Ojos del Salado, which straddles the northern end of the Chile-Argentina border, is the tallest volcano in the world. It measures 22,615 feet, two hundred lower than Argentina’s Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. But, as the mountaineering resource site summitpost.org explains, Ojos is considered an “easy walk-up.” That’s all we — five city boys in their mid-thirties, wishing to fend off further atrophy — needed to know. In late 2015, we decided that an adventure commensurate with our slightly above-average fitness and grossly underestimated fortitude would be found in Chile‘s exceedingly dry, windy and cold Atacama Desert, where Ojos — an active volcano whose name means eyes of the salty one — has long beguiled wanderers.
We were not — and are not now — cherished local athletes. One of us played a year of division III college soccer. Another warmed the bench on a noteworthy ultimate frisbee team. We run and bike around the southern Appalachians, where most of us live, unsponsored and fan-free. “Team Brojos,” as we dubbed ourselves, consisted of Chris, a mesomorphic, unfailingly kind lawyer-photographer with a baby girl and shampoo-ad hair; Justin, his amiable shooting partner with a skateboarding background and TSA-concerning beard; Doug, a tall, fastidious filmmaker who made edgy roller-blading vids (“Roll Out!”) before transitioning to lucrative time-lapse commercial work; and my younger brother, Rob, a fun-loving junior high English teacher who, unique among us, had actually reached 20,000 feet on foot twice before (India’s Stok Kangri and Ecuador’s Chimborazo). He was our High Altitude Pulmonary Edema–resistant, brazenly un-deodorized ace-on-the-peak. With high school Spanish under his belt, he was also our interpreter.
Given the website’s “easy” characterization of the climb, we figured we’d dial up the thrill factor and mountain bike down what one of us called, in the many hundreds of planning emails soon to follow, “the magma-filled motherfucker.” According to a Google search, this had been accomplished a few times before — a small relief to our mothers, fathers, girlfriends and wives, who eventually gave us something like their tacit approval.
“We think it best for you to walk up and down,” said Fabaola. Later, I heard her giggling, repeating “Bicicleta! Bicicleta!” to Hernan.
A few years earlier, I’d made it to the glaciated summit of Mexico’s 18,491-foot Pico de Orizaba, nervously clipped to Rob’s fraying rope, but my outdoors résumé, prior to departing for Chile, was mostly larded with low-elevation, long-distance hiking slogs: Appalachian Trail, 2,189 miles, 2003; Tahoe Rim Trail, 165 miles, 2011. I owned an ice axe and crampons, but had used them only twice. Still, in this group, I told myself while lying awake in bed weeks before our departure, I was the Jon Krakauer: an unassuming but steely scribe who would surprise everyone by reaching the top and, with some luck, sprouting a decent neck beard. The kind an Instagram filter could fill in, if necessary.
Late last November, Chris drove our rented Toyota Hilux 4×4 — packed with $450 worth of bowel-blocking camp food, nine 20-liter water jugs, four five-gallon gas cans, four pristine Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Pro Carbon 6Fatties and a single can of German beer to be split five ways on the peak — from the homely mining town of Copiapo (known for its proximity to the 2010 Chilean mining disaster), toward our first camp, at 12,400-foot Lake Santa Rosa. As we tailed our guides’ truck for four hours into an increasingly barren, brown and beige landscape — Mars couldn’t be much less colorful — we quizzed Rob about his thin-air experiences, seeking useful tips.
“So, you didn’t bring supplemental oxygen or Diamox pills with you when you climbed Chimborazo?”
“Did you get bad headaches?”
“How’d you endure them?”
“You just deal with it, man. You think Messner used painkillers?” References to Reinhold Messner, the supremely ballsy, possibly insane Italian mountaineering legend, were an indulgence we allowed ourselves, like Jordan comparisons on the playground basketball court.
Climbing Ojos del Salado the safe way calls for a multi-stage expedition attuned to the silent rigors of acclimatization. You gradually rise higher over the course of eight to ten days, averaging jumps of 1,500 feet or fewer each day over 10,000 feet — “climbing high and sleeping low,” as the experts urge. In our warm truck on the way to Santa Rosa, with Tame Impala’s “The Moment” blasting — It’s getting closer, oh / It’s getting closer — we got the easy part out of the way: 10,000 feet gained, almost no effort. Our gear and bodies behaved basically normally as we pitched camp in the dark, by the dim outlines of the lake. Soon we disappeared inside -40-degree bags, on top of space-age air mattresses inside tents made for Mt. Everest.
How to Do It
Get there: Fly LATAM Airlines to Chile’s capital, Santiago, then on to the mining town of Copiapo, which accesses the Atacama Desert and Ojos del Salado.
Get an outfitter: The current holder of the world record for highest motor-assisted ascent, Gianfranco Bianchi, runs Atacama Chile Tour Operador. Bianchi’s outfit is a one-stop shop for your volcano-climbing needs: pre- and post-trip lodging, camping equipment, meals, jeeps, fuel, water, guiding — he’ll do it all.
Where to eat: Copiapo is not a gourmand’s paradise. Try Govinda’s Copiapo, a vegetarian restaurant with excellent bread and pasta dishes for carbo-leading before the trip and delicious cake to pack the weight back on when you’re done. Address: Colipi 262
Doug was the only one without a headache the next morning. Last to join the expedition, he’d made up for minimal training by sleeping the previous two weeks in a borrowed hyperbaric altitude tent set up in his bedroom, where his wife gamely joined him. (“She made it five days,” he said, “to about nine thousand feet, before moving to the other room.”) So Doug was fine as we began the tedious but necessary sitting-around-and-acclimatizing part of mountaineering. Rob’s French press coffee helped the rest of us, as did the distracting spectacle of flamingo sex — or so it seemed — in the lake’s shallow, aquamarine waters. Ojos’ massive hedgerow, composed of 19,000-foot foothills, rose surreally behind this.
There wasn’t a single tree or any other natural obstruction for miles. So we each, in turn, waddled a few hundred yards uphill, crouching partially behind low rocks to let the coffee finish its work. Used toilet paper took to the skies like vengeful confetti. This was the morning entertainment, along with watching Doug’s drone buzz above the mid-coital birds.
The area’s legendary wind deposited sand everywhere, too, including our mouths. The sun came and went, warming little. We donned our fancy Patagonia kits and took refuge inside the well-anchored, but still flapping food tent, where our 61-year-old head guide, Hernan, who’d summited seven times, made elaborate meals and uttered his best English sentence: “The mountain is life!” Fabaola, his circumspect, 23-year-old assistant, quietly took stock of us. They’d never seen anyone bike down Ojos, and, as professionally as possible, advised us against trying.
“We think it best for you to walk up and down,” said Fabaola. Later, I heard her giggling, repeating “Bicicleta! Bicicleta!” to Hernan.
Each day, for the next seven days, we spent a few hours exercising at altitude. All of us but Rob (“I’m not trying to be a tough guy,” he told me, “I just want to see what I’m made of”) had begun taking the altitude-easing drug Diamox to fend off malaise. One day, we untethered our bikes, grabbed our face masks and skidded down some trail and scree above the lake. Another afternoon, we climbed to 16,000 feet on a neighboring peak, accessed via some white-knuckle, Mad Max off-roading in heavy wind. It was hard to imagine climbing 6,500 feet higher, but the pale eyes of Ojos, visible in the distance, had a come-hither look.
After two nights in single-degree weather, we drove on to our next camp: 14,200-foot Laguna Verde, past the ancient frozen carcass of a wayward cow, where a “thermal bath” was advertised. On the way to the tepid waters, tucked inside a small wooden refuge, we passed by a contingent of Russian visitors permanently playing cards in the shelter’s main room, drinking vodka and fondling their expensive satellite phones. On Thanksgiving, we took turns expensively calling home with our own, allowing two minutes each for the impossible task of describing the bioluminescent night sky. It was fantastically lousy with astral matter.
Life at fourteen thousand feet is simple but hard. You must move slower, take more breath, think harder.
Laguna Verde is where Justin started acting funny. Though a strong cyclist — he’d kicked my ass on a ride in Georgia, a week earlier — he had the least high-altitude experience. It began to show when he tripped down stairs, repeatedly misnamed a refuge, and became uncharacteristically sluggish, even tongue-tied. After a day hike, he fell asleep in the truck with his headlamp on, glacier goggles in place. (These made him resemble an alpine Ray Charles.) Once roused, he refused dinner, blaming Diamox. That night he got a nosebleed, which persisted, on and off, for days, producing Rorschach-like red blots on our precious toilet paper.
Life at 14,000 feet is simple but hard. You must move slower, take more breath, think harder. At this elevation, there’s only 60 percent of the oxygen found at sea level; at 22,600 feet, it’s 40 percent. The high desert amplifies the sense of distortion. There are no trees, of course. Only monochromatic sand and rock. Meat-locker cold and constant wind. The occasional mirage. A circling, hungry-looking bird. But most of all: these huge mountains, decorated with strange penitentes: clusters of icy spires sticking straight out of the ground towards the sun. An absurd arctic art project, by the Great Unseen Hipster Artist in the Sky.
Hernan and Fabaola were our psychic anchors, but they would leave us soon. Another guide, named Mario, would take their place for the summit push, once we’d relocated again, negotiating a labyrinth of deep sand ruts and rock garden travel in our Hilux, to a cozy, climber-graffitied shelter at 17,000 feet: a repurposed, abandoned Russian shipping container, it turned out, that had housed a massive telescope high on Ojos in the early ’80s. It completed our miniaturization.
Mario, we gathered, was el hombre. He slept in a duct-taped sleeping bag. He barely needed water, like a high-altitude camel. He’d been atop Ojos 56 times and still had all his fingers and toes. He’d guided three German climbers to just below the summit earlier that week, in fact. They’d turned around with one hundred meters to go, after nine hours. It was too windy, too cold. One of them had developed a hypothermic finger. Whether amputation would be necessary was still unknown.
Blood began to flee my patchily bearded face for my toes.
There was some good news: the weather was supposed to improve, slightly, during our narrow summit window at the end of November. Winds would slow from 60 mph to perhaps half that. Temperatures might inch up towards zero degrees. This, during the start of summer on Ojos, would be mild. Drinking his second mug of black coffee at Atacama Refuge, on our final day of rest, Rob was ebullient. “I could live up here,” he announced during a brief lull in the wind.
A Russian duo had read the same optimistic weather report, apparently. They appeared a day later at the final refuge, Tejos, where we’d ‘rest’ at 19,150 feet — sound sleep is a futile wish so high up — the night before our 4 a.m. summit attempt. We’d passed them on the 2.4-mile, two thousand vertical path up to Tejos, pushing our bikes through the volcanic ash like a band of Sisyphean cyclists condemned to usher their machines up volcanoes for eternity.
Apart from some strange facial tingling, I felt okay. Rob’s headaches persisted, but he didn’t complain. (“Messner wouldn’t bitch!”)
The short, mustachioed, fiftyish guide, Victor Bobok, had climbed each of the earth’s seven summits twice, including Mt. Everest three times. His lone client was younger, larger, wealthy-looking and, judging by his lethargic trudge, a dilettante mountaineer. They ate expensive cheese and generally ignored us after announcing their intention to leave the refuge at one in the morning, for an alpine start.
Justin and Doug were on the fence about going for la cumbre. Though his look and talk had improved, it seemed inadvisable for Justin, particularly, to proceed to the top, much as we wished to remain a team. Doug’s portable pulse oximeter, which measures oxygen saturation in the blood, confirmed the obvious: Justin was still struggling to acclimatize. Only Chris, Rob and I seemed to be in the healthy blood-oxygen range for this altitude. Apart from some strange facial tingling, I felt okay. Rob’s headaches persisted, but he didn’t complain. (“Messner wouldn’t bitch!”) In fact, he began to actually drool the closer we got. The hungry kind of drool.
Maybe my brother, unlike most humans, did belong up here.
After nodding off around nine, I woke to piss, again, at 11:45 and mostly rolled around for the next four hours, listening to gaseous bugle calls from neighboring bunks until alarms blared mercifully. It was -25 degrees and windy when I stepped outside a little after four in the morning. We’d made coffee, eaten a few muffins, put snacks and water in our lightened packs and layered up. We wore two pairs of socks inside our La Sportiva super-gaiter boots.
Few words were exchanged, beyond the necessary:
Three liters of water?
Gloves or heavy-duty mittens?
These fucking bikes…
We’re not bringing the beer.
Only 15 percent of climbers (without bicycles) reach the summit, totaling some 250 a year. Doug had finally informed us of this statistic — which has everything to do with extreme elevation, cold and windy weather and the easiness of underestimating the mountain, as opposed to any truly technical features — a few days earlier. By then, we were no longer surprised. A strong, Alps-experienced solo climber from Germany — he referred to himself, earnestly, as a “climbing machine” — had gone up just the day before with some muesli, an apple and hot tea and come down defeated, his nose purple, his face lined with extra years. It might be a “walk-up,” but it was not “easy,” except, perhaps, compared to Denali or K2 or Meru.
“I don’t know,” the climbing machine murmured as we offered him hot water. “I just did not have the energy on this day. Maybe if I had not lost the route… ”
We pushed our bikes up the ashy, steep and windswept slope of the volcano to about 20,000 feet, more than half a commercial airplane’s cruising altitude. At this point, the unstable trail — such as there was one — angled up more acutely, to perhaps 40 degrees. Riding down this, even at sea level, would be absurd. So we dropped the bikes after a terse powwow — channeling Ahab, I wanted to keep pushing them, while Rob correctly but annoyingly advised against this — and continued behind Mario. A five-some distinguished by small beams of light and labored breathing, we’d begun the morning with 1.8 miles to the summit and 3,600 feet of elevation to gain. The average one-way trip from Tejos took eight hours.
Within 20 minutes, Justin and Doug had fallen far behind. I couldn’t see them. Mario warned us, matter-of-factly, that their pace was too slow. There was no time, energy or authority to question his opinion.
“I can’t go on. Gotta go back. Could get frostbite. People get frostbite up here, right?” Mario nodded.
The message was conveyed and, though frustrated, they dutifully retreated. Fifteen minutes later, Rob complained that his toes were numbing. We stopped, unable to escape the wind, and shouted about our shitty options: to mush on into the colder regions above or turn around. I pulled out foot-warming pads and extra socks. The latter wouldn’t fit in Rob’s boots. The former would take a while to heat up, and his feet were worsening. He removed a boot and rubbed the colder foot. Chris swaddled it in an extra down layer. Nothing.
“FUCK!” Rob yelled, in a foreign tone. He’s not the complaining, compromising, stop-just-to-be-safe brother. He barrels headlong into the overhead surf, the waist-deep snow, the hostile crowds, as I shout, from some remote bunker behind him, to pump the brakes. So his words made no sense.
“I can’t go on,” said Rob. “Gotta go back. Could get frostbite. People get frostbite up here, right?” Mario nodded. I was scared for Rob and, suddenly, myself. His confidence, to this point, had buoyed my modest self-belief. Could I continue? Should I continue? To be safe, Mario escorted Rob back to the now invisible hut, in the dark, where he would prop up his feet next to a camp stove and try to banish thoughts of Messner (who has only three toes left) and what he’d do in the same situation. Meanwhile, Chris and I danced in place on the upper flank of the volcano, a pair of freezer-burned marionettes. This whole trip had been the product of our fertile imaginations, and now we faced the frigid, sober reality of the thing. The FUCK of it.
My right foot felt a little funny, too.
Ten minutes after Mario returned, Chris, in turn, headed down. There was less protest in him. His toes, too, were burning cold and, as both a young father and a necessarily pragmatic diabetic, he accepted the meaning. Mario, meanwhile, had made clear that things would worsen before they might ever improve: “Sol,” he said, “maybe three hours. Wind and cold, more bad.” He gestured up into the bleak, bleary-eyed black-and-whiteness of the mountain above.
“You got this,” Chris told me, as he disappeared. I thought briefly of Krakauer, who’d also been on assignment on Everest in ‘96. Had fear of failing before his readers helped him reach the top and get back down without dying? Or was he just a tough sonuvabitch with good circulation and better boots?
The comparison, in any case, was a far reach. What propelled another man didn’t matter as I found myself trudging upward, in the godless cold, behind only Mario. He kicked his boots into the volcanic debris to gain purchase. I did the same. The rhythm was regular, nearly calming. This pattern repeated itself for distended hours, my mind hanging on to its default survivalist mantras (“One step at a time”; “When you feel finished, you’ve still got fifty percent left”), my toes retaining just enough heat. Gradually, the Andean valley appeared in the twilight. I greeted it with a barrage of disdainful snot-rockets that seemed to freeze mid-air.
“Sol!” Sol! I echoed Mario’s plaintive call. This was our main exchange.
Just before the first rays arrived — to better reveal, if not alleviate, our suffering — I felt a disconcerting sensation: freezing at the tip of my dick. First I rubbed it with a mittened hand. Then I yelled ahead to Mario. Using fria and crude sign language, I tried to convey what seemed to be happening. Mario nodded and kept walking. Finally, I took the extra wool socks out of my pack — the ones I’d offered to Rob before he turned around — and used them to insulate the sad, frozen worm. My future children will thank me one day for this, I thought.
After four and a half hours of steep switchbacks, Tejos disappeared behind a ridge. The bright blue speck of Laguna Verde still showed farther beyond. Through my goggles, pieced together by an oxygen-depleted brain, the Andes looked like so many overwrought sandcastles. I unscrewed a water bottle, knocked out a fresh rim of ice, and swallowed as much as I could before the freeze set in.
“One more hour?” I said, wishfully, to Mario.
“One to caldera,” he replied. “One more to cumbre.”
Gear For a Volcanic Adventure
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The buff covering my face had half-frozen around my mouth. A rope of mucus hung from my raw nose. But I was getting somewhere, and beginning to have a foretaste of glory. Forty-five minutes later, the snow-covered edge of the volcano’s caldera appeared: a depression resulting from a long-ago eruption, looking much like a lake in dead winter. A few hundred yards around it, lurching towards the top like lost, seasick fishermen, were the Russians. We’d made up their three-hour lead. I felt a competitive burst of energy. Where had it been stored as I staggered along these past few hours? I saved a thought for later: The human body — to say nothing of the mind — is strange even to itself. Walking above 20,000 feet reminds one of this.
We met them just below the 200-meter climb up to the summit. It was a steep, narrow, bouldered section, one that most mountaineers use fixed ropes to ascend. Conceding our faster pace, they moved aside — for Victor, who could have summited twice by now, the deference seemed begrudging. I pulled myself onto the small summit block minutes later, teeth chattering uncontrollably. How long has that been happening? I glanced at my watch: It was 10:30 in the morning, the hour I usually get down to work, coffee in hand, dog lying at my feet…
Mario gently elbowed me into a tiny wind block, clasped my back, and handed me the summit register, kept in a heavy metal box under a rock. I signed my name, along with the rest of Team Brojos, and congratulated Mario on getting here a fifty-seventh time. Loco, hombre. Loco. Looking around, I had the oddly detached feeling of being photoshopped into a National Geographic IMAX film. (Not the one about the ‘96 Everest disaster, though. Right?) I took a few photos with my phone: simply see-I-did-it proof. Of greater concern: How would I share this feeling with the boys? What were they doing now, anyway? Drinking hot fucking tea! I wanted hot fucking tea.
After welcoming the Russians to the top with a strange surge of patriotism, I surveyed the Andes at eye level a final time and began the long, empty-headed, weak-kneed descent to the land of the living. I managed a mile an hour on the way down, schussing through the volcanic ash with my trekking poles, as if on snow. Mario, who had another trip departing the next day, blazed a trail of sorts, only occasionally looking back. I didn’t mind. Once I saw the hut I didn’t stop, until I met Chris a tenth of a mile above it, waiting with a flask and camera.
“Yes, dude. Yes.”
I don’t remember my reply — incoherent and insufficient, I’m fairly certain, but said with real pride.
“When I saw your orange jacket appear again on the mountain,” he said, “that was one of the most amazing sights of my life.”
Rob and I embraced at Tejos. His cheeks were damp and my eyes were, too. True, he’d missed his chance to summit. He’d wanted to get there for himself, and for us, badly. He’d made a difficult — even uncharacteristic — but wise decision. That I knew. But, he said, he’d also been worried about me: a relationship reversal and further proof that people are not the caricatures we draw of them, however well-meaningly; that they contain beautiful and contradictory depths, given the right (or wrong) circumstances to reveal them.
“When I saw your orange jacket appear again on the mountain,” he said, “that was one of the most amazing sights of my life.” Justin told me, later, that Rob had cried when he’d returned that morning.
After a round of bear hugs and non-alcoholic beverages — the single German beer was nowhere to be found — the guys asked me impossible questions, the ones that I knew were coming: variations on how it felt to be on top. They looked at me, as they spoke, in a way I’d always wanted to be seen, but rarely ever felt: like I was tough.
We finally mounted our bikes — with heavy packs returned to our backs, mountaineering boots still on our feet, face-masked helmets on our heads, anticlimactic words escaping our smiling, chapped lips — and prepared to ride down 4,000 vertical feet of ancient volcanic scree and sand, past the penitentes pleading to the bright, empty sky; past the hundred places we’d stopped to rest or react to our surroundings on the way up; past the footprints of the bodies and brains that had hatched this ridiculous plan and landed this crazy assignment, to our truck, which would take us back to thicker air and dimmer stars. I took off after everyone else, behind my brother, who let out a barbaric yawp. I tried to make it last.
Charles Bethea is an Atlanta-based journalist who often contributes to The New Yorker and Outside Magazine. Follow him @charlesbethea.