Licancabur northeast ridge in memory of my friend
Climbing mountains is a great therapy. We relax from everyday stress, we have time to evaluate our thought, make plans and relive dreams. There is a strong desire that makes people climb mountains. It started long time ago. This mountain was admired and climbed by Inca people. Incredible achievement. My motivation was to climb a mountain where 10 years ago I lost my friend. That day I didn’t finish the ascent. It seems that climbers are addicted and never stop climbing even after tragedies like this one. Zbynek Zoha was a strong climber, experienced as we say; he was guiding others on significant mountains in the world. It was bad luck. He had a great personality, always in a good mood, with never-ending optimism to motivate everybody around him. He was my mentor and inspiration for my entire life.
On Licancabur, we somehow underestimated the easy looking volcano. It was the beginning of our expedition, in our mind we aimed for more impressive and higher mountains like Sajama, Huayna Potosi and other peaks in Cordillera Real. After acclimatization riding in a jeep for 4 days on Salar Uyuni we decided whimsically to climb Licancabur. With no information nor map the mountain looked like easy stroll. It was cold the night of July 1st 2003 as they probably are usually in winter season. We wanted to start earlier but the getting up from cozy sleeping bag was hard. We ended up leaving around 6am, maybe later. The group of 8 people headed up but soon separated. All of us started toward Juriques-Licancabur saddle and took way up without trail between rocky ribs. Six of us deviated more east direction on loose volcanic arena, still not on the standard route that Incas built on the north-east ridge. Zbynek and other friend continued directly up the mountain. Zbynek with his heavy panoramic camera Noblex 10kg stayed behind. Other friend of ours kept aiming for the summit. When he decided to have a pit stop, he looked on his altimeter that showed 5500m. As he turned around he saw somebody underneath fall, the body took speed and kept falling possible 400m. He started to run down as fast as possible but Zbynek was showing no signs of life.
Nobody can answer how it really happened. He must be tired going up the loose terrain. And he stepped on icy snow without any crampons or ice axe. The fall was fatal, falling over some rocky ribs, he died immediately. It is an example of complete underestimation of “easy terrain”. We were not familiar with area and conditions. It was really unfortunate, unnecessary accident. Zbynek was a great responsible guide for others.
We had travel a agency driver waiting for us and they were really helpful and supportive to resolve the situation despite us causing troubles for them. We owe them big favor.
Ten years went by. In my mind I was thinking about climb of Licancabur periodically. After 10 years I got eventually all working to enable the trip to happen and decided to try climbing Licancabur again. I didn’t reach the summit previous time. It is an easy mountain relatively speaking. But still it is very high and remote.
Long time friend joined me on this crazy adventure. For Americans it is logistically complicated with visa and reciprocal fee for Chile and my husband didn’t have enough vacation to make it worthwhile. This time, we started from Chile by easy accessible San Pedro de Atacama, little tourist trap at 2500m. Numerous agencies organize trip to Licancabur, 5917m high peak, with significant rate of failure. Our approach was to acclimatize well. For example by sleeping in altitude near Tatio Geysers, we determined that we were able to stand the night above 4000m. To get to Portazuelo/Hito Cajon we took a ride with an agency that was available for 5000CHPS (10$). Ok, it sounds simple but it took two days walking for several hours negotiating, being sent to come later, being told too high of price with dirt look that we should be taking 4 day tour and not just quick ride. Eventually we paid and believed that waiting at 8:15am for the 8am bus will work. Little after 9am we arrived to one desolate house of Bolivian border located 50km from San Pedro. We passed the border control again as the Chilean border is in climate of oasis down by San Pedro. Two important officers were not too friendly since we were not typical tourists taking the whole tour. They are serious and they have the power to find any reason to prohibit entry. Especially for private parties as we learned later, so we smiled and showed all documents. They made us promptly understand that we are on our own to find the way. Oh well, we put on our backpacks and start our 8km march into Bolivia. It was not pleasant promenade; we carried 7L water each so packs were heavy. The road was dusty dirt road and every 10 minutes passed jeeps that collected tourists on the border.
It is desert country although decorated by beautiful volcanoes here and there, no vegetation visible, just with little snow, more on southern side. We see just couple vicunas that escaped when we approach beyond safe distance. The peaceful loneliness is interrupted by jeeps that pass us at full speed, now full of tourists that they recuperated on the border for several day trip over Salar Uyuni. It seems to be quite popular. We are every time swollen in dusty cloud holding breath, pushed off the road in soft volcanic terrain and closing eyes against everywhere intrusive dust. Occasionally, there was a huge 18 wheeler with scary container of sulfuric acid passing us making even bigger cloud of dust. It took us over two hours walking with periodic jumps off the road to make place for stronger vehicles. Eventually we arrived to the gate of National Park Fauna Andina de Eduardo Avaroa. We set down our backpacks covered with layer of dust. I proceeded to the ranger station and made my way through the crowd of guides from travel agencies and tourists coming from numerous jeeps. For each “turista extranjero” we needed to pay 150BS ($25), fill out personal information and NP card number. For accommodation they send us to the building in front “refugio”. In another TR they talk about another possibility next to Laguna Blanca but this was the only refugio we did find. The crew was just changing right today serving for one year. We paid 40BS per person/night (7$/per person/per night). It seems there will be lot of changes so revise before your trip. Rooms are mostly dormitories but they accommodate people at least for us it was not too busy season. Rooms are clean considering conditions. The option of private bath didn’t serve much since there is no running water and stinky restroom is just hiding in dark room. There are bed sheets but we used our own sleeping bags. This time of year it was quite warm. There is a possibility to eat there, they cook every day and offer you one option, we tested one diner for 35BS (6$) cazuela, lama with rice and oca tuber, nicely prepared. We had our own stove and propane canister and they welcomed us to use the water that is transported regularly from some reservoir. While we were there some significant changes happened. Like compressor to make electricity in evening started make noise. There are some glitches to improvements, like the key for the room that didn’t work, at least I never learned how to close and open the room. There was no toilet paper, personnel tried to avoid guests when they needed something. But they didn’t hesitate to disrupt later in evening coming with first towel ever served in refugio (no need though with no water) and they asked to fill out a questionnaire how warm are bed sheets. After all that it was still wonderful base camp rather than sleep in windy cold tent. Wind starts every day at 9-10am and blows stronger all the way through the evening.
From the first moment we advertised our intention to climb Licancabur as the guide is obligatory. Only on day #4 we were able to climb. After those few days the hut owner called himself a guide and all worked out. It seemed to be bad luck, as our arrival coincided with the change of crew and vacation for Todos Santos. To see it positively we ended up being greatly acclimatized.
Day #1 We walked to Laguna Verde that provide great views of Licancabur (6-8km round trip, minor elevation gain )
Day #2 We climbed Juriques volcano to 5350m according to our GPS
Day #3 Climbed Juriques volcano 5700m/18700’
We started at 7:30am. There is probably little shorter option to climb from the border crossing and likely other options to approach this technically easy volcano. We started from the refugio directly up the obvious easy north-east ridge. It is about 10km, 1410m elevation gain (6.4miles; 4200’). There is no trail. As the ridge steepens the scree becomes loose. We stayed along “islands” of grayish rocks that are coming in sight higher up on the otherwise redish background of volcanic arena. From 5300m we navigated right to get away from the lateral rocky ribs. The ridge became more solid and we eventually reached the rim of beautiful crater, rewarding scenery to reach the summit. Last 100m with 30m of elevation gain is on solid pile of talus rocks with an aerial view of crater and Licancabur towering behind the farther rim. No snow for entire ascent just little patches in hidden spots. Breezy wind appeared closer to the summit and warm weather welcomes us at 2pm on the summit. We use GPS but from the top it is possible to see all the way to refugio and it is the general direction to aim for on descent. The descent is easy and takes us little over two hours.
Day#4 Climbed Licancabur
Karun Purina pisiqtaq k’oqao. /// A lot of work but not much to eat. (Quechua proverb)
Licancabur north east ridge 7km, 1160m elevation gain (4.5 miles; 3800’).
Wake up at 1:30 am, quick breakfast and 2am punctual military vehicle waits for us. At 2:30am we arrive to our dark start and start promptly with our headlamps. Serafin our guide set in slow pace. We are hot, Petka is happy just with his sweater and takes of the windbreaker for short time. Typical for me, I’m over prepared, I never need my down jacket and Gore-Tex pants or other layers which Petka for sure enjoys to carry. Leather boots were optimal choice for this climb. I enjoy my big mittens especially higher when the breeze picks up. We filled all in one backpack so it is little heavy. Even though I offered my help to carry it Petr spoiled me and gave me a chance to help with the backpack just for short moment on the way up. We made quick breaks every hour to hydrate and snack. The speed accelerated and we made very good progress. The day light came around 5am with views of Sairecabur in the direction we looked and Lagunas Verde and Blanca down when we turned little bit. With the warm sun we were motivated to get to the summit. The trail is comfortable, higher up signed with piles of rock (apacheta maybe) with wood stick to mark the trail. We have a view far around and nowhere there one could imagine tree growing. It must be amazing effort for Incas to bring wood so high up as well as building the stone structures. The climb becomes steeper and makes for fun scramble on big rocks. After that section the summit hill comes into view, it is a mellow scree stretch and summit cross is visible on the horizon. We know we will make it. We arrived to the top around 8am.
The weather collaborates and makes the special moment on the summit relaxing. It is pleasantly warm and no wind. When coming to the high crater rim the whole crater comes to sight. Deep in crater in middle of this huge desert there is frozen lake. No wonder that Incas considered the volcano sacred and repeated ascents to this special mountain. Views around are awesome. It is impossible to bring my friend’s life back. It was just special time in mountains that I needed for commemoration of my friend’s life.