Climbing a Chilean volcano

Earlier this week a volcano erupted along the border of Chile and Argentina, sending ash and smoke into the sky, and disrupting air travel throughout the region. The images that we’ve seen from that eruption have been both beautiful and terrifying in their displays of raw natural power, reminding us that the Earth ultimately still controls our fate. That sentiment hit home particularly for me, as less than a week before the mountain blew its top, I was climbing a similar volcano not far to the north.

At the time, I was visiting the Atacama Desert, an amazingly diverse destination with a number of fantastic landscapes to explore. The region is one one of the driest on the planet, thanks to a natural rain shield from the Andes on the east and the Domeyko Range on the west. But amongst those surrounding peaks are a number of volcanoes, both active and extinct. Having a bit of a pre-disposition toward high altitude adventures, I had made a goal for myself to climb one of those volcanoes while in the area, selecting the 18,645 foot El Toco as my challenge.

Fortunately, El Toco is an extinct volcano, having blown its top thousands of years in the past. Because of this, its summit profile is flatter and not so imposing as some of the more jagged, pointy peaks that ring the Atacama. The approach along its south ridge is also a non-technical route, meaning I wouldn’t need any special skills or gear to reach the top, just a good pair of boots and a decent level of conditioning.

The biggest obstacle in the climb would be the altitude, but after spending several days acclimatizing throughout the Atacama, I felt that I should be ready to give it a go. I’ve been at high altitude before, and seldom have any real issues, although the day before I was to climb I was feeling a bit under the weather, which put serious doubts into whether or not I should even make the attempt. Luckily, I felt much better on the morning of the climb, and while I wasn’t at 100%, I also didn’t want to give up an opportunity to scale Toco. After all, when would I be back in the Atacama again?Later in the day I met up with my guide, an accomplished young climber by the name of Gustavo, and he and I hit the road for the mountain. It turned out that no one else was interested in climbing with us that day, which meant that not only could we go at our own pace, we would likely be the only two people going to the summit that day. Both of those factors made me feel even better about my chances of topping out.

About an hour into the drive from San Pedro, the unofficial capitol of the Atacama, to El Toco, we suddenly veered off the smooth, well-paved highway, and onto a bumpy, narrow dirt road. We has been steadily climbing for some time, and my ears had already popped on more than one occasion, but we still had some distance to go before we started our trek. San Pedro is located at 8035 feet above sea level, but we were driving up to 16,500 feet, where we would find the trail that would take us to the top of the volcano. That would be a significant altitude gain before we ever started to hike, and I would know very quickly if I had recovered from how poorly I had been feeling the day before.

Eventually our truck rolled to a stop, and we jumped out to finish preparing for the climb. After slathering our faces and necks in sunscreen, and pulling on an extra layer for warmth, Gustavo and I organized our backpacks, grabbed our trekking poles, and hit the trail. As we began our ascent, he advised me that we should go at a slow but steady pace and that it would take roughly 2 – 2.5 hours to reach the top.

Once we started moving, I immediately realized that I was feeling good and the sluggishness of the day before was long gone. I followed behind Gustavo, and kept going at a measured pace, breathing in and out slowly and working to maintain my breath. The thin air was definitely noticeable, and there were times when I felt like I couldn’t get a deep enough breath to keep going, but those moments soon passed, and we made very sure and steady progress towards our goal.

In my previous high altitude excursions I learned several valuable lessons. In addition to keeping a measured pace, I also discovered it was best to avoid looking up towards the summit too often. It can be quite discouraging to see how far away your goal is when you are struggling to make progress and catch your breath. With that in mind, I concentrated on using my trekking poles to cross the loose rock scree and navigate the patches of snow and ice that were common along our route. On occasion, we would stop for a moment or two, and I’d glance up to see how we were doing, but for the most part, I kept my head down and stayed focused on the ascent.

About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, we broke clear of a sheltering ridge, and the full force of the winds started to buffet us. Not only were they strong and constant, they were also quite cold. It seemed that the final leg of the trip would be a chilly one. But we were making great progress and the views around Toco were spectacular to say the least. While I might not let my eyes stray up to the summit, I definitely was drinking in all the sights unfolding below us.

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, Gustavo and I found ourselves on the trail to the top of the peak. I glanced at my watch and was surprised to find that we had only been climbing for about an hour and fifteen minutes. We had actually reached the summit, located at 18,645 feet, in about half the time that it typically takes, which was a sure sign that we were feeling good and moving more quickly than I had thought. It was a great feeling to walk out onto the summit and look down into Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina simultaneously, with a bright clear, blue sky surrounding us in all directions. The horizon was dominated with mountains in all directions, and more than one had a plume of dark smoke rising from the top. Active volcanoes, biding their time.

Gustavo and I shook hands and took out our cameras. Snapping a few photos from the summit and laughing at how quickly we had managed to bag the peak. Dropping our backpacks, we settled in behind the shelter of a large rock, and enjoyed a cup of tea, well protected from the howling winds. We stayed there for 35 minutes, chatting, relaxing, and just enjoying the view, before we decided we had better head back down. As the day goes on, the winds would continue to pick up, and temperatures would drop even further. Having completed what we had set out to do, we turned back down El Toco and for home.

Now, any mountaineer will tell you that climbing to the summit is only halfway to the finish line. While the descent was a quick one, taking just 20 minutes to return to our vehicle, it still offered up its challenges. Sliding down across the ice and rocks makes it more difficult to keep your footing than when you’re moving up, and the winds were conspiring against us even as we retreated away from the summit. But for the most part, it was a relatively routine descent, and we were soon on our way back to San Pedro for a much deserved cerveza.

All in all, climbing Toco was easily one of my most enjoyable days in the Atacama. It was a wonderful experience that fulfilled the promise of great views and an overwhelming sense of satisfaction at the top. If you’re traveling in the region, and have the time to both acclimatize and make the climb, I highly recommend that you do so. And for the more experienced mountaineers, there are plenty of fantastic routes and mountains to enjoy as well.

Who knew that I’d come to the desert and discover great mountains as well?