In the beginning of 2009 me and my SP climbing partner blazin spent 3 weeks mountaineering in the Cajon del Maipo area in Chile. At the end of our expedition we climbed Volcan San Jose (5856 m), a stratovolcano on the border between Chile and Argentina. We had set our minds on the Directa, a direct line up the mountain that first leads through a snow couloir with the maximum incline of 60°. This route is not frequented these days, partly due to the high objective danger in the couloir (stonefall). To be honest, our ambitious plan foresaw a full traverse of San Jose and Marmolejo, the latter being the southernmost 6000er in the world. Given our time-frame this would have succeeded only in perfect conditions and perfect weather. The mountain gods, however, wanted the plan to be doomed...
San Jose as seen from Refugio Lo Valdes in the Maipo Valley. January 19, 2009.
January 14, 2009: Approach from Refugio Lo Valdes to Refugio Plantat
Our “base camp” between the outings to the remote valleys and to the lonely summits was Refugio Lo Valdes, a cosy mountain refugee at about 1900 m a.s.l. in the Maipo Valley. On January 14, after having a rest day from a very long and strenuous hike-out, we set off towards Refugio Plantat (3130 m), a small unguarded mountain refugee at the base of San Jose.
The first part of the approach is on a dusty road used mainly by the mine trucks.
Me on the road. It’s hot, damn’ hot. As a result of a previous hike-out with very heavy packs, my right hip hurts a bit, and that makes going slowly.
The mine trucks hit the road at about 9 a.m., before that, it's pleasant walking. We started in the afternoon though.
After the Colina bridge no more dust and trucks! We turn to the left into the mountains and leave the mine road behind.
As we turn into the mountains, we are granted a great view on Cerro El Morado (4647 m, in the middle in the background).
The green Engorda Valley ahead with San Jose in the background. Though this valley looks nicely green, it's in most part full of knee-high thorny plants. Only at the entrance there’s a soft grassy area.
Me entering the Engorda Valley.
A bridge over the Engorda River. Far on the left an entrance into the Marmolejo Valley.
The Engorda River. A green gully on the right at the very base of the mountain marks the line up to Refugio Plantat (3130 m).
A view on the Marmolejo Valley. At the right end of this valley is Cerro Marmolejo (6108 m), the southernmost 6000er in the world.
At the opposite direction to the Marmolejo Valley is the upper part of the Engorda Valley. Here the creeks coming from the both valleys start to join together, and that made the total count of our river crossings up to 5!
Once across the Engorda Valley, the trail winds up to Refugio Plantat (3130 m), a small mountain refugee at the base of San Jose. Though there are multiple tracks uphill, the correct one goes up on the right, along a stream.
A view back on the Engorda Valley. It is not so straightforward to find a good line through the valley. There are a few hardly noticable cairns, and apart from that it is guessing for the line of least resistance through the thicket of thorny plants.
The trail passes through a green terrace with close views on San Jose. The central snow couloir exactly in the middle of the photo is a route that we intend to climb, the San Jose's Directa.
Sunset on San Jose shortly before reaching Refugio Plantat.
Refugio Plantat at 3130 m is a small unguarded mountain refugee that has an eating room and bunkbeds without mattresses to accommodate 8 persons.
January 15, 2009: The Directa’s couloir: penitentes and stone rain
We didn’t opt for a very early start from the Refugio Plantat as we weren’t familiar with the approach and the route. It took about 4 hours to reach the base of a couloir that marked the proper start of the Directa. We lost some time in the route-finding process because in order to reach the base of the climb one has to find a way through the galcier moraine and that’s best done in daylight. In it’s lower part the couloir has an inclination of about 30-35 degrees and it steepens gradually until the exit to the left where it reaches about 60 degrees. Daytime climbing is out of question as the couloir is prone to rockfall against which no helmet offers protection.
At Refugio Plantat: the bags are packed and we are ready to go.
On the trail above the refugee. The hut is at the left end of the green area. Further down the Engorda Valley.
Me crossing the moraine fields in order to reach the base of the route.
The Directa line in full glory. The route goes in the middle of the central couloir and exits via a steep snow slope on the left. At the top of the exit there's a place for a high camp somewhere on the rocks.
In the beginning of the couloir (it's a way steeper than it looks like). It's still early afternoon and stones of all sizes are rolling down the couloir at high speed. Many of them are massive enough to end one's life right there.
Wating for the evening and the safer conditions en route.
It was 6:50 p.m. when we finally decided that the conditions had become acceptable for entering the couloir. Stones are still coming down, but now with reasonably long intervals. It's time to go!
Sunset catches us after a few hours en route. It's slow going as we have to be cautious, but the afternoon ”stone rain“ has luckily come to an end.
blazin making his way up on the right. The higher we climbed the steeper the slope became and the higher the penitentes grew. Finally their height approached a few meters (they topped out well above my head) and climbing the slope in darkness became a true hell.
It's getting dark... The slope steepens notably and the penitentes become more and more difficult to negotiate. We approach the steepest part of the route.
Me having a break at the base of a 60-degree slope with the 2-meter-high penitentes. It's close to midnight and our final battle is yet to begin.
We reached the top of the couloir after midnight, and spent about an hour looking for the remains of a bivouac hut that supposedly had to be somewhere there. In the complete darkness it was mission impossible. We found a small flat area and decided to bivvy right there. After melting ice for water and a late dinner (or early breakfast) we got into our sleeping bags at about 3 a.m. in the morning.On the photo: blazin on a bivouac site near the exit of the couloir ready to melt penitentes for hot tee. Yeah, kill'em all... Our sweet revenge for the horrible conditions en route.
January 16, 2009: Camp 1 on the Directa
Camp 1 is the only established high camp on the Directa that is located at about 4400 m and is reached by scrambling up a scree slope to the right of the couloir’s exit. It features a few tent sites and a tiny bivouac hut in a very bad shape.
The top of the penitentes slope from our bivouac site next morning.
Our bivvy site on the rocks with the San Jose's north summit in the background. We were very close to the actual high camp on the Directa, but just had no time nor energy to look for it upon arrival that night.
The high camp turned out to be on the top of the rocky slope on the right. It is not visible at the exit of the couloir, though it lies just a few dozens of vertical meters above it.
In daylight it was no problem to find the bivvy hut. As the early start was doomed again, and we were quite tired after a short, cold and restless night we decided to spend a day here. On the photo: A view up on the route from the high camp at about 4400 m: no technical climbing here, only terrible scree... and penitentes, of course.
The high camp on the Directa. The tent places show no signs of recent visits. The only evidence of human activity (except of some really old rusty cans spread around the hut) was an opened package of dried pasta left in the hut with expiry date approaching.
The small bivouac hut in the high camp was filled with a rock-solid block of ice. As it was quite hot in the sun, we used it as a fridge for chocolate bars and cheese.
More penitentes behind the bivouac hut!
In the high camp at 4400 m: a view towards the mountains of the Morado Valley where we had climbed previously.
Looking down from nearby the bivvy hut. Our bivouac site of the last night is in the middle on the rocks. Below the Engorda Valley and the Maipo Valley to the left of it.
Our tent in the high camp on the Directa at about 4400 m.
The tent sites in the high camp with magnificent views on the surroundig mountains.
The normal route is somewhere on that prominent ridge far away.
The upper part of the Directa in sunset colors.
This sunset is going to be a spectacle! We are ready to take photos to capture at least a fraction of this breathtaking lightshow.
Penitentes at sunset.
Sunset in Camp 1 on the Directa.
More penitentes at sunset. This is the only occasion when these ice monsters are truly enjoyable.
January 17, 2009: Modifying the route - from Camp 1 to a new high camp (Camp 2) at 5000 m
From Camp 1 the route follows almost a direct line up to the crater area. From this point on there’s no technical climbing any more, but it’s also not that simple as it looks like. One has to find a way through the penitentes fields and the loose volcanic scree which is quite steep at some places.
The day started off with clear skies, but about half the way the weather worsened to the extent that we deemed it better to abort the summit push for the time being and move over to the left, towards the normal route. That was completely unknown terrain. After having reached an ice field that we thought to be a part of the main glacier separating the ridge of the normal route from the rest of the huge mountain slope, we were wrapped in white-out and storm. We crossed the ice field and a part of a scree slope behind it until we found ourselves on an ice-field again. By that time storm had gathered strength and visibility was as good as zero. We erected a temporary shelter between the penitentes by using a tent footprint as a tarp (one thing those tedious ice structures can be useful for). Then, half-coverd by snow and with freezing fingers, we managed to make a cup of warm soup as we were rather dehydrated by that time. It was however clear that we had to find a spot for the tent and that pretty fast. And we were lucky. The only more or less comfortable spot free of razor sharp volcanic scree and penitentes was less than 100 vertical meters below the place where we had sheltered. And eventually we were able to crawl into the sleeping bags, protected from the elements but still filled with uncertainity: how long would the storm last?
The day starts off with clear skies. An everlasting dilemma appears again: what is easier - to move on the penitentes or on the unstable volcanic scree? Both sucked...
Morning haze upon the Maipo Valley.
A view down towards the Maipo Valley.
Bad weather is moving in. We decide to abort the summit push for the time being and modify the route by traversing to the left, towards the normal route. Anyway, going back through the death gully is absolutely out of question.
Me starting a traverse from the Directa towards the main glacier separating the normal route from the part we are on. Ahead is a completely unknown terrain.
The last view to get the directions before the weather closed in. We still have to cross the smaller glacier ahead and a scree slope behind it. And then?
On the traverse. It's going to be a complete white-out soon.
blazin in snowstorm.
Me in snowstorm. We can still smile as we've just had warm soup in a temporary shelter between the penitentes. Soon after that, before becoming totally disoriented we managed to find a good site for a tent.
Our campsite at 5000 m. The clouds are clearing up...
... and then moving in again. At least we got a glimpse on the surroundings to determine our location and to get directions.
Camp 2 at 5000 m. The weather improved by sunset.
A view towards a pass between the north and the south summits of San Jose.
Yet another spectacle! Sunset in the high camp at 5000 m.
Me melting snow in the high camp at 5000 m. We’ve run completely out of water due to the strenuous day. At this altitude and surrounded by solitude there’s no margin for error. The least we can do is to hydrate properly. As the tent has no vestibule, the only possibility is to cook outside.
Sunset in the high camp at 5000 m. What will bring tomorrow?
January 18, 2009: Summit day and descent via the normal route
The weather cleared up in the early morning and we were ready for summit push. At the other hand, it was clear that the ambitious traverse we had planned wouldn’t go through, we were far behind the schedule and had to be off the mountain by the evening of January 19 the latest. And we still had to get off the mountain ... if we could get off and get off in time.
The early morning brought clear skies and sunshine. We are ready to go for the summit.
A view towards the upper part of the main glacier. Our route goes straight up here. The normal route traverses the scree slopes on the left, just below the north summit of San Jose, and joins our route at the pass.
A view down: our tent is a tiny hardly visible yellow spot in the middle.
At the pass between the north and the south summits our route joins the normal route.
Me on the glacier approaching the pass.
A view towards Cerro El Morado (the highest mountain on the right in the background).
The last long slope before reaching the crater area.
blazin approaching the crater area.
Clouds are gathering again and fast.
Me approaching the crater area.
Storm clouds above San Jose. That spells no good...
The crater and the Chilean summit of San Jose.
The Argentine summit of San Jose, which is also the highest point on the volcano.
Last clear view before the weather closed in. We were lucky enough to reach our tent in white-out, just before the snowstorm wiped off any traces we had left on ascent. Again uncertainity: how long would this last? Apart from that, a few hours rest in the tent was welcomed.
On the way down along the normal route. Behind us is crossing of the extremely crevassed main glacier in white-out. It was our luck again that we were able to determine the right direction over the glacier with the help of a compass, and that before the weather closed in.
Trying to find the way through a big penitentes field into Camp 1 on the normal route. The normal route, however, didn’t go through this field. In bad visibility we just missed the right exit on the ridge and when we noticed this, it was too late to go back.
The passages were very narrow at times.
blazin on the penitentes field.
Camp 1 of the normal route in sight. Quite a few tents here! We didn’t see a single soul on the mountain, not even from a far distance!
Penitentes below Camp 1 in sunset.
blazin on the way down below Camp 1. The last stretch to Refugio Plantat will be covered in darkness.
January 19, 2009: Back at Lo Valdes
We spent the night in Refugio Plantat, sharing it with a few other climbers who planned to ascend via the normal route. Very early in the morning, at about 4 a.m. we set off towards the Engorda Valley and Refugio Lo Valdes.
A view back on San Jose from Refugio Lo Valdes. A lot of snow has fallen during the couple of last days - the time we were on the mountain.
Relaxing at Refugio Lo Valdes.
An idyllic view from the refugio. Suffering is behind, this evening we will have a large meal and wine to celebrate the end of our 3-weeks expedition. The next day will be travelling again: blazin has to catch a plane back home and me a bus over the Andes to meet a new adventure - a traverse of Aconcagua.