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Bere Regis Alpine Sports Society - BRASS
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'Up mountain - down beer'

Ojos Del Salado, Chile, January 2006

The Bere Regis Alpine Sports Society  (BRASS) trip to Ojos Del Salado in Chile comprised Phil Nash, Stuart Watkins, Ted Hayes and Rick McEvoy. It was organised by Adventure Alternative and the two very able guides were Gavin Bate and Steve Pinfield.  

Ojos Del Salado may be hard to pronounce and spell but it is even harder to climb.

The trip began with an epic journey, 17 hours of flying (improbably, via Toronto) to Santiago, and an 11 hour bus ride to the town of Copiapo. The latter involved traveling on the incredibly efficient Chilean Tur Bus, much of it along the  Chilean Coast where the Andes meet the Pacific in a landscape of tumbled rocks and bald scrubby hills mounting imperceptibly towards the mountains. As the journey goes north the landscape becomes first semi desert and then real desert as the Atacama region is reached. Copiapo is a prosperous and relaxed mining town, a green oasis surrounded by parched and sunbaked hills and giant sand dunes. We spent our first afternoon there first climbing up and then sliding down a giant magnetic sand dune (I kid you not) which makes an amazing electric humming and throbbing as you descend it (apparently one of only 2 such places in the world).

From Copiapo we set off in a fleet (well, 3 actually) of red Toyota 4 x 4s towards the mountains, climbing through a landscape which is always oppressively barren but becomes steadily more surreal and expansive as the road climbs. Our first major stop was at the Laguna Santa Rosa at 12000 ft, one of a series of startling turquoise lagoons inhabited by flamingos which are dotted across this part of the Atacama Desert. Here we camped outside a small hut, and spent a couple of days gradually acclimatising. On the second day we climbed our first peak, an elegant cone called Siete Hermanos at 16000 feet, from where the marvelous view took in the real Andean giants, including our first distant glimpse of Ojos.

Summit of Siete Hermanos 16,000 ft with Ojos in the distance

Summit of Siete Hermanos (16000 ft), with Ojos in distance

We then drove via the Wild Westernish Chile/Argentina border post to the famous Laguna Verde at 14500 ft, an even more startling lake surrounded by quick sands and bubbling hot springs, sitting in a ring of volcanoes which include the 2 highest in the world. On the way we got our first close-up view of Ojos. It is not beautiful but it is impressive, a black hulk of a mountain with a cold and slightly menacing air. At Laguna Verde we spent 3 days acclimatising, including a walk around the lake in blistering heat (with a stop to inspect a dead puma), and a climb to one of the summits of Mulus Muertes (around 17500 ft) which has an amazing view of the Laguna and the surrounding mountains. The altitude was really starting to bite now, but the whole team was still pretty fit.

Laguna Verde from Mulus Muertes (17500 ft)

Laguna Verde from Mulus Muertes (17500 ft)

From here we really put the cars to the test, leaving the roads to drive across rough desert to the base camp on Ojos (Refuge Atacama). This is a bleak spot at 17200 ft, with a great view but an inhospitable climate. It is freezing at night, by lunchtime is blazingly hot and shadeless, and in the afternoon is lashed by gale force winds, dust clouds, snow and hail. And that’s on a good day.

First close-up view of Ojos
First close-up view of Ojos

We spent 3 nights here, carrying loads up to the high camp, a metal ISO container at 19200 ft which is probably the highest building in the world, and feels like  it. The route is not hard technically, but is brutally exhausting at first, though  is not without interest, passing great fields of neve penitentes, 6 foot high carved snow spikes  which are a unique feature of the Andes and look like they were imagined by Salvadore Dali. On the 4th night we stayed at the top hut, passing a fairly sleepless night before setting off at 0400 on a clear but very cold night for our summit attempt (one of the group had had to descend in the middle of the night with our guide Steve due to altitude sickness, signified by the fact that his lips had turned blue).

Phil fondling the neves Penitentes
 Phil fondling the neves Penitentes

The ascent starts with a brutal slog up a steep stony slope, then starts an interminable series of zig zags across rock and snow. At this point the Bere Regis contingent demonstrated that repeated walks up Black Hill are no preparation for the high peaks, succumbing one by one to the altitude, with Phil being the third and final one to turn back (with a bad head and nausea) at around 21000 feet, with mixed relief and regret.

This left Rick to carry the torch for the village as an honorary Bere Regian. He continued with Gavin and 3 others to reach the summit (22630 ft) at around 1400, the last section involving an “entertaining” rock climb. Rick described it as the hardest thing he’s ever done, it was a magnificent effort by him. A very weary group returned late in the evening. There was a bit of a scare when Rick got disorientated on the way down, and wisely ended up climbing back to the top hut with the intention of spending the night there. He was however “rescued” by one of the local Chilean guides, who had been alerted by the rest of the party when Rick failed to appear, and kindly returned to the hut to look for him. To round off an interesting day, due to a “misunderstanding” the Bere Regis contingent ended up sharing a tent with 2 sleeping bags between 4, an equation which doesn’t work at 17000 feet and a temperature of-10 deg C, and nearly ended up with one case of hypothermia.

Fortunately the night was survived, with some help from Toyota, and in the morning the whole group headed back down to Copiapo, dropping 15000 feet in 4 hours and exchanging the freezing cold for desert heat, followed by civilisation, copious cold beers and vicuna steak, egg and chips. After 2 weeks of oppressively barren desert, without seeing any vegetation or a single animal in 5 days at the higher camps, it was a relief to see green vegetation, running water, and other people. All that was left then was 2 days of decadence in Copipo and Santiago to replenish the calorie and fluid levels and boost the Chilean Wine industry. It had been an amazing trip, often enjoyable, sometimes more of an ordeal than a holiday, but a great adventure.

 Phil's highpoint on Ojos 21,000 ft
Phil’s highpoint on Ojos (21000 ft)
Atacama Desert at sunset, from Refuge Atacama

Atacama Desert at sunset, from Refuge Atacama