February 3, 2009

Volcan Tupungato - 6,550 mtrs / 21,490 ft

Volcan Tupungato, in all her glory
---

Wind. The mention of it drums up respect in nearly all outdoor pursuits. Sailers love it or fear it. Ordinarily easy going cyclists can become masterful at swearing in any language or gleefully happy depending on the direction of the wind. And mountaineers are often denied lofty summits due to this invisible enemy.

Cycling across the Sur Lipez in Southern Bolivia, I rose before dawn and pushed my wheels into revolutions to take advantage of the calm winds. After mid-day or so, someone would turn the great fan on, and cycling would become nearly impossible, even along the relatively flat altiplano. And yes, it was ALWAYS a headwind.

After crossing the vast Atacama Desert into Chile, a place which seemingly had everything – healthy food, heavenly wine, divine women, smooth roads – the wind seemed to smile, as if to say, “I'm still here.”

--

Friends. The reason why life is a precious gift worth sharing, and the best sources of inspiration. Arriving in Calama, I had a wonderful email awaiting me in my inbox. It was David Harden, a friend from the wonderful climbing community in the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite in California. His friend Sharkey and him were in Santiago de Chile, ready to embark on an expedition to climb Volcan Tupungato (6,570 mtrs).

Ready for a break from the bike, I left Bucephalus in the safe company of the family I was staying with in Calama, and made record speed over to catch up with David and Sharkey in Santiago. The next day, we were loaded with giant packs, food, and fuel enough for two weeks in the mountains.

Unfortunately, due to a family emergency, David had to return to California, so Sharkey and I continued along with the climb.

Mounting mules for the first day of the trip to surmout the formidable Azufre River, we made it across the river safely and thus commenced the slow climb from 5,000 ft to our base camp at 10,400 ft.

Unlike Aconcagua, just a few kilometers further along the Cordillera, Tupungato is an absolutely pristine mountain environment devoid of ambitious mountaineers and trash. The wildness is unforgettable, and throughout our nearly two weeks on the mountain, we only met two other parties, both of whom were on the descent.

Unfortunately, after reaching our high camp at 15,700 ft, the wind plagued us and made progress difficult to impossible.

During an acclimatization run, I made my way up to 20,000 ft only to find that the snow conditions were far more severe than we had expected. Lacking proper equipment for the high mountain (we prepared for a trek, nothing technical), and considering the high winds scraping across the upper mountain, we decided to retreat and come back to the mountain for another day.

Thankfully, chances are, the mountain will still be there the next time I return to climb it.

As for me... considering the passage of time, and especially, the passage of our human forms over that period of time, it is unlikely that the next time I return, I will be the same person I was that day.

----

Below are some photos from the climb:

Don Hertil, our eccentric mule driver's choice of dinner was a slab of steak over a roasted fire. Keep it simple.


A rare moment to witness your hero himself on horseback.


Sharkey and his animal negotiating the wild Rio Azufre.
The wild, improvised "trails" along the approach were often frightening.

The Tupungato massif finally comes into view.

Crossing paths with a team from Mendoza, Argentina at 16,700 ft. Note the sandals, my choice of footwear up to the high camp.

Cerro del Plomo shines between a field of penitentes.


High on the crest of the Continental Divide, I take my first steps into Argentina. Someone must have dragged this giant border control marker all the way up here!


Morning sunshine at the high camp.
---

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