Andes Mountain Traverse 2001

Day-by-Day Schedule

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  • Saturday, January 6 (10:40 am): Departed Raleigh-Durham Airport

  • Sunday, January 7 (9:50 am): Arrived Santiago Airport. We stayed for 2 nights at the Santiago Sheraton Hotel & Convention center. This seems to be about the only hotel in Santiago with a gym (other than maybe the Hyatt and the Intercontinental). We got a pretty decent tourist rate, too. Jorge, our cab driver from the airport, helped orient us and gave us an idea how little Spanish we had managed to learn before arriving. We booked Jorge to drive us to the airport on Tuesday morning.

  • Monday, January 8: Walking tour of Santiago. This gave us a nice view of the city, from the hotel to downtown. We returned with hefty sunburns, and ate at El Huerto, a nice vegetarian restaurant (one of very few in Santiago).

  • Tuesday, January 9: Depart Santiago, arrive Puerto Montt. This is where we actually met the NOLS group, at the Hotel Montt. Puerto Montt is a dilapidated seashore town of about 80,000. The cab ride from the airport included driving through washed-out sections of road and passing several horse-drawn vehicles. Definitely not Santiago, but Puerto Montt has its own charm. We met up with some of the group during the afternoon, and at 8:00 pm were met by Liz, one of our instructors. We spent an hour or two getting to know each other and hearing about the course, then left for our hotels, to rejoin at the airport in the morning.

  • Wednesday, January 10: Depart Puerto Montt, arrive at the NOLS Patagonia base camp in Coihaique. NOLS had arranged flights for everyone on Lan Chile/Ladeco, followed by a bus from the airport (in Balmaceda) to the NOLS campo. The campo is in a spectacular setting: a grassy slope in a large glacier-shaped valley, overlooking the southern Andes. That afternoon and evening, we got acquainted with the course plan and the instructors, and started getting our gear together for the expedition.

  • Thursday, January 11: Preparation in Coihaique. We spent the day getting everything ready and renting personal gear from NOLS. Everything from tents to crampons needed to be inspected and tested. Most students had elected to rent their boots, which are special-purpose mountaineering boots with a hard plastic shell and removable foam inserts. It took awhile to try these on and get used to walking around in them. Greg's boots were a size 13 Koflatch model that performed well. Ilana took a size 5-1/2 Scarpa boot that gave her trouble for the whole course with rubbing, eventually gouging holes under her ankles and rubbing sore spots on her shins. She ended up doing some surgery on the boot insoles in the saddle camp which helped considerably.

  • Friday, January 12: Depart Coihaique, arrive near Lago Leone, south of Tranquillo. This was a 6-hour bus ride (in a reasonably comfy bus sin toilet) along the main Chilean highway (which is only partially paved). We arrived in the afternoon at an access road, put our packs on, and started to walk in. NOLS had arranged for transport for our ferry load of gear. The ferry load was, essentially, food and other gear that was too heavy to carry all at once. Later, we would need to make multiple trips to get anywhere to bring all this stuff, but at the start we had Lalo and his pals to carry our stuff in on trucks (and later, horses). We covered 18K to Lalo's base camp, but not all on foot: after bringing in our ferry load, we all got rides in on the truck after hiking only a couple of hours. Lalo runs a small expedition service company that takes people across Lago Leone and helps with other trip aspects.

    Tent groups for the first ration (6 groups)

    1. Instructors (4-person tent)
    2. Greg, Nate, Drew & Josh (4-person tent)
    3. Ilana, Vivianna, Nick & Joe (4-person tent)
    4. Kate, Jenn & Rich (3-person tent)
    5. John, Mike & Dan (3-person tent)
    6. Joe, Nick, Gabe & Matt (4-person tent)

  • Saturday, January 13: Hike from Lalo's camp to Lago Leone. This was a nice hike, including traversing a 2-week old major landslide that had disrupted the river flow and left scores of acres a desolated pile of mud and rock. Lalo and crew left separately with our ferry load and his supplies on horse. The expedition was on foot with packs. Distance traveled was about 10K, although two travel groups (out of four) took a detour around the wrong side of the lake and added a couple of K. We camped on Lago Leone's Western shore. There was time to shuttle some groups across, but Lalo was concerned about the poor conditions on the lake (whitecaps and plenty of wind). Eventually one group of 4 people went across to the other side; the rest of us waited on the Western shore.

    Lago Leone is a glacial lake about 5K long and up to 1K wide. The canyon sides are fairly steep (as we discovered later, below). Several glaciers end in Leone, producing some small but abundant icebergs. Our goal was to get to a large drainage near the Eastern end. This was intended to be much safer starting point than going straight up the glaciers. By taking a boat across, we would save time and be closer to the glacier without extra work. Lago Leone is about 315 meters above sea level.

  • Sunday, January 14: Cross the lake. The conditions were not great for most of the day, but eventually in the afternoon everyone got across. This took several trips in a Zodiac that Lalo runs. Ilana and Greg crossed together with a bunch of gear. It was windy and wet on the lake, but we had our raingear on so didn't get too wet. At the other side, we helped to shuttle gear up to our camp, a couple of hundred meters up from the lake. There was a fast-moving stream draining into Lago Leone, and a fair amount of plant life along the stream bed. The camp spots were tight, but fairly comfortable.

    We found out that evening that Dana, one of the group members, had decided to bail out after having a hard time hiking the previous day. Liz and Dana hiked out to the road head, and we later heard they had a smooth time getting Dana to a bus in Tranquillo to return to NOLS. Then, Mike, another expedition member, also decided to bail. Shawn and he took the Zodiac back to Lalo's camp, and headed for Tranquillo.

    We re-organized tent groups so we could send back a 4-person tent. The 3-person tents were not much smaller, and were much newer.

    1. Instructors (3-person tent)
    2. Greg, Nate, Drew & Josh (4-person tent)
    3. Ilana, Vivianna, Jenn & Kate (3-person tent)
    4. Rich, John, & Dan (3-person tent)
    5. Joe, Nick, Gabe & Matt (4-person tent)

  • Monday, January 15: Bring the ferry load to the first cache spot. Most of the expedition went, but a few stayed back in case Liz & Shawn returned. We emptied our packs of all our personal and tent-group gear, and filled up with as much of the ferry load we could comfortably carry. The route from this point was always upwards. We followed the drainage for a little less than 2K, and left our gear in a pile.

    Before ferrying, we spent a nice morning on the rocks. This was a sunny and fairly warm day (65F or so). We had classes on the rocks by the stream, learning some knots and hearing more about our trip. From the cache spot, we split into scouting groups to try to assess the best way to get above the treeline and onto the icefield.

    Although Lalo and others had left a few trail markers, we were in an area with essentially no trails and no established route to get up above treeline. Our maps, from the Chilean geographical agency, had contours in 50M intervals, which isn't precise enough for route-planning except at a gross level. So, we spent a fair amount of time at each camp trying to scout ahead and determine the best path to move us forward. The goal was to cross the icefield, ending in a Lago San Rafael on the Eastern side. But there was no established route, nobody in NOLS was aware of anyone crossing along this route (though they had taken expeditions across along other routes), and the maps of the icefield had numerous very large areas marked "s.v.e." which is a Spanish acronym for "no data." That is, the map was just blank in these areas!

  • Tuesday, January 16: Move camp to a nice meadow area slightly beyond our cache. This was my favorite overall camping spot of the trip, with a nice stream, trees without much undergrowth, and plenty of greenery. Shawn and Liz had arrived back that morning, and we shared our stories of what we had been doing. Their arrival that day was fortuitous, as otherwise we might have needed to wait to move to the next camp.

  • Wednesday, January 17: Ferry beyond treeline. The entire group traveled straight up the side of the valley, based on the scouting groups' findings. We broke above treeline around noon, and took a break for a class about keeping warm and dry (the class met in the leeward side of a big rock. It was getting chilly: not at all like the meadow camp!). We got into snow, and eventually left our gear cache at the top of the valley, where we could see our likely route ahead.

  • Thursday, January 18: Move camp to the rock camp. This was slightly beyond (200M) our cache in a rocky outcrop. The typical scenary at this level (about 1500M) was snow with rocky protrubences. There were many melt ponds and puddles (it's summer in Patagonia, remember?). Not too windy, with temperatures around 40F.

  • Friday, January 19: Snow practice. This was a sunny day, and we kept cold during the morning by practicing in the snow. We practiced some moves (different ways of walking in the snow) and how to self-arrest while falling (a critical skill, we would discover). We learned to use ice axes and how to best move in our boots. (The boots, by the way, were not really good for hiking up until now -- too stiff. But in the snow, they did very well.) In the afternoon, we learned some more knots and set up our prussik system in our cordelettes (thin ropes used to help attach us to the travel rope during glacier/snow travel). We spent a few hours on a big flat rock, and people took their shoes and socks off and relaxed in the sun.

  • Saturday, January 20: Move cache to new location. This was our first actual day of glacier travel. We moved in 5 rope teams (each had an instructor except one. The instructors led across the glaciers). There were numerous crevasses, though fairly small ones (e.g., plenty big enough to fall and disappear in, but usually only a few feet across). At the cache location we split into groups to scout likely routes to get up to the icefield. (Technically, the instructors thought we were not quite up yet - we'd need to ascend some more).

  • Sunday, January 21: Ascent to red saddle camp. We roped up and moved beyond the cache up the chosen route we had scouted (around the backside of a rock formation we called the Puma). This was a rough travel day because the snow wasn't friendly: Greg kept post-holing (penetrating to my hips). Ilana was next, needed to deal with the mess Greg left in the snow. This gets frustrating after an hour or so. It was a steep ascent from the cache location up a snow ridge, then we were back on rock. We crossed the rocks for 1/2 hour or so, and arrived at an area with high iron content in the soil, in a saddle between two ridges. We descended slightly on the leeward side into a small snow bowl, and made camp on the snow (previously, we had only camped on rocks or dirt). Our camp here featured incredible wind gusts that broke a tent pole and made it difficult to sleep at night from the noise of the wind on the tent. We built tall walls of snow blocks to help keep the wind out.

    Tent groups (for the second ration)

    1. Instructors (3-person tent)
    2. Greg, John, Kate & Gabe (4-person tent)
    3. Ilana, Drew, Dan & Rich (3-person tent)
    4. Joe, Josh, Jenn & Matt (4-person tent)
    5. Vivianna, Nick & Nate (3-person tent)

  • Monday, January 22: Ferry cache to saddle camp. The wind mostly died down at around 11:00 am (the instructors, we later learned, were demonstrating how to "cower" from the weather by staying in their tents, even cooking in the vestibules. The students had a snowball fight, instead. But we'd learn to cower soon enough...) Two small scouting groups went to assess our route to get onto the icefield, and came back fairly quickly (an hour or two) with positive reports. In the afternoon, most of the group went to get the cache, a few people stayed back to tend to hurting feet and bolster the tents and snow walls.

  • Tuesday, January 23: Windy and rainy, interspersed with snow, slush and sleet. There was constant precipitation, with a temperature right around freezing. Plenty of wind. The instructors call the weather "the 5th instructor," who would (we later found out) play a large role in our plans for the icefield traverse. We didn't move today.

  • Wednesday, January 24: Ferry cache to the snow camp. Most of the group (except a few people watching the tents and tending to hurts) roped up to ascend some more. As we went, the weather got worse. We went up several hundred meters, often at a 45 degree angle. We stopped at a level area, from which (we believed, based on the maps) we would need to descend a bit to properly get to the icefield. But this was basically it: the icefield! Complete with high winds, plenty of blowing snow and ice, tightly packed ridges of snow, and sheer cliffs of well over 100M. Still windy back at saddle camp that evening, but we had a class in how to use fixed protection when moving on a rope team. The wind was gusting strong enough to lean into, and would occasionally blow people right over.

  • Thursday, January 25: Very windy, another day with no travel. We had a couple of classes in the tents (where an instructor would come to a tent group and hold a class): map use and stove repair. In the afternoon, we had individual meetings with the instructors for a mid-course evaluation.

  • Friday, January 26: Move to snow camp. We moved up to where the cache was. As before, the weather got worse as we ascended, but much worse than on Wednesday. At the top, the wind was strong enough to suck the heat right out of hands and feet, and many people started getting cold. We needed to wait at the cache while two instructors probed our next route (they were concerned about crevasses, and basically just looking for a good place to dig our snow caves). Some people made hot drinks, but most just got really cold and tried to exercise it away. Finally, after well over an hour, we moved to the snow camp. The wind picked up and was, according to Shawn, "howling." (This means, basically, you can't stand or even hear each other.)

    The technique for camping here is to dig a snow shelter. For a glacier to form, there needs to be at least 80 feet of snow. So, rather than building up an igloo or something, we dug holes in the snow. One hole was rectangular and open at the top, and was to serve as kitchen and entryway. The second hole was bell-shaped, with a round hole at the top that would be capped with snow blocks. A tunnel was dug from the entryway to the bell-shaped hole. All of the snow shelters were about the same size: 6-7 feet deep under the ground, with a round living area about 7-8 feet in diameter.

    These snow shelters/caves gave plenty of protection from the wind, and were a pretty stable 32F. By the time they were built (they take hours), well over half of the group was suffering from some level of hypothermia and had taken some time out to try to warm up and get hot drinks in a cave (the wind was so strong that we couldn't get a stove lit in the kitchen hole).

    Did I mention the wind was strong? Blowing snow and ice. These were blizzard conditions with visibility around 10M.

    Finally, at 10:00 pm (when darkness falls in high summer in Patagonia), all the groups were in their caves. There was a little shuffling: all the instructors were in one cave, and three other caves held 5 students each (one tent group was redistributed among the other caves, so we had 4 groups instead of 5). Ilana and Greg weren't together, which gave us no concern since we expected to be out of the caves for another day of travel in the morning.

    Most groups used the tent body as a floor (to keep off the melting snow), and some set up the tent fly as a roof to try to keep dripping water away. In Greg's group, we noticed that our entryway had filled with snow. Fearing a cave-in, Greg dug out somewhat, but didn't get beyond the snow. We decided to leave it for the morning, and slept a peaceful sleep (it was much quieter than the saddle camp, even though the wind outside was stronger: the advantage of being underground).

    Snow shelter groups:

    1. Instructors
    2. Greg, John, Kate, Gabe & Nate
    3. Ilana, Drew, Dan, Rich & Nick
    4. Joe, Vivianna, Jenn, Josh & Matt

  • Saturday, January 27: All the groups (independently) decided to wait for another group to help dig them out, after finding their entranceways blocked with snow. At 11:00 am or so (much later than we expected), Andy and Traverse yelled through our roofs saying that they would dig us out, and that the weather would prevent us from moving that day. They patched our dome roofs (the wind would eventually create holes).

    Ilana's cave partners decided not to heed Andy's warning to stay put, and wanted to be productive. They emerged from their cave, and dug out their packs and were otherwise active. Ilana visited Greg, and her snuggling down the newly-dug entryway got the people inside the cave thinking about birth canals. We discovered later that the snow would keep filling the entryways, so ended up with sleds (small children's sleds used to transport gear) as doorways.

  • Sunday, January 28 - Thursday, February 1. Life in the snow cave. The wind howled, and every day we got a visit (though they didn't always come inside) from an instructor who chinked our roof, informed us the weather was too poor for travel, and told us to wait for tomorrow. Life took on a surreal routine. There would be cooking for breakfast and dinner (somebody would need to get up, and spend at least two hours cooking, which included melting snow for water).

    How do you poop when you're buried in a snow cave? In a plastic bag! Then, tie up the plastic bag (after wiping with snowballs, and depositing the snowballs in the bag) and put it in a larger garbage bag. Try not to confuse the poop bag with the food bag. The cave groups got adept at ignoring (or ridiculing, or otherwise dealing with) this and other bodily functions in short order (actually, someone in Greg's group didn't poop for 3 days, but eventually got comfortable).

    Two-times daily question (after night 2) in Greg's cave: "Hey, THIS one is the poop bag, right?" Greg's cave had a fairly large entry tunnel, used for ingress/egress, pooping and cooking. It was dubbed the "kitchetory" (or "lavachin").

    On February 1, we got a visit from an instructor who told us that February 2 looked good to move. The instructors (and some of the students) had barometers on their watches, and had been playing at junior meteorologists. The pressure was headed up.

  • Friday, February 2: Groundhog Day. Andy evidently saw his shadow. At 7:15am, the word came down that "it's still pretty horrendous weather out here, we'll try again tomorrow." We didn't get any chinking that day, and by afternoon the cave roof was dripping and a little snow was blowing in. Greg started getting wet at the bottom of his sleeping bag, and tried to dry it (by moving around etc.), but the water & snow kept coming.

  • Saturday, February 3: Our ass kicked, we retreated. Sometime during the interminable time in the snow caves, everyone figured out that we no longer had enough time to cross the icefield. It was a minimum 10-day journey (assuming good weather) and we didn't have the time. We emerged from the caves, lethargic and anemic, and headed down the mountain. The wind was still blasting, and people were frequently blown over.

    We had spent 8 nights in the snow shelters. Some people had emerged to help with daily tasks and gear retrieval (all the packs had been buried after the first night), but many of us had not left the shelter once since going in the previous week.

    By the time we descended to the level of the saddle camp, the wind was more manageable, but there was still blowing snow and rain/slush. We pressed on, and after a 10-hour travel day arrived near our previous rock camp. Gear was extremely wet from packing up in the snow shelters, but the weather wasn't helping: windy (but nothing like at the snow camp, and even gentler than our previous days at the rock camp nearby), around freezing temperatures, and a variety of precipitation.

    We set up tents and enjoyed being able to walk around freely. Ilana and Greg were in the same tent group (finally!), which was good: Greg's sleeping bag was so wet from the two nights of being rained on in the snow cave that it wasn't viable. Ilana and Greg snuggled up together for a night of intense shivering.

    New tent groups, which we kept until the end of the course:

    1. Instructors (4 people in a 3-person tent)
    2. Greg, Ilana, Joe & Matt (4-person tent)
    3. Gabe, Nate, Nick & Jenn (4-person tent)
    4. ?
    5. ?

  • Sunday, February 4: No travel. It was windy, rainy and wet all day. We rested after our exertions the day before and tried to get dry. We were visited by instructors, and spent some time planning our retreat. That evening, the group decided we would attempt to hike out along the shores of Lago Leone.

    At this point, there was no more ferrying to do. We were on our 3rd and final ration period, and had managed to lose some gear (including Vivianna's sleeping bag, but that's a story for someone else to write). Our packs were getting lighter, but we also were carrying a fair amount of garbage and gear we wouldn't need much longer (like crampons and ropes). Note that Liz jettisoned all the poops off a cliff at snow camp, so at least we weren't carrying that around! The stories of lost fuel, sleds, and a lost rope can be written by someone else, but we all needed to chip in to pay for the lost gear when we got back to Coihaique.

  • Monday, February 5: Travel to meadow camp. Another fairly full travel day, descending this time. We chose an even nicer camp spot than on the way up, and had a nice evening cooking and sitting around a campfire. The weather was mostly dry (occasional rain) and breezy, so lots of gear finally got dried out. Greg's feet weren't looking too good after nights in a wet bag, he was showing signs of immersion foot (aka trenchfoot). Lots of other people were having trouble with cold-related injuries, as well.

  • Tuesday, February 6: Cache drop-off and travel to the other side of the valley. In the morning, after an extensive group consensus-finding, we decided to leave our extra food, gear and garbage for Lalo to pick up in the boat, where we had been dropped off previously. There was another small expedition of two New Zealanders whom we were aware of and had spoken to (they got their ass kicked by the storm on the icefield, too, and were not able to cross as planned). We knew Lalo would be back to the drop-off spot for them. Although our expedition could have arranged for boat rides back to the other side of Leone, we decided to hike ourselves out. While about 1/3 of the group brought the cache to lakeside, the rest of the group packed up all the gear (including the cache-runners group's) and waded across the river (I called it a stream above, but it was about 12 meters wide and a meter or so deep at this elevation). We set up camp not far up the other side of the valley, heading towards the ridge and the end of the lake. Pretty good travel weather: mostly sunny and warm (50-60F).

  • Wednesday, February 7: Up and out. We traveled up the other side of the valley, and camped fairly high (1200 meters) in the rocks, not far above treeline. We took time out for a compass & map lesson in the sun. That evening we had pulley class (pulleys are important for crevasse rescue, among other things).

  • Thursday, February 8: Down to the ridge. We took the morning for a crevasse rescue class (we had a short one back at the rock camp on the way up, but never got the full class). We left camp around noon, and descended below treeline. This was heavy bushwacking through dense forest, with no trails and lots of steepness. We reached the ridge around Leone, and camped for the night in the woods. At least it didn't rain much!

  • Friday, February 9: Out along the ridge. We hiked, mostly along the rocky seashore, to where the lake drained into a fast-moving river. After starting to set up camp, because we didn't think we'd see Lalo, we finally saw him around 6:00 pm. We needed Lalo to ferry us the 100M or so across the river because it was too dangerous to try crossing on foot unnecessarily. By that evening, we were camped back at the Western end of Lago Leone, where we had camped weeks before. Although the weather was poor (windy, raining frequently), it was much easier to bear than 1500M higher, where the colder temperatures and higher winds made for far greater challenges.

  • Saturday, February 10: Hustle out. The instructors were getting concerned that we needed to message NOLS that day, our planned last day, to tell them of our pick-up location. We hiked back to Lalo's camp in small groups, and after failing to negotiate truck rides out hiked a little further towards our original drop-off point and camped along the road. Traverse left camp early that day, with one of Lalo's pals. They made it to Tranquillo, and managed (after much trepidation) to get a message to NOLS. A bus would arrive for us, but not until the next day.

    Food was running low now. We were at the end of our ration, and ended up eating a meal of rehydrated mashed potatoes (with nice spices and a little margarine). Our days in the snow caves had used up lots of the tastiest snack foods, and we were left trying to make pancakes for lunch the next day. Fuel was also low. It was time to wrap things up.

  • Sunday, February 11: Back to the bus. We hiked out to the bus drop-off area, everyone made it by 10:00 am, when the bus was supposed to arrive. In true Chilean fashion, the bus actually arrived at 2:00 pm ("road troubles," they said). This was an old city bus, not nearly as comfortable as the bus we rode out on. So what were we going to do, complain?

    We had sorted much of our gear and eaten lunch, so it was quick to get on the bus and depart. Stopping in Tranquillo, we impressed the purveyors at a local mini-mart (a place that substitutes for a supermarket in smaller Chilean towns) by buying tons of fruit and assorted food (chips, snacks, etc.) to eat during the bus ride back.

    An hour or two later, along the highway, we passed John of NOLS, who had missed the bus rendezvous. He had more food for us, and there was much rejoicing. John caravaned back with the bus (with Andy and Traverse to debrief and nap, alternatively). We made it back to the NOLS campo in time for a late dinner and a little clean-up.

  • Monday, February 12: Clean-up day. We spent the day resting, cleaning gear, and debriefing. NOLS had changed everyone's plane tickets to leave Wednesday rather than Monday, since we got out of the field 1 day late (no, we don't understand the math, either). Ilana and Greg wanted to minimize consecutive flying hours, as Greg's feet were still very sore (and Ilana's weren't so good, either). John also wanted to leave so he could propose marriage to his girlfriend. Nick and Dan left early that morning so they could attend Carnival in Brazil.

  • Tuesday, February 13. To Coihaique. We got showers in the town gym (sort of a YMCA-type place). Great! Then, an hour or so wandering around the town, followed by some more cleanup and debrief back at the campo. Ilana, Greg and John left for the airport at 3:30, the rest of the group wouldn't fly out until the next day. We were back in Puerto Montt that night, and we had a nice dinner in a pizza place we went to on the trip out (everything was going in reverse!).

  • Wednesday, February 14: Travel from Puerto Montt to Santiago, from Santiago to Miami, from Miami to Atlanta and from Atlanta to Raleigh-Durham, arriving at 4:00 on Wednesday, February 15. The trip was over!.