What it is like to climb 5,604m volcano in the world’s highest and the driest desert?
Gale. Endurance. Triumph.
That’s how I would describe the climb to Cerro Toco. It was the hardest hike. It made me shiver, scream, cry, and feel the emotions that I didn’t know I had. Why did I do it? Well, that’s a long story.
Atacama Desert has been on my list for quite a long time because of their long standing relationship with astronomy. Other than that, I didn’t know much about it. When I was at the excursion briefing at explora Atacama, I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of this region. As I was planning my five days there, I found out that Cerro Toco hike to 5,604m summit is like the pinnacle of Atacama. It’s one of the highlights among 41 excursions they provide. It’s marked as ‘advanced’. With the intimidating height, I wasn’t sure if I could really do it. Due to the elevation, I had to get acclimatized to even try.
Three days of acclimation after, the day finally came. The hike to Cerro Toco was going to be short and sweet. The trail head starts at 5,200m elevation; 400m elevation gain and 3km walk to the summit. It would be the highest point I’ve ever been. For relatively fit people, it takes about 4 hours; two and a half hours uphill, photo break at the summit, and 40 minute downhill. You know the moment of self-doubt, ‘What if I’m not one of those ‘fit’ people?’ is very real in the adventure travel world. Even though I’m a fairly strong hiker, it’s always intimidating to be around by super fit people. Occupational hazard, I would say. Can I do it? Well, I would never know until I try. So, I left for Cerro Toco, 8:30am on October 14, 2015.
With a full bottle of water and wearing (literally) all the clothes we have, three of us, Todd, Nacho, and I head to the volcano. It’s less than 30-minute drive away from the lodge. To fight the altitude, we made ourselves busy drinking water and breathing deep. The car stopped at the trail head. We opened the door and immediately closed. The temperature must have been quite far below freezing with the strong wind. On the top of 5 layers of shirts, I padded with a down jacket, a windbreaker, two winter hats, and snow gloves.
Considering the start was at 5,200m, we did good. But the altitude made the footsteps heavier and lungs smaller. The wind at Salar de Aquas Caliantes the day before was quite strong, but it was nothing compared to this day. The hard part came after about 2/3 way up. While walking on the last bit of switchbacks, the wind started to blow from the front, which made it hard to balance and harder to ascend. I fell to the ground, in order not to get knocked out by the wind. The repeated motion and wind tired me fast. It was the strongest wind I’ve ever felt on my body. ‘Should we go back? I don’t think we’re supposed to hike with this wind…’ I thought to myself. Not because I was tired of trying, but I was genuinely worried about our safety. That’s how strong the wind was. ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this to me.’ ‘I can do it! We can’t stop now.’ ‘But what for?’ My mind was playing tricks. But one thing for sure, I knew I couldn’t stop here.
“Go get it! It’s all yours!” Nacho screamed through the sound of wind. We were one step away from the summit. I crawled my way up to the top and burst into tears. It was the longest and most intense two hours of my life. But we did it; we were standing on the top of the world!
There was a stick that symbolized the summit. That scrawny stick meant everything to us. We were higher than most of the mountains near us. Even ALMA, which is the group of radio telescopes installed at 5,000m plateau was far below. We were right near the border between Bolivia and Chile. A small white shed worked as a border control, Nacho said. Does this count as going to Bolivia?
We embraced our triumph with coca tea. The importance of trying more difficult adventure is because it let us fight with ourselves. We push the boundary and test how much we can take. Sometimes we neglect to give credit to our abilities. Through this kind of opportunity, we build more trust with our potential. I pad myself in the back, and came back down while trying really hard not to get blown away by the wind.
In the mean time at explora… Apparently people were worried about our safety because of the wind. They were in disbelief that we went to Cerro Toco on a day like this. When we radio them on the way down, everyone cheered for our safety. La aventura, right?