Cerro Placas - 15328' - SW face class 4
After Elaine and I hiked Volcan Quetrupillan, we took the night bus back north to Santiago. We found a cheap car rental on Av Bellevista near Plaza Baquedano in Santiago, and drove out to the big ski resorts near Farellones to the northeast of the city. Here, in the high Andes east of Santiago we would begin our long acclimatization process for our big prize of climbing in the Cordillera Real in Bolivia. We made an attempt on Cerro El Plomo by taking the popular trail from La Parva up the various hiking and bike trails up the dry ski slopes east to the saddle just below Cerro Parva. The trail then made a series of ups and downs crossing a couple broad ridges then curved northward into the wide valley south of El Plomo to the Piedra Numerada camp where we set up the tent at the nice meadow at an elevation of 3400 meters. Views north of El Plomo were really cool, and Cerro Bismarck just above us to the east with its' terrible looking scree slopes made me a little sick just thinking about it.
Elaine got a little sick that night since we went up 3300 meters in one afternoon and slept. The next morning we continued up to the Campo Federacion (high camp), slowly walking our way northward up the trail to an elevation of 4300 meters. We were greeted to many other climbers camped in a large area with dozens of rock shelters. The wind was picking up and it was getting colder. We found an unused rock shelter and pitched the tent and we relaxed as much as we could for the afternoon. We were both feeling the elevation at this point and we went to bed early.
Map of the approaches and summit route for El Plomo. We took the route marked in purple and red to marker paddle #9
I didn't get any sleep as my legs and back were aching for some reason likely related to my body acclimating. I had very little energy the next morning, and we both agreed to simply hike down back to La Parva. It was a heinously windy night, with two tents blowing away out of sight faster than you could drive that evening! One nearly hit me in the head as it flew right over our camp. We were fortunate to have found a tall rock shelter because my ultralight tent would have not survived the night otherwise. While a few people continued up the mountain in the morning, we started down, reaching the car in early afternoon. On the drive back into Santiago we stopped at the Mall Sport which had all sorts of sporting stores, including climbing shops, and even a climbing wall in the center courtyard! Definitely was a cool place to visit. We then drove to the SE corner of the city (La Florida Neighborhood) and up the road to San Jose de Maipo, arriving late well after dark so we just crashed in the car.
Cerro Placas Ascent
After extensive research regarding which mountain to climb in the Cajon del Maipo area, we decided on Cerro Placas, a prominent, but very overlooked mountain just east of the much more famous Cerro Morado, and west of the much bigger Cerro Marmolejo. We would have liked to attempt Morado, as it's one of the more technical climbs in the area, but since it was so late in the season, ice climbing gear would have been required, and we weren't too thrilled on carrying all the ice gear up there while we were working on acclimating, so we settled for a peak that looked to be nothing more than a difficult rock scramble.
Cerro Placas rises to an elevation of 15,328 feet; well within summit ability despite having just started acclimating. Passing through the town of San Jose de Maipo, we continued driving east on the Camino Al Volcan to the El Cabrerio junction, where a local farmer lets people park their cars for ascending Volcan San Jose for a modest fee, and sells some really tasty goat cheese. At this junction, we turned left (north) on the switchback road leading up to the Alto Maipo operation, at which point the maintained road becomes closed for public use. Large trucks frequently rip up and down the Camino Al Volcan making for a somewhat busy experience driving there. Veering up to the left, skirting around the mine a rough, 4WD road continues straight up the hill and soon reaches the uppermost part of the mine and soon curves into the wide open Valle Las Arenas. Unfortunately, our rental car could not make it very far up this road, so we parked at the open area where public access to the maintained road ended, and began walking.
We made good time, reaching the wide valley above the mine. The mine has been under fire by the Chilean climbing community for shutting down the bouldering at Choriboulder, and is said to become an environmental nightmare. Locals in Chile have been protesting against the operation and are very worried of the effects it will have on the tourism in Cajon del Maipo. We easily walked by though staying off the mining operation. The massive south face of Cerro Arenas was an impressive sight, and beckoned with first ascent potential. On the opposite side of the valley, a beautiful cliff called Fondo Marino caught my eye as well. Lots of technical climbing opportunity in this valley for sure.
We forded across the river, and hiked cross country to the north, into the smaller valley draining the east slopes of Cerro Arenas and Cerro Placas. A small but rugged ridge separated this valley from the larger Las Arenas valley just west. Since it was so late in the season, we were worried about not finding water, even though the beta we did find stated a high camp at 3500 meters would have some runoff all year.
We reached a tiny ice patch at about 3500 meters, and with just a few small drops of water coming off the ice, we were able to gather just enough water for us to survive the night and the climb for the next day, although the water was very cloudy with particulates. Just a few meters away we located what appeared to be a small flattened out pad for one small tent. I worked to improve the pad so it would fit a larger tent and we set up camp. We were definitely all alone up here, and had a very high feeling of solitude despite a large mining operation merely a couple miles to the south. I had a feeling no one had been up towards Cerro Placas in years, which amazed me since the hike to this point was not very difficult, the valley being mainly open boulder fields.
The next morning we woke early, and with our light day packs, started ascending northeastward up scree slopes towards Cerro Placas. Placas sits on the same ridge off to the north of Cerro Arenas, and although Placas is considerably higher than Arenas, it is far less seen (cannot be seen from the mine or any of the nearby roads). The scree slopes on the lower east slopes were downright bad, but careful ascending got us up to the base of some walls we were able to traverse along, and eventually to a series of rocky outcrops with slightly more solid rock. About halfway up the ascent at 4000 meters in elevation we reached a flat rocky bench directly below the steep north face of Cerro Arenas. What a wild place to take a quick rest!
The second half of our climb took us over twice as long to complete however, as we then continued up a long scree slope continuing in a NE direction until we hit the base of the upper east facing cliffs, traversed a bit, then getting tired of all the scree and loose sh##, we decided to pick one of the class 4 rocky ribs and just start climbing. We found ourselves on a very narrow, steep rib with very steep drop offs into smooth scoops on both sides. We did eventually make it to the south ridge crest, and our pace had slowed considerable due to the elevation. We were determined to make it though, and we pushed on over easier terrain on a beautifu ridge with the massive Volcan San Jose and Cerro Marmolejo now visible to the west. The final summit scramble actually had some spice to it, involving a somewhat icy class 4 ascent off to the left to bypass a steep rise on the ridgecrest. Once back on the ridge it was a short scramble on a very exposed narrow ridge to the highest point, which we gave one another a hug and took a long rest. That was definitely a summit well earned having taken nearly 5 hours to ascend 1200 meters.
After 30 minutes or so we began the tedious descent back down. Once we were off the summit block, we opted to descent more of the scree and took a slightly different route down staying in the open scree slopes more. In short time we reached the flat spot once again and by mid afternoon, we were back at the tent. I was really hoping to make it back to the car that night as I wasn't liking the idea of eating crap again after an effort like that while acclimating. So after a short break to rest the legs we broke camp and hiked back down the valley, and along the road back to the car. Just as the last rays of bright orange sun set on Volcan San Jose, we got to the car and went to find food.
The photo above looks up the small valley we hiked up, across the Las Arenas valley