Oof. 50 miles in 16 hours? Holy God.
On Saturday, Quim and I finally set out on our attempt to summit Volcán Descabezado, starting from Vilches Alto and then returning all in the same day. The trip to the foot of the volcano is exactly 20 miles, with almost exactly 5 miles to the top. Afterwards, clearly, you gotta go back.
The aesthetic appeal of this route is pretty undeniable. Great trail running through forests, across rivers, grassy valleys where wild horses roam, and super-technical steep rocky descents...and all of that is pushing you towards the ascent of a 12,500 ft. volcano (a FUCKING volcano!). Plus, it seems all too fortuitous that the distance from the trailhead to the summit and back is honest-to-God exactly 50 miles, an obviously well-established ultramarathon distance.
Switching to present tense to add to sense of (non)drama...now:
We wake up at 3am for a 4 am departure. I drink some coffee and eat 3 Pb&J's because I love them so much it makes me emotional. With headlamps aglow and feet a-shuffling, we begin the several miles of ascent into the park. From there, the trail is nothing but 8 miles of excellent rolling single track that sneakily ascends towards the top of Valle Venado. At this hour, the tarantulas are out and we are careful not to crush any of the dozens of those little bastards all over the trail. Ah, and there are tons of bats. Cool.
The view looking over the Río Claro and Valle Venado is easily one of my favorites in Chile thus far. As a runner, you pretty much have your head down as you approach the lookout. The trail is rocky here and it climbs with a little more aggression. So, you're working a bit and then, suddenly, the smattering of brush and trees opens up and POW! you're looking straight down over the valley with views of Descabezado, Cerro Azul and the Andes in all their splendor.
Of course, we see none of this when we arrive because it's still pitch-black night. We begin the descent to the river valley with much less recklessness than usual. I stare deeply into the round pool of light cast by my headlamp, shocked at how easy it feels to slip n' slide around the very narrow, dusty switchbacks. A misstep would send me hurtling several hundred feet into darkness. And, um, death.
By the time we hit the river, the sun was starting push out from behind the mountains and illuminate the valley. We're about 2 hours into the run and opt to walk for few minutes while we eat some food. PB&J #4 goes down even better than his siblings #1-3. We jog in the sand for about a mile along the river towards the trail leading up to the Valle Venado refuge. The trail now begins a very mellow, but persistent climb along one of the tributaries rushing down through the pumice stone left from eruption's lava deposits. NOTE: Technically, the rock is rhyodacite which I will only mention because my geologist father might be interested...otherwise, the stuff looks like white pumice. So, dat's what Imma call it!
After we pass the refugio, the trail stays locked into a long, rolling climb. Through forest, bramble, wood and wily brier...perchance a bit of thistle? followed by patches of thicket? I'm getting drunk, now, while writing this. "Más cocido que un botón de oro" as they say in Chile.
Cliffs, transcending our puny, planar human triflings by being all fucking tall and rad and shit.
Ok ok. Enough. After a couple thousand feet of climbing, we reach a flat river bed. Cross that frigid bitch a couple times, avoid some wild cattle shit and then we reach Las Termas. There's a natural thermal pool of sulfuric water supposedly good for bathing. Additionally, there is a fresh water source, the last before the volcano summit. We refill our bottles/packs and stare with wonder at the crazy huaso who fucking lives at the river, in a shack made of rocks stacked together and some sticks (I can't believe I don't have a photo of this, but my camera decided to stop working about 10 minutes into the day. All the pics are Quim's). Anyway, we start the trip to the top.
The Garmin died after about 37 miles. Rest assured, we did make it home.
The ascent of Descabezado would be challenging no matter what. The numbers are rough: 6,500 ft. of climbing in a bit less than 5 miles. However, what truly makes Descabezado just absolutely brutal is the terrain. The surface of the volcano is composed of marble-sized pumice stones. Each step is accompanied by sinking/sliding. The first several miles involve following winding tracks over dune-like hills of these stones. Steadily, the trails pitch upward towards the cone of the volcano. In the final 800m of the climb, the grade becomes very steep and there are patches of scree and dangerous sections of large, loose rocks. The going is a little quicker if you elect to crawl/climb the rocky sections, but be sure no one is directly above or below you as it is very easy to dislodge soccerball-sized stones with any given step. The rocks are stacked Jenga-style and everything is sketchy.
The scenery during the ascent is other-worldly. It looks very much like photos taken on the surface of a distant planet. Black volcanic boulders jut irregularly out of the ashy white pumice dunes. There is no vegetation or animal life. The wind is very strong and the occasional cluster of clouds goes whizzing by overhead so quickly that the lighting often seems to flicker or strobe, like watching a sped-up time lapse video. Add to that the need to shout anything you say while always steadying yourself against the stronger gusts...and you have a fairly surreal (and intense) setting.
What can I say? It was very hard. The last 800 meters probably took me 40 minutes. I have never been at altitude before and I suffered intensely. I stopped to breath and felt very dizzy. Additionally, I have never experienced the mountain weather. I felt burning hot in the sun, but when gusts of wind would hit me I would start shivering violently. I felt the urge to lay down and sleep several times and considered giving up, going back to the termas and waiting for Quim to summit. Thankfully, he didn't let me pussy out and now we are even for his meltdown at the Santiago TNF 80K.
Check out my little "red rocket" poking up from my special place. What a fucking dork I turned out to be. Oh well.
So, the "down" was better. The pumice dunes made for a quick, leaping descent. I felt instantly better as we made our way down and felt perfect by the time we returned to the termas and refilled our water. In total: 4.5 hours up and 1 hour down. The best estimate we ever received from locals was that a fast summit and return on Descabezado should take 10 hours. So...we were faster than that. So, I feel more like a man now? I don't know what the point of anything is. Where's my scotch?
So, the return trip of 20 miles I had pegged at about 4.5-5 hours. Max. Quim, unfortunately, had a fairly parallel bonk as the Santiago race and we ended up walking waaaaay too much of the way back home. I was OK with that, but after I reach a certain point of discomfort...it doesn't really matter to me if we walk, jog or even run. Everything hurts the same. Quim says to me that he is hallucinating and feels horrible. I tell him I'm tired of being outside and if we don't get home before 10pm we won't be able to buy beer from the cabin down the road so he had better get his ass in gear. We get back freakishly at EXACTLY 16 hours after we left. I drink some beer. I talk about tarantulas with some dude staying at the cabins while his girlfriend stares at her feet and says nothing. Vibed out.
Final note: I'm now very confident I can go back and cut several hours off of this time. I'm thinking I may try it again next month. I spent nearly all of the run to the volcano thinking "My God! This would make an incredible race course!" However, after actually hiking the damn thing, I can honestly say that I think it's a little too dangerous to make a good race. There is no way to get help in or out and there just isn't that kind of infrastructure here in Chile. So...it just makes a great one day outing of epic proportion that I would recommend to everyone.
Ok, well I need to finish this bottle of scotch and read some articles about the Colombian drug trade. I hope everyone is doing well and feels good. Like they knew that they would. Now.
Mon: lo normal, hillier. 10 miles. 2 hours. 2,000ft.
Tues: 1:00:00 bike. weights.
Wed: AM: lo normal(ish), but harder effort. 9 miles. 1:30:00. 1,500 ft.
Thurs: 1:30:00 bike. weights.