We found out about this big volcano from Corax’s mate Martin Adserballe’s adventure page (http://www.adserballe.com/) and as we weren’t too far away thought it would make a fun detour.
After cycling through the lakes region in southwest Bolivia we took the good new road from Villa Alota to Estacion Avaroa, and from there hopped over the border to Ollague in Chile. There we camped for a few nights, and left for the mountain on a morning where the temperature was -17C.
Until 1993 Aucanquilcha was home to the highest mine in the world – a huge sulphur mine at about 6,000m in which worked 1,000 or so Bolivians in apparently terrible conditions. As a result there is an old mine road up the mountain to the mine.
Setting out from Ollague it’s a gentle 10km climb on an ok road to the near-abandoned mine settlement of Amincha (the old caretaker still lives there). 2.5kms past this, turn right at a junction and the real climb up the mountain begins, on a road that soon deteriorates.
Although we’d tried to leave everything we didn’t think we’d need back in Ollague, with 3 days food and 12 litres of water each our luggage still weighed about 30kgs and soon we were struggling on the bad surface and steep slopes. For that afternoon and the following morning we occasionally cycled but mostly pushed up 13kms to 5,130m. Here the road became so bad that we thought we wouldn’t even be able to cycle down it, so decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble of taking our bikes any further. We were happy enough with getting the bikes this far though – over 5,000m for the first time.
We transferred our kit onto our backs and walked the 2kms to the old miners’ camp where we put up our tent in some old walls at 5,290m – the highest we’ve ever camped.
As we were 1,600m above Ollague we thought we’d be in for a bitterly cold night, but when we set off at dawn the next morning it was only -7C, though there was a bit of wind around.
We followed the old switchback road to the cable car station at 5,875m, then spent a while confused as to the way to proceed. Aucanquilcha is a complex volcano with at least 4 significant tops, and to us the one to our right looked highest. We’d read on the internet that we had to head up left though, and managed to scramble up some steep scree to a rock wall at 6,000m. Here we again were able to turn left and follow a road for a while before climbing the final 100m up a not-too-steep scree ridge to the summit. Until we reached the summit 4 hours after setting off from camp we were worried that we weren’t climbing the highest part of the mountain, but when we did make it to the top my GPS said 6,188m and all the other ‘tops’ looked lower, so we decided we must’ve taken the correct route after all!
The descent was fast – retracing our steps to the cable car station, then racing down a 600m scree gulley to camp. As we didn’t fancy another night up so high we got back to the bikes and cycled down (with the odd bit of pushing on the really bad sections) to 4,150m before heading back to Ollague the next day in time to watch my Spanish boys win the mundial.
In Ollague we ran into Belgian Siegfried Verheijke, a friend of Martin Adserballe’s and the man who jointly holds the Guinness world ‘high altitude cycling’ record with him (they took their bikes up to 7,008m on Muztagh Ata and managed to cycle the grand total of 8m!). He had the ambitious plan of attempting to cycle from Ollague to the mountain, summit with his bike and return – all in one day. We ran into him in Uyuni a few days later, and unfortunately strong headwinds foiled his plan…it was an interesting idea though.
Some GPS points
|Junction – turn R
|Left our bikes
|Between cable car station and rock wall
|Path between rock wall and summit ridge
|On summit ridge