Climbing Volcan Lascar
The Atacama desert tends to have a radical effect on people. This is where Ernesto "Che" Guevara was radicalized, having met two communist mine workers who were living in extreme poverty at the hands of their masters - victims of a very real 20th century feudal system.
The driest region on earth is home to over to 200 ghost towns, which are relics of a prosperous era when nitrate mining ruled supreme. There is no rust in a place so lacking in water; the abandoned theaters, saloons and cinemas stand testament to the peaks and troughs of human civilization throughout modern history.
These days, the mines may be long gone, yet a new, radical economy has taken their place. Adventure is the name of the game, and this is how I find myself at 5,000m above sea level desperately gasping for oxygen and muttering every curse word in my vocabulary.
Our task for the day - climb the 5,600m Volcán Lascar, a towering lump of molten rock that watches menacingly over Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. The day began at 5AM with several cups of coca leaf "tea" - to combat the very real risk of altitude sickness and kickstart our tired engines. We made camp on the shores of Laguna Lejia and tucked into a calorie rich breakfast, as the sun crept over the horizon and the barren volcano slowly slipped into view. It certainly made for a stark contrast with the richly colored salt flats around our camp. It may have been an intimidating sight, but spirits were high and we didn't want to be shown up by the countless Vicuna that darted across the lower slopes. “How can there be snow at the summit, in the driest place on earth?” I asked Romano our guide? His answer put a small dent in my confidence as he explained that the volcano had endured consistently sub-zero temperatures since the last eruption in 2007.
The first 1,000m of ascent wasn't too tasking on our group of 5 and passed without incident. But as soon as the other notable peaks in the area started resembling distant molehills, way below us, things got real. At 5,100m, the increasingly thin air claimed its first victim. Maria, a fellow explorer from Brazil, suddenly hit the metaphorical wall that is altitude sickness. We stopped and took shelter from the cutting wind behind a gigantic boulder that would have tumbled down the mountainside following Lascar's last eruption in 2007. The momentary respite gave me the chance to assess my own physical condition. My head felt thick and foggy - as if I was coming down with the flu - due to the lack of oxygen. My legs felt like they had energy reserves that I was unable to tap into - putting one foot in front of the other had begun to feel like spinning the pedals fervently on a bicycle whose chain had come off.
We were faced with a difficult choice - collectively turn back towards base or split into two groups, leaving the others to make a slow descent whilst we made an express attempt at the summit before catching them up on the descent. We took our time in discussing our options, and in the end, our hesitation proved to be a blessing. After a half hour rest and some gentle encouragement from her partner, Maria peered up at the summit, inhaled a sizable handful of gummy bears and gave the word to carry on.
The tides had certainly turned and Maria had found her second wind. She inspired us all to grit our teeth and dig in for the final slog to the summit. Eventually, after an hour of pain and stoic grimacing from all parties, we staggered over the crest of the volcano. The vast crater’s molten core hissed and fizzed several thousand feet below us and the stench of sulphur wound my mind back to more docile times spent at a mud bath in Turkey many years ago. We braved the bone chilling temperatures on the exposed summit for a few minutes and the group even found the energy for some light celebration - the Brazilians proudly brandished a flag for some very Instagram-worthy photos. It was safe to say that all of our social media profiles would be changed for the better.
After wolfing down a couple of chocolate bars, we started our slide back to base. Tired legs nearly led to some tumbles down the impossibly steep scree slopes, but we clung on for several hours to reach our base. When my bloodshot eyes caught sight of our 4x4 below us, the magnitude of what he had achieved sunk into me, like a ship's anchor into the ocean floor after months at sea.
That night, once I had collapsed in my tent back in San Pedro, I reflected on the day's events. The peak was some way off a true himalayan giant, but for a group of keen amateur explorers such as ourselves, the achievement of summiting Lascar felt like the pinnacle of our physical journey through life. A couple of days later, once my legs had regained some life, I got my first taste of the altitude addiction I had heard talked about in mountaineering circles, but had never experienced first hand. I'm not sure what my next summit goal will be, but I'm damned sure it will involve a 6,000m peak!
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