Introduction and arrival
Volcan San Jose has easy accessibility to Santiago and a base camp in a European style hut created by the German Andino Mountain Club in 1932, one year after San Jose was first officially climbed.
Refugio Lo Valdes http://www.refugiolovaldes.com/ at 6,053’ is operated by a British/Chilean couple Andy and Beni (who after 7 years are leaving for the UK this April), that were very helpful from the beginning when we first inquired about accommodations. The only logistics to overcome were to register the climb for free at the San Gabriel military checkpoint and to obtain propane for cooking.
Andy from Refugio Lo Valdes met us on the other side of customs. He pointed us to the ATM machine and then took us to Jumbo Hypermarket to pick up propane and some fresh food before speeding us up Cajon del Maipo to San Gabriel where there is the military checkpoint. Apparently the rules changed and we should have obtained a permit in Santiago from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to climb a border peak on the frontier with Argentina. Andy and Renata convinced the young policeman that a perfectly legal American and Czech were not likely to cross illegally to Argentina while climbing San Jose, unless by accident, so he issued the permit on the spot.
Another 20 bumpy kilometers past San Gabriel (75km total from Santiago) we arrived at Refugio Lo Valdes and checked in to the Marmolejo room (San Jose room has bunk beds). Marmolejo is a 6000m peak that we were also interested in climbing but decided not to upon learning the snow conditions were not safe. The previous Friday an unusual February storm dumped a foot of fresh snow over open crevasses. San Jose thankfully did not have any crevassed glaciers to cross. The climb was a go.
We spent Monday getting ready for Tuesday’s start, enjoying hospitality we found in Lo Valdes, exploring Baňos Morales and hiking up to the San Francisco Glacier in National Park Morado. A father and daughter team from Long Island who just returned from an attempt on San Jose was staying at the refugio and offered some condition updates. Their climb coincided with the big storm which forced them to turn around at Camp 1. Although they were disappointed and did not have time for a second attempt, they provided positive encouragement to see a picture of us smiling from the summit.
Lo Valdes to Plantat, Tuesday, February 15
Between the refugio and the trailhead are two miles of dirt road that run through a very active cement plant (because of last year’s earthquake; closed on Sundays), so we gladly accepted a ride from Andy to the starting point at Puente Colinas. The trail starts off a side road just past the bridge to Baňos Colinas and curves around Moro Negro to the Valle Engorda. The smaller mountains around here have vertical faces that look as if they could shower innocent pedestrians with rocks from multiple directions but provided stunning scenery while crossing the otherwise flat valley. San Jose comes into view as giant boulders give way to prickly plants with seeds sticking everywhere.
Renata obtained waypoints and a description for this climb from http://www.andeshandbook.org/. Our first waypoint was to a bridge that Andy had warned us was further up stream. The stream itself isn't big, but would get your feet wet. After finding the bridge, we hiked a mile up Valle Engorda on a cairned goat path before crossing two or three small stream branches where goats were foraging. We found the good trail that winds steeply up the final 2000’ in about a mile to Refugio Plantat. Plantat is the last name of the person who built the refugio in the 1930s. We decided to pitch our tent instead of staying in the refugio because there are several nice camp sites. Otherwise Plantat offers free bunk beds for the first eight people, plus a small picnic table and cooking area inside. One young man from Santiago was spending the night there who overly encouraged us to stay in the refugio while telling us everything about climbing mountains. What we learned was that he was not going higher but there were 3 Chileans and 2 French on the mountain above us. After setting up camp we climbed San Josecito, a half hour hike up to a ridge point from Plantat which normally has spectacular views of the summit of San Jose. At the moment it was obscured by heavy clouds, but we got nice views of Valle Engorda below. After Josecito, we ate a quiet dinner in the refugio and slept by 9pm. We noticed the sun did not set until 8:30pm.
Plantat to Camp 1, Wednesday, February 16
Daylight did not come until after 7:30am with full sunshine not hitting us on the western slopes of San Jose until 10am. Today we woke up at 7am and left at 9am. A good trail follows the small stream above Plantat to its source and up to the ridge called Lajas, named for the flat plate-like rocks here. As far as here it is possible to take mules and there are several campsites found along the ridge. We were now at 12,000’. The clouds formed faster today and we soon lost our sunshine as we continued on the cairned trail toward a moraine ridge. The headwall with an imposing serac came into view from the moraine ridge while on both sides were steep walls far enough away that we were not concerned about the rock fall we could hear quite regularly. We dropped off the ridge around here to fill up with the last reliable running water for the climb.
The trail eventually turned north and arrived at a low angle snow slope where we climbed 1000' to rockier terrain with no defined trail. We started seeing campsites above 13,000' marked by cairns. This is the beginning of “Camp 1”, which consists of many small camp sites between 13,000’ and 15,000’ where the volcanic and glacial rocks have been piled around cleared flat areas the size of a small tent. Visibility was poor at this point as the clouds got thick and we appreciated having a waypoint for a specific site at 14,200’, which our GPS led us to exactly. Around 4pm we set the tent up fast as the first snowflakes started falling and quickly covered us and our packs. We made sure that we hydrated sufficiently and Renata melted more snow for dinner and to fill our thermoses before she joined me in the tent. The clouds remained low, and as it got darker there was suddenly wind that didn't let go the whole night long.
Camp 1 to Camp 2, Thursday, February 17
The wind was still howling as we woke up at 7am under clear skies. We fought with a flying tent and difficult packing. The temperature dropped down compared to Plantat but still just around freezing. Route-finding was more difficult today as the description we had gives an option of snowfield with penitentes that make you sweat or a moraine and ridge with unstable boulders lying on ice. We had three key waypoints that were all a short distance steeply above us, but spent a lot of time looking for the best route as the terrain was more rugged with loose rock. We started off crossing a penitente-free snowfield to a couple cairns, but didn’t see any sign of a trail. By mistake we picked the southern moraine ridge as there was a cairn or two leading there and it seemed to fit the description. Perhaps the elevation was getting to us, or we are simply getting older, but today we were slow and our packs seemed to be impossibly heavy. Perhaps I shouldn’t have led us up this 300’ of steep, loose moraine rock. We were not talking too much. Those easy Andean peaks are still very high and remote.
Yet another break and as Renata opened her pack to take out her camera, something fell from her pack. The thermos picked up speed incredibly fast considering the low angle of the snow slope we were on and just like that bounced all the way down. Like a brilliant husband, I had a fleeting thought of doing a super-human dive to save the day, but only managed an inept “Gee, there goes half of our water supply.” We just stood there watching it go. The brain goes through a quick realization that without it our climb is done. Fortunately we see it eventually stopping 200 yards down the slope banging on a huge rock. Renata used her unbounded energy to retrieve the thermos and take a few pictures while I rested in the sunshine.
We had a waypoint for a higher Camp 1 at 14,800’, which we now realized was on the northern moraine, so the southern moraine was off-route, but the two ridges joined together and we soon found cairns and a better trail. It was now around noon. We discussed previously the option to stay in 14,800’ camp. The advantage would be acclimating better as we didn’t know how our bodies would react to the night higher. Looking around the weather was just perfect, the wind stopped, it was warm enough to be comfortable in fleece and no clouds in the sky. Higher camp would allow us to have tomorrow first summit day. We decided to commit to the additional 1000’ to Camp 2.
The excitement helped us to overcome first steep climbing. We found a trail zigzagging in loose scree, but the visible path soon disappeared in snow as we were making our way up to the steep wall on the ridgeline. We ascended steeply left and right until eventually a cairned path appeared again taking us through a weakness in the wall. We soon topped out on the ridge with lower Camp 2 sites and views of the final part of the volcano climb. We were directly above the serac that we saw yesterday, according to the GPS at 15,800’, John’s new altitude record. I was overcome by emotion as it hit me: What the heck am I doing here at 15,800’, alone with Renata, just a few days after arriving in a strange country on my first ever visit south of the equator? I looked at San Jose, felt the sunshine, and saw Renata’s smiling face. She was in her element. We were safe. We might actually summit tomorrow. We’ll certainly have a story to share. John’s happy too.
We chose the only site that didn’t have snow, but there were several flat spots surrounded by walls of volcanic rock. After putting up the tent, we rested a little bit before a short exploratory hike up the rocky ridge to 16,300’. We could see other camp sites possible higher, but we were happy with our selection. We turned around soon since we still had a lot of snow to melt. It was close to 5pm but the weather was just perfect. We spent another couple hours cooking, taking photos, preparing backpacks for tomorrow and finally having dinner. We were in bed by 8pm, but today it was a nice evening to be outside.
Summit Day, Friday, February 18
We woke up at 5am. We still needed to melt more water since we used some for breakfast. The night was windy again. Somehow we were used to it and could sleep a little. The morning breeze was strong enough to make cooking a long process. Renata kept the lighter and propane in her sleeping bag for precaution. Our thermometer read 26F inside of the tent this morning. We were leaving with our minds set for the summit even though we budgeted a weather/acclimatization day. The summit is just a couple miles up another 3,400’. Looking up it looks very close and easy. John sees the Southern Cross for the very first time directly above the summit…God says we can do this.
We started finally at 6:30am, still needing headlamps on the rocky ridge we explored yesterday. We felt faster then on our scouting trip, good start. In an expected hour marching we arrived to the highest campsites. The moon and early morning light inspired Renata to take more photos. The snowfield came into view, easy looking. It represents about ¾ mile of about 20 degree angle traverse in safe place. Above us we can see a steeper snow slope and below lurks the broken glacier with crevasses and progressively steeper dropping slope down to the valley. We donned crampons and ice axes expecting solid snow and were greatly disappointed by post holing through last week’s crusty soft snow. John broke trail across the first half and then Renata took over. It was not too deep, in places perhaps up to a foot, but in this altitude it was exhausting and seemed never ending. We spent 2-3 hours crossing the snow until coming to another seemingly never ending section of rocky islands between crusty fresh snowfields. The gentle saddle between San Jose’s southern and northern summits is located around 17,800’. We finally arrive to this area around noon. From the saddle the northern summit looks higher, which is why it was first climbed in 1920 by John Gwinner, followed by the official ascent of the southern summit in 1931 by Otto Pfenninger and Sebastian Kruckel.
Our pace was probably slower than theirs as we topped out on the false summit at 2:30pm and could finally see the two competing highpoints of the southern summit a half mile across the crater. Renata questioned if we should continue as clouds were building below us and we were definitely going to pass our tentative 3pm turn around time. The weather was fine around the crater and I felt confident that we would have no problem making it back to our high camp before dark if we hurried. We knew we weren’t going to have the stamina or supplies to repeat this climb tomorrow as we were downing most of our Gus, so we continued to the lower Chilean summit, arriving at 3pm. The Chilean summit has three potential highpoints that all look like they are about to collapse into the southernmost crater. The International summit with Argentina is a little higher at 19,213’ and more rounded, which we finally summited at 3:45pm. The excitement erased our exhaustion for a while as we celebrated and took photos. It took us over 9 hours to climb 3,400’, but we totally took our time and enjoyed the entire experience.
I convinced Renata we should loop the rest of the way around the crater before making a quick descent. The main crater of the southern summit is impressive with the west side encased in a steep glacier that we could photograph from the east side. The descent went very fast on the volcanic scree trail as gravity was now on our side. We felt so good that we switched from Gus and Cliff Bars to some almond, cashew, cranberry trail mix. By the time we got down to the snowfield, which only took an hour to descend to, my stomach decided cashews were not the smartest thing to be eating just yet. I hurled three times as we broke out the crampons and ice axes and felt immensely better. The snowfield was still a long trail breaking session as it traverses without losing much elevation. As we anticipated from the clouds, the weather turned worse on the other side of the snowfield. Snow and wind obscured visibility, but we were now on a mostly well cairned path partially covered by last week’s snow storm. Our ice axes started buzzing, but we only heard a low rumble in the clouds, so we ignored this warning sign as we were humping down pretty fast now. Less than a quarter mile from our camp, Renata got knocked in the back of her head by a couple jolts of static electricity and immediately took off her pack to ditch her ice axe and poles. I did the same and set a waypoint. We made it back to camp at 7:10pm without further incident.
I was zonked. Renata was her usual cheerful self and immediately went about melting snow, making dinner and making sure I ate and drank a little. I could only sip tea and nibble on the Mountain House spaghetti she made. It was quite funny to see her chowing down on the rest of the spaghetti when she’s the one always nibbling. We were happy. We were relaxed. We joked about the ice axes as the sky cleared…a little extra exercise tomorrow. We could see the summit covered in snow. We were asleep by 9 and looking forward to no alarm clock.
Camp 2 to Plantat, Saturday, February 19
We awoke to clear skies with no wind, just in time to demonstrate that nights without wind exist here sometimes. The temperature was a little bit colder and enjoyed our warm sleeping bags until the sun hit the tent. We had a leisurely breakfast. The freeze dried scrambled eggs with bacon had an irresistible smell and flavor and tasted delicious. We went slowly up the ridge to retrieve our poles and ice axes and felt happy that we didn’t need to go higher. From the ridge we could see another tent below in the high Camp 1 area. In nice weather we took time to pack and finally left our high camp at noon.
Going down we found all the cairns and trails we missed on the way up. Although easier, it was still very loose rock. We saw three people working on their tents, but they were slightly uphill and didn’t seem to be interested in meeting us, so we continued all the way down to the lower Camp 1 sites. The sun disappeared at this time as the clouds gathered and conspired to give us another dose of bad altitude. The axes buzzed again, but weaker this time, so we pushed ahead to the snowfields where the buzzing stopped. The sun popped out for a bit as we snacked at the bottom of the snow slope. We pressed on down the now easy to follow trail toward Lajas as clouds were billowing up from below. We were in for another snow storm before we could reach Lajas. The ice axes buzzed stronger again, so we stashed them and waited out the storm a ways away below the ridge. We broke out our pack covers as the snow melted here right away and otherwise completely soaked us. The storm lasted over half an hour, but we got going as soon as we sensed the storm was nearing an end and had not heard any thunder rumbles for a good 15 minutes.
Once on Lajas, we immediately ran into a friendly solo Chilean climber. He had climbed San Jose five times, so was well accustomed to these conditions. In less than an hour we were down to Plantat setting up our tent. A Chilean pair was staying at the refugio without going higher and gave us a friendly reminder the refugio is available for everyone. Renata stayed to visit and gather water while I set up our tent and retrieved our stashed Tevas.
Soon a very prepared Chilean climber – looking almost like an astronaut with all of his gear – came up to the refugio. He must have been roasting. Renata came back to the tent and said this climber speaks English and wanted to talk with me about the climb. Turns out this young man studied art at NYU, but moved back to Santiago, and was presently determined to conquer San Jose no matter how long it took. He had five canisters of propane and a ten day supply of food and was primarily looking for some extra confidence from people who just came from the summit.
Two of the people we saw higher on the mountain then appeared at the refugio while their third companion continued down the trail. These were some tough looking hombres, but very friendly. They took their time acclimating and the weather just didn’t cooperate for their plan. On our summit day, they hiked a little above our high camp, but decided that was enough. We exchanged stories with Renata translating, took pictures, sat through another brief rain storm, and ate dinner together before heading to our tent at dusk. The friendly Chileans partied until 11.
Plantat to Lo Valdes, Sunday, February 20
It was nice to sleep in a warmer climate, but now our brains were very active with this new found oxygen, so suddenly we’re thinking of all these possibilities for the rest of our vacation and sleeping in was not an option. It was no longer about just eating, drinking, sleeping and surviving. We wanted to go and do! After breakfast we packed up, but the goodbyes with our Chilean amigos lasted until noon as we had gear to see and more stories to share. One guy nicknamed Kogi had a sleeping bag that you wear and can walk around in like a Disney character. One of the tough hombres had crampons that were over 100 years old. The whole while our young NYU grad was sharpening his crampons and ice axe. He showed off his alpaca gloves that he made the mistake of washing and they now only cover three of his fingers. He also forgot to bring gaiters, so I donated my 10 year old multi-colored duct taped gaiters to his cause. The tough hombre with the crampons gave us a packet of coca leaves for the memory. It’s amazing the camaraderie possible among mountain climbers regardless of language barriers (for me anyway) and nationalities.
It took us about four hours to backpack out to Puente Colinas. The cement plant was closed today, but traffic was heavy on the road as Santiagoans were driving to and from Baňos Colinas. Amazingly after walking only 15 minutes on the road a small van stopped to give us a ride without even hitchhiking. The young man driving helped us load our giant packs in the back while his excited little seňorita spoke non-stop during the 10 minute ride down to Lo Valdes while showing us pictures of them at Baňos Colinas. She wanted to make it clear how friendly Chileans were and trained us to say such a mantra en Espaňol as they dropped us off at the refugio.