Awesome Mountains in Chile: Cerro Marmolejo, the southernmost 20,000+ft in the world

Awesome Mountains in Chile: Cerro Marmolejo, the southernmost 20,000+ft in the world

There are so many extraordinary mountains in Chile. Cerro Marmolejo is one of them, located in Cajon del Maipo and easily accessed from Santiago, Chile. At 6108m, it’s the southernmost 6000m/20,000ft+ mountain in the world! Nothing about her views dissapoint!! It’s a tiring 5-7 days to the summit, climbed November – March.

When Cerro Marmolejo was still a glisten in my eye, a friend told me, “every time I climb Cerro Marmolejo, at least one point during the climb, I say to myself, I’m never climbing sucker this again.” (Did you notice that, “every time I climb Marmolejo”?)

Now that I’ve got this gorgeous summit under my belt, I get it. Cerro Marmolejo is like an untamed stallion; so mesmerizing to look at but once you make that decision to get on, you better be ready for the ride!

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in late January, I summited the mountain Cerro Marmolejo at 3:45pm. It is the southernmost 6000 meter / 20,000 foot mountain in the world, and more importantly, a mountain that leaves an important mark in my mountain climbing story. At that time, I had already climbed a many mountains in Chile, and a significant number in Cajon del Maipo, but I never imagined Cerro Marmolejo would be on my list of checks.

This is a mountain that when you talk about it, people widen their eyes or say, “ooooh, you’ve got harness, ropes, and all that? The cracks on that glacier can be huge.” or “Oooh, that one, that’s a tough one.”

Ropes, glaciers, crevasses, altitude… gulp. Well, then I climbed San Jose Volcano and also did a course on Progression and Rescue on Glaciers, and I said to myself, “Go get ‘er, girl!”. So I said it, and I did it, and I just want to share this story with you, because I feel proud, humbled and blessed, after what surely will be something I remember forever.

Cerro Marmolejo – One of the best mountains in Chile

My second foot leveled with the first, and I knew that I had finally made it. My eyes, within milli-seconds, were eagerly scanning the panoramic, taking in my anxiously awaited reward. The legs that didn’t wanna keep moving, the lungs that gasped for air every 30 steps, my achiles that was aching from rhe unrelenting incline, my mind that wondered if the top was ever gonna actually arrive…. all that vanished with the speed of light.

All the energy that I had strategically been saving, so I didn’t run out before the mission was accomplished, released from my eyes in the form of drops of tears. The work was done and I took in the overwhelmingly and humbling-ly beautiful sight in front of me.

The summit of Marmolejo truly is everything you need it to be. I felt lucky and blessed to be witnessing the miracle of this earth with my own eyes, and I also felt so damn empowered for pushing myself through everything that encompassed the 4 days (and 11 hours just that day) to get there.

The journey to Cerro Marmolejo’s summit is a challenge that beats even taller mountains in Chile. For me, it required 100% of what my body had to offer. And then, it required 100% of my mind, when my body thought it couldn’t go any more, but I knew it could.

Cerro Marmolejo – Day #1
Crossing rivers and rockbeds on the way to Base Camp (11,800 feet)

Rivers and valleys and mules, oh my! The first day is a trek of almost 9 miles through two of Chile’s most beautiful valleys, Valle de la Engorda and Valle del Estero Marmolejo in Cajon del Maipo. That said, it’s not a bad idea to rent mules until base camp, if you want to make the route in 5 days.  Trekking these long valleys without the weight of the heavy equipment needed for higher up, makes one hell of a difference!

The incline is very gradual, but the distance, terrain and heat are challenging. It includes crossing a few rivers and streams, some of which have strong and steady currents. Entering into the second valley, you cross the Marmolejo River, which flows intensly and easily throws large rocks around like little toys. Water crossing shoes are a must! It also can get pretty high, so it is advisable to leave early in the morning while it’s lower and easier to cross.

Following this crossing, you have hours on end of walking over rocks of varying sizes. It gets very tiring, stepping up, on and around them… some stable, others not. Looking around, it’s just rocks, everywhere in sight. I couldn’t help but note the different formations and imagine back when the glacier was making its way through.

Also, the sun beats heavily. In general, the route is beautiful, but long. Long as hell. This first day to Base Camp is about 10 hours. When we finally arrived, literally, we put up tent and collapsed for a bit before re-joining to make dinner. The site was beautiful, a little plateau scattered with random rocks and some snow draped mountains right in front.

I looked around, wondering how the route continued and where we’d cross to get out of the little bowl we were in. And then I saw something. Straight up. “No way, that can’t be it. That’d like a 90 degree angle,” I thought.  Although a bit exaggerated, it did not look plausible nor fun. But yes, in fact, that was it. Ufff, talk about “starting the day off running.”

Reflecting on the day recently completed, and seeing how day #2 would start, I quickly realized that, with this mountain, nothing would be given, all would be earned.

We made dinner, toasted whole wheat pitas with avocado and tomato, and marshmallows, and called her a night.

We needed to rest. But rest we did not! All night, the sound of huge rock landslides roared in the silent mountain air. It was like a waterfall for minutes on end, over, and over, and over again.

Me, someone who never wakes up and sleeps through just about everything, couldn’t sleep. Yeah, that’s proof it was noisy… and a bit terrifying. I knew we were in a safe place, but it was sure a “put you in your place” moment. Mother Nature’s power has no limits.

Cerro Marmolejo Day #2
11,800 to 14,100 feet

Day number two was short but not so sweet. Only about 1.5 miles of distance and about 2,300 feet of elevation. On paper, not that bad. In reality, the day tested my nerves like they’d never been tested before.

So, within minutes, we started with a couple brutal hours of extremely steep climbing, on that type of loose terrain that, with every step up, includes a little sliding down. About 30/40 minutes in, we already needed to take a 10 minute break… everyone looking at each other like, what the hell is this?! We looked up to see the path, same terrain, straight up.

We heaved on our backpacks and forged on. When I was arriving to the top of this second stretch, I wondered what I’d see on the other end of this wall. Well, I wasn’t too thrilled when I saw what was in store.

The loose terrain, sure, it’s annoying because it’s very tiring. But, it’s opposite, the sleek, hard ground is the worst. It is very difficult to grip and you’re constantly looking for rocks jutting out even a half inch. Anything to grip and secure your foot. And this was all around a jagged peak.

The next few hours were carefully calculated steps. Our arms gripping the mountain for extra security whenever possible. Randomly I had fleeting thoughts creep in, “how are we gonna get down this?” But I quickly shoo’ed them away, there was no space for doubt or distractions.

Finally, we got to a point that was more of a crossing; still steep, but at least we could sit.

My calves were litterally convulsing from tension and tiredness, and I said a little “thank you Lord” while I waited for the rest of the group. I sat there, at 13,100 feet, and looked around me, realizing that this was a rugged mountain, no doubt about it.

Jagged, towering peaks in all directions. We sat at that spot a good half hour; we were all tired beyond belief. Fright sure takes its toll in addition to the pure physical output, and our shoulders were feeling the heavy 50+lb backpacks.

The same terrain continued for the third stretch of the day. At one point, we had to cross from one side to another, which is its own mind game. When you’re climbing up, be it loose or smooth ground, your center of gravity is lower and you’re just looking up.

When you crossing on steep slope you’re standing and you’ve got the perspective of all around and… down. While I always am careful, I don’t like being reminded so blatantly that there’s sever consequences to not doing so.

We finally made it in one piece to the second camp site, which didn’t disappoint as a reward for the day. We had a view of the fake summit and the Marmolejo glacier on one side, and towering black, snow dappled mountains on the other. The mountains in Chile are seriously some of the most beautiful things your eyes can see.

Time to eat a late lunch and recharge the batteries (ie: rest). We were starved, it was 4ish and we’d been going full for 8 hours. I’d only eaten a protein bar, some nuts/dried fruits, and a fruit pure. Getting to camp so early was nice, so we set up tent, ate, napped about an hour, melted snow for water and chatted under the sun. Just as it started to go down, we crawled into our sleeping bags to keep toasty and call ‘er a night.

Cerro Marmolejo Day #3
14,100 to 16,100 feet 

Day number 3 was a great day, tiring but doable. And on the plus side, no “am I going to fall off/down this mountain” fleeting thoughts. Don’t worry fam and friends, I was always safe and in control, but those creepy little thoughts still make their way in.

This day was lovely, just one foot in front of the other, pushing on, though a landscape that somehow got prettier by the minute. We eventually took a break at the beginning of the Marmolejo glacier. It was gorgeous, full of these ice formations that I best describe as upside down icicles (ie: instead of hanging, they are based on the ground).

At this point in time, I still loved those penitents (that’s the word in Spanish) and climbed in and around, taking photos. In front of us was the false summit and behind us were these truly stunning peaks that made my heart throb. I loved them.

The glacier and the penitentes also were just mind blowing. It was hundreds of football fields of these ice formations, so calm and shimmering and so powerful at the same time. Every time I see penitentes, I wonder how in the world they form! Just another reminder of how perfect nature is and the miracle that is all the elements in play.

Our third campsite, at 16,100 feet was, again, gorgeous. Rugged, raw, gorgeous country.  We camped right next to the edge of the glacier, with one backdrop of the fake summit and field of penitentes and another of majestic, silent peaks.

I ran around taking pictures. I just couldn’t stop! In one area, all the mountains below were endless red and orange peaks. In another, all black and snow dabbled. In yet another, penitentes for daaaaayz.

We went to bed early this night, like 8:30pm, in order to make sure we were well rested for summit day. My back, shoulders, legs… well, my everything, needed to coop. I waited till the sun started setting, so I could get a pic of the sun lighting up the peaks of the mountains and the glacier, and then passed out, dreaming of the summit  and praying for good weather.

Cerro Marmolejo Day #4, Summit Day
16,100 to 20,100 feet, and back down to 16,100

The clock hits 3:00am. My eyes slowly flutter open. And then close. About 15 minutes of that “in between” sleeping and waking up. I wiggle my arm out of my sleeping bag. Yep, it’s cold. Damn. Flip to my side and cuddle in my sack like a little baby, so warm. So good.

But I had to get up, the day had arrived. Woo hoo!!!! I was ecstatic, it just wasn’t visible yet hahaha. What would the day bring bring?!

Mauricio wakes up too. Thankfully, he’s more of a morning person than me and sits up to boil the water before curling back into his sack. The water boils and he prepares our teas before I eventually sit up and murmur, “Brrrrrrrrrrrr” as I reach for the tea. It was cold.

Breakfast was tea and a whole-wheat pita with jelly. Sounds like so little, and it is, but the altitude plays tricks on your belly. I’ve found that in higher altitude, especially in the morning, I can’t handle more. In general, the altitude reduces hunger and you often eat only because you know you have to.

Eating two pitas instead of one in the morning leaves my stomach feeling heavy and makes me nauseous once I start climbing. In these moments, your body needs to get it’s energy to your muscles, not spend it all just processing food! The key is frequent, small foods.

My favorite part of the morning is crawling back into my sack for 5 minutes after finishing my hot tea and eating. It’s such a guilty pleasure if I can do it, and so gratifying with the hot water and a little food in my belly.

Time to cross the Marmolejo glacier

Anyways, with two smart wool base layers on and my impermeable top later, both top and bottom, and my parka… I eventually crawled out of the tent into the darkness, ready to take on the day. The glacier is the first obstacle of the day, so crampons go on right away. Ok, 5:00am, headlight on, here I go.

Climbing on “top” of those penitentes, stepping from one to another, using your ice axe to make sure each is stable, it’s a mentally intense task. Watching the ground as I balanced over those tips, sometimes there’d be a little or medium sized crack alongside. And sometimes a big, dark hole.

Sometimes the tips were united in a long, skinny line, which didn’t make balancing so easy, and sometimes it was stepping from one to the other. It took a little to get used to walking like this, but slow and steady, I got the hang of it.

The further we went in, the taller and bigger the penitentes got. Towards the middle, they were the size of me! Here, we had to finangle between them, swinging our legs over the tips then lifting ourselves over and up.

Truly, and I say truly, my love affair with the penitentes came to a screeching halt. These suckers had fooled me, looking so pristine, calm and serene. They had putten on quite the façade, but when you crawl up in them, they show you their true colors. They stop being nice.

“Oh, you big?” they say, “we bigger!”
“Oh you strong? Well keeping liftin yo’ self between us!”
And of course the, “oh, you getting comfortable?!” “Here’s a crack, just to remind you who’s boss.”

Yeeeeeah. And on top of it, it’s impossible to know the right, efficient direction as there is no path. You need to navigate the safe way, depending on cracks, holes, and size of the penitentes. It’s not as the crow flies.

Two hours in and we were all starting to feel like jelly. And, imagine, it’s still not light out, it’s cold, and we’re in the middle of a glacier. Yeah, you said it, brrr.

The sunrise over the glacier lit up in such a magical way, however, that it replenished my energy and refilled my motivation like it always does.

This glacier crossing took five long ass hours. We had two in our group who were not doing so well. Mind control in this part, especially as the hours pass, is key. You can’t get too down or frustrated or desperately thinking about when it will end.

Here, tiredness isn’t the route changing factor as much as mentality. Tiredness is a given. So it’s just a matter of how you feel about that. Thankfully, in that sense, I felt great.

I focused on the beauty around me and being strong for the ones that were faltering. Energy is contagious after all 🙂 One of our members was ready to call it quits, but together we took a rest, pep talked and decided that he’d cross the glacier and re-evaluate.

The last hour of the glacier was long and it seemed like my steps weren’t actually advancing me closer to its edge. But, surprise surprise, they were, and I made it out, at 17,400 feet. Time for a protein bar and some water.

Outside the glacier, looking down on it, daaaaaamn, its size is mindblowing. Hat’s off to you, nature.

Finally out of the glacier

Okay, we continued, full well knowing another 5-6 hours awaited. I was just glad to be walking on ground again. (Check out this view).

I could feel the altitude and my muscles were heavier. When I’d stop for breaks, it was deep, heaving gasps before catching my breath. The last 2-3 hours were quite brutal. As the false summit approached, I kept my eye on a patch of snow and felt that I just had to get myself there. Then,  it’d be “right around the corner.”

But, that patch ended up being waaaaaaay farther than it appeared. I simply continued by finding checkpoints in my route – a big rock, a patch of snow, a small rock, a curve – and I’d will myself to get to that point without stopping. Then, next checkpoint.

Finally I got to the patch of snow and to the right was the San Jose Volcano, which I had climbed the past February. I knew I was getting there. I was above all the mountains in my vision, and at the same height as San Jose, which towers at 19,600 feet.

Just a little past the patch of snow was the fake summit, and passing that, I figured I’d be able to see what the last stretch was like.

Eager, I continued until I could see… and it was still. so. so. far.

Okay, Chelsey, no worries, 30 steps at a time. One checkpoint at a time. You got it girl! I continued… my checkpoints got closer together, but I never questioned my future summit. And eventually, there it was, 11 hours after starting that morning.

As I was taking my final steps, it was like in slow mo (kind of literally hahah) until I got my two feet parallel and was at the summit, with the view of the other side so dramatically revealed to me.

Cerro Marmolejo’s summit was every bit of everything I hoped it would be. Thousands of peaks, the full range of colors, snow caps, perfectly blue sky. I was in heaven. It was so perfect, everything about it. Witnessing the power and perfection of Mother Nature truly is so overwhelming, it was hard to comprehend what I had before my eyes.

And everything that I had passed through just to get there. Pushing myself to the limit, in every sense of the concept. It was nice to have a few minutes to myself and just breathe, and appreciate.

It was exciting that we all made it, especially when 2 were iffy during the last 7 hours. We hugged, took pictures and then sat pondering the reality of where we were and what was in front of us. But, within 20 minutes, the cold started setting in on our non-moving bodies. Once the blood stops flowing, darn, reality kicks in!

From the Cerro Marmolejo summit and back to camp 

On the way back down, the glacier crossing was a total challenge. With the sun having beat down on it all day, the top layer was wet and soft. Parts that looked solid weren’t. We were falling and sinking in, and was demoralizing and utterly frustrating.

In a sea of white, we trapsed on, taking turns with who was opening the path. Pure fatigue. The sun started to set and all we wanted to do was get out of the glacier while there was still light, but we knew that was impossible.

Every once in a while, there’d be a frustrated shriek of “aaaaaaaaah” as someone sank in – sometimes because they needed help getting out, sometimes because they just didn’t want to have to pull themselves out. Just thankfully, we didn’t encounter any deep holes. But all roped up, we were prepared for any circumstance.

The sun set while we were in the middle of the glacier. As burned out as I was, as much as I wanted to collapse right then and there, the sunset required a moment of clarity and gratitude. It was one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen.

Every tip of every penitente was doused in red, yellow, or pink. Look around 360 degrees, and those rose speckled tips were all I could see. And the horizon a rainbow of black, red, orange, yellow and pink. It was simply stunning.

Nature is magic. I can’t even comprehend its perfectness enough to express it in a way that does it justice.

As the sun set, the glacier surprised me. It just firmed up from one moment to the next. Again, there I was, in the dark, with my late mountain climber uncle Pete’s headlight, balancing over the tips of the penitentes. 

But this time my legs hardly had 1% left. They were shaking and my eyes were scanning around. What’s the best way to get out of here? Well, 9:45pm, after 16+ hours, I stepped back onto land and within 20 minutes, shrank into my sleeping bag, for the deepest sleep I’ve ever slept.

Cerro Marmolejo Day #5
16,100 down to 9,000 feet … and back to Santiago

The last morning, we packed up camp, with everyone on a happiness high from the feat the day before.

But, as we arrived to the steep, smooth part from day 2,  we needed to regroup and focus. I was quite anxious as we approached, touching the cross that grandpa gave me and taking a minute to ask for safety and strength. Then, slow, slow and steady. One foot in front of the other, testing before fulling giving each step.

In moments like these, you don’t think about anything. You don’t look down, nor do you look up. You survey the land beforehand and then simply focus on each step and the path ahead, moving calmly and confidently.

When you let fear, distractions or doubt creep in, accidents are more likely to happen or you become more clumsy. I don’t have pictures of this part, because both on the way up and down, everything was about completion.

We finally got down, crossed the rivers, crossed the Marmolejo valley, crossed the other valley, Valle de la Engorda, and then got to the last river. WHOA. It had grown.

We later found out that there had been fires all over the country from the dry heat, but we could feel the heavier than normal air there in Cajon del Maipo. It’s normal for rivers to be higher in warm afternoons, but the fires had caused even more melt in the glacier and snow above. The river was flowing like I’d never seen it before.

We started doubting our crossing; we walked almost a mile up and down, looking for where to cross. Fiinally, we headed back up where it looked most manageable and forged in. It got up to my waist and was so powerful, but thankfully we all crossed with success.

I joked that the mountain decided to throw one more obstacle in the path. As if she hadn’t given us enough, she said we weren’t gonna get out so easily. haha.

About 1 hour after crossing the river, we made it back to our truck, after a grueling 13 hour day. My body was somehow stiff and somehow jello all at the same time.

But I couldn’t have been any happier and joked to everyone, “ok, what’s next?!”

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