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Socaire Gorge, Chile

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Socaire Gorge cracks a high altitude desert near Chile’s Bolivian border. At 3,600 meters and miles away from the nearest habitation of any kind, it seemed like a strange place for an overland expedition to set up camp. But Hot Rock Global Challenge is not a normal overland expedition, its raison d'etre is rock climbing and Socaire Gorge is famous for the quality of its rock. However, as I helped prepare dinner, I felt more than a little dubious about the whole affair.

The last time I had gone from sea level to 3,600 meters, in Ladakh, I had been sick as a dog for two days, and I didn’t see how this was going to be any different. Altitude sickness is no fun and I couldn't imagine how not having a toilet to be sick into was going to improve matters. It wasn’t just the altitude that was worrying me. My ankle had come out of its cast 10 days before, and after 8 weeks off it was time for me to start climbing again. I wasn’t sure I still had the nerve.

We had arrived at Socaire late, long after the sun had set, and it seemed a pretty hostile environment. Every time I looked up from the 40-odd cloves of garlic I was crushing with the flat of a machete blade my head swam from lack of oxygen. Even just walking a few steps had most of us out of breath and putting up our tent was a major ordeal that stretched our civility. Sand blew across our campsite getting into everything: the truck, tents and even the food. The desert floor was dry and barren with no life other than scrawny scrub plants. These did nothing to soften harsh surroundings as they only served to remind us that the gentler things in life just died up here.

Altitude does strange things to your body but it should come as no surprise that you have to breathe faster and more often to get enough oxygen. As a result there are more toxins in your blood and these have to be excreted as urine. That night, every hour on the hour, I struggled out of the warmth of my sleeping bag, gasping for air as I wrestled with the zip, and stumbled a respectful 2 meters from the porch of my tent to relieve myself. Now shivering and openly panting I’d collapse into our tent and lie perfectly still for a couple of minutes until my breathing returned to a point where I thought it safe to accept my sleeping bag’s challenge of a rematch.

Things didn’t look that much better in the morning. We initially greeted the sun with some enthusiasm but it soon wore out its welcome. The cold air of the night, that had frozen any water we left out, became the dry heat of a furnace. The solar radiation and the dry air whipped the moisture out us, burning skin and cracking lips. There just didn’t seem to be any way to get out of its glare - our tents were like ovens and with the sun directly overhead there was no shade anywhere else. In desperation we made a makeshift shelter by hanging blankets over our table and weighted them down with jerry cans. Five of us lay awkwardly underneath amazed at how cold it was once you were out of direct sunlight.

Later that day, determined to get at least one climb done, I limped down into the gorge. Pulling on my climbing shoes at the base of one of the easiest climbs my already short breath shortened further. I was terrified - not so much out of fear of climbing, but out of fear that I wouldn’t be able to climb. Had my fall near Fitzroy destroyed my confidence? Would I ever be able to trust another piece of protection? Or would I just freeze on the rock, unable to move for fear? Trying not to dwell on these thoughts, I fumbled my way through tying in to the rope and started to climb.

Every move was desperate, miserable and a mockery of style and elegance. I was weak, I was out of breath, I was scared and I was over-gripping the holds, draining my strength. Overall I climbed abysmally, but when I came down I was happy - despite the performance, I had climbed. While I would have to work at recovering my skill, endurance, strength and confidence I now knew it could be done.

Slowly over the following days, not only did my climbing improve but the previously barren and hostile desert softened and came alive. Within the gorge a small ecosystem had developed around a water supply. Besides lizards and insects, tiny birds, startled by climbers, would zip out from their nests in deep cracks in the rock, their wings making an implausibly loud thwupping sound. Rabbit-like creatures could be seen scaling cliffs that we could only dream of climbing. And every night and morning a desert fox, eager to make the most of our dinner scraps, would visit us. Unafraid he would make his way right to the edge of our camp and sit there waiting. I guess he’d seen enough climbers before to know that sooner or later there would be food coming his way.

After 4 days rough camping we temporarily left Socaire Gorge for San Pedro for much need showers and to celebrate New Years Eve. When we returned 2 days later I was amazed at how welcoming and comfortable the desert felt. No longer was it the harsh inhospitable place it had been when we first arrived - now it felt like home.

Pictures of Socaire Gorge- click to enlarge
Picture of the Hot Rock truck at Socaire - Chile Travelogues
Picture of sunset at Socaire Gorge - Chile Travelogues

The Truck with the tarp up

The sky seems to go on fire at sunset
Photograph of our camp site at Socaire Gorge
Photograph of Socaire Gorge - Chile Travelogues
Our camp site

The gorge
Picture of sunset at Socaire Gorge - Chile Travelogues
Photograph of Hot Rockers climbing at Socaire Gorge
Sunset Climbers on the rock