A deserted 6730 m high peak in the Andes, the fourth tallest volcano, called Llullaillaco. We have visited this peak on New Year’s Eve of 2010, from the Chilean side, as part of our South-American honeymoon trip. The two of us went there alone, with no guide, with only a little Toyota Yaris and some sense of adventure. The climb has no real technical difficulties, but the elevation and the remote location is challanging: there was nobody besides us in a 80 km radius. We made it to the summit saddle, 200m short of the peak.
With my wife Eszter we travelled around South-American for three-months. Mountaineering was not the primary goal, but we visited three mountains nonetheless: El Misti, Huayna Potosi, and Llullaillaco. We chose it because its quite high, it requires no fee, and it’s somewhat exotic as it is rarely visited. Its 6730 meters is quite respectable even in the Andes, and it is also unique in being the highest archelogical site of the world: intriguingly, several sacrificial child mummies were found on its peak. Our preparation was not very thorough, as we found limited information about this peak, one valuable info being a list of GPS waypoint for approaching with a vehicle (from the Summitpost page, by Fabrice).
Once we got to San Pedro de Atacama, we started looking around to find our way to the mountain. There are operators who do guided tours occasionally, but we would had to wait and pay a lot, for including guiding, which we did not need. Finding transportation only – a strategy that worked on El Misti and Huayna Potosi – did not work out in this case. So we had to rent a vehicle. A four-wheel-drive is strongly advised, as there are no roads leading to the mountain. Our low budget advised otherwise, and we ended up renting a little red Toyota Yaris, aware of the risks. Our drive through San Pedro, Valle de la Luna, and Salar de Atacama was relatively smooth and quite enjoyable. The interesting part came when we left the road, at the ’pump’. It was a mistake to assume that the ’pump’ waypoint is a gas station where we can buy some gas – it’s a long abandoned mine pumping statition. A new risk arose: whether our gas will be enough for the return trip... This part of the approach was about 80 km long.
Off the beaten path we found ourselves driving on a gentle slope of volcanic ash and rubble. We had a few worrying incidents when our tires sunk into the ash -- once we had to work hard to dug it out (we took good use of the jack). We realised that there are several very faint car tracks, which we could follow – though our Yaris was so much narrower that we could not use both tire tracks left by wider pickups. We could see the mountain in front of us all along, but the coordinates we had was a great help navigating in the desert. We found the big sign post signaling the national park entrance – this was about the only piece of infrastructure of the whole park! After 15 km more, we got to the hut in the evening. The gasoline gauge in our car showed less thean half (3/8), which we hoped should be enough getting down.
The Refugio Las Zorritas (at 4.170 m), an unlocked house with two rooms, is a convenient basis for the trip. There is a little creek too, which is a treasue in this desert -- vicunas also frequent it. A drivable road goes a bit higher, but we did not want to risk more. The second day we hiked up to about 4650 m. Here the slope is relatively gentle, and good spots can be found along the groove. The third day we continued hiking further. The dry creek along which we went started to have some ice in it, and further up even some trickling water! The landscape became steeper, more rugged, and completely barren. We set camp next to the big lava flow, at 5720 m. Here we had to work hard to make an acceptable place for the tent -- a nice workout for New Year’s Eve!
To the peak
We woke to 2010 on a clear, cold morning. Unfortunately Eszter had a little cold for a few days, which at this altitude made her very weak, so she decided to stay in the tent for the day. I started alone towards the top. First I made my way between large boulders, until I reached the snowfield. Or, more precisely, a field of huge standing icicles. I started to go around it on the left side (the side of the lava flow), which turned out to be a bad choice. After a while I had to track back all the way, and start on the right side. Then I got to a less steep part, from where the saddle and the peak was clearly visible. The view from here got more and more awesome. I had to cross the ice field, which is not dangerous, but it’s very strenuous among the fragile ice formations. Later I realized that it’possible to go all around the show field. I got into the groove that leads directly to the saddle. I reached the saddle -- 6520m -- from where I could have a glance at the argentine side. The peak is 200m more from here, but it was already late, as I was moving slowly. I took the difficult to decision to turn back, and went back to the camp. After a lonely day we were quite happy to see each other.
Down from the mouintain
Next day we went down to the refugio, meeting only herds of playful vicunas. It amazes me what can they eat here? We drove away the same day (the time was ticking for the car rental). We traced back our way, but unexpectedly we ended up on a road that led us into the ‘La Escondida’ mine -- a huge are with large pits and giant trucks. At some checkpoint the personnel stopped us, and seeing that we don’t really know where we are, they escorted us out all the way to the paved road. Big luck that our gas was just enough! By the evening we were on sea level in Antofagasta.