Sunday were national elections and, for some apparently logical reason, this meant Monday there were no classes (at some point I will try to decipher Argentine politics, or at least explain the phenomenon of Kirchnerism) so we decided to head for the mountains. The family, our friend Marta, and her friend Damián. The plan: drive to 1900 meters to the quaint but rustic refugio San Bernardo to stay the night. The following day Marta, Damián and I would climb a peak for which the refugio is named. Jenny and the girls would poke around and hike up the nearby valley. However, two significant forces of nature, lunar forces- read menstral cramps- and meteorlogical changes, would force us to make a plan B. The moon was calling both Marta and Jenny and an Atlantic low pressure system had arrived in the form of clouds, cold, and subsequent snow. So, Damián and I set out on our own and when we got to the base of San Bernardo, it was clear that if we did climb it we would see nothing. I was eager to get to know the upper reaches of the valley, as it gives access to the higher peaks of the Cordón de Plata, so I proposed another change in plans. Damián was amenable to the idea and suggested that by heading up valley we might even break out of the clouds.
Damián is a very experienced climbing guide and has summited Aconcagua 25+ times. He had just returned from leading a climb to Mt. Elbrus in the Georgian Caucasus mountains. He is a self-described renegade, although I would say he is more of a cynic. Although in one aspect he certainly is a renegade: Damián insists on carrying a plastic container and plastic bag with which to collect and pack out his own excrement- the ultimate in leave-no-trace camping. While in temperate latitudes we can use a trowel to dig a hole to poop in, the high, rocky desert environment doesn’t offer such an option, a real problem in high traffic areas, such as this valley. As we hiked Damián pointed out prominent camping sites used by climbers and their respective ‘shit hills’. “Look here,” he said when we arrived at the standard halfway point known as Piedras Grandes, “the best sheltered cooking spot, and people use it to shit in. What the hell are they thinking? People think I am crazy for packing out my shit, but when you see the mess of toilet paper and crap at these camp sites, you decide who is crazy.”
We had some good conversation and long stretches of silence. I ended up hiking ahead of him for much of the way. He probably knew better than to hike that fast at altitude. I didn’t. When we were together talked about fatherhood and Mendoza, but mostly we talked about climbing. I like hiking with guides, as they are a wealth of information and experience. I continue to learn more with each outing.
We walked for more than four hours through low clouds and snow in the form of light, frozen, round pellets. I enjoyed it: the expansive landscape, the silence, the breathing…
The Cordón de Plata is the primary Andean range here in Mendoza province. It is the front range that runs parallel to the Cordillera Principal, which contains Aconcagua peak, the tallest mountain in the Americas. The highest peaks in the Cordón de Plata are right around 6,000 meters, or 18,000 ft. Up until now, I have been hiking in the ‘media montaña’, which are peaks of between 3800 and 4500 meters. This outing brought us up the valley to a high point of 4500 meters, the highest I have hiked, yet. Hikers carrying fully-loaded packs with 5-6 days of gear and food do this hike in two days, in order to aclimatize. Going light, with only day packs, we were able to do it in about 4 hours. I noticed some shortness of breath and had to adjust my rhythm. On the way down, I got a definite headache and had to take some aspirin. In the coming month or two, my goal is to climb one or two of the 6,000 meter peaks. Everyone asks, “are you going to climb Aconcagua?” An expedition to Aconcagua is about a 20-day affair to the tune of a couple thousand dollars. I am content to explore more and skip the crowds and masses of peak-baggers.
After arriving up top, we got a break in the clouds for about 30 seconds, revealing the peak of Cerro Rincón directly in front of us. I thought, okay, I can accept that this may be all we get. After another 40 minutes everything opened up, revealing the majestic peaks and glacial moraine on which we stood. There was glacial ice underneath us, buried beneath a healthy layer of scree and rubble on which we were standing, ‘escombros de glaciar’, in Spanish.
The Pacific winds coming over the mountains had begun to push the Atlantic front back, and to our delight we enjoyed a good hour-plus exploring the glacial moraine and marveling at the surrounding peaks.
Solana has asked me twice on different occasions, “are we above the clouds?” “Yes, sometimes we are but we can’t always see them,” I say. Well, this time I wish she was with us, because we were very clearly above the clouds and it was wonderful.
I’ll be back.
Mendoza is a major staging ground for all outings int0 the high Argentine Andes, attracting many visitors. Yes, they come for more than just the wine. Interestingly, most Mendocinos do not venture far into the mountains. As we were driving to our hike last Sunday, we saw numerous examples of Argentines in their primary outdoor pursuit: the asado. The weekend barbecue consists of finding a spot 10-20 meters of to the side of the road, putting up a folding table and chairs, pulling out the firewood and grill, and ‘voila’, you are enjoying the mountains.
We have been fortunate in that we continue to find outdoor-minded people and we have enjoyed very social hiking outings.
High tourist season will soon be upon us as spring settles in and summer is around the corner. But for now we enjoy the mountains without the crowds.
The Google Earth shots show the valley going up to the base of the 6000 meter peaks and the glacial moraine at the base of the peaks, which is how far we got on the hike.