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On Obsession and Dreaming in the Atacama Desert

Chaski Founder Tyler Andrews has set the Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the ascent and descent of the world’s highest volcano, 22,614 ft. (6893m) Ojos del Salado in the Atacama Region of Chile with a time of 9 hours, 29 minutes, 46 seconds, breaking Frenchman Etienne Loisel’s 2019 record by more than 12 hours.



Jim Walmsley told me that in order to really perform well at something hard, you need to be completely obsessed with it. We were sitting in the infrared sauna in his garage, preparing for the eventuality that we’d have a hot day for January’s Project Carbon X2 (we wouldn’t), and he was talking about the 100 mile race distance, specifically the race where he’d made a name for himself, Western States 100. Despite having no immediate plans to run States (or any 100 mile), the message stuck with me.


I’ve had an obsessive personality since I was a child. I wrote my college application essay on my “passion” -- for atonal music composition, astrophysics, distance running, etc. -- but you could probably replace passion with “obsession” in the text and it would read much the same, albeit a bit more manic.


I’m pretty sure that if you ask anyone with whom I’ve interacted for more than a few minutes over the past six months (which is, honestly, not that many people) about Ojos del Salado, or simply “that big mountain in Chile,” they’d roll their eyes in bored recognition. The truth is, for better or for worse, I’ve been obsessed with this mountain, this record, and maybe that’s part of why things ended up going well.




At 6,893m, Ojos is the second tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, just a tick shorter than its southern, Argentinian neighbor, Aconcagua, which snags the crown and, with it, the accompanying fame and crowds and red tape. Maybe I identified with Ojos as I’d often found myself “Mr.Silver” in my 20s (2nd at Worlds, #2 US 50km time, constantly #2 behind my training partners, be it Miguel Angel or Jim).Whatever it was, ever since I first discovered there was a 55 km, 21+ hour record listed on FastestKnownTime.com, the idea had planted roots in my brain and would only continue to flourish and grow.


Over the coming months, I’d tell anyone that would listen, “Oh yeah, I’m thinking about this big mountain in Chile.” And I obsessively searched through frustratingly few primary sources for any information I could find: watching old youtube videos, scouring blogs in Spanish, French, English, even Japanese, for hints about what this mountain, this region, was really like.





With my plans to spend the first half of 2021 in my secondary home-base in Quito, Ecuador solidified, I finally bit the bullet and bought a ticket for myself and my friend Scott -- whom I’d sweet-talked into the trip with promise of “full aventura” -- to the Atacama Desert Airport, outside Copiapo, the gateway to the Puna de Atacama region, from which Ojos rises. After a week of high altitude climbing in Ecuador, we arrived in Copiapo with little idea what to expect.


An entire travelogue could be written about our arrival in Chile and our first two weeks in the high Atacama desert, and maybe that travelogue will be written some day, but I’ll try to keep on topic for now. Suffice it to say, despite the continuously baffling and unpredictable events that brought us to and through those first two weeks, and our incredible ignorance and uncertainty about even the most basic facts (like whether we’d even have electricity up on the high plateau), things went remarkably smoothly. We set up base-camp at Laguna Santa Rosa which -- miraculously -- had good enough WiFi for Scott to take his online classes and for me to continue to manage Chaski during this, my first real “vacation”. We spent our days exploring the nearby mountains, which were unbelievably accessible given their altitude, and continued pushing our acclimatization well up over 6000m.


Finally, on Thursday, February 18th, we took a scouting mission to ol’ Ojos herself, where I completed (piece-meal) the entire route I’d attempt in one go for the record. With a few rest days on the calendar before our Monday morning departure, I knew I was ready.


THE BIG DAY: UP





Why are we sleeping at Murray?


We passed the worst night of the trip in Refugio Murray last week, a combination of sleeping a bit too high after a very tough day, indeed, in a refugio that was literally being ripped apart by the wind (one corrugated steel shingle at a time), causing such a racket (sometimes like thunder, sometimes like the squealing of lonely puppies) that neither Scott nor I had slept more than a few minutes at a stretch.


But, this morning, still pitch black, we awaken in our borrowed tent, a few hundred meters from the trembling structure; we’ve slept like babies.


The stars are out in full force as we spark up the jetboil for morning coffee and we talk about nothing, probably the latest episode of the “Shit-Town” podcast that we’d listened to the night before, and I put on an old Dispatch song that seems appropriate: “Here We Go.”





It’s 03:45am as we unzip the tent and trudge through the darkness and sand to find Vanesa and Pancho -- the local and irreplaceable half of our squad who will pilot our trusty vehicle up to nearly 6,000m over the next several hours. They’ve already got Vanesa’s red Toyota 4x4 running, some calm instrumental music playing low on the stereo.


Of course, we’re late getting started. I’m not ready. Too many things to double check. Knots to tie, zippers to zip; but then, with little fan-fare, there’s nothing left to do but run. And so around 04:17am, I start both watches -- never trust just one! -- and bound off full of nervous energy into the perfect, dark night.


Murray to Atacama



This first chunk follows a sandy jeep-track for around 20km through the barren desert from an altitude of around 4,500m at Refugio Murray up to Atacama Camp at 5260m. The road is obvious, if at times a bit washed out and rocky, and having run it the week before, I know it should take me just over two hours at a moderate pace.


I spend the first hour in silence, telling the support squad to simply drive ahead and wait for me 10km down the road. I want this pre-dawn time just for myself and the mountain and the stars.


The weather is perfect; cool but not frigid, no wind, and a bright moon to light the path in addition to my head- and waist-lamps. And the road is monotonous in the best possible way: unceasingly inclined upward just enough to merit focus and effort, but not steep enough to make running impossible. My world extends only the few meters which my lamps illuminate in front of me. This is my life now.



Until it’s not. I know from checking the altitude on my watch and passing through the final flat(ish) section (“the rock graveyard”) that I’m almost there. I keep waiting to see the lights of the truck until, finally, I round a corner and they’re right in front of me. I split my watch and see 2h06, five minutes faster than I’d run the week before on our scouting trip. Today is going to be a good day.


I’m amped, yipping like a coyote, as I approach my crew for the first time, grab one more layer and my poles, and, after a quick check-in, continue upward into the still dark night.


Atacama to Tejos




Ojos is home to (I’ve been told) the highest permanent mountain refuge on Earth, Refugio Tejos at 5,850m, which is, bafflingly, accessible by (a very sturdy) vehicle. And so, I watch the red tail lights disappear up the unreasonably steep slope as the squad makes the 4km, 700-vertical-meter journey up to high camp.


The combination of slope and altitude has reduced me to what a real ultra-trail runner would call a “power-hike,” but I’m still making great time against the record as the first light begins to illuminate the massive peaks all around us. The section is shorter than I expect, and so it’s once again with surprise that I’m yipping like a coyote as I crest the final hill and see the squad, the truck, and the sad, yellow shipping container, the refugio.


We take our longest stop of the day here as it’s now that I really switch from running mode to climbing mode. I throw snow-pants on over my tights; I trade my HOKA Speed-goat (trail-running shoes) for HOKA Kaha hiking boots; I throw on a few more upper layers, my climbing helmet, and, on top of everything, my UltraSpire Bryce XT Pack which carries an obsessively calculated number of gels, Oreos, nature valley bars, tortilla-meatstick-potato-chip-roll-ups, and about two liters of water (pre-mixed with Maurten and Nuun).


And we’re off.


Tejos to Summit


There are really two records we’re going for here. The first is the “Big One” -- the ultra-distance, 55km record all the way from the bottom (Murray) to the top and back, a time of 21 hours, 21 minutes. The second is a shorter (thus much faster), subset contained entirely within this longer route, from Atacama camp to the summit. This mark -- 5 hours, 54 minutes by Luis Ovalle Rodriguez -- is also attainable but will take a truly special day given that, in setting it, he skipped 40km of running that I’ll be doing today. As I leave Tejos, I’m cognizant that I’m making good time, having at the very least, a great, aggressive start to the day. Both records are within reach.


From Tejos, the “road” ends and the true singletrack begins. A short traverse leads to the longest slog of the climb, a few hundred vertical meters of switchbacks through loose, gravely terrain.



The sun is up by now and I can see that we’re literally the only people on the mountain today. No one appears to be behind or up ahead. I enjoy the isolation and try not to check my watch too often, but rather set it to beep every 30 minutes, at which points I radio the crew and let them know where I am (and try to use that as a reminder to eat something).


Quickly, I pass 6000m, 6200m, and in what doesn’t seem like too long, I’m at the top of the head-wall, around 6500m, and plop down on my butt to throw my crampons on. There are only a few dozen meters of snowy traverse, but they’re steep and exposed and feel significantly safer with the added traction of the metal spikes.




I traverse right and up, through the snow and ice to the mixed rocky approach up to the edge of the caldera, the great rim of the crater that leads to the summit.


Here, I stop for a few minutes and radio down to Scott. I ask him to take a video as I want to say something for posterity.


The truth is, I want to leave a message in case this is my last communication. Vanesa had told me that the radios would likely not work beyond this point, and I also know from my scouting climb that this rim to summit section is by far the trickiest, both in terms of altitude and terrain. And while the objective risk is low, I can’t ignore that I’m entering a communications blackout on the most dangerous part of the mountain.



With a lot of heavy breathing between clauses, I say:


“To my friends and family, I do this for you. We make the shoes with the elves. We stay awake while everyone else is sleeping. And to the haters, who don’t fucking get it; I’m sorry.”


Maybe it’s the drama of this little act, or maybe it’s just the physical and mental weight of what I’ve done up to this point, but I kind of freak out for a second after this.


I feel and hear and see my heart racing, in my teeth and ears and peripheral vision. I can’t seem to catch my breath or bring it down. And despite continuing forward, as I approach the boulder-field, I’m seriously considering turning back.


I wish I could have a tangible memory for how I break out of this, but I don’t. I wish I could share a clever mantra I recited or a quick meditation or breathing exercise. But the truth is that I simply keep putting one foot in front of the other and continue to focus on The Task and the summit continues to get closer: through the boulder field, slippery and loose, finally the fixed ropes in sight, up to the ropes themselves, ditching the poles, and continuing upward, full hands-and-feet now, into the notch, no harness but solid holds; then, in the notch, that final uber-exposed ridgeline, a thousand feet or more of air on each side, still the rope barely needed, at least on the way up, maybe 10 more good steps, the view opening up on all sides, and, then...



I think I forget to split my watch for a minute or two as I pull out my phone to take a quick summit video. 6 hours and 13 minutes after leaving Murray, I’m standing on top of Ojos, 27km away and 2400m above our little orange tent, somewhere out there in the desert, at 6,893m.


THE BIG DAY: BACK DOWN


I know that I just need to stay focused for another half hour and I’ll be through the scariest part of the down-climb and will fly smoothly through the remainder. Riding a great caffeine buzz, I scramble down the ridge -- the fixed ropes now much more useful -- to the notch, back down to my poles, and carefully navigate my way through the boulder field to the snowy path around the rim of the caldera and back to the traverse.



Gosh, descending this head-wall is easier! I have to really work to keep the effort high enough and am skiing down the loose scree slopes in my boots, occasionally hitting a firm patch and cartoonishly flying into the air and landing on my ass, once even inadvertently tossing a pole some twenty meters down-slope.


But I get back up, not even bothering to dust myself off, and, as I make my way down, I find myself in a rare, true flow-state where I no longer need to think and simply cannot fall. I’ve always been a timid downhill runner and this is maybe the first time that I simply let gravity drag me down the mountain, let my feet decide where to land for themselves, how quickly to turn over, and everything simply clicks. There’s no planning, no problem solving, just smooth downward motion.



And before I know it, I’m popping back from the single-track out to the top of the dirt road and have a hundred meters or so of steep, rocky track, whooping and yipping, to meet the squad, still waiting at Tejos.


Tejos to Atacama




The “undressing” gear change is much quicker than the swap on the way up as I strip off layers (“it’s hot as balls!” I shout on camera) and change back into my speedgoats for the remainder. I almost want to change into shorts, despite being at almost 6000m, but decide to keep the tights on and, much lighter now, I take off towards Atacama Camp.


The 4km journey had taken me 55 minutes to hike up that morning and I now have a hard time keeping my feet under me as I maintain a (barely) controlled fall down the exceedingly steep and rocky road, which drops about 700m in just over 3km. It’s all I can do to keep from flying off the mountain or catching a toe and face-planting into the gravel.



In 19 minutes, I’m back in Atacama Camp, the final stretch disappearing below me, Refugio Murray unfortunately visible and looking awfully far away, indeed.


Atacama to Murray


We honestly don’t even need a stop at Atacama, but it’s the end of the secondary record -- which we snagged in 5h32! -- and I’m kind of just standing around and killing time for no reason. Vanesa snaps a couple pictures to celebrate this first official mark and Scott reminds me I have something like 14 hours to cover the 20km back to Murray to break the Big Record (a pace I could probably maintain walking backward on my hands).


Still, I came here not just to break this record, but to truly push my own personal limits; so with one more highly caffeinated gel in my system, I take off, the Hamilton soundtrack bumping on my headphones (“Just you wait!”), and (hopefully) no surprises lurking between me and the finish.



I start off too quick. I’m too excited, feel too good with the extra caffeine and light shoes. I’ve mentally convinced myself that the altitude doesn’t matter and am running under 5’00/km at 5260m which, even downhill, is not all that slow.


After the initial descent, around 3km into this section, comes the biggest and longest (and only really significant) uphill on this stretch. I don’t try to run it but down-shift into a quick hike, hands pushing down on thighs, for a few minutes before cresting and heading down the other side.



This next 10km of fairly steady and gentle downhill is mentally the most challenging of the day. Every super sandy stretch saps more energy; every tiny rise seems to knock the wind out of me.


You can see Refugio Murray from way too far away. Like 4km or so. See, you pop up over this tiny little hill and all of a sudden, the fucker is right there. It’s like, you could throw a rock and crack it right through its stupid, dilapadated roof.


But really, those 4 kilometers are going to take you a while. Like, maybe 20 minutes. Because you’ve also got this ridiculous afternoon headwind by now which blows directly into your face as you run the dead straight, wash-boarded, sandy strip of desert that we’ll continue to call a road. And it just doesn’t seem to get any fucking closer.



Scott jumped in at this point, which is nice; it’s lovely to have some company! And “Guns and Ships” comes on right as you hit a little firmer patch of sand and get a little more pep in your step and suddenly Scott is red-lining and you’re on your own again and that little bub house still just refuses to get any fucking closer.


And you’re just trying to fight the wind and find that firmer sand again but you can’t because it’s all soft and wash-boardy and so you just keep putting one foot in front of the other and try not to look at your watch but just keep going and keep squeezing and looking for little milestones and the tunnel vision has started at this point and there is no world outside of the endless sand in front of and around you and this is your life now and forever.


And so but then it does seem like the building is getting bigger and you can see the gleam of the sun on the windshield of the truck and then the people, yes, there are people on the porch, and you can hear laughter and cheers and then make out individual voices and now you take the headphones off because you want to every sense hyper-aware for this moment, these sensations of sound and sight and pain, the taste of pennies.


That weird sculpture. The red truck. And then, you hit the watch. The other watch.


We’re finished here.


Murray


I’m in tears on the ground and Vanesa rubs my back. Scott is still a few hundred meters back and I’m glad that I get these few minutes to pull myself together.


In high school, I remember discovering the phrase, “A dream realized is a dream lost.” At the time, I interpreted it cynically; as if the realization of a dream rendered the chase meaningless.



Without a doubt, I’m obsessive; I’m a dreamer. And this one was surely a dream realized; but I don’t consider it a dream lost.


Sure, I’ll move onto other dreams -- I already have! -- but this is a dream I’ll hold dear for a long time. Because like all dreams, while we can’t relive every detail, every sensation, forever, we remember how we felt and what it meant both to chase and achieve that dream.



My 9 hours and 29 minutes on Ojos del Salado have and will continue to shape the course of my life. Not just because I set a record, but because I let my heart grapple with a completely new obsession. I found a challenge that was at once terrifying, exhilarating, devastating, and redemptive.


As I look to the future, I know there will be more of this on the horizon. Because I have that obsession that Jim spoke of back in the sauna. And while I’m not sure it’s the same exact obsession he’s got, it’s cut from the same cloth. And it’s calling me to the mountains.



#TylerAndrews

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