Chile-based Australian, Patrick Mikelsons, is absolutely frothing over the desert-delights of climbing in Rio Salado in the Atacama Desert
I vividly remember my first glimpse of climbing in Atacama. We were sitting in a cafe in rainy Mendoza after being washed out of Arenales – one of Argentina’s top climbing destinations – dreaming of dry rock and we’d heard various people throwing around comparisons of the Chilean Altiplano crags to Indian Creek. We unearthed a video and some photos of an expedition exploring some canyons east of Calama. True, it looked like the Creek. After an unseasonably rainy summer spent in Patagonia waiting for weather windows that never arrived, the idea of penetrating the world’s most arid (non-Arctic) desert and airing out the mildew from my old Toyota van whilst hunting virgin rock left me salivating.
We jumped the border and sped north up the Pan-American, breaking the monotony of the road by scrambling up the occasional granite or volcanic blob. In Chile, from the high Andes all the way through the Precordillera and down to the sea, there’s a vast amount of climbable rock. Just north of Antofagasta we began to ascend up to the Altiplano, a band of dirtbaggers in an old van with an excess of time and a shortage of funds.
We bypassed the established climbing centres of Socaire and Toconao, close to the town San Pedro de Atacama. We drove past the newer, lesser-known zones such as Caspana and Taira, chasing question marks, exploring shadows on satellite images. We ended up in another canyon further northeast; the Rio Salado.
For thousands of years, these canyons framed the lives of the Likanantai people, providing fences for their animals and blank canvases for their petroglyphs. We rolled in, a bunch of gringos seeing the space with new eyes, casting our hungry gaze to the striking crack systems partitioning bullet-hard monolithic red and orange walls.
We soon realised that unlike Indian Creek, the rock wasn’t sandstone but ignimbrite – a volcanic deposit – and fractured by tectonics it was formed under different conditions to Indian Creek; likewise it also climbs and protects differently to sandstone. While these two areas have more differences than similarities, they do share one common characteristic – the climbing is really, really good.
On three separate trips we installed ourselves in the Rio Salado canyon. Triangulated between three different walls ranging between 20m to 45m in height, all within one kilometre walk from our salty river camp. The potential for more routes was at times stressful as the canyon served up a smorgasbord of splitters that devoured everything from fingertips up to chicken wings, as well as loads of pocketed faces, featured dihedrals, and roofs. There is also great potential for some sweet sport routes on pockets, scoops and aretés.
One sector that we opened and christened ‘La Playita’, features this full spectrum of styles concentrated in a small riverside beach. It stays in the shade almost all day, making it a great summer crag. Grades range from 6a+ (19) to 7a+ (24) with a mix of bolts and gear. A party of climbers with 15 quickdraws and a triple rack between them could easily gorge themselves for three days here. You’ll just have to share the space with the occasional herd of centaur-like llamas who watch on incredulously.
Stumbling through the canyon under the nose of snow-capped volcanoes, we fancied ourselves as intrepid frontiersmen, but I must confess that we were not the first expedition to visit this little paradise. We had come across three or four, single-bolt anchors at the top of some of the more accessible lines. However, even after our protracted visits the canyon still holds only 18 established routes. What remains are many hundreds of unclimbed lines that will probably stay as such for a time to come.
Owing to the isolation of Rio Salado and the lack of infrastructure, such as public transport and clean water, it will be some time before this area will ever see the kind of traffic received by the zones closer to San Pedro de la Atacama. Those areas are already feeling the growing pains of a sudden influx of climbers. Relations with the local communities have begun to strain over the impact of waste and a lack of clear parameters around camping, fires, bolting and, above all, the precious water that runs between these walls nourishing the communities and their small agricultural endeavours. (At the time of writing, the community of Toconao has asked climbers to stay away until a solution can be found to manage the impact of climbing and community expectations.)
Whilst some of my original first ascent crew have returned home, I am putting my long road trip north across the Americas on hiatus. I am in San Pedro indefinitely, scheming up ways to return to Rio Salado armed with four tonnes of bolts, hangers, brushes, ropes, drill batteries and belay slaves. Maybe a Petzl RocTrip? Or selling my body to wealthy tourists? Or going to Bolivia, purchasing a half kilo of coke, and limping back across the border?
Out there in the far-flung corners of the Atacama, hidden from civilisation, there is a sense of freedom suspended in the great expansive silence. Spending days alone, jugging, scrubbing and climbing, followed by nights under a crystal-clear sky draped in a thousand stars. Out there it’s just us, the petroglyphs and the occasional llama.
For further information, support, transfer to any of the mentioned climbing zones or expeditions further afield, contact: Patrick.Mikelsons@gmail.com