Cerro Las Tortolas, located in Northern Chile in the Andes Mountains on the border of Argentina and Chile, is the second tallest mountain in the Elqui Valley. It is a non-technical climb with an altitude of 6160 metres / 20,210 ft. It is a common first “high mountain” for mountain climbers. Parting from Santiago, and assuming you’ve acclimatized beforehand, you need 4 days to climb Cerro Las Tortolas.
It was all planned, to climb my first, of hopefully many, 6000 meter / 20,000-foot peak. Right before my birthday. Closing out my 27th year and opening the new one with a bang and all the gratefulness my heart could handle.
Cerro Las Tortolas is an excellent first 6000m/20000ft mountain for budding mountaineers who want to begin playing with the higher altitudes. It has no technical difficulties and only requires good physical condition and quality gear. There are very long, straight stretches with tiring inclines that can challenge your mental stamina. And, the cold can get extreme, even during summer months, so good boots, good mittens, and a good parka are going to make this summit more enjoyable.
Assuming you’re already acclimatized, you need 4 days to get to Cerro Las Tortolas, climb, and head back to Santiago. Two for transport and two on the mountain. We had acclimatized on Cerro El Plomo and San Jose Volcano, so we were all set.
Getting to Cerro Las Tortolas from Santiago.
12 hours up Chile’s skinny countryside.
3am rolled around quickly and we piled into my friend’s big Chevy truck. There were 4 of us and we were meeting along the way with the second car of 3 more friends. The early morning was fun; we all had lots of energy, chatting and joking back and forth between cars via radio.
I vowed to be the co-pilot and keep track of tolls… but somewhere after passing the first booth I passed out, waking up to find a pile of receipts and the sun shining to a early afternoon.
Oops, but I guess my friend lost out when he put up the armrest in between our seats and gave me an inflatable pillow. I had quickly doubled into a curled up fetal position and… chao. If he gave me the pillow, it can’t be my fault, right?!
Cerro Las Tortolas is located in the North of Chile, about 12 hours from central Santiago. You head up the main interstate until arriving to La Serena and continuing on, leaving the coast behind and heading into the mountain, to Vicuña in the Elqui Valley. You eventually hit the last rural town, Juntas del Toro, and stop at the ranger station to register your expedition.
From here, you continue on a dirt road into the mountain. Here’s a link to a wikiloc GPS route, from the Control checkpoint to camp to the summit. The rangers told us no one else had passed so we’d be the only ones on the mountain.
Night 1: time to camp and get ready for the climb
Mid-afternoon we arrived to where we’d park the cars and set up the tent. The sun was baking and we poured out of the cars, eagerly examining the heavily mineral-ladden rolling peaks and then setting our eyes on Cerro Las Tortolas itself.
It didn’t feel that far away… but with the sharp diamond-shaped summit, I could tell the last stretch, known as the acarreo de la muerte (the stretch of death!!), would quite possibly be just that.
We got the tents up and, with the whole afternoon ahead, kept the flaps open so the breeze could run through while we napped. With the sun on my back and complete peace around me, I slept like a baby. Considering I’d slept the 12 hours up… I’m not quite sure how, but I did haha.
A couple of hours later I woke up, totally refreshed, and double-checked my backpack, food, etc. We gathered together, made dinner, boiled water for tea, and chatted the night away. The sun was setting and the temperature dropping quickly, but it turned the peak of Cerro Las Tortolas a magnificent fluorescent pink. It felt like such a good sign and made me so excited for the next day to start.
After a good nights rest, we started our ascent
5am came around the corner and it was so cold. Uuuugh, sooo cold. The dry desert air sure chills your bones. Nothing sounded better than staying curled up on that hard rocky ground. But, push came to shove and I had to get up. I summoned all my energy to sit up and get the water boiling. A hot tea helps the transition.
The first 20 minutes are always a challenge for me. My body is slow at getting into the swing of things, my legs remembering what they’re there to do, my mind finding its center.
An hour and a half in, we took our first mini-break, waiting for the group to close in together, stretching, and munching on dried fruits and nuts. The runs were long. I could always see a “checkpoint” at where the route veered out of sight, but they always felt so very far off.
I had a good pace though and kept plugging along, focusing on my thoughts and the landscape. We all met up again and decided that we’d have lunch right around the corner. The route had worked its way up and now we needed to cross a section to hit the next intense vertical climb. I was so glad, I needed a break.
Since Cerro Las Tortolas has no water, you need to carry at least 6 liters on your back, plus your gear, and that’s pretty heavy. My backpack felt like a load of bricks, the daylight sun was boiling, and my body felt tired. Often, “right around the corner” ended up to being a good hour.
I kept searching for the plain, a supposed flat section, sitting below the next stretch. My exhaustion was getting heavier by the minute. You know how, when you have to pee, the closer you get the more you feel like you can’t wait? Yeah, that’s how I felt with the rest spot. I finally saw it, and mentally screamed from happiness.
I quickly ate my sandwich and drank my tea… and then laid back, sprawled out and soaking up the sun, to take the best short nap imaginable.
The last 3 hours were something else.
Every step up was a half step back, thanks to the loose ground. We had to cross a long section and get to the top before crossing venturing to the mountain’s other side.
At one point, I saw two people that were literally tiny little ants so far up. I had thought the route went in another direction, and partially out of desperation and partially not wanting to face the truth, I wondered, “maybe there are other people on the mountain?”
To my horror, that was obviously our guys. Which meant I had to get to where they were… and they weren’t even close to the top. Okay, I needed a personal pep talk. Step by step, focused breath by focused breath, the hours passed and I took 10 minutes to sit down.
I was around 18,000 feet and between the oxygen, the wind, the incline, the terrain, and the backpack, I could feel the effects. My heart was beating, my breath was short, my shoulders were on fire. This last 45 minutes would be a steep stretch that needed my mental determination.
Once at the top, there was about 10 minutes of a flat walk, between two big slopes. It was gorgeous… and such a relief. Pretty soon I saw a laguna… and then the shelter Gabriela Mistral. I wanted to jump for joy.
I sat down and munched on some nuts, made some tea, and basked in the fact that the day was complete.
Night 2: Sleeping cozy in the Gabriela Mistral shelter
The shelter felt like the best thing on God’s green earth. It’s just a metal-covered shelter with a wood floor, but, when that roof and those walls protect you from the elements, it provides what feels like the best sleep in years! You can take a really deep sleep, knowing you aren’t outside, you won’t wake up freezing, you won’t have to give yourself a pep talk just to lift your arms out of the sleeping bag and start boiling water. Oooh, the little things.
The sunset was literally OUT. OF. THIS. WORLD.
It was sooo cold, but I bundled up and ran outside, snapping photos like a mad-woman. Amidst the photo-frenzy I took a few pauses just to soak in my own mental picture. The clouds were ideal, right over the laguna, and the shadows from where we came from right behind us.
Simply amazing. I was freezing, and my toes needed their double-layer sock and better-tied shoes… but I stayed outside until the sun was gone.
Numb and frigid but so happy. I was estatic for the next day, for hitting my first 6000m, for the idea of 20000ft, and for simple gratitude for this life.
When it was time for bed, I laid my head down and literally zonked out, sleeping like a rock till everyone started bustling bright and early.
Finally, my first 6000m / 20,000ft summit day
It was pitch black when we started, and as usual, the first get going was hard. I was cold, my legs and chest could feel the lack of oxygen, and it was climbing right from the first step. We were at an ideal spot when the sun decided to rise, we had a view of the whole colorful valley underneath.https://www.youtube.com/embed/R8ifEmUgCrw?enablejsapi=1&autoplay=0&cc_load_policy=0&iv_load_policy=1&loop=0&modestbranding=0&rel=1&fs=1&playsinline=0&autohide=2&theme=dark&color=red&controls=1&
I just love the way the sun rises so gently over the mountains, with wind almost always sofly blowing the clouds away right as the sun is ready to shine its light and reveal what’s underneath. It’s a moment for me that really just feel like a miracle, this world, and the way it just works.
Cerro Las Tortolas and its Acarreo de la Muerte (aka: The stretch of death).
This stretch is so long, so steep, and just never, never-ending. In general, Cerro Las Tortolas is just one, big, continuous climb. Parts like this are way more mental than physical. It’s hard to pick spot to set as a mini-goal, because it’s just one big ass climb. Zig zag after zig zag after zig zag.
When we’d sit down, desperate for a break, it was hard to position so that we didn’t slide down, lose our backpacks, or our trekking poles. It was an uncomfortable sitting position, with my heels dug in to keep me propped. This mountain was relentless.
I was freezing, my fingers and toes totally numb, and I was constantly clapping my hands to get the circulation flowing better. All my layers on, only my eyes were peeking through.
Step after step I kept going, telling myself I was getting closer and closer. Every couple of hours we’d check our altitude status, which always was a little disappointing.
It was so steep and so much work that it felt like we had to be advancing at lightspeeds… but upon reviewing the GPS, it always checked us back into place. We’d only climbed 200 vertical meters, 300 vertical meters, 100 vertical meters. gaaaaah, nothing.
On the breaks I’d drink water and munch on some nuts or dried fruit. I kept thinking I saw the top of the zig zag, but there was always a whole new stretch ahead once I got there.
One. Two. Three… I’d count my steps, taking a break after 50. Sometimes my mind wanders into family, friends, life, the world, nature, problems, joys… and sometimes all my energy goes into just moving my feet.
At the top of one zig zag I found a rock and perched myself up a bit, it’s always warmer behind the rocks. Then, I hurried to catch up with my friends.
All of a sudden my partner looked back at me and yelled… we’re here!!!!! I looked around confused.. what?!?! The summit?! No, we were most definitely not. There was lots of dirt, path, and mountain in front of us.
He came and hugged me… 6000m!!! He was saying, “We’re at 6000m!!!” You see, since the rest of the world measures in meters and not feet… that’s how they measure the mountains too. So hitting 6000m is like the flat even number of 20000ft. For mountains, I am now more used to meters, and I remember my first time at 4000m and 5000m.. and now here I was, my first time at 6000 meters.
It was a big deal, for both Mauricio and I. It was our first time at 6000m. I felt this sudden rush of happiness, my eyes filled with tears of energy and joy and pride. It was so awesome. That was exactly what I needed to push myself to the top. Just a difficult 160 vertical meters left. That ain’t nothing in comparison to 6000 🙂 Yeah, baby!!
That final climb was slow and exhausting. I switched up my counting trick a bit. Instead of counting numbers with each step… I counted people. Mom. Dad. Grandpa. Grandma. Jenny, etc. One step for each person so critical and crucial in my life.
With each person that popped into my head, a memory popped with them.. My kindergarten teacher, my basketball coach, my friend’s dad cheering us on the sidelines. There were lots of steps… but thank the Lord that I’ve got so many people that have touched and guided and impacted my life that I ran out of steps before I ran out of people.
All of a sudden, there I was, standing on the top of the world at 20,000ft / 6160 meters… led so literally by everyone that has led me to where I am now.
My feet took another step up, only to realize there were no more steps to be made. I had made it to the summit of Cerro Las Tortolas.
March 14th, just 2 days before my 28th birthday, breathing the earth’s oxygen at 20,000 feet and looking down, and around, at thousands of colorful peaks, and up at a blue sky and white clouds. It was a great day.
It was so surreal. I broke into tears, but sobs aren’t so easy when there’s not that much o2 in the air. It’s more like just big chest heaves with tears rolling down. I dropped my backpack like a hot potato and went to the edge, saying a thank you to God, and this world, for this life of mine.
I took a few minutes to collect my thoughts and then went to see who was coming next. Mauricio was just setting foot, we hugged and cheered, we had done Cerro El Plomo and Cerro San Jose together, among many other mountains in Chile. It was awesome to add this to our list. You really build a bond with people when you put your bodies and minds to the test together, relying on the other for support when needed, giving support when needed.
I excitedly went to my backpack and unwrapped a snickers I’d been saving. It was meant for San Jose Volcano, but since we didn’t get to summit because of the weather, I decided to couldn’t eat it till I summited on Tortolas. Gosh, it tasted so damn good. Like heaven. Snickers are my not so guilty summit pleasure.
After summiting Cerro Las Tortolas, we flew down the mountain back to camp
Our whole group made it to the summit, which was an awesome feat! Soon, we headed back down. With the terrain, it was literally more like flying down. My plastic boots allowed me to just dig my heals in and take roller blade like strides, a mixture of controlled running and sliding.
We stopped to have lunch in the Gabriela Mistral shelter before continuing on. The wind was picking up, which meant it was getting colder, so I kept my pace. Mauricio and I love these acarreos, the stunts where you can go down like in that fast motion.
The last 45 minutes dragged on, but we were the first to get back to the base camp. We had left our tents up, so it was suuuuch a treat to just be able to throw ourselves in, without having to set up camp. Eventually, the rest of the group made it and we basked in our glory, roasting marshmallows, drinking wine, and just bein’ jolly.
Only in Chile, breakfast in the mountains and lunch on the beach
We left early in the morning, having a last breakfast right at the foot of the mountains. It was crazy staring up at the peak of Las Tortolas and imaging that I was up on top of that little dot just the day before. It’s such an indescribable feeling. It’s this weird combination of feeling so big yet so insignificant, so powerful yet really not in control of anything at all.
Sure, there I was yesterday around 2pm, feeling like I’d concoured the world, but now, back down on the mountain’s feet, I wouldn’t even be a spec in the sky.That’s how big the mountains are. How powerful Mother Nature is.
Regardless, it’s an awesome feeling, an awesome feeling of being connected to, and with, it all. Pure awe, really.
The crazy thing about Chile is that we were basically at Argentina’s border, having breakfast at 4000 meters in the mountains… but after hours and hours of heading down and through the mountains, we wind up at the coast, having a late lunch staring right at the beach, right at sea level. So crazy.
What a way to spend my last day as a 27 year old, on Cerro Las Tortolas, my first 6000 meter mountain, wrapping up another year for the books!!!