Adventures in the Atacama Desert

Peña Blanca, Mulas Muertas and Barrancas Blancas
15th December 2018 - 5th January 2019

Adventures in the
Atacama Desert

Peña Blanca, Mulas Muertas and Barrancas Blancas
15th December 2018 - 5th January 2019

Snow is still flurrying thickly into the hood of my bivvy bag, but I can sense dawn beginning to seep up the fringes of the sky. It will soon be time to move. It will soon be time to decide: up or down?

I can feel Mirva’s body lying huddled alongside mine. I loosen the draw-cord on the hood of my sleeping bag and peer out through the thin, grey light until I can make out the outline of Laurence’s bivvy a few feet further down the slope. The gully in which we took shelter last night is now brim-full with snow, its surface level with the surrounding mountainside. Trailing canvas webbing close to Mirva’s head betrays where her rucksack lies buried. There is no sign of the equipment that Laurence had carefully laid out beside his bivvy for easy access.

Above us, the mountain waits impassively. Nearly 4,000 feet below us, the desert remains cold, grey and austere. I think of David, down there alone, and wonder whether the snow has reached him too and how he has managed to keep warm overnight. But there is not time to wonder: we must make decisions, and we must move.

I call out to the others to wake them, to ask that most difficult of questions: is it safe to continue climbing, or should we descend? I know that each of us desperately wants to say “up” whilst willing the other two to say “down” - no-one wants to be the one to make the decision to turn back. It has taken us fifteen days to reach this point, 18,800 feet above sea level on the slopes of an Andean volcano, and only 3,000 feet from the summit. To go down now would feel more than an anti-climax - it would be abandoning our dreams, capitulating to our own weaknesses. Sometimes, though, to give up is the only sensible option.

Sunset from the slopes of Incahuasi
Sunset from the slopes of Incahuasi

I mentally check myself, reminding myself not to use language like “give up”. We have just spent the night at 18,800 feet, without feeling the effects of altitude - surely that in itself constitutes a success? Last night, before the snow set in, we witnessed a sunset of subtle beauty beyond imagination. Is that enough to satiate me?

On the summit of Mulas Muertas
On the summit of Mulas Muertas

Fifteen days ago, when we first arrived in the desert, we were confident - perhaps too confident - of our future success. Trying not to afford too much importance to our high-altitude headaches we strode out from our basecamp, heading for our first 19,000-foot cerro, Peña Blanca. But in our eagerness we were walking too quickly in the thin air. Less than five kilometres from our tents, our expectations were duly sobered. Mirva suddenly bent forwards, bracing her arms against her knees, then collapsed onto the sand, gasping for breath. As David supported her body and spoke in reassuring tones to help her regain control of her breathing, we knew our attempt for the day was over - yet even then, we knew we would try again.

The next day we set off back up the same mountain, this time reaching 18,000 feet before Mirva turned back, and me with her. David and Laurence forced themselves on to the summit, arriving back at basecamp some six hours later than us, exhausted, altitude-sick, and triumphant.

Over time spent in the desert, we learned to walk more slowly, not to overreach ourselves, and to remain mindful of our breathing, carefully matching the rhythm of our breaths to the pace of our footsteps. Becoming more realistic in our expectations, we decided to try to get the whole group to the summit of a mountain, rather than pushing for maximum altitude. We chose our mountain carefully: an altitude of 19,300 feet, accessible from a starting point of 14,700 feet, and without technical difficulties other than the lack of oxygen inherent to high-altitude mountaineering. Our choice proved wise, and we stood together on the summit of Cerro Mulas Muertas.

Life in the desert calmed me. There was no time, no sense of either impetus or deadline, other than the lazy moon falling further behind schedule each evening as it rose above the Argentinian border. Rapid movement was in any case impossible: I tried to run, managing only a scant hundred yards before the burning build-up of lactic acid in my muscles became unbearable. With so little oxygen available, rest was required after even moderate activity. We moved about the campsite like astronauts, walking with long, lethargic paces, and rested often.

My tasks around camp each day consisted primarily of taking care of our most basic needs: water, food and shelter.

I made a daily pilgrimage to a nearby field of penitentes, to cut ice. This provided a useful supplement to our supply of drinking water, though the short window during which temperatures were high enough to melt ice restricted the volume of water we could acquire in this way. Twice we drove a few miles along the international highway to the Arroyo Agua Dulce, which, we had been told, was the only supply of water in the region containing neither salt nor arsenic. “Only good old flamingo poo,” as David was quick to observe. Back at basecamp, much time was spent experimenting with siphons and filters, in an effort to remove as much salt, sand, arsenic, flamingo poo and other impurities from our drinking water as possible.

Penitentes
Penitentes

Our gas stoves suffered from the altitude as much as we did. Lacking sufficient oxygen to burn efficiently, tall yellow flames licked up around the cooking pots, threatening the walls of the tent if we risked cooking in a porch - but desert winds soon snuffed the flames if we tried to cook in the open. Attempts to heat water for our allocated two brews and one hot meal per day were futile, for water boiled at about 85 degrees centigrade (and usually evaporated well before that temperature was reached); lukewarm noodles seasoned with sand were eaten whilst sheltering in one of the jeeps.

Vicuña
Vicuña

We dug down into the desert to create a sheltered hollow, finding loose, dry sand below the more gravelly, granular surface, and damp sand below that, explaining how the sparse clumps of tufted grass were able to thrive. Once dug, the sandpit became a place to relax in comparative luxury - basking in sheltered sunshine, we could watch a trio of vicuña strolling over the plain - although we continued to eat in the jeeps to minimise the quantities of wind-blown sand that ended up in our food.

Barrancas Blancas
Barrancas Blancas

Duly rested after Cerro Mulas Muertas, we reached for the magic figure of 20,000 feet, ascending the highest point of a ridge named the Barrancas Blancas. This peak was climbed for the first time as recently as 1988; our ascent was quite probably a British ‘first’, with Mirva being almost certainly the first Finn to reach the summit. The Barrancas Blancas guarded many secrets within their folded topography; though we chose our route with care, we had to make frequent changes of tack as we encountered hidden drops, or fields of impassable penitentes. Once on the summit ridge, we crossed a snowfield unprotected, but safely, then dragged ourselves up the final few hundred feet to the summit. We lingered as long as we dared in the thin air before turning towards the dark ridge that would lead us down the mountain.

Depending upon the decision that we must make in the next few minutes, the summit of the Barrancas Blancas may be the highest altitude that we ever reach. The mountain above us now, Incahuasi, is higher, but if we descend this morning, we do not have enough diesel left in the jeeps to return for a second attempt, and the rough desert track connecting us to the international road is sufficiently hazardous that we are loath to reprise it. It is now or never, as the saying goes.

I mentally run through our situation and our options. Our down sleeping bags and clothing are soaked with snowmelt. Our boots have frozen, despite having been inside our sleeping bags overnight. We are - just - warm enough as we lie here, but once we have left our sleeping bags, we will need to keeping moving. Yet our stay in the desert has taught us that rapid movement is impossible at this altitude. The volcanic slopes around us are unstable, and freshly coated with powder-snow; we will need to climb with care, and therefore slowly.

"Mirva, what do you think?" Laurence calls. "Shall we try to climb higher, or get out of here while we can?"

"I don't know," her voice sounds cracked and tearful.

"Victoria, what about you? Up or down?"

I desparately want to continue. We are so close to the summit. I will never have this chance again.

I take a deep breath.

"Down."