About Ojos del Salado and the Puna de Atacama
With an altitude of 6,893m (22,615ft), Nevado Ojos del Salado is the highest active volcano on earth, and - being just 69 meters lower than Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina - it is also the second-highest mountain in the Americas. It is located in the "Puna de Atacama", a very high and dry part of the Atacama-desert with many +6,000m peaks. The summit of Ojos del Salado lies exactly on the Chilean-Argentinian border and can be climbed from both sides, although the access from Chile is easier. Most mountains in the area are of volcanic origin and are technically not difficult to tackle (many of the +6000m summits don't even have glaciers or permanent snowfields). The main problem is the very high altitude.
For my trip to Ojos del Salado in February 2008, I took a guided 12-day climb directly from the agency "Aventurismo" from nearby Copiapo. My guides Patricia and Christian, who were really great company for the next few days, picked me up on day Nr.1 from Copiapo-airport. After stocking up food, fuel, beer and chliean wine (... which I anyway never touched afterwards, since the altitude-related headache was already enough, I didn't feel the need for an additional alcohol-related one ...) for the next few days, we set out for the Puna de Atacama and my ultimate goal: Nevado Ojos del Salado, with 6,893m the highest volcano on earth.
On the first day we drove till "Laguna Santa Rosa" a salt-lagoon at about 3,800m, which is situated in the "Nevado Tres Cruces" national park. I was instantly amazed by the sheer beauty of the landscape. We slept in a very basic refugio maintained by the national park administration on the west-side of the lake. The next day we took a three-hour walk around the lagoon, which is inhabited by flamingos and many other different birds. Additionally, we could spot guanacos and vicunas quite frequently. Although the area is protected as a "national park" the water in the lagoon is constantly depleting, since nearby mining-companies pump-it-off.
On day Nr.3 we made it to our first acclimatization-summit "Cerro Siete Hermanos" (about 4,800m). The mountain is a good day-hike from Laguna Santa Rosa. From the summit, there was a good view to the nearby 6000m-summits of Nevado Tres Cruces, Volcano Copiapo and Cerro Solo. Even South America's third highest mountain Cerro Pissis (6,795m) was visible in the distant south.
After acclimatizing for three nights at Laguna Santa Rosa, we drove up closer to Ojos and set up our camp at Laguna Verde at about 4,200m. The camp-site on the southern shore of the lake (no flamingos, vicunas or guanacos anymore at that altitude) has one great feature: steamingly-hot thermal pools in which you can linger for hours! So a bath-suit is essential expedition-equipment for climbing Ojos ... After a good bath and an almost sleepless night due to the altitude, we made it on our second acclimatization-mountain on day Nr.5, Cerro Mulas Muertas. We trekked up to 5,300m direclty from the camp. On the way-up there is a great view on the surrounding mountains (Incahuasi, El Fraile, San Francisco).
Since I felt quite ok, we made it on day Nr.6 a further 1,000m higher - to the real "base camp" of Ojos del Salado - "Campamento Atacama" at an altitude of 5,200m. Parlty we drove, but from 4,800m onwards we got out of the car and walked to the camp. The evening brought something very unusal in this area: a snowstorm and the night really freezing temperatures (not so unusual). When I checked the thermometer in the night it had -15C inside (!) my tent (no clue how cold it was outside, but loosing your way in the darkness on the way to the toilet can be quite dangerous ...).
On day Nr. 7 we made a hike to the last high-camp - Campamento Tejos - at 5,840m. and carried some equipment for the final summit-bid up there - it's a three hours walk up plus 1,5 hours down. Although my guide Patricia carried a five-litre canister of water while I took the lighter items of our stuff, she still had to constantly wait for me constantly on the way up ... I clearly felt the lack of oxygen ...
My headache in the evening was not more than on the other days, ... so I (wrongfully, as I found out later) decided to make it for the summit already on days Nr.8 and Nr.9. The usual plan for climbing the final part of Ojos is that you first go in the afternoon again up to Campamanto Tejos, spend the evening there, and (after some hours of altitude-caused-bad-sleep) start the final bid for the summit between 2am and 4am in the morning. The reason for this is that most days at noon the wind in the Puna becomes so strong that climbing at this altitude becomes almost impossible, so by that time you should already be on your way back. The second hike to Tejos went smoother than the first-one, and in the evening we had some nourishing instant-noodles. However, in the night I started to feel really sick. I decided that arriving safely home might be more important than reaching the summit and to turn around ... in that moment it was quite hard to accept, but with the first morninglight we started to descend again to the base camp from where we returned to Copiapo ...
Even if I did not reach the summit, I was really impressed by the remoteness of the place and the strinkingly beautiful landscape. The mountains of the Puna de Atacama can really be recommended for anybody who wants to try a really high Andean-summit, but wants to avoid the crowds on Aconcagua. For my next trip, I learned that it is always better to take enough time to acclimatize for the summit attempt, ... even if it is freezingly cold and you are desperately longing for a soft bed and warm shower ...
- The access-town for the Chilean side of the Puna de Atacama is Copiapo, 800km north of Santiago de Chile. LAN-Airlines and the reliable low-cost carrier Sky-Airlines have daily flights from Santiago to Copiapo.
- From Copiapo it is about a three-hour-drive to Laguna Santa Rosa, plus a further two hours to Laguna Verde or Campamento Atacama. The road to Laguna Santa Rosa, Laguna Verde and Paso San Francisco is gravel, but in excellent condition and can be done with normal vehicles. However, if you want to climb Ojos del Salado and go to Campamento Atacama, a 4WD is essential. If you have no 4WD, you might go to Laguna Verde and wait/hope for a lift to Atacama shelter from there (as far as I can remember, the guys from Aventurismo, who are placed at Laguna Verde camp, will take you up for a hefty fee of ca. 100 USD). There is no public transport to any of these places, also no bus crosses Paso San Francisco to Argentina (only private vehicles and lorries).
- In order to climb Ojos del Salado from the Chilean side or any other mountain near the border a permit from "DIFROL - Dirección Nacional de Fronteras y Límites del Estado" must be obtained in advance. This can be done online at www.difrol.cl without fuss and for free. They faxed me the permit within 24 hours. The guy at Atacama shelter will check the permit.
- Moreover, the Chilean government has given "Aventurismo" from Copiapo the concession to develop tourism in the Ojos-area (it's true - no trick: it was also mentioned on my official DIFROL-permission). They charge 160 USD from everybody visiting the area (Laguna Verde - Ojos del Salado). In return they keep the camps clean, maintain toilets there and equip everyboy attempting to climb Ojos with a radio in order to communicate with Atacama base camp.
- Maps and Guidebooks: "Alpenvereinskarte", Nevado Ojos del Salado 1:100 000, ISBN 3-928777-7, is an excellent map of this area of the Puna and covers also other mountains like Incahuasi, San Francisco and Nevado Tres Cruces. "The Andes - A Guide for climbers" by John Biggar (ISBN 0-9536087-2-7) has quite ok descriptions (considering how little material there is available on the Puna mountains) on routes for all mayor Puna peaks. However, if you want to climb Ojos from the Chilean side, the path is anyway quite visible.
- As mentioned above, if you prefer a guide, I found "Aventurismo" a very reliable operator with obviously lots of experience in the region. Their contact details are: Aventurismo expediciones, Maximiliano Martínez Espinoza, Atacama street Nº1003, Copiapó, phone: 56 52 232455, 56 52 316395, 09-5992184, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ,
- Supplies: Bring everything what you need from Copiapo (food, fuel, water). Nothing available afterwards. Copiapo has only ordinary sport-shops - no special mountain equipment available. The last point where you have a mobile phone signal is the border police station at Salar de Maricunga on the way from Copiapo to Laguna Santa Rosa.