Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cerro El Plomo (5432M/17822')

Looking cool at approx. 4150M/13615'
Hey, everybody; Matt here.  So last Thursday (the beginning of November), I went against the better wishes of most people and attempted to summit Cerro El Plomo on my own.  This is the largest peak you can see from the city of Santiago.  Its presence over the city is similar to that of Mt.Rainier in Seattle: it is always there, watching over the city, tempting the adventurous/foolish.  Naturally, I had to go.

Piedra Numerada, El Plomo up the valley
The beginning of the way to El Plomo is at the ski areas about 40km east of Santiago.  Public transportation is available up the one road (Camino a Farellones), but only in the winter.  I was able to hitchhike all the way to La Parva (the ski resort I started from) in only 2 rides.  In a vast change of pace from the states, I only had to wait a total of 30 minutes w/o a ride from leaving the bus to being at the ski resort.

Bedside reading
My route took me directly up the ski mountain to a pass, down and up 2 valleys, and to a place called Piedra Numerada (Counting Stones).  This is where ranchers would count their livestock before bringing them down to lower elevations.  It was an awesome place to bivy (sleep outside w/o a tent) with a great view of the mountain.  It was also, however, high (about 3300M/10827'), cold (about 15F/-9C), and exposed (wind down the valley from El Plomo).

No reading material necessary
Refugio Federacion.  Cozy w/ a view!
After cooking breakfast from my sleeping bag, in my long johns, underneath my piled-up jackets, it was time to move on to the high camp, La Olla.  Moving steadily up the valley brought the mountain closer and closer as it grew steadily larger and larger.  One of the great things about being out here is that the higher you go, the better the views get.  This was very rewarding, which is a good thing as my pack was fairly heavy (about 45-50lbs) and the elevation increase was not the easiest.  I made camp at the Refugio Federacion (about 4200M/13780'), which is about 100M down from La Olla.  Sleeping inside the refugio was a vastly superior option to the very cold and windy La Olla, well-worth sacrificing 100M.
View of El Plomo from La Olla, my route followed the ridge
on the right.  The glacier route seemed suicidal on my own.
At this point I was not feeling the best, a sign of possible altitude sickness.  In Chile, it is called the puna.  This would be bad if it got worse, which would mean I would have to descend immediately; it can be deadly.  Luckily, it was not too bad, so I decided to stay.  The plan was to rise around 4 the next morning and make for the summit.

Shortly after sunrise, about 4700M/15420'.  Whoa.
Unsurprisingly, waking up at 4AM, it was ridiculously cold, so I waited 45 minutes in my bag, under all my clothes to warm up.  When I got going after 2 trail bars, a bit of chocolate, and some water, it was 5:15AM.  The moon had been waxing, but at this time it was down, exposing a hellacious view of the southern hemisphere's stars and the Milky Way.  It was a great way to start the climb.
Below false summit.  Direct assault on the summit plateau
straight up that glacier; real mountain stuff.
The going was steady, but fairly slow.  My route was very steep, on mostly loose rock, and my lifestyle in Santiago certainly didn't help.  I had planned on going directly up one of the glaciers, but decided against that as one slip would have likely been my last. I did have to cross the glacier to reach the summit plateau, but by that time its grade had eased to about 40 degrees.  
Looking south from the summit.  You don't see this in NYC.
Upon reaching the summit (5432M/17822', 11:30AM), I was floored.  Not only by the altitude, exposure, and exertion, but also by the INSANE view from the top.  Mountains!... Everywhere!.... Huge!  Unfortunately, my turnaround time (12PM) was approaching and I was pretty cold/tired, so I left after only 15 minutes (11:45AM).  The way back down was very fast: back to high camp by 2PM, back to base camp (Piedra Numerada) by 4:15PM.  On arrival at base camp, all I could do was slam some food and water, stare at my feet, and eventually crawl into my sleeping bag and pass out at 7:15PM.  Changing about 3350M/11000' in elevation in a day will do that.

Beautiful, but now I'm ready for a beer.
Horses grazing on a hillside, one of
many sights on the Camino a Farellones.
After an unbroken, solid 12 hours of sleep I woke to begin the exit hike.  I made great time back to La Parva and saw a bunch of condors on my descent circling overhead (I think I smelled like death).  Getting back to Santiago required a bit of a wait at first, but after about 2 hours of waiting, I was able to get, in 2 rides, directly to my front door.  The ride back down the Camino a Farellones was crazy; the road gains elevation very quickly through 40 hairpin turns from the Santiago valley.  My first driver, with his unbuckled 6 year-old daughter, was flooring it down the mountain (very exciting).  Getting back to Sara was great, especially as she had prepared a lot of food and beer.  It was a great trip and a new record elevation for me!

If you have any desire to see more pictures of this, and other trips, feel free to visit my adventure pictures website:


  1. WOW -- those pictures are stunning!!! It looks like an amazing climb.

    Is it weird that I am more freaked out by the hitch-hiking than the mountain climbing? I think it's because my height-phobic brain can't actually process the idea of being almost 18,000 feet high... That is INSANE.

    Seriously, way to go -- such an amazing milestone! Very proud! xo