Mercedario 22,211 feet (6,770 meters)
Location: San Juan, Argentina, South America
Date: January -February 1993
Arrived in Argentina via a long flight route. Montreal, Toronto, New York, Miami, San Paulo, Buenos Aries, Mendoza. Not a flight pattern I wish to repeat. The good news all my gear arrived with me. Our team consisted of Laurie Skreslet, Jonathan Stanley, Gerald Edwards, Ronald Diamond and myself, William Marler. The purpose of the expedition was to do a recognizance of the route from Mendoza through Barreal to do a summit of Mercedario. Laurie’s company “Skreslet Adventure Services” had been running trips successfully to Aconcagua just 75 miles south for several years and he was looking into the possibility of doing trips to this area due to the overcrowding on Aconcagua.
We met and spoke with Claudia Yanzon at her travel agency in downtown Mendoza. she is quite well known in the area and has been helpful in the past getting clients ina nd out of Argentina in a hurry. Claudia also has family in Barreal so she was positioned well to help us with accommodation and transportation to Barreal.
To get to Barreal we first had to do a 2 hour drive in the back of a white old Ford Pick-up to the village of Uspiata(SP). From here instead of going straight on towards the border with Chile, the route we would take to go to Aconcagua, we turned right in the centre of town and headed out into a plateau-valley towards the village on Barreal located in the province of San Juan. The road here is very flat, straight as an arrow and follows for part of the way the old Inca highway. As we looked to the left we could see this old route cutting straight along the rolling hills punctuated with the remaining foundations of small way stations. We stopped at one of these and checked it out. I would like to return one day and just follow this old flagstone path and see how far it would still take you. At one time this area was the southern most outpost of the Inca empire.
We continued on in the back of the truck with bandannas covering our faces to help with the dust. As the sun dropped in the sky we had to stop and fix a flat tire. Eventually after 3 hours we spotted a small group of trees in the middle of this desert wasteland. As we approached we began to pick out houses and more signs of life. The entrance to the village is guarded by a military checkpoint. We passed through this easily after a brief explanation of the purpose of our visit.
We checked out first the Hotel Barreal which is the main hotel in town. The owners seemed nice but was a bit run down and had seen better days. It was a bit pricey we felt for the location and they seemed to be wary of having climbers stay in their location. When we seem equally reluctant in our decision making they pointed us down the road to the Posada San Miguel. The little hotel suited our needs perfectly. It is an old house with a central courtyard. All the rooms faced out into a central garden. It is more like a bed and breakfast except that you could order any meals and there was an older but functioning swimming pool at the side of the house.
The manager was a boy in his early twenties, the nephew of the owner, retired formula one race car driver Ricardo Zunnio (sp). The nephew runs the place while his uncle is away in the city of San Juan playing at politics trying to become the minister of tourism for the province of San Juan. After a little shuffling around trying to find rooms with functioning toilets we are settled.
I discovered at this point that during the shuffle some one had dragged my new pack along the floor with my ice axe underneath, splitting open my pack. These were very lightweight prototype packs with hardly any internal structure which explains their so being fragile. Who ever dragged it did not know this and treat it with respect. Luckily there was a woman with a sewing machine next door and she did a masterful job repairing the pack in a matter of a couple of hours. It now looks like Frankenstein monster but it is solid.
After a good nighs sleep we had breakfast and headed over the the army base to arrange mules and or transportation to our proposed starting point. The army personnel are very helpful and allow us to study their topos and make diagrams to augment our poor quality maps of the area. They point out the route we will be taking and make suggestions where to and where not to camp based on their past experiences. The Captain had climbed this route the year before and was very proud of this fact. We decide to use our driver to get up to the drop off point, an abandoned mining camp on the Rio Blanco. It seem that there is an old road the entire route in so this is the best option. We will not be using mules. The ride in is all fixed but we now have to arraign for our pick up. This road is not well travelled except for the occasional mining truck and army patrols. We agree that the army will pick us up in a truck in 13 days. This will hopefully give us the time needed to do the summit and return.
The next morning we head out waving to the locales who wave come out to see us off.…or is it to use the swimming pool at our residence. I am not quite sure. They wave just the same.
We are driven along a very rough and exposed road by our driver and girlfriend. He leaves his wife at home with the kids and travels with his young girlfriend. A convenient arrangement it seems, for him anyways. She has been flirting with one of the members of our group, Ron, and the driver Guillermo tells me off to the side to tell my “Israeli” friend keep his distance. It seem s anyone who is Jewish to Guillermo is an Israeli. I break the news gently to Ron and he chuckles and we switch places for the final hour of out journey by pick-up. After a total of five hours we are dropped of at the mining camp. We bid farewell to our driver and friend. He is pissed off as she started to flirt with me too. He has his hands full it seems.
We sleep in one of the abandoned buildings. There are old tables and some chairs so we set up our stoves and have our soups etc. Sleep is reasonable punctuated by the sounds of the old building’s shutters banging in the wind.
Day one of the climb.
We follow the mining road leading out from the camp up and along a row of dead trees. To the right is a small but fast river. After ten minutes we have to cross over for the first time. It is just wide enough that we have to put on our Teva’s so it eats up some time. We have to do this three times over the next forty-five minutes. There is actually an old road under all the debris that covers the trail. And at each river crossing the are the remains of old stone bridges that have long since crumbled into the river. These roads were apparently well travelled in the 1920’s and 30’s. I close my eyes and imaging old lorries moving up and down these treacherous roads. Occasionally the road side bushes burst into flames. There seems to be an underground fire here and there. It is very dry and hot.
This is to be a short day where you will climb to base camp (only about 5-6 hours total). Relax and build camp and do an acclimatization hike. At the point we ahd raeched 3 hours into the trip, there is a fresh water stream as well as some nice grassy spots, we know that there is no good water for awhile after this. So this is a good place to stop and have lunch. After lunch we start off later than usual after relaxing and enjoying the spot. Gerald and I follow Laurie who presses on ahead up the old road, a series of switch backs up a col to the Laguna Negro. Jonathan and Ron keep more to the right picking their way up beside the main river bed. They believe that as this is a more direct approach and will save them time. We get to the top and follow the left hand side of this foul looking lake. There are the bodies of cows and mules along it edge, a testimony to the quality of the water.
Hearing a cry from back of the lake. Jonathan is seen running along the edge of the far end of the lake in our direction. Their short cut seems to have been more difficult a route and with heavy packs a real slog. To compound this Ronald has tripped with the extra weight of his pack and done a head plant directly on a bolder and split open his skull.
Scalp wounds bleed profusely. When we all get back to where Ron is sitting he has taken off his shirt and has stifled the wound by holding it balled up on top of his head. Gerald Edwards who is an ambulance technician by trade loses no time stitching up Ron’s head. Ron has a very low threshold of pain and makes no complaint whatsoever during the procedure. I want to take a photo so Gerald can use it in his portfolio of wounds but Ron who is embarrassed about the whole thing asks me not to. To conserve on weight Ron, as the rest of us have done, bought only one long sleeve light-weight shirt. He now gets to wear a bloody reminder of his mishap the rest of the climb.
We are all feeling the altitude and as we are not using mules we are carrying everything which makes for heavy loads. We decide to stop because of the accident and as we have made a significant altitude gain. We descend back down to our lunch spot as the water is good there, set up out tents, have a good meal and relax the rest of the day. Ron seems to be recovering well with pain killers.
Day two of the climb.
We get up early fill our water bottles from the stream. Then we all follow the same route up the switchbacks to the lake. Here Laurie decides that we should cut our loads and we all cash some gear in a narrow opening in the cliff band to the left of the lake. Then we follow the cliff’s edge to the end of the lake where it broadens out to an alluvial plain this is easy crossing, around the corner at the end of this is what appears to be an old garage. This is odd to see out in the middle of nowhere. It is empty except for a few cots and some markings on the floor from campfires. This is apparently the clubhouse of the local climbing club. Here the dirt road reappears and forks to the north and southwest. We follow the road to the southwest around the corner then gently up the sloping hill to where the the road gradually disappears again and a foot or animal path continues on through an alpine meadow to where we will set up our base camp. We eagerly drop our loads here at about 13,000 ft.
Day three of the climb.
A rest day. We mean to do an acclimatization hike up the hill to the left. Many quartz crystals can be found here. Gerald is not feeling well and is concerned about altitude problems. He is also concerned with Ron’s well being. Because he is an ambulance technician he is atuned to what may or may not develop in the coming days if an infection sets in Ron’s head wound.
He decides that he should descend down to the mining camp and rest to be safe. I decide that I will accompany him and return the next day. Laurie expresses a concern that we will be splitting ut the group possible for the rest of the trip and he wants to make sure that I will return. I promise him I will do so but only if Gerald seem ok. Gerald is worried about something more than just his health. A very sensitive person, he feels that we are all moving too fast and that we are not pulling as a group and that we are doing this trip more as individuals that as a cohesive team. While I share some of his feelings I feel that all the team will get it together as the days move on and we carry loads up high. I accompany him back down and we spend the night at the mining camp telling stories.
Day four of the climb.
I rise early and check on Gerald. He still wants to remain at camp. He is feeling ok but wants some time to himself. I have a quick breakfast and then retrace my steps up hill past the fresh water to the top of the col, along the lake, pick up the extra gear we cashed, then on to the garage then to the left up the hill. This time I do not follow the road but go up directly saving time. I must be acclimatizing well as I feel invigorated. At the top I meet Ron descending. He has had a rough night but is feeling ok at the moment. He has decided to go down and spend some time with Gerald who is better able to monitor his head wound. I agree that this is a good idea as I disliked the idea of one member of our team spending a long time alone. They can now keep themselves company. Laurie welcomes me back. Somehow I get the feeling he thought I might not return.
Day five of the climb.
Jonathan Laurie and I all carry loads up the moraine slope that leads out of camp to the north. We start out by scaling the ridge to the west and following it along. We soon discover that the lower trail is the easiest and fastest route. This is one of the joys of doing a route for the first time with no guide. We follow the line of least resistance another two thousand feet higher to where the route curves slightly to the left then dropped out loads on what appeared to be some older levelled out tent platforms. We flattened them out more an then descended straight down the slope through some tall penetentes back to base camp. Here we met up with Ron and Gerald who had decided to move up after a good nights sleep. We are all together again.
Day six of the climb.
We all move up together doing another load carry. Having already carried up our first loads we divide up all the other gear between us thus lightening everyone’s burden. We make better time than the day before and level out some more platforms before descending down once again.
Day seven of the climb.
We move up to our camp one. Set up camp, Jonathan, Laurie and I in the Himalayan Hotel by North Face and Gerald and Ron in an EX 3 made by Eureka.
Day eight of the climb.
Altogether as a group we make our first carry to what will be our high camp at approxImately 19,000 ft. We head west then north out of camp up the gully through some more Penetentes then gradually west again to a large bowl. Here we find several tent platforms with rock walls.
When we were discussing the route with the army they told us of this site but warned us not to stay here. They said that should we make camp here we would get edema or pumo as they referred to it. This sounded all strange to us at the time as campsites do not give you edema. Now we had to decide whether to listen to their strange advice and move on further west higher around the corner to where they said we should stay. Since it was still early in the day we decided to move on. We continued up and around the sloping hill on fairly easy terrain, past a mule carcass to a grave site where there were a couple of leveled sights, but without any rock walls. Here we dropped our loads and retraced our steps to Camp 1. As we are now at around 20,000 ft we are all feeling the effects a little. But we sleep well.
Day nine of the climb.
We retraced our steps and carry our last and final load to our high camp. This is long day and we take our time setting up camp. We all eat an early supper and try to get an early sleep as we will push for the summit the next morning early The sun sets late up high to that combined with the altitude made for an uneasy rest. To make things easier for the morning brew we melted snow the night to fill our bottles and leave a pot full of water hanging from the stove. The stove is situated right above my head.
I awake with a start. Something has crashed onto my head and I am all wet for some reason. My head starts to clear and I remember where I am. But why is the stove and the tent wall on my head? I now feel and hear the wind. Since the design of the North Face is a long oval and since we had to angle our tent east west to the slope the long side of the tent was exposed to any wind that would be coming down the slope. The weather since the beginning of this trip had been kind to us so far. Now the wind had decided to show itself and we were on a slope with not much in the way of protection as far as building a rock wall. All the stones that we could find were on the grave next to our tent. And we were not about to move those. Laurie went out side to check the guys while Jonathan and I lay on the floor weighing down the tent from the inside. The guys were solid but the lightweight poles had buckled and were not going to straighten in this wind. It was one of those winds that you hear coming like a freight train approaching in the distance. Chug Chug Chug wham, then again and again. Laurie guyed the tent as much as he could with what ever rope was still available. then returned inside.
We cleaned up the water. I gave thanks that I had splurged on a Gortek bag the previous year. This was the only reason that my bag was not completely soaked. I was also thankful that the water was cold, not boiling. Then we all put our feet in the air to hold up the tent wall and slept that way (or tried to) till the wind died down later early in the morning.
Day ten in the climb.
This was be our summit day. When Laurie alarm went off at 6 am we all looked at each other and went back to sleep. The events of the previous night had taken their toll and we all felt like we needed more rest. At 7 am we awoke again an began brewing up tea and snacking. By 8 am we were in better spirits and by 9 am we all said lets go for it. We gathered up out gear, flattened down our tent for safety against a recurrence of the wind and started up.
The route crossed over some very even terrain of wind swept sand and small pebbles to a field of ice and snow. Here we all dawned our crampons and moved quickly north-northwest. We had to wait a bit for Ron who had ignored our advice to tested his crampons at sea level. Now they did not fit as well as he had expected and having no tool to adjust them he was struggling. There was not much angle to the slope and the route was not very icy. We were using them more because we had carried them up that high and they made the footing a little quicker. For this reason I was not overly concerned. Gerald got very upset at the fact that none of us had helped Ron at all. I felt guilty as Ron was my friend. I was angry though at the fact that he had not checked them earlier as I had suggested. Ron, I knew from past experience, could be very stubborn at times and disliked being told how to do things. He was in no danger so I bit my tongue and silently agreed with Jonathan that Ron was a “big boy” and was free to make his own decisions.
We all sat down and had a snack for lunch. Gerald had had enough and headed back to high camp. After lunch the remaining four of us continued without crampons up a gentle snow slope to the the base of the last remaining barrier to the summit, 800 feet of loose scree.
Crampons were of no use here. We all slowly started directly up the scree slope but then started to create our own more gentle switchbacks. It was 2 steps forward 1 step back as anyone who had climbed Andean scree will know. It seemed to go on for hours. Ron sat down to rest and Laurie eventually slowed down and I caught him about 500 feet from the top. Jonathan had headed over to the left to follow the ridge which he hoped would be more consolidated. Laurie said that his headaches were not going away an they he was going back to sit with Ron. He wasn’t going to push it further. 500 feet to go I kept pushing. Counting my steps as I went, playing number games, playing tunes in my head anything for distraction. 100 feet from the top I stashed my Crampons to lighten my pack. Then I made the final push to the top. It slowly crested out to a tiny little metal Argentine flag on a pole surrounded by rocks. At the same time I saw Aconcagua in the distance. A beautiful sight on a clear day. It was about 3:30 pm. I took some sloppy photos, too tired to do things well. Jonathan joined me at this point. We shook hands, took joint photos, drank some fluids then headed down. I still had the presence of mind to retrieve my crampons. From the summit we could see Ron and Laurie together looking up in our direction. They turned now that we were descending and started heading back to camp.
We all got back in to camp within 1 hour of each other. I came in last walking slowly soaking up the moment. The angle of the sun, the inspiring view, the elation of succeeding, all filled me with a warm feeling all over.
Day eleven of the climb.
The next morning Gerald broke camp early and made his way down to base camp. He picked up what was his and descended all the way to the mining camp where he slept the night, alone. We slowly broke camp and descended down to base camp to do the same thing. It took longer for us though so we stopped and camped on the grassy area where we had first camped on day one. We spent a great evening telling stories and soaking in all the smells of grass and vegetation and of course the oxygen.
Day twelve of the climb.
We awoke with the birds and the sun and descended back all the way to the mining camp where Gerald awaited us. It was lucky he had gone down as we were 15 minutes late and the army truck had arrived and were going to leave us stranded if it were not for Gerald who convinced them to wait the extra few minutes for us. 5 hours on a rough road later we were by the pool in Barreal.