Cerro Ramada, Argentina
This is a trip report about climbing 20,945 ft. Ramada in Argentina in early December 2006. We dedicated two weeks of time with the only goal of climbing this peak. I picked this peak because it was quite high, had no difficult technical climbing (no glaciers), and was in a scenic area that is relatively rarely visited (i.e., not Aconcagua). I talked my old friend Tom, who was an experienced hiker but had never traveled to South America before nor been to high altitude, into accompanying me.
We flew to Mendoza from Miami on Saturday, December 2, arriving at about noon and proceeded to gather food and supplies. After numerous trips to various stores (including waiting out the long afternoon siesta period), we were finally ready and went out for beers and steaks. At 8:30 the next morning, we met our local transportation, the guide Anibal Maturano, in front of our hotel, the Nutibara. The drive up took five hours, starting on a nice paved highway south of Mendoza eventually switching to a dirt road, passing by Uspallata and Barreal.
The Hike In
One of the seven river crossings. As you can see, the river was not very fierce when we were there. A weird rock formation on the hike in
After reaching Santa Ana (7128 ft., 2173 m., S 31.9186, W 69.7977), we dropped our bags off for the mules and started an easy 3 hour hike in to our camp for the night, crossing the river almost immediately and then back again just before the camp site at a grassy area with a spring (8284 ft., 2525 m., 31.9716, 69.8628). We got up early the next morning to finish off the long hike in.
After a long day, we finally stumbled into in to base camp at Pirca de Polacos (11,935 ft., 3630 m., 32.0167, 70.0307) and grabbed the tent site with the extensive rock walls that Anibal later told us was created by the original Polish climbers in the 1930s. The length and difficulty of the hike surprised us, taking a full 11 hours for the day, which turned out to be by far the longest day of the trip. Don’t underestimate this hike, even if you have the assistance of mules. It is 15 miles as the crow flies (as measured by GPS from Santa Ana) and almost 5000 ft. vertical, has seven river crossing and contains long sections where the “trail” is covered with loose rock, slowing progress considerably (the worst section is the steep canyon after you pass a brilliant section of red rock on the right hand side of the river going upstream). The river is relatively low in December (apparently it actually tends to get higher later in the summer, which seems like the opposite of what one might expect)—just high enough to get the bottom of your shorts wet. The water is chilly in the morning, but is about as warm as a high mountain river can be (in my experience) in the afternoon.
Time to Acclimatize
Base camp with the classic view of the south face of Mercedario in the background.
We spent the next two days and three nights at base camp resting and beginning the acclimatization process. There were three other small groups that showed up while we were there, including one led by the guide Anibal. We were the only ones aiming to tackle Ramada. The massive south face of Mercedario loomed above, looking ominously steep to me. No one was planning to take on that climb. The rest was good, as I felt a little ill, probably from something I ate or drank. The days were relentless sunny, with not a cloud to be seen in the blue Andean sky. We alternated between hot and cold, depending on when the strong valley winds were blowing. Unfortunately, the nights were very long as we retired to our tent at about 7 PM or so after the evening chill started to set in. We would spend about 12-14 hours in the tent every night and I usually was only able to really sleep well for maybe 3 or 4 hours. This trend would continue the entire trip.
Camp at 15,000 ft. From left to right is La Mesa, Pico Polaco, Mercedario, and Cerro Negro.
The camp at 12,900 ft. The Italian glacier dominates the view on lower Ramada The snowfield at 17,400 ft. The first few meters of the far section was a little icy. The pink rocks above camp at 16,800 ft.
Finally, it was time to get on with our mission. We prepared our backpacks with about a week’s worth of food and set off towards Ramada, turning left off of the main valley to head the side valley, passing a big boulder field and crossing a long pebble field to a camp behind a large rock near one of the streams below the end of the Italian glacier at 12,940 ft. (3944 m., 32.0374, 70.0435). This would be the last free flowing water we would find. As it was still early in the day and our packs were heavy, we loaded up our daypacks with some food and other gear up and carried them up the scree slopes to store them at 14,000 ft before returning down to camp for the night.
The next morning we headed up, stopping to pick up the gear we had carried part way up the day before. At a little above 14,000 ft. a pass is reached with the other side being a wide gentle valley that drops off to the east towards the main valley that we had hiked in on days before. Continuing up, we reached a good campsite at 15,000 ft (4568 m., 32.0487, 70.0264). As planned, we decided to spend a day resting and acclimatizing here. We spent part of our free day melting snow. There were actually some small ponds of water, but the water was a red/brown color, thick and viscous with dissolved minerals and drinking it was completely out of the question. The weather, which had been continuously sunny, now turned cloudy in the afternoon, accompanied by some snow showers. This pattern would continue for the next four or five days.
We had assumed that the next decent campsite would not be until 17,800 ft. altitude and I was dreading a long day hiking with heavy packs at high altitude. I felt this would be the hardest day of the trip and might kill our summit aspirations if it didn’t go well. We separated some gear out that we didn’t think we would need, leaving them behind in plastic bags to lighten our packs a little.
The next day we headed up the longest scree slope of the trip, about 1000 ft. vertical. The path leveled off briefly, passing a campsite beside a large penitentes field before heading up a small ridge. We reached a good campsite at 16,800 ft. (5122 m., 32.0578, 70.0170) below some distinctive large pink boulders at about mid-afternoon. We contemplated our plans. We could continue up to the known high camp 1000 ft. higher, and then take a rest day before shooting for the summit as we initially planned. Or we could skip the rest day and go for the summit immediately the next morning while the weather was good (assuming of course the weather was indeed good), which had the attractive possibility of reducing the number of long, virtually sleepless nights at high altitude by one. Or we could stop at the camp we were now at, have a relatively easy day tomorrow moving up 1000 ft. to high camp, then go for the summit the next day. We decided on this final option and stopped there for the night because this best evened out our daily efforts and avoided an almost 900-meter jump in camping altitude in one day, which might have been hard for our bodies to handle. The bottom line is that we thought this plan gave us the best overall chances for success.
The following day we began a long rising traverse towards the right along the never-ending scree. At about 17,400 ft. we reached a narrow snowfield. There was a short strip of about 10 ft. where the snow was rather hard and icy. The snowfield continued well down the slope and appeared to me just steep enough that if you were to fall, you would accelerate down the slope, eventually crashing into the rocks below with severe consequences. My friend Tom put on his crampons and slowly worked his way across, stomping out some foot platforms. I decided not to break out my crampons and gingerly crossed the snow (we had decided to leave our ice axes back at the car as Anibal had indicated we should not need them). This was the only stretch of the journey where crampons and/or an ice axe were of value, though it is possible that these would have been needed in a few other places further up if there had been more snow.
After the snow field the traverse ended and we switched-backed up the to next camp at 17,800 ft (5420 m., 32.0637, 70.0125). Though it had been a short day of only 2½ hours hiking and 1000 ft. vertical gain, the altitude and our still relatively heavy packs took something out of us. However, we were now in position for an attack on the summit on the day (Tuesday) I had originally planned. We had progressed slowly but steadily, allowing time to acclimatize and avoiding killer days that might burn our legs out. We spend a few hours melting snow for water, crouching behind boulders in an attempt to hide from the wind. I retired to the tent in the late afternoon and tried to rest the best I could. My mind swirled with random and strange thoughts, often with these passing by so quickly I couldn’t even remember what I was thinking about a few moments earlier. It almost seemed like I was dreaming while still awake.
Me on the summit. GPS devices taking the obligatory altitude readings. Heading up the final slope. The summit rock formation is visible in the distance Looking up at the summit from high camp at 17,800 ft. We gained the main ridge in a gap just to the left of the big rock formation on the left edge of the photo. There may be other options. As seen here, there were enough bare areas to avoid large snowfields, which could be a bit icy.
We avoided the dreaded early “alpine start” the next morning, instead heading out just before 8 AM when it was fully light out and the sun was almost upon us. We angled across towards an obvious gap in the main ridge of Ramada above. We hit the gap at 18,700 ft. (5700 m., 32.0701, 70.0106) and entered a large basin with a wide gentle slope heading up towards the summit. We slowing started working our way up the slope, really feeling the altitude. I passed my altitude record of 19,400 ft. (Cotopaxi). Tom continuously lagged behind me but he never faltered and I was happy to periodically stop and rest for a while as he caught up. The clouds started to roll in and we were a bit worried about the possibility of being caught in a whiteout.
At about 20,400 ft. the slope steepened a little and we encountered a large snowfield. We easily skirted the snowfield to the right. Finally, at about 2 PM after 6 hours of climbing we closed in on the rock outcroppings that signified the summit area. Fortunately, I knew from SummitPost (and the cairn rock pile) that the first summit was the true summit and the two false summits further on were actually lower despite the fact they appeared at least as high. There were low clouds around, blocking the view of Mercedario to the north and we never got to see Aconcagua to the south. But it didn’t matter—we had done it! My GPS registered 20,955 ft (6386 m., 32.0825, 70.0180).
After about 15 minutes of taking pictures and savoring the summit, we headed off down the slope. We were careful not to miss the gap at 18,700 ft. Finally we stumbled back to the tent. We had originally hoped to break camp and make it down to a little lower altitude (getting past the slightly worrisome snow field) for the night, but we were too tired even though there were still hours of daylight left. Fortunately, we had enough time left in the trip that we did not have to be in a rush.
Heading Back Down
The next morning (Wednesday) was particularly windy and of course cold, but we finally gathered the nerve to get out of the tent, break camp, and head down. Tom was slowed by swollen big toes, which he though might be frostbite but we later found out was simply from toe-bang. It took most of the day to get back to base camp at Pirca de Polacos. We had some beer and whisky to celebrate our accomplishment and safe return. We had not seen anyone else during the entire Ramada climb. As I had feared, the local rodents had made use of small holes in my duffel bag that I had left at base camp, expanding them and helping themselves to powdered milk and some other food. Fortunately, I had plenty of untouched food left for the last few days of the trip.
We had previously arranged to meet our transportation at 2 PM in Santa Ana on the Friday, so we started to hike out on Thursday. I planned to start late Thursday but Tom correctly pointed out how long the hike was and instead we started before noon, leaving most of our gear there to be taken down by mules later. We hiked out hard most of the day. The lower half of the hike passes through an arid area resembling something out of the American West, such as Nevada, Utah, or even my old stomping grounds, Eastern Washington. We camped out under the stars, having left our heavy 4-season tent behind for the mules to carry (the area was so dry that there never was a morning dew). I slept a bit better than normal but woke up at about 4 AM and watched shooting stars while contemplating my thoughts about the trip.
We hiked out the relatively easy final stretch on Friday, meeting our transportation on time and returning to Mendoza by about 8 PM. We spent most of Saturday wandering around Mendoza, doing a bit of shopping and visiting the beautiful San Martin Park before catching the red-eye flight back to Miami via Santiago.
Well, that’s it. I tried to provide information (particularly the waypoints) that will assist you if you want to climb Cerro Ramada or visit Valle Del Colorado. Be aware that the whole way up Ramada is on scree. It was hardly ever really loose and steep enough that there is large-scale slippage, but it’s still scree, which kind of sucks. On the other hand, we did avoid penitentes the entire climb. If you are interested in a good non-technical “slog”, this is an attractive alternative to the crowds of Aconcagua. This would probably also be a good test to see if you are ready for Aconcagua.
Thanks to Anibal for the seamless transportation and mule service. Thanks to Summitpost contributors for the information that allowed me to pick out and plan this trip. If you want to go to a remote area with high peaks and good scenery—the Mercedario group is a good place. But you might want to go soon as I suspect this area will only become more popular over time.