Sunday, November 4, 2012

Last turns of the trip: Cerro Marmolejo

With only a week left in South America I thought it was time to up the ante and try to ski something a little higher than anything I've attempted in the past. Cerro Marmolejo at 6108 metres seemed like a good candidate with easy access from Santiago and more snow than any other peaks of a similar altitude.

Camped at 4610 m, the summit of Marmolejo is hidden by the snowy lump in the centre of the image

Its currently early November-the beginning of summer in Chile. With all the ski resorts having closed for the season over a month ago, after what has been called the most abysmal snowfall year in recent memory, I wasn't optimistic about finding too much snow. So it came as a shock to see that during the last month the snowline had only receeded about 200 metres. After a mere hours hike from the closest road (I hitch-hiked from little pueblo of San Gabriel) I was skinning.

A self portrait on day three just before reaching my high camp and just after deciding that being dressed solely in black tights like a ninja was perfectly reasonable behaviour for a 27 year old.
On the first afternoon at an altitude of around 2900 metres I was forced to cross a creek- having tossed by skis across its 4 metre span I was tentatively making my way across, stepping from one slippery boulder to the next when, in a moment of clumsiness that is likely to stay with me for the rest of my life, I dropped one of my ski poles and watched, dumbfounded as it was caught by the current and carried downstream and under a thick snow bridge. Despite spending over an hour trying to retrieve it: intentionally collapsing snow bridges and even going so far as to strip off and walk through the current in case I might be able to feel the ski pole with my bare feet, I knew it was gone for good.

Realising that having lost a pole wasn't really enough reason for me to cancel the trip, and also knowing that I didn't have enough time to head down to Santiago to find a replacement, I decided to simply continue on. On the second day it dawned on me just how great having two poles is, and how I had always taken it for granted, especially when you have a 20kg pack and are planning on climbing an additional 3200 metres...

This incident set the tone of the next few days as my mood alternated being 1) Being focussed on reaching the summit and skiing down from it, 2) Wondering what chance the sort of person who loses a ski pole a few hours in to a 5 day trip has of skiing from the summit of a 6000 metre peak and 3) Realising that I really ought to simply enjoy being in the mountains and not be so concentrated on the summit as the point of the trip.

I didn't arrive in my "high camp" until early afternoon on day three and made myself busy drinking tea, enjoying the views over the Loma Larga group and trying to conjure some motivation for an early start the following day. The afternoon was a warm one and lying outside the tent in the sun was pleasant, but in the same vein of self-deprecatory thoughts I'd had since losing my pole (see point #2 above) I started thinking about how perhaps I didn't have enough warm clothes for the summit push, especially if the wind picked up...

Immense views of the Loma Larga group from my high camp at 4620 metres.

A 20 second video showing an overexposed version my view from the high camp.

Sunsets from the tent never get old
My alarm went off at 5am, and after melting some snow for a quick cup of tea and forcing some oatmeal down, I was out of the tent and skinning up the moonlit mountain at 5:30. The past few weeks of living at 3000 metres or higher had paid off and I found that I was covering ground much faster and with less effort than I had on Taapaca. On the other hand the cold was much more severe than I have ever experienced in South America, and I didn't have any mitts or even spare gloves with me. By 8:00 I had reached 5350 metres, and if I continued at this pace I knew I ought to reach the summit between 11-12:00. The sun had risen long ago, but as I was climbing the western glacier, I was still in the shadow and wasn't getting any warmer. I continued up, crossing vast fields of sastrugi formations which varied from 20 cm to nearly a metre in height. I was even forced to put ski crampons on to cross a few patches where the wind had blown the snow away, leaving only blue ice.

If bottomless powder is at one end of the pleasure spectrum in skiing, then fields of sastrugi at high altitude like this would be at the other end. Great views atleast.
My fingers were so cold that I opted to skin with my hands tucked into my pockets, even though this forced me to slow my pace. My toes were starting to give me cause for concern too. I knew that once the sun was on me, I should be warmed up, but on further thought I knew that another 700 metres in elevation was going to balance out any warming effect of the sun. I made the snap decision that even though I was uncertain about how warm I would be in an hours time, higher up on the mountain, I didn't really feel like taking the chance to find out. Continuing on regardless crossed my mind, but just seemed like it'd be pushing my luck a bit too much, and besides the skiing was only going to be memorable for all the wrong reasons...

So I stripped the skins and high-tailed it back down to my camp, where I spent an hour in my sleeping bag before re-gaining feeling in my feet and hands. Then I packed up and enjoyed the rest of the ski descent. In total I had skied a little over 2600 metres of continuous vertical, not bad for November! 

I hitch hiked back to Santiago and by 6pm was munching on a piping hot empanada (queso y pollo) and sipping an ice cold beer (Escudo).


  1. I could have read this without knowing who wrote it. Still knowing it was you Kaj...

    "It doesent have to be fun to be fun!"

  2. Definately a bit of type two fun mixed into this trip!