My first contact to Volcan Licancabur happened more than ten years ago, watching a documentary about a french team of scientists exploring the Bolivian Altiplano, climbing the mountain, diving into the highest altitude lake inside the crater and launching with paragliders from the top of it. I was truly amazed at the time but to be honest, I wouldn't dare to think about climbing it myself. The landscapes looked like something out of this world and the image of the emerald green waters of Laguna Verde would haunt me for some time. What a beautiful planet we are inhabiting!
Fast forward to December of 2010, I found myself looking for things to do while roaming throughout the andean region in South America, provided I would still be able to walk after climbing the big one and trekking some more in Patagonia. That's when everything clicked: I had to see Laguna Verde, climb Licancabur, explore the driest desert on Earth and see Salar de Uyuni.
A quick search on google maps turned these satellite images:
Holy Cow, if that's not inspiring, I don't know what is. Since I decided I will not book in advance any tours, hotel rooms or anything else for that matter, I just made a mental note about the whereabouts and left all the details to be arranged upon my arrival to San Pedro de Atacama, a small outpost and tourism hub in the heart of the Atacama Desert, Chile.
The desert is a marvelous place and an amazing experience and I am definitely planning on writing a blog about it soon. Here's a couple of photos from the desert (altitude around 2500 m) with the holy mountain of Licancabur ominously overlooking the valley.
Notice the snow cap on top of this massive volcano, that's rather unusual for an area where rain and snow is extremely rare. In fact, there were a few areas in Atacama that just received the first rain in 200 years! That could be a huge problem, all my winter gear being long gone after Aconcagua and the trekking boots without crampons didn't seem to fit the bill. Add to that the mined fields on the chilean side (remnants of an old conflict between Chile and Bolivia) and my chances of summiting looked rather slim. There's always the option of booking an expensive guided tour on the bolivian side of the mountain but after finding out the price asked by the agencies in San Pedro, that got chalked off too. Taking day trips around San Pedro to visit the local attractions was fun and I also got glimpses of the mountain from all sides, making me even more determined to climb it, no matter what.
Tierra Mistica, an average tour agency unexpectedly provided the answer I was looking for: book a three-day tour of the Bolivian Altiplano ending in Uyuni, interrupt it during the first day, climb the mountain and join another group after two days, without paying anything extra. Wonderful deal, except one little problem: I didn't have a visa for Bolivia and there's no way to obtain one in San Pedro. It's a long story, I repeatedly tried to contact their consulate in Chicago but got no answer, walked into a consulate in Argentina but it was impossible to figure out all the paperwork and the yellow fever vaccination required to be admitted on their territory and therefore chose to spend more time in Peru and come back for Bolivia some other time. Painful decision, especially with the mountain right in front of me, snow cap shining majestically in the austral summer sun. There has to be a way...
There sure is: take the chances, get into Bolivia illegally, complete the tour in Uyuni and try to get the visa there, some 500 km inland, risking refusal, with two unpleasant possible outcomes: being sent back to Chile and paying extra for the return trip (mild inconvenience) or being jailed for illegal border crossing (not so mild inconvenience, prisons in Bolivia being infamous for the lack of human rights and miserable treatment applied to inmates). When I saw Jamie, a very nice dude from California that I just met the day before, walking in the store, also shopping for a tour to Uyuni, I knew everything would be fine, to hell with visa, prison, and other issues threatening to ruin the so far incredible experience in the South.
I knew all I needed to do was to shoot a simple question: "Jamie, are you interested in climbing a nice volcano with me?". The answer was even shorter: "Hell yeah!". That's my man.
Mad scramble to stock on food and other supplies necessary for our high altitude adventure, white gas being hard to find in Chile, get some bolivian currency (boliviano banknotes are the prettiest in South America, hands down) and the next morning, very early in the morning, we are taken to the border, leaving Chile behind for good, in my case hoping to do so without any complication.
The Border Crossing is one of the most weird place that you can encounter while dealing with official authorities. Poor shaped buildings, a lot of junk spread around the high desert at over 4000 m high, the officers speaking no english, totally clueless but nice enough to let me enter the country with the verbal agreement that I will seek getting a visa once I arrive in Uyuni.
Whohoooo! A dream come true. We still need to get to the refugio kept by Senor Macario, the official guide on Licancabur, some 10 km away from the border. We're getting a lift there and get a room for ourselves, meet Mark, a german climber who has been in the area before and finally the guide himself, the legendary Macario who had 556 summits on his belt, still running strong at the age of 62.
We are killing time walking around the lagunas in the area and taking a bath in the hot springs we founds at the base of the mountains, eagerly measuring the height of the giant cone and planning the climb for the following day. Few hours of sleep and a 4 a.m. start in Macario's 4x4 vehicle to the trail head. It's cold, it's dark, we are passing by some inca ruins more than 500 years old and making good progress up the mountain. No trees, no water, no grass. Rocks everywhere you look. The sunrise brings a much needed warmth and the landscape beneath us is breathtaking. The quiet and dry altiplano is dotted with numerous snow-capped volcanos, the green and white lagunas looking surreal, a distant jeep leaving a dusty trail behind being the only sign revealing human presence on this hostile but beautiful landscape. We are thrilled!
After plodding steadily for four or five hours into this cold and thin air, strong UV rays on top of it, the mountain takes it's toll: we're all tired and slow and I feel especially weak with almost one hour still to go. Thinking of calling it a day. But after a longer break, plenty of water and more coca leaves I am ready for the final push. I am feeling better and I know I will make it when we hit the snow and soon enough, the steady slope begins to ease and we have the summit within sight. And what a beautiful summit it is! The highest altitude lake on Earth is nested on the bottom of this dormant but not extinct volcano, frozen and still. There's a very good chance I am the first romanian summiting Licancabur but it doesn't really matter at this time. I am happy to be back at high altitude, around 6000 m, taking photos and enjoying the view into three countries: Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. We were actually back in Chile, but that's just a nuisance.
It's cold and windy but we want to linger on a bit more, instinctively knowing that a magic place like this will be hard to match. It was truly one of the most spectacular view I could hope for and the feeling of accomplishment was tremendous. I have come a long way from watching the french expedition on TV to setting foot on top of this perfectly shaped mountain. What a joy!
Going down was no fun, Macario taking a shortcut straight down on the acareo, loose rock that reminded me of the ordeal I had to endure on Aconcagua. We made it though with no incidents, feeling better as we reached a lower altitude, filling our lungs with the much needed oxigene and experiencing a very pleasant form of euphoria.
I'd dare to say this was the best mountain climbed so far, my mountain!