San Jose Volcano is a classic in the central Andes mountains, along with the El Plomo and Marmolejo mountains. It is located in Cajon del Maipo and easily accessed from Santiago, Chile. It is active, has an altitude of 5856m / 19213 ft and is typically completed in 4 days.
Well, as much as I wish this article was about a summit, it’s not. I did get my San Jose Volcano summit later on, but it wasn’t on this opportunity. Instead, this story is about letting go and sometimes just going with the flow. We can’t always control the outcome, but, if we don’t get so bent out of shape about a change of plans, sometimes the journey turns out way more beautiful than we expected.
Here’s a story about not making it.
We should have known. It started out all wrong. While preparing for Las Tortolas, our first 6000 meter mountain, a friend and I decided to tackle the San Jose Volcano during our prep routes. It’s a truly majestic volcano that towers at 5,856m / 19,300ft over its counterparts in the central Andes. Prior, we climbed the El Pintor and El Plomo Mountain to help us acclimatize.
And then there we were, a couple days beforehand, checking out Mountain Forecast to see how Mother Nature was gonna treat us. It was going to snow a couple inches. Okay, no biggie … nothing’s better than a fresh cover of powder and the mountains turned black from the moisture.
Mother Nature sometimes gets a little BiPolar
Two before we left, the weather looked worse with massive snow storms and wind storms. The day before we were about to depart, it hadn’t gotten better. Boo. Mentally, I surrendered to the idea that we weren’t going to be able to make the summit.
We decided to go anways and do what we could (safely) all while still acclimatizing our bodies to be at 20,000ft / 6000m in just a few short weeks. We took off and headed to Baños Morales in Cajon del Maipo, about 3 hours from Santiago. We parked next to the only house in the area, fondly known as the cabreria (a place where there are goats). It is a goat/livestock herding family that also makes money by renting mules to climbers heading to San Jose or Marmolejo mountains.
The first hour or so is walking through Valle de la Engorda, a curiously flat area surrounded by moutains on all sides. It was warm. We got to a cave, drank some water, and took off a layer. The next couple hours was a climb up to Refugio Plantat at 3130m /10,000ft, a stone shelter with 8 bunks built in 1937 for farming purposes and now well-kept by mountaineers. Refugio Plantat is great during the winter and often serves as a first/last camp for those heading up/down San Jose during winter summits. Otherwise, it’s a popular rest and lunch / eating spot!
Refugio Plantat on the way to San Jose Volcano: a classic destination for trekking in Cajon del Maipo
We passed by Plantat without stopping in, just crounching at the stream to refill our water. I love the water here, it is so cold, so crystal clear and so delicious. The next couple hours were up a rocky path to an area called Las Lajas (ie: slabs of a certain type rock).
This place marks a distinct change in the terrain to the summit of the San Jose Volcano. A rocky, but land based terrain suddently tranforms into a gigantic pile of rocks ranging from medium to down right humoungous. just wondered how the heck this formed!? How did all these rocks land together, eventually falling down into ravines below, but still leaving this terrific mountain of a pile. Or, how did a massive rock plate break into so many pieces? Crawling over and around these unstable rocks is a challenge with heavy backpacks.
It was getting later in the afternoon and I was starting to think I went a bit overboard for the impending storm. My shoulders were feeling the weight, my lower back was bothering me, I had a blister on the back of my right foot, and we needed to find water. Every once in a while we stopped at a big rock and propped our backpacks for even 1 minute of heaven. Geez, talk about rough shape!
I wondered how the mountaineers of the past did it without their advanced technology backpacks to perfectly distribute weight. Because, wow, even with my amazing Osprey backpack, after a long day, boy, does the weight wear on ya.
We had the idea to stop at a little pond we knew was just a bit further up, but when we got there, we found it had dried. We needed to continue to a water source and knew there was another little pond if we continued another hour. We continued and continued but couldn’t find a campsite. Nothing flat, all incline.
Eventually, something caught our eye and sure enough, a perfect little spot. I was happy. We set up the tent right away and then went to look for clean ice/snow for water. While we were melting the find, little flakes of snow started to fall.
Nice, we’d found the campsite right in time. It snowed on the rest of the night and got pretty cold, but we had everything we needed to sleep warm and snug. It was lovely.
Friday was mind-blowingly gorgeous. Fluffy white clouds. Blue sky. Sunny. The mountains showing their many shades and reflecting the rays. Truly a form of heaven. “Maybe last night’s snowfall was it?”, I wondered.
San Jose Volcano and it’s rocky terrain is a killer quad workout
We left the campsite and moved on. The San Jose Volcano is pretty physically demanding and, on top of it, there is often no path to follow. The volcanic terrain is very rocky, requiring you to climb on, over, and around rocks and boulders of various sizes.
Think of the gym. You know that exercise when stop up on the bench with dumbells in each hand? First with one leg and then the other? Well, over the course of climbing the San Jose Volcano, you’ll do a rough equivalent of 1000 of these. Except big ass rocks instead of a bench and 40lbs of backpack instead of dumbells. Talk. About. A. Quad. Workout.
I wasn’t sure if a) I never wanted to do a quad workout again or if b) it reminded me that I can never skip one again haha. Oh boy.
My trekking poles would randomly get stuck in between rocks, abruptly bringing me to a halt as my lower body launched forward until it suddenly realized the top half was stopped with the pole. One time the rock moved at the same time, making me lose my balance and land directly flat on my knee. Ouuuuch, that hurt and left me with 2 big bruises on my entire kneecap for a good week.
The story of San Jose Volcano… where’s a flat spot to camp?
Around 3/4pm we found ourselves in the same position as the night before. Where is water and where can we set up camp? And, what’s up with the weather? It’s gorgeous!
However, the forecast had said Friday would storm heavily so, even though we were looking at sunny blue skies, we wanted to set up camp around 5 just in case. We kept climbing up, looking around, but everything was pure rockbed. And, not small rocks… big ones and all on a slope.
Hmm, we crossed a ravine and then looked back, searching for a flat spot on the other side. Looking ahead we had at least an hour and a half before we could get to the top of the hill and then who knew what it looked like on the other side. It could be another 2 hours before finding a campspot if we continued forward.
The temp was dropping and the sky was darkening, so it looked like the weatherman was right and that we didn’t have 2 hours of wiggle room. We spotted a little area that looked like potential and started heading over. My friend was on a mission to find a spot. I was distracted by taking more pictures.
There were these gigantic rocks, both taller and wider than the length of me, that were crazily propped up 3-4ft in the air on huge blocks of ice. My friend had come during winter and said that this ravine doesn’t exist during winter, and that it’s just all flat with snow. So at the end of summer, these blocks of ice under the massive stones were what’s left – just in time for winter to hit and cover them all up again.
It boggled my mind thinking about when these rocks originally rolled down the mountain, and how they somehow stopped in their currently location. It sends chills up my back… I don’t ever want to see rocks of that size in movement.
The air was starting to thicken with cold humidity, if that’s even possible. It was obvious that soon it would condense into snow. We ended up finding a great campspot, next to a monstrous rock that protected us from the wind.
Like clockwork, we got the tent up just in time for the snow to fall.
We randomly would unzip the tent and peek out. The mountains had disappeared into a blanket of white. The snowflakes weren’t really flakes. They were more like little balls, snow cone style.
The snow stopped briefly, in a nice gesture so we could appreciate the setting sun. The air was thick and cloudy so the sun was a little blur, firing up the sky into deep reds and oranges. Wow, it was out of this world. What a blessing.
The night was cold, but I was warm.
I slept great, so snug in my sleeping bag. Again, it made me think about the mountaineers of the past, with their big heavy blankets. We are so lucky today with the advances in technology that make our lives easier and safer. But mad kudos to those so not just survived, but thrived, without.
Saturday morning would have been summit day. We woke up to the most extraordinary day ever. Everything on the ground was glowing white.
The San Jose Volcano mountains were black, wet from the snow. The sky was blue. The sun was radiating. The clouds were fluffy. I felt like either my eyes or my heart would explode.
We passed these an ice field of penitentes, big ice formations that are like upside down icicles. Nature blows my mind, how do they form like that? Just spectacular. The rocks were icy and the snow was hard, so we had to go slow. But I didn’t mind, it gave me time to appreciate the magic around me.
This morning definitely marks one of the most beautiful in my memory. I felt so thankful and that gratefulness gave me energy.
Around 1pm we were around 4800m / 15,700ft and stopped to make soup. I collected the fresh, fluffy, bright white snow and we melted it into a chicken soup. Mmmm, yum.
The moment was so magical. Hot soup, drinkin it out of my cup, feeling the brisk cold wind on my face and filling my eyes with the blue, black, white, and yellow around. Blissfullness at its best.
We were chatting when we noticed a cloud that wasn’t so fluffy, just a huge mass, hiding the mountains below. And it was creepin up our way. Would it pass? We waited. Ten minutes later, I was looking at my friend and he had a pure white backdrop behind him. Nothing else existed.
Not long after that, the stark contrast between the snow capped black mountains and blue sky disappeared. The mountain above followed. Snow started to fall. We couldn’t see anything.
We needed to head back down. My friend was maybe 10 feet in front of me and I could barely see him. We stayed closer together.
There was so much beauty in San Jose Volcano’s power
Amidst this unique mixture of fog, wind, and snow, there was such beauty. Beauty in the power of Mother Nature, at how little control we have, and how much we need to just listen.
We got back to where we knew the tent had to be, but couldn’t find it. Again, technology, geez, thank you. The GPS took us to it. We were within a few meters of a neon orange tent but couldn’t see it. Feeling around, finally we found it.
We scooped up snow so we’d have water for tea and by around 3:30 we were in the tent, peaking out randomly into roaring white blizzard. The sounds of thunder, lightening, blowing wind and falling snow were the lullaby of the night. We had no option but to stay in, talk about all the topics we had until those topics ran out, and then lay in silence and listen.
Around 5am I woke up and boiled water to make tea. The zippers to our tent were frozen. The tent was hard from ice condensation. It was a bit early, but I just couldn’t sleep anymore. While the wind around us was not too bad, I could hear it howling in the ravine above. Maybe the weather man and his 55mph / 90kph winds were right.
Lessons Learned: never boil water in the same pot you made chicken soup in, unless you washed that pot well.
While waiting for the water to boil, I cozily snuggled back into my sleeping bag. The hot water started melting the ice on the tent.
All of a sudden, a potent chicken smell vaporized through the tiny tent. It flew up my nose and I frantically popped up, gagged a little, held my breath, opened zippers, breathed the cold air and fanned the tent flaps. Groooooss.
In the hurry of gathering snow and getting back into the tent, we hadn’t really gotten all the remnants of the chicken soup out of the pot, so, when it started to boil, it just created a hot sauna of boiling chicken smell, as if we’d just thrown water on the hot rocks. Yiiiiiikes.
I don’t care how much it’s snowing… never again will we forget to take the time to smear enough snow around that pot to clean every last drop.
As we started packing up the tent, the mountains below were clouded over. Then, the wind started to run, blowing them away and revealing the peaks little by little, with the sun so perfectly touching their tips. Wow, it was fantastic. They were thick and clustered, but sitting below the peaks, and it made me feel so literally on top of the clouds.
Thank you, San Jose Volcano. That was the best good morning greeting I could’ve asked for.
We headed down the mountain, consoled that, while Mother Nature didn’t let us hit the summit, the consolation prize she gave us instead was nothing short of perfect.
The last 4 days on the San Jose Volcano had been magical and I was the happiest girl in the world, beyond grateful. Emotionally and spiritually free, yet connected. The hike down that day was astounding.
It was a gorgeous day that made me realize that everything had worked out so imperfectly perfectly. I was glad that we weren’t able to head down any lower last night, in an effort to sleep at a lower altitude, because that would have meant missing out on the morning cloud show.
The San Jose Volcano is famous for people not being able to summit because of the weathier, as the climate can change instantaneously. That tale continued true for us but at the end of it all, I woudln’t have taken back a minute, not even a second. It’d do it all over again… and I did, and thankfully, that time I summitted 🙂 To this day, this route is one of my favorites. <3
So, I guess the moral of the story is, sometimes we need to just let go of the control! When we can’t influence the outcome, we need to just go for the ride and make the best of it. Who knows, maybe it’ll end up being one of the best rides of your life!