16-Nov-2015 -- In November of 2015 I traveled to Chile to make some Confluence visits. This was the third one that I visited and hardest one to get to. Here's the story:
The day after my visit to 20°S 69°W visit #1 I drove my rented Toyota Hilux from I had camped for the night on up the road through the valley of the Rio Chancacholla and soon reached the Altiplano and entered a new and wonderful place. Now I was out of the canyons and into open country. On the green meadows along the Rio Chancacholla I saw flocks of duck and herds of llamas with brightly colored ribbons tied to their wool coats. To the east massive volcanoes rose high above the terrain. I drove south through a broad valley to the Salar del Huasco. From there the road climbed up a grade and when I came upon highway A-687, which was paved, I followed it down past the edge of the Salar de Coposa to the main gate of the Collaguasi Copper Mine where a dirt road going to Ollague on the Bolivian border split off to the southeast.
This road took me past the volcano Pabellón del Inca and the huge tailing pond of the Collaguasi mining complex to a road going west that would take me around the mining complex towards the Confluence. It was on this road that I reached the highest elevation of my trip, which was 4950 meters (16250 ft). After descending from that height I joined highway A-85 for a short distance until I got off onto a side road that followed a ridgeline down to the west towards the Confluence. This side road was something that I found on GoogleEarth when I was planning a route that would get me close to the Confluence. It went down a ridge between two canyon for 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) to its end and from there it would only be a 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) walk to the Confluence. The road looked like it was constructed to get access to sites for mining exploration drill pads. The road was in good shape and had even been fixed in places where there had been washouts from recent rains.
About a third of the way in the road split at the head of a canyon and I took the north fork as I had already decided to do based the planning I did with GoogleEarth. The north fork road had looked like it was in better condition than the south fork and it would get me closer to the Confluence than the south fork road would. From the end of the north fork road it looked (on GoogleEarth) to me like it would be a fairly easy walk down the ridge and across the canyon to the Confluence. As it turned out, that was a mistake. GoogleEarth is a great planning tool but it has its limitations. Things like the conditions of roads and the difficulty of walking across a particular terrain can only be determined for sure when you are there on the ground - as I was to find out. The farther down the road I drove the narrower and steeper and rockier it got. The Hilux was doing great but I was becoming concerned about damaging it or getting stuck out there. At about one kilometer (1/2 mile) from the end of the road I didn't want to push it any further and I parked and camped for the night.
The next day I was off to the Confluence just as the sun was coming up. Since the Confluence was on the other (south) side of the canyon, I thought it would easiest to just hike down through the canyon bottom until I got as close as I could and then climb up to it from there. It looked like this would be an easy day so I didn't take much in my daypack with me besides my GPS, camera, notebook and a bottle of water. I got to the canyon bottom easily enough but didn't get very far down it before I came upon a rock ledge that made a 10 meter (30 ft) drop down to the next level. There was no way for me to climb down or around it so I had no choice but to return to the Hilux, pack a lunch and more water bottles and go to the Confluence by way of the ridgeline as I had originally planned. If I had known what was in store for me in getting across the canyon by that route I would have crossed up by my camp where it wasn't nearly as steep.
I was soon off to the Confluence again - first on the road until it ended and then down a side ridge towards the canyon bottom. It was easy hiking for most of the way, but as I got closer to the bottom it got steeper and steeper and finally it was just too steep to keep going. I thought that I'd have to quit then and return to the Hilux but I looked around on the other side of the little ridge I was on and found a vicuña trail that I could follow. The last 20 meters (65 ft) or so to the canyon bottom was very steep and rocky but the vicuñas had found a way down and so did I. The bottom of the was a nice place. The floor was flat and open and I found some shade under a desert tree where I took a break. Nearby was a vertical outcropping of sandstone with a ripplemarked surface showing that where I was standing was once under the waters of a shallow sea.
Now I had to find a way up the other side of the canyon to get to the Confluence. Once again I looked to the vicuñas for help and found a place where one had gone up and I followed its tracks. I didn't get far before it became too steep for me and I stopped and climbed back down to the bottom. I was ready again to give up, but while I was walking up the canyon to find the place closest to the Confluence where I could document an incomplete visit I saw another possible route up that I decided to try. It was a difficult steep scramble and I was careful about marking the route I took because I needed to exactly follow it on the way back down. Even though I had an emergency satellite locator beacon with me – if I were to fall and get hurt or even stuck on a ledge somewhere, a rescue in that remote place would be a very difficult, dangerous and expensive thing. I kept climbing up until I found a vicuña trail that took me on a traverse across the side of the canyon to the Confluence.
The Confluence site was very close to the top of the ridge above the canyon. It was rocky and steep by not as steep as what I had just came up through. There was a good view to the west of the Atacama Desert and the Coastal Ranges. From this vantage point I could see that the steeply dipping sedimentary beds here were the beveled surface of a large tilted plane that made a ramp connecting the basins of the Atacama Desert with the Altiplano to the east. The deep canyons were just superficial features on this landscape. The only vegetation was small scattered plants that looked to me like dried weeds and there was a single clump of cactus to the west of the Confluence.
After I'd taken all the photos of the Confluence that I needed and made some notes it was time for me to go back to the Hilux. I could have had an easier walk back by going east on the ridge I was on and crossing the canyon up by my camp – and I should have - but I didn't. I took the same route back that I came in on and was back at the truck by mid-afternoon.
I think I was only able make this Confluence visit the hard way that I did because the vicuñas helped me out with their trails and the years of scrambling up and down steep mountainsides by myself in the deserts of the Western U.S. gave me the confidence and ability to do this sort of thing.
Next stop: 25°S 69°W visit #1.