Ojos del Salado

Sunrise on Ojos and camp

Ojos del Salado is the second-highest peak in South America, the highest volcano in the world, and likely the highest thing I will ever climb. It was therefore, in some sense, this trip’s “main event,” though I took a roundabout way of reaching it, and lingered for an inexplicably long time afterward. I took the standard Chilean route, but probably thanks to the new snow, had the peak to myself on a calm and briefly clear day. Though the Alpenvereinskarte shows a route from the saddle with El Muerto, I chose to take the standard route from near the 5800m refugio, preferring my choss well-packed.

Dawn on El Muerto
Once again anticipating afternoon showers, I got a rare headlamp start, a cold endeavor at 5450m, and possibly a time-wasting one when traveling cross-country. However, it was less cold than it could been, and I did not waste too much time on the ascending traverse toward the standard route. I lost some time rooting among the various use trails above the hut, eventually finding the correct one shortly after my headlamp became unnecessary. Stopping to stow it and have a snack, I waited a bit too long to put on my down jacket, and my hands chose this moment to go full Reynaud’s. I therefore got to put on my jacket and heavy gloves using a combination of aching stiff hands and teeth. Then I spent the next hour or so sweating uphill in a down parka, waiting for my body to decide it was warm enough to resume supplying blood to my hands.

El Muerto, El Fraile, Incahuasi
There were clear up- and down-trails, but with the fresh snow, the most efficient line tended to be a mix of the two, as the up-trail was often full of fresh snow, while the loose sand and choss in the down-trail were frozen together enough to offer stable footing. The trail apparently crosses to the right above a snowfield, but I found it easier to head straight up the talus toward the crater. I briefly tried to cross the crater directly, then realized that this was a terrible idea when I postholed into a couple of buried penitente-holes. Returning to the crater entrance, I picked up the standard trail, and made my agonizing way around toward the summit through calf-deep snow.

Following trail around crater
The summit was very close, but at above 22,000′ I was killing myself to move uphill at two breaths per step. Even this pace was a bit too quick in the steep chute leading up to the saddle between the Chilean and Argentinian summits. I finally reached the “technical” section, finding it protected by a couple of decent-looking hand-lines. I ignored them on the way up, finding the climbing not much more difficult than I would have 10,000′ lower. Climbing fourth or low fifth class rock covered in fresh snow in boots and gloves was just slow and thought-provoking enough to keep it from being a cardiovascular activity. The final climb to the Chilean summit was a bit thought-provoking, being slabby and exposed, and it required a bit of excavation to find some footholds.

Chillaxing on summit
Reaching the summit, I dusted off the Banco de Chile box for use as a warm, dry seat. There were scattered clouds building, but not enough to obscure magnificent views of the Tres Cruces peaks to the west (my next targets), snow-clad Incahuasi and El Fraile far to the east, various peaks I could not name to the south, and numerous high lakes nearby. It was nearly windless, and the mid-day sun reflected off the snow made it comfortable to sit for awhile. I took my time, as I had particularly fine conditions, and it was the only time I would visit this summit.

Argentinian from Chilean summit
I did not hesitate to use the handlines on the way down, especially on the slabby section. I had hoped to traverse over the Argentinian summit and descend straight to my camp, but none of the possible routes from the saddle looked appealing. All were in the shade, and looked like powder over outward-sloping and loose choss. I believe the best approach would be to traverse down and right, then climb a lower-angle section back to the Argentinian route, but I did not have it in me. Instead, I retreated the way I had come, then took the standard trail back toward the orange 5800m hut. The upper mountain was enveloped in clouds while I was still around 6500m, emphasizing my good luck and timing.

Crazy ice pinnacle
I took off cross-country for camp above the refugio, taking a slightly different line and finding slightly easier going by daylight. I also found a nice tarn that perfectly reflected Ojos, and some odd penitentes, including an isolated pillar of ice and snow standing at least 8 feet tall out of bare sand. Back to the tent, I got more water for hot chocolate, then kicked back to watch the afternoon weather and reflect on the day. Slowly panting and stumbling around the crater, I realized that “high altitude mountaineering” is just “slow mountaineering.” Chop off the bottom 10,000′, and Ojos del Salado would be a moderate but forgettable desert scramble with a nice view, something I might do to break up a long drive across Nevada. I do not avoid suffering in the mountains, but I prefer my mountaineering to consist of more than just pain. Climbing Ojos convinced me that I have no interest whatsoever in doing a walk-up 8000m peak, neither to see what it feels like nor to say I had done it. I can extrapolate well enough from the Ojos experience that it would be nothing more than suffering at an even slower pace.

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