07-May-2005 -- The confluence: On the western slope of a line of volcanoes that runs from Volcan Lascar to Volcan Licancabur at an approximate altitude of 2950m. The route is easy walking on old volcanic bedrock with vague trails and an amazing number of man-made cairns to stop you getting lost. What makes this a challenge are the deep and sheer sided clefts which run on a vague east to west direction curving slightly south. These clefts are impossible to cross.
The trip to this confluence turned out to be plagued by bad luck, poor judgement and stupidity. I was up in the mining town of Calama for a couple of days work, having been here almost exactly a year before and scoped out the confluence.
One route in was a walk in from the road to Paso de Jama, a 10km walk along the 3000m contour that looked to be plagued by the crevices. More likely looking was using the Alma project road. (see Targ Parson’s excellent description in visit #2)
I spent the week prior to this trip trying to get permission to access the road to no avail, due to the last minute nature of the request and the fact that no one would be available at the weekend: permission was refused. This later proved to be a boon. I reckoned at worst I would have a 26km round trip walk from the road from San Pedro to Tocanao.
A 6:00am start in Calama saw me leaving the restaurant heading for the elevators when the keys of my rental 4x4 slipped out of my hand. I watched in disbelief as they slid across the tiled floor coming almost, but not quite, to a stop before plunging down the elevator shaft. My heart sunk. The receptionist assured me we had no option but to wait for the elevator service engineers, if they happened to be available at the weekend. Meanwhile a resourceful bellhop managed to lock the elevator and fish the keys out from the shaft. Relief. I was off.
By 8:00am I passed San Pedro and had found a good dirt track heading straight in towards the confluence. More direct than the Alma project road. It brought me to within 6.5kms. My luck had turned. Or so I thought. While hesitantly driving across some 200m of soft sand to try to save me some walking, I decided to err on the side of safety and turn the 4x4 around and back to more solid ground. Driving back over my own tracks the jeep suddenly sank to its axles in the sand. I spend the next hour trying to dig it out by hand. No joy. I then walked the 7 so kms back out to the road. Back in San Pedro everyone directed me to Alfonso and his rescue jeep. Loaded with sand ladders and every conceivable rescue apparatus we headed back to my marooned jeep. "This looks soft" said Alfonso as he drove over the sand. It was. We spend the next 2 hours digging first my jeep and then his out of the sand.
By 2.45pm I was finally ready to attempt to get to the confluence. I would have one shot. By 6pm it would be dark. And I had at least a 13km walk and 500m to ascend. As described, the sloping plateau is crossed by crevices that curve gently around to the sound. Leaving the car at S 22º59.219 W 068º03.772, I decided to head to the up the North side of the crevice. I reckoned that the crevice would get shallower as it headed up the mountain. And hoped it would curve South of the confluence. Both assumptions were wrong. The gorge deepened to an astounding 20m sheer cleft, impossible to cross except back where I had left the car. 2 hours into the walk it was obvious I was now on the wrong side. I decided to at least get level with the confluence. At 5pm I called a halt, took the requisite photos and chased the setting sun down the slope only just making it before nightfall.
This confluence is do-able. Follow the track west from S 22º00.488 W 068º08.500 on the Toconao road, a reasonable cycle from San Pedro. Head up the South of the gorge and allow some 4 to 5 hours walking at a good pace. Good luck. I'll be back next year.