the dry Atacama Desert in the north to the ice-encrusted Patagonia Icecap
in the south, Chile is a land of high mountains, vast climatic differences
and stark contrasts. The Atacama Desert has been devoid of any rainfall
for over one hundred years while Patagonia rarely experiences periods of
clear weather. Climbers visiting the Atacama peaks of Ojos Del Salado and
Cerro Pissis have to ascend to over 22,000 feet up vast scree slopes while
to the south in Patagonia glaciated slopes descend from the summits to the
fiords on the Pacific Ocean. Between the two regions lie thousands of kilometres
that form the southern end of the Andes that is also part of the volatile
volcanic chain known as the Pacific Ring of Fire. Southeast of Chile's capital
city Santiago and situated at the head of the spectacular wine growing valley
of the Maipo, are two volcanoes: Cerro Marmolejo (6,100m) and Volcan San
Jose (5,850m), both of which are easily accessed by mountaineers as they
are only fifty kilometres from Santiago. Cerro Marmolejo is the last "six
thousand" of the Cordillera de Los Andes when it travels from north
to south, and its geographical position makes it's the worlds southern most
6,000 metre peak. It was first ascended in 1928 by three Germans: Albrecht
Maas, Sebastian Kluckel and Hermann Sattler, while the slightly lower Volcan
San Jose was first climber three years later in 1931 again by Sebastian
Kruckel and Otto Pfenniger.
Volcan San Jose lies at the southern end of a volcano group that includes the Pleistocene volcano of Cerro Marmolejo. The summit of Volcan San Jose is formed by a cluster of six Holocene craters, pyroclastic cones and blocky lava flows, while the glaciated Cerro Marmolejo (a stratovolcano) is truncated by a four kilometre wide caldera (cauldron), breached to the northwest, that has been the source of large debris avalanches.
Volcan San Jose (a composite volcano) has erupted four times during the 19th century, most recently in 1895, however there have been mild phreatomagmatic (steam and magma) eruptions recorded in the 19th and 20th centuries. Fumaroles (a vent or opening which allows gases to escape) associated with a small andesitic dome have formed within the central crater and in 1991 a new fumarole field was discovered on the mountains southern flank.
It was not because of the mountains volcanic origins that attracted my attention but the easy access to a couple of high mountains where I could acclimatize before heading off for an attempt on Aconcagua later in January 1987.
In Santiago I sought the library of the Club Aleman to find information on Volcan San Jose: access and route descriptions and a photo so that I could visually picture the mountain. Within the vicinity of Volcan San Jose were a number of lesser mountains between 4,000 and 5,000 metres that would serve as an acclimatization trip before attempting the higher peak. At the library I picked up a copy of a guide to the Maipo Valley and surrounding quebrada's and peaks, and a map. Armed with this information, climbing equipment and food for about ten days, I caught a taxi from outside my hotel to the bus stop at Parque O'Higgins where buses leave for resort of Banos Morales.
The bus headed southeast out of Santiago and into the wine growing Maipo Valley or Cajón del Maipo where many of the passengers disembarked to visit the various wineries along the way. This valley is one of Chile's oldest and most famous growing areas and has a warm, desert-like climate with very little rain ideal for growing grapes. It was tempting to get off the bus and sample the wines but I was going to the valley for another purpose so the only time I got off the bus was to sign in at a Police check-post. I wasn't sure if it was because this was an easy cross-mountain route to Argentina or security for the mining complex further up the valley but I signed in saying what I was going up the valley for and roughly when I would be back out. At the point where the road crossed the Maipo River to go to the hot pools at Banos Morales I got off the bus and walked the last kilometre up the road to the Refugio Aleman Lo Valdes where I planned to base myself out of. Although the Refugio had clean, relaxing rooms for $6, they also had an attic where climbers can stay for $1 a night on a mattress on the floor. I was anxious to get into the mountains so arranged with the management to leave some of my equipment behind that I didn't need on my acclimatizing trip for the next couple of days. I sorted my gear out, packed up then got someone to show me where the trail up the Quebrada Lo Valdes began. The trail started out very steep up the scree slopes until the valley began to ease off a bit. At one point I stopped for a break and while looking around found several ammonite fossils amongst the scree. In a matter of a few minutes I had found about a dozen fossils of various sizes but as this was a climbing trip and not a geological field trip I left them where they were. Behind me across the valley the peaks of Cerro Morado and Lomo Larga looked beautiful and tantalizing and if I had more time they would be worth a visit.
After another couple of hours I came across a little hut behind a large rock. Although initially I had thought of going another twenty to thirty minutes further up the valley I decided that this would serve as my base. The summer sun reflected of the surrounding mountains and the valley was like a sauna especially in the metal hut but by 9 p.m. the paint had stopped flaking off and it had cooled down sufficiently for me to crawl in to sleep.
With there being no windows it was dark inside the hut. Also, my sleeping bag was doing an excellent job of keeping me warm as the temperature had dropped considerably over night, so having not set my alarm I didn't wake up until 8 a.m.. I wasn't too concerned about the time because the weather was good and the amount of snow that I would be travelling on was minimal and even then I could circumvent it in most situations on the rock if I wanted. The hut was at about 3,000 metres and I wasn't feeling any effects of the altitude having come from sea-level, however, my appetite wasn't quite as it should have been but that wasn't too unusual for me, so after a small bowl of muesli and yoghurt I started hiking up the valley. Off in the distance to my left was the col that I was aiming for and beyond it the North Ridge of Cerro Diablo.
Once on the snow I took my runners off and put on my boots and crampons. Although the slope wasn't steep I began slowing down and blamed it in on the small breakfast that I had eaten. I eventually reached the col and the beautiful views were invigorating but after another hour on the ridge I decided it was time to stop for lunch. The climb was taking longer than I expected but then the weather was great, I was enjoying myself and I had all day! From the col I had looked at the ridge and thought the shortest route to the top was on the rock, which was actually loose scree, but after a few minutes I decided to get back onto the snow which wasn't direct but at least I wouldn't be sliding back with each step. Finally I stepped on the summit of Cerro Diablo at 4,210m. Although there were higher peaks around me this was good for now and I felt awesome.
For the descent I decided to get off the snow and go down on the scree. This allowed me to get back down to the valley floor in about a quarter of the time it had taken me to get up. Just before arriving back at the hut I surprised some horses grazing as I came around a corner and they took-off. Why they were here I didn't know as no one was around so I was left wondering what they were doing up here!
The next morning I packed up and headed back down to Lo Valdes and the Refugio Aleman where I meet two Chileans who had just climbed Volcan San Jose. They gave me some useful information and then I went and arranged with a local arriero to meet me tomorrow morning at the Refugio with a horse to carry my pack up to the Plantat Hut at 3,130m on the slopes of Volcan San Jose.
The arriero arrived the next morning with three horses: one for my pack, one for him and then he wanted me to ride the other but I said I wanted to walk up to the hut. It was costing $10 for the packhorse and he lowered the price for the horse that I could ride to $5 but I still refused. We eventually left and started up the road towards the mine at the head of the valley but a car stopped and offered me a lift for several kilometres up the road to where a bridge crosses the river and the trail up to the hut begins. I didn't say no to this ride and I was sure the horses would soon catch me up! Along the way I caught up with a group of Chileans who were going up to the hut for the night so I walked with them chatting along the way. We took our time as there was no rush and I was soaking up the beautiful views around me. The horses eventually caught up with me and they arrived at the hut twenty minutes before I got there. It had taken me about five hours to hike in. A little later two other climbers arrived and they intended to camp further up. I then spent the rest of the day lounging around and enjoying the company and surroundings.
With the weather the way it was there was no need to rush in the morning and get away early. I got up at 8:45 and left the hut at 10:15. I began heading up towards the saddle between Cerro Marmolejo and Volcan San Jose and after a couple of hours met one of the climbers from yesterday on his way down. He decided not to go to the summit but his friend was still up there and he told me not to take the longer normal route to the upper hut but to follow his footsteps which would take me directly to the small hut. He said that as I get closer to the hut to look for some marker poles but to also watch for falling rocks. Again the scree was terrible and was just like on Cerro Diablo so I took to the snow where ever possible, however, this was just as tiring. It was not because it was soft but because of the thousands of small two to three foot high penitents or mini seracs, that I had to climb around. Finally at 3:45 I arrived at the small hut that could sleep about four people at a pinch but I had it to myself. The altitude was somewhere between 4,600 and 4,700 metres. I had a good appetite and was thirsty but I did have a niggling headache that didn't want to go away.
That night I had a rather restless sleep due to the altitude but in the morning I felt rested. When I first looked out of the hut at 6 a.m. it was very windy and visibility was poor so I decided to wait for awhile and see what would happen. Finally at about 9 it cleared up so I had a quick breakfast and started up. After an hour and a half I came across where the other climber had bivvied for the night and I am sure he didn't have a very comfortable night. I continued up and after another half an hour met the climber descending. He said it was very windy on top and that it had taken him three hours from where he had bivvied. The route up to the summit was a slog and while on the scree I wore my running shoes but as soon as I got onto the snow I put my boots on. Eventually at 2 p.m. I arrived at the crater and fifteen minutes later I was on the summit. The wind hadn't abated and the mist and fog continued to swirl around but occasionally I got glimpses of the surrounding mountains including Cerro Marmolejo, however, I didn't get to see Aconcagua. It had taken me four and a half hours to get from the hut to the summit. I spent half an hour on the summit exploring the crater and warming up on the heated rocks. The descent was quick and I was back at the hut in under an hour. Although I knew that I could easily have made it down to the Plantat Hut that afternoon, I decided to stay where I was and spend another night up high to help with acclimatizing.
It was another
restless night for me and the headache persistent but I knew that in a
couple of hours I would be 1,500 metres lower and it would be gone. I
left the hut at 10 a.m. and was down at the Plantat Hut in an hour and
a half where I found my appetite had returned and the headache was gone!
I spent the afternoon lazing in the sun, eating and chatting with the
other climbers that were on their way up the mountain. I spent one more
night at the hut and the next morning made my way down the trail to Lo
Valdes where I could catch a bus back to Santiago. In a few days time
I would be heading across to Punta Vacas in Argentina where I would attempt