Standing at 5,592 meters (18,346 ft) is northern Chile’s own Lascar Volcano; one of the most active volcanoes in South America. Lascar Volcano continues to erupt frequently with a series of eruptions occurring from 2006-2011 not including the most recent one in 2015 so obviously I had no choice but to climb it. There are few things more fun to me than tempting fate, and how better to do it than to stare into a smoky pit of fire on top of a volcano (OK that may be a dramatic representation…but you get it).
I was living in San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile for a few weeks prior. San Pedro sits at an elevation of 2,407m so I considered myself acclimatized enough that the 5,592m summit of Lascar was not too overwhelming. The day before my intended climb I organized a tour from one of the many companies located on Caracoles street. They all charge relatively the same price and many work with the same guides, so I picked the one with a tour leaving the next day.
It was 5:00 am when my mountain guide came to pick me up. This was my first climb of an extremely high altitude mountain. I had no idea what to expect. My only plan was to survive on my fitness level alone.
I wore thermal base layers, a pair of tights, hiking socks and shoes, a fleece jacket, a gortex jacket, 3 buffs and 2 pairs of gloves…I wish I had brought more. Having raynaud’s did not make this bout with the cold any easier. I threw a few cookies in my bag, filled my water-bottle up with coffee (I know, I know) and hopped into a van full of other waiting climbers.
After 3 hours of driving through the desert and the occasional small village we were eventually surrounded by vast nothingness with just the occasional lagoon and the super high mountains of the altiplano. I am not sure if there was ever actual roads or if we were just cruising in a 4X4 through the desert. Eventually we stopped over-looking a beautiful lagoon. Our guide told us we were at about 4000m and we were stopping for an acclimatization breakfast with a view. We scrambled out of the car to receive a Chilean breakfast of meats, cheeses, bread and a warm cup of cocoa tea. It was way colder than I expected! What…I thought this was San Pedro! Needless to say I spent the majority of the breakfast shivering in the vehicle. After breakfast it was time to go. Back into the car as we drove up maybe another 300-400m where we parked at the base of our currently smoking task, Volcan Lascar.
I’ll be real with you. Personally, I think Lascar Volcano is a fabulous choice for a beginner’s first attempt at a high altitude summit. That is if you are willing and able to spend some time to acclimatize to high altitudes as I did in San Pedro de Atacama (i.e. don’t try to go from sea level to 5000m in one go…it will hurt). Realistically however, the terrain is not that steep and while it is mostly scree, these paths have been climbed so often they are practically manicured. The climb includes a slow and steady pace up a well-worn switch back path. Technical climbing it is not.
Step by step, our 2 guides, 2 other tourists and I made our way up the switch-back slope. I was feeling great, as long as I was moving and my body stayed warm (Raynaud’s). My acclimatization was effective, I was breathing well and moving well…the other two climbers…not so much. They did not spend enough time in San Pedro and so were moving a little slower. I moved ahead of them and whenever I got just a little too far, I would sit down, grab my pre-packed coffee and take a little break. Talk about a café on top of the world…does it get any better? I wish it were more exciting but this is how it went until I reached the crater.
It smelt of sulphur, the smoke continuously coming from beneath. I sat on the edge of the crater to admire this potentially fire breathing monster while I awaited my fellow climbers. It was pretty cool. The actual summit of Lascar is not the crater, it is just above. My two other climbing counterparts opted to skip out on the summit as the crater was their goal but I could not resist. So one of the guides and I headed for the actual summit. When we finally arrived it was SO cold and crazy windy. My guide and I took in the view together, snapped a few pictures and headed back down.
The way down is quick and easy, it comprises of a little walking, a little running and a little scree skiing. It is like sledding in the snow…instead you are on small chips of volcano…and your feet.
I was happy to reach the base of the mountain. I was a little cold, and a little tired as the climb took about 5 hours. So we all piled into the car when they unthinkable happened…the keys turned and we heard….silence. THE CAR BATTERY WAS DEAD. So what I am saying is…we were tired from climbing a volcano, we had no food, we were in the literal middle of the desert and there was no such thing as cell service. We tried again and again to start our car but nothing. There was only one way to get cell service…back up to the top of the volcano.
One of our guides stayed with us in the car, the other put his shoes back on and started up the volcano…this thing took us 3 hours to climb so I assumed it would take our guide at least 1.5-2 hours and then an hour down. It was time to sit tight. We sat in the car as it got colder and colder, we chatted, played games, and basically wondered who would have to eat who if it came down to it. This is the desert where you are exposed to steady wind without cover, it has harsh conditions, what if we started to see mirages? Some of my funniest memories of that day was trying to find the ‘best place’ to use the ‘toilette’ without feeling overly exposed.
It was about 2:00 pm when we finished our climb, the guide left for the volcano top around 2:30, by the time we saw him sliding down the volcano it was almost 5:00. He was freezing cold as the desert gets extra cold at night. He came into the car and said it would be 3 hours before others could reach us…but they were on their way. Around 8:00 pm, a new ride made its way towards us. YES! I was so ready for a heated car…and food…I had not eaten since breakfast. After they jump started our car we were on our way…just 3 hours more until bedtime.
By 11:00 pm that night we finally rolled into town after stopping in Toconao for a quick empanada Chileno. I was relieved to have the opportunity to warm up…enough to at least prepare myself for a celebratory night on the town. I guess I got a little rest from those extra 9 hours sitting in the car. For a first high summit attempt, I definitely got the adventure I was looking for…and maybe a bit more.