Okay, who wears rose-colored glasses these days? Well, if you don’t you should. They enhance contrast and make the world seem, yes, brighter. My sunglass lenses are more orange than rose, but the effect is much the same. What’s my point? It’s more of a commentary or, perhaps, a confession. Hiking in the high-altitude, Andean landscapes here in Mendoza, I often wear my orange lenses. With them the colors of the rocks and soils, seem to just jump out, as if to say, “this is no ordinary landscape or ordinary experience.” I take a lot of pictures, anxious to share the experience of these landscapes. What I forget is that what seemed truly extraordinary at the time, turns out upon later examination, sans glasses, to be not quite what it was in the moment. Not always, however.
This brings me to the topic of this post: Aconcagua Provincial Park (ah-con-cah-gwa). Yes, home to the hemisphere’s highest peak, a feature that attracts literally thousands of foreign visitors to Mendoza between the months of December and March, when the summer climbing season makes the peak most accessible. A guided and fully-outfitted summit attempt requires about 16 days and $4,000 USD, neither of which are within my reach. When we first got here, I was asked on several occasions if I would try to climb Aconcagua. My response has always been that I would rather spend the time and money seeing more and doing more. Major summit attempts seem so singularly focussed, to the point of being stressful. However, Aconcagua Provincial Park offers some excellent trekking and that is what I went for. A three-day hiking permit (still not cheap at about $80 USD) allows one to hike to a spot known as Plaza Francia, at the base of the peak’s famed southern wall (la pared sur), an awesome 3000 meter (9,800 ft.) rise of stone and ice. In the rotating 3D graphic, look for the prominent valley leading up to the steep southern wall. This is the hike to Plaza Francia.
The rock in these mountains are of two origins. At lower levels, sedimentary rock prevails, layers of which where deposited at a time when warm, shallow oceans covered the land. This rock accounts for the layered striping in green, white, red, and black. Higher up, the rock is entirely volcanic in origin and derives from lava flows that occurred during the periods of uplifting that were responsible for the creation of the Andes.
The park entrance is already high-up at 2,700 meters (8,800 ft.). Confluencia, where I camped the night is at 3,400 meters (11,150 ft.). And Plaza Francia is at 4,200 meters (13,780 ft.). All of this requires some acclimatizing. Upon reaching my camp spot at Confluencia, I immediately began the process of heating water for bouillon and soup. I then took an aspirin, and napped for two hours. I was told by the park guard to come see the camp doctor at 7 pm. He used a pulse oxymeter (amazing device!) to assess the level of oxygen in my blood, which was normal, and to advise me on the matter of hydration. “At altitude, drink 3-4 liters a days when not active, and 4-5 liters when active.” I did my best to fulfill this order. The result: I felt good, but had to go pee-pee A LOT!
Because the climbing season has wrapped up, where normally there would be between 100-300 people at Confluencia, there was just me and one other tent. I arrived with partly cloudy skies, experienced a brief snow-shower in the afternoon, a mild earthquake, and then a splendid clear night sky, including a setting crescent moon alongside, was it Jupiter or Venus?, and later there was Pleiades, Orion and the Southern Cross. I slept with the tent wide open so I could see the sky, which also allowed for quick exits when hydration relief came calling.
I had seen pictures of the park and quite honestly, without my rose-colored glasses, it looked like a lot of dull, pale, desert mountain scape. While the aesthetic of the landscape may take time to appreciate, the impact of the sheer scale is immediate. But once one settles into the environment, the colors do indeed begin to reveal themselves (glasses recommended!). In addition, over the course about a day of hiking one also experiences the landscape under different light conditions. And hiking up a valley reveals one aspect, while hiking down, another.
All of this to say that hiking the park was awesome. Invariably, my camera could not control itself. What I offer in this post’s slide show is the best of the pictures I took. Of course, pictures cannot fully portray what I saw, or for that matter, felt. A place where every time I raised my head the power of the landscape was felt anew. As American poet W.S. Merwin put it, it was as if I
“Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth”
Whether you can ever get to Aconcagua, get outside, wherever you are. And don’t forget your rose-colored glasses, proverbial or real.