Friday, August 7, 2009

A Mexican Salad named Ojos Del Salado

The title is a misnomer. Ojos Del Salado is neither Mexican nor a salad. Then why this title? You might pose. We would solve that mystery while concluding this post. Let's get on with the story for the present.

We were few weeks short of the new millennium and while the IT world despaired that a new virus to wipe away everything from all computers in the world would be set free on the new years day and all the soothsayers predicted the end of the world at the hour of midnight, I pondered with one of my crazy friends (I seem to have quite a few of them) where and in what fashion should we welcome the new millennium, or witness the world evaporate if that should indeed happen. Extinction of computer geeks did not bother us at all.

Carlos, the Colombian drug peddler and climber par-excellence and I had collided several years ago in the vast snowy wasteland of Cordillera Apolobamba in Bolivia. He lay collapsed on the snow mumbling to himself by the trail, dressed in the most shredded mountain clothing one can imagine. He seemed disoriented. I realized later that he was high on some hallucinatory drug and his team mates from a climb had dumped him there when he became a bother. He would have actually frozen to death had I and my team not stumbled across his wasted form.

As we adopted him and nursed him back to his feet, I came to like Carlos for all his idiosyncrasies and crazy ideas. I learned about his shifty and shadowy life as he evaded the police and public alike across the porous Latin American borders transporting drugs from one cartel to another and climbing whatever lay in between. He was a small time carrier. Thousands like him criss-crossed the rugged Andean terrains and boundaries carrying drug shipments. When I questioned him how did his morality and consciousness and Catholic upbringing allow him to peddle in drugs, he replied that if not him there were many who would do the same and it was an evil that no one can escape from. But he was extremely poor and needed to look after his large family. He did it for the money and did not think beyond his deliveries and mountains. He barely knew a hundred word in English and I less than fifty in Spanish even then we conversed quite well. Carlos was a likeable fellow in a sorry manner; you liked him because you felt sorry for him. He was the archetypical loser. Yet his spirit and visions were loftier than most. He was a dreamer and an optimist. All he ever really wanted to do was to climb. What endeared him most to me was his willingness to do anything under the sun at least once. Over the years we climbed together in the far flung corners of Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Chile and bonded by that invisible thread, which at times held us together on a high mountain face.

I wanted to witness the new millennium dawn from a high point in Latin America. Carlos suggested Ojos Del Salado. He also informed that there had been a heavy precipitation (almost unheard of in the Atacama Desert, being the driest land on Earth) and the entire Ojos massif now lay sheathed in considerable snow. His call concluded with the crazy idea that we climb to the top on the 31st of December 1999, spend the night on the summit and the next morning ski down the Chilean side all the way to the Laguna Verde or wherever the snow line ended.

Spearing the sky at 6893 m (22,585 ft), Ojos Del Salado is the second highest peak in the world outside Asia and the highest volcano on Earth. It is not a difficult mountain to climb though the approaches can be difficult. It is located in the Atacama Desert Region of Chile sandwiched at the border between Chile and Argentina and it can be climbed from either of the countries. Though it erupted last more than 1200 years ago, technically it is still an active volcano and till recently Sulfur fumes have been observed from its crater. The only problem Ojos posed to the climbers was its altitude, which only accentuated due to the extremely arid atmosphere and the lack of potable water in the neighborhood.

If I was perpetually broke then Carlos was eternally bankrupt and since I forbade him to combine our expedition with one of his deliveries (that would have made our journey self financed), we were on a budget that would not fit even on a shoe string. The absence of any regulations and hefty peak fees made our choice to approach Ojos from Argentina the obvious one. From Buenos Aires, I traveled through air to the Catamarca Province, in an antediluvian aircraft so rickety and packed with animals (both civil and human) that I wondered if I would survive till the end of the flight, if at all. When I stepped out into the sun-kissed morning of late December 1999 at San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca, the capital city of Catamarca, I realized that I had no idea how or where to locate Carlos. My choices for accommodation, food and transportation were not only limited but also very simple. I just aimed for the cheapest. The ramshackle Salvation Army outpost held its roof proudly up by just four rotten beams. The dormitory hall held eight bedposts and deadwood planks in place of beds. If they had ever heard of linen, I could not discern any such proof. I should have suspected something since all the eight beds were empty and I was plonk in the middle of tourist season. But that's another story altogether. I finally slept outside under the crisp Andean sky buzzing off a million mosquitoes looking for dinner.

Till date I have no idea how he found me but the rapturous cacophony that shattered my dreams and sleep in that order must have silenced the volcanoes on the horizon as well. Carlos was laughing like a mad bull on heat (I am not sure if this metaphor is technically correct, but it is the closest to what I saw) and thumping my sleeping bag with an oversized broom. I am sure while he waited my arrival he had been earning his bread sweeping the roads around. After gulping a bowl of teeth-breaking (both in pronunciation and texture) morsels we scrambled up on the roof of a multicolored bus headed for the border town of Fiambalá. Squeezed like a trussed pig headed for slaughter on the roof, we considered ourselves lucky. Roof travel meant a fifty percent discount on the ticket price and this was the solitary bus for Fiambalá which ran only once every fortnight. Carlos poked the tartly lady in red on whose bosom he rested his shaven head and mumbled something incomprehensible and by their expressions, equally unprintable and both laughed out loud as the bus literally jumped up and zoomed off like an Olympic sprinter. Now I understood why Carlos had insisted that I clip myself to a runner to the roof. As the bus hurtled towards its doom completely heedless to the people on the roadsides waving maddeningly for it to stop, I marveled at the landscape that unfolded around. By the time the bus shoved us off at the rugged town, I had regained my lost faith in Lord Almighty.

At Fiambalá we halted briefly to visit the potbellied proprietor of the only decent store, Mr. Reynoso. Carlos, I am sure had been here before on his covert errands as they exchanged conspiratorial winks, Mr. Reynoso even offering my friend a bar of chocolate for free. He helped us get a ride on a battered truck till the weather-beaten path that ended abruptly by the Cazadero Grande River Canyon. From here, people normally hired mules but that would cost money, of which we were left only with a dwindling amount. We shouldered our backpacks and shortened pair of skis and walked off into the muddy evening as the sun dipped across the horizon. This part of Argentina was alien to me but Carlos knew the ground like the back of his mangled hand. We both carried collapsible wine containers of 5 ltrs. each. Our trail would get very dry very soon and we would need to carry water for survival. We walked along the gurgling river and washed ourselves in the thermal pools that the river abounds. Llamas gazed at us curiously as they munched on dry grass.

We crossed the arid desert plains, gently ascending towards the snow covered peaks now dotting the horizon and reached Agua de Las Vicuñas and climbed steeply to the pass of Portezuelo Negro. Small glaciers, ice penitents and creek lakes dotted the landscape. From the pass, Ojos Del Salado loomed to the west like a giant cone and I was delighted to observe that it was white all over. 'Lucky, Satya, it is normally with much less snow,' Carlos bumped my back.

Regardless of the simplicity of the climb, it was pertinent to acclimatize. We made our first camp at around 5800 m on a shoulder overlooking the desert plains below. The night sky stayed clear though extremely cold and insanely windy. The whipping gale slammed us mercilessly throughout the night. We made another camp at 6300 m and then towards the afternoon of 31 Dec 1999 we reached the Argentinean summit of Ojos Del Salado. I looked at the Chilean summit just across and wondered if it was indeed a meter higher than where we stood, as the guidebooks proclaimed. The ice was well packed and firm and we had no problems with the rock scramble near the top either. We pitched our tent under the shadow of the summit and looked at the eastern sky with glee. A dozen peaks of 20,000 ft and above surrounded us and the small glaciers and lakes lay below. There was absolutely nothing towering above us. Carlos and I were at one of the remotest and least explored places on Earth and to my knowledge completely devoid of another human company for a hundred mile. Such knowledge and isolation always gives me an intense satisfaction that is impossible to define. We had early supper and knocked off to wake up before dawn.

With steaming cups of coffee, we exited the tent at around 4 in the morning into the raging gale and stared expectantly at the eastern horizon. I noticed, much to my amusement, that the world in which we had slept off last night, still remained; as alive and wonderful as ever. The moment sank into us slowly. The first dawn of the new millennium was about to begin. Even Carlos held his tongue.

As the sun rose, still invisible to us, the snow covered peaks around begin to emerge out of the quagmire. I stared intently at the thin sliver of blue that now detached itself at the place where earth and heaven merged. Gradually and seemingly with added reluctance the blue shed its pallor transforming now into pink and then orange and finally the top orb of sun winked at us. Its golden rays bouncing off from the summit that stood above us. We jumped up in joy and hugged each other like kids. Finally Carlos gave in to his songs even as I shrieked in sheer delight. Never before or never since did I have a New Year more memorable. The chilly wind cut through our bones threatening to uproot us from the narrow balcony onto the glaciers below but we couldn't care less. As the sun warmed up, our euphoria subsided and I knew it was time to descend. We wrapped up our campsite and with one long sigh-filled glance at the sun drenched valley we strapped our skis and hopped off onto the Chilean slope. Carlos was an expert slalom skier while I was decently so. I zigzagged in wider loops while he streaked ahead with a snow plume on his trail like the tail of a comet. We both laughed and screamed for no reason at all.

As I cut through the wind, I realized that we had no legal right and business to be in Chile. We had not gone up this way and if the police post at Laguna Verde sighted us then we would be in deep trouble. My detention could lead to diplomatic ramifications, which would not look good at all in my naval dossiers. Though I had visa permit for Chile, as it would be my next destination, it had not been stamped for entry into the country. Carlos did not seem to have a worry in the world. I was sure he had served prison terms before. But I need not have bothered for something so minor.

After a rapid descent of 1500 m, the snow line tapered off into black and loose scree. We got back into our boots. And from there, the Laguna Verde looked like a piece of oblong turquoise resplendent into the brown desert. It was beautiful beyond words. 'Come, my friend, we cannot go down the usual way.' Carlos declared. 'Of course we can't, what were you thinking!' I said to no one in particular. We left the face and went around the western ridge so as to avoid the two mountain huts (refuges). We finally emerged at the bank of Laguna Verde, dotted with flamingos and guanacos. From there the walk to Copiapó was not only tiring and killing but also fraught with danger. We could be picked up by any border or police patrol. The three days of evading any signs of human and habitation could become an adventure tale in itself. I must have cursed myself at least a thousand times in those days for succumbing to Carlos' crazy dreams. I learned how people like Carlos avoided capture and pursuers and engaged in one of the riskiest jobs in the world for their daily sustenance.

At Copiapó more wonders awaited. My Chilean visa got stamped showing an entry date into the country nearly a week ago and an Argentinean exit stamp for the same date in an underground dungeon reeking of stale cigar and cheap liquor. Carlos had work to do and I had to find my way to Santiago. On that final evening, outside a nightclub, we shook hands like old friends and took to our respective roads. Carlos, after planting a kiss each on my both cheeks shot the parting words, 'De cuerdo y loco todos tenemos un poco.' (We are all a little crazy in one way or another). As his fading laughter resounded through the deserted alley, I too waved at his receding back and hailed, 'Si, amigo, you can say that again.'

P.S. Now the mystery of the title. When I recently dropped the name of Ojos Del Salado to a dear friend, she retorted, 'A Mexican Salad, I guess!' A split second before I was going to correct her, I paused and let her statement hang in the air undecided. What did my tryst with Ojos Del Salado really mean to me, as I have briefly narrated here? It wasn't a banquet, neither a dessert, nor an entrée, it was simply indeed a salad; light in dressing, effervescent in odor and appetizing to the palate.

It was a journey amidst different people in a different world through a different time. And I learned that not all that we do not understand need be bad or detestable for where reason and knowledge ends, wonderment began and that's what life is all about.

I would now like to conclude with another Colombian proverb: If you are destined to die by hanging, you will never drown. Go figure what that means. Adios Amigos!


  1. one of the nicest posts i have read thus far. but aren't you climbing right now? what on earth are you doing climbing without sustenance but with your laptop?

  2. Satya: Thanks for sharing this one too, for taking us along to Argentina and Chile and for introducing us to a real Carlos.. you have the amazing power to recall and describe event as though they happened yesterday!
    Ah! and what does one say about the attempts to figure the Colombian proverb in all its myriad dimensions!

  3. Really lived it. I too once climbed to 20,000 ft to celebrate the new year with a Spitian (Himachali) climber.

  4. This was fun reading, S :-) a great relief after the last post LOL... u really are one hell of a brilliant writer and story weaver...