Climbing Volcanoes In The Atacama Desert

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A third story about my travels in the Atacama Desert went live this morning on This one is about my climb of El Toco, a 5650 meter (18,645 foot) volcano that falls along the borders of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina.

The climb was non-technical in nature, and a simple walk-up, with altitude being the only real challenge. As I note in the story however, I was feeling quite under the weather the day before and I wasn’t sure if I should even attempt to go up to such an altitude when not feeling well. Fortunately, I recovered quite nicely, and while I wasn’t completely recovered, I felt strong enough to give it a go.

El Toco is about an hour and a half drive away from San Pedro, the largest town in the region. Most of that drive is spent climbing upwards. San Pedro sits on the floor of the Atacama at a respectable altitude of 2450 meters (8035 feet), but the trail that would take us to the summit of Toco began at 4800 meters (16,500 feet). That’s quite a gain in elevation before you ever begin to exert any effort.

Fortunately, I had been in the Atacama several days at that point, and had acclimatized somewhat to the altitude. But when we arrived at the trailhead, my guide asked if I wanted to take the longer or shorter roue to the top. Thinking that the shorter route would probably have a steeper approach, I elected to take the longer route instead, just to be on the safe side. Later, I would learn that the shorter route wasn’t steeper at all, it just started higher on the mountain and we would have driven to a different point. I was glad that I chosen the longer route when I heard that bit of news.

Gustavo, my guide, has been on Toco many times in the past, so he knew the route well. Before setting off, he said that it would take somewhere between 2-2.5 hours to reach the summit, and he advised me to breathe deeply, go slowly, and control my motions. Knowing that I hadn’t been feeling well the day before, he also told me that I should let him know if I started to feel light headed or wanted to turn back.

Once we started moving however, I was feeling great, and the crisp, cool air and vigorous workout helped my mood immensely. We soon fell into a rhythm and were making good progress up the mountain, stopping from time to time to take in the view, while Gustavo pointed out local landmarks, like a nearby copper mine and an observatory that was under construction on a neighboring peak. As we climbed, the views got all the more spectacular, and the wind picked up to remind us that we were still on a very tall mountain.

But almost before I knew it, we were approaching the summit. Glancing at my watch, I saw that we had knocked off the longer, 2+ hour route, in just an hour and fifteen minutes. We had made great time indeed and that meant we could relax and spend a bit more time at the summit as well. Gustavo and I took shelter behind a rock, as by that point the wind was howling and rather cold. But in our little shelter, we were warm and comfortable, and enjoyed a cup of tea and compared notes on our favorite outdoor gear for more than a half-hour.

Eventually, we turned back down the mountain and had a mostly easy descent, with just a little snow and ice to keep us on our toes. We were back in the truck and on the way home to San Pedro in just 20 minutes time, with Gustavo pointing out all the other great climbs in the region along the way.

That was one of the surprising elements of the Atacama. While I expected the desert to be beautiful and amazing to visit, I had no idea there were so many great peaks to climb in the area as well. For a climber looking for a new challenge, the northern part of Chile should be on your list of “must visit” destinations. Sure, there are several easy walk-up mountains, but even El Toco had an alternative approach that offers a very different, and significant, challenge for the experienced mountaineer.

For the typical adventure traveler, the mountains that ring the Atacama are just one more reason why it is such an amazing place to visit. If you’d like to get a taste of high altitude, it offers plenty of that as well, without having to spend days in a tent or missing out on the creature comforts. Perhaps that taste will spark an interest in other climbs, but this is a perfect place to try it out.

Can you tell I loved the Atacama?

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Kraig Becker

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