Gilda Isoardi marvels at the desolate beauty of la Puna, Catamarca in north west Argentina.
We take the Route 40 north of Mendoza for 700 kilometers. The landscape changes from lush vineyards to dry desert plains, the Andes forever rolling along to the left. We finally reach the small town of Fiambalá and turn west onto the Route 60 as it starts to gain altitude. By the time we are rummaging for our passports near Las Grutas international border with Chile we are already at 4,000 meters above sea level.
We are four climbers going to the land of the six thousand high peaks, a fabulous concentration of some the highest mountains in the Andes, located in a desolate area known as La Puna, in Catamarca. Volcanoes such as Ojos del Salado (the second highest in the Andes at 6,893m), Tres Cruces (6,749m), Walther Penck (6,658m), Incahuasi (6,638m) and more than twenty other peaks above 6,000 meters are found here. Our aim is to reach the summit of Incahuasi, a conical volcano with an impressive 700 m wide crater. It´s name means “House of The Inca”, and of course they were the first ones to climb it in the year 1480.
In order to climb some of these giants, it’s necessary to fill in a form online and present a copy to the Fiambalá police. This seemingly unimportant formality earns Fiambalá the nickname “the door to the six thousands”. If you fail to present a copy of this form you will risk the ire of some very annoyed border guards. With no internet signal to fix the problem, you have nowhere to go but back.
We took the paved road a little after sunset. Winding through the mountains, it was in surprisingly good condition but spooky and foreboding. The long stretches of pitch dark road bring to mind ghost stories and horror movies. There’s no light for the 180km stretch that separates Fiambalá from Las Grutas, with the one exception being what must be the most unusually located hotel in Argentina – “Cortaderas” an enormous complex where some people actually choose to stay.
After an hour driving, we suddenly see the lights of a truck on the side of the road. We pass the vehicle with a sense of wariness, one of my friends remarking with some dark irony that “on this road it is more unpleasant to come across people than not to”.
The government decided a few years ago to build a series of shelters alongside the road in the more remote parts. Between twenty and thirty km apart, these shelters have bright signs two kilometres before announcing them as emergency stops. For anybody in a difficult situation and for climbers especially, these shelters are a luxury. They are small but very functional and are well insulated from the cold, have a small fire place and more importantly a radio to ask for aid.
At shelter number 3 the radio is broken and naturally the scene fires up dark humour. The importance of these shelters cannot be exagerrated since the Route 60 joins Fiambalá with Copiapó (in Chile) through the San Francisco pass at 4800 meters. This means that the 481 km stretch of barren desert road through some of the highest peaks in the world has only two customs posts in the middle if you need help.
In winter the extreme temperatures and isolated storms make it very dangerous for the unprepared. Nevertheless there is more than one that dares to explore this silent and remote land. In the shelter it is common to find testimonial graffiti from all sorts of adventurous travellers including Brazilian motorcyclists fascinated by the altitude they can get to with their bikes. The aspect of the high planes is difficult to describe. The local climber and writer Glauco Muratti once said.
“In this terrain the abrupt doesn`t exists, therefore the classic terminology used to describe mountains doesn´t apply to the Puna “.
It’s actually difficult to figure out which mountain is which. Altitudes blend with that of other neighbours and the perspective is very tricky. In these mountains it takes not only experience but the help of electronic devices to figure out distance and location. For the lost climber everything seems desperately the same. As you turn your head everything has the effect of being an overwhelming mirror.
Most of the shapes in the Puna are chiselled by the wind and so are the clouds. The day we climb San Francisco, one of the most important 6000 meter high volcanoes, we were almost defeated by the gales. I was literally on my knees a couple of times. On the way back to the shelter we were horrified to discover that one of us had a semi-frozen nose.
As for the water, it’s the great absentee. Concentrated only in scarce lagoons and salty plains, its elusiveness makes life almost impossible. You have to carry on your back more than 12 litres of water if not more. Next to Las Grutas, at the feet of El Escorial, a huge crown made of spongy lava extends to San Francisco. Here you will find a large shallow pond of salty water where birds gather by the hundreds.
Surprisingly in these desolate lands wildlife is prolific. Vicuñas are the most common – and definitely the cutest. Foxes proliferate as does their fierce predator, the Puma, and funny enough a bunch of wild multi-colored donkeys wander the steppes. Next to the lake there is also a vaporous spring of hot water famous among travellers, known as the Termas of San Francisco.
We approached our mountain by truck, a 17 km trip to the base (4400m). Then we walked to Camp 1 (5000m) in an open battle with the wind. On the second day our group split on the way to Camp 2 at 6000 meters. Exhausted, we decided to wait behind as our two friends continued the stuggle upwards. The night arrived and our car became the most breath-taking observatory. We could see parts of constellations that lay to the north close to the horizon such as the big bear, a dominant shape in the northern sky. I remembered then that across the border not so far away lies the Atacama desert, the home to the most sophisticated telescopes in the world.
Two days later, after an anxious wait, our friends came back extremely tired but also very happy. After a monumental struggle they had finally reached the summit of Incahuasi. Our job was done, we were ready to abandon la Puna go back home. The original idea was to return through Chile, infinite mountain panoramas slowly replaced by the powerful waves of the pacific, but that’s another trip…