Ojos del Salado (22,615ft) – Highest mountain in Chile
Dec 25, 2017
Dec 23 – Flight Santiago-Copiapo, resupply and drive to the Argentina/Chile customs checkpoint
Dec 24 – Drive to Murray hut, hike/hitch to Atacama Camp, hike to Tejos refuge
Dec 25 – Summit and return to Tejos refuge.
Dec 26 – hike/hitch back to car at Murray hut, prepare to climb more peaks in the area
Matthew and I had just summitted Aconcagua on December 19, and I hoped to take advantage of my high-altitude acclimation to climb another nearby country highpoint – Ojos del Salado. Ojos del Salado, the highest mountain in Chile, is only 226ft shorter than Aconcagua, and the mountains are actually not very far apart. Thus, climbing one theoretically allows a quick ascent of the other.
Matthew had to fly back to the US, but I could stick around South America for another week. So on December 23, after a buffet breakfast at the hotel Manquehue in Santiago, Chile, I boarded a flight and flew north up to Copiapo, Chile. Copiapo is famous as the city in the Atacama Desert near the mine where 33 Chilean miners were rescued in 2010. Many mines are still active around Copiapo, and most trucks in the city have tall flags folded over in the beds, ready to be used when driving around heavy mining equipment.
I landed around 1pm and soon picked up a rental SUV from the airport. Unfortunately my Spanish was a bit rusty, and nobody at the airport spoke English, but the rental worked out. Renting a vehicle for Ojos del Saldo takes a bit of planning. The road from Copiapo to the Murray Refuge is about 150 miles with no services, and much of the road is rough gravel. Thus, you definitely want at least one full-size spare tire, and an SUV is the cheapest vehicle to rent that has a full size spare. The next 12 miles from the Murray Refuge to the Atacama Camp requires a serious 4×4 vehicle, and most rental trucks in Copiapo can manage the drive. However, these are at least twice as expensive as an SUV.
The road on Ojos del Salado continuous another 4km past Atacama Camp to the Tejos Refuge, and for this road you need an especially powerful 4×4 vehicle with very good tires to ascend the steep sandy slopes. Again, there are rental vehicles in Copiapo that can handle this, but they are again more expensive.
Finally, if you want to drive even higher than the Tejos Refuge (5830m), a very rough route continues farther, reportedly to a highpoint of 6688m. However, one would need a very specialized custom vehicle to make this drive. In fact, this is the highest any vehicle has ever driven in the world! (Record set by a team of Chileans in 2007).
I opted for the cheapest option that could get me close to the mountain, and rented a 2wd SUV with a full size spare tire. I figured I could just hike the remaining miles from the Murray Refuge and save a lot of money.
I spent a few hours in Copiapo buying 40L of water, a few canisters of camping fuel, some extra food, and a spare 10 liters of gasoline in an external container for the car. I didn’t want to get stuck out of gas 150 miles from the nearest station.
Finally, after topping off the fuel in the car super full (well beyond the automatic stop level for refueling) in the late afternoon I left town heading northeast on route 31. I soon entered the Atacama Desert, with no vegetation at all, and towering mountains all around. I passed a few dusty mines, and then the road deteriorated from pavement to compacted dirt.
Farther out of town the radio stopped working as I wound through distant canyons. I steadily climbed up the windy,
gravel road, to an elevation of 4600m at a high pass. Snow covered mountains dotted the horizon, and I felt truly remote. Only occasionally did I spot another car on the road.
I descended down from the pass, to a large salt flat at 4000m and here the road mysteriously became paved again, right at the edge of a customs checkpoint. I was still far away from the Chile-Argentina border, but I guess Chile doesn’t want the checkpoint too far from civilization, so they put it well inside the border.
As I pulled up to the checkpoint a few guys hanging out on a porch waved me to come over. They didn’t speak English, but I conveyed to them in Spanish that I was intending to climb Ojos del Salado, and wouldn’t be leaving Chile.
Officially, one needs a document from the Chilean government agency Difrol granting permission to climb any peaks on the border, including Ojos del Salado. This is a very easy document to obtain. Back in November I had entered some information on the Difrol website online, and with 12 hours the agency had emailed me a pdf document giving me permission to climb Ojos del Salado. I had heard that they were reluctant to grant permission to solo climbers, so in the application I said Matthew would be climbing with me, even though I knew he wasn’t. I got the document, though, and figured that would be all I needed.
I had printed off the document, and dutifully handed it to the customs agent when he asked me for it. He carefully scrutinized it, and asked where the other climber was. I innocently explained something had come up and Matthew couldn’t make it, and the agent nodded like this was not a problem.
However, he told me that, since it was so late in the day (1 hour before sunset), he wouldn’t let me pass until morning. He was worried that if my car broke down at night, there would be nobody to help me and he didn’t want me stranded til morning. I tried to explain that this wasn’t a problem, that I could easily camp, but he insisted that I had to sleep at the border.
I had plenty of time, so finally relented. There was a bunkroom at the border station (for this purpose), and I brought my gear inside. I was annoyed that he had the nerve to ask me for $20 to pay for the bunkroom, when I didn’t even want to stay there, but I reluctantly paid.
As I was spreading my gear out in the room the agent came back over with a disturbed look on his face, and pointed to the bottom of my Difrol document. It said something like “to be climbed at the dates as indicated” but didn’t indicate any dates. I wasn’t sure why this was a problem, and assured the agent I had entered the climbing dates, and lots of other information, in the online form. It looked to me like this agent had never even seen this form before, and I suspected this was his first time on the job (maybe taking over for the Christmas holiday session from the regular staff). Eventually I convinced him that I indeed had the correct permission to climb the mountain.
He was still concerned, though, and told me to meet him at 8:30am the next morning and he would inventory all my gear to make sure I was adequately prepared. I reluctantly agreed, and soon went to sleep.
The next morning I packed up, waited until 8:30am, and then tried to find the customs agent. I knocked on his door, but he was apparently sleeping in. At about that time a truck came through, trying to get into the Chile side of the border, and the driver was also looking form the customs agent to open the gate.
It turned out the driver was a guy from Colorado who had just climbed Ojos del Salado the day before. I talked to him for a while about the climb, and eventually another guy (not the customs guy) walked out of a different building to greet us. This guy had a police jacket on, and spoke English.
I told him I’d already given all my documents to the customs guy, and he saw no reason not to let me through, so he opened the gate and I took off. I was relieved not to have to worry again about the customs guy reinterpreting the Difrol document another time and deciding to turn me away.
From this point the road stayed paved for the next hour, only changing back to gravel near the turnoff for Ojos del Salado. Construction workers were busy continuing the pavement all the way to the Argentina border, and I bet by next year the road will be in excellent shape.
By 10am I got my first view of the summit to the east, and turned right at a sign reading “Ojos del Salado Refugio”. A rough sandy road then led to the Murray Hut at 4500m.
My original intent had been to reach this hut the night before, hopefully make friends with people heading up, and
maybe hitch a ride up to Atacama Camp in the morning. However, when I arrived I was the only person there.
If I’d been unacclimated, it would have been a good idea to spend a night there to acclimate. However, coming straight from Aconcagua it was in my best interest to get up Ojos del Salado as soon as possible before my acclimation wore off. It was likely I would have to wait a long time here to hitch a ride farther up, so I quickly packed up a few days of food, 3 liters of water, and started walking up the 4×4 route to Atacama Camp.
Just then a truck headed down, and it turned out it was two Ukrainians. They said they’d just driven up to acclimate, and would be heading back up again in the morning. They assured me there was snow to melt at camp, but I wouldn’t need crampons on the mountain. I thanked them and told them I would see them up there.
I then rushed back to my car, left the crampons, and started walking up the road. A sign said “Atacama Camp 22km”, and I knew it would be a long, hot walk in the desert. There was a new sign every 2km, and I estimated it would take me about 5 hours to reach camp.
The road soon turned very sandy, and I was relieved not to have gotten my 2wd SUV stuck on the way. I walked for a few hours, and had just started climbing steeply at about kilometer 15 when I noticed two vehicles coming up the road. I excitedly rushed to a level spot where they could pick me up, but both vehicle just continued speeding by. Obviously I was looking for a ride, and I was pretty frustrated they didn’t offer one. True, the vehicles looked pretty full, but I know I would have pulled over and made room if I’d been driving.
I continued hiking up for another 30 minutes, and then another truck came up the road. This time the driver slowed down and offered a ride, and I gladly accepted. It turns out the drive was from Germany, and he was trying to mountain bike up as high as possible with his sons. They had started at the ocean a few days ago, and his sons were now camping down lower while he was driving up to plant water and food at resupply locations.
We drove up higher, negotiating some serious off-road terrain where the route had been washed out. At one point I had to get out and push the truck through some deep sand, but we soon reached Atacama Camp.
The two other vehicles had just made it, and it turns out they were part of a guided group. That explains why they
didn’t pick me up. There was an orange shipping container on the edge of camp that served as the four-person refuge, and a smaller black hut that had recently been constructed as another emergency bivouc. I had read that a few years ago there was a ranger up here in the summer time in a huge dome tent that would charge $160 to climb the mountain, but there was no ranger anymore. I heard that from now on, Ojos del Salado is completely free to climb from the Chile side.
Unfortunately I didn’t see any water source, and Otto, the German driver, offered that I could take a 5L bottle from his resupply tent. He generously offered I could take anything else I wanted if I needed it, but I just accepted the 5L of water.
Otto soon finished with the resupply trip and started driving back down. Again, if I’d been unacclimated it would have been a good idea to camp right there, but I wanted to summit as soon as possible to not lose my acclimation. So I packed up and soon started hiking up higher, to Tejos Refuge at 5800m.
The road continues all the way up to Tejos, but the beginning is very steep and sandy, and only the most powerful rental trucks with very good tires can make it above Atacama Camp. I had no trouble walking, however, and within an hour or two I reached Tejos Refuge.
Tejos is composed of two shipping containers connected together, with one as a kitchen and one that has six bunk beds. The story behind this refuge is that a few decades ago a helicopter crashed up on the side of Ojos del Salado, and the Chileans wanted to recover the valuable parts. It was too dangerous to send up another helicopter, to they created a rough road up as high as possible. A snow cat drove the road and dragged up the shipping containers for shelter for the people who were working to recover the helicopter parts.
When the operation was completed, they left the refuge for climbers. The road was also left for ambitious drivers, and has since become the access road for the world record attempts for the highest altitude drives.
When I entered Tejos there was a group of three very tired and sunburned climbers from French Guyana napping on
the bunks. Their gear was spread over the whole interior, but they soon started cleaning up and said they were heading down. They had taken 10 hours to summit from Tejos that morning, plus a few more hours to hike down, and were exhausted. The complained the summit ridge was extremely dangerous and exposed.
When they left, I had the whole refuge to myself. I noticed outside that a field of penitents was melting just above the refuge, providing running water if needed. However, I had hauled up 7 liters of water, which was more than enough for me.
That evening I cooked a mountain-house meal of spaghetti with meat sauce, and went to sleep around 8pm. I was feeling good, and planned to summit the next morning. I’d heard most groups start at midnight or 1am, and I guess this made sense if it were a 10-hour trip to the summit. But it was only about a 3,500ft climb, and Matthew and I had made a similar climb on Aconcagua summit day in only 4.5 hours, so I saw no need to get an alpine start for Ojos.
I let the sun wake me up at 6:30am the next morning, and was hiking up by 7:15am. It was cold, and I wore my double boots, snow pants, and mittens. I started up the rough road, and soon turned left at an orange sign. Apparently, the altitude record for vehicles is set on a subpeak near Ojos del Salado, and this sign is where the hiking and driving routes diverge.
The route wound through some rocks, and then swtichbacked steeply up a loose scree slope covered with white pumice rocks. I was a hard climb, but I looked forward to an easy descent, when I could literally surf down the scree back to camp.
The altitude definitely slowed me down, and I had to pause to catch my
breath every few minutes. Eventually I reached the edge of a huge snowfield, and traversed right across scree slopes above the snow. I wound up a little higher, and by 10:15am crested the edge of the crater rim. From here I could see the cliffs marking the edge of the summit. It looked so close!
The crater was full of snow, but an easy trail curved around the left side of the snow. It soon entered a steep talus
slope, which I scrambled up to the edge of a steep wall. Here I saw a few ropes hanging down, and knew I was close.
I dropped my pack at the ropes, and started scrambling. From the bottom of the ropes to the ridge crest is just easy class 3 scrambling, with no need for a rope for the first 5 meters or so. Once on the ridge crest, the ropes are redirected to the right along a short ridge that is actually quite exposed. You definitely wouldn’t want to fall, but the exposed section is a
short 5 meters of mostly horizontal scrambling with good hand and foot holds. By Washington State standards, it would be rated class 3+.
By 11am I reached the summit, 3 hours and 45 minutes after leaving Tejos. The views were spectacular of the surrounding desert and mountain peaks. It was amazing to see the 15,000ft plateau below, with numerous 20,000ft peaks sticking out in all directions.
Luckily there was no wind at all on the summit, which is very rare, and the temperature was actually quite comfortable in the sun, though it was probably around 0F. I signed my name in the register located in the Banco Chile suitcase, and paused to take some pictures and send a quick delorme message. Interestingly, there was a metal pole near the summit where somebody had left a Seattle Seahawks hat!
I looked across from the summit to another point on the ridge that was capped with a black pyramid. The point I was
sitting on is sometimes referred to as the “Chilean Summit” while the point with the black pyramid is referred to as
the “Argentina Summit”. However, both points are exactly on the Chile-Argentina border. The two “summits” are very close to the same height, however the “Chilean Summit” with the summit register, where the ropes lead, has been surveyed to be 0.51m taller than the “Argentina Summit”. So as long as you follow the ropes and turn right at the
ridge crest, you’ll reach the true summit.
After a short break I carefully downclimbed back to my pack, and started the hike down. Now the air was getting thicker and thicker, and I moved quickly. I easily plunge-stepped down the scree slope, and was back to Tejos by 12:30pm.
Surprisingly, there was a jeep there and a group of 10 climbers sitting outside the hut. They were the guided group that had passed me while I was hiking up the day before. They asked when I’d started, and were astounded that I’d done the whole summit day in about 5 hours roundtrip. I guess usually people take at least twice this amount of time, though I mentioned that I was already very well-acclimated from Aconcagua.
The group was just acclimating, so planned to camp down at Atacama Camp and maybe summit in a few days time. I chatted with the guides for a while, and then the group drove back down, leaving me alone again at the refuge.
I could have easily hiked down farther, since I had plenty of daylight left, but I enjoyed the view from 19,000ft and
was feeling great, with plenty of food and water stashed up at Tejos. I also realized that I now had an extra five days on the mountain that had been spare summit days, so I was in no hurry to be anywhere. So I decided to sleep at Tejos another night.
Later that evening the two Ukrainians (both named Alexander) hiked up to Tejos and joined me for the night, planning to summit early the next morning.
The next morning I slept in, and when I woke I realized the Ukrainians were hiking back down. They had started
hiking up at 3am, but were badly affected by the altitude and decided to descend. I quickly packed up and hiked down to Atacama Camp, passing them along the way. After chatting with the guides a bit more I continued hiking farther down the road.
After a few kilometers, the Ukrainians caught up to me in their truck and offered me a ride down to Murray Hut, which I gladly accepted. We got lost a bit trying to find the correct route through the washed-out sand, but eventually made it back to the hut and my car.
With my climb of Ojos officially complete, I began planning out the rest of my trip, which would involve climbing three more 6,000-meter peaks in the area, before flying back to the US.