Bad weather phenomenon “El Nino” covers the four of us on the 4000m high Altiplano in snow and creates in the same time perfect conditions for South Americas 3rd 9a: “Ruta de Cobre” in Socaire, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
The sky is meant to shine on us, the wind should vanish in the day. So did the forecast say. I am supposed to do a last training session in my project “Ruta de Cobre” in somehow too hot conditions on the sunny side of the canyon. And then go South to take a break from the hardness of the Altiplano for our small kids (two and five years old), our cat (six months old) and the two of us.
But the sky is grey and winds are blowing salty air from the Salar de Atacama 1000m below into our faces. Three degrees, maybe four. Jules hugs the cat. We are sitting in down jackets inside the bus. My hands cling to the hot (cup of) mate, that nevertheless never can be really hot, as water already boils at 80° on 3600m. Jeanne is visiting some friends in Santiago and so its uniquely up to me to decide: Leave or stay. Christobal and Sophia, two friends from Chile, offered to climb with me and play with the kids meanwhile. Some snow flakes pass by and begin to resist instead than to surrender to the slightly warmer ground. They gather on the cold side of the canyon.
Little later I watch my fingers clicking draws into these hangers. Draws that I can’t feel. Ice is just another word for loosing touch to senses. The passages go well, but this is not what the Altiplano wants from you: It wants your breath. It wants you to turn blue, to hackle through your last moves with your last little bit of oxygen. Before you fall. And then it watches you quietly hanging there for a while regaining breath and control.
But we have levelled Altiplano. She is our friend now and our companion in the race for the trophy of the hardest rope climb on a whole continent. Since nearly two months we now beg for air, for warmth, for days that won’t blow us away, but for quite a while (the first three weeks at least) she just arranged her beauty in front of our eyes with all her shapes and all her colours. Mountain ranges, salt lakes, Guanacos. Not hearing any of our pleas. And only from week to week she started to loosen her grip on us, letting us feel more and more like we used to feel in normal heights. By then she choose to live in us.
That was before the Puna (local word for Altiplano) began to even help us in our efforts. Eating fat from our bones and setting us in this strange and berserk like life mode, in which you don’t feel the fatigue of hard climbing days, don’t feel the dizziness of too few oxygen during red point tries in your brain and don’t feel the hunger. A life mode that rather gets you high. And flowing on the berserk shape. Maybe the shape of your life.
The first try of this cloudy, windy, cold fourth of June (and the 17th try in all) then will be the first real reward for having stayed tough and smart facing the harshness of the heights. It is a technically perfect run through this slightly overhanging wall with crimpy pockets, far moves and precise foot placings. After a small 7A start boulder comes a fair rest that on sea level would be of marginal meaning for the whole route, but here has to be taken seriously, as every breath you loose on the way up, will come back to you only five times slower than in normal conditions. The rest point lets you directly in the first crux with a delicate crimp above a delicate flag and another bad rest. Breathe deeply but flatly but calm! Or try to find a compromise between reoxygenation and concentration on the crux above. Up to here you have done more or less 8b, the moves around the far double left hand reach into two miniscule crack crimps sum up to 8A/8A+ boulder. Top this out and you have passed through copper road (bits of copper appear everywhere in the rock).
Especially regarding the 8A boulder that I later sent (despite a totally different style and bad conditions) in the coast spots around Coquimbo, it´s definitively 9a. For smaller and less acclimatised climbers who aren’t blessed with finger strength than I am, it should be even upper end. If you stay straight on the track naturally, as there is a looping variant in loose rock using the “rails” on the side, that is much easier. But don’t worry: Every climber who loves the beauty of a line will try Ruta de Cobre the way I did. It is just too good, too pure. Too Puna.