Claire Garnesson: World first flight from Cerro Toco (5,604m), Chile
Claire Garnesson recently spent several weeks on a grand adventure in Chile. One of the highlights was a flight from Cerro Toco, a 5,604m volcano in the Atacama Desert, on her Base 2 Lite. She is probably the first person ever to have flown from it! Here is her story:
Cerro Toco (5604m) – Make the impossible possible
This is the story of a 'small' mountain (5,604m) and a very stubborn French girl with a colourful paraglider.
When I decided to travel to Chile I had lots of projects. I dreamed of taking off from the top of volcanoes, flying in front of the big glaciers of Patagonia or above the huge desert of the North. Well, none of that happened! It felt like Chile wouldn't let me enjoy its beauty from the top. Too windy! Way too windy! And when it wasn't for the wind, it was the national parks and their guards that did not allow it – so frustrating!
The last few weeks of my trip I end up in the Atacama desert, with those huge mountains looking at me. I want to climb them and fly from them! Cerro Toco seemed to be the easiest. It became my goal (and obsession). I tried to acclimatise as best I could around my job, cycling on the dusty roads, going as far up as time allowed, and keeping an eye on the forecast every day.
Finally a two-day window came with no wind forecast. Great! Plan A was to find a car and some companions to climb the thing, but I had no luck with that: other plans, tourist with no idea of the acclimatisation process... Move on to plan B: go into town and ask literally ALL the agencies if I can go up with a group and take my wing. NO! It's dangerous! I didn’t even get a chance to explain, just a big No! Hitting a wall, every single time.
I returned to the hostel angry and frustrated. I started thinking of going with the bike - but carrying water for two to three days, a glider and a tent on my back to ride more than 2,000m ascent in the desert was just a bit too crazy. And I had to work anyway. Forget about non-plan C. The next day, the two girls I was working with came up with plan D: they had a Chilean friend who could rent a cheap car and we could all climb together! That would be perfect! Even better to do it with friends!! Things were looking up. Tuesday 6pm. No news from 'the friend', his last text that morning was 'Looking for a car'. My instinct said, not good! And I was right, we finally got news at 7pm 'Didn't find a car'... Too late for plan E and the day after next the wind was coming back and the chance would be gone. I sent a desperate text to one of the agencies: 'Hey, my plan got cancelled, can you find me a tour for tomorrow?'. No flying but at least I would get to see the summit. Yup! Lucky me, I could go with a group the next day, better than nothing. Packing my stuff in the evening, I looked at my glider. Dinner… thinking about my glider. Going to bed… watching my glider… packing my glider (just in case).
Wednesday 6am. I'm still not sure if I should try to take the glider with me. The guide comes to pick me up ‘Question, do you have room in the car for a big backpack? It's a paraglider.' 'OK.' OK? I'm dancing inside, it wasn't a straight no! We start talking about my idea on the way up. Nothing crazy, safety first. Yes, I know what I'm doing, and I won't try anything if I'm not 100% sure. OK. What? That simple? After a week of fighting for this it was as simple as that!?
So, it was just me, the guide Lautaro and a nice Brazilian couple Jackie and Juan going up. I wasn't expecting such a small group but that was great! Let's go on an adventure! We were the first to arrive at the bottom of the hike. Truth is, we didn't start from the bottom, the road goes more than half-way up. No wind so far, the glider is coming with us! There's snow on the track, that's good for me: more options for take-off. We hike slowly, very slowly, even more slowly. One step at a time. Less oxygen and not acclimatised, we need to take our time. 1h30 to get to the summit. We're the only people here. Zero wind. The view is awesome! Crazy colours of the desert, reds and oranges of the sand, yellow of ancient sulphur mines, and two huge black-and-white volcanoes in front of us: Licancabur and Juriques. (Keep that for later).
I feel a bit dizzy but not as bad as my two new Brazilian friends. I would have stayed there longer but they need to go down. Just below the summit there's a perfect snowy slope. A look at Lautaro, he understands. We do this fast: he needs to go down with the other guys. He gives me his radio and we agree to meet at the bottom. There's still very little wind. I get ready, still not sure whether I can fly or not. Other groups are coming up now. I see stars in the eyes of the other guides. I have the feeling they would love to do this too. One of them has a drone, he offers to make a video from the summit, that would be awesome!
Perfect wind coming up the slope. It's now or never! The wing inflates nicely everything is looking good, go! I'm flying! I'm flying fast! Very fast! Wow! The view is amazing. Screaming of happiness, that's a well-deserved flight after all the energy that went into making it happen. Vario beeping and movement in the air. I would love to stay up there, but I'm afraid that if I wait, I'll have to land in very strong wind. So I go for the safer option, just enjoy a short flight, and choose a nice sandy spot near the road. Only two alpacas to share my joy with (they ran away!). Packing quickly and jumping into the guide's arms as soon as he gets here. What a crazy adventure!! Thank you so much to him for trusting me! And thank you BGD for making such a good multipurpose glider, perfectly suited for that kind of adventure!