Sierra Nevada de Lagunas Bravas

The snowy mountain of the wild lakes.

Bob Ayers found it.

An unclimbed mountain!

The complex summits of Sierra Nevada de Lagunas Bravas.
The highest summit is the one just left of the black topped mesa.

John Biggar, in "The Andes, A guide for Climbers" said that three of the 99 summits over 6000 meters have no recorded ascents including a peak named Sierra Nevada.

In 1998, Bob and I saw Sierra Nevada from the summit crater of Ojos del Salado.

So, when Bob invited me to go climb the peak with him, I signed up immediately. I have been climbing mountains for over 30 years and reading mountaineering literature even longer, yet I had never done a first ascent. I thought I had the necessary skills, now it was time to find out.

The peak we chose was a complex volcano on the Chile-Argentina Border named Sierra Nevada de Lagunas Bravas. It is 6127 meters high, (20,100 feet). There was no record of anyone ever having climbed it, yet it was near enough to Paso de San Francisco, the trans-andean route of the Inca empire that it was possible we might find that the Inca had been there before us. Many first ascent parties in the Andes have been surprised on the summits of high mountains like Llullillaco to find stone houses and shelters built by indians 500 years before. Perhaps we would too.

Bob bought a map of the mountain from the IGM, the mapping survey of Chile. It had a scale of 1/250,000 and was not very useful for planning a route, but it was a start.

Topo of Sierra Nevada
A map of Sierra Nevada. Click to enlarge.

There were no photographs of the mountain! However, I did find a web page on Andean Volcanos which included an air photo and a space image. The page said that Sierra Nevada was in "the most remote and inaccessible part of the central Andes," which probably explained why it had never been climbed.

space photo of Sierra Nevada
A thematic mapper image of Sierra Nevada. Notice the craters and lava flows. The blue is ice.
Click to enlarge.

Staring at the image I could see lava flows, ice fields and strange regions of light and dark soil. Finding a route through the complicated maze of lava and ice was definitely going to be an adventure.

In 1998 we hired Maximiliano Martinez and his company, Aventurismo, to search out an off road route to the mountain. Maximiliano and his son Sebastian drove two, four-wheel drive vehicles in to the base of Sierra Nevada and gave Bob pictures of their trip. They had managed to drive through some beautiful wild Atacama desert country to reach our proposed base camp northwest of the summit at the bottom of Quebrada Arenal.

In the year of preparation leading up to the climb we added two more members to our party: Paul Morgan and Tony Brake. I've been climbing with Paul for over 20 years. Tony was a new acquaintance, but Paul spoke highly of him, they shared an open bivy ledge on Mount Kenya and came away friends, high praise indeed.

We also used the year of preparation to get a permit from the Chilean Ministry of Frontiers and Limits You must get a permit to climb a mountain on the border. It takes three months to get the permit, when it arrived we celebrated.

The mountain is also known as Sierra Nevada (Puna). Our spanish dictionary translated the sspanish word puna into the english word "Puna." Big help! However we later found that Puna is the proper name for a large region of the Atacama desert. A second dictionary told us puna had taken on two meanings: a "high bleak plateau" and "difficulty in breathing." The mountain we were going to climb rose 6,000 feet above the plateau. We would certainly get to see plenty of "puna" on our trip.

The Adventure

Click on the images to see enlargements.

hotel inca maxi and pancho

We met Maxi and Pancho at Hotel del Inca in El Salvador.

Maxi and Pancho were full of good humor, I was looking forward to driving with them across the desert.

We had just come from the market where we entertained the other shoppers with our purchases of peanut butter and other exotic foods.

After meeting Maxi we drove to the market and purchased 80 liters of water, one human body weight. This would give 4 of us enough water for 5 days at base camp. Higher up the mountain we planned to melt ice for water.

Maxi brought us 5 liters of Bencina Blanca for our stove.

poster for the tenth desert ride.

Inside the hotel we saw a poster for the tenth off road ride across the desert "X Raid." 40 vehicles were going to circle around the desert, passing near our basecamp.

It was comforting to think that if we got really stuck in the desert a caravan would rescue us.

We drank in the pictures of the salars, or salt pans, desert and lakes.

We were glad that we were going in to base camp in a convoy of two vehicles, if one got stuck the other could rescue it. Pancho would stay at basecamp with one vehicle while Maxi drove home.

Pancho was a top mountaineer, we invited him to join us on our climb, however he showed us his recently sprained ankle and declined our invitation. He was looking forward to recovering at base camp.

driving in the rio juncal.

We drove inland and uphill past the refinery at Potrerillos, the town where Pancho was born and Maxi had been school principal.

We left the road near the watering hole of La Ola driving beside the Rio Juncal. When we left the road Maxi joked that soon we would be driving in the river!

He wasn't joking. Driving in the river provided access to the deep desert.

Maxi's 4 wheel drive van carried our team and its gear. The way was rough and we were glad for the large number of handles we could grab to hold ourselves inside the vehicle. The water in the river is sweet and drinkable.


After several bouts of abandoning our seats to push the cars through deep soft sand we arrived at basecamp.

The wind was blowing so we anchored our tents well.

Tony put up his North Face Oval 25 tent as the basecamp tent.

Pancho had his own 1 man tent.

For the mountain we brought a Bob's 4 man Himalayan Hotel.

Only 2 could sleep in Tony's tent but all of us could fit inside for dinner and breakfast.

At bedtime, Bob and I spread our groundcloths on the desert and slipped into our sleeping bags.

The southern stars were phenomenal. I enjoyed watching the clouds of Magellan, the coal sack near the southern cross and much more.

The route from Basecamp to camp 1 was up Quebrada Arenal. Here is the view from camp 1 down Quebrada Arenal to basecamp.

The Quebrada was a dry wash floored with white stones, I called it "the great white way."

Basecamp was at 14,800 feet, higher than the summit of Mount Whitney. Camp 1 was at 17,000 feet. Camp 2 at 18,000 feet and the summit at 20,100 feet, nearly as high as the summit of Mount McKinley.

Hiking up the Quebrada we saw tracks of vicuna. We also saw occasional small clumps of grass It was hard to believe that any animals could survive on such meager food.


Above camp 1 was a spectacularly beautiful amphitheater. A thousand foot high bowl of white cream and tan streaked rocks. It was so neat that in the US it would have been a National Monument. This bowl was the source of the white rocks i the quebrada.

Our topographic maps showed that the white bowl was a glacier. We planned camp 1 at its base to harvest the ice to make drinking water. The map was wrong, the white was sand, clay and rock.

Luckily, near camp 1 there was a small field of neve penetentes.

Paul Morgan and I harvested several plastic bag fulls of ice to melt for water.

Then, while Tony and Paul set up camp and melted ice, Bob and I went ahead to scout a route to camp 2. We started up into the slot between split Dome and Black Mesa where we could see a snow field for water along what we thought would be the shortest route to the summit. But rough lava flows made the going difficult so we headed west crossing over the top of the "National Monument."

There we found a flat spot for camp 2 together with more ice for water.

When we arrived at the spot we had chosen for camp 2, we realized that we might be able to push up a little higher.

Paul M and I explored ahead and found an advanced site for camp 2. It was right at the base of the massive maze of lava flows and ice that separated us from the summit.

We moved up to the new site, set up the Himalayan Hotel and started to melt ice to make water for dinner and for tomorrow's summit bid.

We still could not see the summit and wondered what difficulties tomorrow would bring.

A cold wind blew all night and in the morning it was very cold outside the tent (-15 C). Luckily the body heat from four of us kept the tent warm.

Before the sun hit the tent, we put on our down parkas covered them with goretex wind stoping layers, put on gloves and hats and stepped out into the cold clear air ready to find a route to the summit.

Bob Ayers hiking through the maze of black lava and stark white ice.

When we climbed the first lava flows all we could see were more lava flows.

Between the lava flows were un-moving deposits of snow and ice, not glaciers. These were awful to cross, this year's rotten layer of foot high neve penetentes lay on last years solid ice four foot layer of ice blades. Nasty. Mostly we hiked on the loose lava flows.

After wandering through the maze with invaluable guidance from our GPS systems we climbed up onto a lava flow and got our first view of our goal.

It was beautiful, we could see a route to the summit immediately.

Our spirits rose, now all we had to do was to follow our spirits with our bodies.

We climbed a ramp diagonalling up and right to the south ridge, the right skyline in this photo, then followed the ridge to the summit.

Bob was the first one to step onto thetop of the south ridge.

The wind was picking up, shredding the clouds behind him.

We walked uphill. Trying to find the firmest footing in the loose scree that coated the mountain. I used the mountaineers rest step breathing once for every footfall.

Bob Ayers and paul Morgan on the summit.

As we climbed a cold wind began to grow as it does most afternoons in this region of the Andes. We donned our goretex shells again, plus hats and gloves and pushed on upwards toward the summit.

Bob was the first one on the summit. As was only fitting since this whole trip was his idea. He greeted us by saying he had bad news and great news.

The bad news was that there was a cairn on the summit. The very good news was that he had built it!

We were the first ones to climb Sierra Nevada de lagunas Bravas. Our whole team made the summit. We spent an hour on top savoring the climb.

We returned to camp 2 for the night. Tired and happy.

The next day we packed down from camp 2, stopping by camp 1 to pick up even more gear, then with heavy loads made our way back to base camp where Pancho greeted us with high fives and handshakes when he learned of our success.

We slept one more night at basecamp. Got up and packed the truck which wasn't as clean as it was before.

Then departed for the "fleshpots" of Copiapo.

Actually what we wanted most was a shower and a place out of the wind in which to smell flowers and drink wine.

After the mountain, the team gathers in the lobby of Hotel La Casona in Copiapo.

Washed, fed, rested and ready for another first ascent...after all, there are still two unclimbed Andean summits waiting for us.

Bob asked, "where are all the old time climbers rushing to snap up the unclimbed peaks of the world?"

I looked at him and answered,

"Bob, WE ARE the old climbers."

Here are more details of our trip.

Assembling the Team: Just like in the movies begin by meeting the team and learning how they get ready.

Short Stories: vignettes from the mountain.

The Route: Including GPS waypoint coordinates.

Gear List, what I brought


Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty

© 2000

21 Nov 2000