The puna (high altitude desert environment as the locals call it) has been extremely challenging. Imagine being in an atypical desert. Sand dunes in one corner and with flamingos in the drying up salt lakes in the other corner. A flat barren landscape with snow capped dormant volcanoes popping out of no where like pimples on a rough bearded face. The sun will be shining bright but it would be freezing cold. The winds would churn up a sand storm in no time and the wind chill would cause the temperature to dip below zero in the middle of the day. Pablo, one of our guides told us that climbing a 6000m mountain here is comparable to climbing a 7000m mountain in the Himalayas due to the environment and the latitude of the place. I don’t know how true that is but indeed it was much tougher than I had imagined it to be.
Ojos del Salado (which means eye of the salt in Spanish) standing at 6893m, is the highest volcano in the world and the 2nd highest peak in the Andes. A simple ‘walk up’ as indicated by many books regarding the difficulty of the climb was utter nonsense as it turned out. Again my personal quote of never underestimating any mountain came true. The great thing about this peak was that you could drive straight to base camp at 5200m and if needed, it is further possible to drive up to the high camp at 5800m. For acclimatization’s sake we did not do the latter. There were no porters for this climb so we had to lug up all our equipment, food and water in 2 rounds of ‘cash and carry’ to high camp. Nat wasn’t doing so well by the 2nd cycle. He injured his lower back while trying to pick his heavy luggage at the airport and the heavy doses of painkillers he was taking (which included NSAIDs) might have triggered his wheezing. No known history of asthma but he had severe difficulty breathing and we decided that it was best that he did not go up any further as evacuation facilities were not available here unlike in Aconcagua.
Summit day was on the 23rd. Me and Swee Chiow with our guides set off at 5am in the blistering cold of -20 deg C and the winds did not make things any better. After consultation with Pablo, I had decided not to bring up my mittens as I did not use them in Aconcagua. This turned out to be the biggest mistake which cost me the summit. Just 2 hours into the climb, I could not feel my fingers due to the extreme cold winds. Pablo reassured me to keep going till the sun came up which would heat up my hands. Things just got worse and by the time the sun came up from over the neighboring peaks, it already had been 1.5h that my fingers had been numb under the 3 layers of gloves which did not make any difference. I was too afraid to carry on risking frost bite and decided it was best that I rewarmed my fingers 1st. Removing all my gloves and unzipping my down jacket I buried my hands under my armpits and left them there to thaw for 10mins. Rewarming really made my fingers painful and that was when I noticed that I could not feel the tips of my middle and ring fingers of both hands. 1st degree frost bite! At the moment, Pablo asked me to descend but being the stubborn me, I decided to carry on. Of all the climbs where I had my mittens with me, I had not used them and during the only climb where I needed them most, I was lacking them. Leaving my fingers exposed to the environment immediately numbed them again. I decided to throw my trekking poles into my backpack and place my hands into my pocket sheltering them from the wind. That was the last and only desperate measure that worked but climbing without the help of the poles was really difficult in the heavy snow that had prevented any summits for the past week before us. Now I knew why the phrase ‘blistering cold’ came about cos I know my fingers would be literally blistering very soon.
By the time this mini drama ended, Swee Chiow was already about an hour plus ahead of me. The slope was unrelenting. Every few steps and I had to stop gasping for air. My energy gels were frozen and the water than I had placed in the insulation pack had started icing up. Even the water in the thermost flask had gotten cold in abt 4h. The cold was terrible. At noon, the sun was shining down baking us but the temperature was way below zero and the winds were starting to pick up. One by one I saw members of the team that had set off ahead of us descending without reaching the summit; their reason – too cold. It started getting irritating when Pablo repeatedly started discouraging me from ascending each time we stooped for a break. It was as if he knew I wasn’t going to make it or he was not going to let me make it. I pushed on with extra fervour each time he asked if I wanted to turn back. After a grueling exhaustive 7.5h climb, we finally reached the crater rim of the volcano at 6800m which was less than 100m short of the summit. There we saw Swee Chiow and 4 other climbers from the other team ready to descend after having made the summit. 11 out of their team of 15 climbers had already descended without summitting by this time. As exhausted as I was, I mentally prepared myself to push on the last 100m up the rock formation by the side of the crater rim. That was when Pablo sternly said that I had to turn back that very moment. The winds were really strong by this time and he did not want to risk my fingers in any way especially when we were going to be the last ones on the mountain. On the other hand (no pun intended), I wasn’t going to give up the summit that easily especially since I was so near. We had a 10min discussion/argument up in that thin air. Pablo was not going to take the responsibility of brining me up with the winds esp with my fingers in a bad state. I could not carry on climbing without a guide. Very disappointedly, I had to descend. On hind sight, I think that was the wisest decision at that time. As I took my hands out of my pocket up at the crater rim to prove my point of not turning back to Pablo, they turned numb almost immediately due to the winds. Fingers any day over the summit! Now with more oxygen in my system, I’m able to rationalize this very simple logic but I sure hope that my brain works on Everest if I’m ever faced with a similar situation.
I am still happy that I managed to stand on the crater of the highest volcano in the world and that the experience was an excellent acclimatization training for my final goal – Everest. Our plans of doing Pissis (3rd highest peak in the Andes) didn’t come true as we did not have enough time left with our tight schedule. Instead, we decided to recharge a little back at Fiambala and head for another 6000m peak called San Francisco. It was another 100km into Chile from the Ojos base camp to get out passport stamped before we headed 100km back into Argentina. The ridiculous thing was that, in total, we travelled an additional 400km just to get stamps! Include all the other traveling distances and I’m pretty sure that we covered the distance that spans ,from Singapore to Bangkok.
Mt San Franciso was another one of the many volcanoes straddling next to the border between Chilie and Argentina. Towering at 6018m, it has never been climbed by any Singaporean before. After a relatively uncomplicated 6h climb (which was still much harder than it looked) Swee Chiow and myself became the 1st Singaporeans to summit this mountain on the 27th of Jan 2012 at 1215h. WeeHoo! We left the Singapore flag singed with our names in Fiambala, the dusty Argentinian border town halfway across the world. So next time someone walks into the office and sees our tiny nation represented in a huge way over there, they might just reflect that Singaporeans aren’t spoilt timid creatures who are afraid to venture out of their comfort zones.
With that, the Latino trilogy (something Swee Chiow had coined) came to a conclusion. Content with my 2/3 summit success and our 1st Singaporean ascent, I knew that this invaluable training and acclimatization process will definitely make a huge difference on Everest. Sad to part from this beautiful nation with friendly people and wonderful landscapes, it’ll be another epic 4 day journey back home. All is well.