(2200m – 6109m)
Yes, we had heard that advice so many times. And yes, we thought we were taking it seriously. A good acclimatisation is incredibly important when climbing a 6000er and obviously that was a key aspect for our mountain guide, Eduardo, too. Yet the summit day was the hardest thing Christian and I had ever done in our entire life, and that includes the various child illnesses I had to go through the recent years.
But let’s go back to the start and begin with an overview of our expedition:
Day 1, 600m to 2400m: Eduardo picks us up in our hotel in Santiago and we drive up to Baños Morales (1850m). To get us warmed up we do a steep hike up to 2400m. Even though it’s physically easy, our guide makes us walk very slowly so we would get used to the slow mountaineering speed. In the evening we drive to our hostel, the Refugio Aleman. If it wasn’t for the dry mountains surrounding us, we’d feel like in the Alps. The 1930 refugio of the German Andes Club looks as German as it gets and we feel frighteningly comfortable here.
Day 2, 1850m to 3000m: A hike up to a beautiful green valley behind the hostel. We feel fit, no lack of oxygen, no pain.
Day 3, 1850m to 3600m: We start early in the morning, drive up to 2200m, load our luggage onto mules and start the trek to the basecamp. It’s a long 7h walk, but with a gentle and steady climb. We cross the beautiful valley La Engorda and hike up along a riverbed surrounded by enormous moraines.
Once at the basecamp, we set up our tents, Eduardo prepares a nice dinner and we call it an early night.
Day 4, 3600m to 4750m: We put half of the gear (needed for the high camp) into our back packs and start a steep hike up to the next possible camp a 4300m. We meet quite a few other hikers here. Some have been at the summit already, some are about to get ready for the ascent. A few were even taken up to 4300m by helicopter. We continue further up and drop our gear at 4750m. The air feels thin here and I have a minor headache. After a break we climb back down to the basecamp.
Day 5, 3600m to 4900m: Based on the weather forecast and Eduardo’s experience, we make the decision, to set up the high camp and schedule the summit for the next day. So we pack the rest of our gear and walk back up to 4750m. Here we pick up the gear from the previous day. The next 150m are fairly steep and we’re out of breath and tired. At 4900m I get altitude sickness and Eduardo thinks it would be a good idea if I emptied my stomach. Only that I don’t feel much better afterwards. Later we get ready for a bad night with headaches and not much sleep.
Day 6, 4900m to 6109m, summit day: Alarm at 6am. We put on all the warm layers we have, take food and water for the day and attach the crampons to our boots. The first 2h are a cold hike over a glacier. We walk like in trance behind our guide over the frozen snow. A few times we have to jump over small crevasses. At the end of the glacier we feel exhausted already, yet another 1000m vertically lie in front of us: a zig-zag up the steep slope of Marmolejo’s peak, covered with loose rocks. Every few meters I think about giving up and the higher we get, the more stops we have to take. To keep in motion, I try to stick right behind Eduardo and use his exact footsteps. But at some point that doesn’t work anymore either. Every few meters I fall down on my knees, holding my chest with my walking sticks. I’m ready to give up and I wait for Christian who is a few meters behind me.
We discuss, we cheer us up. At least up to 6000m, that should be doable. But it gets worse and worse and there doesn’t seem to be any more energy left in any of my muscles. Somehow we still reach the 6000er mark and Eduardo assures us that this is not the point to give up, so close before the finish line. We can even see the summit now. 10 steps, break, another 10, well 9, break. Just before the summit it becomes a little less steep. Eduardo is waving from the highest point and I force my body in his direction. He’s got his arms wide open and wants to congratulate me. “You did it, aren’t you happy?”, he asks. I don’t know if I’m happy. I don’t know why I’m up here and actually I don’t really know what to think. I have a big lump rising in my throat, my eyes are a little wet and I feel like crying. Christian arrives, we enjoy proper man hug and sit down. Eduardo takes photos of us, but our faces are not really worth taking photos of and so he concentrates on the scenery. Ah yes, the scenery. I start realising that there’s something else to stare at other than my feet. I look around and I realise – I’m there – 6109m, I somehow made it up here. Yet I don’t grasp the beauty of the enormous peaks surrounding us. It all seems too surreal.
A few minutes and a frozen Snickers later, Eduardo urges us to get ready for the descent. We took a little too long for the ascent and the clock is ticking. So we start climbing down but soon leave Christian far behind. He’s taking step by step, yet seems unstable on his feet, tottering from left to right as if he was drunk. Once back at the glacier we fall asleep until Eduardo wakes us up after 20 minutes or so. The way back to the high camp is a difficult one. We use a rope to tie us to each other – for the crevasses and also to support Christian as much as we can. It takes hours to cross the glacier, but I feel fully recovered already.
Day 7, 4900m to 1850m: In the morning Christian feels a bit more stable on his feet. So we dismantle the high camp and start a slow and careful descent towards the basecamp. We thought we were the only ones on the mountain that day, but a few hundred meters before the basecamp we meet a lot of people, some Germans, Slovakians and also Chileans, including two women. They congratulate us on the successful ascent and we have a chat about the possible camps further up the mountain and the difficulties of the climb.
The beauty of the Marmolejo and its surrounding peaks is extraordinary, yet at first it’s difficult to see. Beyond the basecamp at 3600m there are no more plants, so the lush green gives way to sheer rocks, plenty of gravel and the bright white of the glaciers. Once you accept that, you start admiring the endless colours of the stones. They range from white to black and from yellow to red. The ice in between shines bright in the strong sunlight and freshens up the dry scenery. We’ve been incredibly lucky with the weather and had mostly blue skies with the eventual cloud casting pretty shadows. Even on the summit we had the best possible conditions with nearly no wind at all.
What’s adding up to the beauty and what was frightening me once we arrived at the high camp, is the sheer size of the mountains. This is something you will not find in the Alps and it’s utterly impressive and scenic. It’s a pity I wasn’t up for it when I arrived at the summit, but I enjoyed it even more the next day.
A few days after our expedition, a Chilean friend of us e-mailed us a link to a newspaper article reporting a fatality on the Marmolejo. Along with the article, there was a photo showing a woman on the summit. Looking closer at it, we realised it was one of the two women we met on the way back to the basecamp. A moment of shock! There was probably an underlying health issue, but nonetheless, it shows how easily dramas can unfold in such altitudes.
Finally some flowers and a earthquake-polished stone: