Ojos del Salado

Elevation: 6983 m (22615 ft)
Location: Chile, Atacama province, 27° 7′ S; 68° 32′ W

Distinction: Highest point of Chile, and highest volcano in the world.

Ojos del Salado (Photo from Summitpost)

Ojos del Salado (Photo from Summitpost)

Photo Album: Ojos del Salado

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Summary: I tried to climb Ojos del Salado in March 2010 together with friend Antoine Labranche about 10 days after our successful summit on Aconcagua. We approached the mountain via rental car from the Chilean mining town Copiapo, driving 260 km through the Atacama desert over 4500m high passes to the base of the mountain at the Laguna Verde. From there we took a 4-wheel drive up to the first camp at 5100m. The air is extremely dry in this desert, with extreme temperature swings between day and night. As there is no water on the mountain and barely any snow we needed to bring lots of bottled water with us, weighing us down on the approach to Camp 2 at 5800m. I didn’t sleep hardly at all and felt very weak on summit day. As a result, over the course of 2 hrs I climbed only about 200m above the camp, despite good weather and no technical difficulties. At 6000m I realized that at this slow speed I would not be able to summit and return safely, so I aborted my summit bid. Antoine continued and reached about 6500m but also turned around due to exhaustion. We were both surprised that Ojos had eluded us, since we felt well acclimatized and it is a far easier mountain compared to Aconcagua. This experience showed me that performance at altitude is a bit of a mystery…

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Ojos Del Salado

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Daily Notes:

Monday, March 15, Day 1

Copiapó to Laguna Verde (4300m)

After breakfast at the Hostal La Casona we go to the Sernatur office to obtain the (free) Difrol permit to enter the Ojos area. Then we stop by the Aventurismo office for the camping permit (US$ 160) at the base and up on the mountain. We buy some lunch and fill up our gas tank, incl. a 20l spare canister, before we start the drive towards the Paso San Francisco.

It’s a desert with very little plant or animal life here. Even driving a car through this region is an adventure. The road is a good gravel / clay road, with the occasional pothole, but all in all pretty decent. The road is climbing most of the way, from 600m in Copiapo to over 4400m before and after the border control checkpoint. We have to drive in 1st gear at places, hoping that the little Hyundai rental car will make it alright. And it doesn’t disappoint us. After about 5h of driving for 260km we arrive at the Laguna Verde at 4300m. It’s like on the moon here, with rocks of all colors and no vegetation. The Aventurismo group maintains a little camp with two dome tents here next to the thermal hot springs. We are the only clients; we move into one of the dome tents with chairs and tables, a perfect place to cook some pasta for dinner. We even set up our tent inside the dome tent to control the dust a little bit. It’s a balmy night in the sleeping bags, even though the outside temperature drops to well below zero (as evidenced by the frozen water bottles on the morning).

Tuesday, March 16, Day 2

Laguna Verde to Refugio Atacama (5100m)

We are woken up by the sun shining directly into the dome tent and onto our inner tent. We didn’t sleep all that well but there is no rush in the morning. After some breakfast we decide to try out the thermal springs; now that there is no wind in the morning and the sun is out it is a lot nicer than yesterday evening. There are multiple basins, from very hot to lukewarm. A nice way to start the day.

At 11am we have everything packed and we leave towards the Refugio Murray, from where Mario will give us a ride up to the Refugio Atacama (5200m). It is an extrely barren and dusty landscape here. No animals and hardly any plants can survive here. Thanks to the 4*4 truck we can bring most of our luggage up to the Atacama Refugio. The ride up there costs us US$100 one way, but it’s 22km and 800m up through very harsh landscape. I take plenty of pictures to remember this later. Outside there is a cold wind blowing, but inside the vehicle it’s very hot. This is likely the highest point I’m driving to by truck, 5200m. At the Refugio there are two other French climbers and two guards (Andre and Mario). They are leaving this afternoon for high camp and will try the summit tomorrow. We plan to go one day later.

We are bringing all our equipment inside the little Refugio building and enjoy being out of the wind and being able to cook and eat relatively well. Besides that it feels like a very easygoing afternoon, with nothing much to do (but to type these notes).

I crawl into the sleeping bag early around 5pm to get warm. There is a cold wind blowing outside and I’m having trouble warming up again. Then some dinner and lots of fluid, and soon back into the sleeping bag by 7:30pm. The sun goes down after 8 and soon the stars come out again. It feels a bit odd that we already used up two days and are up high at 5200m, but we haven’t hiked yet (all with rental car and the 4*4 truck).

Wednesday, March 17, Day 3

Refugio Atacama to Refugio Tejos (5820m)

We don’t sleep well; once in the middle of the night I open the door to our little Refugio to get some fresh air. I also need to use the pee bottle several times. Sleep just doesn’t come easy above 5000m, even though we are acclimatized.

Today we plan to advance to the Refugio Tejos at 5820m. From there we plan to make our summit bid tomorrow. Since we got a rode up here by truck we have a lot of gear and water with us; only a small portion of that we’ll carry up to the next Refugio. We pack our backpacks and get ready to leave by 10:30am. The packs are still super heavy – I’m guessing 20kg (with 7l of water) – that’s certainly the heaviest pack I’ve ever carried above 5000m! We go extremely slowly. This is not fun, way too heavy…
The ascent is only a bit more than 600m, but after 100m I’m already wasted. I need to bend over my skipoles after every 50m or so. I don’t have a headache, fortunately, and I can breathe freely, but there is just not enough oxygen here. It feels like climbing the Canaleta on Aconcagua! Just so tiring… At least we have all day and so we’re not in a hurry. At times the wind is pretty cold, but we just keep drudging along.
Instead of the 3h we are told we almost take 5h to make it to the Refugio. We are spent. But the Refugio is spacious and we have it to ourselves.
We cook water and soups, and I take a nap in the sleeping bag again. Then some more photos while the sun sinks behind a ridge and we are in the shade again. Mario and one client come back from the summit, exhausted but happy. They climbed 8h from 5:45am to about 1:30pm. This means that we have to drink a lot and then go to sleep soon so we have enough strength for tomorrow.

Thursday, March 18, Day 4

Refugio Tejos, summit attempt

The night is aweful, very little sleep. I wake up every 20min or so and toss and turn. I literally can’t wait until it’s 5am and we get up. It’s cold and I don’t feel very good, but hopefully this will improve once we get going. We heat some water and cook a little soup, but I don’t have any appetite. A little after 6am we leave the shelter, dressed with almost everything we have.
The night sky is brilliantly clear as the last couple of days. We don’t need the headlamps very long as the first light of dawn comes up on the Eastern horizon.
Unfortunately I feel very tired and can’t get a good rhythm. It’s like yesterday except I don’t carry much load on the back. Something doesn’t feel right; I need to bend over the poles exhausted even though we barely did 150m from the Refugio. I don’t mind suffering, but another 900m vertical of this slow going isn’t going to happen today. As much as I regret it, I tell Antoine that I will turn around as I can’t see myself going to the summit in this condition. I reach only about 6000m just a bit above the Refugio as my highpoint for the day.
We sit there as the sun reaches us and discuss our options. Antoine decides to keep going and try for the summit. I walk down to the Refugio and fall into a 3h deep sleep. Not sure what’s going on with me, but staying at this altitude (5830m) certainly isn’t the best for my body either.
Around 1pm I see Antoine walking down the scree slopes. Did he reach the crater? The summit? I’ll know in 1h when Antoine is here.
As I write this, Mario pulls up in his 4*4 truck, no small feat at 5830m! Antoine did make it to about 6500m, but had to turn around as he was feeling pretty crappy as well. We pack our bags and actually get a ride from Refugio Tejos (5830m) via Refugio Atacama (5200m) down to Refugio Murray (4500m). It’s good to get off the mountain that quickly. We even decide to drive back to Copiapó that same afternoon, some 250km of desert roads.
We check in a small hotel, take a shower and head over to the Bavarian restaurant for some dinner, followed by icecream and coffee at the Cafe Colombiano. 6000m lower the food tastes great again and we enjoy a good night sleep again!