Ojos del Salado (Chile)

In High Places

By: Burton A. Falk

Ojos del Salado, the 22,590' high point of Chile, is located on the Chilean/Argentine boundary, 450 air miles north of Santiago, roughly half-way between that city and Chile's Peruvian border. The peak, a dormant volcano, rises from the vast Puna de Atacama, a high altitude plateau, which in height and extent has no equivalent outside Tibet, The floor of the Atacama averages 12,000' in elevation and it is a barren, almost waterless desert covered by salt flats.

For many years, the mountain teas the subject of both confusion and controversy. In fact, during the first two surveys of the Argentine-Chilean Boundary Commission (1896 & 1897), another peak was named Ojos del Salado (i.e., salt spring-- the source of the Salt River), while the true peak went unnoticed. In a third survey in 1903, although the mountain was attributed with a surprisingly close-to-accurate height of 6880 meters (22,566'), it was identified only as Peak "e."

The first ascent of the as-yet-unnamed peak was made by a Polish team consisting of J. Wojsznis and J. A. Szczepanski, who reached its summit on Feb. 26, I 93 7. For some undetermined reason they christened the peak Ojos del Salado (even though it was not close to the source of the Salt River and that another Peak had already been so named).

In 1955, a Chilean expedition announced that it had made the second ascent of the peak, and that it was 23,294' in elevation, thus making it the highest point in the Western Hemisphere--higher than Aconcagua. This unverified claim spurred a big climbing season in 1956, during which a group of twenty Chilean climbers advanced on the peak from the north, while a four-climber multi-national party approached from the southeast. An Austrian, Matthias Rebitsch, alone from this second group, reached the summit on February 2, while three days later, on February 5, several of the Chileans also were successful. Researchers later determined that these climbers made the second and third ascents, and that the 1955 Chilean expedition had instead climbed a nearby peak. The problem of the peak's correct height was not resolved, however, as the Chilean group claimed their aneroid barometer indicated a summit elevation of 23,241 feet.

This news stirred the interest of alpinists all around the world. In addition to controversy as to where the peak actually lay, and who had or who had not actually climbed it, now there was also the burning question regarding the peak's true elevation, information which could make it very significant, indeed.

In May of 1956, rising to the occasion, the American Alpine Club commissioned an expedition to head for Ojos del Salado that same July.

Setting off in the middle qf the Chilean winter, this intrepid American team, using a previously established base elevation at the Maricunga Salt Flat-forty miles to the west of the peak--and in spite of terrible weather conditions, was able to, by use of a triangulation scheme involving 18 stations, establish the peak's true elevation at 22,590', with a probable maximum error of 10'. The vexing problem of Ojos' correct height was put to rest at Last.

The group with which I climbed had been organized by two Chilean climbers, Gino Cassasa and Hugo Enrique. who had franchised the trip through Mountain Travel, Inc.

The fifteen of us--ten clients and five staff members-left Santiago on March 2, 1986, bound by chartered bus for Copiapo, almost 500 miles to the north. We stayed in a motel in the once-booming mining town that night, and the next day we transferred our personnel, equipment and plenty of extra fuel into two 4X vehicles, one double-cabbed truck and a small trailer and headed toward points east.

We camped in a long marshy valley that first evening, and the following morning, to help acclimate, we climbed one of the surrounding desert peaks. After this welcome exercise, we drove on, by way of a torturous dirt road, to the eastern edge of the Maricunga Salt Flat, where that evening we camped along a small salt encrusted stream. The next morning. March 6. we hiked across a dry section of that 12,000' salt lake to an abandoned salt works, where we discovered many interesting relics. Later that afternoon we caravaned on to the Louis Murray Lodge, located at 14,763', where we were greeted by the sole employee, a man who was the front desk clerk, cook, dishwasher, maid and maintenance man all rolled into one. Examining the register, we found that only 110 guests had stayed in the lodge since it opened in November, 1985--which worked out to about one guest a day-no doubt accounting for the size of the staff.

The next day, March 7, we walked nine miles east along the dirt road leading past the lodge, to Laguna Verde, a salt lake-the home to a large flock of flamingos-where we basked in the hot springs along its western shore. On March 8, for additional acclimation, several of us climbed the nearby Cerro Radioactive, a 19.100' peak located to the southwest of the lodge.

March 9, making two trips with the 4Xs, we moved our personnel and equipment up the north side of Ojos del Salado to the 17,100' Andino Hut, which, as it turned out, was nothing more than a steel shipping container.

Our group split up the following morning, with seven of us, including myself, attempting an ancillary peak to north-west of Ojos, while the rest of the party walked up a well-graded road to the 19,000' Cesar Tejos Refuge. The exciting part about this day was that the peak we climbed had no summit cairn, leading us to believe it had never been climbed. We, therefore, constructed a rock pile and left a note proclaiming the peak to be "Cerro Ojitos" (Small Eyes), my first-and probably last-first ascent. The following day. March 11, our group walked up the road to rejoin the rest of our team at the Tejos Refuge.

Both the Murray Lodge and the Tejos Refuge are gifts to the country of Chile from the Anglo-American Mining Co. of South Africa. They were built in memory of two of the company's employees who were killed in a helicopter crash near the summit of Ojos del Salado in April of 1984. Gino Cassasa, our lead guide, was one of the climbers involved in the retrieval of the two bodies, thus, although he had not actually summited, he did possess first-hand knowledge of the mountain.

The Tejos Refuge is a prefabricated, well-insulated, orange steel building, made plush with paneled interior walls. Remarkably, it possesses a bank of solar-powered batteries which provide electricity for a fluorescent lighting system. It has a bathroom-which was frozen up during our stay, a bedroom with six beds, a kitchen, a dining room-where the rest of us slept, and a breakfast nook. At 19,000', it surely must be one of the highest-if not the highest-mountain huts In the world.

The next day, March 12, we made our bid for the summit. "Summit or plummet," Gino had announced the night before. We arose at 3 a.m., and by 4:30 a.m. we were wending our way south through some low hillocks. At 5:30, at first light, we began the actual ascent of the mountain, and by sunrise, at 6:30 a.m., we were about a fifth of the way up the snow-free summit slopes.

Stopping to rest for a moment, I noted that, even so early in the climb, our party had become quite strung out. This wasn't surprising, however, as even though we had had ten days to acclimate, some of our group had no chance of completing the climb. Two of the party were considerably overweight, one lady was there only to be with her married boyfriend, and a fourth believed that proper nutrition rather than proper conditioning would somehow propel him up the slopes.

The upshot was that only six of us we re left when, at 3 p.m.. we reached the peak's true western summit--an ascent aided by use of a 100' fixed rope in the final couloir. We signed into the register, noting only one hundred or so prior signees, measured the temperature at zero, estimated the wind to be gusting at 30-40 miles, and observed that the sun was sinking rapidly in the west. Needless to say, we didn't linger.

The descent turned out to become something of a nightmare for me. Becoming strung out once again. I was one of the first to reach the base of the peak. Although it was dark by then. I wasn't worried about getting lost because I could see the lights from the Tejos Refuge and use them as a beacon through the jumbled foothills. Unfortunately. however, after becoming momentarily disoriented while negotiating through a field of Nieves Penitentes the welcoming Lights somehow disappeared (Later I discovered that the batteries had become exhausted at that very moment) and there I was, alone in the pitch blackness. After an hour of frantic wandering, with the thought of somehow freezing to death on my mind, I finally found my way back.

It took us the next three days to regroup and make the dusty drive to the company mining town of El Salvador. 120 miles to the NW of Murray Lodge. That night, in a company hotel, after wonderful hot shower and a good meal, I drifted off into a delicious low altitude sleep.

On March 15, we flew from El Salvador to Santiago on a LAN Chile flight from which I could spot both Ojos del Salado and Aconcagua. My thoughts turned back to the exciting mid-fifties, when. for a few topsy turvy months, the former was considered taller than the latter.

Feedback from Steven R. Eckert

I read the reprint of Falk's article on Ojos del Salado in the recent issue of the Sierra Echo with great interest, having seen it in print before *AND* having just returned from an attempt to climb this peak.

If anyone is interested in further details on getting to the base of the mountain and/or conditions, they can contact me as indicated in the signature box below.

For the record, however, this 10-year-old account is quite out of date:

- Hosteria L Murray (called the Louis Murray Lodge) has burned down, so don't try to stay there!

- 4WD trucks can be rented in Copiapo' for about US$110 per day. If you make a reservation from here, it's $150.

- I can't imagine getting a trailer to the Tejos Refuge! It's enough of a challenge getting a Toyota 4WD there. We sunk into the sand several times and had to back up, never making it above the Andino Refuge.

- Andino Refuge is at about 16700', and is as far as you can drive without heroic efforts. I saw only one truck make it to Tejos Refuge at 18900', and they had to let the air out of their tires and go cross-country around the sand drifts on the quot;road". Then they stole climbing gear from a German group and took off. Really.

- It would be possible to put tents above 20000', reducing the summit day from 3700' to 2500'. No one made it due to the length of the climb and high winds and cold temps (while we were there). The Tejos Refuge is a good place to stay, but not a good place to start for the peak.

- The Tejos Refuge no longer has lights, solar panels, an oil heater, or a working shower. It once did, but is falling into disrepair. It's still a damn nice place for being at 19k, but not as nice as in the article. There is running water near the refuge on warm afternoons.

- There are permanent ice fields that make crampons a requirement. It snows more than you might expect here (given the Atacama desert's reputation). We talked to a leader who was there in December with 1 meter of snow at the refuge. This year had more snow than usual.

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