No Picnic on Tupungato - Roger L Melvill

I sat sipping a glass of South American red wine as the Central Andes slipped beneath the wing of our DC10.; We were on our way to Santiago on the start of a trip to climb Ojos del Salado in the Puna de Atacama, far to the north.  For the moment it was and the majestic view that enthralled me on this cloudless day, with peaks, ridges, tangled valleys and glaciers stretching as far as one could see.  Aconcagua stood head and shoulders above all else to the North, and almost as a mirror image, Tupugato thrust her snowy peak into unrivalled dominance to the South.  Her broad peak dropped steeply to the east, and to the west there was a long ridge which lost itself in the tangle of lesser ridges and peaks that stood at her feet.   As I gazed at the view I could make out a long valley passing from her northern flank, snaking its way through her defences towards an obvious entry point.  I began to fantasize about a journey up that valley, a base camp, more camps and the summit.  The name rolled off my tongue so easily;  then she was gone from view, covered by the wing as we banked, commencing the descent towards Santiago.  I twisted in my seat for just one last look, but she was gone.  It was love at first sight. While in Santiago preparing for our journey to the Atacama I asked the people who know about Tupungato.  "It’s a shit mountain, access is difficult and it attracts all the bad weather." I was in love so I didn’t listen.  We had other things to do.  Ojos was climbed, we came home and the years rolled by, but Tupungato would still roll from my tongue and that view would come back to me during times of remembrance.  In 1995 there was a chance to return to South America for another trip.  We wanted to climb high and the choice was obvious. >December 1995 was drawing to a close as Guillaume, Merle, Steven, Ilse and I arrived in Santiago, loaded with climbing gear for our planned assault.  Planned at this stage being an euphemism for "general intention".  In my search for information on Tupugato I had come upon a virtual blank wall apart from a few minor references which gave little information, and an account on the approach up the Colorado valley from just outside Santiago; and  that was in Spanish.  We made our way to the Federation Andanismo, always a useful source of information and contacts, to ferret out what we could about the mountain.  "It is on the border and controlled by many agencies", said Mr Phillips.  We needed written permission from the Chilgener - a hydroelectric company, Comando de Ingenieros del Ejercito, the army; S.A.G.- a government animal control agency; and the Direccion Nacional Fronteras y Limites.  We were told the paper work could not be done in less than ten days.  Armed with a pocket Spanish Dictionary we set off to do our best in what was certainly a hopeless situation.  We were lucky, things fell into place.  At the army camp the secretary to the Comando de Ingenieros was most helpful.  On day two of our stay we were told we could get a lift up the valley:  there would be mules at the roadhead waiting for us and permission to enter the restricted area was granted!  We were given three hours to pack up and be ready to leave.  A frantic rush through the supermarkets and a hunt for bencina blanca ensued.  We found ourselves loaded onto a truck with provisions for about two weeks.  There had been no time for careful planning of menus.  The euphoria of heading for the mountains took over. The journey up the Rio Colorado Valley was spectacular, past rock falls and the remains of wash-aways reminding us that these mountains are very much alive.  We signed a register at the police checkpoint at Martines then passed on to the hydroelectric plant at Falafal.  This used to be the roadhead - still a long way from the head of the valley and base camp at Vega de los Vlegos.  A new road now takes one much further up the valley and so makes access to the mountain much easier, cutting the walk-in time by about three days.  Finally we reached a high meadow perched above the river where we were met by Carlos and his ‘mulas’.  Far up the valley snow capped peaks caught he last of the evening light.  It was less than 48 hours since our arrival in Santiago and we were in the mountains!  Luck was with us The next morning we made an early start.  Our mules were packed with their 70kg loads and we set off along the narrow path expecting a two day walk to base camp.  Carlos and his mules were soon far ahead;  he had the advantage of a horse to ride.  As the day wore on we wished we had planned to ride up the valley as well.  At one particularly tricky river crossing we were treated to the sight of our Chilean horseman galloping down a steep hillside towards us as he came back to direct us to a safe crossing point.  He and his mount, inseparable.  The horse, with head held high, and Carlos leaning far back with legs outstretched and one arm out above his head to keep his balance; were in total unison and confidence in each other as they crashed down the slope.  Perhaps for us, walking was the better option.  We were eventually left far behind by the baggage train.  Towards evening we began to wonder when we would find Carlos and our gear.  By now he should have struck camp, but there was no sign of him.  We turned onto a lava ridge and came upon a small tent with a weather-beaten man hunched over a billy, waiting for it to boil.  He had come off Tupugato after being caught in a storm for three days.  He and his companion had holed out in a snowcave they had dug.  While we spoke a man crawled from the tent.  He had Daschstein mittens on his feet, and the few steps he took, he took with infinite care.  Frostbite had immobilised him, he held out his hands palms upwards, his fingers were curled and black, like dead petals.  They had taken a week to get off the mountain and were waiting for some way of getting down the valley.  We pressed on to Vega d los Flagos to find our mules enjoying the last patch of greenery.  The sun settled over the ridges far off down the valley.  Base camp was shared by a group of Germans who had come in on the same day as us;  they had shared riding mules and so had made better progress. We saw the New Year in twice that night:  once South African time and once for the German midnight.  The ice was well and truly broken with the only other occupants of the base.  A far cry from the trade routes of Aconcagua. We were feeling the effects of spending our lives at sea level, so had a day’s rest before setting off to find camps at roughly one thousand meter intervals up the mountain.  Camp one was established on a promontory looking across the cirque at the head of the valley.  Sierra Bella with its heavily glaciated western slopes live up to her name as we looked across at her in the evening light.  Beyond we could see Pollera and Chimbote, inspiring future trips to this little travelled area.  More rest and more lugging loads from base camp, then on to find Camp II under the lee of the long northwest ridge I had once seen, sipping red wine so many years ago.  It was here that we began to realise that this was a major undertaking. In the rush to get going in Santiago we had under estimated our food requirements, we were rationing ourselves very carefully, and the work made us very hungry.  The German team found they were fast running out of an even more important commodity - cigarettes.  Ilse had a comfortable supply as the only smoker in our group.  They needed her badly, but they couldn’t have her without us!  The arrangement was perfect.  We ate their food, which seemed to be in ample supply, and they smoked her cigarettes.  And so we joined forces. The weather had been kind to us.  Every afternoon clouds would roll in from the north-west covering the peak, but this was not a significant inconvenience.  Three of the Germans set up a camp at the top of the ridge but were forced to retreat to Camp II because of altitude sickness, high winds, extreme cold and bad visibility.  We tried to make a carry up to their high camp.  Progress was fairly good.  Towards late afternoon we noticed a change in the weather - the clouds began to boil in from the wrong direction.  These were not the drifters we knew so well.  This was a storm of a different kind and a hasty retreat to Camp II was made.  That night we were struck by a storm which howled about the crags with the sound of an express train, and tore at the tents like a terrier with a rag.  The next morning we made another attempt to reach the high camp but were turned back by the vision of blackened fingers as our hands froze in their inadequate protection.  The storm hit again and we were pinned in our tents for four nights and three days.  Bad weather took on a new meaning.  Conditions became increasingly difficult, cooking was impossible, melting ice a major task and Ilse’s cigarettes ran out. The fourth day dawned quiet and white for as far as the eye could see.  We had to take advantage of the chance to escape.  The cold was intense and our strength was sapped.  It was still -20C outside but at least the 80km/hour winds had ceased.  Getting down the mountain was almost as difficult as getting up to Camp II.  Back at Camp I Steven’s eyes seemed unusually red.  Within hours he was in agony.  Then Ilse found herself in the same predicament.  They had forgotten to wear their snow goggles and were both snow-blind.  The next day was spent with our blind companions cowering in their tent keeping away from the light as best they could.  Fortunately the terrain between Camp I and base camp was not too difficult so we could press on down the mountain the following day.  Steven’s eyes were worst affected and he had to tread carefully with his poor vision. The day after we made it back to base camp Carlos and his mules arrived on time to take us out.  A sorry, hungry lot.  Scratching deep in the recesses of my rucksack I found a small tin of tuna and a battered tube on mayonnaise.  Using our palms as plates we each had a morsel to taste, and all food was gone.  If Ilse had had a cigarette, we might have eaten that as well.  Tupungato had lived up to her reputation - we were beaten.  We had gone to see, to explore, to climb and live life to the full.  Tupungato gave us all of that and we are all well satisfied.  It was no picnic, but a feast of life, a feast of memories.