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David Lim, Dec 2004 ( Banner above: Ojos Del Salado in deep snow, Jan 2001)

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* Commonly asked question of solo mountaineers

Ojos Del Salado summit with the Tejos memorial pyramid, Jan 20th, 2005. 1430hrs.Self-portrait Summit of Cerro Medusa ( 6120m ), 0930hrs, Jan 16th, 2005. A snow-blanketed Ojos is in the background.Self-timed shot.

ACROSS THE ATACAMA: An illustrated presentation of two expeditions ( via Chile in 2001, and Argentinain 2005 ) to climb Ojos del Salado.

Time: 730pm
Date: Tues, Feb 15th, 2005
Venue: Climb Adventure
10, Hoe Chiang Road
#01-04/04, Keppel Towers
Singapore 089315
Tel : 62209505
Nearest MRT = Tanjong Pagar
( free entry but seating capacity is very limited )

2012 Update: You can read another account i wrote here:

Across the Atacama: Climbing ‘Ojos’ Del Salado
 by David Lim

Of my many adventures and climbs worldwide, there are a few which taught me the lesson  that the game of life often isn’t over unless you say so, and that having a never give up, never say die  attitude is critical in carrying us over the fineline between success and ‘failure’.

In October 2004, when my erstwhile partner in crime for my next climbing expedition had to drop out because of a knee injury, I wondered if a year-long plan and a seven year dream was also to be put on hold. At home, I have folders crammed with “KIV” projects to far –flung mountains and impossibly steep faces whose name no one can pronounce.

One folder, in particular, was of considerable interest. Since 1997, I had been gleaning information on ascents of the remote dormant volcano, Ojos del Salado. The “Source of the Salt River”  ( its name in Spanish ) was a peak located in the remote northwest region of Argentina and shares a border with Chile. Right smack inside the Atacama Desert, the 6882m peak represented climbing in a place far away from the madding crowds of the world’s popular honey-pot peaks like Everest. You can get 200 people lining up on the same route, on a single day, to climb to the top of the world.  The main reason why anyone would go mountaineering – to find one’s limits – seems lost on Everest and such peaks these days. ‘Ojos’  was the perfect antidote. To make things spicier, a previous attempt in 2001 via Chile was abandoned about 200m from the top because of fatigue and deep snow. I was itching to settle unfinished business. And a solo climb by, despite my disabled lower legs would definitely up the ante.

The idea to climb it from the more remote Argentinean side would be logical to climber, less so to a layperson. Why go to the world’s driest desert, hike 60km, and then climb a mountain in a region which sees fewer then 40 visitors a year? But as they say in Argentina ,”porque non?” – “Why not?”

A  critical moment of this expedition was when , on the first attempt on this lonely mountain, the seemingly stable weather gave way to strong winds, a menacingly dark sky and deep deep snow. This was no Everest. There was probably no one on this side of the mountain for a 100 sq km, no ‘fixed line’ up the peak, nor a clear trench of footsteps to follow. 400 vertical metres from the top, I turned back, believing survival was the better option.

Back in the camp, I had mentally resigned to return to Singapore without the summit.  I had already set a SE-Asian mountaineering record by being the first person to solo-climb a 6000m peak, just a week earlier, in preparation for the Ojos summit climb. It was at that crucial stage that I realized that modest success was my biggest obstacle to greatness. When I asked myself the hard questions as to why I had come 12000km to climb this peak, what resources I had ( food, time, energy ), the answers all showed that the only person stopping me from succeeding was myself.

I thought about the first failed attempt on this trip up Ojos where the strong winds buffeted and tossed back to my tent after I had reached 6500m. I also thought about how I needed to focus on the task ahead and chunk down the 1200m vertical height gain I needed to make to reach the distant summit into  stages. The 40-degree ice slopes gave way to a traverse through soft snow. Then a stiff haul up icy, windswept 45-degree slopes with 50 degree bulges. I rested twice on the way up, downing a hard-to-chew energy bar and some water. Each time, I turned to my side to  offer something to an invisible partner, only to realise, I was well and truly alone. The solitude was truly getting to me.

And then just when I thought the top was within reach, two steeper headwalls comprising loose choss and unconsolidated snow reared up. I unclipped my crampons ( they would not have been of any use beyond that point ),  and laboured up the final slopes. An easy walk up after the last headwall revealed the small, metal pyramid summit marker. The wind, was now gusting at about 70 km/h and it was tricky to stand on the exposed corner for too long. A few quick snapshots of the Chilean view, now dropping 2000m away to the west, and I was headed down, teary-eyed from the exertion , and from the fact that a dream of eight years had now died. The yellow and blue tent was deliciously welcome as darkness fell. I slumped onto my sleeping bag. 11.5 hours up, six hours down. An 18 hour-day. Somebody should fix a drink and a meal now, I thought.

I lay there for 20 minutes until I realised it was up to me to fix dinner. I could have killed for a cold beer.

A solo expedition to the Atacama Desert in Argentina. Ascents of Cerro Medusa (6120m) and Ojos del Salado (6893m) JAN 4 – 28, 2005. First Singapore mountaineer to solo 6000m peaks. World’s 3rd solo of Ojos from Argentina. The climb was supported by Seattle Systems USA, Singapore Sports Council, Singapore Pools, Salomon Sports and Ad Idem  Productions.

 

Reflections from Summit Day – Making the 3rd(?) ever Solo of the World’s Highest Volcano – 6893m

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat – that’s what it felt like on Jan 20th. After an exhausting climb and turnaround in strong winds at 6500m on Jan 18th, thoughts were already on wrapping up the trip, and maybe salvaging a climb by doing a more modest climb up to one of the Portazuela peaks near the mule rendezvous point. But you know how it is -after a good night’s sleep, some food in the stomach, and the little inner voice is letting you know that you’ve managed to salvage the climb in a similar situation before. In 2000, my partner Wilfred and I were also turned back at 6500m on the Polish side of Aconcagua. We presevered, egged on by not accepting defeat after having travelled 11,000 km to climb that pile off rocks. We summitted on Feb 19th, 2000, the first all-Singapore team to do it and the only SE-Asian team ever to do it in alpine-style.

My website http://www.everest.org.sg already reflected that I was returning home. But with two days left, the game was still on. I reassessed the route, even took a walk to view it from afar. The next morning, my motivation levels were elevated, waking up 10 minutes before my alarm at 1am went off. Some food, a gear check and I was off once more. I retraced the east face route, climbing in a slight zig–zag fashion, following stretches of hard windslab that allowed for efficient cramponing. Routefinding once on the face was far easier than in the pre-dawn darkness, picking one’s way across the boulders, streams and penitentes fields. I avoided the rocks this time until near the top of the 40 degree ice face, then made the traverse around two old craters. This time, dawn broke with a benign bank of clouds far below in the valleys.I was praying hard for strength in my legs and good weather. I reached my previous turnaround point at about 0930hrs, but not before stopping at the Shark’s Tooth rock for a snack and a drink. Kept offering a non-existent partner a piece of my cereal bar. Been walking in the desert alone for too long, I mused. I opted for the 45degree climb straight up the large ,very fore-shortened summit pyramid and reached the ridge.Slightly convex, I had to don crampons again as the windslab was icy and there were many bulges of 50 degrees or more.One mis-step and it would be quite a slide to the bottom.Cresting the Ramp, as I dubbed it, about 3- 4 hours later, I was really tried and doubly disappointed to see two more headwalls of chossy scree before the easy slopes to the top. In front of me was flat section on which there were a couple pieces of helicopter debris from the well-known 1985 crash.

Summit of Ojos del Salado. At a dstance is Chile and Laguna Verde

A tedious scramble, with the odd stumble or two as loose rock gave way, I reached the final snow slopes to greet the top. The Cesar Tejos metal pyramid was there, as was a clear view across Chile and the impossibly blue Laguna Verde. Memories of the 2001 climb came back as I struggled to stand and take some snapshots including some of myself; and Bear, my stuffed bear companion. The wind was about 70km/h and hard to stand in. I talked through the day to God and Bear, and through the dusk as we came down, overwhelmed by emotion that the job had been done. The last hour was the longest as I raced ( read: shuffled slowly ) the setting sun. The yellow and blue tent, my sole shelter in 400 square kilometres. 2100hrs. 18 hours of climbing, 1.5 litres of water to drink. Had to lie down in the tent for 20 minutes before I realised someone had to fix a drink and a meal for me. Right, Dave’s dehydrated – get moving – and so it was. The next day was a shuffle with the 20 kgs of gear over 6 km of desert to my rendezvous point. A day later, I crossed the Laguna Negra pass I looked back for a final view at Ojos – a dream since 1997 had finally been realised. The only thing left to pull off were the tabs on some cold beers and grilled steaks off the fire in Catamarca.

Post expedition note: Ojos, by the latest data is at 6893m high, rather than the older 68882m figure given. It is still the 2nd highest peak in South America


Dispatches:

Jan 24

Have left basecamp. It will take 2 days to reach the village. I had a chance to sit on the donkey for 4 hours. It’s fun (for me), it’s like riding a small horse.

After the village, I will take a 4-wheel drive down to Fiambala where I will take the overnite bus back to Catamarca, probably on the 24th nite. I look forward to some good food and a good wash! : ) Dave.

Jan 21 - SUMMITTED OJOS!! : )

Just reached my tent after summitting Ojos. It was very tough and I feel exhausted. Bone tired!! But it was a great climb. First thing I did, had a few glups of water and took the satellite phone out to call Maureen. Then, boil water and cooked some food.

Started the climb at 3am as planned. It was quiet. Solitude. This is what climbing is about, me and the mountain. Reached the summit at about 3pm, twelve hours after I started. The going was tough and slow. I was physically challenged. Had just about enough time to turn around and descent safely. Standing on a summit is always a special moment. The descent was very difficult. I was tired, as expected, and as the sun goes down the going gets tougher. I had to keep my balance as I climb down. Not something very easy to do, for me. The snow and ice made it even more difficult. Towards the end, I had to keep my headlamp on as I descent in the dark. Focusing on one step at a time. This has been one of the toughest climbs that I have ever made. I think my limits have been pushed to the max. Get ito my tent and collapse, thinking of some hot soup – dang!  I’ve got to make the hot soup…..

Tomorrow, I will be packing up and going down to the lower basecamp. I think the mule and the driver will be there by then. It will be good to see another human being again. But for now, the water is boiling. Time to dump the mushy stuff in and have a celebratory makan (meal). Wished it was mutton curry and rice…. :) David

Jan 20

Sitting around alone does strange things to a person. I think I am the only living human being sitting on a rock on this side of the mountain. The silence is deafening. Last nite, I contemplated trying for the summit again. Slept on the idea. The sun came up this morning. Weather looks better, and although it snowed lightly, it’s sunny so I guess it’ll be sunny tomorrow too.

I have rested well and feel fit. I will to try for the summit again, starting off early at 3am (3pm SIngapore time today). It is a much better option than sitting around waiting for my mule.
:) Dave

From high on Ojos. You can see the smaller sub-craters below. At this stage you could smell some sulphur

Jan 19

Started climbing at about 4am in the dark alone. There was a lot of soft snow that fell during the night. The conditions were not good for a long day of climbing. The trail was barely visible in the soft light of my headlamp. As I was the only person on the mountain, I had to break a trail through the soft snow. It was hard work. I went up till about 6500m, just a under 300m away from the summit. Howling winds and even more soft snow made it very difficult to move ahead. It was a hard climb. I turned back, with the summit just round the corner.

I will not attempt to summit again. Ojos proved to be a difficult climb but good climb. It has been very challenging and it has pushed me to my limits. The physical challenge was tough and the task of climbing alpine style alone requires a lot of mental discipline. Right now, I am alone on the mountain. Coming from Singapore where noise is all around, the “vast quietness” can be overwhelming. I definitely miss talking. Even the mule is somewhere down the mountain.

I will be packing up after a nite’s sleep and move down to the lower camp. The mule and the driver will only be coming back in 2 days time to pick my stuff. This gives me time to climb a small peak.
:) Dave

Jan 18

Basecamp Ojos looks much like a transit site. Climbers hang out, waiting for the right time to climb. But of course, your guess is as good as mine. Weather patterns on any big mountain is at best unpredictable. It kinda creates its own weather. Right now, we are getting blue skies and great climbing weather. I am planning to make a summit attempt tomorrow. Eating well and will begin ascent at night. I will climb alpine style, with everything I need on my back. To keep the load to a reasonable level, everything I carry is absolutely necessary. Am checking my equipment and rations again. It pays to be careful and discipline on any mountain. :) Dave

Jan 17

Summitted Cerro Medusa, 6120m, yesterday. Started the climb in the dark of the night around 5am, and summitted around 9am. All the screes was frozen, and few nice sections where you could edge with your boots near the top. Crampons not required.

Cerro Medusa( mistaken in this blog as Cerro Medusa) 6100m+. The route rises from the botto to the left, with the top bit traversing the upper snowfields on the left

 

The weather was great. Blue skies that you can almost touch. I took loads of snaps, almost like a regular tourist! Got back to basecamp, drank liters of water, ate some mush and promptly overslept this morning by an hour. (slept like a baby!!) Am packing right now. I will move off from this site and setup tent at basecamp Ojos. Hope to climb Ojos on 19 Jan. For now, a breakfast of oatmeal awaits and if I imagine hard enough it might actually be Singapore’s carrot cake… (fried with lots of oil and black with soya sauce). :) Dave

Jan 15

Basecamp is nice, did my chores… put up tent, boiled water, cooked food, eat, drink and now I am preparing to climb up Cerro Medusa on Sunday (local time). This gives me some time to rest and acclimatise at 5500m. Healthwise, am holding up and feeling good. The Sure Step Ankle-Foot Orthotics is a great help. Keeps me walking tall! Have been drinking loads of water to rehydrate. The weather right now is good. Blue skies and not much wind. At 6120m, Cerro Medusa offers a gradual but very long climb up to it’s peak. This climb will give me an additional acclimatisation exercise that I hope will prepare my body for Ojos. :) Dave

Jan 14

… in the desert, you can’t remember your name… after two days in the desert sun, my skin begins to turn red… hrrumph.

I’m alive,chilled, but definitely alive

Cold cold bivi site in the cleft of two rocks, at 5000m, without a down bag or warm jacket - brrrrr!

 

The last two days has been a bit slow. Spent a day waiting… it was cold and I felt like a frozen chicken (minus feathers). The desert is dry but not warm. At this altitude, it is actually very cold, especially when a person is not moving about. Had some miscommunication with the mule driver and he turned up a day late. I sat under a rock and waited and waited, with 2 liters of water for the last 2 days, no tent or sleeping bag or warm clothing or food (except for a handful of peanuts). It was a miserable time. I stuffed what little emergency clothes I had in my day pack under my clothes to keep warm thru the long freezing night under the rock. Right now, I am about to move on to basecamp at 5,500m, El Arenal. It’s early afternoon right now. A couple more hours of walking and climbing over some rough terrain will get me to basecamp. Then it is setting up a more permanent camp before I begin preparing for the climb up the big hill. About 16 Argentina climbers have went ahead to basecamp. It will not be quiet there……. :) Dave

Jan 10

Reached Aquas Callientas 4,200m, which means “hot water”. I have been following the river as I make my way up to the mountains. It stormed last night for about 6 hours. The winds were strong as I tried to sleep in my tent. The mule stays outside!! The storm has dumped loads of snow on the mountains but now that the sun’s out, I think a lot of it is drying up. The river that I am following has it’s source below ground. Even at this altitude, the water is warm and is crystal clear. All around, next to the river, I see lots of life.

David and his single-skin Macpac Summit tent at Aguas Calientes, 4200m - warm water nearby in which to soak!

Wild animals (guanacos), birds chirping and green plants grow profusely. Just 200m away is dry arid desert. The mountains here are beautiful and needs further exploration. Climbing solo is a challenge. It requires a lot more mental discipline. Pitching the tent, boiling water and cooking a meal adds to a deep sense of self-sufficiency. Tomorrow, I will make my way to Aquas Vicunas 4,900m where I understand, is bone dry! Healthwise, I feel OK. Acclimatising well at this gradual pace of climbing. For now, the warm waters of the river is calling. Time for a good soak…. Dave

Jan 9

Plodding behind a mule is not much fun. Am on the way to basecamp. Left Gran Cazadero (3600m) just a while ago. The mule comes with a driver! He and his brown dog will be with me for the day before they turn back to return to their village. Earlier, the nice doggie caught a small guanaco (small illama like creature). The driver and the dog ate it. No meat for me… sniff. The next two days, will just be me and the mule, with loads on our backs. Not much of a difference between us there. Weather looks great, blue skies today after yesterday’s rain. There is a lot of motivation to keep moving, the minute I stop, hordes of blood sucking flies descent on me. Ouch!!@#!!
I estimate that at the rate I am moving, I should reach basecamp by Wednesday.
Dave

Jan 8

Starting my trek… just got me my mule and it rained!! Understood from the locals that it rains about 3 times in a year. Just my lucky day. Walking to basecamp with a damp mule is an adventure. Smells! Am in a valley right now and communications is a bit unreliable. For now…
Dave

Jan 7

Fiambala, a one-bicycle town. Jonson's office is the small white building in the distance on the corner

Reached Fiambala, a small village at the foothills of the mountains, after hours of sitting in various modes of transport. A bit dusty from the travel. Tomorrow, I will be moving off by a pickup to the trailhead at 3,600m. If all goes well, I will be starting my trek to basecamp Ojos Del Salado on Saturday morning (Singapore time). For now, there’s time for one last shower!
Dave.

Jan 6

All well here. At the Aventura Inn, a hostel place in Buenos Aires. Good flight ‘ had a nice seat down from Capetown since plane only half full. Of note, is the sweltering weather 36 deg C and high humidity. Am off at the dawn flight to Catamarca tomorrow. Meeting old pal Tommy Heinrioch tonite for dinner downtown
Dave


In an age of adventure and climbing where seemingly tough objectives have been partly tamed by the use of air drops, support vessels, extensive porter and/or mountain guides in support, large teams, fixed rope, etc., the idea of a disabled mountaineer tackling the highest volcano in the world, solo, climbing in alpine-style, sans guides, sans external support, is an antithesis to the current vogue of trophy-bagging with lots of help. But surely this kind of harder challenge is what mountaineers and adventurers are supposed to embrace (and not neutralise) in their expeditions – risk, uncertain outcomes, accountability, self-sufficiency, decision-making and route-finding. This will surely be a journey into self as well as a journey into adventure.

THE DREAM AND BACKGROUND OF PROJECT
Dec 16: Training in progress. Successful media conference at the conference room of the Society for the Physically Disabled (thank you SPD!) on the expedition, with coverage by TV channels CNA (Asia), Channels U, I and 5. Newspaper reports in The Straits Times, Streats and Lianhe Zaobao. PDFs downloadable from links above. Below is a great photo of the approach by Rafael Curial c. 1997.

THE DREAM: it began in 1997 when I became fascinated with the large mountains that seemed impossibly snow-topped in the Atacama Desert, the driest place on this planet. Gil Piekarz, a Brazilian climber, and I began corresponding over the Internet about Ojos Del Salado (” the Source of the Salt River “) 6882m, the highest volcano in the world and the highest summit in Chile. Straddling the Argentinian and Chilean borders, it is also 2nd tallest in Argentina after Aconcagua (6962m). First climbed in 1937 by two Poles, it seen more ascents since then, though still a fraction compared to the thousands teeming on Aconcagua. It seems ” 2nd highest” is not quite good enough.

Gil and I made the trip via the more popular Chilean side in 2001, as preparation for our Singapore -Latin American Everest Expedition 2001. We made it to 6600m before deep snow and exhaustion made us turn back. Just three of us on the route made the step-breaking an enormous task. On Aconcagua, there might have been up to 50 persons climbing on any given summit day.

Possible summit route from El Arenal

THE ATACAMA: known as the driest place on earth, the “Puna” stretches from southern Bolivia to the northern parts of Chile and Argentina. Famous landmarks include the largest open copper mine in the world, the Chiquicamata; the picturesque colonial town of San Pedro de Atacama, various thermal springs, Inca remains, and high mountains including Pissis, Ojos del Salado, Incahuasi, and Cazadero, all over 6600m.

CLIMBING: after acclimatising in El Arenal, possible objectives include Volcan de Viento (6120m); followed by an alpine-style push to the summit of Ojos (6882m) with one high camp at 5800m.

THE CHALLENGE: the mental challenge of climbing alone, the attendant risks, strong winds, snow, extreme altitude and aridity. WIth my compromised balance and additional requirements owing to my disabilities, a conservative approach is worthwhile.

EQUIPMENT: key components include lightweight and warm Salomon Pro Thermic double boots, Sure Step Pro Custom Ankle-Foot Orthotics by Seattle Systems, Inc., a 2kg single-skin tent, combined ice-axe-ski pole, down jacket, GPS unit, compass, alumninium crampons, a 2kg McHale 90-litre pack, 2 stoves, calorie-dense food for 16 days on the climb (includes noodles, freeze-dried rice, soups, dried meats, energy bars), 2 litres of white gas, a satellite telephone, and (most important) common sense.

The most vital piece of climbing hardware – your footwear!