South America 3 Peaks Expedition – Phase 1: Acclimatisation, Cerro San Francisco

The South America 3 Peaks Expedition took place in Dec 2013/Jan 2014. Carolina Morales, David Kenealy and I spent 35 days in the Puna de Atacama and High Andes of northern Argentina and attempted to climb Monte Pissis (6,795m), Ojos del Salado (6,893m) & Aconcagua (6,959m). The expedition was also the third leg of my long-term project to climb the Triple 7 Summits; the 3 highest peaks on each continent.

The first phase of the expedition was a 9-day acclimatization phase, where we would attempt to climb 4 peaks over 4,000m.

Cerro San Francisco – 6,016m

We left Las Grutas at 3am for the hour-long drive to the foot of San Francisco, just across the international border with Chile. Our pickup dropped us off the main road at an altitude of 4,800m, and we started the slow and cold ascent in darkness. The first part was quite flat, and we followed some vague 4×4 tyre tracks by the light of our headtorches. Soon, we reached a transversal depression, and then ascended a short distance before reaching a steepening diagonal path. As we made slow progress up this path, dawn broke and we enjoyed the slow creeping of warmth in our extremities as the sun’s light finally reached us. Caro was suffering badly today, and despite wearing her down jacket for the ascent she was very cold. Partly, her very slow pace did not allow her body to generate warmth. For her own safety, and the safety of the group, we decided that she should turn back at 5,600m – about the same altitude that she reached on Elbrus a few months before.

After leaving Caro at 5,600m, we increased our pace considerably, as we were concerned about reaching the summit and having time to safely descend by early afternoon. The diagonal traverse finally ended at a lava flow pass, which climbed from right to left to a large plateau 200m below the summit. Here, two peaks were visible to the south, with the highest on the right. At the plateau, we met another climber suffering severe altitude sickness – he had vomited and his group had continued without him. At this point, Dave also made the difficult decision not to continue. He was very tired, and was moving very slowly. He had been above 4,000m for only three days, so it would have taken a monumental effort for him to continue – and he wanted to conserve energy for Phase 2.

I continued slowly up the steepening snow slopes towards the summit, and after a challenging and breathless final few steps, I reached the 6,016m summit. I had incredible views of Incahuasi- Pissis-Nacimiento-Fraile-Walter Penck-Ojos del Salado-El Muerto-Tres Cruces-Cerro Cóndor-Dos Conos-Peinado-Cerro Bertrand-Pabellón Chucula-Morocho and Falso Morocho. It was my 37th birthday, and I was elated to have climbed my first 6,000m peak, and my fourth successful summit of the expedition. Phase 1 was a success.

Ricky on Summit of Cerro San Francisco

On the rest day in Fiambala – the day after I climbed San Francisco – I stepped awkwardly off the kerb and severely damaged ligaments in my left foot. In the local emergency room I had an X-ray to rule out fracture and was given strong painkillers and anti-inflammatories, and advised to take ten days rest

You can read the story of the whole expedition in the official Expedition Report below, which is also available for download: