If Cerro el Plomo had a stylin' nick name, it might be "The Big Easy."
Not that it's anything like New Orleans in any way; it's just big. And easy. Except for the "big" part.
Bad weather can also remove the "easy" factor. A note scrawled on the wall inside the refuge at 13,600' tells a story of a July (winter) ascent in which three climbers had been trapped in a storm and white out for five days, one with frozen fingers and unable to walk, another puking up everything he ate, and the third taking their last packet of soup and leaving for help in a couple hours.
The normal climbing season (summer) is December - March, when there's not much snow and relatively warm temperatures (approx -20 to 20 C / 0 to 50 F, minus whatever wind chill).
First ascent: Gustav Brandt and Rudolph Lucke, 1898, though of course the Incas were up there hundreds or thousands of years before.
The 1-3 day approach follows beautiful, smooth trails up and down ridges and valleys above 11,000'. You can hire mules to pack your gear for about US$15/day to leave you free to enjoy the walk.
Climbing around 15,50'
By 15,000', the mountain turns steeper (non climbers would call it really steep) and criss-crossing switchbacks lead slowly to a high plateau where an Inca mummy was discovered in 1954.
Pirca del Indio
From there, cross the glacier (crampons recommended, though you could probably get across with an axe and by carefully kicking steps to avoid a deadly 3,000' slide to La Olla), then climb another few hundred feet to reach the nearly-flat summit ridge and wind your way a few hundred yards to the top.
Summit Ridge - at last!
Weather permitting, you can look north and see Aconcagua, along with hundreds of other sharp and impressive peaks up and down the cordillera.
Here are a bunch of waypoints along the way (Note: WGS84 datum & as is common with GPS, don't trust the altitude numbers too much!):
La Parva S33 20.006 W70 17.175 9957 ft
Parva midpoint S33 19.646 W70 16.472 10587 ft
Parva summit S33 19.023 W70 15.753 11694 ft
Easy way down S33 19.500 W70 15.438 11366 ft
Low Point S33 18.849 W70 15.272 11264 ft
High Point S33 18.714 W70 14.897 11768 ft
Piedra Numerada S33 17.468 W70 13.141 11085 ft
Refugio Espejo S33 15.674 W70 13.866 13572 ft
Water Source S33 15.622 W70 13.929 13587 ft
Refugio Angostini S33 15.147 W70 13.146 15153 ft
Traverse S33 14.855 W70 12.846 16559 ft
Summit Ridge S33 14.708 W70 12.861 16927 ft
El Plomo Summit S33 14.213 W70 12.836 17848 ft
for more waypoints and cookie crumbs to show the entire route...if you can figure out how to download it to your GPS.
The first thing you'll discover when you land in Chile (if you didn't already know) is that you have to pay a $134 entry fee before passing through customs. Go to the right window first to avoid standing in the customs line twice. A paper is stapled inside your passport and you won't need to pay the fee again for the duration of your passport.
Hiking above the resort town of La Parva
Catch a cab from the airport for 70 pesos or less. They'll quote you 100. If money is an object, find a better deal. Go to the end of La Parva ski resort, which is probably where you agreed to meet your mules if you rented them.
You can call Luis Pinto to get you a taxi (you must speak Spanish) at 011 (to dial foreign) 56 (Chile country code) 09 ("city code" for cell phone) 680-46498. Hmm. Something's not right, there's one number too many. If you try it, let me know if it works. I gave Luis our butane/propane gas stove canister which he will lend you (you can't fly with one and you'd have to stop and buy one on the way - if you need one, try the huge Sports Mall that's on the way as you go through the really posh area of Santiago - a store on the upper floor in the right corner). He may also have an extra adjustable ski pole which we left in the cab.
Loading the mules
For mules, call Mauricio Polanco (you WILL need to speak Spanish) at 08 (city code) 204-2776. All together, that's 011-56-08-204-2776. I'm told the going rate is about US$15/day/animal (including his), though we paid more. Mauricio is a nice guy who let my Dad ride his horse half way down after slipping and tearing a tendon. Give him a good tip.
It's a nice drive, and when you really start making elevation, you'll enjoy the 40 hairpin turns. They're numbered. Uphilll traffic gets right of way.
One of 40 hairpin turns
Above the hairpin turns, turn left to La Parva rather than continuing straight to Valle Nevado resort.
You can get permission (I don't know where, and I don't know if anyone really checks) to drive to the top of La Parva resort, which will save you about 1,500' vertical of hiking. Otherwise just take off straight up, following the lifts, till you go over the top ridge and see a scenic lake (though you might not think it's all that scenic). Then follow the trail down and up and down and up and down and around, staying between 11,000' and 11,700', until you reach Piedra Numerada, the first popular campsite.
Not much red tape. No permits required. You could even drive a motorcycle at least to Piedra Numerada, which would be really fun as long as you have some dirt bike experience (there's a steep spot or two that could give you some trouble if you don't have experience and good nobbies).
If somebody knows about getting permission to drive to the top of La Parva, please post the info below. They say you need a 4x4, but if there are no snow drifts, it's an excellent dirt road and any old Civic or Citroen could make it.
El Lago just over the top of La Parva ski resort.
Refugio Espejos 15-second exposure with moon-lit spindrift blowing off El Plomo in the background
El Refugio Agostini
Camp wherever you want. Popular spots are the Laguna (GPS info above - Parva Summit), Piedra Numerada, El Refugio Espejos, La Olla (or Ollada - 500' above Refugio Espejos), and El Refugio Agostini.
There's plenty of water to filter at the lower camps, and at Refugio Espejos (or one of many flat spots with rock-pile windbreaks spread around here), use the shovel left inside (or next to) the refugio to dig a hole near the end of the glacier to make a puddle to filter water from. There's a GPS point listed above for this.
El Refugio Agostini isn't really a good camping spot, however, as it's broken to pieces and barely provides any shelter at all. If you want to be awesome and do a service project while down there, take a bunch of chicken wire and something to cover it with. Or something.