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|
|Photo by Mel|
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 rock directly below the skis is the one which nearly hit out tent Photo by Mel|
|Views from the tent during our 3 hour snow melting fiesta.|
|My favourite photo from the trip: our high-camp just after sunset.|
Photo by Mel.
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.|
|Hiking out through the Engorda Valley with the immense, freshly dusted west face of Volcan San Jose in the background.|