"Parinacota and Pomerape were the prince and princes of enemy tribes, but they were married. Their tribes killed them, but nature, as a punishment, entombed both tribes under water, forming in their places the lakes Chungarra and Cota-Cani. In the places where the prince and princess were buried, the beautiful volcanic cones of the Payachatas were born, the twin mountains ..."
After spending a couple of days in that idyllic spot by the lagoon, we packed our bags, out tents and our sleeping bags and headed for the Parinacota base camp. To get there, we first have to pass by Lago Chungara, an amazingly big lake, situated at around 4500 m (one of the highest in the world). Its waters are deep blue and full of flamingoes and other birds. You also get an amazing view from there, with Parinacota, Guallatire (fuming, far right) and other above 6000m peaks around it.
From there on you have to take a left on a desert road to get to the base camp. Not only is it a desert road but it's fully deserted. You have to go about 25 km inland, going up and down sand dunes with no vegetation except some cacti here and there. There are some signs to show the way in the form of some stone arrows drawn in the sand. Other than that, no signs of life except our red car with us in it, as i've said, like in a washing machine with double spin on. I've bumped my head on the car ceiling so many times that in the end I could hold the camera, sleep and bump my head and not feel disturbed at all. Thank god Marius is such a good 4x4 driver, or else.
We finally reached our first base camp at around 4600m. We had to stop there because there was no obvious way up an almost vertical sand dune. We left the car there and Marius, Dan and I walked up the dune and on this valley, up to the base of the mountain, looking for car tracks or anything similar that would indicate that we can get there by car. This valley is full of boulders and volcanic rocks and ashes that Parinacota must've thrown a while back. I would not have wanted to be here man. Above 4600 there is absolutely no sign of any vegetation. It's just ash and rocks. We spent the next day (24 december, Christmas Eve) finding a way to the base of the volcano, at 4800m, where our second base camp would be. We spent Christmas Eve taking pictures of Parinacota and drinking one small glass of wine. Marius tried to cook something special today, mashed potatoes and some meat cakes (parjoale [RO]) but we didn't have any eggs to hold the meat together so they were kinda scrambled but damn good!
Lili had a little surprise for us in the form of small figurines for each one of us, so cute!! Dan was extremely sad that he couldn't spend Christmas with his family and he kept wondering what they were doing now. I was also a bit sad because my grandmother's birtday is on the 25th and, as I was in the middle of nowhere, I had no phone signal to call her.
On the 25th we went up until 5000m to acclimatize (again) and take up a small part of the gear). Dan, Marius and I went up in the car and the girls followed on foot. Again, Dan started walking too fast and ended up being sick around 5000. Perhaps this is the time to talk about altitude sickness. AMS (acute mountain sickness, not academy of medicine, singapore :) ) occurs generally at altitudes above 2400m (lowest altitude recorded for AMS is actually 1500m) because the acute drop in air pressure. Normal symptoms include headache with fatigue, stomach sickness, dizziness, and sleep disturbance, but these vary from person to person. The way to prevent it is to acclimatize slowly, not climb or descend too fast, and drink a lot of water. And by a lot i mean 4 l of water at around 3000m and from then on an additional liter with every 1000m meters altitude difference. So you see, it's a lot! For me, my AMS was troubled sleep (I had nightmares), headaches when moving too fast and severe palpitations (but this was when I hit 6000m). You can experience AMS while at home if you want :) Just lie down, put about 4-6 very thick books on your chest and try to breathe or sleep, or, try running 15 km with a severe cold. The two severe forms of AMS include pulmonary edema (persistent dry cough, fever, shortness of breath even when resting) and cerebral edema (headache that does not respond to analgesics, unsteady walking, increasing vomiting, gradual loss of consciousness). It does not matter how fit you are, how strong you are or whether you are male or female, EVERYBODY gets it, just that the symptoms and the severeness differ. Two years ago, a very experienced guide died on Aconcagua at 5700m with both cerebral and pulmonary edema because he did not want to descend, not believing that he had AMS. The best way to acclimatize is "climb high, sleep low". For example, climb until 5000m, stay there for an hour or so and drink 1 l of water, then go sleep at 4600. Do the same from 5000-5400, etc.
26 of December found us at 4800m, with water reserves running very low - we roughly had 2 more days of water. The next day we climbed until 5600 m, for our advanced camp. There we left a lot of food, the gear (ice axes, crampons, rope) and one tent. To get to 5600, we had to scramble up a portion of very very loose rocks. It was very difficult as our backpacks were very heavy and the girls were not used to it. Unfortunately the loose rocks scared the shit out of Dan. Marius was climbing in front (he had the heaviest bag), followed by me and the two girls behind me (I was cutting steps in the rubble for them), with Dan last. At one point Lili slipped and Dan, instead of supporting her, literally jumped out of the way. He couldn't even carry the camera, I had to carry it.
When we got to 5600m Dan started saying that he doesn't want to climb this, that this is not the way (there were camps set there, jeez!), that he can't do it. I wish he would have said that earlier such that we would not have carried the extra tent up there. He was really panicked and barely could walk down from there. The good thing was that we found a stream from the glacier at about 5400m, right above the rubbles. The bad thing was that the weather was getting moodier every day.
We spent the next day, 28th of december, searching for an alternate route to please dan. Dan and Lili went up to the next camp, at 5200m to take the down jackets there and to get water. Dan made Lili carry a 5l water container full of water, while he carried the empty ones. He did not want to go up the rubbles again, so instead he filled one (out of the 4 empty ones) container with an icicle. I will say that again. He filled one full 5 liter container with one, yes one, icicle. When that icicle melted it gave us about half a liter of water. In the meantime, Marius and I were going around the volcano, at about 5400 m and facing a very strong wind, me with severe period cramps, to search for an easier route. I think we went up and down 6-8 valleys, through moraines and big boulders, and penitentes (pictured) as tall as Marius. After we went around a quarter of the volcano, we found one moraine that we couldn't cross and decided to return. When Dan found out that we couldn't find another route, he had a change of mood again (he was happier until then). At night, he started telling Marius his big plan (the two of them were sleeping in one tent, and us in another): only Marius and I would climb the route, while he would coordinate the girls into setting and clearing the camps at 5200m and at 5600m, such that when Marius and I returned from the summit the camps would be cleared and all we would have to do is return to the base camp. So he would not have to climb the route, but still have a very important role as a coordinator. Marius told him that this was nonsense, that all of us will climb to 5600m and from there on whoever can make it will make it. Dan went to sleep and then started having a panic attack which lasted until morning. At around 7 o'clock in the morning Marius woke us up: we had to take Dan to Putre, 70 km from where we were, because he couldn't take it anymore. Dan's good mood returned the moment we were on the main road. We left him in Putre and returned to camp. In Putre he started saying that Lili also doesn't want to climb, that she's sick of the sand, that it was Catalina's fault that he couldn't climb, that she was on his case all the time, bla bla bla bla excuses. The only thing I am sorry now is that we lost 2 days for his ass and a lot of money [coming up in the next post].
We returned to camp and decided that the next day (30th) we will go to 5200m, and from then on to 5600m and climb on New Year's Eve. We moved camps as planned, without any significant incidents. On the 30th, Marius and I climbed to 5400. Here we found a good campsite and decided not to climb until 5600, because there we would have to carry a shovel to make a camping place (had there been snow, there would have been plenty of camping places, as MA had said). There was a stream at 5400m, so this was great. Thus I had to climb to 5600 (again) and get the food down to 5400. The backpack was so heavy that when I put it on my back my vision went blurry, I kid you not. On the 31st we moved the entire camp to 5400m. No incidents again, except that big boulders were falling down from the glacier. The first boulder was fun. We were arranging food when Lili looked up and said, "my, look at that boulder coming down...". Marius looked up and saw a big boulder coming straight for us. He grabbed Lili, I grabbed Catalina and hid under a big rock. The boulder passed right in front of us (our favorite joke was that, had Dan seen this, we would have ran until Putre). Boulders fell down throughout the day. Lili was most affected by this, especially when we were sitting in the tent going "it's coming down on the next valley, not this one, etc". We were actually protected by a big rock, but this did not seem to comfort her.
The big night had finally come. We woke up at 2 only to find that it was snowing and thus we couldn't go up. The next day, with food running low, was not better. It was snowing and foggy, but at one point it stopped and this gave us hopes. Then it would start to snow again. When night came this big big snowstorm came. It shook the tent to high heavens. The sound the snow made is similar to that when somebody is banging their fists on a door. The girls couldn't sleep a wink... When morning came Catalina and Lili were decided to descend.
I threw a tantrum and told Marius that I don't want to quit, not after nearly two weeks on this mountain. Marius decided to go down with the girls and then come up with more food (we had only biscuits left). In the meantime, I would go up to 5600 and get the ice axes and crampons, because we would need them now, even to climb to 5600 m. Plus, if it would have snowed even a little bit, I would not have been able to locate the boulders under which i put them. The snow was now about 1 m high. So this was it.
Marius came up again, even though it was extremely tiring for him*. We waited and the weather seemed to improve. At one point, it was only snowing a bit. However, in about 2 hrs, the snow was 20cm high and it was still snowing. This meant that if it did not stop snowing, we would not be able to get the car out of there since snow with sand underneath is not a good combination. Thus we cleared camp (in a record time of 20 minutes) and got down. By now it was night, it was snowing, the backpacks were extremely heavy, we barely managed to find the camp. I still consider it a miracle that we could get out of there, at night and with all that snow. The desert looks the same during the day, to say nothing of the night and when it's snowing. We reached Putre at about midnight, found an open restaurant and had some soup and a well deserved beer and went to sleep.
This was Parinacota. Alas, a thorn in my memory. I have learned a lot from it tho, especially that 2 days matter. Also that you only get to really know a person when you take them out of their comfort zone and into an uncomfortable environment.
*I also learned something about leadership here. What if the girls would have decided to follow my lead and stay there? I know we would not have been able to descend with them. Sometimes it is more important to think about the whole team and not only your task (getting to the summit). It is more important for EVERYBODY to be safe rather than for some to reach the summit. I still consider myself responsible for that gruelsome retreat (did I mention we had to stop at our 4600m campsite to retrieve some gasoline containers?). However, I am still happy that I know that I gave it my best shot. I also know that the weather was definitely not improving (the winter had come, alas), so my waiting another day was pointless. Oh, the dilemma...