Never two without three…..Llullaillaco, an unsolved mystery….

25 April 2019


With a heavy heart, we headed back down…but we escaped the worst….the mountains are also about giving up

“This mountain is sacred….don’t you feel a very, very special atmosphere up there?” says Pichi to me!

We decided to go back there on a whim, a bit for my birthday, for a change of scenery, to ward off the curse of LLullaillaco, and as a tribute to Manu too……this is the third time I’ve been there. The first time was a year and a half ago, with Manu and Sandra, when a small snowstorm suddenly appeared at the sacred ruins, preventing us from setting foot on the summit. Manu was killed in an avalanche 3 months after that expedition and I wanted to go back to pay my last respects to him on the mountain that was his last summit. The second time was last November with Gilbert and Brigitte. This time I didn’t feel well following a major emotional stress that had given me violent pains in my chest, fearing a pulmonary embolism. This last adventure made me lose confidence in myself, I needed a good experience!

Better late than never...a saying that's not always true!

We knew it was a bit late in the season, but the weather forecast was excellent, with big blue skies and little wind. So off we went again to Salta. I love this place, and I never tire of it. This time we were both going with Hugo, without any stress. I was back in shape and serene. I was also super-trained. This time I had to ride. Pichi helped us organise our little expedition. He’d booked Lorenzo to help us carry.
Everything went like clockwork. The day we left Tolar Grande, our porter and his wife had disappeared. We were alone in their hostel. After a little investigation, we learned that their daughter had been in a serious car accident during the night. Sad news. We went round the village to see if anyone else could come with us, but unfortunately everyone was busy in the mines or didn’t want to come. Too bad, we were going to climb alone in alpine style. The closer we got to the volcanoes, the more cloudy it became. It was really strange because the weather forecast didn’t predict any clouds at all. Maybe it was just the mist that accumulates on the summits in the afternoon. I tried to stay calm and positive.
Just before reaching the base camp, we passed 3 pick-ups. They were friends of Pichi. They were leaving in a bit of a rush, the north wind picking up and the bad weather with it, one of them told us. They hadn’t even tried to climb up to the high camp.

We continued on our way, a little pensive. We were now in the clouds and it was starting to snow when we reached the base camp. We’re keeping our spirits up. After pitching the tent and preparing dinner, the sky suddenly opened up. Great! I knew it was just mist, nothing serious. It was an exceptional night, with stars and no wind! Let’s hope it lasts another 24 hours. It was 02 April and we had made a small offering in honour of Manu, it had been exactly a year since he left us and my thoughts were with Sandra, it fills me with sadness and I pity life which is sometimes unfair and cruel.

There's hope again, it was just a false alarm....or maybe not!

The next day, under a clear blue sky, we packed our rucksacks to the last gram, as we had to carry to camp 2, climbing 1000m to reach almost 6000m. A difficult exercise at these altitudes. I wondered if we weren’t making a mistake by trying to climb straight up to camp 2. But I was in good shape and I wanted to test myself, so off we went… for Llullaillaco in alpine style and almost in winter mode.

I felt really pumped up and I set off at a good pace. In two hours we were at the first camp. Then the slope steepened a bit more, as I remembered. So we slowed down a bit. To my surprise, I was ahead of Hugo. That alone made me feel good. Of course he could have caught me, but he had a load on him and preferred to ease off the pace. It gave me wings to know that I was back in top form and I wanted to get to the high camp as quickly as possible. We were what, 100 metres apart and barely a zig zag up the climb….meaning we were very close to camp 2.

Concentrating on my climb, I didn’t realise that the weather had turned cloudy. We were even in a nascent snowstorm. The sky was dark, even yellow I’d say. And it was only a matter of time before it snowed. The moment I felt the electricity go through my hands and my whole body, Hugo was shouting to throw everything out. I turned round and saw him throwing his rucksack and sticks on the ground. I understood immediately (it had happened to me on the ridges of Illimani). So I threw away my poles, GPS and rucksack and flattened myself on the ground in the mud and snow. Blimey! This wasn’t the time to take a bolt of lightning to the head. We were alone and far from anywhere at an altitude of almost 6000m. I imagined the scene, one of us in an accident, or worse, struck by lightning and killed – a real nightmare. No, it would pass. I stood up and picked up my sticks again, still feeling a bit of juice, but it would pass. We resumed our walk. We were just a stone’s throw away, no more than 50 metres from the little lake at the high camp. Suddenly, Hugo threw his bag away again. I did the same. But this time he was panicking. Once at Huayna Potosi, he’d been hit by a bolt of lightning. He’d been unconscious and traumatised ever since. I took refuge under a boulder. But I was beginning to shiver from the cold, it was now snowing very hard and everything was soaking wet. Hugo joined me and told me to come down, that he didn’t want to die here. We were very close to the camp. In the end, I thought, it might make more sense to take refuge in the tent. Hugo didn’t want to touch his rucksack any more. So we unhooked the tent and left his rucksack behind. We absolutely had to keep warm and protect ourselves from the snowstorm, otherwise we were going to freeze to death here at camp 2. We pitched the tent in a blizzard, it was snowing really hard. We made a sort of lightning rod with our poles, ice axe and crampons. A small break in the weather allowed Hugo to retrieve his rucksack.

Bad luck or a curse... fate is working against us...

I prayed that the weather would calm down like it had the day before. That the wind would die down, that the skies would clear and that we’d be able to recuperate for the ascent during the night. We’d planned to leave around 1am. In the meantime, I was soaked from head to toe and everything in my rucksack was damp. I took refuge in my sleeping bag plus an extra fleece bag, which I was glad to have carried. Even so, I was shaking and couldn’t stop. Hugo told me that we wouldn’t be able to make hot water or eat. It was the hot water that I wanted most of all. The storm was too strong, the winds were almost 100km/h, the snow was falling non-stop and it was just impossible to light the little stove. What’s more, we’d stormed the tent without an apse, so we had to light the stove outside. Resigned, I tried to keep warm in my duvet. Luckily I had some heaters. I decided to use them for my legs and back. In the end, it felt like a source of warmth that stopped me shivering. Thanks to the heaters! I wasn’t hungry, so the problem was solved. But there was still one big problem. If the storm didn’t stop by early evening, we wouldn’t be able to climb to the summit. To tell the truth, I was feeling a bit discouraged about all this. I wasn’t going to be able to set foot on the summit again. No, it was too bad, even though I felt in great shape, even at 6000m. I began to pray inwardly for the snow to stop and the wind to die down. But for 12 hours, the storm raged until around 5am. It was impossible to sleep, the tent was bending in the wind, the snow was gusting inside the tent and whipping our faces. Our duvets were frozen and white with snow. We struggled all night not to be cold, it was impossible to go outside. I started thinking about the story Pichi had told us. One year, some friends of his had come at the end of March and had been hit by a huge storm. They hadn’t reacted quickly enough and got stuck in the snow at the base camp. Their 4×4 couldn’t get back down. Finally, rescuers came as close as possible to the volcano. But they had to abandon their vehicle and walk down to the rescuers’ vehicle. I didn’t really want that to happen to us!

But it was still a feast for the eyes.....c'était magique

At around 6.30am, we decided to get out of the tent. We had fallen asleep once the wind had died down, exhausted by a night’s struggle against the cold and the wind. It was a clear blue and there was no wind. But the cold was polar, glacial. What could we do? Rush to the summit and risk another storm in the middle of the day. The whole Cordillera was white, immaculate, splendid.

We were amazed by the scenery, but at the same time frightened by the idea of being stuck here. The day before, clouds and bad weather had arrived in the early afternoon. A decision had to be made. It was bitterly cold, even without the wind, and our hands were freezing as we pulled our duvets out of the tent, even Hugo, whose hands are never cold. I looked at the Cordillera and began to wonder if we were going to be able to get down by car. Everything was white. With a heavy heart, we decided to get out of the car as quickly as possible to escape the volcano. It was decided. We packed up our things and headed down into the snow.

Little by little, I was getting warmer. There seemed to be less snow on the side of the track, so I could feel a little reassured. But I wouldn’t feel completely reassured until we reached Tolar Grande, the first village. The car started and, miraculously, we were off as quickly as possible. The clouds were already beginning to appear in the late morning. We didn’t have long to wait. We had a 5-hour drive to Tolar Grande. I held my breath the whole way down the snowy track. It went by, but we didn’t want to get stuck. Once we were down on the road, which was in much better condition and above all free of snow, I could breathe. Looking behind us, the clouds were dark and numerous. That didn’t bode well.

A chaotic return to flooded Salta.....

All I wanted was a hot shower, a good meal (we hadn’t eaten anything for 24 hours) and a good bed. When we arrived in Tolar, 4 large miners’ buses were parked and there were no beds available in the village. We had to resign ourselves to driving through the night to San Antonio de los Cobres, a good 4 hours away. We arrived almost at midnight and luckily the hotel reception was still open, a real miracle because we were so washed out. The next morning we woke up to snow. Winter had arrived! It had been snowing all night. In the end, it was a good thing we’d driven all the way to San Antonio de los Cobres. We weren’t sure that the pass above Tolar Grande would be passable after a night of snow! We left as quickly as possible for Salta to share an asado with Pichi, his wife Mercedes and a guide friend Mathias. On arriving in the city, we were impressed by the flooded streets…..the city was under water. A waiter at the restaurant showed us a video of the main square the previous evening… people were up to their waists in water! But that didn’t stop us having a great evening until late at night, telling each other stories about the mountains! That’s when Pichi said to me “This mountain is sacred…. don’t you feel a very, very special atmosphere up there? I think it’s clear now, there really is something special about this mountain – it’s both attractive and terrifying!
As we headed back to Villazon in Bolivia, the blue skies returned with magnificent views of the snow-covered high plateaux….unique !!!!