When most altitude climbers reach their mid-forties, they slow down-but for Bob Villarreal, these years marked the beginning of his climbing career rather than the end. At forty, he took a rock-climbing class, but it wasn't what he was looking for. In a moment of pure and life-changing serendipity, an article about climbing the Andes lit a new fire within him, and an obsession was born.
At that point, Bob retired from business and took up mountain climbing. He lost his heart to the staggering, raw, and wild beauty of the High Andes, returning there time and time again to challenge himself, almost always on his own. In defiance of the basic rules of wilderness exploration, Bob traveled solo, well aware that calamity was only one loose rock away and that his survival was never guaranteed.
One might wonder why anyone - especially someone in middle age -- would climb alone in the Andes even once, let alone nineteen times (out of thirty total climbs). It's a question that Villarreal himself can't adequately answer. Was he in search of adventure, danger, or deeper meaning in his life-and did he ever find his elusive purpose on the mountain?
This memoir recalls his perilous adventures on famous Andean peaks as well as mountains in the remotest parts of the Andes along the lengthy border between Chile and Argentina.
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Clawing for the Stars
A Solo Climber in the Highest Andes
By Bob Villarreal
Abbott PressCopyright © 2014 Bob Villarreal
All rights reserved.
Nevado Ojos del Salado, Chile: Ghosts of the Conquistadors
PHOTO: This map shows many of the peaks and other places of interest mentioned in the chapters. Ojos del Salado is south of the Great Plateau on the border with Argentina. (Photo 1.2 on the website.)
It is incontestable. The DC-8 is one of the nastiest commercial jetliners in existence. Eleven p.m. Miami International Airport. November, 1991. I'm sitting in the infamous DC-8 "Stretch," an elongated version of the jet. This Aero-Peru flight is bound for Lima, Peru, and then on to Santiago de Chile. My intent is to climb the second highest peak in the Andes, Ojos del Salado (22,609 feet). Years ago, DC-8's garnered the reputation as the noisiest passenger jets in service. Threatened by airport bans in parts of the States, Douglas made engine changes to quiet them. Yet those planes in South American service were not changed, and they still scream like banshees at takeoff. My seat is behind the engines and I'll receive the full effect. As we taxi, the pilot revs the engines, their growling a mere taste of what's to come. When we are at the top of the runway, we receive permission to roll. But this pilot is a favorite of mine. He doesn't release the brakes, power up the engines, and let their increasing thrust propel us down the tarmac. Rather, he keeps the brakes engaged while gradually increasing power. The four engines howl as the huge ship twitches and flexes in anticipation of its leap into the heavens. The noise is unbelievable. Outside it must be 140 decibels, and it's the purest sound "high" I've experienced in years. When the pilot feels he has the right engine thrust, he releases the brakes, and "Stretch" is out of the blocks rushing down the way, those engines bellowing and roaring in the nighttime air. In my mind, I hear the first officer shout, "Rotate!" "The Ride of the Valkyries" blasts in my head as the pilot pulls back on the wheel and the big ship lifts away from earth, the engines still detonating with pounding explosions that send a rolling, rumbling shock wave outwards over the land. There is nothing like this airplane. There is nothing like this experience. The engine crescendo fills my head and ears and settles deep inside.
Months before, my ad seeking partners for Ojos del Salado in northern Chile ran in a popular climbing magazine. The mountain's name means, literally, sources of the salty river, the name no doubt given it by Indians traveling near it on trade caravans between Tucuman, Argentina and Copiapo, Chile finding waters from its slopes not to their liking. I know little about the mountain, except its height. Its summit is an enormous volcanic crater, the western part of it blasted away. Each climber first must relinquish his passport to the Chilean carabineros at their check station to the north of the peak. There are two metal huts on the northern side of the mountain, the usual route of ascent. The first, the Refugio de la Universidad de Atacama, sits at 16,730 feet. The second, the Refugio Cesar Tejos, resides at 18,860 feet. (There used to be a small hotel, the Louis Murray Lodge, located next to the carabinero station. It burned down several years ago. The Lodge and the Tejos Refugio were gifts to Chile from the Anglo-American Mining Company of South Africa. Their names commemorate two employees: Murray, a geologist, and Tejos, a helicopter pilot, both of whom died in a crash on the mountain in 1984.) A road connects the carabinero station to the first hut and continues to the second Refugio. Climbers ascend to the summit from there. A road that high on a mountain steals something of the adventure and mystery for me, but the peak's height remains an attraction.
My ad caused only desultory interest. Fortunately, an altitude climber from the Midwest, James, was interested, and we decided to climb together. We agreed to meet in Santiago, spend the night, and then fly to Copiapo, Chile. There, we planned to find a ride out to the peak, some 145 miles east of the city.
This is the first climb on my own. My previous three climbs were with the American Alpine Institute and their excellent guides. I reached the top of Chimborazo, Ecuador (20,720 feet); Illimani, Bolivia (21,201 feet); and Aconcagua, Argentina (the highest peak in the Andes at 22,834') with them. Now it is time to put that experience to work. I feel fortunate to be able to do so. At age 47, I don't know how long I will be able to endure the rigors of climbing at altitude.
As I sort through climbing gear in my Santiago hotel room, a call arrives from James. He's in Asuncion, Paraguay. The military shut the airport after his arrival and it's to remain closed until the following day. He says to go to Copiapo and we'll meet in a day or two. This places our climb at risk. But I'm not worried. We'll make the best of it.
Copiapo, known as Copayapu in Inca times, lies at the northernmost extension of the great central valley of Chile. Its desert location belies its richness. Irrigation has made this area perfect for grape cultivation, and the city's outskirts are home to many vineyards and their rich harvests. Agribusiness is an important part of the local economy. And the city's proximity to gold mines in the vicinity and in the Andes, to the east, means a steady stream of miners, mining engineers, and trucking companies contribute to the town's financial and economic importance. In addition, Copiapo is the western terminus of the packed gravel road connecting with San Miguel de Tucuman in Argentina. Businessmen, miners, and tourists use the road and a fair amount of trade between the two countries passes over it. The Pacific Ocean lies forty miles to the west of the city, with the little towns of Caldera and Bahia Inglesa offering limited shopping, dining, and sunbathing on the beaches.
When I arrive at the Hotel San Francisco de la Selva, I ask the owner if he knows anyone who drives climbers to Ojos del Salado. He says his brother might know. A short time later, Marco Roman strides in. I know from the first moment we will be friends for years to come. He speaks some English, has a wonderful smile, and possesses an engaging individuality. He says he used to drive out to the peaks, but now that he's married, with a two-year-old son, a girl on the way, and a demanding job managing several shoe stores in town, he simply does not have the time. But he has a friend he thinks might be interested in taking us out to the peak.
Within an hour, I meet Giancarlo Fiocco. He's a sturdy man, six feet, two inches tall, with a keen sense of humor. Although he is not a climber, he has the mountaineer's appetite for exploring remote places and this trip has him excited. He and his wife, Maria Ester, who have two children, Giancarlito and Catarina, own and operate the La Casona Hotel. He also has an infectious smile and striking personality, and he's eager to take us to the mountain. He graciously offers to pick up James at the airport and take us around town to buy food, water, and white gas, all the things we need on the climb but couldn't bring with us.
Next day, we meet James at the airport. To this point, I have exchanged letters with him about the climb and we talked once on the phone. There are people I meet I don't forget even though I meet them just once. Such a man is James. He has a sunny way about him and an infectious sense of humor. I take to him immediately. Normally, I am rather reserved at first with others. I have no such reservations about James. He's younger than I am, by twelve years, solidly built with an easygoing manner. He's married, with children, and is a master restorer of antique furniture. He is also a keen observer of the personality traits of others, as I came to find out at our climb's conclusion. I know this will be a good journey. My mountaineering intuition tells me this and I trust it completely. After our shopping trip, we discuss with Giancarlo the eighty-mile drive to Laguna Santa Rosa the next day. We agree upon a price to cover the two-day ride out to Ojos and the one day return back to town.
The following morning, Giancarlo arrives at 8 a.m. in his well-worn Toyota Land Cruiser, a hardy, sturdy truck, and we pile all our gear inside and on the roof, in addition to our food and fifteen five-liter plastic bottles of water. As with all the peaks in this part of the Andes, the Ojos snow line is high. We don't know how high, but suspect it will be close to 17,000 feet before we find snow to melt. The water jugs give us the flexibility to place a base camp anywhere on the peak without worrying about a water source.
When we are an hour out of town, following the Mina Marte road, James asks if we might stop. He has spotted a huge boulder he wants to climb! We watch, fascinated, as he scales this monster with no rope for protection, and only brute arm, hand, and finger strength. It's quite a performance.
Three hours later, the road becomes steeper, and the Cruiser labors as it works up a series of steep switchbacks. Giancarlo mentions we're approaching the pass, where we'll see all the peaks spread out to our front. At one place, we stop to let the truck cool. He points across a shallow valley to an old dirt road that switchbacks down from the pass. Horse-drawn wagons ferrying goods between Argentina and Chile used it in the days before automobiles.
We start once more, approach a sharp turn to the right and there, spread out below and in the distance, is the southernmost part of the high Atacama Desert, the Maricunga Salar (dry lakebed). A thousand feet below us lies the turquoise colored water of Laguna Santa Rosa. In the distance, the bulk of Tres Cruces shimmers in the high mountain air. It dominates the land, its two peaks thrusting upwards into an indigo sky, an enchanting, exhilarating sight that is mine for a lifetime. The right-most summit is Tres Cruces Sur (22,133 feet and fifth highest in the Andes). The left-most crest is Tres Cruces Central (21,743 feet and eleventh highest). And the light! It is so bright at these elevations that only my mirrored sunglasses provide relief.
PHOTO: The view from the pass. The Laguna is below us with Tres Cruces on the far horizon. (Photo 1.4 on the website.)
We drop off the pass and motor down to the lake, a lapis lazuli colored gem even bluer up close than from afar. A dirt track leads to the Laguna Santa Rosa Refugio on the western shore of the lake, a stout wooden structure resting upon a raised platform, our home for the night. My altimeter registers 12,200 feet; this is a good elevation at which to begin acclimating before we reach the higher elevations of Ojos. The setting is idyllic with the lake close by, flamingoes standing in its still, silent waters, guanaco8 herds grazing at its margins, and the stunning views of Tres Cruces and nearby peaks and high ridges to the east. In mid-afternoon, clouds swiftly descend upon the land and a snow blizzard dusts all with a coat of white. An hour later, all is in sunshine. The lake turns alternately black, green, and dark navy as clouds play before the sun.
PHOTO: The Laguna Santa Rosa Refugio with Giancarlo's Land Cruiser alongside. (Photo 1.5 on the website.)
As the next day's sun drenches the land with its warming rays, we start the fifty-mile ride to Ojos by returning to the Mina Marte-Copiapo road and then leave it to drive over the raw landscape of the salar, heading northeast. The Marte road continues to the east and eventually bears due south, the mine itself residing a short distance after the turn, right below Cerro Copiapo (19,855 feet).
In thirty minutes, we intersect the Chile-Argentina highway, Chile Highway #31, and head south, with Tres Cruces growing larger every mile. The road begins to climb, and when it angles due east we pass close to the two peaks of Cruces that loom to our right. We're now on what I call the Great Plateau, at an elevation of 14,200 feet, motoring due east for the thirty-five mile drive to Ojos del Salado. It's a superb day, with early high clouds giving way to a clear sky and the warmth of the sun. My mind drifts to the two letters I have at home, those written by Pedro de Merida, an officer with the Diego de Almagro expedition from Cuzco, Peru, to Chile in 1535–1537. He wrote to the King of Spain to explain what took place on the journey. These letters are my historical narrative re-creation of the expedition. They left Cuzco in July, 1535, traveled south through Argentina, and proceeded over the San Francisco Pass, at the eastern end of the Great Plateau we are now traveling. They walked the ground at our feet on their journey to Copayapu. From there, they searched in vain for gold in the Inca Kingdom of Chile. The Indians, hundreds of years before the coming of the Spanish, conducted trade between the two Indian cultures on either side of the mountains by hauling their goods over this same ground.
I stir from my reverie when the truck slows. There's a huge wall of mountain to the north, to the left of our track, its high flanks stretching east to west. Once we roll to a stop below it, Giancarlo jumps out, walks uphill, and motions us to join him.
"Look, Roberto, James. Look there," he shouts excitedly.
I look to where he points but nothing I see causes excitement. The slopes here are a light rusty color, beautiful against the clear azure sky. What's so remarkable about that?
"Look, look at dark line. See it move?"
A thin line lies several hundred feet above us. Whatever it is, it grows in length and comes towards us down the slope. Giancarlo laughs and says something in Spanish I can't understand. He points to the ground at our feet. We're standing in a faint gully etched in the loose sand and small pebbles.
The line has lengthened. I can't tell the source and don't even know what this thing is. But there is no question it's getting longer and heading down the slope towards us. As it moves closer, it finally reveals itself.
"It little stream," yells Giancarlo. "See, it come right to us, where we stand."
It's nine inches across, and, as it comes closer, we hear it push little pebbles before it. It continues and passes through the narrow channel from which we have stepped. It chugs merrily on down the brief remaining part of the slope, there to pool at the road's edge. What is the source of this strange thing?
Giancarlo laughs again as he reads the amazement in our faces.
"The water come from inside mountain. When snow melts, it collects beneath the surface of mountain and stays there, I think in little basins. When they become full, the water pushes through the outer part of slope, and this is result," he explains. "The water source is called ojo, or source of water. There are several on plateau, but this first time I see one on side of this mountain."
We return to the truck and motor off, the ojo and little stream the sole topics of conversation. When we crest a low rise, the carabinero station springs to view. It sits on stilts that support a platform upon which reside several rooms and a cooking and eating area. Here we must relinquish our passports to the Chilean police before we climb the mountain.
After dealing with the administrative paperwork, we turn our attention to Ojos, which reaches for the heavens six miles to the south. Giancarlo offers to take us anywhere we wish to make camp, but we don't care to go much higher than we are now, at 14,300 feet. After we drive over flat ground for two miles, we call a halt when it begins to rise. This is the place for Base Camp, at 14,800 feet. Our bodies ought to handle this elevation since we spent last night at 12,000 feet, but you never know with acclimation. There is no snow here, but we have enough water with us. We wish Giancarlo well when he leaves. We won't see him for twelve days. What a grand companion the man has been.
Excerpted from Clawing for the Stars by Bob Villarreal. Copyright © 2014 Bob Villarreal. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: The Journey Begins, ix,
Chapter 1: Nevado Ojos del Salado, Chile: Ghosts of the Conquistadors, 1,
Chapter 2: Monte Pissis, Argentina: High Winds from Tartarus, 25,
Chapter 3: Llullaillaco, Chile: A Case of Mistaken Identity, 45,
Chapter 4: Closing the Circle on Llullaillaco, Chile, 67,
Chapter 5: Nevado Tres Cruces, Chile: The Cracking of the Will, 89,
Chapter 6: Interlude: Clients, 117,
Chapter 7: Monte Pissis, Argentina: The Hand of God, 137,
Chapter 8: Llullaillaco, Chile: How Did Those Guys Do It, Anyway?, 163,
Chapter 9: Tres Cruces, Chile: Climbing with Friends, 181,
Chapter 10: Tres Cruces, Chile: The Last Climb, 209,
Reflections: The Journey Ends, 231,
Appendix A: High Altitude Climbing Handbook, 237,
Appendix B: Twelve Highest Peaks in the Andes and their First Ascents, 257,
Appendix C: The Conversation with Apani, The Indian, 259,
Glossary of Terms, 285,
About the Author, 291,