Three drive days from Los Gigantes to Tuzgle, with the first overnight stop in the northern town of Salta, where we partook of the eponymous beer, camped next to the largest swimming pool anybody had ever seen. It must have been 500m long by 100m wide. We would have done some lengths, held a swimming gala, a diving competition - but the pool was empty and the only activity we managed was Rolf pitching his tent in the deep end. Durng our second overnight Bob 'Dancing Master' Barnes held the highest swing dance lesson in the world, pirouettes at 3500m. And it was cold that night: -10C inside the tents. But those sleeping in the truck enjoyed balmy, almost tropical, conditions at -2.5C. I know because I was there. Somebody spotted the fresh paw print of what was undoubtedly a large cat...
The pass over the eastern Andes to the altiplano took us up to 4500m, then down to 3800m to the elegant, spacious, almost regency-like town of San Antonio de los Cobres, which has endless facilities for the discerning visitor, cafes facing gracious tree-lined avenues, fashionable shops, manicured public lawns, blazing flowerbeds rioutous with colour. Or not. Seldom had anybody seen a more desolate wasteland in which to build a place to live. Passing through this hell-hole we carried on to our climbing venue, a canyon in the altiplano at 4200m, under the dark brooding cone of the Volcan Tuzgle after which the site is named. The first climbs had been put up by the Petzl Climbing Team and by virtue of its isolation (i.e.it's in the middle of sodding nowhere) it's very likely
we were only the second team to visit. So it's very likely the routes we did in traditional style were all new routes. So when you go look out for such new classics as 'Gibson's Corner' (HVS 4c) and 'A bridge too far' (6b), both new routes by Nathan 'Ginger Lanky Bastard' Gibson. Lots of bouldering too, on huge pink boulders scattered by some giant hand. And llamas, loads of them, herded by llama-dogs, running across the plain with only one thought in their minds: "Llamas, llamas, llamas". Only to round a corner to see a bunch of gringos: "Mierda, people, what the hell do I do now? ... I know, bark ... Mierda, they're not going anywhere ... I'll bark some more ... Nope, no good ... " and so they disappeared to get their llamas by some other route.
Tuzgle was distinguished also by the cold and the wind, the former being intense at night with hard clear skies letting the temperature drop to -10C, and the latter being ever-present and strong, strong enough to drive us away from the cliffs and boulders. So four days here was enough, and we headed back to San Antonio and thence the Chilean border, seeing the occasional group of the rare vicuña and a single lonely rhea, prepared for a lengthy border crossing.
And we got one. There is, at the Argentinian side of Paso de Sico, a whole series of canyons lined up one after the other, about 12 in all, all destined to be unclimbed as the isolated border outpost makes this sensitive territory. Now, we all expected the entry to Chile to be difficult and time-consuming and the exit from Argentina to be swift and trouble-free. Not a bit of it. Consider this: you are a bored and career-frustrated immigration officer in the middle of sodding nowhere and a red truck full of grimy gringos turns up. You are forced to interrupt your busy afternoon of doing sod-all to process them. Do you:
A. stamp them all through without delay - after all, once they're out of Argentina they're no longer your problem, let those bloody Chileans deal with them
B. be really officious, read your immigration regulations and seek to delay the border crossing for as long as possible; after all, they've ruined your afternoon so why shouldn't you ruin theirs?
You are about to select option A when you spy, hanging from its hook in the corner, your peaked cap. This decides you: option B it is.
And so it took us 2 and a half hours to get out of Argentina. The wait did, however, give us a chance to watch the Northern Branch of the Argentinian Amateur Desert Watering and Flattening Society practice their activities in preparation for the next National All-Argentinan Desert Grooming Championships. It was either this or God knows what. But they're very good at it - hardly a ripple to be seen under the desert sun.
So into Chile in the early evening, the setting desert sun turning everything pink around us, and a bitterly cold wind driving sand and dust ahead of it. The first few kilometers passed without incident until we arrived at the SAG post of El Laco. Which really is in the middle of sodding nowhere. SAG is the Chilean organisation responsible for the defence of the Chilean Nation against all things malign related to plants and animals. And so the chap practically emptied the truck, conficating such things as feathers, untreated wood, raw dried beans, and lentils. When these last were confiscated a resounding cheer went up from the team, huddled in a shed out of the bitterly cold wind, a cheer that you might have faintly heard in Britain and thought "What was that? Was it lentils being conficated in Chile?"
The final hurdle in crossing the border was to pass through Chilean immigration and Customs some miles inside the Chilian border in the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama, a reasonably swift process nearly ruined by Sam the Really Aged Canadian being too polite about pushing in front of a crowd of dwarfish Paraguayans who all made Gareth 'Stumpy' Thomas feel tall for once, something he was enjoying hugely. Once through we headed for the hostal, which turned out to be a somewhat rustic affair made from (well, parts of it anyway, those parts not being part of the organic growth made from practically anything she could get her hands on) adobe brick and run by an enterprising middle-aged Chilean lady called Monica who called me 'hijo'.