An account of a trip that Joe Lyons, Dermot Wall and Sé Ó Hanlon made to Mercedario in the Andes in 2004
(by Sé O’Hanlon, 2004)
In August 2003 a planned journey to the Indian Himalaya had fallen through so I started to plan an alternative. The question was, to where and with who?
The conditions for “where” were simple enough. I had tasted isolation in India with an IMC expedition (this was an expedition because we set out to climb the highest unclimbed peak in a province) and wanted to find something similar again. A high mountain in South America, not mentioned in magazines or books would fill the bill. People should ask “where is that?” when I told them where I was going.
When we go mountaineering in Europe we decide where to go, how to get there and what to do when we get there with no help from any other outside agency except ferry operators or airlines. As far as possible I wanted to follow the same principle on this holiday. There are easier ways of doing things – booking onto a commercial group for example – but they drain some of the adventure out of the whole experience.
My first choice was Tupungato, 6500m, on the Argentina/Chilé border. I had read the book of the first ascents of Aconcagua and Tupungato by Fitzgerald and his Swiss guides and this made it seem possible and interesting. I knew that it was south of Aconcagua and believed that I had once glimpsed it from the road to Punta del Inca. Nobody I knew had ever heard of it and that was recommendation enough.
Next I had to get some information. Fitzgerald’s book is in the RDS library but I no longer had access to this so I scoured the web. Amongst the billions of web pages of information on every topic under the sun I found reams of information about the discovery of a long-lost airliner in a glacier on the mountain but only one account of a climbing trip by James Milne seemed interesting, a US citizen who went alone and climbed Tupungato and another peak 100kms to the north, Mercedario, 6750m. This seemed like all of my birthdays coming together – 2 worthwhile unfashionable mountains to climb rather than one. I decided to imitate Milne.
First on the agenda was the recruitment of company. Joe Lyons ignored my first cast but quickly returned to the fly and snapped it, also bringing along Dermot Wall. So we were three and the show was on the road.
We needed to get maps showing how to get to our mountain, decide how much time we would need, book plane tickets and local services, assemble the gear and go.
We decided not to follow Milne’s route on Tupungato because it involved crossing a high pass to get to and from the foot of the mountain. We chose instead the northern approach from Punta de Vacas. This meant that we could fly to Mendoza, get the public bus to Punta de Vacas, hire mules to bring our gear in and out from Tupungato, travel from there to Mercedario by 4 wheel drive and eventually back to Mendoza by the same means.
First call was Joss Lynam, fount of all maps and all knowledge, who said “:Where are they?”: when I asked him about maps of Tupungato and Mercedario. Shortly afterwards he came back to say that he had drawn a blank and gave me a few names to check on the web. This brought no joy, a webtrawl of mapsellers, the Argentine and Chiléan equivalents of the Ordinance Survey, NASA, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and All brought no joy and no maps. We could have contacted one of the guiding and outfitting services in the area who could have helped us out but this seemed like cheating. The whole purpose of the exercise was to do as much as possible ourselves through personal contacts and not just buy in services.
While this was being done we realised that we had better book our flights. We discussed our availability and eventually drew up a schedule which showed that we could do what we wanted, if there were no hiccups, in about 24 days and we booked to leave in late January and return in mid February.
With this out of the way we went back to the search for information. I contacted Iain Ballesty in Santiago, a longstanding and now expatriate member of the IMC, who trawled locally for information. He found a web site with details of the approach to Tupungato from the Chiléan side but not a lot more. Although this looked interesting it could not be fitted into our time allowance so we went back to the fine combing of the web. Iain gave us addresses of local climbing web sites and through their links we broadened our anecdotal knowledge of the mountains but got no maps.
Finally in December it was time to swallow our pride and approach an outfitter for help. Our enquiry to Fernando Grajales brought the information, on the 31st December, that the 3 day approach from Punta de Vacas is no longer possible for mules and that the alternative approach would take 5 days each way. Given our skin-tight schedule and the fact that the crossing of a high pass to get to and from our mountain was unacceptable this meant that our plan for two mountains was out the window and we now had to pick one or the other.
This was a major problem. Most of us, if plonked down in an unknown valley surrounded by mountains and asked which we wanted to climb, would have difficulty making up our minds. We usually chose our objectives on the basis of their history, books we have read or stories told by friends. Without these personal recommendations there is often very little to help us choose between one or the other (unless one is unclimbed). So it was with Mercedario and Tupungato. We knew little about them and were short of reasons to chose between them but we were flying out in 3 weeks time and had to decide quickly. Probably because it is the fourth-highest peak in South America Mercedario was our choice.
We now were in the happy position of being 3 weeks from going away and all we had to do was book our hotel in Mendoza and arrange transport from there to and from the mountain (unlike Tupungato the road head is not on a bus route).
We picked the hotel from the South America Handbook 2004, booked by email and got confirmation 4 days before we travelled. We were a bit cautious about picking the outfitter as prices are based on what the foreign customer is prepared to pay rather than on average wages in Argentina. So we headed back to our Chiléan contacts who recommended San Juan Aventura, describing them as “:climbers, good people”: in one of the greatest understatements of all time. They were magnificent people. With 10 days to go we contacted them by email and instantly had everything in place, including permission from Rio Tinto Mining to use their private road into the mountains.
All systems were go.
Leaving Dublin on Thursday afternoon we were in Mendoza at 17.00 on Friday after stops in Milan and Buenos Aires.
Saturday was spent shopping and sorting food and at 9.30 on Sunday we were on the road to Mercedario in a four wheel drive with Marcos and Rafael from Aventura San Juan.
Our first 100kms were on the main road to Santiago in Chilé . At Uspallata we stopped in the strangely named Tibet Bar and had our last sit-down meal for the next 2½ weeks. We immediately left tarmac and took to the dirt road which runs up a valley 5km wide between the older pre-cordillera to the east and the younger Andes to the west to Barreal.
After about 50 or 60 km on this road at a steady 100kph , except where we crossed the beds of dry rivers intersecting the road, we turned onto a single lane road similar to a forest road in Ireland. Parts were like a good Irish forest road and parts like a bad one.
This road followed the Rio de Los Patos and then its tributary Rio Blanco to El Molle where three buildings abandoned by Rio Tinto but not yet totally derelict provided shelter.
A tyre on the four wheel drive in which we travelled went flat just as we arrived at El Molle. Excellent timing. We discovered later that on the return journey Marcos and Rafael were forced to climb out of the window of the jeep after it became stuck when boulders shifted under it when fording the Rio Colorado. The water was over the doors. They had to get help to tow it out.
Day 1. To base camp
Early the next morning the arriero (arriero is the mountain counterpart of the gaucho of the pampas) arrived with three mules to bring our gear to base camp.
This was a 5/6 hour tramp up the remains of a mining road which was abandoned 20 years ago and which followed the Arroyo La Laguna. Although in parts it was as good as the better parts of the Table track, in other parts it had completely vanished under scree and boulders.
The sun was almost directly overhead in a cloudless sky and the only shade in the whole day was under one boulder and later in a derelict building. Temperatures were probably in the thirties.
On the way we passed the spectacular Laguna Blanca, which in spite of its name was a beautiful turquoise colour possibly because of the deposition of copper salts on its bed.
Eventually we arrived exhausted at our base camp at Guanaquitos (3650m) where we soon had our tents pitched and stoves roaring. Welcome food was quickly wolfed down and we were in our tents by 20.00 to escape the cold as temperatures plummeted when the sun set.
Our arriero stayed the night at Guanaquitos and used his time to check the horse and mules’ hooves and replace some of their shoes. It is important to be self-sufficient in the wilderness.
Day 2. Walk to camp 1
We expected the arriero to be gone the next morning but instead he was still there and headed up the mountain instead of going down. This was soon explained when he came back with the baggage of a party of 5 or 6 climbers. One of these at least was Scot and he gave us a rundown on their successful ascent and told us that there were only three people on the mountain ahead of us. They continued on their journey down and we were at last alone.
This aloneness is a feature of Mercedario. On Aconcagua there are always big numbers of climbers around and trained, acclimatised rescuers on call at all times. Mercedario is a different experience. We met only the Scots and several days later we met the other party on their way down. Apart from these we saw nobody else and had no communication with the outside world.
In the event of an emergency it would have been a Lug walk to make contact with anyone who could contact any possible rescuer who would have come from San Juan, almost 220kms away. For some this isolation is exhilarating, for others it can be oppressive and threatening. I must say that I enjoyed it.
It would have been possible for us to set our base camp higher than we did but we felt that, coming from sea-level, it would be better for acclimitisation to start at the lower level
Our day was spent following the Arroyo Cuesta Blanca to locate the site for our first camp which was at El Salto, 4100m. Quarter way up we passed the base camp of the two Basques and one Chilé an who were further up the mountain.
At first it was a steady walk beside the river following a mule track. Then a steep climb up a moraine brought us to a small nook between a craggy mountain and a moraine. Here we set up camp 1, protected from any wind and beside a stream of clear water. Carrying only snacks for the day we reached the spot in only about 3 hours. It was when we were nearing this camp that we had our first encounter with small patches of snow from the previous winter.
We rested there for a while and then climbed a couple of hundred metres higher before descending again to base camp. Here we learned the value of cooking and eating before the sun set. Immediately it disappeared behind the mountains the instant chill made eating outdoors uncomfortable and drove us into our tents and sleeping bags.
Day 3. Carry to camp 1
When we got up in the morning we saw signs that our camp had been visited by guanacos during the night. These relatives of the llama are almost as common here as deer are in Wicklow and we were amazed to see signs of them up to about 4,000m in areas where the vegetation was so sparse that we wondered how they found enough grazing to make their journeys worthwhile.
We loaded up with all of the food and other equipment which we intended to bring higher on the mountain and set off up to El Salto.
This time we were much slowed by our heavy bags and the altitude and we were relieved to reach the site of camp 1.
We dumped our loads and rested a few hours here before setting off back to base. Our practice was to help our acclimatisation by staying as long as possible at our high point each day before returning to a lower altitude to sleep.
Day 4. Move to camp 1
When the sun hit our tents we were up and out and packed up a two-man and a one-man tent, plus our cooking and sleeping gear. We stowed things we would not need until our return in a tent which we left at base. Then for the third time we trudged up the valley to settle into camp one at 4,100m.
When we got there the sun was beating down, as it did every day, and we found that there was no shelter from its fierce rays. Our sheltered nook was like a cauldron. There was no cooling breeze so our tents were too hot for comfort. Eventually we located a shadow under a rock outcrop where we sat until the sun relented and then we hurried back to cook dinner before the cold set in.
It was from this camp upwards that we had to bring water into our tents at night as it would freeze if left outside. The great feature of this whole area was that , because it is desert, we could leave surplus gear outside the tent all night and it was always bone dry in the morning. A far cry from the War Against Dampness which is a feature of camping in Ireland.
Here at 4,100m was the highest point at which we saw guanaco tracks. Obviously they were mountaineering guanacos because there was absolutely no grazing for them and no obvious reason for them to be there.
Day 5. Carry to camp 2
Because our days had been short and easy and we were gaining height at a very manageable rate we decided to continue up to our next camp at Cuesta Blanca.
We started with a steep 200m climb out of camp 1 and then crossed the floor of a higher valley whose walls carried extensive snow patches. It seemed that the glacier which shaped it had only relatively recently receded. Here we picked a site for camp 2 at 4,400m.
As we sat there it became clear that we were entering a much colder zone. Even in the sun we were not as hot as at lower heights and had no need to hunt for shadows for shelter. When the sun went low the duvet jackets came out of hiding.
The barometric pressure at camp 1 that day was 648mb, about two thirds of the normal pressure in Dublin.
Day 6. Move to camp 2
We moved tents and all to camp 2, a relatively easy affair, and we were soon settled in there.
In the mid-afternoon we saw three people coming over the lip of our valley from higher on the mountain. One kept to his left and descended quickly heading lower and carrying a monstrous sack . The other two traversed to their right and then attempted to descend over difficult ground. One of them moved very slowly and soon fell behind in a field of penitentes. He seemed to make no further effort to descend. The other started to climb down very slowly over rock outcrops and penitentes. We figured that they were in trouble so Joe headed up to the left to help the slower of the two while Dermot and I went to give any help we could to the other.
It took Joe nearly an hour to reach his victim who was almost at a standstill. He relieved him of his heavy sack and led him back up and around to the correct descent route. Dermot and I had little to do because our victim made her way down relatively quickly and did not need any help.
When we met her we found that she was a Chilean climber with two Basque men. They had been successful in reaching the summit. The Chilean had a GPS and knew the right way down but her partner insisted on taking another line and ran out of steam. After a short rest they headed on down to their base camp and left us as the only people on the upper part of the mountain.
That evening we were surprised to see a mouse scampering in the rocks near our tents and were amazed that it could live at this height. The area was completely barren and there was almost no climbers’ rubbish as a food source. This was partly due to cleanliness of previous climbers and also to the fact that very few people pass this way.
Day 7. Carry to camp 3
Our easy days were now over. The climb to camp 3 at Pircos Indios could only be described as arduous. After a short walk over the floor of the valley we started the steep climb, zigzagging over scree and rock outcrops to skirt penitente fields.
It seemed that we would never reach the lip of the valley but eventually we did.
We were now in a different world. Up to now we had been following a valley shaped by ice and sculpted by water from melting snow and ice. The noise of running water was always present. Now we were in a broad valley with gently sloping sides and no noticeable features. Its floor was covered with smallish rocks almost like tiles and had all of the appearance of desert pavement. We had been warned that this valley is very exposed to storms from the west and this led us to conclude that its appearance was the result of wind erosion.
Here we trudged as if on a treadmill. Visible progress was very slow and altitude was making itself more and more noticeable. Eventually we reached the site of camp 3, a corrie opening sideways off the main valley. Here, at 5,200m we were very aware that we had stepped up our rate of ascent as we sat down exhausted to dump our loads. The height gain of 800m had a much more severe effect than our more conservative efforts lower down.
We were surrounded on three sides by the steep walls of the corrie on one of which was the remnant of the glacier which had carved it. We made our camp at the foot of this, near a hollow where a small stream of meltwater provided easy access to water. We selected a hollow in the moraine to protect us from any wind but this meant that the outlook from our tents was not one which could ever feature on a postcard – just rubble and sky. After resting for an hour we headed back down to camp 2 where we arrived tired and hungry.
Day 8. Move to camp 3
This was moving day as we left the mouse at camp 2 to his fate and carried our gear to C3. It was a repeat of the previous day’s trudge and called for a turning off of imagination and just putting one foot in front of the other until we arrived at our destination where we cooked a hasty dinner and soon, exhausted, sought the sanctuary of our sleeping bags. Such are the joys of high altitude mountaineering.
The one consolation was that the moon was almost full and we were treated to the magnificent spectacle of the silvery landscape if we left our tents during the night. Of course it was better to bring the piss bottle to bed and not to have to get out in the cold at all.
The nighttime cold was intense and it was at this stage that I began to leave a few clothes on when I crawled into my sack at night.
A new feature at this stage was the hallucinations which I could summon at almost any time. All I had to do was close my eyes when resting and I could instantly conjure up a vision of what I can only describe as a wallpaper of faces. One of the faces would come into focus and approach nearer and nearer until it filled the foreground. It then began grimancing and became more and more grotesque until finally I dismissed the scene. This hallucination could be turned on and off almost at will when resting although it did come involuntarily on some occasions.
Day 9. Climb higher, sleep low
We decided to have a comparatively easy day and use it by climbing up the early section of the next stage of our route. This involved a couple of hundred metres up the side of the corrie to a ridge. This would assist our acclimatisation without being too stressful.
It did more than help our acclimatisation, it was a great morale booster. When we reached the ridge we swapped the enclosed world of valleys for a vast horizon where the surrounding mountains were now mostly below us and we could see most of our route to date spread out at our feet. The sun blazed down and we sat behind a small rock shelter for protection from the wind where we could comfortably admire the view.
After a few hours we descended to dinner and bed.
Day 10. A sort of a ” rest” day
At this stage we were happy with our progress and we decided that this should be a rest day before moving to camp 4 at 5,900m. As the steps were getting bigger now the rest would be useful and we had plenty of time to get back to base camp before the planned return of our arriero.
After sitting around for a time we became bored with being enclosed in the corrie and decided to climb back to the ridge where we were yesterday and where the surroundings were more pleasant. This we did and were soon happy to collapse behind our windbreak. We were, as Joe described us, three tired little mice.
It was pleasant to sit here in the sun soaking up the scenery and knowing that being higher on the mountain would help our acclimatisation without any output of energy. All was well in the best of all possible worlds. But this was not to last.
After about an hour Joe decided that he would go a couple of hundred horizontal metres further, why I do not know. Nor did I care why, I just knew that if he was going I was going. Dermot reacted the same way and soon we were walking across the broad ridge in line, Joe, Dermot and I. The pace became a steady rhythmic plod and we went a lot further than just a couple of hundred horizontal metres. We reached what seemed like a suitable stopping point, the foot of an outcrop of rock on the ridge, but did not stop. Just plod, plod, plod. At this stage I began to wonder how this fitted in with a rest day and what on earth we were doing but the question was never asked out loud and so we plodded on.
It later transpired that Joe had started walking, looked around, saw that he was being followed and in true high altitude style continued walking without making any conscious decision to do so. Fortunately for me I am not given to following leaders to god knows where so, when we reached the flat at the top of the outcrop, I sat down and watched the duracell bunnies march onwards and upwards.
I watched, unbelieving, for what seemed like a half hour until they went out of sight around the ridge and I was left alone with the world. This was luxury. Alone at last. I enjoyed it while it lasted, expecting to see my companions returning at any stage but eventually I gave up and went back down to our camp.
It was late afternoon before Joe and Dermot returned and collapsed exhausted into their tents. They had kept going until they reached the site of camp 4 at La Hollada, 5,700m. What was intended as a rest day had become an exhausting marathon for them.
Day 11. Another rest day
It was obvious that Joe and Dermot would need a rest day after their exertions and I had no option but to take a second rest in their company.
We spent the day debating what we would do next. We should have carried to La Hollada today with the bare necessities and headed for the summit the following day. Although it seemed obvious that this would just be put back a day the prospect was no longer popular following the previous day’s activities.
The drudgery of a carry seemed too daunting and the argument was for a single day to the summit from camp 3. Although this involved a height gain of 1500m there was a majority view that this would be easier than doing it in two stages. Such are the effects of lack of oxygen on our processes of logical thought.
We readied our gear for the next day and planned to get up at about 4.00a.m. Ready for a start at 5.00 at first light.
Day 12. Onwards and upwards
The day started badly. Our alarm had been set for 4.00 but not activated so it did not ring. We slept on to 5.45 and only got moving at 7.00.
We set off at a steady plod up onto the ridge and around into the gently sloping, snow-carpeted valley of La Hollada. Here we passed two mule skeletons and a memorial to an Argentinian army officer who had died on the mountain two years previously.
We traversed this valley and started up the ridge which would lead us to the summit ridge where we would have to cross 6 false summits before reaching the highest point of Mercedario.
Altitude was beginning to take its toll but we still kept up a steady slow pace. At a rest-point at 6,000m Joe decided that the effects of the height were such that he could continue no further. We discussed this for a while and then Dermot and I wished him well on his descent as we made ready to continue upwards. We watched unconcerned as he headed back alone.
Onwards and upwards we went until we were in a small col at the foot of the first peak on the summit ridge. It seemed foolish to go over the top of this and then lose height on the other side so we decided to traverse to the right and reach the next col with the minimum expenditure of energy. This we did and as we went on we saw the true summit for the first time. Although it is hard to estimate distances in the high clear air, we judged that we had about 3km more to go and another 500m of ascent. The time was now 14.00 and our energy supplies were low. After struggling on for short time we gave in to the inevitable and decided to turn back.
It did not get any easier on the descent and we were two very tired men when we eventually reached the tents. We dispensed with the idea of cooking dinner and flopped straight into our sleeping bags.
Joe had made it back to camp with difficulty and was relieved to have done this.
Day 12 Descent to base
We still had time to make another attempt on the summit but were demoralised by the debacle of the previous days and decided to pack up and head back to base and this we did in one day. As we went we picked up rubbish and surplus equipment we had stashed on the way up so that our bags became heavier and heavier. Below camp one Dermot and I dumped some of our load and continued on down more easily.
Day 13. Picking up the bits
The only task this day was for Dermot and I to climb back up and collect our dumped gear and bring it back to base. It was a luxury to wander up lazily with no pressure but there was also a feeling of disappointment at having botched our effort.
Day 14. At base camp
Another rest day. We sat and talked and went for short walks investigating the area around base camp
Day 15 Exploring another valley
The mining road continued up the left hand branch of the river from base camp and we decided to follow it up to see what was up there and get a closer look at that side of the mountain.I went early and followed the true left bank of the river. Dermot and Joe said they would start later and not go so far. As I went upwards I came to where the mining road had once crossed the river via a now long departed bridge. I decided not to cross and to continue on the same side.
The day was interesting with magnificent scenery. Eventually I came to a place where three upper branches of the river came together. One was your usual glacial torrent, another a deep red colour ( we were later told that this was caused by salts of molybdenum in the water) and the third a luminous turquoise due to the copper salts deposited on its bed.
The colours of the surrounding scree slopes and the rocks sticking out of the scree varied from pink through various shades of red, yellow and brown to black.
The river cut a ravine through deep layers of variously-coloured till and on either side mountains reared above. On the left was the black shape of Cerro Negra and on the right the Caballito Glacier on the east face Mercedario with a rock outcrop high on the glacier which formed a perfect picture of a little horse.
Suddenly I froze in my tracks. There on a track on the other side of the river, about 300 or 400m away a man was walking. Carrying only a light day bag he moved along quickly down the valley. At one point he appeared to wave to me but never hesitated and continued down and away from me until he was gone out of sight. This was impossible. We knew there was no one else on the mountain and nobody was camped down the valley. He must be camped higher up the valley but it made no sense for a person to go walking down valley with a day bag, everyone goes walking upwards and not downwards. It was impossible that he had come across the mountains from another valley with only a day bag. No explanation made sense. I sat on a rock, totally shocked and wondered if I was hallucinating. Now I knew how Robinson Crusoe felt when he saw Man Friday’s footprint.
I continued up valley for another while and then returned by contouring on the valley side and following the bounding ridge back to the tents. On the way I passed a boulder on which the Padova section of the Italian Alpine Club had recorded the fact that they were there in 1975. There were a few empty wine bottles there, possibly a further souvenir of their presence.
Back at camp I breathlessly told the story of the mystery man I had seen but Joe just laughed and asked if I had not recognised him. While I was poking into corners he had walked up quickly, crossed the river and followed the mining road upwards and downwards, waving to me on the way. Really I would have preferred a more interesting explanation.
Day 16. back to Mendoza?
When we got up the valley in which we were camped had a new appearance. Clouds were rising and clinging to the sides of the mountains. The sun was shining higher up around us but what seemed like early morning mist did not disperse but hung swirling around, higher than us, in the lower part of the valley.
The arriero was due to bring us down first thing the next morning so some of today would have to be spent packing. We did not know if he would arrive that evening or first thing the next morning but in either case we needed to be ready for an early start.
We had a leisurely breakfast and forgot about the weather as we started sorting stuff to be bagged. Suddenly we surprised to see three people approaching. When they got nearer we recognised Marcos and Rafael and were soon introduced to Marco’s brother who accompanied them.
They explained that the arriero would not come up because of a difficulty with bringing mules across a river and that they had decided to come up and replace the mules by carrying our loads down. They planned to attempt to climb the mountain in March from the bottom in one day and felt that this would be good training. They had come up from the road head in 2 ½hours (We spent 5 or 6 hours walking up the same way) and explained that we needed to be down by 1.00 so that we could get the jeep across the Rio Colorado before 4.00 after which it might not be possible.
We assembled our gear quickly and the three ” mules” sent us on ahead while they sorted it into suitable loads. Three-quarters way down Marcos caught us with a monstrous pack on his back and we were fully stretched to keep up with him till we reached the jeep. The other two arrived within the next 20 minutes.
When everything was loaded we left El Molle on the dirt road which would bring us to Mendoza that evening. We planned to have a free day there and would fly out early on the morning after. We had only gone 3 or 4km on the road when it started to climb above the Rio Blanco. An older road had run beside the river in this narrow part of the valley but was washed out and now we went over higher ground.
We had not climbed far when we met our first problem. The clouds we had seen that morning were evidence of a change in the weather and while Marcos and co. were up the mountain collecting us a torrential thunderstorm had hit the lower valley and washed earth and mud across the road. Although it was nowhere more than 1½m deep it was of the consistency of readymix cement and there was no way to get the jeep through it. In parts the water had washed away part of the road and only barely left enough room to pass.
Rafael drove back to El Molle and in 2 trips brought up enough planks, sheets of steel and even the springs of a bed so that we could get the jeep through the block which only stretched for about 500m. After 2 hours we had passed the hazard and piled into the jeep to go on.
We climbed up on the road cut into cliffs of till until we rounded a bend and there in front of us was a 2m wall of rubble with a deep gulley between it and another similar wall. The floodwaters had surged down the mountain and completely cut and blocked the road. Only a JCB could clear it.
This was a real problem. We had 2½ days to flight time, 30kms to travel to the nearest possibility of help and no communication with the outside world. Marcos decided to walk out in search of mules to come back to the 4WD and move our baggage and suggested that we should camp on the spot. After a pow-wow we decided we would not camp but continue walking to the army post, 30 km away at the bridge at Junta dos Rios.
We packed sleeping bags, bivvy bags and carrymats, but no food, and set out on the journey. It soon became clear that there was no hope of getting the jeep out without major engineering works. The next 5km of the road over high ground was blocked by a succession of mud banks and cuttings. We passed this and reached lower ground, closer to the Rio Blanco before night fell.
Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled in the distance ahead of us as the storm continued on lower ground. On we walked, knowing that there was no hope of us crossing the Rio Colorado in these conditions but resolved to continue towards our eventual destination. We knew at this stage that we had 2½ days to travel 200km to Mendoza, that our baggage was trapped far behind us, that mules to carry it out had still to be found and it was doubtful that, even if found quickly, they could get in and out in the time available. We could of course, have sat down and worried but we were better off heading in the direction we had to go anyway.
Sometime late in the night we reached the Rio Colorado, which was now waist-high, and listened to the boulders rumbling as they rolled along its bed. There was no hope of fording it. Having reached an impasse and confirmed what we expected we went back a few hundred metres and bedded down beside the walls of a ruined adobe building. Here Rafael caught us. Having left his two companions to solve the problem he came ahead to ” mind” us.
Only at this stage did we realise that we had eaten almost nothing since morning and had not had a drink since midday. This made the trek of about 500m to the Rio Blanco for water worthwhile. We gave no thought to the quality of the water. Finding the river was easy in the dark, we just had to follow our ears, getting back to find our bedding in the dark was another question. We succeeded and were soon asleep under the cloudy sky.
Day 17. Maybe today back to Mendoza
Up at dawn, we shared a cake which Rafael had brought and returned to the Rio Colorado. It was now only knee deep, even though still a torrent. We crossed it gingerly and set off on the last 5km to the army post at the bridge.
Here we sat down to wait and were welcomed by the soldiers who gave us cups of coffee and a plate of salami and cheese. We spread our wet gear out on the gravel and in no time it had dried in the blazing sunshine – just like in Connemara.
We waited and waited and nothing happened. There was no news from up the valley and no news from down the valley until a group of arrieros arrived and told us that the road was cut about 5kms below us. Rafael’s promises that a truck would come from outside and pick us up began to sound hollow. After all, he had no signal on his mobile phone and we could not see how anyone could be aware of our predicament.
Late in the afternoon the military radioed a post in San Juan and asked them to go down the town to the head man of San Juan Aventura, Annibal Maturano, and tell him about the problem. We had no way of knowing whether or when the San Juan military would pass on the message.
Around 5.00 Marcos and his brother arrived, exhausted. They had met an arriero up the valley who could bring out the load but he needed clearance from someone in the outside world to do this. Marcos had spoken to the arrieros going up valley and they had agreed to tell the other that he could take our baggage and bring it out. There was so much lost in the translation that we were not 100% sure that we could really expect anything to happen. While we were talking Marcos collapsed, out cold for 5 minutes, exhausted by his exertion and the stress of the past 24 hours.
We sat around doing mental calculations of the value of our gear and the relative cost of air- and sea-freight and trying to predict how this would all pan out. All the options seemed to lead to us being losers but a further worry was that we now only had 36 hours to flight time and still had no idea how we would get to Mendoza.
Rafael insisted that a rescue vehicle would arrive to collect us about 8.00 so, clutching this straw, we set off down the road to meet it on the other side of the road blockage. Our way led down a canyon about 300m wide with rock walls towering 300-400m on either side. Even in our stressed-out condition we could appreciate that this was somewhere special.
When we got past the blockage we sat at the side of the road as it would be futile to walk for miles to save a pick-up a journey of minutes. We sat and sat and nothing happened. Darkness fell and nothing happened. Finally Rafael decided to continue down the canyon seeking a signal for his mobile phone. He left and we sat there and nothing happened.
Eventually a shadowy figure appeared out of the night, stood a few yards away where we could not see him clearly and told us that Rafael said that we should come down the road to where the shadow was camped. This seemed strange, why had Rafael not come himself? We thought for a moment and then picked up our bags and nervously followed the shadow into the night. About 400m down the road he led us into a camp of Argentinian soldiers who said that Rafael would be back shortly. They fed us lumps of delicious roast beef and we chatted away with them in a mixture of English and Spanish.
The story was that they were going up Mercedario with 16 mules to commemorate the death of the officer whose memorial we has seen at La Hollada. Tomorrow they would be joined by a general, father of the dead man, who would accompany them up the mountain. At least he was not an armchair general.
They assured us that there was no possibility of anyone driving in over those roads in the dark and that we could not expect rescue before the morning. We eventually, reluctantly, accepted that this was true and when Rafael returned, without having found a signal, we rolled into our bags and slept soundly
Day 18 Escape
The next morning we awoke at 7.00 and there was a pick-up parked amongst the army vehicles. Annibal Maturano had arrived. He had got our message at 20.00 the previous night and driven the 160kms from San Juan through the night and slept till dawn in the pick-up.
He soon loaded us (including Rafael) into the vehicle and we were racing back to Mendoza. The journey to the centre of the city took about 4 – 5 hours and we were back at our hotel at 13.00.
Interestingly, at Uspallata we were able to go into a ” locutario” and phone and send emails home, confirming that we were well. Imagine trying to do this in Moate which is bigger than Uspallata
Annibal and Rafael then turned to retrace their journey to collect our baggage if and when it came out of the interior. When it did arrive by mule they loaded it into the pick-up and brought it to us in Mendoza at midnight, 8 hours before our flight home. They left us immediately and headed for home in San Juan where they arrived at 0300.
Consider that Annibal spent almost 20 hours out of 36 driving on dirt roads, that Marcos, his brother and Rafael did superhuman work, all to get us and our baggage off the mountain and you will understand why I felt that the recommendation we received that these were ” Good people, climbers” was pretty weak praise. ” Giants of the mountains” would be a better description if I can be forgiven for plagiarizing Gumminess ads.
Our adventure was over. It only remained to return to ” civilisation” , which seems much less inviting or civilized after a spell in the high mountain
- Trip report originally published as http://www.presidentcycles.com/andes/index.html
- Photographs by Dermot Wall and San Juan Aventura.
We highly recommend San Juan Aventura for services to climbers (including guiding) in this area and also as far as Aconcagua. Their enthusiasm and commitment is magnificent.
- When searching for information on far away places it is not enough to do a Google search. It is best to go to the local Google site in the relevant country and then search from there there for the information needed. For example go to google.ar for Argentinian information, google.cl for Chiléan information.
- We picked our Hotel in Mendoza from the South American Handbook 2004. This is a good source of information and covers every country in South America comprehensively in one volume.
- From Guanaquitos it is possible to climb the normal route and also via the Caballito Glacier.
- From the Rio Colorado there is a much better choice including
South Face or Japanese Route:
The best of the easy routes, very nice and fast. Approach heading west up the Colorado River (from Santa Ana) to the final valley called ‘Valle del Colorado’ (one of the nicest places in San Juan). The climb is a moderate 45-60 degrees plain and safe glacier (actually it goes between two glaciers). Crampons, axes (not technical) and a rope for crossing the crevasse at the entrance are needed. Rope need not be used within the wall, there’s no crevasse danger at all. The best snow conditions for this route are in November and December. Only one camp at the top of the wall, in a place called La Mesada. The summit is 6 hours from there, crossing the upper part of the Caballito Glacier and following the final ridge heading west.
Grade: safe, enjoyable and moderate (45 to 60 degree) route. In general quite sheltered.West Wall or Argentinean Route: The access is through Valle de Los Patos Sur (five days). Three camps within the wall, rock approaching route is to cross the “Peine” and ice climbing, a good (and fast) alternative through the Valle del Colorado
Grade: First in order of difficulty. Permanent avalanche danger.East Face or Caballito Glacier: marvelous glacier, approached from Guanaquitos (heading left creek). Two camps.South Ridge or El Peine: rock climbing, three camps. Approached from Valle del Colorado.West Ridge or Sanjuanina Route: the faster route, one camp. Very steep and constant slope.Polish Route or North Ridge: never repeated since 1934. This is a variant of the normal route.
- Nearby is the Cordillera Ansilta with 7 peaks.
Some are just over 6,000m and some just under 6,000m. Most have only been climbed two or three times.