Cerro Del Plomo, Chile 03/07/10 - 03/10/10

Trailhead: La Parva Ski Resort Min El. : 9000 ft Max El. : 17,795 ft
Duration: 4 Days El. Gain: 9000 ft El. Loss: 9000 ft
Distance: 32 Miles Difficulty: Very Strenuous Off Trail %: 20

References: The Andes: A Trekking Guide, John Biggar and Cathy Biggar, 2001

Overview: On the rare occasions when the air in Santiago permitted, I'd wake up and see Cerro Del Plomo lingering outside my window to the east, beckoning me like a siren. Cerro Del Plomo is the highest "peak" viewable from the city and almost everybody living in Santiago is familiar with it. "Peak" is a little bit of a misnomer because it's more of a flattened, snow capped dome. Nevertheless, it's an impressive sight at sunrise or sunset from most anywhere in the city, and anybody will tell you it's one of the easiest high peaks in the Andes to climb. Before climbing Del Plomo, I didn't have any experience backpacking above 13,000 feet, but after spending a few hours at 17,000+ feet at the ALMA site, I was pretty sure I could handle the altitude. After doing the trip, I think anybody that's in decent shape could probably make it to the top as long as they can handle the altitude. That's really the main thing. And of course, you can't take it too fast or you're bound to feel the effects of the reduced oxygen content.

Transportation: When I was planning my trip, the most difficult choice I had to make was whether I'd rent a car or take a taxi to La Parva from my apartment in Santiago. You can also do the trip from Valle Nevado, but La Parva offers you the option to do a little more of a round trip deal, as you can see from the map above. I knew it would take at least 4 days to get adjusted to the altitude, make the climb, and get back to La Parva. For 4 days, even if I rented the crappiest car the rental agencies offered (and trust me, you can rent a box of scrap metal on wheels in Santiago), the taxi option would be cheaper. But I was kind of apprehensive about picking up a taxi from La Parva after I was done with my trip. From what I had read and heard from my friends in Santiago, La Parva and Valle Nevado wouldn't exactly be bustling with tourists and hikers. So I'd be taking the chance of trying to find a payphone or hoping I could get a cell phone signal up there to call a taxi company. Of course, I could arrange for the taxi to pick me up at a specific date and time at La Parva. But then I'd have to be certain I got back in time and risk having to wait for hours if I got back too early.

I decided to go with the taxi option, mainly because I really didn't want to even consider the possibility of somebody stealing my rental car at the trailhead. One of my coworkers and his wife got robbed at gunpoint by somebody in the mountains around Santiago while they were jogging. I know, who the hell would be dumb enough to rob somebody on a jog; as if they'd be carrying credit cards and a wallet, right? But that kind of thing made me apprehensive about leaving a vehicle parked up there for 4 days.

In the days before the trip, I did a little asking around with cab drivers on the street. Some told me they'd take me up for $80 worth of pesos and others said $60, and that's one way. I ended up going with a company called "Radio Taxi" since they had a good dispatch system, and they priced me out at about $65. My ultra-light, pound pinching backpacker side got the best of me and I decided not to bring a cell phone, hoping that I could find a payphone in La Parva when I was done with the trip. In hindsight, I should have brought the phone and dealt with the extra 12 oz. of weight. I ended up getting really lucky and running into a group of construction workers doing a job on one of the buildings near the top of the road at La Parva when I was coming back from the trip, and one of them let me call Radio Taxi with his cell phone. If I hadn't found those guys, I'm not sure if I would have been able to find a payphone. There's a good cell signal at La Parva (at least for MoviStar), so I could have used my phone anywhere on the mountain. I only had to wait for about an hour after I made the call, and when the driver showed up I told him how I was worried that he wouldn't come and he told me he was just as worried he wouldn't find anybody. But it worked out perfectly in the end.


Elevation Profile

Day 1 : La Parva to Piedra Numerada Min El.  : 9000 ft Max El. : 12,500 ft
Night 1 : Piedra Numerada El. Gain : 4,000 ft El. Loss : 500 ft

The taxi pulled up to my apartment building at 7:55 am, 5 minutes early. No matter how much I badmouth their driving skills, I gotta give Santiago taxi drivers props for their punctuality. The drive up to La Parva took about 50 minutes or so and the cab driver and I spent the time talking about American Rock and Roll bands. He was a cool dude and he was all about REO Speedwagon, which sat nicely with me. He was nice enough to take me all the way to the end of the paved road at the top of La Parva.

When i got out of the cab, it wasn't really clear which way I should go. The skilifts were all nonoperational, which I had expected. I had read trip reports that it was best to follow one of them in particular, but I couldn't figure out which was which. It turns out that it doesn't really matter much since they all take you in generally the right direction. Here's a view from the one I ended up taking. The climb up the ski slopes isn't that tough. At first, the landscape is dotted with these chunks of grassy looking substance that I'd never seen before. Within the blink of an eye, though, the vegetation disappears altogether and you're left with nothing but rocks.

As I said before, you really can't follow a "wrong" lift, but I did end up climbing about 300 feet higher than necessary. I was traveling northwest and got to a plateau, the west side of which dropped down to where I wanted to be.

Luckily, the descent down to that brown pond a piece of cake. At that point, you pick up the actual trail that leads you down into Estero Las Yaretas. Now, I really didn't want to drink out of that nastly looking pond, so I decided to take my chances that there would be some flow on the streams in the valley ahead of me. I did have to do a little digging in the rock to bring the water to the surface, but it was enough to fill my water bottle. I decided to have lunch in the valley along Estero Las Yaretas, and after a few handfuls of trail mix I was greeted by two hikers coming the same way I had come. They stopped to talk to me and I learned that one of them was a computer programmer from the Netherlands and the other was a Chilean guide he had hired to take him to various peaks in Chile. They had just returned from climbing Marmolejo so they were already adjusted to the altitude and planned to do Del Plomo in 3 days. After shooting the breeze a bit, the Chilean guide, Manuel, reached in his backpack and pulled out some toilet paper. I'll never, ever forget him looking at me and saying, "Please excuse me. I need to go make work". His English was pretty damned good overall, but I guess that was idiomatic expression no one had corrected him on. I didn't either, just cuz I liked the ring to it. Every once and a while when I've got to use the john I'll think to myself "I need to go make work".

They moved on ahead at a much faster pace than I was hiking. Part of the problem was that I was hiking really slowly just so I wouldn't have to sit around waiting at Piedra Numerada to get adjusted to the altitude. I didn't mind it, though. The colors and shades of the rock had me mesmerized. When I got to the butte above Estoro Del Cepo, I stopped to appreciate the spectacular views across and down that magnificent canyon. Once you begin on the trail up Estero Del Cepo, you can finally see Cerro Del Plomo just sitting there, waiting to be climbed. And then Piedra Numerada pops into view after a short while.

As you can tell from the photos, I got to Piedra Numerada well before nightfall. Again, I was pissed I didn't bring something to read or some cards to play solitaire or something. But there was entertainment, I soon found out. It came in the form of a herd of cows that was posted right above a little waterfall. When I got close to them they freaked out and backed up in unison. I didn't get closer. Instead, I just watched them and took some photos, one of which is my favorite from the trip. As the day drew on the wind picked up steadily. So I decided to move my tent closer to a group of rocks, hoping they would provide some blockage. The rest of the night I spent enjoying some alpenglow and the company of the cows. They started getting really frisky with each other, and man was it fun to watch them chase and mount each other.

Day 2 : Piedra Numerada to Refugio Espejo Min El.  : 12,500 ft Max El. : 13,750 ft
Night 2 : Refugio Espejo El. Gain : 1,450 El. Loss : 200 ft

When I woke up I was surpised to see the cows had moved far across the valley and were headed out on the trail I had taken in. I decided to take my sweet ass time eating breakfast and packing up since I only had about 4 miles to go and 1200 feet to gain on this day. It seemed like it was a bit of overkill on the whole altitude adjustment bit, but I didn't want to take any chances.

The four miles between Piedra Numerada and Refugio Espejo (also called La Olla, I believe) were pretty cool. The views down the valley and up to Del Plomo get increasingly impressive as you go. I should mention one thing that struck me as really odd. I was expecting the water in the streams to be the most pristine, clear water I ever tried just because of the fact that there's nothing but rock and snow in the high Andes. But it turns out that majority of the flowing water I pumped with my filter had more silt in it than any of the streams I've encountered in the Sierra Nevadas or the Rockies or any of the other places I've been to for that matter. It's not that it's contaminated; in fact, Manuel swore that filtering it was pointless because there were no nasty parasites or bacteria or viruses to worry about. It actually tasted pretty good; it was just "dirty".

Despite my intentionally slow pace, I still made it to La Olla around 3:00 pm with plenty of time to kill before sundown. I was debating whether or not I should head up the slope to the north and try to make it 1000 feet higher before setting up camp, but it wasn't all that easy to breathe yet, so I decided I'd post up at La Olla. There's a nice little hut at La Olla (I'm pretty sure this hut is "Refugio Espejo"), and I got very excited at the possibility of sleeping inside a solid shelter instead of listening to the wind batter my tent all night. But then I remembered that Manuel and his friend were up on Del Plomo and probably already had occupied the hut. Turns out I was right. I did manage to find a nice rock shield to set my tent up next to. Most of the shields prevent winds from the north, coming down the mountain, and I think this makes sense from a physical standpoint. But Manuel seemed to think that the air actually rises and flows to the north during the night. I'm pretty sure that the winds were heading south that night, though.

Shortly after I finished setting up my tent, Manuel and his friend returned from their trek up the mountain. They looked downright exhausted, but they were both in great spirits, which was very encouraging. I was surprised to see a mangy, yellow dog following Manuel. It turns out the dog had came up to the hut the night before and kept them company throughout the night. It also followed them about 1000 feet up toward Del Plomo, at which point Manuel insisted that it stay put. When they came back down the mountain it was just sitting there waiting for them!

So Manuel, the Dutch guy whose name I can't remember, and the dog and I all had dinner together as we sat facing the fading aplenglow on Del Plomo. They gave me all kinds of good info and tips on how to handle things. Manuel had done the trip several times before and was clearly an expert, so I paid close attention to what he had to say. He recommended I start before sunrise just so that I could reach the summit before 1 or 2 pm when the afternoon storms tend to set in. He also warned me that the stream right next to our camp would almost certainly be frozen until well after sunrise, so I should get my water now and keep it with me in my sleeping bag overnight (this I'd dealt with before and always hate, but it's what you gotta do). While I was staring at those zigzagging paths on the mountain--and even now when I look at them in the pictures--they looked so damn steep that I couldn't really believe that I was going to climb up them. But as a wise man name Bear Grylls likes to say, "You never really know how steep something is until you rub noses with it".

Day 3 : Summit of Cerro Del Plomo Min El.  : 13,750 ft Max El. : 17,700 ft
Night 3 : Refugio Espejo El. Gain : 4,000 ft El. Loss : 4,000 ft

When I woke up at 4:30 am, every part of my body resisted my mind's instructions to get out of my sleeping bag. It was cold, bloody cold. As Manuel had predicted, the tiny stream next to our campsite was frozen solid, so I was going on two liters of water until I could find another water source. It was pitch black outside so I was navigating purely by the light of my headlamp. Fortunately, I had studied the mountainside rigorously enough the night before that finding the initial trail was easy. And from there, following it isn't tough at all.

After following the zig-zagging trail up about 1000 feet, you arrive at a flat section that would be pretty good as a campsite, although Manuel said it was significantly more windy there at night. There's a nice little pond to draw water from, and I did so to refill my two liters completely. That would be my water supply until I got back to the same spot on the descent, and I wish I had taken just a little more cuz damn was I thirsty on the trip down.

Not long after leaving the pond, the ascent continued. Eventually I could see the lights of Santiago in the early morning darkness, and with a little more time, the sun peaking over the eastern ridges. At this point I was stopping every 3 or 4 minutes just to take in the beauty of the eastern sky

The terrain on this whole section is loose talus, but it's not incredibly difficult to make progress. At around 15,000 feet, the trail flattens out and you come upon a nice little shelter that might come in handy in bad weather. If you look south at this point, you can see a nice flat ridge a few miles away. If you choose to do the loop around Falsa Parva, that's where you'll be headed. Manuel highly recommended I do this instead of coming back the way I came in, and I'd recommend it to anybody doing the trip as well.

Now, if you look at the satellite view on the Google map above, you can easily follow the trail with your eyes pretty much the whole way up the mountain. But you can also see that my waypoints don't quite line up with it from about 15,000 to 16,500 feet. That's not an error in positioning of my GPS. I actually veered off the main trail unintentionally and took a very, very steep side route. The route I took probably isn't any more challenging than the main one, and it also offers some spectacular views of the icy slopes to the east and the huge field to the north. If you take this route, you eventually get to a little subpeak where you have an absolutely astounding view of Estero Del Cepo and you can easily descend back to the main trail. This is at around 16,500 feet. And in the latter photo you can see where the trail crosses the aforementioned glacier. It's not too tough a crossing if you ascend slightly while you cross it.

Once I passed the glacier I was really feeling the altitude while I was climbing. I'd say I was going 1/3 or 1/2 of my normal pace up a slope of that grade, but the views were so incredible that stopping every 100 feet to take in the views was a-ok with me. About 200 yards horizontally and a couple of 100 feet vertically from the glacier, the trail takes a very steep bend to the northeast and leads you up a talus slide. Once you get to the top of this, you "should" be done, but you realize you're on top of that flattened dome you saw from the city a few days before. So it's a few more football fields distance to the actual summit where you have spectacular views of Aconcauna to the north and a barrage of peaks to the east. At this point, I felt damned good. Can't you tell? Somewhere behind my mask and the layers of frozen condensation on my face, there's a smile.

I actually felt pretty damned good when I was resting at the top, so I decided to have lunch on the top and take in the incredible surroundings. After about 30 minutes of enjoyment I decided to start descending. The descent was a bitch, I'll tell ya. The scree isn't so bad on the way up. But it makes going down tough. I took it nice and slow the whole way down and got back to that pond around 3:00 pm. There I drank to my stomach's content and continued down. With a little more descent, I saw a cowboy in the little valley to the west of the pond. You can see that the spot he's in would also be a pretty good campsite. It's about 600 feet higher than Refugio Espejo.

When I got back to the Refugio, I was completely exhausted and excited to have the hut all to myself so I could sprawl out in the shade and just relax. But guess who was there waiting? That mangy yellow dog from the night before. And he had a friend: a black labrador-looking dog that was just as mangy. Those dogs started bugging the hell out of me, mainly because they smelled hella dumpy and they were constantly trying to get close to me. But as the sun fell behind the ridge to the west, I started to feel sorry for them. It was getting damned cold and they were shivering like crazy. Despite my feelings of pitty, though, I wasn't giving those mutts any of my food.

Day 4: Falsa Parva to La Parva Min El.  : 9,000 ft Max El. : 13,750 ft
El. Gain : 1,000 ft El. Loss : 5,000 ft

When I awoke the following morning I was surprised to find only one of the two dogs outside the hut. The yellow one had taken off somewhere and left the black one all by his lonesome. Man, was that dog looking hella hurt. He just chilled-literally, since it was just above freezing-while I ate breakfast. Little did I know my affection for the mangy scrapper was about to grow enormously.

Why should I start to like the dog you ask? Well, it turns out he would be my guide for the rest of the day. Not that navigating was very challenging, but there are certain portions along the ridge to the west of Estero del Cepo where the trail disappears altogether. And whenever that happened, the little black dog would run ahead and show me where I was supposed to go. What a funny little guy he was.

Getting up onto the ridge to start the return hike was actually quite challenging. Just north of the Refugio, probably about 200 yards, you climb west on a section of class 2-3 talus and scree. You only have to climb about 600 feet in elevation, but with a heavy pack and a shortage of oxygen, that's a task. One mistake I made was cutting southwest prematurely. You're better off staying on a northwest course until you get to a nice plateau with incredible views back to Del Plomo. From the plateau, you can see the ridge fading back to the southeast. You actually hike on top of that spine, which is ridiculously cool.

When I stopped to get water at a little stream running down from above the plateau, my little black friend stopped with me and took a little rest. And when I got up to start hiking, he led the way onto the ridge. You can see how far the little guy would get ahead of me. I kept thinking he was gonna take off and ditch me, but without fail he'd wait up for my slow ass.

When you're on top of the spine, things get pretty narrow. Occasionally you switch sides, which affords you spectacular views of a valley to the southwest, Santiago, and back at Cerro Del Plomo. Things flatten out nicely afterwards, until you reach Pintor and have to climb slightly. Pretty much the whole trip after the initial climb is just delightful, though.

Shortly after passing Pintor, I stopped for lunch. I was incredibly hungry and had just enough food for another meal and a snack before getting back to Santiago. But I was so appreciative for the job my little friend had done that I decided he deserved a treat. So I ripped off a slice of my peanut butter covered tortilla and put it on the ground next to him. Would you believe that the little perro actually refused to eat it? I mean, here he is, all skin and bones, and he hasn't eaten anything for the entire 6 hours I've been walking with him, and he turns down a tortilla covered with peanut butter! I was shocked. I tried to get him to eat some of my oats and cashews as well, but the guy wasn't having any of it. I was really just stunned and I'm still puzzled to this day about how that dude survives up there.

With my stomach full and my friend's completely empty, our journey continued down towards Falsa Parva. I was really blown away by how vast the ridge seems at certain points. Right before hitting Falsa Parva you encounter a brigthly painted shelter before the trail up to the summit of Falsa Parva. I was too beat to climb up that thing, so I circled around the west side of it.

When I said that the only really challenging part of the return trip was the 600 foot climb at La Olla, I guess I was kind of lying. After you circle around Falsa Parva, you have to get back down to that nasty pond I mentioned earlier. And to do that you have to descend some really loose, class 2 scree. It's nothing deadly, but at the end of a long day hiking I really had to focus to make sure I didn't slip. At that point, the black dog kept looking back at me with the kind of expression that said, "Come on you gimp. It's not that tough".

Once I was finally down, it was a simple matter of getting back to the skilifts and making the final descent to La Parva. This time I followed a lift further to the east and it was actually more enjoyable: a lot greener and wetter to say the least. When we got close to La Parva there were a bunch of horses grazing. And wouldn't you guess it? My little black friend did not like those guys at all. He ran up to them and started barking like a damned maniac.

As usual, after 4 days of dirt and rock I was happy to see concrete roads. I decided to follow the main La Parva road as it zig-zagged down the mountain, hoping I'd find a phone. If you read the text above, you know how the rest of the story goes. In hindsight, I really wish I had brought my own phone. It would've saved me some moments of nervousness. But luckily things worked out.