The Obispo summit of El Altar was without doubt one of the highlights of my trip, it’s technical, exposed, and stunningly pretty, especially if you get a good weather window. Sadly, our weather on summit day was awful, and we had to turn around 30M from the actual summit, however in terms of experience this was much more technically and mentally challenging than the others.
The Altar was at one point a huge volcano, however the caldera collapsed, creating a horse shoe shaped ridge, with Obispo (The bishop) being the highest point. Access is via a small village behind Tungaragua (Which recently has been exceptionally active.) and Banos. From the village its about an hour up a small track to the trailhead. From the trailhead, its an easy days trek to Italian camp, its possible to arrange mules at the trailhead to carry equipment. I had two guides on this trip, Rafael, and Ivan, who spent a day fixing ropes on the more exposed sections, before the three of us attempted the summit on day 3.
We set off at around 2am, with clear sky and little moonlight, the stars were wonderful, and the temperature surprisingly warm for the altitude. There is a small climb, then steep descent down onto the lower glacier, which is traversed, and followed by a small mixed section, and steeper gulley onto the second glacier. From here we ascended via what appeared to be a ridge and traversed to the final gulley which is a steep mixed section, with exceptionally loose rock.
From the top of this, there is a 10M rock wall, approx 90 degrees, by this time the wind had picked up, visibility dropped to a few meters, and it was snowing. Whilst Ivan and I tied in on top of the gulley, Rafael attempted the rock wall, however the fixed lines had frozen, and now had a small build up of ice, and it wasn’t possible to lock off the jumars so we decided to turn around. It was mildly frustrating as this was my main objective, but at the same time, a very wise decision.
The descent was just as tough as the ascent, the upper gulley was pretty much a bowling ally, I got clipped on the noggin by a small rock when i was unclipping which was a stark reminder to get the hell out of the way, whilst Rafael and I waited on Ivan rapping down, large boulders were hurtling down at terminal velocity which was quite nerve racking.
The traverse of the snow fields was pretty easy, but time consuming as we had to remove the fixed lines, and rap off snow bollards, it was nearly 4pm before we got back to camp. Its a testament to the strength of Ivan and Rafael just how strong they were when we arrived back in camp considering they basically climbed the mountain twice by this point.
The next day we set off back to the car, with lovely weather and good clear visibility of the lakes and glaciers. We arrived back at the car late afternoon ready for a hot shower and clean sheets, rounded the first bend, when I glanced up and saw a fantastic eruption form Tungaragua, “Oh look, an eruption, how nice” I said cheerfully to groans from Rafael and Ivan – little did I know that we were not cut off from Banos, where our clean clothes and hotel were, so we spent the night in another town. Despite the inconvenience, the views of the ash cloud were stunning.