Friday, October 5, 2012

Skiing high

After the leaving the Las Lenas area, Mel and I spent a few rest/ travel/ organization days travelling to Santiago and spending spare moments filling our mouths with every item containing dulce de leche we could get our hands on. On Sunday morning we were finally ready, backpacks filled to the point of bursting we descended into the Santiago metro and began our "approach": two trains, three buses and one hitch-hike in a pick-up truck, which took all of 6 hours despite only being a total of 80km from Santiago.

This is what gear and food for a ten day of ski mountaineering trip in  the high Andes looks like on my back. 
Our destination was Cajon del Maipo, a zone which is incredibly close to the capital city, with corresponding easy access, but which has some truly awe inspiring mountains up to an altitude of over 6000 metres. The two jewels of the area are Volcan San Jose (5856m) and Cerro Marmolejo (6109m), we intended to give them a shot if weather and our short acclimatization period allowed. With food for two people for ten days our packs were heavy, so it was with great relief that after an hour of hiking we reached snowline and a camp-site for the night in the picture perfect Engorda Valley at about 2500 metres. We pitched the tent and enjoyed some beautiful albeit intimidating views of the west face of Volcan San Jose rising 3300 metres above us.

The mighty west face of Volcan San Jose as seen from the campsite on our first night- the summit is 3300 metres above us and promised a ski descent of 2900 metres!
 The next morning we left a food cache for the second half of the trip beneath some boulders whilst we were up on San Jose. Then we skinned up to the Plantat Refugio at 3130m. and dumped our packs before heading out for the afternoon up the “Directo Couloir”, a climbing route up the west face which sounded like it might be a spectacular ski descents, all reports and route descriptions I could find on the internet said that the crux of the couloir was quite steep- in the realm of 60°, so it seemed wise to check it out and see it with our own eyes before committing to it on a summit attempt. We only made it up the lower third of the couloir to 4100 metres before failing light forced us to turn around- the climbing up to this point was very mellow, never exceeding mid thirties, but the top definitely looked steeper...

Photo by Mel
The next day dawned bluebird and warmed up considerably such that by the time we reached our highpoint in the couloir where putting in a bootpack seemed more efficient than skinning, I was sinking in up to my shins. Combined with the lack of acclimitization I wasn't feeling too great by the time we reached the steep left hand exit of the couloir at 4400m. Thankfully the crux looked significantly easier than route descriptions had warned, it didn't appear to exceed the low 50°s and looked very skiable so, we decided to give it a go.

Photo by Mel
The actual snow was predictably straightforward   steep but very secure with an axe, and the snow was soft enough that climbing it without crampons never felt hazardous. The exit however posed another problem... From below it looked as though a short traverse left would allow me to break through a baby cornice (the term "windlip" is probably more descriptive) and avoid having to make a mantel move in ski boots onto the über rotten rockband at the right. However when I started heading left at the top the snow became very loose and unconsolidated the closer I got to the rocks.
Self belaying with the ice axe only offered support of the psychological variety, because the snow was so powdery, and I became more and more aware of the cliffs which were waiting directly below me if I were to make any mistake. Hoping that the snow might improve again in a few metres I began making what I thought was a decent platform for me to traverse on: tentatively compacting snow with one boot and the basket of my whippet until it appeared stable enough to hold my weight. I carefully transferred my weight on to it only to find that my boot kept sinking into the soft, almost bottomless snow raising my pulse and leaving a sick feeling in my gut. I looked down at the airy cliffs  below my heels and then up again at the rotten rock band and realized that though it was far from ideal it would provide the quickest way out of the couloir. I quickly climbed up to the base of the rock and stashed the axe between my back and pack to feel the rocks: a quick examination confirmed my fears that the area was a small choss heap of volcanic rock- frozen sand supported pebbles which supported mini-fridge sized blocks of rock, my first attempt at finding a decent foothold ended with a 20kg rock being set free and bouncing down the steep snow and over the cliff below. After a little more searching and testing and I finally found a few holds which seemed reasonable and committed to the mantle, one of the most terrifying and memorable ones of my life, and suddenly I was in the horizontal realm again.

Photo by Mel

We checked out the snow filled Mackenrick Refugio at 4500 and drank some tea before returning the way we had come. Skiing the upper section of the couloir proved to be much simpler than our drawn out ascent would suggest, as always the worst snow for climbing provided the nicest snow for skiing. And what a descent we had! The couloir was indeed just as magnificent a ski descent as I had dreamt it would be- long and sustained with pow up high and corn down low and vast view over the lower valley- one of the best views for a ski run which I've ever heard of.

Photo by Mel
The next day we set out a little earlier in order to get out of the couloir before it warmed up too much, and hopefully be able to traverse left and punch through the small windlip whilst the snow was colder and firmer, so as to avoid the loose rocks we'd experienced the day before. However warmer weather meant that conditions weren't too dissimilar from the previous day. With a bootpack already in place and being more acclimatised, however we made quicker time through the upper section of the couloir and the mantle move on to rocks felt a lot more comfortable knowing that at least the rocks had held the last time. By around 4pm we had arrived at 4600 metres- the altitude we intended to spend the night, and quickly found a flat spot on the glacier to pitch the tent- after some hasty digging and building some ghetto snow-walls we got inside and started melting snow.

The rock directly below the skis is the one which nearly hit out tent Photo by Mel
Our long evening  of snow melting was only interrupted by one bizarre occurrence  at around 6pm, we heard what sounded like a bit of snow rolling by, and assumed that it was one of the shoddy snow bricks for the wall which had collapsed. When I left the tent to get some more snow for melting however I noticed a big rock (about 30kg) which was sitting two metres from our tent, which hadn't been there earlier! Its track in the snow clearly revealed where it had come loose from a moraine about 100 metres away and rolled down  in an arc towards our tent, not with much speed apparently as it had stopped just beside our tent.. The remarkable thing about it was what a mellow slope angle it had rolled on, I had considered rock fall when selecting the campsite and thought that we were in an extremely safe and sheltered position- a flat area with a 100 metre slope at an angle not exceeding 10° above that .

Views from the tent during our 3 hour snow melting fiesta.
That evening Mel experienced a headache, not severe but persistent, which came and went constantly over the course of the evening- thankfully we had a few Diamox tablets given to us from a fellow called Nelson down at Plantat, these seemed to help and we decided to make decision for the following day in the morning. We had enough food and gas to spend two days at this high-camp if necessary, however a weather forecast which was calling for unstable weather in the coming days made us eager to make an attempt at the summit sooner rather than later. Peaking out the tent during the night showed nothing but clear sky's  so despite a forecast for potentially unstable weather it seemed likely that we would have a chance at the summit the next day.

My favourite photo from the trip: our high-camp just after sunset.
Photo by Mel.
It was disheartening to look out the tent the next morning and see wall of clouds to the north west which hadn't been there the previous evening. We were both feeling okay, despite a fitful night's sleep, and decided that it would be worthwhile to make an attempt on the summit, in case a storm settled in an made climbing the following day too difficult.

We followed the edge of a narrow glacier, skinning at first and then swapping over to crampons when it became steeper. Mel decided to leave her skis at around 4800 metres because they were feeling too heavy to carry. We made steady progress- about 300 vertical metres per hour up to the top of the glacier at around 5400 metres and I left my skis there, planning to hike to the summit without them. Not long after this the clouds which had been gradually accumulating all morning, started seeming a lot more ominous; we couldn't see the peaks on the other side of the valley at all and a strengthening wind was making it feel much colder than it actually was.

We continued hiking slowly up the slopes, which wasn't very steep, but was hard work none the less due to the altitude, wind and loose unstable scree which our ski boots would sink and slide in- two steps up and then slide one step back down. Mel's hands were starting to feel excessively cold, and the clouds around us were thickening with a light snow beginning to fall, so at an altitude of 5700 m, roughly one hour from the summit we made the difficult decision to forget the summit and start our descent. Within 15 minutes of turning around we were in a full on white-out, with roughly 20 metres of visibility and the snow fall had become much heavier. By the time we reached then tent again at 3pm about 10cm of snow had fallen and completly covered our tracks. Suddenly our decision to bail on the summit seemed like a good one.

Descending the mountain in a white out after aborting our summit attempt at 5700 m.
We rested in the tent for an hour and when we got out we were surprised to see that another 20cm of snow had falled during the last hour. We quickly packed the tent and got ready to ski back down to the Refugio Plantat. The couloir was overloaded with fresh snow and was sloughing with a vengeance and the poor visibility made skiing a wildly different experience to what we had enjoyed in the couloir the preceding day.

 The harsh weather stayed that evening, and the following morning we woke to see that the entire upper section of the mountain which is normally bare rock, was completely white. Whilst a little dissappointed to have turned around so close to the summit, it felt like we had made a wise decision given the incoming storm which would have required navigating in much worse conditions if we had started our descent any later. The new snow cover wasn't necessarily enough to ski, but just enough to cover the scree and make hiking in it very arduous, so we decided against starting a second attempt and moved our camp over to Valle Morado to enjoy some ski touring at a lower more benign altitude.

Hiking out through the Engorda Valley with the immense, freshly dusted west face of Volcan San Jose in the background.
This entire zone is one which I am really excited to re-visit in the future. The potential for ski touring and ski mountaineering is vast and varied, with everything from steep couloirs, huge open bowls and descents of up to 3000 metres! Definitely coming back for more!

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