Cerro Peña Negra

Elevation Gain: 641m
Distance: 4.15km
Total Time: 3 hours
Date: November 16th, 2023

After a successful outing up Cerro Jorquencal, Andrea and I were trying to figure out where to go next. We had one day left on our rental car and were hoping to checkout a different area than the peaks north of San Pedro de Atacama. Ideally something above 5000m so that Andrea could check off her first peak above this height. Jorquencal was just shy of 5k mark, but thankfully there were no shortage of peaks above this height around us. We scanned the maps for a long time trying to find the balance of interesting enough and easy enough to access with our 2WD rental car.

One peak with no real beta that I could find was a short distance off of Ruta 27 and in a totally different area East of San Pedro de Atacama. It was labelled Cerro Peña Negra and stood at 5219m. Given that it was right off the highway, it wasn’t going to be anything obscure, but we were limited by our car so this seemed like a good compromise.

We left town around 8am and reached our turn off from the highway about 1.5 hours later. I had scouted out what appeared to be dirt roads off the highway on satellite imagery and it proved to be accurate when we arrived on scene. We were able to drive right up to the base of Peña Negra without any issue. The wind was noticeably stronger than on any other day of our trip so far, so it took some extra motivation to leave the cozy confines of the car.

Driving on the dirt road just off of Ruta 27
This Andean Gull kept us company while we got ready

Eventually, we got out and followed some 4WD tracks for a few minutes before starting our ascent up an obvious ridge. The terrain was quite mellow and reminded me greatly of the Chilcotins. Except for the wind and elevation we didn’t encounter any difficulties and slowly climbed our way up the ridge. After an hour and a half we reached the end of the ridge line and a short band of 2nd class rock enabled us to reach the summit… at least as labelled on the map.

Andrea walking towards the ridge we’d take at left
Heading up the tame ridge
A scree bowl on the north side of the ridge. The summit is on that rock pinnacle at center
Getting closer
Andrea scrambling up a short band
Still slogging it
Looking back down
Choose your own adventure up or around this

To my surprise another peak appeared along the ridge just east of our summit cairn. A peak that by all accounts looked taller! Gauging these nuanced height differences by eye is usually an exercise in futility and so I figured we should at least go check it out. This secondary summit appeared a bit more challenging as well, surrounded on all sides by large blocks of rock. I spotted what looked like a 3rd class route up through the left side so off we went aiming for this weakness in the formation.

Now standing on the summit. The secondary peak visible dead center
Cerro Incahausi is the very interesting sulphuric coloured peak ahead

The ridge between the two peaks was perhaps only 4-500m and tame so we dispatched with the traverse quite easily. However, the wind was treating us with occasional gusts as a reminder of who was letting who be on the ridge at this time. Andrea was feeling a bit exhausted from the elevation now and the wind wasn’t helping. For a brief moment she considered hanging back while I went to check out the other summit, but I convinced her to come along for the ride.

Nearing the base and it’s clear it won’t be that difficult to get up

As I reached the base of the secondary summit, it became clear that the route I had spotted would go with no issue at all. We found a nice 3rd class route through the huge blocks of stone and crested onto the wind rattled summit shortly after. I walked over to the highest point I could find and then performed my not so trusty eye-to-height test of the first summit we reached. And… well… the first summit appeared a bit smaller! Now for the fun part. I had a GPX watch and my phone measuring my elevation. For the first summit, my watch measured: 5245m and my phone: 5224m. On the second summit my watch measured: 5238m and my phone: 5249m. So, it’s safe to say the data is inconclusive. Especially when you factor in that the summit is labelled as 5219m… so the watch and phone were off by significant margins… or were they?

Looking up at the fun scramble
Andrea reaching the base
Nice blocky terrain
A quick look back the first summit. It appears about level here, but we still have a bit higher to climb
Now looking over from the secondary summit. The true summit looks quite close in height albeit a bit smaller from here. Cerro El Chascon is the huge summit on the right
Andrea finding a small wind shelter
Looking south. Cerro Pili is the tallest one off on the left
Both of us on the summit
Heading down
A look back at the secondary summit
Traversing that north bowl
Looking down at Ruta 27 below. Cerro Toco is the summit at very left and then Cerro Licancabur and Cerro Juriques are at center
Andrea descending the fun scree slopes

Nonetheless, it was fun to get a little scrambling in and now it was time to get out of the wind as the novelty had worn off. We scrambled back down to the ridge and then stayed skiers right of the summit, dropping into a bowl on the north side. We traversed across the bowl and then regained the ridge we had ascended.

Now, instead of following our ascent ridge we cut skier’s left onto a huge scree slope that allowed us to boot ski all the way back down to the car in one shot! We made it back to town after with a few hours to spare before the rental drop off time. A fun adventure and an easy summit made for a great final day in San Pedro.

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