The South Face
Cerro Tomasamil is a highly eroded dormant volcano, on the edge of the Atacama Desert
in southwestern Bolivia. Its complex array of ridges and the slopes in between consist mainly of broken talus and scree. More solid rock might be found along the crest of some of the ridges. This area of the Cordillera Occidental is packed full of old volcanoes, clustered closely together. Many of them are in the 18,000 to 20,000 foot range and quite prominent, with Tomasamils prominence being just over 5200 feet. Spread out between these giants, are a series of salt flats, which may give the valley floor a shimmering white appearance. Historically, during the winter and spring Tomasamil and the surrounding peaks were snow capped but in recent years the usual precipitation has ceased. Wild game trails can be found leading up to what was once a water source. It's yet to be seen if the snows of Tomasamil will return.
High On The Northwest Ridge
On the lower slopes of Tomasamil you might see a wild vicuña
or encounter the occasional yareta plant
. Large communal piles of dung on the western slopes suggest that vicuñas favor this area. In any case, if you decide to climb Tomasamil, you will likely be the only one doing so. I have heard it estimated that this peak has seen less than twenty ascents. There are a number of reasons for this. Peakbagging has not exactly caught on in local Bolivian culture and anyone traveling to this area from abroad has an abundance of other volcanoes to choose from. Also, access to the base of the mountain is not exactly straight-forward.
Low On The Northwest Ridge
Unlike some of the neighboring peaks, on Tomasamil there are no old mining roads leading up onto its slopes. To climb to the summit one must undergo considerable mileage and elevation gain. There's also the matter acclimatization. It's important that one has prepared their body for approaching the 20,000 foot mark. Premature exposure to these altitudes can prove fatal. It is suggested that prospective climbers visit a few lower peaks in the days preceding a Tomasamil climb to allow their body time to adjust.
Whether starting at the road or a base camp a bit higher up, the object is to reach one of Tomasamil's ridges. The broad slopes are very loose and only suitable for descent. When I was there, we climbed the northwest ridge but the southwest ridge might also be a good choice and possibly less steep. It all depends on where you start from. Expect to encounter small spiky grass on the lower slopes and loose talus higher up on the ridges. If you do choose the northwest ridge, exercise caution on the steep, loose
section around 19,000 feet, which I have nicknamed Red Hill
Nearing The Summit
Drive southwest on Route 701 for 197 kilometers. Turn right on the unmarked north-south road and drive another 30 kilometers. Cerro Tomasamil will be on your right. If you have an all terrain vehicle, look for the area where there are very few rocks and proceed towards the peak as far as you are able.
From Estación Avaroa:
Drive southeast along the lower slopes of Volcán Ollagüe for 24 kilometers to a junction. Turn north and follow another road for 8.5 kilometers. Cerro Tomasamil will be on your right.
When To Climb
Year-round. But exercise caution in January and February when the occasional violent storm appears in the antiplano. It might be best to plan a speedy one day ascent during this period. Also exercise caution during the winter in July and August when temperatures can drop to -30 degrees Celsius. Do not
attempt to climb in the winter without appropriate mountaineering gear. Also, remember to bring lots of water as you can't expect to find any natural water source in this part of Bolivia.
Volcán Ollagüe (19,252 feet) Seen From Tomasamil Base Camp
AMS / HACE / HAPE
Make sure you know the difference
between normal altitude sickness and the more serious HACE and HAPE. It's quite common to have a headache or loose you appetite at altitude, but if you or someone you climb with was to get seriously ill, could you diagnose it in time? Knowing what to watch for, and making the decision to turn around without delay, might save a life.