Mercedario 2004

(by Sé O Hanlon, from IMC Newsletter Summer 2004)
An attempt on a South American peak.


This is not the story of an expedition but rather of a mountain journey in early 2004. The distinction is important.

Most of us believe subconsciously that Expeditions are the preserve of godlike people like Chris Bonington and Reinhold Messner and that inferior people like us will never make it into an Expedition.

Don’t be codded. Your chances of going on an Expedition may be quite small but you can have a high altitude mountain journey any time.

Mountain journeys are the same as Expeditions but carried out by ordinary mortals who can just enjoy the experience without having to write books, make films or satisfy sponsors.

Try it, you will never regret it.

The Idea

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 whom?

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; it seemed possible and interesting.

Next I had to get some information. seemed interesting, a US citizen who went alone and climbed Tupungato and another peak 100km to the north, Mercedario, 6750m.; two for price of one.

The Preparation

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.

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 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. In December we discovered that the 3-day approach from Punta de Vacas was no longer possible for mules; the alternative approach would take 5 days each way. Given our skin-tight schedule we had to pick one or the other. So it was Mercedario we decided on, probably because it is the fourth-highest peak in South America.

Our Chiléan contacts recommended San Juan Aventura, describing them as "climbers, good people"; this is one of the greatest understatements of all time. They were magnificent people.

The Journey

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 100km 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. 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, we turned onto a single-lane road; this road followed the Rio de Los Patos and then its tributary Rio Blanco to El Molle where three buildings abandoned by Rio Tinto provided shelter.

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, parts of which had completely vanished under scree and boulders.

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.

Day 2. Walk to camp 1

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 Chiléan 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.

Day 3. Carry to camp 1

When we got up in the morning we saw signs that guanacos had visited our camp during the night. These relatives of the llama are almost as common here as deer are in Wicklow.

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.

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. Then for the third time we trudged up the valley to settle into camp one at 4,100m.

From this camp upwards 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.

Here 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. 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. 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. 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.

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.

Day 7. Carry to camp 3

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. 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.

We made our camp at the foot of a small stream. 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. After resting for an hour we headed back down to camp 2.

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.

A new feature at this stage was the hallucinations. 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.

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.

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. We climbed back to the ridge where we were yesterday and where the surroundings were more pleasant. We were, as Joe described us, three tired little mice.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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. 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 14/15. At base camp

Another rest day. We sat and talked and went for short walks investigating the area around base camp.

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 arriero was due to bring us down first thing the next morning so some of today would have to be spent packing.

We had a leisurely breakfast and forgot about the weather as we started sorting stuff to be bagged. We were surprised to see three people approaching. When they got nearer we recognised Marcos and Rafael and were soon introduced to Marcos’s brother.

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 had come up from the road head in 2½ hours 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 until we rounded a bend and there in front of us was a 2m wall of rubble with a deep gully 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, 30km 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.

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.

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. Here Rafael caught us. Having left his two companions to solve the problem he came ahead to "mind" us.

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.

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. The military radioed a post in San Juan and asked them to go down the town to the head man of San Juan Aventura, Aníbal Maturano, and tell him about the problem.

Around 5.00 Marcos and his brother arrived, exhausted. They had met an arriero up the valley who could bring out the load While we were talking Marcos collapsed, out cold for 5 minutes, exhausted by his exertion and the stress of the past 24 hours. 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.

When we got past the blockage we sat at the side of the road, we 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 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. Aníbal 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. The journey to the centre of the city took about 4 – 5 hours and we were back at our hotel at 13.00.

Aníbal 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 Aníbal 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.

Our adventure was over. It only remained to return to "civilisation”, which seems much less inviting or civilised after a spell in the high mountains.

(Photos by Dermot Wall)