Hiking in the Andes is turning out to be more pleasant than what I expected. When we started the hike, it was really hot and dry and there wasn’t any much surrounding mountains that we could could catch a glimpse of. Now has we’re reaching higher altitudes the view of the other Andean snow caped peaks are within sight and its getting immensely beautiful.
4 of us, Swee Chiow, myself, Nat and Benz were supposed to head down to Ojos after the 1st climb. Unfortunately, Benz suffered 1st degree frost bite on all his toes and bilateral big toe Subuncal haematoma during his descent down Aconcagua due to his nail hitting against the inside of his new boots. With the limited resources, I had to perform trephination (a simple surgical procedure performed by drilling holes into the nail to allow the trapped blood beneath causing the pressure and pain to be alleviated) on his toes in a hope that it would become better. Heating the knife portion of a Swiss army knife under a lighter flame and carefully drilling multiple holes in the freezing cold and using a hand sanitizer for sterilization wasn’t the easiest of tasks. The procedure worked well on Lucas who also suffered the subuncal haematoma but unfortunately, Benz was still unable to walk downhill due to both factors and had to pull out from the Ojos team.
We had to wake up in the wee hours of the morning of the 18th to catch our 1.5h flight to Bunoes Aries at 0630h. At the mendoza domestic airport, we met the Australian couple who were following almost the same schedule as us during our climb. Unfortunately they did not summit as they tried for the summit just one day after us on the 13th. We found out that no team mananaged to summit for almost a week after the 13th due to the heavy snow and terrible winds that started when we were at the summit. Only then did I count my lucky stars for all the moments that seemed to slip by without them.
It was then a 3h transit wait at bouenos aires domestic airport before our 1.5h flight to Catarmaca. We were only allowed 15kg baggage allowance as it was a domestic flight but not surprisingly ours was almost double that. To reduce our load and payment, I had to slip on my bright red and yellow 5kg Everest Millet boots with gaiters that went up to my knees. It looked absolutely ridiculous and got too much attention. I looked as through I was trying to smuggle something across the customs and it was a real pain that took almost 15min to remedy when they asked me to remove my boots for checking as the scanner beeped as I walked through it. I still had to pay quite abit which sucked for all that hassle I had to go through.
At Catamarca, a 45min taxi ride brought us to the cowboy town where you could literally see drift weeds floating past and the sand and the heat at high noon fill the air. All you needed was the gun slinging cowboys and there we would have had our own wild west movie in the making. Everyone only knew Spanish there. It was amazing that through hand gestures and with our vocab of the local lingo which was just limited to greetings and numbers, we managed to book our 6h bus ride to Fiambala. This was the ride that took us into the Atacama desert (called Pune in Spanish). Everything was barren sand dunes with red rocks and mountains in the horizon. It was amazing. We reached the smallest of small towns of Fiambala close to midnight and we slept close to 2am not knowing what was to become of us the next day.
Apparently everyone knew everyone and everyone was related to everyone in the town. We went to find our contact, Johnson, in the security / tourist / police / information office. He arranged the car ride to the Argentinian Chilie border and introduced us to 2 groups of ppl. We were soon face to face with the Italian group of 4 men who were getting drunk on wine during dinner our previous night. These guys had actually tired Ojos from the same route we were going on and had to turn back halfway through due to bad snow conditions just 300m from the summit. Suddenly the easy ‘walk up’ peak was not looking so straight forward anymore. We were hoping for good weather and snow conditions while we were going to be climbing.
The other person that Johnson introduced was even more interesting for me. From far he looked like an Indian (as in a indian national and not a native indian). But how could it be in this part of the world? I concluded that it must be a badly sunburnt local. Swee Chiow somehow seemed to have uncanny familiarity towards this man and later we found out that he had met this South Indian from Andra Pradesh in 2006 on Everest while he was on his quest to finish the 7 summits. He eventually became the 1st indian national to complete the 7 summits in a time of 172 days. What even shocked me more was that this guy could speak Tamil! What are the chances of the 1st Singaporean to complete the 7 summits to meet the 1st Indian to complete the 7 summits in a remote town in the Andes completely out of coincidence. On top of that, what are the chances that another man in South America would look like me and talk the same minority language as me! I was totally thrilled and honored to have met him by pure chance. He was there by himself and was on a quest to climb the highest peaks in each of the South American nations. He was going to climb Ojos but from the Argentinian side which would take longer. We invited him to join us on Pissis if possible.
We had 2 guides for our Ojos leg of the expedition whom were very much different from the 3 guides we had on Aconcagua. They were so much more chill and down to earth. We were having a conversation while going to the hot spring (yes, this area is littered with hot springs from the volcanic geothermal activity in the region). I was telling the guide that I had taken a year off work to climb. At that moment, he added ‘…and to think’. That stopped me in my tracks and ironically got me thinking. He was the very 1st person who I had told my story to who had captured the essence of why I had taken the year off without me even mentioning the reason. To think. Absolutely right. More than to climb, to think. Even myself sometimes forget that when I get too caught up with my climbing. I’m so glad that these type of people who focus on the less materialistic aspects of life still exist hidden between us. You jut need to get a conversation started to discover them and to allow them to discover yourself.
Once we crossed the Argentinian border pass at 4725m (called San Fransisco pass) it was another 100km ride to the Chilean border post to get our Chiliean passport chop. Then it was another 100km back to the entrance of Ojos. This really didn’t make any sense as technically we were illegal immigrants in Chilie for 100km till we got the stamp. The locals are really irritated with the system and are trying to get the border post to be at the Chilean border where it rightfully belongs. It was then a really bumpy 4×4 wheeler ride to base camp at 5200m. It has been so interesting just getting to the base camp of Ojos thus far. Who knows what is yet to come and what is yet to be?