Prologue – Sunday 21st February 2016
High camp on Portezuelo Lomas Amerillas - during the day
I am in a tent at 4923m (16,150ft) poised for a summit attempt in the High Andes of Argentina. The dim ghostly light of a full moon is filtering through the tent walls as we wait for the appointed hour to start moving. With me in the tent is Jon, my old climbing partner from the 1980’s, who had precipitated this renaissance 29 years after our last expedition together, through a phone-call nearly two years ago. We have had an absolute ball thus far and our objective today is to make a big ascent and then traverse both Pico Plata 5827m and the star prize in this range, Cerro Plata 5962m. But at 1am – about an hour ago – strong winds sprang up out of nowhere. The tent is now flexing and shaking – and the noise is frightening. The wind seems to be threatening to tear our little home from the narrow col to which it is fixed, the so called Portezuelo Lomas Amarillas.
Beside me Jon is making no comment – and yet I know that even he will be awake through this. He will later confirm this, but go on to say he wasn’t particularly worried about the tent. We had spent at least half a day preparing this pitch: digging a platform into the peculiar soft black mud and glacial gravel of our lofty eerie – and gathering scanty rocks to nevertheless build a substantial dry stone wall to be between us and the violent westerly winds which frequently pound these slopes. And our tent is a Mountain Equipment Tundra Tent, of tunnel design – and thus far it has coped with the winds very well – anchored to rocks via the special rope ties we had dreamed up and Jon had created, especially for this trip.
We are both worried about the stove and pan – which are outside the tent, in our cooking alcove. Totally daft – but there was complete calm when we went to bed – and I had weighted both with some rocks. I had left them all ready to go for our planned 3am brewing session – before putting boot to mountain at 4am. The cooking alcove was another of our creations – fairly well sheltered and a means of avoiding the ignominy of brewing in the tent porch (uncomfortable when you are elderly and with a bad back – as well as risking carbon monoxide poisoning – bad news however old you are… ). I had spent most of the previous afternoon sitting comfortably and melting snow from an endless supply of chopped nieve penitentes
supplied by Jon who, armed with an ice axe, had set about the top end of the vast penitente field plunging into the abyss just to the east of our col. The end result was around eight litres of Chateau Penitente 2016
, the finest vintage to be found in these parts – and having been protected from freezing overnight (we kept that in the tent) all ready for the morning brew and to carry in our water bottles on the mountain…
We both continue to worry that the battering westerly winds are that strong that they will penetrate our defenses – and sweep the near essential stove and pan off the mountain to land in Mendoza, some 60km to the east and well over 4000m below. I say near essential since actually we could manage without now, if we had to. We have eight litres of boiled penitente water… and after this final summit climb we plan on going down to where there are streams… But it was still a damn stupid thing to do leaving the stove and pan outside – in these mountains. And besides I don’t want to lose that stove. It is a top of the range expedition MSR with decades of life left in it. Lastly I am terrible in the morning without a cup of coffee…
At around 2.45am I can stand it no longer. In the easy comradery of this trip the stove has fallen to become my particular responsibility – and so I battle my way out of my warm sleeping bag and out of the tent – quickly zipping it closed behind me. There was no need to dress since I already am – but I do hastily fling on my duvet jacket and a headtorch. The thermometer says only minus five, but the howling winds probably multiply this by a factor of three with the wind-chill.
The penitente field looking up towards Pico Plata (summit out of sight)
The penitente field looking towards Lomas Amarillas
Outside I am greeted by a glorious sight. Illuminated by the full moon as well as my headtorch the stove and pan are both still in the rock alcove, with rock weights on top! We had got away with it. But there is also a magnificent vista of moon-lit mountainside and cloud tops far below – with the distant lights of Mendoza visible through the gaps. And the sublime moon herself is still high up in the eastern sky – and only partly muting the splendour of the panoply of stars overhead…
There is an added bonus to the sensational vista outside. The winds are dropping. It has just been a pre-dawn blast – which as often as not does seem to happen here. The weather signs yesterday were anticyclonic looking – backed by the weather forecast we heard from Alex, the friendly Argentinian climber, who we had met yesterday and had just picked up a relatively recent forecast from Mendoza. There is every reason to expect that the weather today should be perfect…
With the winds now definitely dropping and with the stove sheltered in its little alcove, I manage to get it lit on the second or third attempt. Muffled noises coming from inside the tent confirm Jon is moving and he soon un-zips the entrance and passes out a floppy clear plastic two litre container of yesterday’s melt water. He then follows with various other items – including his lightly filled pack. He is bubbling with enthusiasm for the day. “Completely brilliant!” he exclaims as he peruses the scene – using the same favourite superlative he always used to use 30 years ago.
The summit attempt is a go….
Jon in 1984 near top of Brenva Face of Mont Blanc
Broad Peak Camp 2 at 6450m - in 1987. Me on left and Jon on far right.
I first met Jon in 1981 when we were members of the same university climbing club, but we didn’t actually climb together until summer 1984 – when we made a successful ascent of the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc – the most serious route either of us had tackled thus far. This led to further significant alpine ascents and we soon started looking further afield to the greater ranges. I went on two Himalayan expeditions around this time, fitted in between junior hospital jobs. These were to 6500m peaks in the Indian Himalaya in 1983 and 1985. Neither was successful – but this did not stop me getting together with Jon and the pair of us setting our sights on a really big one - and all of a sudden we were going to Broad Peak 8047m in 1987 – along with two others who we had met through an Alpine Club meet.
After two years of planning and anticipation Broad Peak was also unsuccessful. We battled with appalling weather and avalanche danger on the mountain for around seven weeks. There were only four days in all that time when it didn’t snow. Of several expeditions on the mountain none were successful bar one Swiss expedition who got lucky very early on in the season. We met this happy team coming out, as we were going in. Of our little team of 4 three of us reached around 7000m and one 7400m having teamed up with some Norwegian climbers. Beyond this deep snow and extreme avalanche danger made a summit attempt impossible.
Broad Peak was an exhausting and disappointing experience. I think it was in a conversation with Jon afterwards where we had conceded that had we put all the effort and thousands of meters of ascent into climbing 5-6 thousanders we could have had a ball – as well as several summits. But for various reasons including the need to get a bit more serious about our medical careers Jon and I didn’t get around to following this line of thought - then. But for me it also rankled that I had been to the greater ranges three times – with not a single summit to show for it. I had been twice to 6000m and once to 7000m but the highest summits I had reached were respectively Popocatepetl 5450m and Mont Blanc 4810m. Was this the best I could do in my climbing career?
Finally in 2011 I got my big summit – but the Andes this time – when at the tender age of fifty I made a solo ascent of Aconcagua. Not an eight thousander but at nearly 7000m it would do. I’d got as high as I had on Broad Peak in 1987, but the difference being that this time there was a summit. I didn’t plan to go back to the greater ranges again, but I’d had a memorable as well as wonderful time – and a seed had been planted…
On the way to Aconcagua I was very much affected by my first sight of the Andes. Not far from Mendoza and a few kilometres along Ruta 7 there is a dramatic view of the Cordon del Plata range – “the cord of silver”. I was impressed enough to photograph it through the window of the minibus I was travelling in. Over the next few years I kept coming back to this photo – and I started piecing together information on the Cordon del Plata: here was a range of 5-6000m peaks – just tailor made to progress that old post Broad Peak thought…
On the summit of Aconcagua 17th February 2011
The view of the Cordon del Plata which inspired me in 2011
Then in 2014 Jon phoned. Most of our contact over the previous 20 years had been via an exchange of Christmas cards – always with the postscript ‘we really must have a day in the hills next year!’ We exchanged pleasantries for a few moments…
“…actually one of the main reasons for ringing is I was wondering how you would be placed for a trip to the Alps next summer?” Jon wanted to know. He had tried me in this way 10 years earlier – and it hadn’t happened then – now he was trying again…
I thought for a moment “Hmmm – that’d be great Jon – but actually 2015 is kind of already taken up. I’ve managed to get to the Alps three years in a row – and next year is Leila’s 60th – and I’m taking her on a special holiday. I don’t think I can do both…“ Thoughts were gathering momentum now “Tell you what though: how about 2016? And how about the Andes instead – in the February?!”
I can’t remember exactly how Jon replied, other than there was a ‘completely brilliant’ in there somewhere. Andes 2016 was a ‘go’!
With it being so long since we had been on an expedition together it was obvious we needed to link up to do some training. In 2015 we did just that - starting with a couple of summer weekends in the Lake District and building up to a fantastic mini-expedition in the Cairngorms of Scotland in early December – just two months before we were due to go to the Andes. We found that despite the intervening years that the old comradery was still there – and we still made a good team in the mountains.
Summer training in the Lake District - September 2015
Winter training in Scotland - December 2015 - we are ready...
There was also the need to fit in a fair amount of planning and logistical preparation for the trip. Apart from the excellent pages
on SummitPost (virtually all of which had been written by either Corax
or the tragically now diseased Parofes
) there is very little beta on the Cordon del Plata – beyond that it is often mentioned as a useful training ground for Aconcagua (which I had already climbed) and that most who go in there spend very little time – and tend to either go for day trips on the lower and more accessible peaks - or go for one or other of Pico Vallecitos and Cerro Plata via standard routes and do little else. Detailed study of Corax and Parofes pages on SummitPost started me thinking of alternatives to this approach. An added bonus was that Corax kindly exchanged a few e-mails with us and gave invaluable advice which made a big difference to our planning and the ultimate success of our trip (Janne, if you get to read this, many thanks again for your help!)
I should mention also that we also picked up information as well as logistical support though services offered by the Mendoza climbing shop Orviz
who amongst various things provided us transport up to Refugio San Bernardo, where we based ourselves when not up in the mountains. They also made repeated attempts to contact the Refugio when we were trying to confirm we could stay there – although we would eventually find out you simply just turn up!
Finally thanks to Lucy of Spa Travel
who sorted out our flights and various related issues including sourcing vital information on excess baggage – rules for which had changed since I last flew south.
The final game-plan included the following:
- Cerro Plata 5962m, highest in the range would be our eventual goal, but not via the normal route. We wanted to follow an aesthetically more attractive (and rarely visited) ridge route traversing both Pico Plata 5827m and the higher summit – before descending the normal route.
- Far from leaving Cerro Rincon 5364m as an unlikely ‘maybe’ at the end, information from Corax led us to plan a separate ‘Rincon expedition’ as our first five thousander, accessed from a high camp at Campo Cancha 4050m – rather than from the more usual Campo Salto 4282m.
- We hoped to climb all of the 4 big five thousanders – but recognising that we would lucky indeed to be able to achieve this we decided that Pico Vallecitos would be the most expendable.
- We planned to acclimatise through ascents of anything up to 3 four thousanders – and possibly even starting with Lomas Blancas – a three thousander.
- We planned to base ourselves at Refugio San Bernardo 2800m when not up in the mountains.
Cordon del Plata range showing main summits - panorama by Jon. I should have marked Refugio - but it would be level with top of C in Co Andresito.
London to Refugio San Bernardo
My last week at work involved a series of 4am starts to be able to get on top of things enough to shut it all down for three weeks. Fortunately I had done some packing over the previous two weekends – but even so I still found myself still sending work e-mails at 9pm on Friday 5th February and nowhere near ready to drive to Manchester to join Jon – who was ready. Exhausted I opted for a night’s sleep rather than trying to pack the car set off on an hour and a half’s drive. So I resorted to another 4am start, the first action of which involved setting my work phone and e-mail holiday messages. I had the car packed, lists checked and on the road by 10am – leaving a forlorn empty house since my wife was away and Jake the dog at the penitentiary until she returned. The weather was foul – a real UK February special with low grey cloud and driving rain. But I was happy as I drove to Jon’s – and beginning to get into expedition mode. At Jon’s we spent an amiable couple of hours re-packing and discarding items we suddenly decided we could do without and in no time we were back on the rain swept road heading for Heathrow Airport. Jon’s wife Clare had kindly agreed to drop us off.
On LAN flight Buenos Aires to Mendoza (by Jon)... ...and first sighting of the Andes Mountains! (by Jon)
Thanks to Lucy of Spa travel the journey went like clockwork and was even enjoyable. As expected we had to pay £60 each for our two extra bags. Both of us managed some sleep on the 13 hour flight from London to Buenos Aires – most of which was in darkness. A beautiful dawn eventually caught us up somewhere over Brazil and we landed on time around 9am local time in Buenos Aires on Sunday 7th February. In deference to our age and decrepitude we had prevailed upon Lucy to fix us a ‘day room’ at a nearby airport hotel to await the evening flight to Mendoza. A shower was nice and a nap even better. The take-off from Buenos Aires was all the more dramatic for being in a thunderstorm, with lightning flashes visible as we hurtled down the runway, kicking up clouds of spray from the torrential rain (little did we know that this would be the last form of precipitation we would see for three weeks). Fortunately the plane was neither hit by lightning nor flipped over by an updraft and we climbed otherwise uneventfully up above all the mayhem – and stayed in almost clear skies all the way west, until dipping down into overcast at Mendoza.
At Orviz shop in Mendoza with Jose Orviz himself (both by Jon)
The Orviz 4x4 outside Condor Suites - -about to take us up to the Refugio
We were met at the airport by none other than Mr Jose Orviz – the owner himself – as promised by his able English speaking assistant Laura in one of her more recent e-mails. Mr Orviz didn’t speak English so well – but through use of ‘Spanglish’ and much gesticulating we found we could communicate enough to get by. The weather was not looking good – and Jose managed to convey to us that it had been affected by the El Nino this season and there had been much more precipitation than usual, with rain at low level and snow in the mountains. He was not optimistic at our prospects if the weather continued in its current pattern. Jon ventured optimistically that maybe it was time for a change…
Jose dropped us off at the Condor Suites in Mendoza – with the promise he would get us up to Refugio San Bernardo on Tuesday. In the meantime we spent all of Monday buying last minute food items, dropping into the Orviz shop to pay for their services – and to purchase the six litres of white gas we had reckoned on needing for our MSR stove.
As promised Jose picked us up in his 4x4 bang on time at 8am. He was a little concerned that some of the road could have been washed away in the recent heavy rains – but all turned out to be fine. The weather was actually perfect (in contrast to the previous day) and Jon and I could scarcely contain our excitement at the certain knowledge that we would see our objectives shortly. And sure enough, about twenty minutes worth of Ruta 7 outside Mendoza an astonishing vista met our eyes – and astonishing for me even though I had already seen the sight five years earlier.
The entire Cordon del Plata range was spread out before us. The shining spires of Pico and Cerro Plata towered head and shoulders above all – but Rincon and Vallecitos also looked pretty good. There was a little more snow than I remembered from the near identical date in 2011 – in deference to the recent El Nino effects Jose had spoken of. We stopped to take photos.
Another beautiful panorama of the range taken by Jon - showing the 'big ones'.
We left Ruta 7 in due course and the road now wound its way through idyllic green tree lined lanes and a couple of villages. The preponderance of Poplar trees made me think I was in New Zealand. All in all the journey was so beautiful I was almost sorry when we surmounted a few hairpin bends and arrived at our destination. The Refugio San Bernardo was very much open for business. We received a warm welcome from Ali and Vivi (the guardians) – and what appeared to be several friendly dogs. Neither Ali nor Vivi spoke English and we were grateful when Jose took some time to explain our needs. I had worked hard on my Spanish before this trip – as best I could around the limitations imposed by a busy working life (taken together with a total lack of an aptitude for languages) – but my skills are not up to the level of complex exchanges. I had used my Collins Spanish phrase book to help write down a few key sentences – which seem to have been understood – but it was still handy to have Jose to oversee things and clarify things like money matters.
Refugio San Bernardo at 2800m
Adios Jose and see you on 25th! Mr Orviz about to head off back down...
The Three Thousanders
We got the 4x4 unloaded – and moved in to the Refugio. Jose bid us a warm farewell – and see you on 25th! (Or words to that effect in Spanglish). He set off back down in his 4 x 4. We were now at 2800m and the acclimatisation process had begun. After a drink and a snack the schedule we had written for ourselves called for a possible ascent of the three thousander Lomas Blancas – which we had already identified and looked as big as a largish UK Lake District hill in comparison to our current elevation. Being some 3650m high Lomas Blancas would involve an ascent of 850m which was not too taxing for our first day. I looked forward to putting a bit more of the Refugio on the map over a coffee perhaps – and then have a bit of a wander up there later.
But Jon – and apparently at least two dogs – had other ideas. (Yes – dogs…
) He (they) had confirmed with Vivi and Ali the presence of two other three thousanders which could be included on route to Lomas Blancas. They were Andresito 3116m and Arenales 3350m – which could be taken in following a circuitous course on the grassy slopes above the Refugio – before finishing on top of Lomas Blancas and descending via a different route. Our hosts indicated we could be expect to take about four hours to reach Lomas Blancas following this itinerary and then up to two hours to come down.
The 3 thousanders we climbed (plus Cerro San Bernardo - climbed next day) by Jon
Jon was champing at the bit to be off – and the two dogs who had apparently latched on were literally capering with excitement. There was to be no question as regards their inclusion in our party… Vivi gave me to understand that they were listo which I knew was Spanish for ‘ready’. To seek to delay things almost seemed rude. I worked out that the extra summits would add about another 150m to our ascent – making it a round 1000m. One of the two extra members of the party was a smallish shaggy long haired brute with the colouring of German Shepard but finer features of a Collie: a male dog by the name of Indio, with odd but endearing gingery dreadlocks sprouting either side of his neck. He was a resident at the Refugio. Watch this space – we will be hearing a lot more about Mr Indio… The other animal was more straight forward: a larger and rather beautiful black Labrador bitch called Luna – who lived at an adjacent property. Then for a moment I thought I had double vision – but no my senses were not deceiving me – there was in fact now a third dog; another female black lab called Lulu, and who also lived further up the hill.
Thus it came to be that our odd procession of two British Alpine Club members strode forth from the Refugio leading, or more likely being led,
by a motley procession of no less than three dogs. We soon found the path we needed – initially ascending a grassy gully beside a stream, which presently all three dogs were laying in – presumably to cool off. All three made a special point of barking at a rather dilapidated and down on its luck looking horse. But it just ignored them. At some point Lulu left us – so our party came back down to just the two dogs - and us…
With Luna and Indio on top of Co Andresito 3116m by Jon
First sighting of Mr Guanacos by Jon
Somewhere on the lower slopes we spotted a vast bird soaring far overhead. With huge looking wings and wing-span I reckoned this to be a Condor – and it was the only such sighting we had – but one more than I had five years before on the Aconcagua trip (when I had spotted a Golden Eagle instead). Then, as Jon wrote in his diary: “Distracted by a noise somewhere between a cough and a laugh – we found the source – two Guanacos on the slope leading to Lomas Blancas.”
They were grazing on slopes about 500m above and silhouetted on the skyline. I had not seen any of these beasts either, on the Aconcagua trip, but my then new found friend Zak had – and he believed they had brought him good luck on his third and successful attempt on the mountain. We decided to take our sighting of these uniquely High Andes beasts to mean good luck for us as well. As it transpired it was to be first of many such sightings – but we did indeed have good luck! (Zak, my friend, you are right about Mr G!)
Zak with his 'lucky' Guanacos in 2011
We reached the top of Andresito in about 40 minutes. Thus we had climbed over 300m in something less than an hour – not bad for a couple of old guys on the first visit to 3000m. We celebrated briefly on the top, which was marked by a prominent cross, before making a brief descent – and then tackling the first of more grassy slopes leading up to the second summit. The two dogs peeled off onto steep slopes to the right – and left us to carry on without the benefit of their company. But, I repeat, we had not seen the last of Mr Indio…
Another hours work put us on top of Arenales – a little further away and a similar climb above. We met a young lady guiding a client up there and exchanged pleasantries. Cloud was now swirling around us and so any view was fleeting and somewhat limited. We had reached the place where we had seen the Guanacos on the skyline – but they had moved on and were nowhere to be seen. There was another short descent to a col before the final ascent to Lomas Blancas. We were now above the grass-line and on barren slopes of shale and rock. With speed of ascent beginning to slow in the thinning air we nevertheless reached the flat rocky summit just three hours out from the Refugio – so a full hour ahead of the estimated time given us by Ali and Vivi. A large patriotic Argentinian party were up there armed with big blue and white national flag – and we got roped into the orgy of photography which ensued. Clouds still swirled around limiting the view – but every so often we caught a tantalising glimpse of what had to be Rincon – towering literally miles over head.
It took us an hour to descend back to the Refugio from Lomas Blancas – so total time about four hours. “We’re both on good form!” exclaimed a delighted Jon as we approached our new home. And indeed we were – all the training had paid off. On a personal level I felt as fit as on a bumper trip to the Alps in 2013 (with RGG) – a level I had felt I could no longer aspire too on account of increasing age - and having not performed as well the following year in 2014.
We received an enthusiastic welcome back from our hosts – who had been watching us and seemed impressed at our speed. But then who should come to greet us but the dog Indio – pleased to see us, tail going like the clappers but limping. I assumed then that he must be an old dog (like us!) – and that the modest work out climbing the low three thousander had proved too much for him. Events the next day were to prove me very wrong…
That night we sat in the hut with an older Argentinian doctor like Jon called Juan
and his wife Graciella. They spoke no English – so our Spanish was put to the test again.
Third 3 thousander of the day: summit of Lomas Blancas 3650m by Jon
Back down at the Refugio Vivi helps Mr Indio to smile...
San Bernardo + dog
Cerro San Bernardo 4142m from near Refugio
Cerro San Bernardo with route marked - from Las Veguitas
In my diary I wrote that I slept well (a rare thing for me on this trip) and was woken at 7.15am by Jon. We planned to climb San Bernardo
the mountain (as opposed to the Refugio) as next acclimatisation step. At 4142m/13,586ft it involved some 1342m (4400ft) of ascent – so the equivalent of climbing Ben Nevis from Fort William to climb from the Refugio. And the altitude at the summit comparable to the highest reached on my last alpine holiday with one of my sons and RGG
, in Switzerland in 2014. There was a temptation to regard these Plata four thousanders as piddling little hills – until put into that kind of context. Many would climb San Barnardo from a camp at Las Veguitas, giving a start some 400m higher. But we were following the old adage ‘climb high, sleep low’
and had decided to make the mountain the second and last of the acclimatisation ascents we would make, before setting out with the tent on our planned four day Rincon Expedition the next day.
Ali and Vivi had said most people took 6-8 hours to reach the summit of San Barnardo from the Refugio. The previous day we had achieved a faster time than they had predicted on the three thousanders. But this summit was around 500m higher and we would feel the altitude, breaking the 4000m barrier for the first time on the trip. We set off at 8.20am – a little later than intended.
To our surprise who should come bounding up, practically wagging his tail off – and no longer limping – but Indio! Surely he wasn’t thinking of actually coming with us! But there was no questioning it. He was a member of the team and that was that. Of the other two dogs there was no sign. So our team had expanded again – this time to a threesome as we started walking up a trail ascending the grassy slopes directly uphill from the Refugio. Remembering the limping the day before I assumed Indio would follow us maybe as far as Las Veguitas 400m above but would probably turn back once we got to the steep scree slopes of San Bernardo.
Indio down at the Refugio...
...and up at Las Veguitas - enjoying a back scratch! By Jon
The weather was not quite as good as the previous day. Golden beams of early morning sunlight were around but there was already quite a bit of cloud, which promised to build up as the day progressed. Jon observed regretfully that we probably wouldn’t get a summit view. I was sure he would be right, but not especially bothered since it would be cooler at these lower elevations and hopefully we’d save the views up for the really big ones….
We reached the lovely grassy meadow of Las Veguitas camp in about an hour following the easy trail above the Refugio. A little brook of crystal clear looking water wended its way across – looking tempting for a drink – but there were quite a few horses and odd cattle (and presumably Guanacos, as we had seen the day before) so with all the live-stock around we resisted the temptation and kept to our water bottles. All the way up San Bernardo had towered up over head like a great battlement. But up at the meadow now, the swirling clouds periodically parted to give tantalising glimpses of Rincon, way higher – and then all of a sudden our objective didn’t look so big after all.
But San Bernardo was quite big enough for now and the going was about to start getting much tougher. We had a short rest to drink, nibble snacks and take off some clothing before tackling the next harder and much longer section of the route. In photos I had seen, it looked as if the mountain rose straight up out of the meadow. Now that we were here it was clear that we had to climb up and over a low crest of old lateral moraine – and then drop down 50m or so to cross a fairly large stream before starting on the steep slopes above.
With Indio at Campo Las Veguitas 3100m
The river crossing Indio didn't like, but managed nevertheless - by Jon
Indio was still with us. He seemed to be fine, still with no trace of yesterday’s limp – but I continued to expect him to turn back home any time now. Nevertheless he continued to trot along beside us as we crested the moraine and negotiated the awkward and steep boulder slope descending on the other side. He seemed to baulk when it came to the stream though. Jon and I found it a little difficult even using our walking poles for balance but found a reasonable crossing after a search of perhaps 100 meters of river bank. Indio tried a few places and didn’t like it – but then suddenly he was across – and we were a threesome again. I was pleased – it would be something rather special if he came all the way to the top with us!
From here on it got harder. There was still a trail, but it was scant and not always easy to see – and rose sinuously straight up nearly 600m (2000ft) of scree slope – which disappeared into the clouds way above our heads. It was like a miniature Gran Acarreo (the giant 3000m scree slope on Aconcagua). Jon set a steady pace and we both tried to avoid the exhausting slips which so easy to happen on this kind of loose terrain. With the advantage of being a 4x4 Indio had no difficulties. We were ever mindful of loose rocks – in terms of knocking things down onto each other – or Indio – and of the not insignificant danger of rocks falling from above.
San Bernado lower slopes with Indio - me by Jon
San Bernado lower slopes Jon with Indio
We paused at around 3600m – at a similar height to that we had reached the day before. I noted that although the terrain was hard going that I was a little less breathless today. The dog was still with us! Albeit he was panting harder and every time we stopped, he immediately lay down to rest himself. I had completely underestimated him earlier. There was no question about it, panting or not, he was with us for the duration – however long it took.
We had another rest at the top of the scree at what we reckoned was around 3850m. At this elevation we appeared to be on a rough shoulder at the top of the spur – and at the bottom of a rather forbidding looking summit bastion, which reared up over head. Just to make it even more forbidding looking, wraiths and tendrils of dark grey mist partially obscured vision and created complicated fast moving patterns in the sky above. We now had to weave a complicated pathway up steepening ground in between near vertical rock buttresses. At first the route followed a sort of crumbling ramp ascending towards the left and round the mountainside out of sight. False trails abounded. And whilst there would be several possible ways up and down this large complex piece of ground we wanted to select the best route – and make sure we could easily identify it for the way down – which would also be in the mist. We therefore either augmented various cairns we found – or created new ones – and tried to imprint the images of them into our minds, the better to recognise them an hour or two later. Indio stuck with us all the way and I had a sense he would know the way down. Nevertheless we didn’t want to take any chances with route finding.
Occasionally the mist parted enough to reveal a summit cross at the top of a final buttress. It looked quite close – but we reminded ourselves that it was said to be quite a large cross. In the meantime the route became even steeper – and we reached a section where it was actually mild rock-climbing for about 20m. Indio made short work of this obstacle and briefly disappeared off up into the swirling mists, but I worried a little at how he would be coming down. My own dog, even in his prime, would definitely have baulked at coming down something like this...
Steep rocks on summit pyramid of San Bernardo (both by Jon)
...and just below the summit (highest point in background)
It was becoming even more breathless work now, reminding us that we had reached around 4000m. Once again I worried a little about Indio. He still wasn’t limping, but was panting harder than ever – and at every pause still immediately laying down to rest. There was no more sniffing and leg cocking – all of the more normal male dog behaviour we had observed much lower down. Up here it was strictly the job in hand, with no wasted energy at all. Nevertheless he didn’t seem unhappy. Interestingly he showed no interest at all in our snacks when we had a bite to eat – not even in biltong. There had been no water since the stream thousands of feet below and we worried about thirst. Jon even tried to share some of his water with him, tipping a little into hollow on a rock – but he would have none of it – and even looked condescendingly at Jon as if to say ‘you save it for yourself amigo’. I think that Indio actually thought of himself as looking after us – and was even mildly offended to be offered water by his charges!
At last we reached the final little rock bluff – with the summit cross on top. Very breathless now I stopped, got the GoPro out and filmed Jon and Indio taking their last steps upwards. Jon made an appropriate gesture of triumph as he arrived. Indio stopped on a little level area just short of the highest point. He had no need for any summit frivolities and sat patiently to wait for his humans to do their little thing… but not that
patiently… as soon as I staggered breathlessly up there and touched the cross, he immediately hauled himself back onto his paws and turned to start down. We called him back and he then took some persuading to wait for us. We still couldn’t entice him to join us up beside the cross and almost with a sigh of irritation lay back down on his own little rest area to wait.
The summit cross is in sight - Indio in foreground beside a cairn
Jon on the top of Cerro San Bernardo - not much of a view...
As expected there wasn’t much of a view up in the clouds. Every so often a slight break in the still swirling mist would reveal the beginnings of a dizzying drop – but we could see no signs of adjacent mountains – especially the big ones we hoped we’d be able to see. We had taken about five and three quarter hours to reach the summit – once again we had done better than predicted by our hosts. After 20 minutes rest and a bite to eat we started down. Indio promptly rose to his paws and started to lead the way – clearly relieved that the absurd human summit frivolities were out if the way.
Jon had this to say about the descent from San Bernardo: “Reversing the route was as challenging as we thought. The clouds limited our view; and, in spite of our cairns, we lost our way a couple of times. Indio was able to find the way!”
Finally we reached the big scree slope and broke out from under the clouds. Our subsequent progress was uneventful until we got to within a couple of hundred metres of the stream at the bottom of the slope. Then all of a sudden a large (presumably male) Guanacos appeared down on the flats beside the stream. I remembered the dogs barking at the poor horse the day before… but Indio would be very tired now and surely he wouldn’t be going to…
Oh no! “Indio! Come back! Leave it alone!”
But he was off – completely enraged at this incursion – and bounding down the slopes, barking furiously. Once again I was worried. We didn’t want Indio to hurt a Guanacos. Given the size of the thing, we didn’t want the Guanacos to hurt Indio. But there was no need to worry: the big guanacos was not especially bothered. Munching placidly he watched the enraged dog bounding towards him – and tolerated the approach for a while before easily loping away, at speeds Indio couldn’t hope to match. An hour later we were back down at the Refugio. Indio was clearly a dog on a mission when we got back – and made a beeline for his dinner, which someone had put out for him. Today there was not even a hint of a limp. And then someone told us that he was a regular climber of the Plata summits – and had even in the past climbed Cerro Plata, the highest of them all. Vivi told me he was 9 years old – no spring chicken, but not as elderly as we had supposed the day before.
Indio - experienced Andinist and faithful companion in the mountains
Day 1: to Piedra Grande
We were up early and soon registering that the weather was clear for our third day – and the first day of The Rincon Expedition – where we went for some serious altitude with the end goal of climbing Cerro Rincon 5350m
some four days hence.
After breakfast we plunged into the business of packing. The empty boot room at the far end of the Refugio was soon strewn with equipment and food-bags. The older Argentinian doctor and gynaecologist we had met and who called himself Juan like Jon had been fascinated by our plans (I think his actual name was Oswaldo...). He came through to wish us well and to give us both pieces of greenstone as tokens of good luck, before setting off with his wife, Graciella, to walk up Lomas Blancas. We were touched – and we each duly placed our stone into a rucksack top pocket to be sure it would be with us for the duration of the trip. We had various other visitors as we packed – but most notably a party of three French youngsters: Yann, the only (and lucky) man with two lovely young ladies Delphine and Mathilde. They all glowed with health and energy and clearly wanted to climb as high as they possibly could – within the limitations of being in training shoes. They had a tent and camping equipment – but no walking/climbing boots. They asked us about our objectives and the mountains in general – to the end of finding out about possible objectives for themselves. We would be seeing much more of this charming threesome in the days ahead.
Packing for Rincon expedition at the Refugio - photo by Dr Juan Sunbathing in the Floral Valley on way up to Piedra Grande - Jon
Organisationally this trip would be similar to our Cairngorms trip two months earlier. This had also entailed four days in the wilds, albeit rather different wilds. The equipment needed was identical in terms of ice axe, crampons, walking poles and warm clothes etc. We would be carrying the same tent and camping equipment – and nearly the same food. But in deference to the higher altitude and likely need to boil all water we carried half again as much fuel for the MSR.
We were packed and ready to set off on our little expedition at around 12.45 – after bidding farewell to Ali and Vivi. After the previous day I was a little worried that Indio may try to join us again. We couldn’t take him on a four day expedition! But he was nowhere to be seen. (Perhaps he had tagged along with Dr Juan and Graciella).
Fully laden it took an hour and a quarter to reach the meadow at Las Veguitas. We had a brief stop and then continued on up the valley towards the next camp and our destination for the day at Piedra Grande (‘the big rock’) at 3567m (11,700ft). The trail continued to be easy to follow. It led across the flat camp ground to the low grassy ridge of old lateral moraine we had crossed to reach San Bernardo the day before. But this time we continued up along the moss and boulder strewn crest – passing San Bernardo to our right.
Wild flowers in the Floral Valley
Guanacos in the Floral Valley by Jon
We entered a narrow and shallow ablation valley between the old moraine crest and the scree slopes plunging down from Cerro Franke. Strewn with pretty wild flowers we came to call this The Floral Valley – a bonus since we had assumed we would be leaving all vegetation behind at Las Veguitas. We surprised a solitary Guanacos here – possibly Mr Guanacos from the Indio encounter the day before. I say surprised – but he was actually not bothered by our presence and continued munching grass for a while before ambling off and passing within thirty meters of us.
After strolling round a corner and up a further continuation of the floral valley, Piedra Grande almost took us by surprise. It was still grassy underfoot. But there were also some big boulders around – and then all of a sudden there was a sign proclaiming that we had arrived. A few amateur dry stone wall enclaves marked tent pitches. One other party was in residence. We picked an adjacent pitch – separated by a particularly massive boulder – and well sheltered from the notorious katabatic winds reputed to come howling down the valley.
Adolfo Calle 4269m (14,002ft)
along with still hidden Stepanek 4114m (13,494ft)
were our next objectives in terms of summits. To access these mountains (and our high camp ‘Campo Cancha’ at 4050m) we would have to cross the valley – crossing the main river and then navigating a route across a wide expanse of moraine mounds. Adolfo Calle was a striking mountain to look at – dominating the sky and looking rather similar to Buachaille Etive Mor – the ‘sentinel’ of Glencoe, in Scotland. It looked huge – until the swirling clouds parted enough to provide fleeting glimpses of the really big ones; Rincon and Vallecitos. Then it didn’t look quite so huge…
We pitched the tent and secured it to heavy rocks using the ‘rock ties’ we had dreamed up and Jon had created. A short while later we were joined by our three new French friends Yann, Delphine and Mathilde. They had set up camp down at Veguitas, but bobbed up to have a look around – and to say hello again. Curious at the social dynamics of their little expedition we asked them about themselves. It transpired that Yann and Mathilde had been crew on a 12 meter sailing yacht, which had crossed the Atlantic to land in South America. They had come to know each other on the voyage and teamed up to go travelling – and then been joined by Delphine (who was Mathilde’s friend) in Argentina.
Day 2: Stepanek/Campo Cancha
If the sunrise had been beautiful down at the Refugio, up at Campo Piedra Grande it was stunning. The weather was clear again – and the two giants Vallecitos and Rincon were now in full view up at the end of the valley. Just after seven at this time of year they go through an extraordinary and fast changing Alpenglow display – which we were to subsequently appreciate from various vantage points – including from above. Since they were out of site from the Refugio this was our first sighting of this amazing daily event (in fine weather)…
Daily Alpenglow display on Co Vallecitos and Co Rincon
We had a leisurely breakfast and pack up – and were away by 9.30am. Our Argentinian neighbours had left much earlier and we had watched them crossing the vast expanse of the boulder strewn valley, before ascending precipitous scree slopes we ourselves would soon be climbing – and which we knew posed some risk from stone-fall. The slopes led up to Campo Cancha and were split by a rocky spur, whose craggy middle section formed a kind of steep sloping island. There were occasional traces of a trail visible on both sides of this spur. The Argentinians were following a zig-zag course up the near side - and from our perspective the near side trail looked more like an ascent route – but on the far side it came straight down the scree and looked more attractive as a descent route. We were subsequently to confirm that our impressions were right on both counts….
Mulas coming through Piedra Grande - Co San Bernardo in background
Packed and ready to set off for Campo Cancha - by Jon
Corax had warned us that it would be hard going up there.
An hour or so later we were battling with the slope, heavily laden under packs barely depleted by the consumption of one evening meal and one breakfast. As we approached the bottom end of the craggy spur I was struck by the similarity to entrance to the notorious Canaleta high up on Aconcagua. Jon especially was agreeing with Corax’s prediction that it would be hard going. Later he wrote in his diary: “Today was exhausting! We didn’t have to climb far, but we were fully kitted, with heavy sacks. The whole route is one long scree slope.”
Adolfo Calle and the route to Campo Cancha from Piedra Grande
Climbing the steep screes up to Campo Cancha by Jon
Careful to avoid kicking rocks down we slowly picked our way upwards – following the line taken by the Argentinians (who we never saw again – but probably climbed Adolfo Calle, before heading back down). At the top of the rocky section of the spur was a tiny level area – almost like a sort of col – and from here the angle of the slope finally started to relent. We paused to look over the other side of the spur and soon resolved to go that way on our eventual descent, four days in the future.
At close to 4000m the slope fell back to the horizontal – and we found ourselves entering the narrow bottomed hanging valley between Adolfo Calle to our left and Stepanek somewhere up to our right – we couldn’t tell which rock formation on her serrated horizontal summit ridge was the top. A stream resided in the bottom of the valley – which widened just over half a kilometre ahead at a sort of 50m high rocky head wall above a snow patch – above which we assumed was Campo Cancha a.k.a. ‘the football field’ at 4050m. Towering overhead all but also looking very foreshortened was Cerro Rincon.
Near the top of the worst of the scree by Jon
Looking up towards the final rise to Cancha with Rincon beyond
The football field was indeed above the head wall. It was a remarkable place – perfectly flat within dimensions I guessed to be about 180m wide by 250m long. The floor was composed of strange greyish glacial cement and stones – with a few rocks strewn about. Near us a crude and almost druidic circle of small rocks spoke of a past tent pitch – with another similar one 150 meters further away. The wind was strong and seemed to be coming from all possible directions – but we nevertheless concluded (wrongly) that we may be more sheltered further in – and went for the second pitch.
Having dropped our sacks by the second rough circle of boulders we were then distracted by the issue of our water supply. Corax had said that you had to walk a distance to get to a potable source. We couldn’t remember exactly where he had said though. Up ahead there was a waterfall cascading down the rocky bluffs of the lower slopes of Rincon. But even at a distance we could see that the water was a foul yellowish brown colour and clearly polluted. This was not inspiring. The stream we had encountered behind us had been slightly cloudy - and powdery white mineral deposits we had observed in places where water had evaporated suggested a heavy mineral content.
The yellow stream actually percolated into the ground about 100 meters up valley from our tent – and then apparently oozed through the damp glacial alluvium at our feet. We had discovered that it then re-emerged from the ground at the edge of the football field and became the source of the stream with all the mineral deposits below. A couple of little out flows formed little cascades over the rocky bluff (the ‘headwall’ we had ascended) below – before amalgamating into said stream. We decided that the least unattractive looking of these would have to be our water source – and some 150 meters from our tent. Here we also found a low rocky bluff which gave some protection from the wind and so decided to also make it our cooking area. The water still looked worrying and we subsequently discovered it had an unpleasant metallic taste – but strangely it had no apparent ill effects on us…
Campo Cancha aka 'Football Field' 4050m with foreshortened view of Rincon
Co Stepanek 4114m from Campo Cancha
Having made the decision about our water supply we turned our attention back to the erection of the tent. Our sacks were still over by the little rock circle 150 meters away. Now we needed to go back over there, break out the tent, pitch it – and start the wearying task of hauling more rocks across to fix it down. But I found myself turning away. Just about 80m higher than we were and a few hundred meters away was one of the two lesser summits on our schedule…
“Why don’t we go off up there and bag Stepanek first?” I proposed “We are over in that direction now anyway – and have more than enough time to be up and down – and then do the tent!”
Jon hesitated only momentarily. “Yes - let’s do it!” he agreed.
Having bagged this little summit today was a bonus. We had considered it an optional add-on for our so called rest day next day – when the priority was climbing the slightly higher and more worthy Adolfo Calle in addition to doing a recce of the lower part of our route on Rincon. Now we could focus more on those items on the agenda – and also have time to get some rest before the hard day to follow. I took some photos and then we carefully scrambled down the rock step – and, taking pains not to dislodge rocks on each other, just as carefully negotiated the gulley and scree slope, before being able to relax on the traverse back to the football field.
Finally we pitched the tent, securing it to the few available rocks of the stone circle. We then took some time out to relay bigger rocks from the nearby boulder field – most of which ended up being incorporated into ‘dry stone wall’ around the tent, to give maximum protection from the winds. Jon showed talent at wall building – and I recalled from a former life he had a little prior experience at this art. I struggled and many of my bits of wall collapsed – and to my fury I crushed my left middle finger between two rocks, causing a painful bleed under the nail (subungual haematoma). I tried pressure to stop the bleeding and later dunked my throbbing finger in the icy water of the stream. The water was only just above freezing and although this did indeed numb my finger appreciably, the effect was very temporary – and then the ‘hot aches’ of reactive hyperaemia hurt even more.
Our camp at the football field - Stepanek beyond
Later on, after we had dealt with the evening meal at the sheltered spot by the stream, I was forced to concede that if I wanted a night’s sleep some minor surgery was called for. I consulted my medical colleague.
“Jon, I think I need to make a hole in this nail”
“Bad luck – do you want me to do it for you?” he offered. Although an anaesthetist he had carried out the procedure numerous times as a junior doctor working in accident and emergency. So had I.
“No – thanks anyway – but I’ll do it myself – can react a bit faster if it…” I left the sentence unfinished but mimed sharply jerking my finger away if the procedure went badly.
The surgical procedure in question is called trephining a nail. In A&E there can be sophisticated tools to carry out the task. In general practice I used to use a paper clip heated to red heat in a candle – before applying to the correct spot on the offending nail. Success was heralded by a little puff of smoke, followed by a little squirt of blood as the pressure released – thus relieving the pain. We didn’t have a paper clip but a search of the first aid kit found a safety pin. I scraped the point of the needle on a rock to blunt it – and then heated it to red heat in the flame from the MSR. My first attempt just hurt – and I carried out the mime I had just rehearsed along with some mild cursing. The second attempt was successful – and after a pause blood suddenly welled up out of the charred hole on my nail – relieving my pain. Jon deftly applied a dressing.
The camp looking towards Rincon...
...and at the cooking area 150m away, sheltered from the wind
Even without a throbbing finger I still didn’t get much sleep on our first night at 4050m. During the day it had been windy and we had seen thin high clouds moving swiftly across the sky from the west between gaps in the lower clouds swirling around the summits. We knew that any bad weather generally came from that direction. Also my aged barometric altimeter showed a fall in pressure… so all the signs were that a weather front was coming through. Then during the night the winds increased still further and the tent got an absolute pounding, seemingly from every direction. Interestingly there was no precipitation, which at this elevation would have been snow. After all the talk of El Nino and what we had been told about all the recent snow in the mountains by Mr Orviz, I was surprised. But snow or not, the weather was wild.
Day 3: Adolfo Calle
Amazingly the battering winds had dropped off almost entirely by dawn. Short on sleep we both nevertheless stumbled out of the tent at sunrise – the pull of what we would see being too strong to resist. There was not a cloud in the sky – and all the signs were that an anticyclone could be building – good for today and probably for the morrow as well when it needed to be good for the big one…
Alpenglow display on lower slopes of Rincon
Having said there was not a cloud in the sky, there were a good few clouds below us – and this plus a dramatic alpenglow (Andes-glow?) display on the great bulk of Rincon justified our efforts to get out and greet the dawn. For a brief moment we were bathed in glorious orange then golden light. Inspired, Jon proposed that we delay breakfast and go climb Adolfo Calle now – a mere 200m higher than our elevation at Cancha and a little more than Stepanek. After a brief discussion we agreed we’d at least get a coffee – but would delay the planned porridge course until our return.
Setting out to nip up Adolfo Calle before breakfast
Looking back at just visible tent and Co Colorado 5100m in background
Thus it came to be that bathed in glorious early morning light and (after such a noisy night) in total quiet, we trudged up the screes to the delightful airy little summit of Adolfo Calle 4269m – or 14,002ft. We took it in turns to shoot GoPro footage of each other on the way – before an orgy of photography ensured on the summit, using all three of our cameras. From far down below at Piedra Grande we remembered that Calle was a spectacular mountain, reminiscent of the precipitous sentinel of the glen, Buachaille Etive Mor – arguably the most spectacular mountain we knew back in Scotland. At the summit now, we got to appreciate the correspondingly precipitous view into dizzying depths far below. We took some ordinary camera photos from as close to the edge as we dared – and I shot some GoPro footage with the little action-cam held out over the void. And of course there was a new, less foreshortened and rather fantastic view of tomorrow’s objective; Lady Rincon in all her majesty. Jon had a few concerns about route finding on the lower part of the mountain, finding a way in pre-dawn darkness around and through all the buttresses and crags on what had looked like very steep and loose terrain. There was no visible sign of a trail – clearly very few climbed Rincon from here. But from this aspect the lower slopes looked less forbidding – and having summited on Calle so early (around 8.30am) we had all the rest of the day to explore those slopes, maybe building a few cairns - and without over-exerting ourselves before what we knew was going to be a very tough day.
On the summit of Co Adolfo Calle 4269m by Jon
On the summit of Co Adolfo Calle looking at next days route on Rincon
Panorama view from summit of Adolfo Calle looking towards the big 3 - by Jon
Back down at camp we sat in the sun and had another drink as well as our delayed porridge. A little later we had visitors! Who should arrive but Team France: Yann, Delphine and Mathilde. Once again they positively glowed with energy and health. We had suggested they came up here to climb Calle and Stepanek, which were manageable in trainers. They had just skipped up Calle – all the way from their camp at Veguitas nearly 1200m below. They now wanted to climb as high as they could on Rincon – but knowing that in training shoes they couldn’t go all the way. We discussed what Jon and I knew of the route, which was partly visible up as far as a sort of a summit at around 4800m – which they were pleased to note was the height of Mont Blanc. This looked possible in trainers – although some steep scree would need care to avoid turning an ankle. We pointed out that there was at least the same again, out of sight between that prominence and the summit block just peeping over from beyond. We knew that this contained the hardest and steepest sections of the climb, on snow, which certainly could not be climbed in trainers – and would require use of proper boots, crampons and ice-axe.
Our new friends set off at high speed – reaffirming their fitness. The three of them going up there was good news from our perspective since they would augment what little there was of a trail - which we could augment still further for however far we went. Jon and I didn’t plan on going all the way up to 4800m today. We continued to watch the youngsters pick their way up the slopes above. Nothing seemed to be slowing them down. They went straight up the slopes beside the ‘yellow’ waterfall and then (as we would have expected) angled to the right above the waterfall…
We soon followed and climbed up to about 4400m. The route was fairly steep and weaved about a bit, but following scanty bits of scanty track in the screes there was now almost a trail and we tramped up it, occasionally adding a cairn so that we would easily find the way in darkness next morning.
Looking down from the high point (at 4400m) of our recce of lower slopes of Rincon
“I’m not worried about route finding anymore” Jon said up at our high point “I feel good about tomorrow now” And the weather signs were now excellent. The wind had dropped off completely and there was still not a cloud in the sky – other than a few scanty ones lost in an anticyclonic looking haze layer far below. And the altimeter would later confirm that the pressure was rising again.
We found a level area and decided to lay in the sun watching our new friends, who had made such good progress that they were now mere dots high up on the skyline and close to the top of their 4800m ‘summit’. They reached it, paused as if to admire the view – and then disappeared behind out of sight (where they later told us they had a lay down in the sun). They took a very long time to reappear – and Jon was getting worried that they had carried on to try to climb Rincon – but an hour or so later they reappeared on the skyline again, moving quickly. I took some photos of them at their high point. They disappeared from view again and I settled into what I thought was going to be another fairly long wait, since they were a very long way away…
Delphine, Yann & Mathilde running down...
...before joining us at our 4400m resting place
After what seemed like little more than ten minutes a figure appeared just 200 meters away – and another – and another… I sat up abruptly to confirm what I was seeing – how on earth had they come down so fast? But they were running at the most extraordinary speed down the rocky slopes. Delphine was easily in the lead with the others 20-30 meters behind, but they were nevertheless all three moving extremely fast. With beaming movie star smiles flashing in the sun they were soon with us – and barely out of breath. I was impressed. There clearly had to be something to their extraordinary fitness and I quizzed Yann… who confirmed my suspicions, at least as far as the ladies were concerned: Delphine was a marathon runner of national significance back in France – and Mathilde was a runner of ‘ultra-marathons’ – who unlike Delphine was not that fast according to Yann as he explained in accented but perfect English “but she can just keep on going for ever!” He had no particular explanation for his own extraordinary fitness in being able to keep up with the pair of them.
Team France on top of Stepanek... ...and Jon's telephoto view showing Yann, Mathilde and Delphine
Presently they set off down. We soon followed – but didn’t even think of trying to keep up with them. Back down at our tent we found that they had left us a : ) made of rocks – and were already making short work of Stepanek, despite already having climbed around 2000m since leaving their camp that morning. They bounded up the summit rocks like mountain goats and were soon waving at us from the top. We took some photos. And then they were off down – bounding down the screes again at high speed. I tried to video them using my DSLR – but sadly the footage didn’t come out too blurred to use. They disappeared from sight and we thought that was the last we would see of them…
Jon and I were alone again in our little cwm. There was still no wind and nothing left to do now than have our meal. With it being calm we stayed by the tent.
Day 4: Rincon Summit
Me in the tent getting ready to leave, pre-dawn glow on horizon in background - photo taken around 6am on 14th February by Jon
Although calm when we went to bed the winds rose again during the night and gave the tent another noisy battering. But all was tranquil again by 5am when Jon’s alarm went off. We brewed by torchlight and emerged to find that the horizon was already glowing although the sun wasn’t due to rise for another hour. It was colder than we had experienced thus far – around minus 5°C according to my little thermometer. The muddy ground was frozen hard.
We set off at 6.20am – 20 minutes later than planned. Although we had our headtorches lit, light from the glowing horizon soon started penetrating the darkness and we turned them off after only about half an hour on the move. This put us at around the top of the waterfall - now frozen and still. By the time we had completed the rising traverse and were ascending a narrow snow patch where we had kicked steps the day before, the daily dose of Alpenglow caught up with us. Everything around us turned orange. My GoPro was mounted on my chest and I depressed the little button to record first of a little series of surreal sunrise clips. We had observed the Alpenglow display from afar - now we were actually in
The narrow snow patch where we had kicked steps the day before
The narrow snow patch where we had kicked steps the day before
Sunrise at around 4500m
Soon after sunrise
We reached the place where we had waited for the French team the day before, about 400m above our camp. We were now bathed in the golden light of the newly risen sun and the vista around us was staggering. After a brief pause to admire we cast off up the same wide stony slopes we had seen Team France running down. The angle was at around 25° and the terrain easy enough to step into plod mode - and find a good rhythm to be able to cope with the thinning air. After around an hour we reached the glorious crest of the ridge at around 4600m – as high as Monte Rosa in Switzerland – one of my favourite alpine mountains. Craggy slopes plunged into dizzying depths below – and down and across the void there were the coloured dots indicating Campo Salto – where we expected to be in less than a week. And far away, but towering over everything, were the twin peaks of Lady Plata…
"Yandeltildhe Peak" - climbed by Team France: Yann, Delphine and Mathilde the day before - by Jon
A delightful rocky crest now rose up to the ‘French’ summit – which indeed was a summit as seen from this angle. And there beyond, the crest curved around exposing a previously unseen bit of ridge rising up to an impossibly huge looking Rincon – the mountain we had come to climb! As we approached, the ‘French’ summit metamorphosed from a rounded hump to a magnificent spire – worthy of a name. As we paused to take more photos I had a thought: “You know Jon, if they bother to give Stepanek a name then I think our friend’s summit deserves a name…”
“Yes you’re right – we should think of something…”
“Well – how about YanDelThilde
?” I had the inspiration of combining their three names together.
On the crest of the ridge - view of Vallecitos, Rincon and "Yandeltildhe Peak" by Jon
And so the peak of Yandelthilde came to be – about 4800m high, so approximately as high as the highest mountain in the threesome’s native France. Presently we were engaged with the pleasant rocky scramble up to the top of Yandelthilde Peak. A small rocky platform with a breath-taking void below formed the highest point. A less airy platform just below the ridge crest would have been the place where our friends said they had laid down in the sun – and we decided we also deserved a break here. Albeit a short break. Beyond our eerie the rocky ridge crest stretched and undulated off into the distance – before rising up to the summit bastion of Rincon. We still had a very long way to go – and the altitude would be biting progressively harder as we went.
Sorry to say Yandelthilde Peak is not so imposing from the other side – where we now had to go. A small scramble descent confirmed that there was a mere 20m of prominence from the ridge crest on the far side.
The ridge now curved around leftwards from this point, exposing a lengthy section hither to unseen. High up on a pinnacled part we observed two tiny figures slowly working their way along. We assumed they had scrambled up the more usual route to the crest of the ridge from Campo Salto – joining it at a similar place to where we had in our climb up from Cancha Camp, on the other side. Knowing it was the ‘normal’ route we had studied it briefly earlier – and decided it looked a much less pleasant route to the one we had taken. It clearly crossed a complex rubble strewn glacier before climbing a mix of steep and loose looking scree and insubstantial snow. The two figures looked to be near the end of the rocky section of ridge and about to disappear from sight – to where we knew the snow started – and the crux of the climb, a steep snow gulley splitting the rocky summit bastion. We assumed they would be long gone by the time we got up there. But we would be seeing them sooner than we had thought…
On east ridge of Rincon beyond Yandeltildhe Peak...
...and looking back over Yandeltildhe Peak in direction of Mendoza
The next section of ridge was even more of a delight. It narrowed and a series of little rock steps meant some scrambling was needed. Interestingly the colour and texture of the rocks we were climbing kept changing: there were sections of brown, grey – and one of an extraordinarily vivid yellow (which we presumed to be sulfurous). At around 4900m the ridge broadened into a boulder strewn plateau, at the far end of which was a brief descent down to a snow covered glacier. This was horizontal for a bit, before then rising and narrowing into the couloir/gulley we had seen from far below. The gulley looked steep – and it was split into two halves by a narrow rocky rognan rising up just right of centre. It looked manageable – with crampons and ice-axe. But now, exposed to the full force of the sun, I worried how treacherous it could become with the snow softening over the several hours before we could expect to be descending it – after the summit…
We wondered about the two figures we had seen – expecting to have observed them high up in the gulley. But no – there were right there in front of us and just about 25m below on a small col at the start of the glacier. Clearly they had stopped for a prolonged rest but now, as we approached, they were fastening on crampons and preparing to start moving again. We reached the pair. They were both Argentinian: an older green-jacked man in his late thirties (we would later find out he celebrated his 39th birthday next day) and a much younger man in his early twenties. The younger man looked very tired. Nevertheless they soon set off – and started slowly plodding up the increasingly steep snow slope leading up to the couloir.
Aware we had now reached the toughest part of the climb we also awarded ourselves a substantial rest stop – supplemented by energy bars and goo (those foil sachets of energy enriched slime – which to my surprise had found actually did top up the reserves for a bit as well as helping a high altitude cough, when I was on Aconcagua). We strapped on our crampons. Every so often we looked up to see how our new found friends were doing… and as the gradient steepened they were visibly slowing… in fact they had now lapsed into what I came to call The High Altitude Boogie – that slow languid amble punctuated by frequent intervals of standing still. I remembered this well from Aconcagua summit day five years before. With us being about to crack the 5000m barrier for the first time, I fully expected to be doing the same myself shortly…
I did do the same myself shortly. On the easier gradient of the lower slopes I could just about keep plodding without stopping, but as the angle increased up towards 45° I found myself struggling. I didn’t feel ill and had none of the headache or nausea which would signify poor acclimatisation. I just felt very short of breath and incredibly sleepy – and I couldn’t manage to do much more than about 20 steps before having to stop and pant. Jon on the other hand seemed to be doing a little better and he very nobly took the lead all the way up the couloir.
With the two Argentinians at start of climb up towards the couloir...
...and climbing slopes just below the couloir - by Jon
I noticed that the snow surface was a very different texture to how it would have been in the European Alps. It was peculiarly ‘cobbled’ – and the nearest I can get to a comparison would be to say it was like a snow-field of miniature moguls (for those who ski). I suspect it was on the way to becoming a field of Nieve Penitentes: those uniquely Andean serried ranks of snow fins and spikes which ultimately can end up being a meter or two tall – and very hard to get through when fully developed. In this snow field the stage of development was early so the surface was merely cobbled – making for easier crampon placement most of the time – but sometimes leading to steps collapsing so we had to be a little bit careful with such a steep gradient. I reflected again that we would have to be even more careful coming down when it was all softer due to the effects of the sun. We didn’t have a rope…
We reached the rocky rognan dividing the gulley. The two Argentinians seemed to have taken different paths here. One – green jacket - had gone left, which also seemed to us to be the best course. This was the older man. His younger companion, who seemed to be finding things hardest of the pair, went to the right where it was narrower and a little bit steeper. Unknown to us at the time he didn’t go very much further and turned back. From the rocky rognan onwards we could only see green jacket toiling upwards when we could see far enough ahead.
We reached the top of the gulley and stepped sideways onto a level shaley area on the shoulder of Rincon, to have a well-earned rest. I estimated our altitude to be between 5100 – 5200m. We would thus have 150-200m of ascent still to do – and on easy angled slopes now. Jon sat in front of me looking out at the expanded vista below.
“What do you think Sir?” I asked the back of his buff-shrouded head.
“I think we are going to make it!” I heard him say softly, before turning to face me and saying with much greater emphasis “I THINK WE ARE GOING TO MAKE IT!”
I was filming him at the time and panned the camera to point up the endless albeit easy angled snow slopes above.
“Let’s have a look… hmmm I have to say it still looks painfully uphill
to me!” And he laughed.
Above the couloir - and where we rested...
...and on final interminable snow field even further above - by Jon
It was painfully uphill. After our brief rest we set off up the great broad whale back snow ridge we had looked up at and studied many times from below. The visible limit of the great white expanse seemed an impossible distance ahead – and we knew from this study that the top had to be a number of false summits beyond. I gritted my teeth and got on with the hard labour of plodding uphill in very thin air. Jon had broken trail all the way up the couloir and deserved a break – so I had taken point as we set out on this next and (we hoped) final section up to the top. But I couldn’t get a comfortable pace. I was resorting to the stop start routine of the High Altitude Boogie, albeit I could manage quite a few paces between the stops – at which I was forced into leaning panting and exhausted on my walking poles. I took to counting my steps. I could manage about 30 slow but continuous steps relatively easily before my thinking started to become crowded with powerfully seductive thoughts of stopping. I could then resist for another 20. But beyond 20 I was fighting a losing battle. In this way I mostly managed distances of around 60 steps. Once I triumphantly managed 80. But that was immediately followed by a 50…
Despite the snail’s pace a new horizon came into view. The bad news was that it was even further away than the previous one. The good news was that the gradient was less. I tried to be invigorated by this knowledge as I teetered at the limits of my will-power at somewhere between 60 and 70 steps, in the latest series. A further welcome distraction was that green jacket was now in sight again. He was still a long way off – but somehow, against all odds, we seemed to be gaining on him. Subsequently we would find out that he had taken barely enough time to acclimatise to go this high. A strong fit man of (nearly) 39, had he spent as much time acclimatising as we had, we wouldn’t have seen him for snow dust – given the difference between his age and ours (I was 55 and Jon 53). But I tried not to dwell on this thought and sought to focus on believing that we were somehow going incredibly fast to be catching him up.
Perhaps half way up the shining white curtain Jon took the lead again. It wasn’t that the snow required much additional effort to trail break, but he seemed better able to select a pace which didn’t lead to the constant stopping. Gratefully I fell in behind – and was able to stop counting steps. We reached the top end of the endless snow slope.
Now we were apparently on a wide rocky plateau hundreds of meters across with a few snow patches and bouldery humps. One of the humps we were seeing could be the summit. But which one? In the meantime there was a distraction. A few steps to the right took us to the edge of the ridge, where it dropped away into infinite depths – and where there was a new view. We walked across to see – and there completely dominating the horizon and towering far above anything else, stood Lady Aconcagua, Queen of the Andes. Hard to believe I had stood on top of her five years before…
The new horizon - with distant Aconcagua. Rincon summit off picture to left - a little distance away but not much higher... by Jon
Turning back to our objective we found that green jacket was now just a mere 100 meters in front. He was going slowly but very determinedly. I was vaguely puzzled by the fact that we couldn’t see his companion and had still not clocked that he had turned back hours ago, not even half way up the couloir. Now walking almost horizontally we continued to gain on green jacket. Although mostly on rock now we had left our crampons on – not least since we still had to surmount odd rises and little crests on snow (but also because it was too much effort to take them off). I noticed green jacket had done the same. By and by we caught up with him and engaged him in breathless conversation…
His name was Pablo and he had driven across to the range from Buenos Aires, where he worked as a Vet specialising in cardiology. He had met his companion at Campo Salto and the pair had made a loose arrangement to climb Rincon together. Neither had very much acclimatisation – just a couple of nights up to and including a night at Campo Salto at 4282m. Pablo was with a larger party of friends but as the only experienced climber had been the only member of his party to attempt Rincon. He went on to say he also had further designs on Rincon for the future, in that he planned to come back in the winter to climb the very serious route known as The Supercanaleta
– which is unsafe to climb in the summer due to stone-fall, but is manageable in the winter when everything is more frozen into place.
We carried on our languid wandering across the summit plateau, Jon still at point and Pablo and me following. After traversing a couple more humps we found ourselves faced with another, which looked a little higher – and surely the summit. But we couldn’t see a summit cross – which we knew should be visible. As we ambled up the stony hump it metamorphosed into a ridge – and what looked like a final point with nothing but deep blue sky beyond. Surely now…
Jon reached that final point. Something in his movements indicated excitement – and I heard him shout something at the same time as bending down to pick something up that was on the ground. He straightened and turned round holding aloft… the summit cross! It had been blown over and that was why we couldn’t see it. Pablo increased his pace and soon the pair of them were embraced in a clumsy man-hug, into which I also became entangled…
The time was 2.15pm. Having set off at 6.20am meant that we had taken just under 8 hours to reach our goal.
In the excitement of reaching the summit all boundaries between us vanished. The thin air reverberated with compliments and superlatives in English and Spanish as we shared this precious and never to be forgotten moment at 17,600ft/5364m. For the rest of our lives Jon, Pablo and I would share a special bond dating back to this brief instant of time. As a summit day among many other summit days this was outstanding.
“This is the best!” said Jon – and I could only agree with him – whether he meant on this trip or of all the summits he/we had climbed over many years. It mattered not that our immediate neighbor (Vallecitos) was nearly 100m higher, nor that Cerro Plata just over there was 600m higher. Our lofty little platform in the sky was well above all other of the surrounding summits. The four thousanders we had climbed were miles below. As for the three thousanders, it was as if we were seeing them from an aeroplane. Campo Cancha was reduced to a tiny postage stamp of pale colour way down there and our tent, which should be in full view, was not even visible as a dot. Campo Salto, nearer and higher than our camp – and where Pablo had come from – we could see; as a tiny cluster of brightly coloured dots against the dark moraines far below. Pablo looked down there to trace the route he had followed to cross the infernal boulder strewn humps of the big glacier early that morning. Jon and I looked down there in the knowledge that we planned to be there on Wednesday – just three days hence. And we traced the route we subsequently planned to follow… all the way up to the shining spires of Pico and Cerro Plata – where we hoped to be seven days hence…
Jon recorded in his diary: “We had excellent views of Aconcagua dominating the skyline to the West; the 2 summits of Plata, Vallecitos and Lomas Amarillas to the South; the Mercedario group to the North and to the East the foothills hiding most of Mendoza with the long flat plain stretching out to the cumulonimbus over towards Buenos Aires”
Jon's summit panorama 2.30pm 14th February: on far left Cerro Plata and in far right back ground Aconcagua and then the Mercedario group
Summit view looking down the way we had come up
Summit view looking towards the two Plata peaks - our next objective
After about an hour it was time to leave our little platform in the Sky. We took a last searching look at the wonderful and hard earned panorama around us and cast off down and across the plateau just below the top. A few minutes of plodding brought us to the top of the big snow-field. Taking larger sliding strides our speed picked up even more as we descended the now softer snow surface. We soon reached the top of the couloir – and now it was time to stow our poles and break out the ice-axes – and slow down. With the gradient quickly reaching 45° and, as anticipated, with the cobbled surface also softened by the sun, care was needed to avoid a slip. In theory there was a run out at the bottom, but at such an angle a falling body would pick up a lot of speed very quickly – and most likely bounce off the hard rocks either side of the gulley before shooting out on to the run out. I very nearly put this to the test when an incipient penitente suddenly gave way under my left boot – and I slipped - and just as immediately started falling. I had my axe held correctly in my left and uphill hand – and for the first time in a nearly 40 year climbing career had to do real fall-arrest (as opposed to practicing or playing around). The years of training paid off and I stopped after sliding little more than a meter. But I was left feeling shocked at how easily it had happened – and how much more difficult it would have been to stop if I had fallen even just a little bit further.
We emerged from the bottom of the gulley and the angle started to ease. At some point we all turned face out and took pleasure in being able to almost glissade down the remaining 100m or so of descent. We paused at the little col – where we had first met just a few hours before. We noted that Pablo’s companions back pack, left here for the final climb, was no longer there – further confirmation of his having turned back and descended. We removed crampons, put ice-axes away and got out our poles again. Jon and I had another 850m descent and a lot of distance to go to return to our camp – but on easy ground. Pablo had just over 600m and less distance – but half of it on very loose and unpleasant terrain. But first there was an unwelcome 25m climb up to the rocky dome at the near end of the ridge – before descending the long variably coloured curving spine – all the way back down to Yandelthilde Peak (the one we had named after our French friends). We parted company about 150m below – Pablo to go over the right side of the crest to Salto and we to turn left down the easier ground leading to Cancha. But it was not good-bye. We would be seeing Pablo again next day. It transpired that he as well as we planned to return to the Refugio, which just happened to be the day of his 39th birthday. He planned to throw a party with the friends waiting for him down at Campo Salto – and now we were invited!
On the descent - above the couloir
On the descent - below the couloir
Jon and I reached our tent soon after 6pm – and some 12 hours after leaving it. It had taken us 3 hours to descend from the summit. We were pleased to find the tent still in sunlight as we arrived. We were tired but not exhausted – and still glowing with both the success and sheer quality of the day. We both agreed that if the weather turned bad and it ended up being impossible to climb another summit, that this day had been good enough to make the trip a success and worth all the effort.
As we had expected neither of us was overly hungry. We were needing liquid however and so large mugs of soup followed by hot chocolate went down rather better than a freeze dried meal.
Jon back down at the tent...
...and packed up ready to leave next morning
Day 5: Descent
I wrote in my diary “Up with the sun about 7.30am – still glowing with the success of the day before. Leisurely coffee and breakfast – then packing up camp – and starting the journey back down to the Refugio at around 10.30.”
From the perfection of the weather the previous day it was going to be one of those days where low clouds bubbled up and obscured views early on – as we had experienced on the 3 thousanders and San Barnardo. Occasional breaks in the cloud suggested that the higher summits would still be above it all. Nevertheless we were in fairly thick mist as we reached the top of the dangerous scree slope – which we had negotiated on the way up three days before.
Although we couldn’t see very clearly in the mist we remembered that the worst section of the scree slope was split by a rocky spur. We had followed an Argentinian party up the western side, which seemed to look the most logical ascent route – albeit significantly threatened by rock fall. We had noted that the eastern side looked safer from the point of rock fall – and was composed of more uniform scree – but murderous to try to ascend since the scree was steep and fine and liable to slide with every foot step.
Descending the screes and emerging below the clouds...
...and back down on the flat and about to cross the valley and river
Looking down, the main trail (that we had ascended) disappeared into the mist down to the right. A fainter trail angled across and down to the left – where we now proposed to go. We decided to give it a go – prepared to come back up if there were any hidden surprises. So we set off to the left. The trail such as it was continued angling off along the top of the slope for a hundred meters or so – and then descended straight down into the fog below. Gingerly we followed. It was very steep – and there were a couple of places where we had to be very careful, placing feet and poles as securely as possible on a surface composed of hard mud lubricated with ball-bearing like pebbles. But this soon gave way to looser and fine grade scree – which we could descend fast – and even begin to run. This soon vindicated our decision to come this way and we bounded down the slope taking great sliding leaps.
We emerged from under the clouds about 100m from the bottom. There before us was green again, on the flats around Piedra Grande. Soon we were down there on lovely easy ground, striding towards the river – to where we hoped to find a lower crossing than we had used before – below and by-passing Piedra Grande.
We found a reasonable river crossing quite easily and climbed over moraine to re-join the main trail at the ‘Floral Valley’ – the little ablation valley between old lateral moraine and the screes plunging down from Cerro Franke. The clouds backed off a bit and the day became intermittently sunny again. We could now also see all the way back up to the top of the steep slopes we had just descended.
Soon we were striding across the lush green flats of Las Veguitas to the accompaniment of the musical ambiance of the river that wound its way across. At 12.45 and some two and a quarter hours after leaving Campo Cancha we arrived at the Refugio. The Rincon expedition was now in the past – cherished memories and images in our cameras. We now had a full day and two nights to ready ourselves for the next one: to the two Plata summits – and maybe Vallecitos…
The first people to welcome us back to the Refugio were Vivi, Ali – and Mr Indio, tail characteristically going like the clappers. But then who should appear but Team France – Yann, Delphine and Mathilde looking tanned and glowing with even greater vigour than before! They had made a special trip to see us and we were delighted to see them. They congratulated us on climbing Rincon – which only a lack of appropriate footwear and equipment had prevented them from doing. Wearing just their trainers they had claimed the worthy consolation prize of Cerro Franke – 4808m, the same height as the highest mountain in their own country. And then they had run all the way down over 1000m of steep scree all the way from the summit to Piedra Grande. Having seen them in action two days before we could well imagine…
We told them how we had named the Rincon satellite peak they had climbed after them.
But now a sad moment for Yann. The two girls were going back home to France, leaving him on his own. They headed off along the road laden under heavy packs. Yann went with them a little way to say a private goodbye – and then returned glum faced. We chatted for a while – and then he set off himself – but back up to his tent at Las Veguitas. He planned to make an attempt on Pico Vallecitos – or as far as he could go just wearing trainers. Given very good weather this could just have been possible since this was a route with very little snow. However, Pico Vallecitos was very nearly 5500m high and with potential for extreme cold as well as strong winds. We wished him good luck – and expected we would be seeing him again at some point.
Alone again Jon and I luxuriated in a fine lunch of Chorizo Sausage and Lentils courtesy of Vivi followed by showers and a change of clothing. We decided that all the organising for the next and final expedition could wait until next day. And then who should appear but Pablo – our friend from Rincon summit – and we remembered to bid him a Happy Birthday. There were more handshakes and man-hugs and reminiscences of the fabulous experiences of just the day before. Now he was with a big party of his friends – several men and a charming and lovely lady called Caro – who had a PhD in biosciences – and whose language skills were such that she could simultaneously translate the Spanish of her non English speaking compatriots and vice versa. Pablo and a couple of the men set off in a 4x4 and made a two hour round trip down to the nearest shops and bought a load of meat back for the promised birthday party.
Back at the Refugio - Vivi serves us a lunch of chorizo and lentils...
...and later, Pablo's (in green) 39th birthday party BBQ
Later that evening Pablo presided over a BBQ in the fireplace inside the Refugio – and we were treated to platefuls of carnivore heaven – such a welcome change after several days of freeze dried sludge. The wine flowed – but nobody seemed to get drunk. Nevertheless it was a merry evening which went on until people started collapsing at around 2am. I was so tired by then that I was to have my best night’s sleep of the entire trip!
We surfaced at around 9am on 16th February to find Pablo and Co doing the same. Jon and I exchanged e-mail addresses with Pablo and the lovely Caro – with the promise that we would exchange photos, we would send the link to the trip movie when finished and that we would generally keep in touch.
In due course all our new friends bundled themselves into two large vehicles and headed off down. The Refugio was now down to just two guests – Jon and me.
We spent much of the rest of the day packing for the big one – for which we intended to start next morning. With further to go and more to carry we would be using the services of a mule this time. So we packed the majority of everything into our two large kit bags. This did not reach the normal 60kg for a mule load and so, anticipating the risky water up at Campo Salto, we filled all our water containers with water from the Refugio and packed that, to increase the weight to closer to our allowance. For ourselves we packed light day sacks – with little more than a single water bottle each, our cameras and a treat for lunch that we had as a final luxury before going back to the drab diet of freeze dried expedition meals.
A little lonely now that the girls had gone, Yann came down to say hello from his camp up at Veguitas. He passed an hour or so with us. He somehow managed to carry a laptop in his back pack and so was able to show us photos of the sailing expedition he had been on with Mathilde – when they had crossed the Atlantic, from France to South America. They followed this with some impressive travelling on land before they were joined by Delphine and came across to the Andes – and here. Later he set off back up the hill and we agreed we would look out for each other at Campo Salto or above.
The greatest challenge of the day was sorting out finances with Ali. We had to pay for all our nights thus far at the Refugio, meals and drinks etc – but also Ali was going to pay the Ario (Mulateer) on our behalf. And just to make things more complex we had to pay in a mixture of dollars and pesos… with our very limited Spanish and Ali speaking no English this process took some time – but we got there in the end. I had spent quite a few hours studying Spanish before this trip – but had not managed to reach the level of advancement to be able to cope with discussing dates and complex money transactions.
Pablo and friends with Vivi and Ali at Refugio on 16th February...
...and later on Jon helping Ali to do a bit of painting
For me the next largest challenge was to repair a slow leak in my thermorest sleeping mat. Up at Campo Cancha this had been very annoying. With higher and colder nights to come it was important that I got this sorted out. With a bit of fiddling about I managed to locate the leak by immersing my sleeping mat a bit at a time in water in one of the shower trays – with the plug hole blocked up. The thermorest repair kit did the rest. With packing done, diary written up and nothing to repair Jon found himself at a loose end. Ali meantime was at work outside re-painting the woodwork of the Refugio. Being a bit of a DIY buff Jon couldn’t resist – and was soon at work alongside Ali, paint brush in hand.
We had a quiet evening at the Refugio, which seemed very empty with just two of us. Both of us talked to our wives on this infernal thing called facetime (unpopular with my wife who is put off by simultaneously being able to see herself with a nose the size of a pumpkin – and with the limited reception each other constantly breaking up into pixels and disappearing) – but nothing else worked: no mobile reception and despite facetime sort of working, no e-mail…
Day 1: To Salto
On morning of departure we were already packed so it was just a matter of getting up, having breakfast, doing our teeth – and awaiting the Ario with his mulas. I was aware that five years ago to the day was my summit day on Aconcagua. I hoped this was a good omen. Jon (heeding the teaching of my friend the prophet Zak) thought we probably also needed another Guanacos sighting just to make sure…
The Ario arrived promptly at 8.30am steering a little convoy of three mulas. One of them already had a full load and with little by way of greeting the man got stuck straight into the business of securing our two kit bags to an un-laden beast – tying them one either side of a sort of frame work sticking up like a kind of dorsal fin. Jon wanted to know why mules and not horses… and having asked the same question of my wife I had an answer:
“I think they are tougher… and can manage much rougher terrain – according to Leila”
The Ario and his Mulas arrive...
Securing our two kit bags - blue and black
All secure the Ario wasted no time in hastening away – himself riding the other un-laden beast up at the front. ‘Our’ mule with Jon’s black and my blue kit bag was at the rear – and stumbled briefly as the convoy launched itself at the grassy slopes above the Refugio. After a bit of a wobble he/she/it seemed to recover and in no time all were hurtling upwards at a speed Jon and I couldn’t hope to match – despite being fairly fit and well acclimatised now.
Jon with Ali and Vivi just before we set off...
...and setting off with a light pack to walk 10km and climb 1500m
We picked up our light back packs and said farewell again to Ali and Vivi (sadly we didn’t get to say goodbye to Indio – but then we wouldn’t have wanted him to try to follow us off up Plata). Then we strode off in pursuit of the mulas – already long out of sight. We were going to walk all the way to Campo Salto in one, bypassing both the intermediate camps. Well acclimatised now, there was no need for us to break the ascent with a night at Veguitas or Piedra Grande (or both). So we had some 10km of distance to do plus 1500m/5000ft of ascent. Part of me had resigned myself to this being a long hard laborious day. But I had failed to take into account our increased fitness and the wonderful process of acclimatisation. We didn’t quite go at mulas speeds, but we certainly rocketed up at a fair rate by our own standards – and loved every minute of it. We barely noticed passing Veguitas for the third time and passed through the Floral Valley with hardly a break in stride – apart from to appreciate yet another Guanacos encounter – this time not so close and there were about fifteen of them this time.
Passing through Las Veguitas for the third time
Cerro Rincon 5364m and Yandeltildhe Peak from above Piedra Grande
We passed through Piedra Grande for the second time and launched off onto increasingly stony slopes as scanty grass gave way to bare open moraine.
After being on the go about three hours we stopped for a rather special lunch at a pleasant spot close by a stream. Zak – that wise man of the mountains - and the friend I made descending from Aconcagua in 2011, had introduced me to the culinary delights of Smoked Oysters with Rye Bread – and we set about the first of two such repasts – the second having been (by then) deposited with one of the kit-bags up at Campo Salto. We could presume the arrival of our kit up at Salto since after a few moments the now un-laden mulas convoy plus Ario came thundering past down the trail. We shouted “Muchas Gracias!” above the roar of the stream and clattering of hooves on stone – and the Ario gave a cheery wave, but didn’t even slow as the he and the beasts hurtled back down the valley.
For lunch a treat today...
...of Smoked Oysters with Rye Bread (with thanks to Zak, Aconcagua 2011)
The Mulas approaching our lunch spot
We continued on our journey, winding our way around moraine humps, with the spectacular back drop of Lady Rincon towering overhead and expanding into the back ground as we inched nearer. We turned a bend in the valley and for the first time could see a big buttress split by a waterfall. We knew the Campo Salto was perched on top – close to the edge. There was only another 300m to climb – somehow 1200m of ascent had passed with us barely being aware of it. It was wonderful to feel fit. In my exuberance I plugged in my iPod and tuned in to my current favourite playlist – and positively floated up the trail, now rising steeply up a long ridge of old lateral moraine. Jon was similarly exuberant – but didn’t go for the enhancement of music.
Views from the trail - Cerro Rincon 5364m...
...and Cerro Vallecitos 5461m and Cerro Rincon 5364m
About 150m below our destination the wind began to pick up, reminding us that Campo Salto and the next camp at La Hoyada both had a reputation for being battered by fierce winds. Wind roar competed with the noise from the waterfall as we scrambled up a further steepening in the trail which now climbed up the right edge of the buttress.
We arrived at Campo Salto 4282m/14,045ft at about 3pm – having taken just 5 ½ hours from the Refugio. We hadn’t made a conscious effort to hurry and had taken a substantial break at lunchtime and we were pleased with our time. We knew we were acclimatised enough to climb Plata now – and were more acclimatised than most attempting the mountain. The initial game plan had included doing Pico Vallecitos first – but we were already acknowledging that if conditions were favourable we’d go straight for Plata. If successful it would be unlikely we’d go for this lesser prize afterwards. It was slightly off-putting that Pico Vallecitos was not the highest point of the mountain – that being Cerro Vallecitos which is 20m higher – and very close, but so difficult and dangerous to reach that virtually all settled for the lesser summit.
The final ascent to Salto by Jon
Campo Salto at 4282m by Jon
We found our two bags. Bless the Ario and his mulas for delivering them! Next we needed a suitable pitch for the tent. In deference to the high winds here there were a number of pitches enclosed in rough little circles of improvised dry stone wall. However, most of them were occupied. Of the three or so that weren’t not one was large enough to accommodate our tent. No matter – this was Campo Salto Inferior. We needed to move on and up - and find Campo Salto Superior.
Campo Salto Superior was about 30m higher up and 250 meters away. There were about three particularly impressive looking pitches – all empty. We picked the most impressive of all whose stone walls were nearly as tall as we were – and clearly could resist whatever was thrown at us in terms of wind. And it was large enough for the tent – with no modification needed. The stream – said to be cleaner than at the level of Inferior – was just about 15m away. We relayed all our baggage up in two trips.
At Salto Superior looking down on Salto Inferior...
...and inside fortification talking to Yann
Just before we started to put the tent up we had a visitor: Yann, the sole remaining member of Team France, came striding by laden by a very heavy pack. He had made an all-out effort to climb Pico Vallecitos – in his trainers. Having camped up at La Hoyada he had climbed the screes leading up to the Portezuelo Vallecitos at over 5200m. But it had been bitterly cold at that height as well as extremely windy. He had frozen his fingers as well as his toes. Undoubtedly he could easily have climbed the remaining 250m to the top of Pico Vallecitos – but he’d probably have suffered some frostbite. So, keen to keep all his fingers and toes, he had descended. He was a little disappointed – but nevertheless very pleased to have got high enough to have seen Aconcagua – which he hoped to come back and climb next year (when he planned to be better equipped to go high – not least in terms of having appropriate footwear!). We had exchanged e-mail addresses and I promised Yann I would send him details of the route I had followed on Aconcagua in 2011. We bade Yann farewell – and asked him to send our very best wishes to the girls back in France.
Panorama shot at Campo Salto Superior - Yandeltildhe Peak 4800m and the very top of Adolfo Calle 4269m are visible - by Jon
We spent the next hour or so making as good a job as we could pitching the tent and establishing a comfortable cooking area. After all Salto Superior was going to be home for the next two nights. We had a leisurely meal – the usual routine of cuppa-soup, freeze dried meal and followed by hot chocolate. Up at over 4300m (14,100ft) it was noticeably colder than at Campo Cancha at 4050m (13,284ft). When the sun went down we reached for our duvet jackets – but sat on in companionable diary writing silence for an hour or so before turning in.
Tornado proof fortified tent pitch at Campo Salto Superior
Jon enjoys a mug of soup inside the fortification
Day 2: High camp recce.
Dawn panorama at Campo Salto Superior - by Jon
We were out before dawn intent on catching the morning dose of alpenglow on the east faces of Vallecitos and Rincon, which were right up close to us at this camp. Bang on time at 7.15am the extraordinary and rapid display of orange to gold kissed the top of the two peaks – and then flowed in a great flood of colour to envelope us in a matter of moments. I had discovered the ‘time-lapse’ function on my GoPro and managed to make a fair capture of the display for the movie. It was all over long before 7.30am – and then it was daytime again, with the sun well up in the sky, albeit still shedding somewhat golden rays in deference to the low angle.
Alpenglow on Pico Plata 5827m...
...and spreading to Cerro Vallecitos
Game plan today was to make an exploratory visit to a potential high camp at Portezuelo (col or pass) Lomas Amarillas at 4900m/16,200ft. Given that we were determined to bag both the Plata Peaks (and possibly Pico Vallecitos) we felt we needed to get our final camp up a little higher than the more usual high camp up at La Hoyada at 4600m. Practically all who climb Cerro Plata do so via a very easy but very long ascent via Portezuelo Vallecitos and the easy angled slopes of the northern flank of Cerro Plata – bypassing Pico. We planned to climb the long East Ridge up from the Lomas Amarillas Col – over the two Plata summits, before descending via the normal route on the northern flank. This route we were given to understand was not technically difficult, but it was a lot steeper and more exposed than the normal route which can often be climbed without using crampons. Our route would definitely need crampons – and probably use of an ice-axe too, like on Rincon.
The windy walk up towards La Hoyada - clouds in background moving fast R > L
About 200m from La Hoyada looking up at the Portezuelo Lomas Amarillas
We had heard that the forecast for the next two days was for more high winds – if it was to be believed (not surprisingly for this type of area forecast accuracy is variable). Looking up at the sky what clouds were visible were moving briskly from the west – where the worst weather generally came from. This seemed to fit with the forecast – and game plan was we stayed next two nights down at Salto anyway. Sure enough as we surmounted the moraine slopes leading further up the valley towards La Hoyada we became increasingly battered by gusty winds coming down from the Vallecitos Col.
We stopped at La Hoyada – a lonely wind-swept little camp with three pitches in close proximity and a couple further up a low ridge of nearby moraine. Having heard that the water at this camp was better than at Salto we had brought empty water bottles, to fetch the day’s water up here - as opposed to having to carry it. We found the nearest stream cutting its way between dirty looking banks of old snow, which was rust coloured in places. The water had a foul taste - which the further addition of chlorine tablets did nothing to improve (and possibly set off some sort of heinous chemical reaction). Clearly Chateau La Hoyada 2016 was not a good year. Neither of us could drink the stuff – and we suspected some sort of mineral contamination.
We started off up a rising traverse across scree and snow patches. After crossing a couple of spurs dropping down from the Amarillas Col to our left we turned and met the slopes head on – to climb the final 150m to the col – to reach it just at the point where the Pico Plata East Ridge started. Yann had told us there was a potential tent pitch here – and we found it; a small area that had been roughly levelled and spanned the entire width of the col at this point. A few small friable rocks were scattered around the periphery – and at the north-western (windward) end someone had made a half-hearted attempt at a dry stone wall – using the same rather small and brittle rocks which were to be found in this area.
At La Hoyada at 4600m - sign blown over by the wind
Up at Amarillas Col at 4927m where we cached a bag of food and fuel
We spent an hour or so improving the pitch and gathering more rocks. As a final act we cached a bag of food and fuel we had carried up, to make maximum use of the trip up. Winds permitting we planned to come back up equipped to stay the next day. We were hopeful – the winds seemed to have been dropping as we climbed up. Mission accomplished we set off back down – and within a couple of hours were back down at our fortification at Salto Superior.
Day 3: To La Hoyada
Dawn back down at Campo Salto Superior on 19th February
Next day the winds were stronger than ever as we trudged back up the moraines towards La Hoyada again. As we rounded a rocky buttress into the amphitheatre of the upper valley we were practically being blown off our feet. Clearly it would be madness to try to camp up at the col – we’d end up in Mendoza. As Jon observed: “We passed three groups of climbers, all saying the wind was too strong. Only one group had achieves the summit and they were completely exhausted, barely able to walk. Campo Hoyada would have to be our destination today.”
So we decided to camp at La Hoyada at 4600m/15,000ft – and try to go up to the col the next day. One problem though: we had cached all the food up at the col camp. We had nothing for the evening meal. Jon quickly volunteered to go up and collect a meal for that night. I undertook to stay down at La Hoyada, where I would attend to the business of our water supply - having found the stream water undrinkable, the previous day. As luck would have it there was a snowfield nearby – and I planned to melt/boil enough water to fill all our water containers – a total of 8 litres.
The strong winds gradually reduced as the day progressed and we became hopeful of being able to move up to the col at 4900m/16,100ft next day. We had our evening meal watching the sun set behind the shoulder of Vallecitos – and the shadow slowly advancing from the lowest point in the valley to climb on up past us (instantly dropping the temperature) and then climbing on up the slopes of Lomas Amarillas behind us. We put our duvet jackets on. Jon sat out writing his diary. Bloated a little after the meal I took my iPod and went for a walk up a low whale back ridge of moraine just behind our camp. Although the sun had dropped behind the ridge the lighting and scenery were still inspiring – and I was further inspired by the music flowing out of my earpieces. I spent a long time staring up at Rincon whose summit we had stood on last Sunday, just five days ago. I turned 180° and spent even longer moments staring up at a foreshortened view of Pico Plata (Cerro out of sight behind) – on whose summit we planned to stand on Sunday in just two days’ time. Finally I walked to the end of the moraine where there was an eagle’s eye view of Campo Salto Superior 300m below. After about half an hour I returned to re-join Jon at the tent and we went through the by now well-rehearsed choreography of getting inside and into our sleeping bags.
Day 4: To High Camp
La Hoyada Camp at 4600m - Alpenglow on Vallecitos and Rincon soon after sunrise on 20th February - by Jon
The winds dropped off completely during the night and as we struggled out of the tent to appreciate the morning alpenglow display, we were full of anticipation for climbing up to and staying at the col. Once again I captured the display of light using the ‘time-lapse’ function on my GoPro. Soon afterwards we breakfasted and then broke camp. But before we moved off I took Jon along the walk along the top of the moraine to show him the view of Rincon and Campo Salto Superior to be had at the end. I took some still photos with the Nikon.
Looking down on Salto Superior from end of the moraine
Looking up to the col and Pico from La Hoyada
We left La Hoyada at 9.30am and arrived up at the col camp in about an hour – avoiding the slope of fine loose scree by climbing the penitente field alongside, where Jon had kicked some steps on his trip up the previous afternoon. Immediately we set to work further levelling the camp-site and shifting piles of gravel around to make it as near to perfect a pitch as possible. We dismantled the existing drystone wall and then re-built it – thus gaining us another foot of length - and enabling us to improve on the construction of the wall, for just in case the winds picked up again. I created another cooking alcove – with a suitable flat rock to act as a seat alongside. The final act was to erect the tent and secure it to the largest rocks we could find from the rather sparse supply at the col.
Soon after we finished and just as we were starting to throw sleeping bags and other essentials into the tent, we had a visitor. It was a lone softly spoken Argentinian man called Alex. He had come up to the col on an acclimatisation visit from Salto, where he had spent just the one night. The next day he planned on climbing Cerro Plata – climbing all the way from Salto. Given the minimal acclimatisation (like our friend Pablo on Rincon) this seemed a tough schedule by which to climb Plata. However, Alex looked very fit and was at least 15 years younger than we were – and we didn’t doubt that he would make it. We said we would look out for him and hoped we would meet him on the summit of Plata next day. His English was limited – but a lot better than my Spanish – so we conversed mostly in English, whilst I tried to throw in a bit of my Spanish at odd intervals. Alex spent about half an hour with us before heading back down. We would be seeing a lot of Alex over the next 48 hours…
At the col at 4927m - preparing the pitch...
...and the finished result
We spent most of the rest of the afternoon attending to the tedious chore of melting snow and filling up all our water containers. Jon went off and set about the nearby field of penitentes armed with an axe and a little trowel – and filled up my rucksack rain cover with snow blocks – whilst I had the stove on overdrive – or as much as it could be in the thin air of 16,100ft. Litre by litre I filled all the containers and bottles. The procedure was marred by my spilling boiling water over my right knee. I hoped it wouldn’t do any lasting damage given the lower temperature of boiling water at this elevation. So I stupidly declined Jon’s immediate offer of the last remaining handful of snow of latest batch to clap over the offending area – and diverted it to the pan where I thought it was more needed. Thus I ended up with a blistered knee which subsequently became infected. Buffoon!
View from the col camp at 4927m looking down on remote Angostura Valley
Up at this high elevation and as expected, my already limited appetite for the savoury freeze dried meals had gone altogether and I had just soup and a desert for my main meal, with an Ovaltine to follow. Jon forced another chicken tikka down. Once more I needed a walk to settle things down and wandered off along the col whilst listening to my iPod again. I returned to the tent after sunset but a little earlier than the previous evening. We both wanted to get an early night – anticipating the three o’clock start next morning. When I returned Jon was already ensconced in his sleeping bag. It seemed so calm and still I decided it wouldn’t be windy during the night – and I left the stove and pan outside in the little alcove - anticipating getting out of the tent to brew. I did however take the precaution of placing a rock on-top of each. Then I climbed into the tent to join Jon – who was in the process of setting his alarm. Both of us felt a subdued excitement… excitement at the prospect of the main event. This was the big one. But subdued at the prospect of the hard work involved. Given the extra ups and downs of the traverse we had about 1200 meters or 4000 feet to climb – and we would be climbing up to over 19,500ft – just under 6000m. In effect we would be doing approximately the same as on the Rincon day including a very similar horizontal distance – but everything shifted around 600m/2000ft higher.
Day 5: Plata summits
The objective for Sunday 21st February - traverse of Pico and Cerro Plata
On Sunday 21st February we are woken at around 1am by the sudden onset of strong winds blasting the tent. For about an hour and a half we lay unspeaking and silent in the maelstrom, each lost in his own thoughts. I am worried that these howling winds may be enough to threaten our summit plans for the day and a little bit worried about our tent being torn off our tiny eerie and hurled in the direction of Mendoza 4000m below. Jon is not so worried about that. But we do both worry about the stove and pan – which I have stupidly left outside thinking it so calm when we went to bed.
At 2.45am and a quarter hour before Jon’s alarm is due to go off I can stand it no longer and climb outside to find a surreal world lit by a full moon, stars and the distant lights of Mendoza far below. I also find the stove and pan safe under the rocks I had placed on top of both. At this time the temperature is around minus 5°C, which with the keen wind feels colder. It will get even colder as dawn approaches and as we gain height.
The winds somehow are now dropping. It has just been a pre-dawn blast – which happens here. So the tent is not going to be torn off the little platform. And the summit attempt is a go! And our story has now gone full circle…
“Completely brilliant!” declares Jon as he emerges from the tent and observes the scene, whilst passing out one of the big two litre water containers we had filled the previous afternoon. With the winds dropping we don’t have to crawl back inside the tent to light the stove in the porch. We can sit outside more comfortably and with better ventilation (albeit still slightly more than we’d prefer) to have our breakfast. After just a few attempts I get the MSR fired up and can just hear the purr of it above residual wind noise. As on Aconcagua the stove is noticeably quieter at this elevation. It doesn’t go with the jet engine roar of lower down. But it eventually brings enough water to boiling to give us a pint mugs each of hot coffee and chocolate in addition to warm water to add to a large portion of Granola with Blueberries in its Expedition Foods foil sachet – one of the few freeze dried meals I can enjoy at this altitude.
With winds definitely now dropping we decide not to collapse the tent, which would involve a lot of fiddling around and undoing and doing up of rock ties. Despite the pre-dawn blast all the signs have been for anticyclonic conditions, same as we had on the summit day on Rincon – and we expect that later the winds should drop completely.
We put everything away and seal the tent up tight. We have on our down jackets and Jon in addition has his gortex salopettes on over his two layers of leggings. I haven’t put on my outer salopettes thinking I will be too warm when the sun rises. We are both wearing single boots having decided that the brief exposure to very high altitude was not enough to justify clumping around the lower summits in double plastics. We shrug on lightly packed rucksacks – containing two full Sig water bottles each and enough energy bars/goo and chocolate to fuel us for today – and a few items of clothing. I suggest we throw in a few of the hand warmer heat pads we carried up specially for this day – thinking we could need them to keep our cameras warm – but thinking of fingers and toes as well.
At 4.15am we are ready to go and start plodding up the visible trail zig-zagging straight up the ridge towards our twin goals. The scene is still surreal with light from the full moon off up to the right and the pools of additional light from our headtorches. With the moon light we can see many more features around us – but cannot tell how far away they are. It is the exact same conditions I had on the summit day on Aconcagua five years ago. I had set out by torch and full-moonlight then – and like today the moon was due to set at the same time as the sunrise about three hours’ later. The main difference is the temperature. High up on Aconcagua the temperature went down to minus 25°C. Here it will probably go no lower than about minus 15°C. But it is still bitingly cold in the stiff breeze which is still blowing! We are not as heavily clad and booted as I was on Aconcagua. Almost immediately as we set out my toes are tingling and burning with the cold. And Jon is dismayed to find his fingers doing the same, despite the insulation of the same heavy Dachstein mittens which kept his fingers warm in minus 30° on Broad Peak 29 years ago.
About 200m above the tent we have to make a choice. Our ridge goes straight up into dark crags ahead. But the well-trodden path angles right – towards both the moon and the Vallecitos Col at 5200m. If we follow it, the path will take us in a long switch across to the col and then back towards both our ridge and the main drag curving off up the normal route to Plata. At some point we would have to leave this easy path to strike out towards the ridge. We decide it is a lot easier just plodding up the path – for now – than grappling with steep rocks by torch light. So we continue along the rising traverse. We lose the moon for a bit, as it becomes hidden behind the near horizon of the slope angling down from left to right. Just below the col it is apparent Jon is really suffering and as we stop he hunches over holding his hands against himself.
“I had no idea my fingers would get so cold!” he says plaintively. He starts to worry about frostbite.
Then I remember:“Jon – why don’t you try the hand-warmers we brought?” I find a couple in my pack, tear them open and shake the teabag like sachets within vigorously – to activate the powdered iron compound inside.
“Here – try these!”
Slightly sceptical but willing to try anything, Jon stuffs the things inside his Dachsteins and works them around to his finger ends. He has also removed a second pair of inner gloves which he thinks may be compressing his fingers too much. A quarter of an hour later he is impressed. The hand-warmers do what they say on the tin and rosy warmth pervades his fingers. Once he is through the ‘hot-aches’ he is comfortable again.
“You saved my life!” he says appreciatively.
A short scramble puts us up on the col at 5200m. Immediately we are back in the moon light again – and there, a great ghostly mass on the horizon silhouetted in front of the moon is Lady Aconcagua. A silvery sea of lesser summits and cloud tops is also visible – and mostly below our elevation. The path now divides. One branch goes towards the dimly illuminated shape of Vallecitos – from this angle metamorphosed into an elegant spire. The other branch doubles back above the rising traverse and along the wide open space of the high col – and towards the wide triangular and dark shape of Pico Plata.
Shortly it will be decision time again. We know that the path will shortly turn to the right, rising up across the bottom of the triangle of Pico and angling off towards the broad northern flank of Cerro. If we are to do Pico and the traverse, we will have to leave the comfortable trail and break off into the unknown dark slopes ahead – where there will be no more nice easy paths. Now my fingers as well as feet are burning with the cold – and resolve slightly weakened by my discomfort, I suggest we ‘think about’ staying on the path and going for the easy option.
But now I slip hand warmers into my mitts – and in 10-15 minutes my hands are warm again – once the throbbing of the re-warming hot-aches subsides. My feet are still cold – but I don’t think there is room in my boots for heat pads. I am going to have to be careful on account of some frost damage I sustained on Aconcagua five years ago and then worse still when I overnighted on the summit of Mont Blanc three years ago – when I actually had some skin loss from tip of a big toe. My legs are a little chilly – and I regret not putting on my gortex salopettes, as Jon had done before we set out. I could take the time out to wrestle them on now – but I’m not that bad and prefer to just keep going – still hoping for warmth when the sun rises – just an hour away now.
I am distracted from my discomfort by the sight of a single pin-point of light down in the black depths far below to the left – and beyond the reach of the dim rays from the sinking moon. We both look down and work out that the position of the light has to be somewhere on the slopes below the col where our tent is – at Portezuelo Lomas Amarillas. The light is slowly moving upwards. We had seen the light earlier from further back, when we had been on the traverse below the col. We agree it must be Alex, the softly spoken Argentinian climber who visited us yesterday. He said he was going to set out very early from Salto.
For a while up on the wide stony expanse of the high col we lose the trail. But in the moonlight it is not difficult to follow the edge of the drop off to our left. We pass a forlorn attempt at a tent pitch which also confirms we are picking the right line. We had been advised against trying to camp up here by Corax and seeing the miserable circle of inadequate and small rocks in such an exposed place, we are glad we heeded his good advice.
We pick up the trail again – and very quickly reach a right-angle bend to the right. It is decision time. Apart from my feet I feel a little bit warmer and more confident again. I turn to ask Jon what he thinks. How does he feel about leaving the comfortable path and striking out into the dark un-marked ground undulating up towards the ridge ahead?
“I’m up for it!” comes his unhesitating response.
It feels like a significant moment as we step off the cosy path and onto the frozen stony slopes beyond. I pick a point where the ridge ahead intersects with the skyline and head for it. The moon has almost set behind us and the dim illumination not enough to give any sense of scale to what we are seeing in front. The junction of blackness and near blackness outlining the profile of the ridge could be anything from a hundred to a thousand meters out in front. We have no means of knowing, but suspect it must be at least the latter…
As expected it is harder work ascending the stony slopes of Pico Plata than it had been on the main drag. A series of low spurs angle diagonally across our path from right to left. We cross them one after another. Time passes but somehow seems to be standing still, since for a long time the appearance of the dim horizon stays exactly the same. Only the endless succession of low spurs seem to move. At some point we lose the moon, which sets on the more distant horizon behind us. Outside of the little pools of light thrown by our head-torches it is noticeably darker.
An unknown period of time later I recognise that the latest in the series of low spurs is in fact the horizon now. “I think we are nearly at the ridge!” declares Jon, who had otherwise just been plodding silently behind me. It now looks to be between fifty and a hundred meters ahead. Within a few minutes a rocky edge materialises in our torch beams – which are then swallowed up into a deep black void beyond and below. Far ahead beyond the black void twinkly yellowish lights mark the position of Mendoza. And beyond that is another new horizon. This one is glowing. The sunrise is coming…
Keeping a respectful distance away from the edge we start to ascend the ridge, picking our way around boulders and little rock steps. A steady wind is blowing – nowhere near as strong as earlier down at the tent – but still chilling us somewhat. Our hands are still warm thanks to the hand warmers. But we both still have our cold feet – and my legs are still cold.
Waiting for sunrise at 18,000ft 5500m
The slight glow on the distant horizon becomes a distinct band of light. Soon there is enough light to show texture and a dim hint of colour in the objects around us. We no longer need the light from our headtorches – and turn them off. At last things are beginning to move faster around us. It will soon be time for the morning alpenglow show – which will be enacted largely below us – since we are actually looking down on Vallecitos and Rincon now. I reckon we have reached 18,000 feet – 5500 meters.
Despite the biting cold we decide to sit down and watch the dawn. The keen breeze is still blowing – and my little thermometer says minus 10°C. I know it will go on getting colder still until a little time after the sun rises. At some point I decide it is light enough to try some photography and I take a photo of Jon silhouetted against the beginnings of the sunrise with the big DSLR. I turn the camera to automatic and try shooting some video for the movie I intend to make. The DSLR records sound better than the GoPro so speaking above the wind noise I try adding some commentary – and Jon turns to me, initially looking quizzical.
“Here we are and we’re at about eighteen thousand feet. It’s about minus ten, there’s a chilly breeze and it’s very cold. And we are waiting for Vallecitos and Rincon… to turn pink…“ I continue to pan the camera round to the horizon to my left before finishing: “and also Aconcagua”
I don’t know why I said pink
… Aconcagua turns orange
– followed by us – and then the mountains below… and then the same sequence again, but this time in a rich yellow – before we are more uniformly bathed in the gold tinged light of the new day. It is all over in about five minutes. But not before we notice something else caught up in the Avatar-Pandora-tastic
daily phenomenon: some 300m below us and half way along the wide expanse of the Vallecitos col the surreal light catches a single tiny object and sets it on fire… bright red… and we recognise it is the miniature figure of a man wearing a red jacket… Alex! He is positively glowing in the light of sunrise and standing out against the deep ochre of the surrounding rocks.
Sunrise at 18,000ft 5500m - looking down on Vallecitos and Rincon - by Jon
Back to painful reality: despite the hand warmers my fingers have started to tingle and burn with cold again. My toes, slightly ominously, have stopped hurting – and I remember last time that happened three years ago, a bit of the end of my right big toe blistered, turned hard and black – and seven weeks later dropped off exposing red, but otherwise healthy, new skin underneath. I work my fingers around the now less effectual little tea bags of my hand warmers to try to extract more warmth. I try to flex my toes – unsure if it is happening since I can no longer feel them. Maybe I should have put up with clumping around in my Aconcagua grade double plastics…
We both start to get ready to move off – before we freeze. Although we are now bathed in warm looking light we both know that the temperature will continue to fall for a period after the sun has risen. We stand up and look up the ridge – narrowing as it climbs up into the sky – up to the magical looking snow crest we identified – and only a few hundred feet above us now.
“I reckon we’ll be putting on crampons soon!” declares Jon happily. We had both been looking forward to the snow-ridge…
The angle of the ridge is gradually steepening as we approach the snow section. For the moment we continue to climb loose talus composed of irregularly shaped and mostly fairly small pieces of rock – very similar to what I remember on Aconcagua. We have to be careful to plant each foot securely to avoid a slip, but on the whole we are managing to maintain a steady High Altitude Plod. Our fairly thorough acclimatisation has enabled us to move faster than the languid stop-start of the High Altitude Boogie.
Jon fastens on his crampons just below start of the Pico snow ridge
We reach the snow and sit down to fasten on our crampons – easier said than done on the relentless slope which is now at about 40°. A carelessly placed rucksack would roll from here…
Up close now the snow ridge is absolutely glorious. A narrow strip of hard brilliant white snow is adherent to the crest of the ridge at this point and for the next 100 meters or more of ascent. It is only a few feet wide and there is no cornice to have to worry about. On the right an irregular edge gives way to the steep talus slopes of the sunny north flank. To the left are the even steeper plunging white slopes of the south face – and the great empty void between the mountain and Mendoza, far below. The gradient reaches around 45° somewhere in the middle section. We debate breaking out ice-axes. But with beautiful firm snow for cramponing we are managing safely with our poles – so long as we both concentrate and avoid tripping over a crampon strap.
Snow ridge on Pico
Looking down from top of snow section
The snow section ends all too soon and we reach a wide rocky platform in the sky which is the first of a few false summits. We can soon see to the next step – a mix of rocks and snow patches – which we know will also will not be the top. We need to take off our crampons and have earned another rest – so we walk to the right to find a little hollow to sit in – out of the breeze, which is not very strong, but is still very cold at around 9am.
First of several Pico false summits - Cerro peeping over behind
Looking down Pico East Ridge - and the only tracks on it are ours...
Rest over we carry on and amble over a couple more false summits to reach another bouldery levelling where we take in a couple of things: we now have a clear view to the shining white triangle which is our final destination – Cerro Plata; we also note that there is another rocky bluff in front of us – which for the first time we think could be the top of Pico – and it is only about 100 feet higher than we are. I capture the scene on video and am inspired to do another commentary:
“Well, here we are again… and the end is in sight! There is Cerro Plata. We are at 19 thousand feet… that’s 19 and a half and look at that glorious snow ridge we’ve got to do… wow… and there is Pico Plata 19,100 feet and we’re going to be on top of that in the next quarter of an hour… making a perfect summit day. It does not get better than this… It is absolutely wonderful here…“ I continue to pan the camera round and all that is audible is my breathing for a moment... until we are looking down at where we came from and I am inspired to carry on “That’s the way we’ve come up… glorious ridge… and no tracks on it other than ours – all the way up! And looking down now on little Vallecitos and Rincon – that we were on top of a few days ago… wow!”
The plateau at 19,000ft - where I recorded my enthusiastic commentary. Summit of Pico just behind - and Cerro behind that... "The end is in sight!"
Jon is equally euphoric. Full of anticipation he studies the shining white spire that is the top of Cerro Plata – and continues to enthuse about the ridge. But then he spots something…
“What’s that just below the summit?” he wants to know “There’s some sort of structure… “
I can see what he is talking about and from my study of the mountain I know it is the remains of a helicopter.
Corax’s mountain page on SummitPost has this to say about the helicopter, which in turn came from Ialewis
on 14th January 2008:
“According to 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. Evidentially, the repairs did not go well and the helicopter was left over winter. Eventually, the helicopter slid downhill, turned over and was abandoned.’ “
Jon’s exceptionally sharp eyes pick up something else: “Hey look – there’s Alex!” And sure enough there is a tiny dot on the skyline of the opposite ridge, slowly crawling up the long trail of the normal route. It is looking as if we will meet on the top…
But first we have to climb Pico.
Summit of Pico Plata 5827m, which we found unsafe to stand on...
...so visited very briefly for a quick photo of the view
We walk across to the final bump and up shattered rocks to approach the highest point. Once we get up there it is a little bit like Rincon with several possible tops to choose between and no summit cross visible. We visit them all, but save the most plausible until last - which just happens to at the far end of the plateau. When we get up to it we are convinced it is the top – despite there being no marker. But Jon is bothered by a load of deep fissures splitting the bedrock underneath all the shale – and observed the following in his diary: “Our way took us along the crest of Pico Plata. As we approached the southern end, the rock became less secure with large fissures suggesting that much of the crest was ready to fall down the East Face. Believing the Southern end of the crest to be the Summit, we tentatively climbed over these fissures to reach the highest point – but didn’t stay for photos.”
Gingerly we tiptoe up to the highest point. I doubt that our puny weights would make much difference – but knowing that this bit has to drop off sometime is still unsettling. There is a huge drop on the other side. We say a quick hello/goodbye to the highest point and don’t even shake hands to celebrate our highest summit thus far – at 5827m/19,112ft. We decide we’ll save up any celebrations for the next one – when we hope to be including our new friend – now somewhere on the upper third of Cerro summit pyramid, zig-zagging up the final switch-backs of the normal route.
Jon is excited about the snow ridge we now have to climb to join Alex at the top of Cerro – but he has some reservations about how stable the snow will be – and whether parts of the ridge will be corniced. I don’t know how soft the snow will be, but point out we can easily drop to one side or other of the ridge if we suspect a cornice.
“We are just going to have to go over there and see…”
But first the 100m descent to get to the snow: it is more loose talus but this time composed of fairly even sized and shaped small blocks of rock. Aside from the minor inconvenience of there being very little air up here, it is just fine for running down. And we do just that, arriving at a little col at the bottom gasping for breath. Jon can’t resist checking the snow out straight away – and bounds onto the flat white expanse, which soon curves up to meet the final ridge. With a brief windmilling of his arms and a wooaarh he almost lands flat on his back…
“It’s solid!” he declares ruefully, as he stabilises himself. It is solid alright – but evidently very slippery. I was sorry not to have caught his antics on camera…
Cerro Plata 5962m - with glorious final snow ridge as viewed from just below Pico summit - by Jon
Looking south from col between Pico and Cerro Plata - by Jon
The final snow arete to the summit of Cerro Plata - wreckage of the helicopter and Alex, ascending the normal route, are in view
We break out the crampons, energy bars and goo to prepare for the last leg of our journey up into the sky. There is about 220m of ascent still to do. Somewhat more stable with his crampons strapped on Jon starts to cross the icy surface and I follow, capturing this moment along with many others on the GoPro mounted at my chest. We reach the crest of the ridge after about 150 meters and a little bit of height gain.
Like our earlier encounter this snow ridge is virgin – no tracks on it other than the ones we are making. The crest is textured a bit like meringue – sculptured by the howling winds, which just now are notable by their almost complete absence. There is barely a breath of wind and the extraordinary vista around us is silent. The only sounds are of our rapid breathing accompanied by the scraping noises made by our crampons. The snow is dazzling even with ‘strength 4’ sunglasses and the sky a rich deep blue overhead. In contrast down in the void to our left we can see vivid green on the plains far below – and pale turquoise where the big lake is – the one alongside Ruta 7. For the first time today I am warm all over. Even my fingers and toes are not cold anymore. But there is still enough of a nip in the air that I don’t get too hot.
On the snow ridge
Most of the time we keep to the crest of the magnificent ridge. If we stop it is just to take still photos or just admire the view. Parts of the ridge get quite narrow and there is one section where we take a loop to the left, before returning to the crest again. I reflect that the final section to the top of Aconcagua gave me a lot of satisfaction. I was overjoyed to have done it - afterwards. But I cannot claim that the last 300m of climbing the infamous Canaleta was enjoyable at the time. It was just too much like hard work. In contrast I am finding this final 220m to the top of Plata is an absolute joy. And it clearly is the same for Jon as well. He has a permanent Cheshire Cat grin plastered all over his face – and I know I am the same.
On the snow ridge
On the snow ridge - almost level with helicopter wreckage
We reach the level of the helicopter. It seems to be just the skeleton – and it looks out of place poking out of the snow about 150m off to our right. Up ahead the final apex of the dazzling white crest has grown a dark shape. Is it a cairn? No – it is Alex! He is sitting bolt upright in what looks like an almost meditative pose – like some kind of surreal Buddha in the sky. For a long time I can’t detect any movement and he seems to be waiting patiently. But as we close to within about 50 meters one arm curls – and then punches the air above his head – followed by the other. We hear him shout – and Jon, at point, follows suit with a great ‘Yaahoooo!’
We have swapped leads several times on the way up the ridge and we swap again for a short time. But when we are just 20 meters away I decide I want to catch the moment of Jon arriving at the summit and wave him through again after depressing the button on top of the GoPro. Alex comes out of his lotus position and climbs to his feet and in no time is enveloping Jon in celebratory summit man-hug – which I soon get enveloped in – just like we did on Rincon with Pablo.
Jon wrote: “The snow ridge was in perfect condition. We did not need our axes as the slope was never more than 45°. We fell into a rhythm – approximately one step every 4 seconds – and gradually the 300m ridge was eaten up. As we reached the top, Alex looked down from the summit and cheered us on for the final few meters. We met with exuberant Hispanic hugs and back slapping.”
I hear Jon saying ‘congratulations!’, ‘well done!’ and ‘we deed eet!’ and Alex saying he is ‘very happy’ before solicitously asking ‘are you OK?’ He is simultaneously recording all the action on his mobile phone – which he turns in his hand to include himself in the euphoric tableau of all three of us – which prompts Jon to start jumping up and down in a dance of sheer exuberance – which briefly includes all three of us, until I half collapse breathless…
Jon and Alex on the summit
By 'the little sign'
On the highest point - big drop behind
“Oh dear it is too high to do that!”
I spot the summit cross – well, two actually – one with a little sign saying ‘Co Plata’. “Hang on I just need to go and get the little sign” I say and walk over to touch the top of the cross. But Jon is shaking his head and pointing to a little hump at the edge of the summit plateau…
“That’s the top!” he declares.
Still filming I walk over to look – and do a double take as I find myself teetering on the edge of the void – Wooaarh!
“Yes – this is the top!” I agree. Jon walks over to join me and Alex insists on commandeering his iPhone and shoots a little clip of us standing on the edge – which we quickly concede is too exposed to risk another victory dance.
It was about midday when we reached the summit – so we took just under 8 hours to climb up from the tent – similar timing as summit day on Rincon. The sun is now high overhead and its rays feel warm. For the first time today it is comfortable to take gloves off and do things with exposed fingers. I pull out my old barometric altimeter. Alex has a GPS and we compare readings. We think the true height is 5962m. Alex’s GPS says 5967m. Squinting at the face of the barometric altimeter it seems to be saying 5850m, so under-reading significantly. Part of that may be that it is over 50 years old, but part will also be that conditions are anti-cyclonic – with a high pressure weather system, which will have the effect of making it under-read. Looking at the aged piece of kit I think of my old climbing mentor Dave Challis, who gave it to me over 30 years ago – after we had climbed together in the Himalayas. Sadly Dave died in 1996… I remember him with gratitude – his teaching enabled me to come to places like this…
Summit view looking north towards Aconcagua and the even more distant Mercedario group - by Jon
Summit view looking south towards Tupungato - by Jon
With it now being relatively warm I pull out my little pulse oximeter. But maybe my fingers are not that warm after all – and I can’t get a reading on myself. But warm in my sleeping bag five years ago at Colera Camp on Aconcagua –same height as we are now – I had got a reading of 79%. Now Jon tries and is persistent – and gets a reading of 75%. This is not bad at all given that he has only just arrived and has been exerting himself hard for the last 8 hours. If we spent a few more hours up here he might even get up to 80% since he is well acclimatised for this altitude. Alex is keen to try – and this will be interesting. He has spent far less time acclimatising than we have. Sure enough his reading is 61%. This is practically incompatible with life - extraordinary that he is walking about, functioning and talking! Research for the Expedition Medicine
article I wrote for this site suggested that climber breathing air on summit of Everest at 8848m, who was acclimatised as much as is possible for the human body, could expect a saturation of 58%. Jon, as an anaesthetist, would be very worried if one of his patient’s saturations dipped much below 95% during an operation. And a fairly sick but still just ambulant person with severe lung or heart disease would probably have readings in the mid 80’s - just to put things in perspective. Alex must have really pushed himself hard to get up here (as Pablo had on Rincon – with a similarly short acclimatisation period). He is also much younger than Jon and I so could only have got up here on the back of his extreme fitness. But the difference is that, if he tried to spend the night at this height, he would probably become very ill – possibly dangerously so. Whereas Jon and I with our prolonged acclimatisation program would be fine to spend the night at this height now. If transported to Colera Camp on Aconcagua we would easily be acclimatised enough to overnight as I did five years ago and then make a summit attempt – to go all the way up to the summit at 6962m.
I spend a while at the northern side of the summit plateau just staring at Aconcagua – where she is dominating the near distant horizon. The main view is of the south face – and I can recall looking down that from the little dip between the twin summits just after climbing the infamous Canaleta – and before climbing the last 60 meters to the top. I can’t see most of the route I followed. But I can see other familiar features: I can see Cerro Ameghino – the same face of it that I could see from Camp 1 Polish – and that mountain is the same height as we are now. I recognise Cerro Cerno, a lower summit that I used to use to chart my progress on Aconcagua – as it sank below me. And there in the even further distance is the Mercedario group, very high at 6700m – which dominated the horizon on my last couple of days on Aconcagua – and I can now see dominating the far distant horizon and looking appreciably different from this angle.
I walk round to the north east. There is the Valley de la Laula far below – which fascinates Jon having 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 5 thousanders. Much closer in that direction my attention is drawn to the wreckage of the helicopter poking through the snow 50m below the summit.
Then I spot movement. About 100 meters to the left of the helicopter skeleton I spot the figure of a man slowly and laboriously ascending the last switch-backs of the normal ascent route (where Jon and I plan to descend). We are being approached by a 4th summiteer – like Alex, on his own. He eventually joins us and turns out to be an oriental looking young man with the un-oriental name of Rodriquez. Whatever his origins he is evidently a local and chatters to Alex in excited Spanish – like us, very pleased to be here.
After an hour on the summit Jon and I decide it is time to go down. Alex and Rodriquez are proposing to set off at the same time – and since both know the route we suggest they should be our guides – but Alex demurs and waves us on.
Alex and Rodriquez looking down on Vallecitos and Rincon
The normal route on Plata is virtually all on slopes of broken talus – hardly any snow at all. It is possible to climb Cerro Plata without crampons as Alex and Rodriquez have just done. Jon and I set off at a brisk pace and leave the other two far behind. I am a little surprised at leaving Alex behind. But we will find out later that Rodriquez is having trouble with his boots. You can climb Plata in single boots – but they do still need to be proper rugged mountain boots. We didn’t notice that Rodriquez is just wearing light fell walking boots with hopeless soles. He can’t go fast – and at the occasional snow patch encountered, is slipping and sliding all over the place. Alex stays to keep him company.
We pass the helicopter skeleton. I am intrigued by it – and am tempted to call a temporary halt to our headlong descent and go over there to have a closer look. But the machine is almost completely buried in snow and there won’t be any more clues as to its story if we go across. So we press on – down a prolonged series of switch-backs. We can appreciate these would have been laborious and hard work to ascend – and we frequently remark at how fortunate we have been being able to have experienced our ascent route. But the Plata normal route is a fantastic route to descend. Partly this is because it is good for going fast if you want to – you can almost scree run in places – but also, facing in the direction of descent, there is the most magnificent view: of Aconcagua on the far horizon, Vallecitos and part of Rincon on the near – and far below the Valley de la Laula.
Panorama from a little way down the descent - by Jon
At the bottom of the switch-backs is a long descending traverse along the bottom of the summit triangle of Pico Plata. We now cast frequent glances up to the right – looking up at the glorious ridge we had traversed just a few hours ago.
As we lose more height and cover more distance Vallecitos comes to dominate our immediate horizon. From this angle she becomes an elegant spire – and we are seeing her most attractive aspect. We have been thinking of trying to bag her on the way down. We would have enough energy. But a couple of things put us off: firstly we could only climb Pico Vallecitos – and we can see the higher Cerro Vallecitos is right up close and clearly significantly higher. And both tops are way lower (by nearly 600m) than the summits we have just climbed – and we couldn’t hope to top the experience we have just had. So we decide to carry on down when we reach the col – and get back to the tent.
We cross a couple of awkward snow patches – and there is a bit of slithering about with snow softened in the sun. But we bash through. Soon we are at the Vallecitos col at 5200m. We stop at a place from where we can see down below – and towards our not so distant tent now. With us not climbing Vallecitos we can take our time, bask in the sun and have a snack and a drink. I enjoy a last look at Aconcagua. We both spend some time looking up at Pico Plata and the glorious ridge – remembering that the last time we saw her from this angle was by moonlight.
Approaching Vallecitos col...
We spot Alex and Rodriquez. They are miles behind but just reaching the snow patches – which will be very difficult for Rodriquez in his fell-boots. We are mystified as to why they are so slow – but will have to wait until they catch up to find out why. We set off again – and half an hour later reach our tent. We have gone full circle – and we are back home…
Pico Plata - last time we had seen this view was by moonlight
Final descent down to the tent - but then beyond to Campo Salto
There is sense of unreality to things and we both stand silently staring at the neat looking tent, secured to surrounding rocks. After some time we remember what we have just done and still silent, shake hands. Now there is some tiredness. It is hard to think and find the will to get stuck into the chores we need to attend to. We need to unpack, get sorted out and start melting snow for a brew. Like after Rincon we don’t feel like a meal. We do at least need some soup and other drinks. But we spend a long time just sitting – and before we get very far Alex and Rodriquez arrive.
With the shared experience of the summit we greet each other like old friends. For the first time we notice Rodriquez’s light-weight boots. Thinking of our cold toes at dawn I am quietly thinking he will be lucky to have escaped frostbite – but then at the same time of day he was much lower down than we were so maybe not. Alex is asking what our plans are – and we tell him we plan to stay another night on the col before packing up and descending to Salto in the morning – and probably a night there before final pack up and the big descent back to the Refugio. The expression on Alex’s face changes…
“You look troubled Alex – what are you thinking of?” Jon asks.
He explains that the latest weather bulletin mentioned the possibility of a (long overdue) deterioration in the weather next day – exactly when is unclear.
“Maybe you are better going down tonight?” he suggests in his accented English. We are still afflicted by post climb lethargy and are non-committal. We say we’ll think about it. Alex and Rodriquez are ready to carry on and we say our farewells. Still lethargic I start half-heartedly pulling the stove out of its bag, but now a little more than lethargy is holding me back. What if the forecast is right?
“Jon – I’m still thinking about what Alex just said about tomorrows forecast…”
“I know” Jon replies in a resigned tone of voice “we really should go down now shouldn’t we” and it is a statement not a question.
“Yes” I agree
“Well, I think we still have enough energy!”
When I stand up I’m not so sure. I feel slightly dizzy and find my thinking obscured by a sort of fog which makes the task of putting the stove away again and starting to pack my rucksack seem incredibly difficult. It takes a good hour to pack up camp - and before we are standing with imperfectly packed rucksacks on our backs.
A little unsteadily and heavily laden we start to totter away from our camp at around 4.30pm. Now that we are moving I am a little bit relieved. This place would not be good to have to vacate in a snow storm. There are now a few wispy cirrus clouds high above – which may indeed be forerunners of a weather front. The last and only such thing we have encountered on this trip was the first night at Cancha Camp – when there were all signs of a weather front going through – but without any precipitation. There would be no guarantee that the approaching weather – if that is what is happening – would be so benign this time.
The slopes below the col are in horrible condition! The sun has caused a substantial melt of the big penitente field and the water released has soaked straight into the steep muddy slopes to the side. What is still left of the penitente field, which we had ascended easily yesterday, is now too soft to descend safely. But the slope to the side, also warmed in the sun, is now of a peculiar wobbly junket type composition and feels like it could collapse in a great gloopy mass of a landslide. Slipping and sliding we descend as fast and straight as we can – and is with some relief that we reach more stable slopes below and start on the long descending traverse to La Hoyada.
It takes an hour to reach La Hoyada – and we don’t break stride and carry on through onto the steeper slopes below. Now we find out just how tired we are. Under the heavy loads of our packs our legs are wobbling and we have both started to trip and stumble as we negotiate the steep unstable scree. Then I slip – big time… and frantic ballet movements are too little too late… and I am falling… vulnerable body parts are going to hit jagged rocks (like in 2014 when I fractured a rib climbing the Strahlhorn with my son and RGG)… but a desperate pirouette saves the day and I manage to fall heavily on my back – rucksack completely breaking my fall.
“Oh – good recovery Sir!” observes Jon, impressed. But I am a little worried that an impact like that has to have done some damage to my pack – imagining a great tear and everything falling out…
“Nope – no damage!” confirms Jon “You got away with it!” And I hope the same holds true for the objects inside. Probably my ice-axe acted as protection – and collected a few more scrapes and scuff marks…
We reach the big fortified tent pitch at Campo Salto Superior at 6.30pm – two hours after leaving our camp at Portezuelo Lomas Amarillas – four hours since leaving the summit of Cerro Plata – and 14 hours since leaving said camp to start the longest and most fulfilling day of this wonderful trip. To our relief the big rock enclosure is still empty – nobody else has occupied it. Jon digs up my big blue Mountain Equipment kit bag, which we had buried under some rocks nearby and had filled with items we hadn’t taken up the mountain – spare food (including the second lot of oysters with rye bread…), spare fuel, rubbish and other bits and pieces including Jon’s empty kit bag rolled up.
We activate the practiced choreography of pitching the tent – but it is a real effort to do all the little jobs… unpacking, fetching water, setting up the stove etc. The oysters with rye bread are a wonderful treat at the end of it all. There is also a long anticipated tin of pears – but we are just too tired now and decide to save that treat for breakfast, when we have also saved the one freeze dried meal I haven't tried yet - and hope will be nice!
Last of many sunrises - seen from Campo Salto Superior
It is 22nd February - my daughter celebrates her 19th birthday today – in Australia, where she is travelling at the moment. I open my eyes to see the familiar early dawn light filtering through the walls of the tent. Jon is awake – and without discussion we both exit the tent for the routine morning dose of Alpenglow – Campo Salto Superior variety. Looking beyond Salto Inferior what cloud there is, is below us and stretches out towards the far horizon and the glow of early sunrise. That cloud reminds us that although we descended 5500ft yesterday we are still very high up. At 14,100ft we are at the height of a respectably big four thousander in the Alps – say Dent Blanche for example – and we are 250ft higher than the highest mountain I climbed with my son in 2014, the last alpine climbing trip I went on.
Last morning Andesglow dose - on Lady Plata - OMG we were there!
And the last Andesglow on Lady Rincon - and we were there too!
And then the light show starts. We can see Pico Plata in the far distance, but not Cerro which is behind it. She blushes orange – and then Vallecitos followed by Lady Rincon are kissed, before the orange light rushes down to envelope us at Campo Salto. And then yellow and gold… and it is the new day.
You know – we could get used to this…
But sadly this is the last one. We are going down. We are not going to see this again – other than in two dimensions when we look at the photos and videos…
Actually looking into the sky this may be the last one for a few days even if we could stay, if I am reading the weather signs right. There is now even more feathery cirrus up there than yesterday evening – and it is moving swiftly across the sky behind Plata – from the west. So Alex’s forecast is probably going to be right. But the good news it is clearly going to take some time until the front reaches us – enough time for us to have a leisurely breakfast, take our time packing – working out how we are going to distribute the content of the big blue kit bag between already full rucksacks for example…
Breakfast is a mixed experience. The last freeze dried meal of the trip is one even I haven’t tried before – and I hope it will have been worth saving until now. I thought it was scrambled eggs with ham but for some inexplicable reason it is actually scrambled eggs with peppers – and we find it is composed of 95% potato. We think the description should be changed to potato (unpleasantly crunchy) with traces of egg and peppers
. It is so bland and unappealing even Jon can’t finish his – and this really puts the lid on the freeze-dry. I have used it several times on expeditions since Aconcagua 2011 – and next trip I am going to have to look at other options. Feedback to mountain house and expedition foods: you need to look at your menu!!
Thumbs down for freeze dried scrambled eggs with peppers...
...but thumbs definitely up for tinned pears! (both by Jon)
The day is saved by the big catering tin of pears we picked up at Mendoza Carrefour and saved from last night. This is mouth-wateringly wonderful – completely fits the bill – as the same did whilst descending Aconcagua in 2011. Thanks (again) Zack – for this as well as the oysters & rye bread!!
We tip the inedible freeze dried breakfast into a deep hole and rinse and crush the pear and oyster tins for transport down. Packing takes a leisurely couple of hours. We had been mildly worried how we were going to accommodate all the extra kit to carry down – given that WE are the mulas for the return trip. But we needn’t have worried. Jon manages to fix a load of bags to the outside of his pack. I manage to pack the blue bag into a dumb-bell shape – and then it fits nicely across the top of my pack. Our loads are heavy but not impossible.
By the time we set off down the clouds overhead have thickened appreciably. We are still in the sun but already the tops of the higher peaks have started to become obscured. We bid farewell and we thank you to Lady Plata and Rincon – and to Yandelthilde Peak.
WE are the mulas for the return trip!
Farewell Lady Plata and we thank you... (both by Jon) Cloud behind moving fast...
Campo Salto Inferior is completely empty! It looks like a Roman ruin with all the little stone wall enclosures. I feel a slight regret – we might have encountered Alex, but it looks as if he has gone – along with everybody else. It is not going to be empty for long though – we encounter a couple of pairs going up. In deference to the thickening and increasingly swiftly moving clouds overhead we ask one of the new arrivals if they know the up to date forecast… and they claimed that yesterday an official at Mendoza Met Office had actually said “We don’t know!”
Oh well – we hope that whatever is on the way passes quickly…
Campo Salto Inferior is completely empty!
On the long journey back down to the world of green...
We are back in the world where there is green – down below the barren world of rocks, moraine and snow and ice we have just inhabited for the last four days. Piedra Grande is before us – and the likes of Adolfo Calle and San Bernardo look like big mountains again and tower overhead. The even lusher green of Las Veguitas is getting closer…
We actually smell the Floral Valley before we see it. It is a joy to be in it again amongst all the wild flowers. But our eyes are also on the hillsides above looking for out for our lucky mascot. It wouldn’t be right if we didn’t get to thank Mr Guanacos…
…and there he is – up there on the green hill-side a hundred or so meters above us and half a click away – along with his fifteen wives. We stand in silent salute – farewell Mr Guanacos and we thank you
Back down amongst the wild flowers of the Floral Valley...
...and farewell to the Guanacos!
Now – something else has been catching our attention. A bit like yesterday, at intervals we have been tracking a solitary figure in the far distance. Is it Alex – and are we going to be able to catch up with him? On the grassy slopes below the floral valley we turn a corner to find we have caught up. The person has stopped for a break by the stream crossing… and it is Alex! We have an exuberant reunion – born out of our great meeting up in the sky yesterday – which already seems dream-like to recall.
Our party immediately becomes a threesome – bounding down the slopes into Veguitas. Alex complains that we walk too fast – but he doesn’t have the slightest difficulty keeping pace – and I’m quite sure he could leave us standing if he was of a mind to. There is no Rodriquez with his inadequate boots to slow him up now. But speaking of Rodriquez, Alex tells us that whatever he lacked in terms of footwear he made up for in terms of stamina – since he had descended all the way down to Mendoza the previous night when Alex stayed at Salto Inferior – and was expecting to get down at about midnight!).
And speaking of Mendoza Alex is asking how we are getting down when we get to the road-head at Vallecitos (and the Refugio). Yes – a minor problem for us… Senor Orviz is not due for another 3 days – and we don’t know if we will be able to contact him let alone whether he would be able to come up and collect us early. We don’t really want to stay up at the Refugio for another 3 days now that we are down.
“Do you want a lift down?” Alex you are a star! Almost apologetically he goes on to ask if we could spare the time to join him for Steak Milanese at a restaurant he knows down in Potrerillos. Jon and I have had no water since Salto, since I inadvertently buried the sterilising tablets, but we completely forget our raging thirst – and plunge on down the hillside with our new found friend. Gracias Alex - mucho mucho gracias!
In no time we are loading our packs into the back of Alex’s big 4x4 where he left it at the road head. We call at the Refugio to pick up the last of our baggage – and to say farewell to Ali, Vivi and Mr Indio. But they are not there. We leave a warm message with Chapu, Ali’s son, who is looking after the place for them. He thinks Indio is off climbing mountains somewhere but Ali and Vivi are down in Mendoza.
We are soon down amongst the lush green trees and pastures down at the foot of the Plata mountains. This is the bit I had thought looked like New Zealand with all the poplar trees, on the way up with Jose Orviz – in his 4x4. Every so often we look behind us to the mountains – which are becoming increasingly obscured behind heavy looking clouds…
We find out some more about our new friend and benefactor. Like Jon and me he is a medical doctor – but is a specialist in gastroenterology. He lives about two hours’ drive on the other side of Mendoza near a place called San Juan, where he keeps several horses and mules. As well as being a mountaineer he is a keen Polo player. His next mountaineering project will be to attempt Llullaillaco 6739m in the Puna de Atacama – 7th highest mountain in the Andes (perhaps the most difficult mountain of the Andes to spell – and certainly to pronounce). This is to be in March and he plans to take just a week off work to do it. This would seem to explain why he is nipping off up the likes of Cero Plata in little more than a long weekend – to get some altitude training in.
Lunch at Potrerillos with Alex
Alex says the restaurant he is taking us too is mediocre, but it actually turns out to be heaven on earth. We are able to sit outside in the cool shade of leafy trees and are soon served heavenly food in the form of Steak Milanese all round. In addition Jon and I have not had a drink since we left Campo Salto early that morning – and we order an immediate gallon or two of orange Fanta plus sparkling mineral water. The only fault we detect is that there is no soap in the banos – which makes the task of trying to scrub two weeks’ worth of glacial grit out of our fingers before using them to eat with just that little bit more difficult. At the end of the meal Alex tries to pay – but it is one against two – so we do. It is hard to believe that a mere 24 hours ago the three of us had been standing on the top of Cerro Plata – some 5000m above us now…
Gorged and feeling wonderful we get back on the road to Mendoza. Now the mountains are completely hidden behind black bottomed clouds down to below the level of the Refugio – and although some distance away now, we are still in the sun. Clearly the original forecast as told by Alex – yesterday – was correct. We think of the two pairs we met going up to Salto. They look likely to be getting snow now as well as high winds. We hope they are well battened down by and that the weather will pass on through quickly.
Alex drops us off at Condor Suites near the centre of Mendoza. We pile all the kit onto the side-walk and hope that they will have a room for us despite being three days early. Given that Alex is going off to climb Llullaillaco soon solves one of the dilemmas faced by Jon and me to sort before flying home. We have three days’ worth of spare food and fuel which we cannot take back – and Alex is grateful to receive it. Freeze dried expedition food is a rarity in Argentina and as we hand over the foil packets he asks what it is like. I let Jon answer given my over familiarity with the stuff over the last six years. (strangely the freeze dried expedition food Jon and I were in the habit of using 30 years ago was way superior to anything that I have found in recent years – so good we imported it from New Zealand, where it was made by a company called Alliance – who sadly seem to be long gone)
We are sad to say goodbye to Alex – but hope that we will keep in touch – not least so we get to hear how he gets on with his attempt on Llullaillaco.
Another steak dinner...
...and where did HE spring up from?
And a modest desert...
We get a room – and we have three days of holiday before the long weary flight back to the UK, starting with a long hot shower, clean clothes – and not very long after more steak – and for Jon the local Malbec wine. In fact we have steak every evening at what we start to call steak o’clock – 8pm or the time that the Parrilla restaurants in Sarmiento Street a.k.a. Steak Street open. With the exception of just one mediocre meal everything we have is gourmet standard and worthy of Michelin Stars…
Plaza Espana, Mendoza - by Jon
A very distant view of Cerro Plata from top of Mendoza council offices - by Jon
We pop in to the Orviz shop to let them know we are down and won’t be requiring a lift on 25th – but we do still need a lift to go to the Airport the next day 26th February. The days pass in a languid blur of shopping for gifts, good food and comfortable nights. On our last day we walk across town to visit the Mendoza Council Offices which Jon has read in a Lonely Planet Guide has a roof top terrace with a view… and there we have nearly our last sighting of the very top of Cerro Plata peeping over the top of the nearby range of lower mountains. Our last brief sighting is from the window of Mr Orviz’s 4x4 as he drives us plus our carefully packed kit to the airport.
We fly back to Buenos Aires, where we spend the night in the same airport Holiday Inn we occupied more briefly between flights on the way in, 3 weeks ago. Here we have a last (heavenly) steak each – and then fly back to England.
A (nearly) last sighting of Lady Plata...
...and the start of the long journey home. (both by Jon)
We have been pleased with many of the photos we took on the trip but much of the best stuff is incorporated into the following movie, posted on vimeo. In particular there are some sequences shot climbing the couloir on Rincon in addition to climbing the best parts of the ridge on the Plata summit day - when it was difficult to mess with a camera, but very easy to press the go button on the chest-mounted expedition GoPro. Enjoy!
Best viewed full screen and on as high an HD setting as you can go.
This trip has been fantastic and I should like to give a particular thanks to the following whose influence made a big difference:
Jon (of course!) thanks for your company and for most of the photo's displayed here - we must do this again! (and thanks to Clare, not least for the loan of you for 3 weeks...)
Leila for bringing the mountains back into my life - and for letting me return here.
Corax for the information you posted on SP - and for all the additional and very detailed advice - which had a big influence on our choice of the routes as well as why the trip went so well - so once again thanks a lot Janne!
Thanks to Chris from Mountain Equipment - our 'tailor' for this trip and actually many others dating back three decades (note Jon's duvet jacket was Vintage 1987 same one as he used on Broad Peak!)
Thanks also to Lucy at Spa Travel, Jose and Laura at Orviz and not forgetting Ali, Vivi and Mr Indio at Refugio San Bernardo.
A heartfelt thanks to all the new friends we made - but especially Pablo & friends, Alex - and Team France as in: Yann, Delphine and Mathilde.
And not to forget Zak - for your company 5 years ago - leading to the memories, the oysters with Rye Bread, tinned pears - and the loan of your lucky Mr Guanacos!
Whilst looking through a website
about the Refugio San Bernardo I chanced across this photo of one of the absolute stars of this story. Michel and Sandra Lanniaux, owners of the website and the Refugio kindly gave me permission to include the photo... and here is our dear friend Mr Indio, looking a little younger and seemingly right on the top of Cerro Plata 5962m! Felicitations Senor Indio!!
Indio on summit of Cerro Plata!!