Wednesday, April 2, 2008

We woke up early at about 6:30 for our hike to Cerro Toco. We ate breakfast at 7:15, just as it was opening. We were scheduled to leave at 7:45, but that got pushed to 8:00 because the store opened then and our guide JP wanted us to have more warm weather gear than we had. The irony in this was that we had recently bought a bunch of cold weather gear for our planned December 2008 trip to Antarctica, but did not bring any of it because we had not planned on doing any of the really high weather treks in Atacama, Torres Del Paine was supposed to be in the upper 60s as well, and everywhere else is tropical or subtropical.

We left at 8:05, with Mathias (but not Peggy). We headed east on the road leading to the Argentina border (paved this time), the same road that leads to Salta. After about 45 minutes, and going up a ton in elevation, we turned off onto a dirt road leading to the base of Cerro Toco just before the entrance to Bolivia.

JP told us that no matter what, we wouldn't be acclimated, so the best thing to do was walk "fast" (relatively speaking), and get up and down before our bodies realized what we were doing. He said the Chilean soccer team does the same thing before playing Bolivia in La Paz (at an elevation of 4000m). He told us that the walk up would be about 500m change in elevation, but that the walk itself would be 3.2 km (2 miles). He said a good time would be 1:20, and that the fastest he had done it was 1 hour flat. He also told us that we would get one break at the halfway point, but that he'd prefer no more than that.


We parked right near a radio telescope from the University of North Carolina, which seemed like good karma. We started walking straight up the hill, and it seemed like we were going very slowly, to the point we almost kept walking into the back of JP. It was tough, but after about 5 minutes we got a rhythm. At 30 minutes in, JP stopped and told us we were at the halfway point, which amazed us since we thought we were straggling along. The view back to the west was amazing, but the mountain itself was blocking the view to the East and to the north, to the point we could not see Licancabur any longer. We could see a little bit of snow and ice on the south facing hillside. About 3/4 of the way up we started to see well to the east, with great views of Bolivia, and Argentina well off in the distance (100km away).

Near the top we reached a ridge where we could see north, and it was phenomenal. From this point we had only 3 minutes left to the top, and JP let us go at our own pace. The top was unbelievable, but also unbelievably cold. We could see unimpeded for 360 degrees, 18,364 feet up in the air:


At the top, there was no windbreak, and our hands got cold in a hurry, especially since we had taken our gloves off to take photos and video. JP radioed in to the hotel to tell them we made it, and we got congrats from many of the staff members. We were at the top 5-10 minutes, and got some good photos and video, but it was tough to enjoy too much because of the conditions.

We walked down a slightly different route (you can actually see our van if you look closely, a little down and to the left from center), which unfortunately made things a little slippery, but fortunately we never fell. Near the bottom JP called the driver to tell him to open the doors and get the engine running. Apparently the idea is to get the heck out of dodge ASAP to prevent altitude sickness from setting in - so when we got there we loaded the van like we were fleeing a robbery. After driving down about 1500 meters we stopped to actually celebrate and eat and drink. There were some vicunas there as well.


The drive back was much faster, and all told the whole trip was just a bit over 4 hours, which is how long just the drive back and forth to Copa Coya was. On the drive back we saw some festive llamas along the side of the road. The time walking was a little less than 2 hours, with about 1:05 on the walk up. We got back to the hotel a little after noon, dropped about 3 layers, and went to the bar to unlax, knowing that our afternoon excursion would be much easier. Lunch was very good - lamb chops, which made us reminisce of the Karoo Lamb at D'Vine in South Africa. After lunch we played some travel scrabble (we unfortunately forgot to bring this with us when we went to Africa). When we came back to change, we saw the weather had again turned, with high winds and lots of clouds. Apparently while we were getting snow yesterday, down in Atacama there were high winds, dust storms, and lightning strikes.

Right as we walked out the front door to the van, it started to rain on us, which was more than a little odd, considering this is the driest desert on earth. So we went a little south of where we were on the Kari hike on Monday. It had stopped raining on the drive out, fortunately. The landscape was similar, but with much more visible salt and more valleys (wider than what we saw in Kari). We kept going up and over small hills, and every time there was a fabulous view awaiting us - to wit:

The best was the "white valley" for lack of a better term:

When we saw the white valley, another group came up just as we were leaving. One of the ladies was wearing a dress, with a matching hat, plus high heels.Justin was the only male in our group, and the only one not to notice this. We kept going around, stopping for a ton of photos, since we didn't much opportunity to stop this morning. There were clouds out, which helped some of the photos because the sky did not white everything out. Some of the highlights include:

The sunset would have been nice, but we were not in a good vantage point. We did get a nice rainbow, however. We drove home, and by the time we got back to the hotel the sun was already behind the mountains. We got cleaned up, then headed over to the bar for more travel scrabble. People kept coming by to try to schedule the next day, but we disappointingly told them we were leaving in the morning.

We looked at some photos, then ate, then went to sleep.