Cycling to high mountains on the Puna is the best preparation we know of for making an ascent. It renders the trip as a whole far tougher and longer (though more rewarding), but by the time you reach the base of a peak legs and lungs are strong, and most of the hard work is already done.
The 90km dirt road ride to Pissis was typically challenging, but also a joy. Colourful lakes dotted the landscape, and old friends like Nacimiento and Walter Penck hovered on the horizon to the north. On arrival at the foot of the Andes’ third highest peak we were feeling good, so decided to try a traverse of five of the mountain’s many peaks (the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 7th and 8th highest – which are the most prominent summits when approaching from the north, as almost all climbers do). This idea had first been suggested to us by Corax in 2011, but the idea had never manifested into an attempt. When it was again raised by avid Atacamist Bruno Baschung in an email before we left Fiambala we felt our current fitness and acclimatization levels meant it would be silly not to go for it. As far as we know the traverse has only been achieved twice before, so we were excited at the thought of such an undertaking.
Setting off from a 5750m high camp at 06:30 we were on Gendarmeria Argentina, the first and lowest of the summits, by 10:15. An icy tailwind then propelled us east through the soft snow, up and over the Main, Samore and UPAME tops to the 6800m Pissis East summit, which we reached at 16:30. Here the radiant sunshine gave way to snow clouds and we descended through light flurries for two and a half hours. Not until this interminable descent did we truly appreciate the size of this huge volcano.
We descended all the way to 5450m to avoid crossing the large glacier, whose few crevasses have tragically claimed lives in the past decade, then quickly climbed the 300m back up to our tent for a celebratory hot chocolate and a few handfuls of trail mix. It had been a good day’s work.
The following morning we retraced our steps to the bikes and began what we knew would be the hardest part of this 15 day excursion: the long push to Bonete…
After 5 days of resting and gorging in Fiambala we decide to set off again. Ideally we’d have liked a few more days of recuperation, but after some enormous storms while we’re in town the forecast for the mountains suddenly turns good. Hay que aprovechar! Having cycled the Fiambala – Coipa road a few times before, Jonson gives us a lift up the paving to the Pissis turnoff. Here begins a pleasant, and quite steep, 1000m+ climb.
The route is a beaut, with plenty of lakes to pedal past. This is Laguna Aparejos.
Signpost, Puna style. It’s the only one all route, but the distance is accurate enough.
In a couple of hours we’re on the shores of another picturesque lake, Laguna Celeste. (As an aside: The power of the Lonely Planet always interests us. A whole chapter in the Bolivia book about the Sud Lipez lagunas, and the area is chocablock with jeeps and dust. Just a throwaway sentence at the end of the absurdly short Catamarca section of the Argentine tome means days of solitude. This province gets about 4 pages in the Argentina book – we’ve spent over 4 months biking and hiking in this, our favourite of Argentina’s 23 provinces. The scenery in Catamarca is just as spectacular as in the Lipez, more so, we think.)
From Laguna Celeste is a short climb to the ‘Balcon del Pissis’, a wonderful viewpoint over the Pissis massif. For this area it’s a comparatively popular tour to do by jeep – usually receiving a couple of tourist vehicles a week on day tours from Fiambala.
We reach the the Balcon late, but have enough time to cruise down the zigzags to Laguna Negra before camping.
And in the morning we’re blessed with this view of the Andes’ third highest peak. The 5 summits we plan on linking as a day walk are clearly visible from here (all the snowy tops in the shot except for the much lower, flatter peak on the left).
The hour we cycle round Laguna Negra is unforgettable.
And the surface is excellent too.
Many of the lakes in this area contain high concentrations of arsenic. The flamingoes don’t seem to care.
The 90km of tracks from the paving to the base of Pissis are in pretty good condition for the Puna. It’s not in the same league of difficulty as other routes we’ve taken previously (those near the Salar de Archibarca and Volcan Peinado spring to mind), but there’s still a bit of pushing to be done. About 5km in total, though much of this is due to the fact we set off with 18 days food and have all our kit on the back of our bikes. This means we’re doing huge wheelies (of the ‘front wheel ends up vertically above your back wheel’ type) when the gradient cranks up. Still, this poor weight distribution is worth it as it means we can leave our front panniers in Fiambala – we really don’t want them for what’s to come.
By early afternoon on the third day we’re nearing the peak. The five summits ringing the large glacier begin to dominate the horizon.
Water isn’t such a problem on this route, and we carry a maximum of five litres each. This is Pike refuelling with some slightly salty, slightly wormy water from the river in Quebrada Ancha.
We dump our bikes at 4400m, then walk a couple of hours past the usual basecamp which has a few friendly, but shattered-looking, Argies in it, to a camp at 4700m. In the morning it’s a pleasant walk up to a 5750m high camp.
We have the camp to ourselves and while away the afternoon drinking hot chocolate and listening to Conrad Anker being interviewed on Desert Island Discs. Love that Kirsty Young. Nacimiento and Incahuasi are the peaks to the north, on the left of the shot.
In the morning we wake at 04:15, planning on leaving at 05:30. But toilet trips at 05:25 lead to the conclusion that it’s too cold and windy to start yet, so we go back to sleep for another hour. At 06:30 we finally get going.
After half an hour the sun rises and warms our backs as we climb up the steep scree and rock to the right of the glacier. At 6400m we move onto snow and head for the col between the first summit (Gendarmeria Argentina – 6690m, on the R) and the main summit (6800m). Before the col we make a bit of a boob and leave our bags at 6580m to climb up to the Gendarmeria Argentina top and back. Turns out that though this looks like a real summit from this vantage point, it’s actually got a prominence of about 5m, and it would be much easier to just go over the top, descend 5m to the col, then continue on to the main summit. We have to go back for our bags, which means an unneccessary 100m descent. Oh well…
At 10:15 we’re on the Gendarmeria Argentina summit. Pike (back to the icy wind) surveys the route ahead – R-L: Main summit, UPAME and Pissis East/Ejercito Argentino.
We descend to our bags, then climb through the snow to the main summit. It’s often up to our calves, and in places is up to our knees, so we don’t arrive until 11:50.
To Haz’s delight there’s a cross to wield at the top. This is looking north, towards Tres Cruces, Ojos, Walter Penck, Nacimiento and Incahuasi.
To the east lie our three remaining summits. Both UPAME and Pissis East look higher to us than where we’re standing…
There’s a nice fast, snowy descent from the main summit, before an undulating traverse to the Samore top.
…which we reach just after 13:00.
Then comes the bit we know will make or break this traverse. A 220m descent to a 6480m col, followed by a 320m climb to the UPAME summit.
The snow’s tiring, but our cycling training means our legs are still working fine and we can climb at 200m/hr up to this fourth summit.
We have an unwritten agreement when we’re on the Puna. Pike will break trail through the snow when we’re high on the peaks, as long as Haz lets him hide behind her when we’re cycling into the headwinds (light people go backwards when the Puna headwinds are howling). This day though Haz takes the lead every now and then to allow those chicken legs a rest…
At 15:20 we make it to the fourth top, and know that now there’s nothing to stop us completing the traverse. As it has been all day the wind is cold and we don’t want to take gloves off for very long – just long enough in fact to take a few hurried, rubbish photos. This is looking south to our next targets – Bonete (L) and Veladero (centre).
Not far to go now – just over a kilometre in a straight line to Pissis East…
… which we reach at 16:30. The perfect sunshine here gives way to snow clouds, so we don’t hang around long. Pike scribbles our names on a bit of paper and puts them in a little tin which is stashed under the summit cairn.
Summit number five. The three highest tops are virtually all the same height, with our GPS giving them as Main (6802m), UPAME (6804m), and East (6801m). We believe that surveys carried out in 2007 do confirm that the Main peak is indeed actually the highest, though it’s a close run thing.
Then comes the long descent. Beforehand in Fiambala Jonson warned us not to cross the glacier, and with fresh snow around this seems like good advice. So we descend 1350m, down to the bottom of the glacier and snow at 5450m. Here we leave our crampons and ice axes, to be picked up in the morning, and begin the 300m climb back to our tents.
We’re feeling tired by this stage (though nothing like as shattered as on many cycling days this Puna trip) but our legs are still strong, so it’s less than an hour back up to our tent. Near our yellow little home we meet two tent loads of acquaintances and by the time our chats are over it’s 20:25. Soon the stove is roaring and the brews are on. Hot tea and warm handshakes all round. We’re happy that there’s no need for us to both squeeze into that sleeping bag Pike was carrying in case we had to bivvy!
The route: up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down, up.
In the morning we have a lie in after the previous day’s 13h30 excursion with its 2000m of climbing. Then we amble back down to the bikes.
En route are these huge penitentes – some over 2.5m high!
We take regular glances back to survey the peaks in the traverse.
At base camp is this memorial to one of the mountaineers who tragically disappeared in the crevasses on Pissis’ glacier.
Near the bikes we receive the best present you can get on the Puna: some tasty water. Jonson left it the day before, as he happened to be passing. Though we already have water with us, much of it is of the salty-wormy type, so we’re quite grateful.
Five minutes later and there’s more good news: our food hasn’t been eaten by a fox. Not even the most cunning of creatures could get through our rock defences. We sort loads, piling all weight we can into rucksacks, remove pedals, then set off on the long push to Bonete…