Cerro Negro is situated in the Valle del Colorado to the direct east of Cerro Mercedario. There is a great concentration of peaks above 6000m in this valley and the low human traffic flow provides for climbing in a pristine environment.
The best place to start your trip is either Mendoza or San Juan. I recommend Mendoza as there is a greater variety in the stores to purchase your food and any equipment required. The stores in San Juan also seem to be more expensive.
I recommend spending a night in the town of Barreal which is a couple hours drive from mendoza and is located just after the turn off to Santana (where you start the trek to base camp). There are a few very small stores here, dont expect much variety. The people of barreal are very warm and welcoming and will go out of their way to assist you. Barreal also has a bank and internet cafe on the main street.
When To Climb
From late November to February. December has the best snow conditions according to local sources.
No permits are required to climb any of the peaks in the Valle del Colorado, however you do require permission to be obtained in order to use the bridge crossing the Colorado river just before you reach Santana hut. The road & bridge is owned by a mining company. Contact Anibal Maturano from san juan aventura www.donmercedario.com.ar to organise this.
Mules, guides & Service Providers
Mercedario mules and trips
This provider is recommended. Check out his website for trip and contact information.
Casa Orviz can arrange everything for you from Mendoza (transport, equipment, mules...).
CASA ORVIZ; Juan B Justo 532; Tel. / Phone 0054 261 4251281; 5500 MENDOZA - ARGENTINA
www.orviz.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
Expediciones Ossa (Barreal) can arrange everything for Mercedario (Ramon Luis Ossa, TeleFax 0264-8441004; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Getting To Base Camp
Base camp for Cerro Negro is the same as for Mercedario's south face. You'll need to organise a lift with one of the local outfitters, i recommend San Juan Aventura who are the most experienced guides in the region and have all the right contacts to ensure you reach base camp. (note, the road to base camp utilizes a mining company's bridge, if you do not get prior permission to use this bridge you will be turned around before even arriving at santana, avoid the frustration and make contact well in advance of your expedition departing).
The drive to base camp is long, dusty and bumpy. The road is in poor condition (as at december 2004). The road winds alongside the Rio Colorado for a couple of hours before you arrive at the bridge. Here you will be asked to fill out a limitation of liability, in order to progress over the bridge and onto santana. The guys at the outpost can be a little frustrating, just remember that they are stuck there for weeks on end with no one to talk to for days on end, and like to make themselves feel important, they may ask to check your car / passports (make sure you take your passport and visa's etc) just be nice and let them do their "job".
After crossing the bridge the road passes through Santana Gendarme Village, theres a couple of gates that need to be opened as you drive through, remember to shut the gates to keep the livestock in..
A short time later you will arrive at Santana Gendarme Post, this is the last stop for the vehicles and the starting point for the trek. Your mules should be waiting here (depends who you organise this with). You may need to show your passports etc to the Gendarme here.
The first couple of hours of the trek are pretty boring, crossing over dry river bed, you'll come across an old hut on the left hand side of the valley after about 1 -2 hours, if the wind is really screaming through the valley (as is the norm) its a great place to stop for a break
As you progress up the valley large rock formations appear on either side of the river, follow the left hand side crossing to the right hand side after the second turn in the valley. The mule path is easy to follow, if you cross the river more than 2 times in the first few hours, you're not on the right track.
These rock formations continue for quite a few hours until you reach the start of the tougher country, it gets quite steep in places, make sure you stay on the right hand side (north) of the valley, its much easier.
You'll walk through some large rockfall / scree areas until you exit onto a grassy knowll. This is a good place to camp, or you can continue on for about another 3 - 4 hours until you reach another grassy knoll with large boulders. Sleep here for the first night as it leaves you only a couple hours trek from base camp. From here you should be able to see the summit ridge of Cerro La Mesa 6,200m. There is plenty of firewood lying around as your mule drivers will show you.
The next day start off lazily, you'll follow an obvious path for about 3 hours until you reach a small hill with alarge steel structure. This structure is a disused snow level reader. Continue on, by now you should see the whole south face of mercedario and pico polaco dead ahead.
Base camp is fairly obvious , its a large boulder field on the left hand side of the valley (south). There is room for about 12 tents here. The water is generally good and does not need to be treated, but use your discreation. The toilet area is behind the larger boulder to the west, please make sure you bury / burn your toilet paper.
There is a well made kitchen area in the boulder fields. This was actually made by the first ascensionists of the south face and remenants of their expedition can be found in a couple of places througout the valley.
Tips for comfort on your expedition
After spending 4 weeks in the valle colorado i highly recommend considering the following:
*Take with you a couple of buckets, for washing dishes, clothes etc
* Take a large, sealable plastic container to store your cooking equipment in when its not in use. The valley is very windy (winds predominently from the west in the morning till about 12.30 switching to West for the remainder of the day, its always windy here and very very dusty here)
* Take a plastic barreal to store food in, we suspect there are rats in base camp
* A solar shower is a good idea!
* Take a 2 burner gas cooker for easy cooking in bc
* Take a tarpulin to string up in base camp, the sun in San Juan is very hot and constant, it gets really hot during the middle of the day
* Take 2 way radios for contact between BC and away teams.
* buy some collapsable, lite weight camping chairs in mendoza or san juan, the added comfort is worth it! I left 4 of these in base camp for others, but dont count on them being there.
Over the past several years there have been numerous deaths on Mercedario and the surrounding peaks. For the safety of your team I highly recommend taking a satellite phone with you, Iridium is the best for this area. The valle colorado is very remote, and rarely visited. You are at least 2 days from any outside contact. The Gendarme in Santana do not have a phone, radio or vehicle. The nearest helicopter is at Aconcagua 100km to the south. Make sure you talk to your outfitter about what to do in an emergency and take the phone number of the Helicopter base at Horcones with you, along with a comprehensive first aid kit and the knowledge to use with it.
Trip report and photos from my climb of Cerro Negro