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Mountaineering in Argentina- Parte 1

December 27, 2014

When I came back from Indonesia in September I was at a dead-end. The year I had planned to spend in Asia had not worked out, and while I still feel I made a good decision to leave I also had no idea what to do for the next 11 months. I went to Europe in October and when I returned in November I was freaking out that I still had 9 months to fill in.

I looked around for mountaineering trips in the Southern hemisphere and eventually found a two-month trip with IWLS in Argentina. It was exactly what I was looking for– nearly two months of mountaineering including an expedition to Aconcagua (6962 m/22841 ft), the highest point in South America and Argentina. I thought this was the edge that I could use to begin climbing hard when I got to college. So, I signed up and booked a flight to Mendoza, Argentina.

I was pretty freaked out when I got on the flight, and it took me awhile to calm down and relax. The Chilean dude sitting next to me on the flight telling me about all the murdering and theft and whatnot in Argentina didn’t help. I flew to Chicago O’Hare, then to Toronto YYZ, then to Santiago. A very inefficient way to go, and two five-hour layovers don’t help. But it was cheapest. I had a separate itinerary to go to Mendoza, so I paid the $160 US to enter Chile and collected my bags. I convinced a LAN attendant to allow my bags through to Mendoza without having to go through customs and recheck them… I knew that all the food that I was carrying would have been confiscated. So I got on the flight to Mendoza, a very bumpy 30 minute ride over the same peaks that I would be spending the two months climbing.

Once in Argentina I met the group of folks that I would be living with for the next couple months. They seemed nice, although quite a bit older. I had been up for 40 hours or so at this point, but I had to pack my stuff and get ready. After two days of travel I fell asleep, still very anxious.

The next morning we drove from Mendoza to Penitentes, a town close to the Chilean border and the entrance to Aconcagua National Park. For the first part of the trip we went South to the Río Blanco area, which was quite remote in taking a week or so to get us and our food to the glacier, but close in that the helicopter stationed at the Aconcagua park entrance could be there in 30 minutes from a satphone call. Link to approximate route.

We had mules carry most of our food and gear until we reached the glacier, and after that we had to haul it all.

From the junction of the Río Tupungato and Rt 7, a couple miles East of Penitentes, we began hiking South. After passing a basic refugio (it is the one on this webpage) at lunchtime, we took a right and turned West into the Río Blanco area. After a long day of hiking we camped at a small tributary, which turned into a bit of an ordeal as it was running quickly and we crossed the waist-deep water at dusk. After a quick dinner as rain began to come in, we collapsed into our sleeping bags.

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The next morning we quickly lost most of the trail we had been hiking on, or rather it petered out, and we made our way through the valley by bushwhacking. Fortunately the foliage was even more sparse than Arizona, save the hundreds of burrs that attached themselves to our legs and socks. The valley really opened up, and we began to see some of the glaciated peaks that I had flown over a few days before on the plane. Intimidating and exciting. We got to the end of the valley and turned South into another one, and after crossing the many small streams that flowed from its mouth, reached the second camp.

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So far we had done two solid days of hiking on a gradual uphill while ascending the valleys. The third day, as we could see, would be much tougher and steeper though only 8 km or so. We woke up early and got hiking, immediately gaining 300 m or so on a steep scree slope. Once on a cliff above the stream, we hiked to a very steep moraine and had lunch. During the hike the mules passed us, so we followed in their hoofprints up the wet, loose and quite soft moraine, and after it, down a small section of fun scree skiing and up another moraine.

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The mules went ahead and dropped the barrels just below the glacier, so after a few hours we reached the stuff and set up camp, looking forward to a rest day. This camp was quite pleasant in the day, but very cold once in afternoon shadow.

After a rest day we loaded up as much food and gear as we could pack and carried up the glacier to the camp on the moraine of the glacier. Unfortunately the tall penitentes slowed us down and we were only able to get halfway to there before caching our stuff and heading back. We cached the stuff at a moraine and lake.

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The next day we loaded up the rest of the stuff and moved our camp to the moraine at 4300 m. To get everything, I filled my 110 liter pack and its storm skirt, strapped some bulky stuff under the lid, and strapped a 35 liter pack on the outside of it all. It is definitely the most weight I have ever carried and was absolute misery. We got to the cache, sorted out our stuff, and made it to the moraine to set up the new camp.

It was a pretty long day, but the next few days were restful, with a bit of down time and skills lessons that were not as physically taxing. After going over rope teams, self arrest and glacier travel, we climbed South to a small rocky outcropping (link to peak on peakbagger). What looks on the map to be only 800 meters from camp as the crow flies took quite awhile. We doubled the distance by avoiding a steep and heavily crevassed section of the glacier, and the massive penitentes that were over 15 feet tall in places probably quadrupled our time. Rope team movement through penitentes is very difficult, and frustrating. The rope constantly gets caught on the objects, and it is difficult to move at a steady pace when climbing up and over penitentes.

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My first time ice climbing

My first time ice climbing

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Quite tired, we made it back and formulated a plan to move camp to a cirque dubbed the ‘Zone of Awesomeness.’

We left very early in the morning and walked through the penitentes across the glacier, to where it meets the glacier that forms the cirque. We took a break, and as the sun rose we began climbing up the glacier. This glacier was much steeper and full of large crevasses, and with direct sunlight began cracking loudly. Eventually we made it to a flat area free of penitentes and took a long break there while a few people searched for the best place for a camp. We found a camp at the North end of the cirque and began cooking. The afternoon sun reflected on our camp, and our camp soon became flooded with glacial melt. We built platforms for our tents and made channels to drain the water, but the next morning we had to move camp. We moved camp to a moraine at the South end of the glacier. The next day we learned about avalanche and crevasse rescue.

This is the route from the moraine camp to the upper camp.

This is the route from the moraine camp to the upper camp.

Every day on the trip we had a Leader of the Day (LOD) and assistant. The next morning I was the LOD, and we were to attempt to climb a peak to our North. We got up early to have as much time on solid ice before the sun began to melt it. I think we began at 5 am and made it most of the way up the peak before getting direct sun at 8.

We went up a steep section of the glacier with some large crevasses, then made it to an icy slope that led to the summit. I was pretty stoked, it was my fist real peak in Argentina. From the summit we could see all the way to Aconcagua. It looked pretty intense, a lot higher, and a long way away, but now that I was acclimatized to 16,000 feet, a bit more attainable.

At the top we found a coffee can of ashes, and so we called it ‘Pico Muerte.’ No first ascent for us I suppose. The elevation is 4998 m (16,398 ft). Link to peak on peakbagger.

View of ascent route, picture taken from summit of Peak 4998/ Pico Muerte

View of ascent route, picture taken from summit of Peak 4998/ Pico Muerte

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We took a rest day and practiced crevasse rescue in an actual crevasse, and did a beacon search in the penitentes. That was very difficult.

The last big challenge of the first half of the trip was an ascent of one of the larger peaks in the back of the Zone of Awesomeness. We woke up very early and trudged sleepily across the ice field, past ‘Pico Muerte’ to a section of the glacier with very large penitentes. The ground got steeper and we came to a headwall covered in ice. We traversed this ice and walked on scree, and made a couple switchbacks to the summit. The summit was only big enough for one person, so we all took turns standing on the top, then scree skied back down. We called it ‘Pico Primero,’ elevation 5274 m (17,303 ft). Link to peak on peakbagger.

Ascent route of Peak 5274/ Pico Primero, picture taken from summit of Pico Muerte

Ascent route of Peak 5274/ Pico Primero, picture taken from summit of Pico Muerte

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By this time in the afternoon the penitentes were quite soft from being in the sun all morning. It took a long time to get back, and it got very hot from the reflection of the sun on the glacier. We were very tired. The next day slept in, and then moved camp back to the moraine.

The next morning a couple people made another ascent of another peak, but I was very tired and wanted to rest up before hauling all of our stuff back to the barrels the next day. The next morning we moved to the barrels and spent two nights there resting. It snowed, and we all hoped for the best when we attempted Aconcagua a week later. Would winter come early? Would the wind blow all the snow away? What would it be like up there in a snowstorm?

These questions worried me, but I focused on how relieved I was that I had climbed a couple peaks and maintained a level of safety that I was comfortable with. Oh, and getting a decent meal did cross my mind…

We packed the barrels and the mules came and picked them up. We hiked down the same valley, but went over a pass to get back to penitentes quicker. We stayed the night near a small hut. It was nice to be in the valley, it was shady and pleasantly warm.

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The next morning we finished the first half of the trip, and hiked into penitentes… Just in time for lunch and a well deserved lomo, coke, and a couple cervezas. That evening we drove into Mendoza and had a group dinner.

Back in civilization. I am the one on the right.

Back in civilization. I am on the right.

This is part 1 of 2. For link to part two, click here.

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