The Atacama desert. One associates this region with heat, dryness and death.
This may be true for some places within the Atacama but does not apply for the whole desert region. The Atacama desert covers more than 100’000km2 and the annual average precipitation is variable. The dryest place near Antofagasta has 1mm and San Pedro de Atacama near the Salar de Atacama has 35mm of rainfall (as a comparison in Switzerland Lausanne has around 1250mm and the dryest place Ackersand near Zeneggen has 521mm).
Flamingos in the Salar de Atacama
Even if there is very little rain in the region of San Pedro de Atacama, the desert there is not that arid i.e. deprived of live. Small rivers flow down from the snow covered volcanos of the Andes and feed the underground water as well as the different salt lakes, providing the necessary liquid for plants, trees, flamingos, “vicuñas”, rodents, birds and people.
For us climbers the water plays a very important role as well, since in the course of time it eroded the volcanic tuff stone and created some up to 30m deep and several kilometers long canyons called “quebradas”. And most interesting for us is the fact that the canyon walls are often cracked from the bottom to the top: a paradise for crack climbing!
The Nacimiento canyon
In the “Disney Land” like town of San Pedro de Atacama we collected the necessary information from a local climber who we met by chance and decided to spend first two “warm up” days in the smaller “quebrada” Jerez near Toconao and then five days in the much more extensive and developed “quebrada” Nascimiento near Socaire.
The next morning we hitchhiked to Toconao, the “place of stones” and headed directly to the canyon.
A small stream curles through the sand filled canyon which is a rest of what was used to irrigate vegetables and trees higher up the gorge.
We were not disappointed, several pure crack lines bordered the path and we immediately sprang into action.
Since the description of the routes was far from complete, we often had to judge by the appearance if the route was feasible or not, with mixed results…
Either you jam or you fall
An easy crack up to the roof
Louis in the twilight
We were not used to the hot and dry desert climate, leaving us parched after each pitch we climbed. Climbing in the sun was beyond question since the holds became as hot as the coal for the “asado”.
Camping was not allowed in the “quebrada” so we stayed in a small hotel in the deserted town of Toconao. Very in contrast to San Pedro which is totally dedicated to the hordes of tourists, Toconao has preserved its ambiance of village at the end of the world: a place where sandy winds wipe the streets and where dusk devils lurk behind every corner.
Real Atacama feeling in Toconao
Victim of the desert
Due to the lack of public transportation getting to our second destination, the “quebrada” Nascimiento was somehow more tricky. We opted to take one of the touristic tours heading to the “Lagunas Altiplanicas”, a sightseeing trip proposed by at least 50 tourist operators in San Pedro de Atacama.
The tour dropped us on the way back and as soon as we entered the canyon we were caught in the realm of the Atacama. We spent the days climbing the cracks in the narrow gorge, the evenings admiring the sunset over the Atacama desert and the nights dreaming with the shiny sky above our tent.
David & Goliath
The milky way
The climbing was incredible and except for the basic idea of reaching the top of the route, crack climbing has little in common with most of the climbing in Europe. We had to apply all different jamming techniques: finger jams, hand jams, palm jams, arm jams, knee jams, leg jams not to be forgotten body jams.
Louis in the “cobra crack”
More than 200 routes are bolted, often only the belay if mobile protection such as friends and nuts can be used, giving a certain spice to the ascent.
After five days, a lot of routes climbed and a lot of skin left on the rock it was time to move on. We hitchhiked back to San Pedro de Atacama, happy and alienated.
Some more pictures can be found here.
Louis on the plate