An attempt to climb Santiago's most famous big mountain
El Plomo is the biggest mountain you can see from Santiago, 5,400m tall. I set out to climb it with Neil, who'd tried once before and not made it due to bad weather.
We drove to Valle Nevado and across the back country to Tres Puntas. We'd set off quite late from Santiago but our first day was very short - an easy two hour walk to Piedra Numerada, a broad green plain 3,400m above sea level in the valley of the Río Cepo. It was 8pm when we arrived.
On our second day on the mountain, we walked up the valley of the Río Cepo to Federación, 4,000m above sea level. It took about three and a half hours. In the night I'd felt the altitude a bit, waking up a few times when I suddenly had to take a really deep breath, but today I felt very acclimatised and found the going easy. We got to Federación in the early afternoon, at the same time as some heavy clouds. We were under the west face of El Plomo but we couldn't see it at all.
The next day dawned stunningly clear. We had amazing views of the surrounding mountains and the glaciers on the face of El Plomo. Our target for today was Agostini hut, 4,600m above sea level. The first part of the day was straightforward, a climb over a ridge to El Hoyo, where a glacier filled a small lake and we could fill up with water.
Weather forecasts for the weekend hadn't been great, but until now we'd seen no sign of particularly bad weather. It was getting cloudy as we stopped at La Hoya, and as we continued up towards Agostini, things got worse. It began to snow, and visibility began to drop. Then, in the distance, we heard thunder. At first I was not sure if it was an avalanche on the glacier or a storm brewing, but very quickly it became obvious that it was a storm.
The snow got heavier. I wanted to head back down, but Neil was sure that we were more than half way to the hut and persuaded me to carry on. We tried to go as quickly as possible but at well over 4,000m, that's not very quick. And then suddenly we were in the middle of the storm, with lightning striking terrifyingly close by and thunder shaking the ground. I dived behind a rock. Static electricity was everywhere, everything was crackling, and I could hear my ice axe sparking.
I didn't want to move. We were in huge danger and I was thinking that literally any moment could be my last. So we lay on the ground in the snow for a while until there seemed to be a lull in the storm. Then we got up and ran uphill. This was savagely tiring but fear of imminent death spurred us on. Then lightning struck close by again, the sky roared and we hit the ground once more.
In the gloom, another climber appeared, heading downhill quickly. He told us we were 20 minutes from the hut and then disappeared. So we decided to keep on going up, and actually we were more like 5 minutes away. I felt massively relieved once we caught sight of it. The storm continued and we kept on taking what cover we could when lightning struck nearby. We ran the last few metres to the hut and dived inside.
The hut was empty when we got there. Another climber arrived not long after us, shaken by his experience in the storm. It was snowing so heavily that he'd lost the path and thought he wasn't going to find the hut. Then later on, three people coming down the mountain appeared, and told us that there were more people higher up, badly equipped, one of whom was having major altitude problems.
The snow had stopped but the air was still electrified. We stayed in the hut and I worried about the people higher up - it sounded like there was a serious possibility that there would be fatalities. We were relieved when they arrived at the hut a couple of hours later. They rested in the hut for a few minutes, the one with altitude sickness falling asleep straight away. We shared food and drink with them, and they headed down. They were much better equipped than the first group had said, and with the storm now passing, it looked like they would be OK.
The storm passed before night fall. We talked to the other climber, Sixto, who was incredibly well prepared and was carrying enough kit for at least three other people. He even had a hot water bottle with him. He'd climbed El Plomo a few times before. He wore incredibly thick glasses and told us that he was actually virtually blind, with a prescription in the -20s. His retinas were damaged, and any head injury would probably make him lose the last of his vision.
It was cold in the hut. I was warm enough and acclimatised enough to sleep well, but my water bottle was frozen solid when I woke up. We got up at 4am to see if it was worth climbing, but the summit was covered in thick cloud and it didn't look good. We decided to abandon the summit and head down. A lot of snow had fallen and the path was totally covered. If we hadn't had a GPS record of the way we'd come up to follow, we'd have had a hard time finding the right way down.
We stopped at Federación for some lunch then carried on down the valley of the Cepo to Piedra Numerada. Up until now I hadn't felt too tired, but the last leg from Piedra Numerada back to the car at Tres Puntas was horrific. I'd forgotten how much the path had dropped on our way into the valley, and now we had to climb back out. I was exhausted and walked painfully slowly. Getting back to the car was the hardest part of the whole trip.