased with my body's acclimatization performance. Headaches and loss of appetite?—even less than on Aconcagua. Disorientation, palpitations, nausea, dehydration, clumsiness, loss of memory, coughing?—not me!


Feb. 26: When the sun hit the tent, it was a welcome heat shock. As I squirmed out, I was re-immersed in the sterile vista.


Ojos del Salado 5600m camp

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I might as well have been on the moon, if it weren't for the volcanos' snow bonnets and the water-carved ravines. Boulder-hopping up the stream, I breathed up to two breaths per step. My mind reflected about past experiences, but I also contemplated God the artist of nature in the present. I felt a bit dazed out and out of balance. I camped by a gorgeous field of penitentes, their tilted parallel bands telling the story of successive snowfalls with intervening periods of dust deposition.


Ojos del Salado Penitentes

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By this splendor, I cooked fideos noodles with soup powder and olive oil—delicious. I dreamed a nightmare in which I got off a bus, and it left with all my equipment.


Feb. 27: I was amazed to see a black earwig insect at 5900 meters, establishing that life is tenacious even in such brutal habitats. I reached a snow field, and took out the crampons. The snow was crusty and my foot fell through frequently, but I persisted until... the crust completely shattered sending me plummeting into a void! I felt a sharp pain as the ice axe stabbed me in the ribs. I trembled as I extricated myself and examined the hole in my parka. I thanked my protector when I saw the pick had stopped at the strong inner lining. To my divine fortune, the axe's bottom spike had become blunt with all the pounding it had taken. I suffered a scrape and bruise, but nothing pierced or broken. I had not realized that this snow field was in fact a field of two-meter-high penitentes covered with a crust of snow. The mountain lay still and quiet, indifferent to the tribulations of a mere human. In this terrain of colossal proportions, humans realize that they are exceedingly fragile. It was a humbling, ego-deflating experience, especially to a solitary explorer. To this day, I bear a scar in memory of that passionate expedition.

The scare charged me up with nervous energy, and after returning to the rocks, I pushed on at only one breath per step. I climbed up some narrow strips of snow—those were safe. By 5:30 p.m., it looked as if the slope would never end, so I skirted across to a hump. Wow!... a volcanic crater with fumaroles of steam!


Ojos del Salado volcanic vents

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I had known of their existence from the listing in the Guinness Book of Records under "highest active volcano," which reported that they are 6400 meters up this 6870-meter volcano, but I had no idea that they would be directly on my spiraling route, presently west of the summit. I was in ecstasy, having stumbled upon this magical place. Camping a safe distance away from the fumaroles (I hoped!) along the crater rim, I prepared for tomorrow's summit push. I changed my mind about forbidding myself to use the stove in the tent, taking care to open the large ventilation screens. There was no problem as the stunted flame slowly melted the snow that I transferred from a plastic bag into the tiny aluminum pan, bit by bit. I ran out of fire paste to preheat the fuel tube, so I resorted to vigorously rubbing it with a string. To my delight, this not only works better, but is also far more simple and functions sustainably, eliminating the need for resupplies of consumable paste.

The starry night sky on this lofty mountain was an astronomer's dream. However; it had turned into an astronomer's nightmare a few years ago, to three different expeditions who each had attempted to set up a telescope on the summit. Their ambition was to make observations at an altitude approaching twice that of Hawaii's Mauna Kea, but in this famous clear air of the Chilean Andes, where the best observing sites in the world are located. Cerro Tololo, Las Campanas, and La Silla all bear world-class telescopes, but at 3000 meters or less. The enthusiasm of our would-be Ojos de Salado astronomers, was crushed by the severe headaches and insomnia of oxygen starvation, which also degraded the very vision they had come to fulfil! None of the 12 members of the French attempt, let alone their telescope, ever reached the summit. Their highest astronomical photo was at only 5800 meters. Well, I had taken my sweet time acclimatizing, and my vision was splendid.

The volcanic vent sounded like a rocket engine and induced sound sleeping for the first time in four days.


Feb. 28: To shield against the vicious ultraviolet rays, I applied 15 sunscreen on my face, mountaineering screen on my lips, the mirrored glacier goggles over my eyes, the cap with a long flap over my forehead. Leaving the camp set up, I started climbing up the crater wall between imposing cliffs. The fumes were being blown right up this gully. Breathing so deeply for oxygen, I was worried of being poisoned by hydrogen sulfide (H2S), which stunk like rotten eggs. Fortunately, the wind picked up and dispersed the vile gas, but it kept picking up, and up, until it was about 100 kilometers per hour and throwing me off balance. I had to crouch down and walk my hands until the top of the gully where the venturi effect subsided. The view opened up to multitudes of other peaks. I continued up the scree slope until it became a level ridge of broken rocks with a 25-centimeter-tall metal pyramid on the snow. Now the only higher point on this giant was some rocks on a sheer tower with a fixed rope, and separated from this ridge by a 20-meter drop. They looked only about a meter higher than here.

No way was I going up there for less than my own height, so I gave myself the go-ahead for exalted Yah-hoo screams, that went on until my throat was hurting. I felt supremely delighted at my accomplishment. The solitude was absolute and magnificent. Again, I had made it happen. The unique human-powered approach, the remoteness, the isolation, the uncertainty, the red-tape hurdles, physical discomforts, strenuous climb, natural dangers, and the fact that this objective is little-known to mountaineers all contributed to the glorious excitement of exhilarating freedom.

I had scaled the 470 meters to ecstasy in four hours. I had to keep the mitten shells on as I photographed the summit panorama in 37 exposures.


Ojos del Salado summit

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It was spectacular—the best in my collection of four photographed. I sat mesmerized, absorbing the endless expanse of reddish, brown, beige and grey hues, adorned with giants laced with white patches and streaks. No trace of life or civilization could be discerned. A few lakes dotted the desert, including cyan Laguna Verde, and a milky brown crater lake. The clouds were distant, and on the Argentine side only. The sky was dark blue, because so little air remained between here and the vacuum of space. Hundreds of peaks stood in all directions, dozens exceeding 6000 meters, and most of these are volcanos. Monte Pissis, 73 kilometers south in Argentina, is the only visible one possibly higher, as recent surveys of its elevation range from 6858 to 6882 meters, whereas those of Ojos del Salado span 6870 to 6887 meters. However; Pissis was neither in my atlas nor is it "active," and of course Cerro Aconcagua is higher, by 90 meters. All these volcanos stand as testimony to the searing heat of friction that occurs as the Nazca tectonic plate subducts with colossal forces under the South American plate. I identified six of the craters from which Ojos del Salado had been born, but only the one near high camp was still fuming. The fumarole, which had been a roaring monster when I started the climb, was now only discernable as a small puff. The pyramid was in memory of Cesar Tejos Echeverria: the helicopter pilot who died along with geologist Dr. George Murray, when their machine crashed near the summit in 1984. No wonder, this must be the limit of chopper altitude and the slightest gust would toss the vulnerable contraption on the slope. Wedged between rocks, a plastic cylinder protected the summit log. I read that a team had hiked from Cazadero Grande as I had considered. Another entry was by guys from Colorado in 1992. Using the pencil attached to a one-meter-high wooden stick, I drew a bicycle and trailer going from La Rioja to Copiapó with Ojos del Salado halfway. I collected my summit rock, a beige volcanic rock laced with yellow spots of sulfur.

After one and a half hours on this loftiest active volcano on Earth, I descended toward some orange and yellow spots in the snow. I gasped when I realized they were the debris of the crashed helicopter, complete with rotors. I picked up two small pieces for my collection fixation. Descending the wind venturi, I sometimes had to put my hand in front of my face when blasts of wind whipped up snow. The tent had been whipped too; one pole had slipped out of its apex fitting. I had not placed enough rocks on the base.

After supper, I celebrated with a drink and the Aconcagua cigar, by the volcanic vents. It was dusk and the terrain was wildly strange. A fissure about five meters by two meters emanated boiling steam and made burbling sounds. Its sides were stained with sulfur. The yellow ground was squishy and sticky. Holes as small as a centimeter across fumed vile gases. Others poured hot water, cutting a course in the snow below. Taking care not to get fumed, I approached the loud fumarole until it was a deafening roar. Planet Earth—what a place! No footprints existed other than my own. I love this sensation of utter seclusion! I wonder if this means that the "normal" route commits the crime of missing this inspiring show, or if the daily freeze and thaw quickly obliterates footprints.

Back to sleeping with the parka, ski pants and water bottles, and pulling the "mummy" sleeping bag's drawcord until only a little opening remained to breathe in the -25°C night.


March 1: I took a different course, going down like in a staircase between boulders, which provided some shelter from the relentless wind. I checked out the orange "L" shaped refugio Tejos y Murray (5750m), named after the kamikaze helicopter pilot, and his wacky client. I opened the handle like on a refrigerated vault and that's just what it felt like, even in the middle of the afternoon. This refuge is actually a pair of steel shipping containers converted to a mobile home, complete with sink and fluorescent lights. When it had housed the geologists, the battery was charged by the photovoltaic cell array on the roof, but nothing worked any more. I sat at the table in the vacant and dead-quiet refuge, and read entries in the logbook for 1993 by teams from France, Chile, Spain, Germany, Austria, and Colorado, USA. I added the crazy Canadian with the bicycle and trailer. I considered staying the night, but I was turned off by the prospect of how cold it must be in here in the morning, compared to a warm greenhouse effect in the tent. Before leaving, I took some abandoned corn flakes, chocolate oats and an empty five-liter jug for cycling serious deserts later on.

They must have repaired the electric generator at the carabineros station; I spotted the dim point of light 13 kilometers away.


March 2: The plastic tent stakes had become frozen solid in the sand. I axed the sand, but it was hard as cement, and fragments whipped into my face. Three of the four stakes chose decapitation rather than surrendering.



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