Cerro Plomo

In 1987 I took part in a trip to Cerro Plomo, organized by the University's mountaineering group. This is a huge mountain, 5430 meter high, located in the central Andes, very near Santiago. There is a paved road going to the ski centers of Farellones and La Parva, which is where the rented van left us. We hoped to find some of the ski lifts still operating, in order to get a few hundred more meters of altitude without effort, but unfortunately the year had been rather dry, so that in spring time, when our trip happened, the ski fields were dry, and the lifts had been shut down until next year.

So, we had to hike up all the way from La Parva, which is below 3000 meters. Doing heavy physical exercise at 3000 meters already causes problems, but we had another 2500 meters to climb! Of course this was to be an extended trip, intended to last for around 4 days. Even so, the leader pushed us into getting started quickly, to make up for the time lost by finding the ski lifts our of service. The sudden forced marching at the unaccustomed altitude netted me a bad case of altitude sickness, which kept me from eating, and for the most part from drinking too, during the rest of the trip.

This is the plateau that runs from the La Parva area to the Cerro Plomo. This part is at about 4000 meters altitude, and we spent the better part of a day just walking along it. The straight-line distance from La Parva to the Plomo is about 20 km, and about half of it is made on this plateau. Advance was slow, as I wasn't the only one suffering from altitude sickness. So we had some time for photographing, trying to eat (no hope), looking around, talking, discussing how much better it would have been to take the climb slowly at first, and so on.

The rocks in the foreground signal the place where a fellow mountain climber found his death many years ago. A small iron cross was staked into the ground, below the boulders. The inscription on it was illegible. Obviously on this plain the ill-fated climber can hardly have had an accident! Either he froze to death, or some altitude-sickness related problem claimed his life. We would soon enough learn how unforgiving nature can be at this altitude.

A fellow climber had decided to try some juice during one of our frequent stops. She was mountain-sick, just like me, and in huge need for some liquid and some food, even if it were just a little sugar in an instant juice. But the problem with altitude sickness is that regardless of how thirsty you are, you cannot swallow anything! Usually the only way to go is taking very small mouthfuls, and patiently waiting until the juice trickles down the throat. This is slow. If you force it, you vomit. So she took it slowly.

And long before she had a chance to finish her juice, it had frozen solid in the cup.

This shows another aspect of high-altitude mountaineering: It's cold. Even if the weather is nice, sunny, with almost no wind, like it was this day, the temperature is way below freezing level!

Even in this inhospitable environment, life is everywhere. One of the hardiest species in the high Andes is this plant, called Llareta. New generations root in the dead remains of older ones, forming huge balls of biomass, often reaching one or even two meters diameter. Many clumps of Llareta are smaller, of the size of a watermelon or so. In the harsh high plateaus, indigenous people use it as energy source, burning it for cooking and heating. This overuse has almost extinguished the slow-growing plant in the more inhabited areas, but up in the high Andes the species thrives.

Here is an extreme macro shot of a Llareta flower. The entire picture area is just a few millimeter wide! It seems that one must be small to survive in this huge landscape!

But Llareta is not nearly the only living species here. We saw some hardy grasses, many lichens, lots of ants of different species, several other insects, and birds of course. This is prime habitat for the Condor, that majestic glider of the high Andes.

The road to the Plomo took us over a lot of smaller summits. This is, if memory doesn't fool me after 13 years, the peak called "Falsa Parva" (The Fake Parva). It's called such because when looking from the ski fields of La Parva, this small peak hides the real Parva, a mountain much taller. So people down there at the lowly 3000 meter level think that this is La Parva! Just to be sure, we climbed both the fake and the real Parva on our way approaching the Plomo...

And this is it, Cerro Plomo! Its massive look and its height of almost 5500 meter make us feel small and low at our ridiculous altitude of only 4300 meter! We were by no means the first to be impressed by this mighty mountain. Around 500 years back, the Incas were already using the Plomo as a ritual place. The "Boy of El Plomo", the mummy of a young kid who was offered as a human sacrifice to the Gods and found half a millennium later, almost perfectly preserved by the permanent cold, has become world-famous.

But he was by no means the only child to loose his life in this way; The Incas, and before them several other people, set up worship places on the summits of almost every tall mountain along the entire Andes, and came at least yearly to visit their deities. If the year had been good, the Gods deserved the sacrifice of at least one child, but often two or even more. If the year had not been good, then the favor of the Gods had to be re-gained. How they did it?  By sacrificing more children, of course...

One cannot help to think about these things when looking at a mountain like this, and knowing the story of those finds. Were these people brutal?  The objects they left behind, showing their fine art and aesthetic finesse, speak against this. But the dead children wrapped in the fine clothes, their skulls demolished by rock blows, speak a strong word accusing their elders as brutal people. Some of these children were left to die, heavily drugged, from cold and exhaustion. That may have been an easy end. But others were beaten to death or buried alive.

A sudden shadow awoke us from daydreaming. Clouds were forming! Bad news. Immediately it became very cold, and we pressed on, simply to stay reasonably warm. At this altitudes the clouds usually don't come from anywhere, but form right in place. Local manufacture. This happens as humid air streams up the slope, and cools off so much from the expansion at altitude, that its ability to hold water decreases below the actual water contents, thus forming droplets. The effect can be stunning: At one moment you are enjoying a cloudless summer day, and ten minutes later it looks like mid-winter!

Lacking accurate weather forecasts, which are basically unavailable in Chile, we could not know if this was just a spell of evening humidity, or if the clouds were here to stay. So, we decided to make as much of the day as we could, since the Plomo was still far away. We were planning on this being a local event.

Here you can see our troupe celebrating the twentieth or so small summit, even if mist was starting to envelope us. Looking at this photo, my memory fails me when I try to remember the names. Just be assured that the leftmost guy is me. I think (his face is quite hidden) that the rightmost one is Alfonso Olea, aka "Poncho", and the third from the right seems to be Bernardo. The girl's name was Ximena, I think, and for the rest I better don't try to stress my faint memories. What I do remember is that this was a fine group, showing great consideration for each other.

After that summit we located a ridge where the wind was slightly buffeted off. Together with the clouds a strong wind had started, and before we mounted camp, it had snowed a little. We still weren't sure if this was just a short-lived phenomenon, or if it would last for longer. So we stayed in place, which was very welcome for those of us who were weak from mountain sickness. While we rested, the more healthy ones built a stone wall to further fend off the wind, which was threatening to blow our tents away.

We cooked some noodles, soup, and to my delight I was actually able to eat a little bit. But just a little, then by stomach again closed its entry door, and I slipped into my sleeping bag, hungry, tired, cold, with headache, and not knowing if in the middle of the night I would have to dart out for vomiting.

Evening came, the sun setting between dark, nasty-looking clouds. The temperature was a lot of degrees below freezing. My climbing mates threw me out of my sleeping bag. After all, I was the official photographer, and this scene had to be recorded. Then we all went to sleep.

During the night the storm progressively calmed down, as it snowed intermittently. Halfway through the night the tent came in, under the heavy snow load. Half asleep, I pushed the snow back through the tent wall. It was really heavy. I noticed the guy on the other side doing the same. It was snowing hard. So hard, in fact, that the next morning we were snowed in to the tops of the tents!

Not even that could bring me out of my sleeping bag. I felt sick. The friends tried to make me eat, but I couldn't. Anyway there was no use in getting up. In one and a half meter of fresh powder snow, no one can walk. We stayed there all day.

In the very early morning of the following day, when extreme cold had solidified the new snow enough to somehow walk on it, in a moonlit landscape we performed an emergency escape, all the way down to La Parva. As we descended, I felt progressively better, and once at a low 3000 meters, I got even with my stomach and ate a huge breakfast.

I never actually touched the slope of Cerro Plomo proper, but the experience was very valuable: I learned what the limits of my body are. I have since then been at even greater altitudes, but I have never again tried to run from 3000 to 4500 meters in one day, straight after reaching there from sea level! And I know that anywhere above 3000 meters I cannot function normally, and that above 4000 meters I get seriously ill.

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