“Tres Cruces, Tres Cumbres” expedition
I am a Puna de Atacama lover since 15 years and I have been thinking of climbing the three summits of the beautiful Tres Cruces massif in one single solo expedition since many years. For a long time I thought that it could be a premiere but during my preparation I realized that it has been done in 2006 by one of the best contributors of this site : Janne Corax.
So the objective is to climb Tres Cruces Central (6629m / 21,749 ft), then Tres Cruces Sur (6749 m / 22,142 ft) and finally Tres Cruces Norte (6030m / 19,783 ft).
Before going to Tres Cruces, I spent a week trekking in the Argentinian Puna (Catamarca region) in the area of the refugio of Las Grutas (4000m / 13,123 ft). After two acclimatizing climbs (Beltran, 5300m (17,388 ft) & San Francisco, 6030m (19,783 ft)) I went back down to Fiambala for 24 hours in order to enjoy the warm sun and the Argentinian meat before attempting my main objective under the best conditions.
Fiambala, 5 am. It is night in the sleepy village and only few stray dogs are wandering through the street while I am waiting for Jonson who will drive me up to Las Grutas. After two hours driving on this excellent paved road I meet Ricardo, a 60 years old Argentinian who is also going to Tres Cruces and who is happy to share company for approaching the mountain with his small 4WD vehicle. After having crossed the border, the road turns into an unpaved track and passes not so far from the Tres Cruces. Unfortunately, we have to continue 80 km until the Maricunga customs office in order to regularize our situation. Once these long and suspicious formalities are done we come back on the same track to start the approach of Tres Cruces.
One thing appears quickly as an evidence : this small red 4WD vehicle is for sure more appropriate to climb on a curb in the city rather than for making its trail in a sandy altitude desert. After countless attempts (forward and reverse drive) I succeed in convincing Ricardo to stop and let his car here, that is to say at 4850m (15,912 ft) of altitude, 300 meters (5984 ft) lower than we expected. Although Ricardo was planning to stay at his car in order to improve his acclimatization, he kindly accompanies me up to where I decided to put my base camp at 5180m (16,994 ft). I warmly thank him for having carrying this big bottle of 5 liters of water and we separate as he is going back down to his car.
It is 04:00 pm and I am pitching my tent on the west foothills of the Tres Cruces Sur (S27°05,627' W068°49,471'), not far from some vehicle tracks which prove that before us some people ventured here with real 4WD vehicles ! The familiar sound of the stove allows me little by little to take the true measure of this situation I expected for months : at last I'm alone and my adventure really begins ! I do not know if it's the altitude change from Fiambala, the tedious 4WD drive or the repercussions of my seven days of acclimatization, but I do not have time to enjoy the beauty of the last rays of sun and I fall into a deep sleep.
6:30 am, it is -9°c (15.8°f) inside my tiny tent and I slept 10 hours without interruption. I am cooking my breakfast while trying to heal my icy fingers. I leave base camp at 8:30 am towards the col that separates Tres Cruces Sur from Tres Cruces Central, located at approximately 6000 meters (19,659 ft). My 23 kg backpack and the sandy slope are not the ideal equation but the beautiful weather makes me happy and I found a less strenuous way through a small canaleta littered with stones that allow me to climb without slipping too much.
Despite numerous breaks that make me doubt of my acclimatization I finally arrive at the col at 12:30 pm. Four hours for an 820 meters’ ascent (2,690 ft) is quite a long time but not too bad considering the weight I am carrying. With three small lagunas (partly frozen) and a splendid view over the Chilean Atacama desert, this place is one of the finest altitude camps I’ve ever seen. In the afternoon, once installed, I go for a walk further west and a little higher on this saddle between Sur and Central. This area is so big that it makes me fully realize the gigantic dimensions of this mountain. Before returning to my tent, I stare at the south face of Tres Cruces Central which is partly covered by a small glacier that is considered as the normal route.
My alarm clock rings at 7:00 am in my tent where every square centimeter is covered by frost. The snow melts on my stove and I stare with hunger at the objective of the day : Tres Cruces Central and its 6629 meters (21,748 ft). While drinking my coffee, I decide that I’ll not climb the Central by the south face on the glacier that I observed yesterday. Instead, I’ll go through a route more on the west, a little bit rockier. I take my crampons, Ice axe, down jacket a bottle of water and some energy bars and I hit the mountain at 8:30 am.
The slope is quickly steeper than I estimated. Some sections are more than 55° and I have to put on my crampons to pass a steep section of hard snow. The weather is perfect and there is no wind at all, which can be considered as uncommon in this area. After a long section of a sandy and slippery soil, I arrive at 6450m (21,161 ft) at the
foot of what seems to be the last prominence : a nice snowy face of approx. 60°.
At 01:45 pm I am on the summit, at 6629 meters (21,748 ft) high. The highest point on this long ridge is not easy to tell but a little cairn draws my attention. Underneath, I find a metal box that I was expecting to find as I exchanged by email few weeks before with Janne Corax, the man who let it here few years ago during an epic solo expedition. Apart from this box and from Janne’s testimonial, I found no other traces of previous climbs. The weather is fantastic : I am only wearing my fleece ! Whatever the direction, the views are of course very rewarding. Tres Cruces Norte (6030m / 19,783 ft) seems so tiny and the laguna underneath its summit makes me wanting to be few days later. I also examine the very strange shapes of Tres Cruces Sur and I imagine the main sections of my next climb. After an hour of pure ecstasy I chose to go down on the south glacier. This easy descent on an average 40° slope takes me a bit less than two hours.
Once back at the high camp on the col and after a good snack, I decide to go further down to see if Ricardo would be on his way up. I can see him a bit lower. He is going up at a slow pace and seems to be tired. I am going to meet him and propose him to carry his backpack. He gently refuses my help and we slowly move our bodies in direction of the col. There he pitches his tent while I am melting snow for the dinner. While our discussions during our meal I realize that Ricardo doesn’t really know what he wants to do tomorrow. He seems to be not very well acclimatized yet and hasn’t got a clear goal on this mountain. He says he wants to try his chance on Tres Cruces Sur but without a very explicit motivation. As the cold falls suddenly with the sunset, the discussions are ending naturally and we get in our respective tents. Tomorrow will be a big day.
I am glad I had the idea of hiding my alarm clock in my fleece hat that I am wearing in order to prevent it from freezing. It is 5:15 am and the temperature is -13°c (8.6°f) inside
the tent. I slip of my sleeping bag and put my clothes on as fast as possible. Damn, it’s so cold ! I eat as much as I can and I drink the liter of coffee I prepared yesterday evening. The two liters of water that I am taking for the day were warmly stored inside my sleeping bag during all the night so they are not frozen. I take off at 6:10 am for the objective of the day : Tres Cruces Sur and its 6749 meters (22,142 ft).
It’s really cold (probably less than -20°c / -4°f) and despite the first day lights I can’t heal because the slope I am climbing is in the shadow. The route is obvious and I am going up on a canaleta made of sand, small rocks and some fields of hard snow. My pace is not as fast as I would like and it takes me 3 hours to get to the big shoulder at 6400m (20,997 ft).
Here, I find at last the healing sun and I can’t help lying few minutes on a big rock to feel my body getting a bit warmer. This place is where the difficulties and the interesting things are beginning… The enormous summit cap of Tres Cruces Sur is a giant chaos of unstable losing volcanic stones, from the most little scree to rocks that weight several tons.
I skirt, I climb, I slip, I moan and my breath begins to be short. At 6626m (21,738 ft), I arrive at the part of the ascent where you are facing a sort of vertical wall of few meters that seems to be like a belt all over and under the summit prominence. There I spend few minutes to locate “La Puerta” (S27°05.824' W068°46.871), the only pass to keep on climbing without the use of mountain equipment. This is a steep gully at the feet of a rocky tower (the biggest in the area) and I decide to pass these dozens of meters full of scree and loosing stones as quickly as possible.
At the exit of the gully, the landscape is even more chaotic and it seems to me that I am in the middle of a giant labyrinth. After several minutes of hike and climb in this crazy environment I think I can see what could be the summit with its Leki walking pole as a mark of the highest spot.
At 01:00 pm, 7 hours after my departure from high camp and full of happiness and mixed emotions I am standing on the highest point of Tres Cruces Sur. Once more I enjoy the fantastic views over the Atacama and the neighborhood summits while thinking of the challenge of what must have been the first ascent in 1937. At this time, the Polish were gone for weeks in complete autonomy in this hostile and unknown desert with their mules.
It is not cold but the clouds coming from Argentina (that mean snow) are more and more numerous. I hardly awake from my ecstatic state and write few confusing words as a testimonial in the book I found in the “Banco de Chile” metallic suitcase. As I am a bit tired, It takes me 2,5 hours of concentration not to hurt myself to reach the shoulder at 6400m (20,997 ft). In the meantime I had some difficulties to find back “La Puerta” gully that is harder to locate on the way down than climbing.
On this long and wide shoulder, it seems to me that there is on its extremity (at approx. 800m (2,624 ft) I would say) a sort of circular rocky construction. I don’t know if it is reality or my imagination but I am saying to myself that it could be one of these Inca ruins called Pircas that are sometimes seen on some of these high mountains. I do not have the courage to go and check by myself and the menacing clouds are encouraging me to continue further down to high camp. It is 06:00 pm when I reach it. Ricardo warmly congratulates me and asks me questions about my climb. I am glad to see that he looks in better shape than yesterday. We quickly eat something before going to sleep. It’s 07:30 pm and the snow begins to gently fall.
I forgot to set my alarm clock and I wake up quite late to discover a nice snowy landscape. It is 09:45 am when I say goodbye to Ricardo after having exchanging our emails addresses and after having asking him to be prudent. I will never see him again. Despite this late departure, I still think I have enough time to try the ascent of Tres Cruces Norte. Unfortunately I begin my descent by choosing the wrong gully and I find myself losing an hour to skirt a huge penitent’s field.
My pace is not so bad and I arrive at 12:30 pm at a perfect place to set my camp, approximately at one hour distance from the col between Tres Cruces Central and Norte. Once my tent quickly pitched, I almost ran to intent the ascent. But the visibility becomes poorer and poorer and when I arrive at 14:15 pm at what seems to be the foot of the north face of Tres Cruces Norte, I can hardly see ten meters far, the snow begins to fall and the wind is blowing more and more. After a short hesitation I turn and go back to my tent thanks to my gps. The ascent will be for tomorrow. If the weather allows it.
06:45 am. The weather is fine and the strong winds that kept me awake most of the night have disappeared with the first rays of light. In less than an hour I am hitting the
mountain in direction of Tres Cruces Norte. It takes me twice less of time than yesterday to reach the foot of the north face.
The first 200 meters (656 ft) of this huge sandy slope are climbed in 30 minutes. I am of course motivated by my goal but the real reason of my fast pace is less happy as I am racing against the bad weather that comes from Tres Cruces Sur and that goes right in my direction at an impressive speed. At an approximate height of 5900 meters (19,356 ft), getting around a rocky slope I arrive at the big laguna that I admired two days earlier from the summit of Central.
I do not have time to enjoy the sandy shores of this wonderful lake because the black clouds have already reached me. The visibility drops down quickly and the snow is passing horizontally around me. Hopefully the summit is not very far and the route is obvious despite a hard snow that obliges me to put on my crampons. I finally arrive a bit out of breath on the top after this short ascent that took me 3 little hours from my camp located 600 meters (1,968 ft) further down. I quickly take a photo and write few words on a small paper that will join the testimonial of Corax in its little metallic box.
20 minutes later the weather is clearing all of a sudden and I find back a perfect visibility while approaching the laguna. For a moment I hesitate to get back in order to fully enjoy this third summit that signs the achievement of my project. But this lake is attracting me like a magnet. Laid on the sand I am staring at this vast and calm body of water. I am feeling perfectly good and these 5900 meters (19,356 ft) of altitude seem to have no influence on me. I am filled by my environment and by the happiness of having almost achieved my objective. If I was asked to tell what could paradise looks like to me, I think that this place would be high on my list. Going back down, I enjoy running and jumping on the immense sandy slopes.
I get back to my tent at 01:40 pm. The day ends with one of the most spectacular sun set I have ever seen in this region : all around me the rays of light that are tearing the black clouds give me one more time the feeling to be in paradise. Slowly I realize that I’ll have to leave this unique place tomorrow and this makes me a bit sad as I am feeling so well in this environment.
I have an appointment at around 02:00 pm with Jonson who is coming to pick me up with his Toyota Hilux at the feet of Tres Cruces Sur. Only few hours of walk are separating me from this gps waypoint we set together few days ago. The weather is beautiful and the particular purity of the air gives me the impression that I can see over hundreds of kilometers.
Jonson is right on time at our appointment. He brought a bottle of Argentinian sparkling wine of which he makes blewing the cork after having shaking it as I we were on the podium of a formula one championship ! His sincere happiness and his congratulations are touching me. I know him since years and I always admired this quiet man and his impressive past of Puna explorer. Very few are the people who are knowing as well as he does this wild and remote desert. At my return in Fiambala, I am told that Ricardo still did not come back from Tres Cruces.
As I am getting farther and farther from the Andes my fears are confirmed : in Catamarca city, then in Buenos Aires and back in France each contacts with Jonson and Ricardo’s friends and family are always the same : no trace of him. A year after and despite a couple of searching expeditions, the body of Ricardo has never been found. It will probably never be.