Guardián del Valle chapter 3: San José de Maipo Volcano (5.856M/ 19,212 ft) – First ascent by bike.
For me, The San José Volcano has always been the great guardian of the Cajón del Maipo gorge. With its 5,856 meters above sea level, it imposes itself before all the other mountains of the gorge, surpassing all the high peaks of this wonderful place so close to the city of Santiago. South of the San José Volcano there is no other mountain that exceeds it in altitude on the South American continent. For this reason, it can be a very cold mountain, with winds from the West, the South, the North and the East!
With this in mind and with much enthusiasm, we set off on February 21st, heading for the conquest of the third mountain of our audiovisual project #bigmountainbike, that consists of climbing 6 (or maybe 7!) great sacred mountains of the Incas. Unknown to us, we were walking into one of the toughest projects I've ever done!
On this occasion, I invited Federico Scheuch, James Alfaro, and their bicycles to join this great challenge, as well as an audiovisual and logistical support team; 9 people in total. Unfortunately on this first trip we could not make the summit due to a big thunderstorm and snow that surprised us at 4,200 meters above sea level, leaving us with more than 10 centimeters of snow and zero visibility. This mountain is known for its treacherous micro-climate and we had to live it 100%! It was only the third day of our expedition and we had to abort the mission for the safety of the team given the amount of snow that fell. We were also hit by a front of bad weather the next day. So, after making the decision to go down, we began our retreat, watching this elusive summit of the central area of our beautiful country fade into the distance.
But I was already thinking about when I could come again, and if necessary, I would go back alone. And so it was, on March 11th, after following the weather for a couple of weeks and without stopping to dwell on the difficulty of the summit, I saw that a window of good weather was coming, called my compadre Sebastián “Seba” Prieto and told him my idea to go. Without hesitation he told me he was with me, giving me, apart from the fact that he was the one I would film and take pictures of during this great feat, fundamental support both mentally and physically! I also called my colleagues from the first attempt James and Fede but they passed on the invitation since they knew that it would not be easy getting this giant mountain to submit to a bike!
This time I fully knew what I was getting into on the hill from my previous attempt, but I do not know if that was good or bad because I knew how hard it was. That kept me motivated, but at the same time I could hear in my head, "Uf this is going to be very very hard. " And so it was.
I left with Seba on March 11th to give our all for this summit! It was now or never since the mountain weather begins to worsen as March progresses. This time we worked without any assistance (last time we carried heavy equipment, meals, tents, etc. on horses to the sector of "Las Lajas" at 3,600 meters above sea level). This meant more than 30K on the back between the bike and the backpack. After more than 8 hours we arrived at what would be our first camp at 3,700 meters. Here we slept, rested and fed ourselves. We even saw a UFO! The starry nights in the high mountains of Cajón del Maipo are really impressive.
The next day we had a very hard day, climbing an endless haul from 3,700 meters to 4,500 meters. More than 800m of a pure slough of giant rocks and unevenness lay before us.
Day two we woke up surrounded by giant walls and an impressive view of the central Andes, which motivated us to start this hard day. We left around 10am for the camp at 4,500 meters. After 4,200m it was all new for us, since last time we had turned around at that point. Now each step we took was something new, and one step closer to the top. At around 4,350m we got lost! We got into a route that was not what we expected and that led directly to a glacier full of cracks very exposed to falling material. We had to make a giant turn and cross through very hard ice, exposed to slips the whole time. "No falling!" shouted to Seba from the other side. After 1 and a half hours lost we were able to return to the trail and finally, after 9 hours, we reached what would be our second camp at 4,500 meters. Here again we rested and fed ourselves after a very hard day. We needed the rest since the next day we had to climb to the high camp. That would be, at 4,800 meters above sea level, the last camp before the summit.
Day 3 we woke up ready to go. The weather was with us and we felt good. We started towards the high camp, a very steep run that made us climb 300m of altitude in less than 2 hours. That day we could rest a lot since this leg was shorter than we thought. At our high camp we focused on cooking and melting snow for the summit day (since there is no water), taking pictures, and checking the weather for the next day that was to be our summit day. To our surprise, the weather had changed. It would be a bad day as that afternoon the mythical wind of this Volcano began (the wind is part of the hill), with gusts of more than 120kph. We decided to go to sleep and wait for the sound of the alarm to decide if we attacked the summit or not.
3:00am and the alarm goes off. -30 Degrees Celsius on the mercury, and the wind was terrifying. We could not get a wink of sleep because of the wind that shook the tent everywhere all night. We had only 1 package of rice and some nuts to last us for another day.
We decided to stay since the weather indicated that a 10-hour windless window was coming the next night. So there we remained one more day, waiting for the weather to improve and to give us the opportunity to climb such a longed-for summit! We spent the entire day melting snow, hydrating ourselves well, taking pictures and telling tall tales. It was like living in a fiction story, waiting for the wind to diminish. That day in the afternoon the wind began to drop so I decided to carry my bike up to 5,000 meters so the next day I could leave camp a little lighter, and damn was that a good idea!
It was the fifth day of the expedition. We had no more food than a couple of nuts and some chocolates, but it was now or never! At 2:00am the alarm sounded, -14C in the air. There was no wind nor words: only breathing and concentration. We started walking around 2:45am. After about 45 minutes we reached the point where I had left the bike the day before. The hard part had started. At 5:00am we had to traverse the glacier. Very hard ice meant crampons to cross it. All good. 6:40am we arrived at 5,400 meters above sea level at the col between the main summit and the northern summit of the volcano which is used by some to cross to Mt. Marmolejo, NE of San Jose. In the dark the cold was an impressive -18 C.
On the way up we made a couple of stops to catch our breath, and continued. The crux of the route (the hardest part) came at 5,400 to 5,800 meters above sea level. Here we were faced with a climb up to where the volcano's crater is. This last part (like the whole hill) goes up the west side which is very cold at that altitude because it does not get hit by the sun until around noon. After 6 and a half hours we finally reached the crater; Sun!! It's amazing how much the sun is appreciated in those moments, so much so that I always get excited. At last we could see the summit and the huge crater (bigger than the national soccer stadium to give you an idea) for the first time. Here we rested a little, we ate, we hydrated and then pushed on for the summit. After 45 minutes we finally arrived at such a desired and beautiful summit! With a wonderful view and a comparatively balmy -10C, we celebrated the first conquest of San José by bike! What a privilege!! But now came the reason why we climbed so high; the descent!
It must be clear that San José is not the ideal place to ride a bike. It is not like Cerro El Plomo Mountain for example, where you can ride from the summit to the first curve into the valley without getting off the bike; something which is a tremendous plus for those who are motivated to ascend and descend it by bicycle.
San José Volcano on the other hand has, of the 3,850m of altitude that you climb from the car to its summit, about 800m of altitude that is practically impassable by bike since it is a pitch of giant rocks. BUT, the descent from the summit to 4,800 meters above sea level where high camp is (+1,000m) you do in a couple of minutes, nothing more! That alone is rewarding enough! Yes, after that comes the route of rocks, but you pick up a path around 3,700m again that leaves you at the car in less than an hour. So, about 70% of the hill can be descended by bike while the rest is hike-a-bike, but it passes quickly.
The descent is an experience that has to be described.
It is not easy, but it is unique and beautiful; it is Bigmountainbike! It's cold but you're full of warmth. You're tired but the descent is not a descent in which you're going to lose it all quickly. On the contrary, you're more cautious than ever since a fall up there can cost you dearly in the most literal sense! You take off the hat that you're wearing to put on your helmet and replace your mittens with gloves to catch the handlebars. Your hands will suffer, but luckily just for a while. First you descend the lines of pure sand and small stones that make-up the top 1,000m of the volcano, an area never before ridden by bicycle. It's a delicacy of a hill and you go slowly, warming-up as you really start to enjoy the descent.
The route is complicated by several very tight switchbacks with a glacier crossing in-between where a single mistake can cost you your life as you slip down more than 1,000 meters of pure ice! After an epic descent you get to High Camp, disassemble everything, and continue downhill through endless loads of pure rock until reaching 3,700 meters where the fun begins again. A very fast, epic path with very technical passes takes you to the ever-widening valley in less than 30 minutes. What a thrill!
After an intense day of several hours we managed to get to the car at about 9:30 pm, healthy and safe. We were very tired but happy to have achieved the first bicycle ascent and descent of this wonderful and great volcano.
Another journey completed for the bigmountainbike project, "Guardian of the Valley," that aside from being a sports project is also an audiovisual project that consists of climbing and recording 6 high mountains by bicycle. These 6 mountains were not chosen at random. They were mountains called "Apu Wamani" by the Inca, which in Inca Quechua means "Guardian of the Valley". Each one had a meaning and a sacred worldview, where the Inca offered sacrifices and made pilgrimages to reach them.
Soon, a video of this great adventure!
Project direction and logistics: Inner Mountain Chile (www.innermountain.cl)
Photos: Sebastian Prieto Donoso
Text: Patricio Goycoolea M.
Here the trailer of this great chapter!. Coming soon the oficial Video.