Hardly anyone bothers with Pico Plata, the lesser sibling of Cerro Plata.
The route described on this page offers a way of climbing and traversing Pico Plata and then going on to the summit of Cerro Plata, via the beautiful East Ridge. It is slightly longer and more technically difficult than the normal route up Cerro Plata, which is essentially a high altitude trek and can be climbed without crampons – and thus rates the alpine grade of F (Facile). I would rate the traverse as F plus or even PD minus, since in addition to a little scrambling, crampons are most definitely needed to climb mildly exposed snow ridge occasionally just topping 45° in steepness. It is worth emphasising that these modest technical difficulties are encountered at altitudes of between five and six thousand meters. Good acclimatisation is essential not only for safety, but also for enjoyment – and a suitable schedule is outlined in the ‘dangers’ section. It is also worth noting that the area is renowned for being very windy, with the potential for tent-shredding storm force katabatic winds to spring up out of nowhere. This is also discussed in the ‘dangers’ section.
Aesthetically the traverse represents a fine way to reach the highest point in the range, with the route clinging to the top edge of the rocky east face of Pico Plata, followed by the south facing ice-wall of Cerro Plata. Both these faces plunge down at a very steep angle for anything between 1000-1500m and the sight, just to the left over two long sections of the climb, is breath-taking. In addition these mountains are right at the eastern edge of the Andes. To the south-east of the bottom of both faces the slopes go on descending, albeit at not quite such a steep angle, all the way down to the plains around Mendoza – a drop of over 5000m from the two summits (Mendoza is at around 700m) – giving the mountains the feel of being much bigger than they are (even Aconcagua cannot beat this height difference, compared to nearby terrain).
Speaking of Aconcagua, the views looking the other way, towards the west and into the heart of the Andes are truly awesome. Row upon row of jagged rocky crests adorned with shining snowfields and summits stretches to the far distant horizon – which is dominated by the giants of Aconcagua 6962m and Mercedario 6700m to the north and Tupungato 6570m to the south.
Mendoza is the main base in the area and is the 4thLargest city in Argentina. It is 1037km (650 miles) from Buenos Aires to the east and 380km (236 miles) from Santiago to the west (and across the border into Chile). These cities are well connected by road – taking about 13 hours to reach Mendoza from Buenos Aries and 6-7 hours from Santiago if travelling by bus. In addition Mendoza is well served by the Gov. Francisco Gabrielli International Airport and flying time in from Buenos Aires is about 2 hours and from Santiago less than one hour – both of which have lots of connections to the wider global network.
Vallecitos Ski Resort is the main starting point for the Plata routes, up in the mountains. This is about two hours from Mendoza, initially following Ruta 7 but then leaving this main highway at Potrerillos, turning left on to a smaller road leading between poplar trees and meadows to another little township at Las Vegas. From here an unsealed Ski-field dirt road winds its way up through the foothills into the mountains proper. A 4x4 vehicle is advisable, but we did see ordinary cars managing the trip in February 2016, in very good conditions (non 4x4 vehicles not recommended just after rain – or in winter). A series of hairpin bends marks the arrival at Vallecitos Ski Resort and various lodges and homesteads are passed at intervals between 2600 and 3000 meters – up where the road ends and where there is a large parking area, alongside what is the main Vallecitos Ski Centre, during the winter ski season.
To Campo Salto
See also Camping/Accommodation below. Campo Salto at 4282m is the main base-camp for the Plata Peaks (and also Vallecitos and one of the approaches to Rincon). This can be reached in a one fairly long hard day from Vallecitos, but is too high a place to risk trying to sleep without acclimatisation (although many do – and pay the price). There are two intermediate camps along the way up the valley and either or both of these can be used as acclimatisation stops (as discussed in ‘dangers’ section below).
The route up the Vallecitos valley is straightforward. A well-established trail marked at intervals by signs shows the way. The first camp to be encountered is Campo Las Veguitas at 3220m – situated on an idyllic and perfectly flat grassy meadow, with an enchanting brook winding its way across.
The path crosses the brook and then at the far end of the meadow ascends moraine slopes and up alongside a river (different to the brook in the meadow). After a few hundred meters the river is crossed to the left (without difficulty in normal conditions) and the route continues up a shallow ablation valley between two low parallel moraine crests. In February 2016 we called this ‘The Floral Valley’ for obvious reasons – and had a close encounter with a Guanacos.
Soon after the Floral Valley Campo Piedra Grande is reached at an altitude of 3567m.
Beyond Piedra Grande the trail continues up the valley floor and soon starts climbing more steeply up more moraine slopes.There is the occasional (easy) stream crossing. What vegetation there is pretty much stops at Piedra Grande and all around is a barren wilderness of gravel and rocks. At some point the trail rounds a bend close by the main river and climbs up on top of yet another ridge of moraine, which heads straight up towards a rocky buttress split by a waterfall (which feeds the river).
Campo Salto(Inferior) is on the top of the buttress at an altitude of 4282m. For those wanting a quieter (and much cleaner) camp Campo Salto (Superior) is about 250m further up the valley and at an elevation about 40m higher. The tent pitches at this camp are better defended against the katabatic winds which periodically come tearing down this valley.
To the higher camps
See also Camping/Accommodation below. Some climb Cerro Plata from Campo Salto. This is a jump of 1700m and is not advisable without excellent acclimatisation and considerable fitness. I would not recommend attempting the longer route of the traverse from this low an elevation.
About an hour (if acclimatised) up the valley beyond Campo Salto (about 2km distance and 300m height gain) is Campo La Hollada at 4658m - positioned on the lateral moraine on the east bank of the rubble strewn glacier. Reaching this involves another straight forward plod up moraine slopes and with one (easy) stream crossing. Thus reducing the jump to Cerro Plata from 1700m to 1400m this is a bit more reasonable for the normal route – but is still a bit low for the longer route of the traverse.
In February 2016 we climbed another 300m up to the Portezuelo(Col/Pass) Lomas Amarillas 4627m (according to GPS). From La Hollada the main trail is followed in an ascending traverse of slopes dropping down from Cerro Lomas Amarillas – and then of slopes dropping down from the col. The col is narrow but long and has three little ‘bumps’ on the crest from which craggy spurs drop down onto the scree slopes below. The trail crosses each of these three spurs low down (the middle of which is highlighted by peculiarly yellow coloured rocky scree dropping down from a place on the middle spur which is appropriately called ‘Golden Hills’). Just beyond the third spur the slopes to the col can be tackled direct climbing straight up to the western ‘Plata’ end of the Portezuelo. After a further ascent of a few meters in the direction of Plata a prepared and partially sheltered pitch large enough for just one tent is to be found at 4627m. This is an ideal spring-board for the Plata Traverse, but is not recommended in very strong winds (you could end up finding yourself in Mendoza…) With a bit of hard work other pitches could be created lower down on the Portezuelo, but in probably more exposed situations.
In 2016 we found evidence of High Camps at 5200m up on the Portezuelo Vallecitos. We had been advised against using this area to camp by Corax (Summit Posts leading authority on the Cordon del Plata) and with very good reason. There is loads of space, far more than at the Portezuelo Lomas Amarillas – but the entire area is completely exposed to the wind with not a scrap of shelter. In addition the terrain is composed of fine talus with virtually no good sized boulders to secure a tent to. We found two or three dismal attempts at a pitch – with little encirclements of insubstantial rocks. Corax had also advised that this wide flat area is exposed to lightning strikes during the occasional electric storms which occur. The final clincher for this site is that snow patches for melting water can be few and far between.
1) Ascent of Pico Plata 5827m
The north-east ridge of Pico Plata rises from the Portezuelo and this will be the route to Pico summit 900m above. The ridge is a broad spur at the lower extremity, just above the col, and is ascended for some 200m via the easy trail leading eventually to the wide and higher col of Portezuelo Vallecitos – at this point above and mostly to the right.
It would be possible to keep to the ridge all the way to the summit of Pico, but it is easier, after this initial 200m of ascent, to keep following the trail as it now deviates off to the right in a rising traverse below a wide and elongated snow-field running along just below the col. This snowfield would vary considerably year to year and according to the time of year and it is conceivable that it may sometimes be absent. Nevertheless the point where the trail angles away from the ridge is easy to find, even in the dark and by the light of a head-torch.
Just at this point (and the reason for angling away from the crest) the ridge is interrupted by a sort of barrier of steep loose scree and small shattered rock steps which runs most of the way along the edge of the col (and above the snow patch). So it is expedient to keep with the trail for now, to bypass this section and then to re-join the ridge a little bit higher up.
After about 400m of rising traverse the path breeches a weakness in the barrier and reaches the Portezuelo Vallecitos at 5200m. Corax makes the following observation here: “At the Portezuelo (saddle) it's a smart move to take a GPS reading as the turn off down the ridge can be very hard to find if the weather gets bad. This is the only place on the long ridge (of the saddle) you can ascend/descend without any technical gear.”
On first reaching the wide bleak expanse of the Portezuelo the easy trail divides at a sort of T junction. To the north it leads off along what becomes the south ridge of Vallecitos. To the south it becomes less distinct for a little way but nevertheless follows the edge of the col pointing straight at the triangular shape of Pico Plata – having effectively doubled back above the rising traverse which has just been ascended – and is now out of sight below and to the left.
Given the length of the entire route it is presumed most would have set out before dawn and would potentially be surmounting this section by head-torch light. However if there were a full moon (as we had on 21st February 2016) or in daylight then there are good views of Aconcagua dominating the distant horizon – and somewhat nearer, the most attractive aspect of Vallecitos, rising above as an elegant spire as seen from this angle. Almost needless to say, the views actually at dawn are absolutely stunning...
The crest of the north-east ridge will be re-joined at somewhere between 5300-5500m, depending on the line taken. At the point of joining it will be immediately be apparent that it is much narrower than the broad spur of down below – and marks the top of the precipitous east face of Pico Plata.
The ridge is now followed to a greater or lesser extent all the way to Pico summit and any difficulty entirely dependent on conditions. As photographed from top of Vallecitos on 17th January 2005 by Brice Neugebauer (see left image) the ridge looked to be all rock all the way to the horizontal summit crest, with no snow apart from one tiny patch which could be bypassed. On 21st February 2016 the ‘tiny patch’ was extended into a section between 5600-5700m where there was a narrow strip of hard frozen snow to be climbed – delightful climbing in crampons. This represented the top edge of a prominent very steep snowfield running along the top of the east face – and seems likely to be present most of the time. In even snowier conditions than we had – and given the westerly direction from where any bad weather comes – it is to be expected that the ridge could sometimes be corniced and correspondingly hazardous. In February 2016 there was virtually no cornice in this lower section and the snow at the edge was hard frozen. However, we did see a few bits of potentially dangerous cornice higher up along the almost horizontal summit crest – albeit easily avoided.
The summit crest of Pico looks horizontal along a front of about 400 meters when viewed from below. However when actually up there the horizontal is interrupted by a series of little rock steps, which are also false summits – and each of which leads to a slightly higher area of plateau then the one before it. As above there were occasional scraps of easily bypassed cornice clinging to the edge – which was otherwise composed of loose and somewhat friable rock. Corax had this to say about conditions in this section in 2005: “The edge of the ridge is precarious and you better not walk to close to it as the combination of loose gravel and corniche building is quite nasty” There was some cornice formation but only on higher parts of the ridge 11 years later in February 2016.
At the far end of the summit crest there are two or three plausible looking bumps and in 2016 we had mild difficulty identifying the highest point. Unlike other summits in the area there was no marker – not even so much as a cairn. After visiting all we decided that the furthest and most southern was the top of Pico – but made a very brief visit since it was at a particularly loose and unstable looking piece of crest which seemed liable to drop off into the void of the east face at any moment. This seemed to explain the lack of cairn, the weight of which seemed liable to hasten this process – potentially taking the hapless builder(s) with it…
2) Final ascent of Cerro Plata 5962m
From the summit of Pico Plata there is at least 50m of a descent to the Pico/Cerro col. This is made on easy angled west facing slopes, which are correspondingly blown clean of snow – and composed of mostly small stones and a few rocks. This is easy and quick to descend.
At the col it is time to fasten on crampons again. Looking west and in the direction of travel is the dazzling final summit pyramid of Cerro Plata. Approximately 200m of ascent remains. On the right hand skyline is the rocky northwest ridge – where bits of the trail of the ordinary route can be seen ascending in a series of switch backs. Most of the rest of the triangular shape in front is taken up with a small glacier bounded on the left by the east ridge of Cerro Plata – and composed entirely of snow. The glacier fills up most of the space between the two summits and descends to approximately 100m below the level of the col.
The beautiful looking East Ridge is the key to the final ascent of Cerro Plata. It appears to be wind sculptured by the howling westerlies whipping around both sides of the summit block and meeting again at what has become the crest of the ridge. To the left slopes drop down steeply into the South Face of Plata, an ice wall some 1500m high. To the right there is a gentler drop off to the little glacier.
Being east facing and thus in line with the direction of any bad weather I would not expect cornice formation on this ridge under normal circumstances and in February 2016 we did not find any – unlike on Pico Plata summit crest which runs at right angles (north-south) and so forms a barrier to any storm bearing westerlies, with potential for lee side accumulations of snow, on the eastern side.Corax’s excellent Cerro Plata mountain page on SummitPost has this to say about the helicopter, which in turn came from Ialewis on14th January 2008:
“Accordingto Fernando Grajales Jr., who runs one of the big guiding outfits in Mendoza, the Helicopter did not result from a fatal accident. His explanation is as follows:
‘Two military helicopter pilots were messing around on the mountain, likely in an attempt to set the craft down and then take off. Fernado’s impression was that this was the result of two guys in a game of one-upmanship, not an official military operation (obviously this is conjecture). One pilot set down and was unable to get the craft back off the ground. The helicopter subsequently developed mechanical problems and was temporarily abandoned. At that stage, the helicopter was in perfect condition, upright, had the rotors tied down and all of the widescreens covered. The military then flew a crew of mechanics up to the bird to try and fix it. All of the mechanics were wearing oxygen. Evidently, the repairs did not go well and the helicopter was left over winter. Eventually, the helicopter slid downhill, turned over and was abandoned.’ “
The final East Ridge of Cerro Plata involves about 200m of height gain up from the col (which from Google Earth would seem to be at around 2750m – but I have no GPS reading to confirm) – to the summit at 5962m (which is confirmed by GPS readings by Corax and others). The gradient is not quite as steep as the snow section on the ridge leading to Pico Plata and the drop off to the left not quite so abrupt, but nevertheless there is occasionally some mild exposure, which taken together with the stunning vista opening around and about makes the ridge a delight to climb (if acclimatised to the now substantial altitude!). Crampons are needed. Some may prefer an ice-axe to give security in event of a trip, but in February 2016 we just used walking poles. I would recommend use of an ice-axe in windy conditions however.
3) The Summit
The summit is composed of a small plateau of stones and drifted snow and in 2016 was marked by a small sign. Although at fairly modest height compared to many other Andean summits the nearest higher mountains are some distance away and Plata seems to tower above all the nearer peaks.
Looking to the west precipitous slopes drop anything up to 2500m down into the deep cleft of Valley de la Laula. This very remote valley has as a southern border a totally unbroken wall of high mountains, running an extraordinary long distance at a constant high elevation – including as it does this summit and also those of Vallecitos, Rincon, Colorado and other five thousanders.
To the south is another edge of Cerro Plata, with a precipitous drop down the 1500m ice wall of the South Face. This is also the very edge of the Andes and the slopes continue to fall, albeit not so steeply to the south-east all the way down to the plains around Mendoza some 5000m below. Over a comparable distance even Aconcagua doesn’t beat this in terms of visible height difference compared to immediate surroundings. So the very top of the Plata range has all the feel of being on the summit of a much larger mountain.
It is only looking towards much more distant horizons, where several of the biggest of the Andean giants are visible, that it becomes apparent that Cerro Plata may not be quite so lofty after all. The view to the far south is dominated by the blunt cone of Tupungato 6570m – about 50km away. The view to the far north is very much dominated by the squat bulk of Aconcagua 6962m some 65km away – and at double that distance, the Mercedario group, topping 6700m, makes an appreciable indentation into the very furthest horizon.
Three summit panoramas (as with all panoramas, by Jon Watt):
4) The Descent
The Plata traverse is quite nicely completed through a descent of the Ruta Normale or ordinary route to Cerro Plata. Whilst this is a long laborious ascent on endless talus slopes, as a descent it is very swift and easy. Being predominately west facing most of the route is blown clean of snow – apart from a few easy angled permanent snow-fields – one of which is actually the lower end of the tiny glacier which has formed between the two Plata summits. Under normal circumstances and with care in a few places, crampons are not required. The other good news on the descent is that facing in the direction of travel there is the most wonderful view – which goes down rather nicely in the after-glow from the summit.
The route now follows the concave curvature of the huge western slope of Pico Plata (now towering above and to the right) before rounding a wide spur and then heading north-east across the northern flank of Pico – and ultimately down to the Portezuelo Vallecitos – thus completing the full circle. It is about 3 kilometers distance from the summit of Cerro Plata to this col – and involves about 750m descent. That equates to a 1 in 4 gradient – and thus it can be seen how the ascent is somewhat laborious, especially being faced away from the view.
Once back down at the Vallecitos col, it is important to find the right point at which to leave it and start down onto the slopes below. All along the edge and for a distance of about 300 metres there is a sharp drop off on to steep loose rock dropping down to the elongated snow patch – which is no less steep. Mirroring the ascent, the trail turns abruptly right into the little breech in this line of defense – and thence easily around the tail end of the snow patch and onto the talus slopes below. This breech would be hard to find in poor visibility and as above Corax suggests having recorded the coordinates as a GPS way-point (if GPS carried – if not then suggest carefully pace out 300m in a north-north-westerly direction along the edge before turning sharply right, dropping down – and then almost doubling back in a south-easterly direction if the path is picked up. Alternatively if the path is hidden under snow continuing north-east straight down the slopes towards the bottom of the valley, in the vicinity of La Hollada).
Once below the col, as above, the slopes can be descended direct – which at a fairly steep angle would be hard work. In February 2016 we observed a few clearly exhausted groups doing just that – and taking literally hours to reach the valley bottom 500m below. It is preferable to follow the easy trail as it angles across to the broad spur of the lower extremity of the north-east ridge of Pico Plata and ultimately down a few switch-backs to the Portezuelo Lomas Amarillas at 4900m – the site of the highest recommended camp.
At some point before the spur, the trail (as of 2016) divides and left branch continues descending at an easy angle across steepish slopes to reach the valley bottom at La Hollada 4600m, to pick up the main ‘motorway’ back down to Campo Salto 4287m.
If continuing on the right branch to Portezuelo Lomas Amarillas (to return to the camp), it is worth noting that the initial descent (to the north – sun side) from this col down to re-join the left branch of the path, is very steep for about 100m of descent. The slopes at this point are not composed so much of the typical High Andes talus, but of a peculiar mix of gravel and mud – hard frozen early in the day, but potentially soft and slippery later on. On 21st February 2016 this was further contributed to by the presence of a nearby field of penitentes, fast decaying in the sun –and bleeding melt water into the slope, which took on the consistency of junket– at a 45° angle! It actually wobbled – and felt highly liable to collapse in one gloriously muddy but lethal gloop into the bottom of the valley some 200m below. Care may be needed.
Once down at the level of the trail the terrain as well as the angle improves and it is now a simple matter to walk back to La Hollada (about an hour from the col) and thence to Campo Salto (a further hour’s walking). In 2016 we took four hours to get from Cerro Plata summit to Salto, but included in this was an hour to break camp and pack, at the high camp at Portezuelo Lomas Amarillas.
Refugio San Bernardo at 2800m is a good base from which to access the Plata peaks. As of 2016 the Refugio seemed to be owned by Michel and Sandra Lanniaux, who are based in France, but was actually run by Ali and (son) Chapu Crossili and Ali’s partner Vivi. Various attempts to contact the Refugio by e-mail, on Facebook or via Trip Advisor were unsuccessful – but it seems the form is you just turn up! In February 2016 we received a very warm welcome from Ali and Vivi and various others who seemed to be connected to the place including Indio the extraordinary mountain climbing dog (who offers guiding services in return for a back-scratch) – who climbed Cerro San Bernardo 4142m with us and in addition I have photographic evidence climbed Cerro Plata 5962m a few years ago.
Refugio costs (2016):
|Refugio Service||Cost ARS||Cost USD|
|Bed & Breakfast||230p||$16|
|Dinner, Bed & Breakfast||460p||$32|
Mulas/Mule baggage carriage to Campo Salto can be arranged at the Refugio and in 2016 the cost for one standard load (up to 60kg) was 1500p ($90 USD) - one way (we didn't use a Mulas to come down). This would seem to be expensive by Aconcagua standards, but we didn't begrudge paying.
Campo Las Veguitas 3200m 32° 58’ 35.98” South 69° 22’ 10.78” West
This is the most idyllic of the sites. It is situated on a wide flat grassy meadow with a beautiful brook and a few little streams running across. As the site is approached from Vallecitos (east) the camping area is sign-posted to the left, as is the place used as a banos. Altitude: over 3000m so if totally un-acclimatised at least a night should be spent at this elevation before raising sleeping height to the next level. Water-supply: the water in the brook is crystal clear – unlike at the higher camps – but although it looks appealing it should be boiled or sterilised using an appropriate device or product before drinking, due to potential contamination by the numerous animals (horses, mules, guanacos) grazing on and around the meadow.
Campo Piedra Grande 3567m 32° 58’ 53.02” South 69° 23’ 21.23” West
It is situated in field of large, even giant boulders, is about 2km distance from and 300m higher than Las Veguitas – and is on the southern side of the valley just at the bottom of the giant scree slopes dropping down from Cerro Franke 4808m. If Veguitas is idyllic, this site is stunning with fantastic views of Cerro Vallecitos, Rincon and Adolfo Calle – especially at sunrise. The site is exposed to winds howling down the valley from the west (where all strong winds come from), but there are some good pitches with amateur but effective dry stone walls (some incorporating natural shelter from the big boulders). There is grass between the rocks, which in turn means animals and which we found in 2016, also means very mean horse-flies every time the wind drops. Altitude: nearly 3600m and so probably about half would suffer if a night was spent here with no prior acclimatisation (i.e. a night at a lower elevation). Otherwise at least a night should be spent here before trying to sleep at Salto (unless already acclimatised). Water supply: a 150m walk north across the valley reaches the main river which looked fairly clear in 2016 but still should be treated not least since the same river passes through Campo Salto.
Campo Salto Inferior 4287m 32° 58’ 46.19” South 69° 24’53.02” West
This is the least attractive of all the sites for several reasons – and also the most used. It is crowded, dirty, exposed to the howling katabatic winds and situated right on the edge of a cliff. There are lots of prepared pitches, but the best of these are likely to already be occupied. It is situated on a flat plateau of moraine on southern edge of the large rubble strewn Vallecitos Glacier. On the plus side the views to the east (down the valley) over the top of Adolfo Calle and out over the foothills, are pretty good – as is the sunrise in this direction (often seen over a sea of cloud). Altitude: nearly 4300m and thus as high as a good sized alpine peak in Europe, US and Canada. A number of people go straight to this elevation, by-passing the lower camps – and many pay the price of being ill if not already acclimatised. Spend at least one night here before trying to move up and sleep at La Hollada – even though only about an hours walk away and 300m higher. Water supply: the main river passes very close to camp – but is notoriously un-clean. Treat or boil all water rigorously – or expect to suffer the consequences.
Campo Salto Superior 4330m 32° 58’ 49.56” South 69° 24’ 59.27” West
This site is in my view infinitely preferable to Salto Inferior. It is about 250m walk away and roughly 40m higher (about 15 minutes) – and there are at least four good pitches, fortifications even – with amateur dry stone walls topping 4-5 feet high. I can only suppose that in bygone years a SWAT team of construction engineers (or a Yorkshire Farmer) camped here. Bless them! The site is exposed to inevitable howling winds but in 2016 we felt completely secure wrapped up in the best set of stone walls (the pitches are so well fortified you can easily identify them on Google Earth). Great views here of a still fairly distant Pico Plata and (rather closer) of Vallecitos and Rincon – especially during the am alpenglow display. Altitude: barely higher than Salto Inferior so same applies. Water supply: from the same river as at Inferior – but higher up so potentially cleaner – nevertheless still should be treated or boiled.
Campo La Hollada 4658m 32° 59’ 25.54” South 69° 25’ 35.55” West
This is a plausible camp from which to climb the Plata peaks, but slightly low if planning on doing the traverse. A fairly exposed site with some OK pitches, one of which we augmented somewhat in February 2016 (but not to the standard of Salto Superior). Again great am alpen-glow from another and different perspective – and appreciably higher now. If you take the trouble to walk up on top of the low moraine ridge just to the east – and along for about 200m there is a stunning view-point from which to observe the pm alpen-glow display on Rincon in addition to enjoying a Condor’s eye view of Salto Superior (Inferior round the corner and out of sight). Altitude: just higher than the highest mountain in Switzerland (Monte Rosa tops 4634m). As above at least a night needed at one of the two Salto’s to be able to sleep comfortably here. If acclimatised enough to sleep comfortably here then you are probably acclimatised enough to climb Pico and/or Cerro Plata – but a second night (maybe plus an up and back to Vallecitos Col at 5200m) would enable the climb to be made in greater comfort. Water supply: in previous years water from the stream 100 meters away out across valley was said to be the cleanest to be had at any of the higher camps. However in February 2016, the preceding weeks of El Nino, meant that there was more snow than usual on the banks of the stream – and melt water seemed to be carrying an even higher than usual mineral content into the stream – rendering it undrinkable (at least, we didn’t risk it). Just to the south of the camp and at the bottom of the precipitous slopes rising up to Cerro Lomas Amarillas 5100m there was a large and probably permanent snow-field where snow could be collected to melt.
Campo Portezuelo Lomas Amarillas 4923m 32° 59’ 45.46” South 69° 25’ 46.87” West
Situated on top of the Portezuelo Lomas Amarillas, at the far western end, where the broad spur which becomes the east ridge of Pico Plata, begins. Note the feature known as ‘The Golden Hills’ on the col, from which drops the yellowish coloured middle of three spurs dropping from the col (due to presence of sulphur). The site will accommodate one tent only and is 70-100m away from the feature and just on top of a little rock step – and right on the crest, albeit with a little bit of natural shelter (but not much). In February 2016 we leveled the pitch and rounded up as many of the scant and rather friable rocks as we could find to make a wall. Nevertheless this is not a place to be if strong winds are forecast. Great view-point to north and south and a rather foreshortened view of the Pico Plata. Great am and pm alpen-glow. Altitude: over 100m higher than Mont Blanc. Excellent acclimatisation is needed to spend the night here – and if acclimatised enough to do that in comfort you are acclimatised enough to do the Plata Traverse. Water supply: no streams. There was a big snow field of penitentes on southern side of col in February 2016 (which is out of sight until the col is reached). This was so vast and well established looking that I assumed it would be permanent. But Corax's image of the col (see below) taken in January 2005, suggest that this snow field can be absent - which would be a problem. However, if an acclimatisation program is followed which includes an up and back to this site then it would be possible to check this out before being committed to staying. If the snow field was absent then either an impossible amount of water would have to be carried up - or Campo La Hollada would have to be used as the high camp.
Portezuelo Vallecitos 5200m
There are signs that some hardy/risk taking folk have camped up here as evidenced by a few dismal little stone circles. It is totally exposed and has few rocks large enough to build a wall, let alone to secure a tent too – and realistic access to snow to melt problematic. Not recommended in spite of the stunning views.
Sleeping bag and clothing sufficient to cope with temperatures as low as minus 15° (in the summer climbing season, presumably much colder in winter) – but note the potential for considerable additional wind-chill effect in the frequent strong winds.
Boots: not wishing to clump about in double plastics on the lower peaks we used and got away with wearing single boots. Having said that in February 2016 we had cold fingers and toes in the early morning on summit day – in minus 10° plus wind-chill.
Crampons and ice-axe: the snow sections on Pico East Ridge and Cerro South Ridge definitely need use of crampons and use of an ice-axe would provide a little more security than walking poles (in 2016 we used poles – with care)
Rope and climbing equipment: in the good conditions we had in February 2016 it was safe for a moderately experienced alpine climber to climb solo without use of a rope. A novice climber may need one to provide a little protection on the steepest section of Pico East Ridge and to a lesser extent Cerro South Ridge.
First Aid: these are remote and high mountains and a substantial first aid kit plus appropriate knowledge is near mandatory. Please see my article on expedition medicine for detail.
The following table outlines a suggestion for a schedule of the minimum acclimatisation to complete the Plata traverse (assuming good weather) – in reasonable comfort and safety:
|1||Move up to Vallecitos and spend night in a refugio (at between 2800-2900m)|
|2||Walk up to Campo Las Veguitas 3200m and spend the night|
|3||Walk up to Campo Piedra Grande 3567m and spend the night|
|4||Walk up to Campo Salto 4287m and spend the night|
|5||Rest day at Campo Salto 4287m|
|6||Walk up to Campo La Hollada 4658m and spend the night|
|7||Ascend to Portezuelo Lomas Amarillas 4927m either as an up and back or to spend the night|
|8||Plata summit traverse – either from La Hollada or from the Portezuelo high camp|
|9||Descent to Vallecitos|
In February 2016 we followed a much longer schedule which included climbing a mix of three and four thousanders and Cerro Rincon 5365m before setting out to do the Plata Traverse. We summited on Pico and Cerro Plata on our 12th day and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. For more information see Trip Report Cordon del Plata Expedition 2016. For more detail on acclimatisation see article on Expedition Medicine.
Wind: the Cordon del Plata is a very windy place! Bad weather (and the strongest winds) notoriously come from the west and come howling over the Portezuelo Vallecitos to then get funneled down into the valley below, to scour each and every one of the camps all the way down to the lowest at Las Veguitas. Nowhere is safe when these winds start to blow. For an description of just how extreme things can get see Corax’s harrowing account of a 2005 Storm, when stray gusts accentuated by the geography of the valley wrecked several tents during one long and terrifying night – putting an end to their expedition just as the team had become acclimatised enough to climb the higher peaks. In February 2016 we were fortunate in not experiencing conditions so severe as Corax and his party, but we nevertheless had some very windy nights and high winds delayed our move up to our top camp prior to our summit day – as my companion Jon observed in his diary: “We passed three groups of climbers, all saying the wind was too strong. Only one group had achieved the summit and they were completely exhausted, barely able to walk. Campo Hollada would have to be our destination today.”
One observation we made was that even in fine anticyclonic weather (when there should be no wind), sudden high winds would often as not come out of nowhere – in the middle of the night. We came to call it the ‘pre-dawn blast’ – and we got a particularly violent battering at Campo Cancha 4050m (out of the main valley – on Rincon) in addition to at Portezuelo Lomas Amarillas 4927m – on that occasion in the early hours before we set out to do Plata Traverse – and on what led into an otherwise perfect day, with near windless conditions on the two summits. But we experienced lesser variants of the ‘pre-dawn blast’ at the other camps too.
The key messages here are: expect high wind in the Cordon del Plata and plan accordingly. Take a good tent – with the means to secure it to boulders (see equipment above). Use the best and most well-fortified pitches possible but be prepared to make modifications where needed. The best of the camps to sit out high winds is Campo Salto Superior – where at least two of the pitches have walls higher than most tents! Local weather forecasts are fairly accurate at predicting when the westerly winds would blow – but it is worth backing this up by looking at the clouds and noting changes in barometric pressure – and being prepared to change plans.
Water supply: there is a need for caution with all water found in the vicinity of all the camps in the Cordon del Plata. Lower down at Veguitas and Piedra Grande the water from nearby rivers was crystal clear and nicer tasting, but the presence of numerous animals as well as humans with indiscriminate toilet habits dictated a need to either boil or use other means to sterilise water before drinking. At the higher camps of Salto and La Hollada the water from the nearby sources was slightly cloudy and had an unpleasant metallic taste. Filtration may take care of the slight cloudiness but would be unlikely to remove dissolved mineral content. The quality of the water would seem to vary year to year. For instance we had heard that the water from the stream at La Hollada was much better than at Salto, but in February 2016 we found it had an intolerably horrible taste and we didn’t risk it for drinking – even after boiling. We boiled water from the river at Salto Superior and despite the mildly unpleasant taste it had no ill effects. Where it wasn’t possible to boil water we treated it with Chlorine Dioxide tablets – and suffered no apparent ill effects – but we were nevertheless a little leery of the possible chemical reactions going on between the chlorine and whatever nasty tasting mineral stuff was dissolved in the water… By far the safest option was melting snow – and this we did at both La Hollada and the high camp at Portezuelo Lomas Amarillas (where we found boiled penitente was the order of the day – and delivered the finest vintage to be found in the entire area).
There was an official looking signing in book at Refugio San Bernardo and we had entered our particulars in that – and we let them know when were down, although not staying there on the way out of the national park. If staying at San Bernardo or one of the other refugios it is reasonable to assume that there is no need to sign in at the guardaparque office.
Maps & Guides
Cordon del Plata y Macizo de la Jaula Mapa Topografico/Topographic Map by Fotosintesis Disenos – 1:100 000 of the wider area with a smaller 1:50 000 subsection limited to the close proximity to the Plata peaks, with a few photos incorporated (with principle routes marked, although not the Plata Traverse). This map is widely available in Mendoza climbing shops. Detail is limited – but it nevertheless seemed to be the best of what is available.
By John Biggar:
- The Andes: a Guide for Climbers. 4th edition 2015 (English)
- Los Andes – Una Guia para Escaladores. Lera edicion Espanol 2007 (Spanish)
- Los Andes – Guide d’Alpinisme. 2eme edition Francais 2009 (French)
- ANDY, Wydanie Polski 2012 (Polish)
A Czech edition is apparently due out in the near future. For more information on the guide books and on the Andes mountains in general see John Bigger Andes website
By Adrian Jorge Sanchez:
- Andes Argentinos: El Cordon del Plata Vallecitos. 37 cumbres por sus rutas normales (Spanish)
By Alejandro Geras:
- Montanas de Luz. Cordon del Plata. Rutas, historias, ascenciones (Spanish)
- Mountains of light. Cord of the Silver. Routes, histories, ascents (English version – but very poor translation)